Monday, August 5, 2013

Culture of Violence: A Palestinian Hobby. By Jonathan S. Tobin.

Culture of Violence: A Palestinian Hobby. By Jonathan S. Tobin. Commentary, August 5, 2013. Also here.

What’s Wrong With Throwing Rocks? By Micah Stein. The Daily Beast, August 6, 2013.

The New York Times investigates a Palestinian hobby. By Noam Sheizaf. +972, August 5, 2013.

In a West Bank Culture of Conflict, Boys Wield the Weapon at Hand. By Jodi Rudoren. New York Times, August 4, 2013.

My Children Don’t Have This Hobby. By Brian Thomas (Brian of London). Israellycool, August 5, 2013.

Blog linked to Israeli army calls for murder of Palestinian children. By Ali Abunimah. The Electronic Intifada, August 5, 2013.

Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah Attacks Israellycool. By David Lange (Aussie Dave). Israellycool, August 6, 2013.

Justice and Rocks. By Arnold Roth. This Ongoing War, April 2, 2013.

The inner syntax of Palestinian stone-throwing. By Amira Hass. Haaretz, April 3, 2013. Also here. Hass reads the inner syntax article on Democracy Now. Video. YouTube. Complete Democracy Now interview of Amira Hass, Part 1, Part 2.

Amira Hass, settlers and Palestinians: “Do we not bleed?” By Sara Hirschhorn. Haaretz, April 9, 2013. Also here.

When free speech becomes lawlessness. By Dror Eydar. Israel Hayom, April 4, 2013.


In the last year, the Western press has focused a great deal of attention on what has been described as a wave of violence committed by Jewish settlers living in the West Bank against Palestinians. The vandalism and other crimes committed by Jews—known as “price tag” attacks—have been widely condemned by the Israeli government and virtually everyone in Israeli society outside of the extreme right. But this marginal phenomenon—and even Israel’s sternest critics must conceded that this is something that is the work of a tiny minority even of settlers, let alone Israel—that has received disproportionate news coverage is rarely contrasted with a far more widespread phenomenon: Arab violence against settlers and Israelis.
As we learn in a front-page story published today in the New York Times under the headline of “My Hobby is Throwing Stones,” violence directed at Jews isn’t just a troubling trend, it is something that has become more or less the national Palestinian sport. Children, adolescents, and even adults treat flinging lethal rocks at any passing car with Israeli license plates as not merely boys being boys but acceptable behavior that is somehow justified by the ongoing dispute between the two peoples over the land and a host of other issues. The conflict between Jews and Arabs over the land is complex and there are victims on both sides. But what this story tells us about contemporary Palestinian culture and its glorification of violence, as well as the rejection of alternate means of dealing with the Jewish presence in their midst, speaks volumes about how difficult it will be to ever achieve peace.
There are a couple of key points to understand about this wildly popular Palestinian “hobby.”
The first is that though the story only mentions the victims of the stone throwing in passing in one sentence, flinging a large rock at an individual or a moving vehicle is not a game. It is a form of terrorism. Such actions are felonious assaults by any definition of the law. The purpose of the stone throwing is not making a political statement but to inflict injury and even death on those so unfortunate as to be in range of these missiles. Anyone who wants to understand what is driving the “price tag” attacks by a small number of settlers need only read this piece and understand that what they are reacting to is routine illegal violence that is condoned by the entire Arab community.
Defenders of the Palestinians may say that stone throwing is a reaction to the “occupation” and that those who throw rocks have no other way of protesting the settlements or what they consider wrongful behavior on the part of the Israel Defense Forces. But this ignores the fact that most of the tense encounters between the IDF and Palestinians stems from the violence that the latter habitually commit.
That leads to the second point: nowhere in this story does anyone ever stop and say that perhaps it would be better for the Palestinians’ quality of life and even their political aspirations if they decided to treat the Jews who live near them as human beings rather than merely enemy targets.
It is worth noting that Beit Omar, the town featured in the Times story, is located nearby the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements in the West Bank. Jodi Rudoren, the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief, notes that Beit Omar’s location is ideal for stone throwing since it abuts a major highway near a group of Jewish communities. But she leaves out the fact that there is an interesting history of Jewish-Arab interaction in the era that is instructive in understanding the conflict.
The Gush Etzion bloc is, after all, not built on stolen Arab land, as the cliché goes about all such West Bank settlements, but on the ruins of Jewish communities that existed prior to 1948. In the months prior to Israel’s birth as the ruling British stood back and allowed a civil war to rage on their watch, local Arabs, aided by foreign volunteers, laid siege to the Jewish villages in the Gush Etzion area. Efforts to reinforce them from Jerusalem (which was itself under siege) failed and eventually they fell to Arab attack. Many of the inhabitants were subject to indiscriminate massacre while others were captured. Their homes were destroyed as local Palestinian Arabs celebrated.
Nineteen years later, after Israel took possession of the West Bank ending an illegal Jordanian occupation, the process of rebuilding Gush Etzion began and today the various towns in the area flourish and are rightly seen as Jerusalem suburbs that are not centers of settler violence or intolerance. No one envisions its evacuation even in the unlikely scenario of a peace deal being signed.
If Palestinians still dream of repeating the events of 1948, at least as far as Gush Etzion is concerned, that is more than a public safety problem. It represents a basic unwillingness to live in peace alongside their Jewish neighbors. If Palestinians can think of nothing better to do than to steal from or attack Jews in the town over the hill, how can we believe they are ready to accept peace with Israel under virtually any circumstances?
The Palestinians’ culture of violence goes much deeper than stone throwing. It is in fact merely a symptom of the hatred of Jews and Israelis that is fomented in their official media and throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Whatever your opinion about settlements or where the borders of Israel should be located, the longer Palestinians condone routine violence and train new generations of children to take part in this mayhem, the longer they are putting off the day when peace will arrive.

