donderdag 23 juni 2016

Poverty of ideas

Already for a long time they were very annoying, those short fuses, the abuse in digital space, and the violence on the streets. But those fuses are so repulsively short now that everyone seems to get bothered by them.

With some benevolence one could derive this from the commotion surrounding the resurgent debate on racism and integration. In it nuanced positions seem hardly to exist anymore, and little is needed to be reproached for being a ‘dirty racist’ or a ‘cancer Negro’ or ‘goat fucker’.

I recognize myself in the sigh of writer Sana Valiulina as she cries out: why is interaction so mediocre in our society? And the echo of this lamentation from the Brussels teacher Bruno Derbaix: why is it so difficult to talk about ideas? He arrives at this question by his reflection on the attack in Zaventem which involved one of his pupils. “My pupil Najim Laachraoui was not a bad boy. As a teenager he dreamed of a society that would appreciate Islam”.

Prior to his sigh Derbaix asked the following questions.

To Najim: why did you exchange your ideal of a peaceful ‘perfect religion’ for savagery and destruction?

To ourselves: why did we for nearly forty years allow Wahabism to become so dominant in the mosques, bookstores, the neighborhoods. Why didn’t we realize how dangerous that was for the well-meaning Muslims?

To our educators: why didn’t we give more resonance and resources to the forces that strove after change in education?

To our Muslim intellectuals: why didn’t they make more efforts to give room to that other Islam on the Internet, in the mosques and in the public space?

And then comes the – in my eyes – fundamental question: “Why is it so difficult in this society to talk about ideas? Why is there in the schools, in neighborhoods, in the universities so little space to exchange ideas, to confront our differences with each other, to conduct a dialogue. How did we let create a world where there is so little discussion about religion except in terms of stereotypes and templates?”

Or do I mix now two entirely different issues in an unduly way: the verbal violence which Valiulina is talking about and the really physical violence of Derbaix? One could  say: these are indeed completely different things.

But I’m not so sure about that. I think it is at least remarkable that Valiulina and Derbaix from the different angles of verbal violence on the one hand and physical violence on the other, arrive at the same fundamental question: why are many conversations so flat, whence the inability of our society to talk about ideas? That’s no coincidence.

Valiulina herself attempts to reply to her question, and she lays the blame for the observed inability with neoliberalism. Her reasoning is as follows. Neoliberalism focuses on rationality and on the creation of as much wealth as possible. As long as you  strive for that, you are ok – according to that ideology. You do not have to worry any longer about moral issues or the irrational side of life. Surrender to the system is all you need, and above all: don’t make things more complicated than they are.

Surrender to the system thus implies: don’t ask big questions anymore. And in return be rewarded through the attractions of our affluent society, like endless consumption opportunities, social media, festivals and trips to the other side of the world. Material abundance instead of wealth of ideas.

But, says Valiulina, the deepest human questions come from man’s dark, irrational side. Which require elaboration and ideas, but indeed they are ignored by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has nothing to do with art, literature and psychoanalysis – as we can notice in recent years in the Netherlands – and that explains the defective opportunities to talk about emotions and irrational motives. They go underground and express themselves in the primitiveness of nationalism, fundamentalism and racism.

With this statement Valiulina does have a point, I think. But the trouble goes back further than the rise of neoliberalism around 1980. I remember already from before - from my student days – that I disliked the fact that good conversations could take place only late at night and after some alcohol. Ie conversations in which ideas could flow, the entire reality could be addressed and not just a superficial part of it.

Apparently it’s been much longer that in our society, behind the facade of economic and civic life, a completely separate parallel world lies hidden in which more complex – and often obscure – motives dominate. We knew this already from the stories of SS officers who conducted big horrors during daytime, and during evenings and weekends were so charmingly busy with their family and children. Some of it is to be found in the pattern Minister Asscher saw behind the abuse on the internet – he could just click through to the cozy family snapshots of the abusers.

Valiulina points to the existence of those dark parallel world, and she says that we do not only not know how to cope with it – such appears from the abuse and violence. We also prefer to flee in consumption, festivals and trips.

We will yet have to get used to it: talking about the things that really matter. And then also discuss them in a sensible way.

Also see Parrhèsia

woensdag 15 juni 2016

A fresh glance

Sometimes you need outsiders to remind you of who you are, or to see old familiar things in just a bit sharper way.

However, some outsiders are more effective in this than others. When it comes to Europe, and to a ‘European identity’, the Argentine Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, recently posed the question: “Europe, what happened to you?”.  On the occasion of his receiving the Charlemagne Prize, the Pope suggested that Europe can be summed up as in essence a champion of humanism, freedom and charity. Thus, Europe would manifest itself at its best in the aesthetic idyll of lovely Madonnas and crystalline baroque music.

Fortunately, the pope added that most of all he ‘dreams’ of this idyll. It must be, because apart from the fact that Europe currently is conspicuously drifting between human rights and pragmatic politics, European history already centuries earlier shows a lot of mutual fighting and murderous treatment of slaves and immigrant populations. So much so that recently the newspaper wondered in an opinion article whether asylum seekers know what kind of murderous continent they are entering.

So I don’t think of Bergoglio’s presentation of Europe as adequate. More striking I find a viewpoint of the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, who relates baroque music in a surprising way to violence. About seventeenth-century Europe, when the two went together, he says: “Everything in Baroque music was focused on perfection and harmony. But the same nations that were so engaged in that beauty, elsewhere in the world without scruples slaughtered whole tribes. That was perfectly acceptable. Baroque music highlights the hypocrisy of Western high culture. I’m afraid that disease will for some time still be with us”.

To be able to phrase it this way, you need to have a fresh glance.

Also see (Un)purity

maandag 13 juni 2016

The tragedy of a well ordered country

The murder of nurse Linda van der Giesen could possibly have been prevented.

Already for a while Van der Giesen was threatened by her ex-husband. She invoked the police several times. The police understood the danger, and could have come into action but did not because the police protocols required building a dossier first. Without that the police’s case could be rejected by the Prosecuter and the Court. So, in this case, the protocols prevented adequate and timely action.

The problem at hand here can be summarized as follows: sometimes our thoroughly regulated society prevents us to do the right thing in a given situation. For example, to say no to energy wasting nonsensical actions that the rules dictate; or to indeed  just perform that single sensible action, even though it is against the rules.

In our orderly country the creation of more rules is often the standard response to the finding of something wrong. Such is currently on the agenda after the discovery of fraud in the Amsterdam city council. In response, all sorts of rules and controls are now being built into the work of the council. While decades of experience with this kind of rules  indicate that it is a waste of money and energy. To the frustration of many employees.

What doés work, and what actually is most desirable, is that employees would act attentively and adequately, whether it be policeofficers or Amsterdam civil servants. But by enforced compliance with rules that effect is reached only marginally. For that something completely different is required than rules.

In the police organization there is a beginning of awareness to this. Leon Kuijs, chairman of the Police College, puts it as follows. “Police officers are now taught to take responsibility for what they have done, but there comes a time – and it will not take long – that we will be accountable for what we did nót do. As, for example: you could have known this or that, because you should know everything. Why did not you see it?”

Hiding behind rules will be a lot harder then, and that seems like a good thing.

dinsdag 31 mei 2016


To recall what anti-Semitism and Holocaust may mean for Jews is not easy. Such we could experience once more during the last few weeks after comments by Ken Livingstone (“Hitler was a Zionist”), the fuss around Abou Jahjah and unhappy reactions from Leon de Winter.

Who in my opinion sets a good tone, is the historian Auke Kok. Probably that has to do with the absence of any stereotyping of Jews which he presents in his columns. While in commemoration texts quite often there is a reverent kind of whispering about the victims; and where with Leon de Winter it always turns into good guys versus bad guys – with predictably Jews in the role of first – ; there Kok  just paints real-life people.

Thus he wrote on the occasion of the commemoration of the Amsterdam Februarystrike of 1941 about the fighting culture in poor Jewish neighborhoods in the twenties and thirties. There were Jewish “boxers, weightlifters and wrestlers: street boys who formed gangs in the war. With everything that was hard and sharp they beated on the WA. Because, also when it comes to Jews, not all of them were – or are – sweethearts, really”.

And on the occasion of May 4, Liberation Day, he presented Han Hollander. Hollander was since the thirties a nationally known football commentator, who in 1936 had enthusiastically reported on the Olympic Games in Berlin for the Dutch radio. In return he had received an expression of thanks, signed by the Fuehrer himself , that at Hollander’s home hung on the wall and on the basis of which he imagined to be protected against transport. Until he and his wife were arrested in July 1942 and killed in Sobibor.

Auke Kok reduces victims to the correct human proportions. Jews were and are ni ange ni bête. They are just people with all the habits and bad habits that come with it.

And indeed, also such people simply want to live in a safe country.

Also see Countries without borders

zaterdag 28 mei 2016

Comfortably against the grain

Consultant Ben Tiggelaar is known for his successful training sessions under the name ‘MBA in a Day’. At the same time I know him as the author of provocative management critical columns in NRC. In it he shows himself comfortably against the grain.

Thus,  for example, he criticizes the fashionable emphasis on learning. That easily becomes a policy thing, he says, imposed by supervisors who are not really interested. Of them Tiggelaar says: “Do not misunderstand me, I am in favour of learning and development. But I am against impossible plans that you invent, and I must run”.

And when he reads a passage like this: “Employees in functiongroup 3 must with respect to the competence ‘situational awareness’ be at ‘expert level’”, he knows for sure: he would never again be employed. Tiggelaar actually wants not to have to do with managers any longer.

In reading his columns I sometimes wonder why Tiggelaar presents his training under the aegis of MBA. Indeed, does ‘Master of Business Administration’ not represent all those things he shoots in a refreshingly decisive way? Such as: an overemphasis on control via  budgets, financial planning and HR tools. Or, by extension, a unhealthily strong division between leaders and performers.

Tiggelaar,  I think,  fully agrees with Henry Mintzberg who in Managers, not MBA’s says about MBA’s that “too many of them are trapped in a regime of rational tunnel-thinking, schematic planning and calculating management”. Tiggelaar: “Many managers do more harm than good, they are the worst cause of stress. People do not quit jobs, they quit bosses”.

So why then this MBA advert for his trainings?

It could very well be of course that Tiggelaar puts that in his ads because the predicate MBA - rightly or not - has a strong reputation. I do not believe that the successful completion of the training day produces any title, but mentioning ‘MBA’ may act as bait. Mintzberg confirms that a scientific label, such as an MBA degree, is highly regarded in management circles.

But perhaps Tiggelaar, by the use of the term MBA, intended to for once give it a critical interpretation and to direct the managers’ attention to the absurdity of much  management rhetoric.