Doomsday Diplomacy and the Middle East. By Seth Mandel.

Doomsday Diplomacy and the Middle East. By Seth Mandel. Commentary, August 2, 2013.

Kerry’s Big-Bang Mideast Diplomacy. By David Ignatius. NJBR, August 1, 2013.

What If Kerry’s Peace Talks Fail? By Peter Feaver. Foreign Policy, July 30, 2013. Also here.

Playing with Dynamite in the Middle East. By Peter Feaver. Foreign Policy, August 1, 2013. Also here.

What Middle East Peace Requires: Israeli Magnanimity Toward the Palestinians. By Stephen M. Walt. Foreign Policy, July 31, 2013. Also here.


What happens if the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry end without a deal? This is a question hovering not so discreetly in the background of the renewed negotiations, because there are only so many times hope can triumph over experience. To peace processors, there is never a downside to negotiations. To pessimists, the current assemblage of personalities has created a perfect storm of skepticism.
Kerry, leading the process, has neither the charisma nor the depth of knowledge to inspire confidence. His envoy, Martin Indyk, was part of the Clinton team in the lead-up to Camp David, which ended in disaster and a Palestinian terror campaign against Jewish civilians. Indyk wrote a memoir of his experience that was highly readable and full of entertaining stories but riddled throughout with contradictions, hypocrisy, and partisan point-scoring to a degree uncommon for modern diplomats.
Indyk also does not hide his disdain (and Clinton’s) for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the book. When Bill Clinton got directly involved in the Israeli elections to help Netanyahu’s opponent Shimon Peres, Netanyahu complained to Indyk, who recalls Clinton’s belief that because Netanyahu had Republican allies in Congress, Netanyahu was “getting his just deserts.” (The comparison is so ridiculous on its face that the reader simply assumes neither Clinton nor Indyk actually believes it, but that they thought nothing of casually insulting the Israeli prime minister while overtly trying to oust him from office.)
The Palestinians are led by Mahmoud Abbas, who resolutely refused to consider negotiating until Israel released terrorists and child murderers that Abbas could fete as heroes while the rest of the world tried to pretend this wasn’t as grotesque and barbaric as it quite obviously was. Israel is led again by Netanyahu, who thanks to the prisoner release will have even less political space at home to make the one-sided concessions usually required in the post-Oslo era, and probably doesn’t forget that in the past, Indyk’s presence in Israel often signaled that the White House’s attempts to remove Netanyahu from office were underway.
But Indyk’s role as a harbinger of doom is actually quite appropriate to the current negotiations, because that is exactly how Kerry’s team seems to approach this task. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius described it this way earlier this week:
What Kerry has done, in effect, is get the two sides to grab hold of a stick of dynamite. If they can’t defuse it within nine months through an agreement, it’s going to blow up: The moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank would collapse; militant Palestinians would take statehood to the United Nations, probably this time with broad European support; an angry Arab League would withdraw its peace initiative. It would be a big mess for everyone.
That prompted Peter Feaver, a former Bush administration official and current writer at Foreign Policy’s website, to respond yesterday by correctly pointing out that Kerry’s peace process logic is uncomfortably close to the argument for the budget sequester:
The pill proved bitter, but apparently not as bitter as a genuine compromise on fiscal matters. The Budget Control Act dynamite blew up and, even worse, is scheduled to blow up again. And this time, few seem to expect the blowup to be averted.
I suppose one could argue at a stretch that Israelis and Palestinians are more inclined to compromise under explosive threats than Democrats and Republicans since failure would result not just in loss of programs but perhaps immediate loss of life. Yet both Democrats and Republicans have claimed that real lives are at risk in the sequester. And as bad as partisanship is these days, there is a far-richer record of two-sided compromise in the U.S. Congress than in Israel-Palestine.
That is correct. But Feaver probably doesn’t go far enough. History tells us not only to keep expectations modest in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but that the prospect of the peace talks’ violent collapse is certainly no deterrent to the Palestinian leadership’s inclination to walk away. Indyk knows this from his own personal experience. The argument that Indyk’s supporters seem to be making, that his record’s conspicuous lack of success has given him the necessary experience to get it right this time, is less than convincing. Where’s the indication he has learned his lesson?
For all these reasons, there has been an assumption that there must be a Plan B. But the virtue of a Plan B only holds if the two sides don’t know about it, otherwise they will have no reason not to wait and see what else is on offer. And the existence of a Plan B completely undermines Kerry’s sequester approach. It also explains why some Israelis are understandably wary of the whole process: if talks fail, Israelis aren’t going to be the ones to launch a terror campaign; they’ll be the targets. And finally, the very fact there might be a credible Plan B raises the question: if there are modest but helpful steps that can be taken without descending into eschatological chaos, wouldn’t it be more responsible to try those first?
Perhaps Martin Indyk will succeed where Martin Indyk has failed, and maybe John Kerry has a Plan B because he doesn’t trust John Kerry. But that’s not a sales pitch that will convince the doubters.

The Dome of the Rock: A Muslim’s Requiem. By Qanta Ahmed.

The Dome of the Rock: A Muslim’s requiem. By Qanta Ahmed. The Times of Israel, July 12, 2013. Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

On Ramadan, Seeing Israel For the First Time. By Elhanan MIller.

On Ramadan, seeing Israel for the first time. By Elhanan Miller. The Times of Israel, August 2, 2013.

Jubilation and jealousy intermingle as an eased security policy enables hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to discover the country next door, and the sea.

Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Will Require Public Support. By James Zogby.

Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Will Require Public Support. By James Zogby. The Huffington Post, August 3, 2013.


There is an intimate relationship between Israeli and Palestinian public opinion and the successful outcome of any peace negotiations. In the end, no matter how clever or skillfully arranged the formula for compromise, it must pass the test of being accepted by both sides.
When we have polled both Israeli and Palestinian publics in order to see where compromise can be found, our efforts come up short. Too often what we find is that the most Israelis indicate a willingness to give in any peace agreement falls far short of the Palestinian minimum requirements for a just settlement. The negotiators, if they are worth their salt, know this. They, therefore, address each issue not merely as an abstract problem to be solved, but as a matter which must, in the end, be accepted by their respective publics. Concretizing this imperative, both Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have pledged to submit the product of the negotiations to a referendum. This makes it especially clear that both societies must be ready and willing to endorse any compromise arrangement for peace.
Ignoring the vital role that will be played by public opinion in this process, therefore, can doom the entire effort from the start.
Peace, like any political compromise, must be grounded in the possible. As I have noted, our polling establishes that, at this point, peace does not appear to be possible. Paralleling the negotiations, the real work that must be done is to expand the range of the possible by changing public attitudes on both sides.

Review of Ruth Barton’s “Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film.” By Ron Briley

Review of Ruth Barton’s Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film (Kentucky, 2012). By Ron Briley. History News Network, July 31, 2013.

Book at


Described as “the most beautiful woman in the world” during her Hollywood film career from the late 1930s to the 1950s, Hedy Lamarr is less well known today among film fans, with the exception of viewers who enjoy Turner Classic Movies. Nevertheless, Lamarr is the subject of three recent biographical studies, perhaps due to her long overlooked status as an inventor. During the Second World War, Lamarr joined with avant-garde composer George Antheil to develop a patent for spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping – an innovation necessary for wireless communication from the pre-computer era to modern times. Ruth Barton, a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College Dublin and the author of several books on Irish cinema, is a scholar who employs archival film research coupled with an exhaustive examination of secondary sources to create a profile of Lamarr as a European émigré who was never quite comfortable with Hollywood and her adopted country. While acknowledging that Lamarr’s 1966 controversial autobiography Ecstasy and Me, which focused upon her love life and six marriages, contains elements of truth, Barton seeks to understand Lamarr as more than just a sex symbol.
Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, which was then still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was the only child of an affluent and cultured Jewish family that attempted to assimilate into Viennese society. As a young woman she displayed a passion for the theater and failed to complete her secondary education. She gained considerable notoriety when she appeared nude in the art film Ecstasy (1933) directed by Czech filmmaker Gustav Machaty. Barton notes that Hedy’s private life and many of her early Hollywood films were similar to the plot of Ecstasy. A beautiful young woman is married to an older man, but she is finally able to discover passion with a younger lover. Hedy’s career in German and Austrian film was cut short by her marriage to Austrian munitions maker and fascist sympathizer Fritz Mandl, approximately twenty years her senior. Although Hedy was allowed a generous expense account, Mandl controlled the movements of his young wife. With World War II looming on the horizon and her husband concentrating upon politics and business interests, Hedy was finally able to escape Mandl, fleeing to Paris and eventually Hollywood where she signed a contract with MGM and Louis Mayer.