Given the brave waywardness of his columns I choose for this last explanation.

woensdag 18 mei 2016

Right he is

Against all cynicism the philosopher Jurriaan Rood emphasizes that our Western society is indeed based on strong principles. In reaction to pessimistic sounds about political and social polarization, he states: “The biggest mistake is to think that we are a groundless, aimless society. Western society has very clear principles – we have grossly neglected them in recent decades, but we should exhibit them with more consciousness and pride: the separation of church and state, the monopoly of the state on violence and tolerance of dissent”.

To this he adds, going against the usual glorification of ‘Judeo-Christian values’: “Note that in these matters it is not the Judeo-Christian culture against Islam or something. Neither in the Christian nor in the Jewish culture tolerance was an important value”.

Right he is. Traditional Christian intolerance toward non-Christians is well known enough and I leave it out of consideration here. Jewish intolerance is perhaps less in the front of the mind, but there’s certainly been. Especially against dissent in the own Jewish circle, such as against Uriel da Costa and Baruch Spinoza.

Nevertheless, with regard to the latter intolerance a side remark is in place. Because if one, within the Jewish tradition, did not put into question the foundations (as did Da Costa and Spinoza), there was a lot room for maneuver. Then you could have a dissenting opinion which was at odds with that of authoritative rabbis and still be  mentioned in the Talmud. Then a sometimes dizzying variety of opinions was allowed, for which you may also use the word ‘tolerance’.

Especially when you compare it with the handling of losers of the internal Christian debates, such as found place at the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. They were just written out of history.

Also see Collectivity and Individual

woensdag 4 mei 2016

Naivety was quite common those days

In the fifties of the last century the World Health Organization used the following definition of health: ‘Health is a state of total physical and mental well-being’.

The word ‘total’ in this definition is significant: apparently the ideal of a complete absence of any defect was held high, and the tendency was towards the formulation of absolute requirements and duties when it comes to the protection of health. If to that the faith is linked that all that is realizable, on the scale of the whole world, then that definition gets a little naive.

But such were the times. The horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in memory, and the ubiquitous reaction was: ‘The world must become a better place’. People started to reconstruct their lives, with a strong faith in science and technology and with an amazing optimism about progress. Thereby the leading elite, and therefore the authors of the declaration, was still largely recruited from the Eurocentric upper classes, who from their privileged position were inclined already to think according to strictly rational Kantian patterns and in terms of an undisturbed course of life.

Nowadays health authorities start from the somewhat more manageable concept of ‘positive health’: ie the ability to adapt. With this in mind, you can still be healthy with a chronic disease.

The aforementioned characteristics of the declaration on health, ie the universality of the definition and the totality of the concomitant protection, are also reflected in the declarations of human rights stemming from the same period. As in the UN Refugee Convention of 1951. It states inter alia that anyone who fears violence and persecution can count on protection in another country. By the word ‘anyone’, according to many current interpreters of that Convention, the drafters indeed meant: everyone on earth. And from the wording of such a universal right might very well speak the same naivety as from the idea of overall health.

Because if it comes to the point, according to the Convention, you are obliged to offer the entire population of a region at war the right to asylum. Even if the rest of the world does not participate. Even if would happen what Henri Beunders describes, that the region in war does not include ‘only’ 20 million Syrians, but also 6 to 7 million Eritreans, and another half a billion Africans if the situation explodes in Egypt, Libya and Nigeria.

The latter is not at all inconceivable, but the Convention does not allow to think about the practical managability of the situation we would then arrive at. The absolute terms of the Convention suggest that it really does not matter whether something is conceivable or inconceivable. That’s the way the Convention argues, with Kant and the fifties at its side.

Personally, I am not so sure about that. Theoretically I am, of course, but I mean in practical terms. Because unmanageable situations tend to create their own kinds of socio-political disasters.

Also see Values as natural phenomena and The whole world - or just a small part? 

woensdag 27 april 2016

Spiritual violence

It recently was twenty years ago that seven monks were kidnapped from their monastery in Tibhirine by Algerian Islamists. Two months later, on May 30, 1996, only their heads were found.

They had let it happen. The monks knew of the advancing Islamist violence in the region. They did consider to leave, but decided to remain in their monastery in solidarity with the local population and to refuse protection by the military.

And time and again at every commemoration, most recently by Stefan Waanders in Trouw, there are those gushy comments which extol the monks’ behavior as a sign of ultimate sacrifice readiness. This time Waanders adds to his article Brother Christian’s ‘testament’, in which he sums up the essence of his life. “This is a testament of the great spiritual texts of the last century”, says Waanders.

In the text, Brother Christian de Chergé, the prior of the monastery, speaks of his willingness to die out of solidarity with the Algerian Muslims who for more then a century were humiliated by the French. The respect that he thus shows to victims of French colonialism is certainly sympathetic, although I do not see how an Islamist massacre can benefit the image of Islam.

What stings me, and what makes questionable the whole gesture of the monks for me, is the following passage in Christian’s testament.

“Of course my death will seem to confirm all those who derided me as naive or idealistic: ‘Tell me, what do you think about it now!’ But people need to know that what torments and makes me curious most, will finally get a liberating answer. Because I will, if it pleases God, I will be allowed to let my sight be united with that of the Father to look with him to his Muslim children. I will see them as he sees them, bathed in the light of the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion and coated with the gift of the Spirit, who always with hidden joy will create community and, playing with all the differences, will restore the similarities.”