Fearing for her life with the rise of European fascism, Hedy joined the Jewish emigrant community in Hollywood. As Hedy was apolitical and not involved with anti-fascist activity, there is a tendency to not perceive her as part of the film capital’s Jewish émigré community. Barton, however, argues that to understand Lamarr, as she was now known in Hollywood, it is essential to recognize that she was part of this community and always considered herself somewhat of an outsider in the United States. According to Barton, the Viennese Jews who migrated to Hollywood were part of a cultural elite associated with the theater, art, and classical music. On the other hand, writes Barton, “In America, they found themselves in a society that defined itself through its embrace of populism, notably in cinema, radio, and dance hall entertainment” (68).
When Lamarr arrived in Hollywood, she was only twenty-three years of age and spoke little English. But she was considered beautiful and exotic, and these qualities dominated the roles which she was assigned by MGM. In her first Hollywood film, Algiers (1938), Lamarr portrayed an Algerian femme-fatale opposite Charles Boyer. Essentially, Lamarr’s part called for her to do little but look beautiful. Barton notes that Lamarr was not a particularly good actress; she criticizes MGM for not developing Lamarr’s talents and casting her in stereotypical exotic roles such as the native girl Tondelayo in White Cargo (1942). Barton argues that Lamarr did have somewhat of a gift for comedy, as displayed in Comrade X (1940) with Clark Gable, but MGM failed to develop her potential in the comic genre.
While not a political activist, Lamarr demonstrated her allegiance to the war effort by entertaining servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen. Also, her invention of the spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping had military applications which were not fully realized until after World War II. While many Jewish immigrants in the film colony would become caught up in the post-war Red Scare, Barton finds no evidence that Lamarr was concerned with the blacklist and the political controversies that engulfed Hollywood. Instead, Lamarr enjoyed her greatest commercial film success opposite Victor Mature in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). However, she was unable to follow this role with other good parts, and Lamarr’s film career was over by 1958.
Although Lamarr would live until 2000, her final decades often read like the script for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Lamarr’s five failed American marriages produced three children (one adopted) who were somewhat estranged from their mother. Lamarr was constantly pursuing film projects that never materialized, and Barton describes her behavior as erratic. She was arrested for shoplifting in Hollywood but acquitted. Lamarr then moved to New York City where she lived as somewhat of a recluse before eventually settling in Florida. Although Lamarr claimed poverty and was involved in many law suits, Barton argues that with some astute investments Lemarr was not as poor as she often appeared.
Following her death in 2000, Lamarr’s ashes were spread in the Vienna woods, and she was finally able to return to her beloved homeland. Barton finds that the tragedy of Lamarr’s life was that she was caught between two cultures. To assimilate in the United States, Lamarr had to act American and deny her Jewish cultural background. Barton concludes, “It was this disjuncture—between her inherited identity, with its emphasis on artistry and the expression of intelligence, and her need to assume a new identity, including the particular associations that comes with being an actress in America – that would shape her Hollywood career” (61). However, our awareness of her gifts as an inventor allows Lamarr to at least be perceived today as more than just a pretty face. The fascinating life of Hedy Lamarr is well chronicled in this fine scholarly biography by Barton.

What Has Israel Ever Done to Us In Ireland? By Carol Hunt.

I’ll ask this only once: What has Israel ever done to us? By Carol Hunt. Independent Ireland, August 4, 2013.

Demonised by many, the embattled state treats Palestinians better than most, says a puzzled Carol Hunt.

The Feminists of Zion. By Allison Kaplan Sommer and Dahlia Lithwick.

The Feminists of Zion. By Allison Kaplan Sommer and Dahlia Lithwick. The New Republic, August 4, 2013.

An unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism.

Beit Shemesh and the Israeli Culture Wars. By Seth Mandel. Commentary, August 5, 2013.

DoubleX Gabfest: The No Sex and All Kindness Edition. By Allison Benedikt, Noreen Malone, and Hanna Rosin. Slate, August 8, 2013.

Listen to Slate’s show about Orthodox Jewish feminists, life without sex, and kindness.


The cover story in the latest issue of the New Republic is titled “The Feminists of Zion: An unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism,” which does not lack for ambition. But the virtue of the article itself is that it doesn’t attempt to live up to the headline, almost surely because the authors didn’t choose the headline themselves. One of the essay’s accomplishments, then, is that its subjects are not larger-than-life, comic-book superheroes and villains but everyday people experiencing a new variation on a recurring theme in Israeli life: the ethno-religious compartmentalization of lived society.
The essay revolves around the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. It was the site of an unambiguously shameful series of incidents brought to the attention of the country, and the wider world, in late 2011. That was when eight-year-old Naama Margolese, a resident of Beit Shemesh, appeared with her mother on an Israeli news program to tell her story: she was being insulted and spit on by Haredi onlookers as she walked to school in the morning. Her family is modern Orthodox, and dresses accordingly, and her story is unfortunately not the only one of its kind. Out of this outrage grew an Orthodox-secular feminist alliance, and the TNR article details what it sees as its triumphs:
The new public consciousness of women’s treatment had a profound impact on last January’s parliamentary elections. Two newcomers, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, deftly forged a modern-Orthodox/secular alliance, pledging to end the special status of Haredi men, including sweeping them into the national draft. Lapid was careful to promote women and women’s issues as an election issue and top priority for his new party, Yesh Atid.
In the 2013 election, for the first time, three women led major parties, and, thanks in no small part to Yesh Atid, the number of women in the legislature rose to a record high of 27—comprising 23 percent of the legislature. Yesh Atid women include new Knesset members Aliza Lavie, a modern-Orthodox feminist activist and university professor, and Ruth Calderon, a secular Jewish academic who founded a non-Orthodox yeshiva. A video of Calderon leading a groundbreaking Talmudstudy session in the Knesset went viral, showing a female secular scholar discussing Talmud as ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset nodded respectfully.
And while the ultra-Orthodox parties stayed female-free, for the first time, a woman in that community dared to object. Esti Shoshan, a Haredi journalist, created a Facebook page called, “If we can’t run, we won’t vote,” openly challenging the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties excluded women from their party lists and declaring that Haredi women should not vote for their sectoral parties as a result.