This text strikes me as a mark of spiritual imperialism, one of the most unsympathetic kind, and, I fear, exemplary of Christianity. When reading such a passage I ask myself in despair: Is there no one who will see how here, from under a blanket of fluffy piety, in one blow every deviating, differently defined identity is assimilated to what for this monk rises over everyone and everything? Gone all otherness, away with plurality. Doesn’t anybody – this monk, or the author of the article, or the public – feel that there is coarse mental violence, pure imperialism at stake?

I know, irenic souls like Erasmus and others had exactly the same view. To me that only confirms what I tend to consider as the blind spot in our civilization, namely that mental pressure is not perceived as violence, and therewith as condemable as physical violence. Mental pressure is not innocent, if only because frustrated mental pressure can still lead to physical violence. As Luther’s dealings with the Jews can illustrate: when his preaching could not convince the Jews, he towards the end of his life turned to hate speech against the Jews.

This has got much to do with Thinking for someone else. Also see Reversal of values.

woensdag 20 april 2016

Humane Slaveholders

We like so much to hear it: that, while in Antiquity Jews like the Greeks and Romans held slaves, they did so in a slightly more humane way.

Slavery will be dealt with intensively again this week, because at the Pesach seder we remember how we were slaves in Egypt. And how we have been liberated, but always kept a sensitivity to what it means to be a slave.

From that sensitivity we cherish the thought that there are several ways to keep slaves. For the Romans, for instance, the life of a slave did not count at all. Illustrative of the entire honor- and lawlessness of Roman slaves was the usual punishment for them, namely  crucifixion. Which was applied i.a. to quell harshly the revolt of the slave leader Spartacus (around 72 before the beginning of the era). It led to the crucifixion of more than 6,000 slaves along the road from Capua to Rome.

Such a complete denial of the humanity of slaves is supposed not to fit with the rules of the Torah, which states that the compatriots, who had sold themselves into slavery because they could not pay their debts, should be released in the Sabbath year (every seven years). And is written on the Sabbath as a weekly day of rest that it is meant for everyone, including slaves, servants and foreigners and even livestock.

But historical-scientific findings seem to leave little of that almost idyllic picture, in practice these provisions probably have not functioned as they had been intended. Even from rabbinic discussions on these texts, says researcher Stoutjesdijk from Tilburg University, it appears that the rules were not at all respected.

That might be a downer for our sense of self. Remains thát we so badly want it: to promote humane relations within our sometimes ruthless socio-economic systems. Let’s continue to want that, and if the Passover story helps us do this, continue to tell the story.

vrijdag 8 april 2016

Humanly spoken

Humanly spoken, in these difficult times one’s attention has to be with the victims of all this misery. And of course, with what we can do to prevent attacks. And fortunately, over the whole that attention is there.

But that does not prevent me to be interested in the underlying, almost philosophical shifts brought about by ever closer creeping terrorist violence.

Take this question of Leonie Breebaart in Trouw: “Is it really so bad that the Dutch sympathize more strongly with the victims in Brussels than with those in, say, Nigerian Maiduguri, where last week 22 worshippers were killed in a mosque?” And the sober reply from philosopher and ethicist Rutger Claassen: “What is close affects you more”.

That obviously has never been different, but for a long time we dared not say that aloud. From the sixties and seventies, at least for the progressive part of the Netherlands, solidarity with the oppressed was supposed to be limitless and global, without distinction as to geography, nationality or religion. Right now Breebaart asks: “Is not that a very abstract idea?”

Not so long ago it was considered unacceptably hypocritical to deplore one victim (eg a Belgian) more than another (eg a Nigerian). Right now Breebaart states: “But doesn’t it work just like that? Doesn’t there remain a tension between the idea of solidarity and the feeling that you have for people you know?” Say between thick and thin relationships.

As to me, these observations confirm an already very old Jewish truth. Namely that closeness and ‘the particularistic’ matter, and that relationships within your own community, or close in some other way, are of a different quality than the relationships you maintain beyond. Warmer, more intense, thicker. And that they are allowed to be so, without you being indecent to the rest of the world. That’s the way it may work indeed.

Until recently it was risky to formulate those thoughts, in a world where a noisy elite was universally oriented and put away all ethnocentrism and particularism as hopelessly outdated. That elite is resetting itself – and I hope it will not go into a neo-nationalistic direction but towards the recognition that charity begins at home. Because that seems to me an act of commendable realism.

What concerns me is that the spectrum is shifting in its entirety. For the West, I think that’s ok, it may very well return a bit of its haughty universalism. But Israel for a long time already is particularistic enough and could give some more attention to universal values. However, the recent Pew Report points into a different direction: a quarter of the Israeli population would want to trade democracy for theocracy and 48 percent of Israeli Jews agreed with the statement ‘Arabs must be put out of Israel’.

That does not feel right.

Also see Countries without borders

donderdag 31 maart 2016

Values as natural phenomena

In general, the columns by Jan Kuitenbrouwer appeal to me because of his wit and the quality of his considerations. But this time I could not follow him.

Kuitenbrouwer has his fill of ‘European values’. There is a lot about them lately, he says, but the question is whether they exist, at least as significant phenomenon. “One of the reasons that you hear the word ‘value’ so often nowadays, is because it lends itself as a euphemism for ‘norm’”. Values are thin and without obligation, contrary to norms, because one must respect and maintain them, even as a politician. That is tricky, “so we rather talk about values, a natural phenomenon on which we have no influence”, according to Kuitenbrouwer.

I got caught on the word ‘natural phenomenon’, as a category in which he puts ‘values’. My first objection is that, as far as values are considered as natural phenomenon (ie: as universally given, applicable to everyone and everything), they are directly problematic. This applies for example to the value of ‘human rights’. The naturally attributed content  would be the following: of every human being, anywhere in the world, human rights must be guaranteed. The value of human rights, anywhere in the world, would then be my concern here and now. The boundlessness of that thought is problematic: it  immediately turns it into a slogan. So, insofar as you consider your values as a natural phenomena, they become meaningless. Maybe that’s what Kuitenbrouwer wanted to say.

But, and this is my second objection, the assertion that values would be a natural phenomenon (that is: universally true), is false for a number of values. The values of freedom, democracy and rule of law as mentioned by Kuitenbrouwer are certainly not natural in the sense that any thoughtful person would take them for granted. In China, for example, they often question them and Erdogan once declared: “For us [Islamists] democracy is like a streetcar. We ride until we are where we should be and then we jump off”. This implies that values can not be seen as natural phenomena, but are rather tied to (national) communities who have decided that within the limits of their territory those values hold, or not, or for a while.

So, people dó have large influence on that. In fact, those values exist only insofar as they are embraced by specific communities and not otherwise. And Kuitenbrouwer is right, values get actualized only when they are acted upon, just to embrace them is not enough. Well, sometimes that’s the case indeed, see Merkel and refugees; sometimes it is not, see Merkel and her haggling with Erdogan. This suggests for me an acceptable gap in the relationship between values and norms.

Anyway, you obviously need a limited validity range if you do not want values to function as empty and meaningless as Kuitenbrouwer suggests they do. That could imply that Europe will regard upholding human rights outside Europe less as its task. To gain relevance.

Also see Borders and Where do universal values bring us?

dinsdag 22 maart 2016

How Jewish is Maimonides?

Recently, I followed an interesting course on Maimonides, in which his life, acts and  work were discussed. While being confronted with all of that, you can not fail being impressed again by this giant.

Nevertheless I am left with a serious question, especially in reaction to the book The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides. The teacher of the course told that the rabbi/philosopher wrote that book for the enlightened Jewish minds of his time who had come into contact with Aristotle’s rationalism. Maimonides wanted to show that the same Greek wisdom was to be found also in Judaism and that therefore the Jewish intellectual elite did not have to go looking elsewhere, where according to him they would easily get lost.

However, that Jewish equivalent of Greek wisdom should be available only for the initiated, and had to remain secret for ordinary people because they were too stupid to understand the doctrine. The initiate elite could then make sure the uninitiated people receive the pieces secret doctrine at the time they were, in the opinion of the elite, ready for it.

This fact of a secret doctrine for initiates with a corresponding social hierarchy strikes  me as contrarious to the direction of the rabbis from the beginning of the era. In rabbinical writings, I believe to hear arguments for study of Torah as something that preferably as many as possible should be able to participate in throughout their lives. “Go and learn”, Hillel said, and in saying so he did not address specifically the smarter people. And what they had to learn was nothing secret, on the contrary, it belonged to Revelation.

That is not to say that in the Jewish tradition exclusion did not occur. There were at various times in various places aristocracies of rabbinical dynasties who divided leading positions among themselves and didn’t let in outsiders. But – and this is my point – that practice was not supported by an ideology that wants to keep a priori certain knowledge limited to a group of initiates.

Therefore, in my view it’s very logical and understandable that internal Jewish opposition came against Maimonides. Which led to the so-called ‘Maimonidean controversies’ that regularly flared up from the 12th to the 16th century. Among others, the philosopher Chasdai Crescas manifested himself as opponent of Maimonides.

For him and other opponents in the controversies something big was at stake, namely the following. Through his avid embrace of universalizing reason Maimonides takes leave, according to them, of the kind of rationality which is employed by Tanakh and Talmud. The latter is a rationality that allows for plurality of different logics, for inconsistencies and for the tragedy of conflicting logics that nonetheless are legitimate.

That appeals to me. A danger may be that with that thought you end up in romantic or mystical atmospheres. The opposition of Crescas against Maimonides has been interpreted along those lines, but that’s not what I aim at. What I am looking for is, right on the level of rationality, an approach that precisely in its way of dealing with reason – or reasons – may be called more Jewish than that of Maimonides.

I think that can be found in Levinas is because he, without being romantic, for all thinking “presupposes a specific political community”. These last words are from the philosopher Dennis Baert, and if you say “I do not understand”, then I agree. But those words in any case point to something different from what is universally valid. It’s primarily my intuition which says that this has something to do with the previous. But I’ll have to study on that further.

Also see Wittgenstein as Talmudist

vrijdag 18 maart 2016

The whole world – or just a small part?

The relationship of Western culture to the bordercrossing and sometimes terrorist ambitions of Islam is more complex than is often thought. There is a strong inner relationship between the universalist orientations of the West and of Islam. That’s my conclusion after reading an enlightening article by the Arabist Maurice Blessing.

This conclusion is reached by the observation that 1. both the West and Islam start from a universalist, transnational ideal; 2. this ideal is not satisfied with less than global universalism; and 3. to achieve that goal the use of force is justified.

The presence of a universalist ideal appeared in the West since the time that Christianity got solid foothold there. From that moment it was its declared objective to from the West further Christianize the world. Think of the Catholic  and Protestant missionaries who certainly at the time of the 18th and 19th century imperialism, took it for their task (‘the white man’s burden’) to spread the Christian message to the farthest corners of the earth. When Christianity began to make way for the values of the French Revolution, such as democracy and human rights, the universalist fervor was no less.