The most recognizable way Haredim separate themselves in Israeli society is exemption from military service. When Israel was founded in 1948, the devastation of the Holocaust had convinced Israeli leaders that there should be a center of high Jewish study and scholarship under the watchful care of the new Jewish state. Full-time yeshiva students, of which there were a few hundred at the outset, were exempted from service in the Israeli armed forces.
This was not a one-sided concession at the time; Israel’s political leaders thought the establishment of leading yeshivot was crucial to the Jewish state’s identity and its prestige among Diaspora Jewry. The Orthodox oversight of the state levers of halakha-related regulation was also given in this spirit, and it had the effect of truly making Israel a Jewish state even though its citizens were overwhelmingly non-Orthodox. But it also essentially put the Orthodox in a museum of sorts. What happened if and when the Haredi population surged and they left the museum to walk among the modern and largely non-observant State of Israel was anybody’s guess.
That integration was postponed because of another facet of Israeli society: though much of the country’s residents live in large cities such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, within those ethnically diverse cities exist ethnic and cultural enclaves. Throughout the rest of the country, immigrant groups have tended to establish themselves in certain towns and cities–except for Russian immigrants, whose sheer numbers make such relative isolation impossible.
What is true for Russian immigrants is beginning to be true for Haredim, and some level of integration is essential. The reason army service is so important is because that has been a major source of integration in the past by plucking Israelis from their enclaves and putting their lives–and the survival of the state–in each other’s hands. Not only does this engender cross-cultural affinity but it builds trust and social cohesion. It is debatable whether the Israel Defense Forces actually needs the manpower of mass Haredi army service, but the benefits of social integration and “sharing the burden” are apparent.
Additionally, participation in the army is reasonably assumed to be a gateway to economic integration; the IDF teaches useful skills and enables Israelis to make connections. It gives them options, and not all those Haredi soldiers will go back to the yeshiva.
And that is why one quote in the article, by a Haredi woman named Surie Ackerman, strikes me as the wrong attitude:
Asked whether the prospect of ultra-Orthodox women joining Israel’s workforce in droves won’t change that dynamic, Ackerman is doubtful: “Small groups of like-minded women might make things different for themselves,” she says, citing a group of Haredi women entrepreneurs who created an annual business forum four years ago. “But it doesn’t break any framework. They aren’t staying in the kitchen anymore, but it’s not a revolution.”
Perhaps the term “revolution” is overused and Ackerman is wise not to do so herself. But the entry of Haredi women into the work force is significant because of the compound interest of such integration: they will not only encourage their friends to follow their example, but they may have a Haredi-sized family and teach the next generation the virtues of careers and social integration.
And the aforementioned Haredi journalist who organized a Facebook group to protest the exclusion of women from Haredi politics may very well have its ripple effects. The headline of the TNR essay, in other words, may be right (or at least have a point). But the divisions within Israeli society have taken decades to produce the trends now leading to these conflicts. Moving those trend lines in the right direction is what’s needed. If they can accomplish that, the revolution will take care of itself.