In the case of Islam, according to Blessing, there is a religious commitment to ‘higher spheres’ that by its nature can accept no limits that prevent its spread. Because of that universalist orientation Islam can not but consider all national, particularistic borders as void and meaningless. Not only of non-Islamic countries, but also of Islamic countries, as evidenced by the change of the name ISIS (‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, so tied to a limited territory) in IS (‘Islamic State’). Loyalty should not be shown to human citizenship but to Allah. And Islam does not go for less than the whole world.

The conviction of having a universally applicable message was sufficient legitimacy for Christians to proceed to conversion under pressure. For example, of Jews in Spain, or of Indians in South America. And later, for the secular revolutionaries of the RAF and the Red Brigades to perpetrate their attacks. To the revolutionary Muslims it is sufficient justification for committing acts of terrorism around the world and for the destruction of national heritage.

Thus revolutionary fervor, stemming from the sincere belief to have a beneficial or even spiritual message for everyone, might point to greater affinity between Islam and the West then we usually tend to assume. A – not unimportant – contemporary difference is that the West has tempered the use of violence by attributing the monopoly of violence precisely to the national state. Such a concession to the national state radical Islam will not easily do, says Blessing. Indeed, Islamic terror is the very protest against this domestication of Islam and its binding to national borders.

But even with that difference the congeniality in universalist orientation between the West and Islam remains striking. Expanding your ideal all over the earth, as a necessary part of the ideal’s concept, appears to be an inseparable characteristic of both Christianity/Enlightenment and Islam. Could it have to do with a certain Greek conception of truth? That something called ‘truth’ only deserves the name if it has proven to be ‘universally valid’? Well, then you must first conquer the world.

Whatever you may say of the Jewish tradition – that it inspires people to discrimination against Israeli Arabs and encourages colonization of the West Bank –for roughly two thousand years it is a fact that Jewish attention is directed particularisticly, namely towards the welfare of the Jewish group. You might find that  narrow-minded, but maybe nicely modest as well.

In any case, the urge to missionate or conquer the world, including the immense brutality that goes with it, is foreign to the Jewish tradition. Except of course if you believe in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

Also see Borders and Countries without borders

zondag 6 maart 2016

Failed states

What is worse than a violent state? Answer: a failed state.

That means, at least from the perspective of ordinary citizens, that you can better live in Iran than in Iraq, and that you are better off in Egypt than in Libya. In these cases it isn’t any longer about having a nice time, rather about degrees of chaos and terror. In Iran, you can be arrested for walking without a veil, and hanging people is the order of the day, but there is also protection from criminals, there is still water from the tap and public lighting still works. In the failed states of Iraq and Libya you cann’t even be sure of that.

The development of Western thought about the state follows the line of the above degrees of (un)organizedness. Generally Thomas Hobbes (first half 17th century) is considered to be the one who called for strong central authority as a means of guaranteeing a minimum of order and security for citizens. To achieve that, the monopoly, ie the exclusive right to the use of force, should be attributed to the state.

Thus Hobbes stands for the step of failed or non-existent state to state, while he did not care much about abuse of the state monopoly on violence. The risk of internal violence of the state towards its citizens did not interest him a lot.

That only came in the second half of the 17th century with John Locke, who formulated basic rights for citizens, such as freedom of religion and expression and assembly, with a corresponding obligation on the state to respect them. The orderly violent state thus made way for an orderly decent state.

So far the development of a state in a positive direction, but obviously states can also pass through the various stages of state development in the wrong direction. With  Turkey this seems to be the case: it was about to step through the route from Hobbes to Locke, but Erdogan made it turn tail.

Sometimes I’m afraid the same will happen to Israel. In my opinion until recently with regard to Israel you could speak of a decent state – w ith the not inconsiderable note that this was true insofar as you are a Jewish resident. But at the moment it is too much about curtailment of cultural expressions and freedoms for its own residents. Israel is not going to be a failed state soon, but could it perhaps be that the road back from Locke to Hobbes is taken here indeed?

maandag 29 februari 2016

How counter-intuitive can you be?

It’s good for me – as someone who has broken with Christianity – to get the Christian faith explained by people I find congenial. Because then, if I feel objections arise, I’m sure they are not motivated by an opinion about the person that I listen to at that time.

One of those sympathetic interpreters is Marilynne Robinson, whom I saw recently on television. What I understood to be her main message is that Christians are called to become what they by nature are not. People are selfish, and they should be altruistic; they are not naturally compassionate, but they should be so; they are easily scared, but fear is wrong. In short, Christianity according to Robinson is one big change program, away from our natural state, leading to a victory over our nature.

So much counter-naturalness cannot convince me, however sympathetic the messenger may be. Indeed, from a pedagogical or andragogical point of view such a program seems to me to be doomed to failure, because how counter-intuitive can we be? It could even be that the frustration built into this program accounts for the phenomena in church and Christianity which Robinson precisely dislikes: the focus on power and on winning souls. The latter might very well be the ‘natural’ and inevitable compensation for too ambitious aspirations which run off the rails.

Besides, I am not so afraid of human selfishness, lack of empathy and fear. Selfishness can give us firm starting positions, from which we on our turn have something to offer to others. The duty of empathy and compassion can easily lead to the overstrained situation in which empathy becomes an achievement of the autonomous self, and in which the other is no more than an object for compassion. Fear finally can be a very good counselor, as evidenced indeed by the images of the Bataclan which were shown during the interview with Robinson: visitors ran away as fast as possible from the Kalashnikovs, and that was a good thing. The fact that there also may be fearful situations in which you need to think well, as Robinson propagated, does not diminish the importance of vigilance that is generates by fear.

The recommendation by Robinson that I can fully accept is that it comes to live deliberately, even with regard to experiences that transcend us. That may be unnatural enough already, and I don’t want to burden that endeavor with additional unnatural commands.

Also see Holy fire

donderdag 11 februari 2016

Countries without borders

“For an Israel without borders”,  such was the chotspeous title of a book by the Dominican Lucas Grollenberg in 1970. In it he laments the fate undergone by the Palestinians by the creation of the state of Israel, and that’s legitimate of course. The chotspe lies in the fact that, barely twenty-five years after the bloodiest attack ever on the Jewish people, the author calls for conceiving of Judaism as a purely spiritual content that does not need a physical component, let alone borders. That’s quite impertinent if you know how Jews were threatened in their purely physical existence. And that precisely the lack of border security has become fatal to many of them at that time.

The utopia of borderlessness as an ideal is nevertheless very popular. The historian Henri Beunders calls it an important part of the current zeitgeist which cherishes the idea that all people can freely travel around the earth. That’s good for the economy, for communication between people and for the exchange between cultures.

Beunders views the emergence of the open borders movement as a relatively modern phenomenon, based on the idea that boundaries are unfair to the poor and that they are economically inefficient and counterproductive. In this modern dream of ‘the sky is the limit’, according to Beunders, we lost the sense of equivocalness of boundaries and started thinking in terms of borderlessness.

We pay for it now, Beunders says, and therefore we frantically start to reestablish boundaries and fences. That change can go fast, just look at our politicians who, still in October, explained passionately that you cannot stop asylum seekers, but now present a plan for strong border control.

I do agree with Beunders that Europe is chained to an ideology of boundlessness of which now it discovers the utopian side. But I do not share his analysis that this is a zeitgeist phenomenon – so something relatively modern. The roots of this absolute universal orientation go back much further, namely to a deep-rooted universalist orientation of Christianity. Already for the Apostle Paul the sky was the limit, and eliminating all differences between Jew and Greek, and other nations, his stated goal. In that respect Grollenberg stands in a tradition.

No wonder Christianity brought, along with civilization, also a lot of violence. Because generally people are rather attached to their own identity and its connected borders, and they don’t give up that without a fight in exchange for a universalist ideal.

Apart from violent, the ideal now appears also to be a bit too utopian. The open borders ideal encounters poverty, wars and refugees in the rest of the world, and in its propagated shape appears to be unsustainable. The question at this time, given our cultural heritage, is how fast we will be able to switch.

dinsdag 2 februari 2016

‘Intrinsically disordered’

The Ministry of Education is going to start information sessions in asylum centers about gay rights. It are especially asylum-seekers from the Middle East who will be informed that homosexuality is not wrong.

Is that going to work? In the rejection of homosexuality, by both immigrants and natives, often several elements play a role. For example, the security of a world in which there is a natural order, which at the same time is divine because nature is considered to be designed by God. And if nature is designed primarily for procreation, God has willed heterosexuality, not homosexuality.

For me it is a serious question whether you can ‘out-educate’ such a view. The Roman Catholic church, however Western it is, has not yet succeeded in that, anyway. During last year’s extraordinary synod on the family there was officially no change in the view of homosexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered’. It is thought that homosexual relationships “are contrary to divine and natural law”.

In the Anglican church a form of education has indeed been on the agenda, mainly from the white part to the colored and black part. During the last decades gay priests have been ordinated Anglican bishop. But in some parts of the church this caused so much resistance that now one must say such education would appear to have failed. Especially on the African continent and with conservative Americans feelings on the subject ran high, and a church schism was feared. Thanks to a gay-unfriendly compromise that danger could recently (temporarily?) be averted.

If acceptance of homosexuality can be so problematic, even in a church community with common traditions and customs, how difficult it must be for people from the Middle East who share a lot less in terms of ideas and traditions with us?

Also see (Un)purity

zondag 31 januari 2016

Have Jews more to fear than other people?

One could think so. A skullcap on the head of a teacher in Marseille was sufficient grounds for an, otherwise neat, 15-year-old Muslim to stab him down. Muslim women are sometimes attacked because of their headscarves. However, that they are stabbed for that reason, I have not heard of in Western Europe.

But there is much to compensate that thought. Such as the observation that Jews are no longer the proverbial strangers they were always held for. They are now one of the many ethnic minority groups, rather a bit more integrated than other groups. Xenophobic extreme right now has to divide its attention between all those groups and therefore from that side it is relatively safer for Jews.

Indeed, in recent decades danger has been added from the side of extremist Muslims, see above. But their violence is not directed exclusively against Jews. It has also targeted cartoonists, pop concert and terrace visitors. Whether one is secular, Jewish, Christian, even Muslim, it does not matter anymore.

Also at the level of national communities Jews gain company. Where around 2005 it still was ‘unheard barbaric’ to build a security fence as Israel did, at present the list of names of countries that build walls is almost endless. Like those on the border of Tunisia and Libya, Iran and Pakistan, the US and Mexico, Botswana and South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and much more. The feeling of security that for Israel is linked to borders is not as anachronistic yet as was generally thought.

Thus, as to the wall, the international community can no longer that easily condemn it. Of course Israeli policy in the West Bank can still rightly be condemned, so from that perspective Israel and Jews remain unabatedly vulnerable.

But it could well be that the moral aspect in the  relations with Israel will weigh less heavily as the terror continues rampant in the Western world. In such circumstances a sense of kinship with Israel is more obvious. After all, Israel has been fighting since its inception - ie prior to occupancy - against terror.

That may explain why, for instance, there is a lot of attention lately to the Israeli way of securing aircraft. According to The Economist, the, until recently controversial, Israeli approach is more effective than the American. “Americans search for weapons, Israelis search for suspects.” The latter implies an approach whereby suspects or just nervous people are often subjected to humiliating search. Frustration of attacks along that way has proven more successful than by luggage control.

Would trendwatcher Adjiesj Bakas be right when, along with the ‘Surinamisation of love’, he sees coming the  ‘Israelisation of society’? Whether life will be nicer because of that, that’s a good question – but now for everyone.

Does everybody become Jewish?

dinsdag 19 januari 2016

Wittgenstein and Virtue

It is no secret that Ludwig Wittgenstein had no particular warm feelings towards Judaism. But in the meantime he practiced philosophy in a way that strikes me as being Jewish in character.

That may have to do with the capricious character of his later writings, but I also find it in another area, that of his views on virtuousness.

Virtuousness has a rather antiquated sound, but there is much written right now on virtue ethics and virtue theory. The subject seems to meet a need, probably as a result of the secularization of society and the void which – rightly or wrongly – is associated therewith.

What most books about virtue have in common is an emphasis on the formation of good character. But otherwise the preferences of the many authors can vary from classical Greco-Roman virtue ethics, through Christian morality to Eastern virtue theories. With as a point of agreement that they all pretend to be universally true.

Except for the Jewish view on virtues, which seems to have no universal pretensions. At that point the agreement with Wittgenstein’s position is striking.

In his explanation of Wittgenstein, Bert Keizer tells what the philosopher intended to do: to show that meanings of the same word can be as different as interpretations of,  for example, the word ‘house’: a Bedouin by that word imagines a tent, a child his tricycle, an Eskimo his igloo and a Dutchman his bricks. To the word ‘virtuousness’ a similar multitude of interpretations is associated, in Wittgenstein’s view according to Keizer.

Therefore for the later Wittgenstein it is impossible to arrive at a clear concise characteristic of virtuousness that would be universally valid. In this he differs from the mainstream thinking about virtue in the same way as the Jewish tradition does.

Also see Levinas and Wittgenstein

woensdag 13 januari 2016

Does everybody become Jewish?

“It’s not impossible,” the philosopher Samuel IJsseling writes in one of his posthumously edited texts, “that in Europe a form of Christianity arises with some resemblance to the attitude of the Jews.”

That attitude he described a little earlier in the text, using an observation by Amos Oz. “Nowhere in the world,” says Oz, “you find so many Bible-knowing atheists as in Israel. Faith here has given way to admiration. Admiration for the stories that are told and interpreted over and over again. Here God is first of all a word, a character in an ancient story. Admiration also for rituals and celebrations, and even for the law that is at least partially maintained”.

The above text suggests that the life-orientation of the Christian world moves somewhat to that of the Jewish world. This is intriguing, especially since according to the text this would be the case for two, often mutually contradictory, groupings in European culture. On one hand the group of secularised people, who said goodbye to the Christian faith, but like many atheist Jews continue to cherish its cultural and historical aspects. And secondly, the Christian believers who do not secularize. They too come to stand closer to the Jewish world, namely by the fact that they allow certain aspects of their religious orientation that truly can be called Jewish.

To start with the latter: for a long time Christianity has been marked by a kind of  unearthlyness. It cherished supersweet stories in which angelic virtue was cultivated as the highest (and unattainable) ideal. That approach seems to slowly give way to a more mature attitude to life in which, for example, the reality of violence, including that of the very own tradition, is better acknowledged.

Some of that I found in the statement of Frans Kellendonk that the religion of heaven has to become the religion of the earth. Or in Jean-Jacques Suurmond who said, on the occasion of Blood Book of Dimitri Verhulst, that you should be glad that the Old Testament tells no tales, for “precisely a sweet utopia makes people grab a Kalashnikov”.  Recognition of the violence of one’s own tradition can teach you to deal with it appropriately. By the way, I am afraid that all this does not apply to the growing group of evangelical Christians.

Then there is the other, first mentioned tendency: that of secularising people showing kinship with Jews who cherish their tradition in the first place as cultural heritage. IJsseling’s own wanderings are perhaps typical of this group. From being a Catholic priest he developed in pagan direction by becoming an admirer of Greek and Roman polytheism. Later, the plurality of divine characters and moods of this pantheon, from envious to engaging and from loving to vindictive, made him, appearing from the above quote, in a new way responsive to the plurality of voices of the Hebrew Bible.

Whether or not that pluralism is religious in content does not matter anymore with IJsseling and the group he represents. More important in the context of this column is that ex-Jews and ex-Christians increasingly appear to have an attitude in common. Which could be summed up in what Tamarah Benima calls ‘mercurianism’, after Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, including associations like “speed, eloquence, travel, science, but also cunning and deception”. You could say that everyone becomes a bit more Jewish. Or the reverse: Jews become a bit less different.