Religion Challenges Left and Right. By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Religion Challenges Left and Right. By E.J. Dionne, Jr. Real Clear Politics, August 5, 2013. Also at the Washington Post.


Whenever I write sympathetically about religion, I get bombarded by tweets and notes from readers who normally agree with me but cannot abide by the idea that religious belief should be seen as intellectually serious.
And because I have written favorably about Pope Francis, I get more than my share of angry comments about the Catholic pedophilia scandal, which continues to haunt the church and troubles even its most loyal members.
Getting lambasted doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, citizens talking back to the purveyors of opinion is a glorious aspect of free speech. But my correspondents underscore the existence of a strong anti-religious current within a segment of the liberal community that is both an important political fact and a potential problem for progressives.
Here’s the challenge: Americans who are left-of-center are far more religiously diverse than their opponents on the conservative side. When it comes to matters of faith, liberals and Democrats have a far more complicated task of coalition management — although religion also raises some serious difficulties for the right.
Consider the findings of a survey (in which I was involved) released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution. Using the answers to a wide variety of questions, we created a scale that broke our respondents into four groups: Religious conservatives, moderates, progressives and the nonreligious.
Overall, we found that 28percent of Americans could be classified as religious conservatives, 38percent as religious moderates and 19percent as religious progressives. An additional 15percent were nonreligious.
Among supporters of the two parties, Republicans were far more cohesive. The analysis found that 56percent of Republicans were religious conservatives and 33percent were religious moderates. Only 5percent were religious progressives and just 6percent were nonreligious.
Democrats, by contrast, were all over our analytical map: 28percent were religious progressives, 13percent were religious conservatives, 42percent were religious moderates and 17percent were nonreligious.
Among self-identified political liberals, the proportion of nonreligious — essentially, the folks sending me those messages — was even larger: 31percent of liberals were nonreligious, 33percent were religious progressives, 30percent were religious moderates and 6percent were religious conservatives.
Two things are thus true simultaneously: Nonreligious Americans are a very important part of the liberal constituency, yet the majority of liberals have ties to religion. The survey found that African Americans, who are deeply loyal to most liberal causes (and to the Democratic Party), are among the most religious people in the country. For liberalism to thrive, there needs to be acceptance and, even better, some respect across the boundaries of belief and nonbelief.
Yet if liberals face obstacles when it comes to faith, conservatives have problems of their own. The most serious? The religious conservatism that is such an important component of the right and the Republican Party is deeply unattractive to the rising generation of voters. In addition, many, across age groups, who are quite conservative in their theological views are rather progressive when it comes to economics, especially on issues such as raising the minimum wage.
The generation gap on religious commitment is stark. In the Silent Generation (Americans 68 and older), 47percent are religious conservatives, while only 12percent are religious progressives and 10percent are nonbelievers. These figures are reversed for Millennials (Americans 33 and under), only 17percent of whom are religious conservatives, while 23percent are religious progressives and nearly as many, 22percent, are nonreligious. (The remainder in both groups were moderates.)
These trends should disturb conservatives looking to the future, but they should also give pause to religious leaders. The association of religion, and particularly Christianity, with conservatism appears to be turning off substantial numbers of young Americans from faith.
On the other hand, a concern for social justice not only unites large numbers of believers across conservative-progressive lines but also appeals deeply to the more skeptical young. This is one reason Pope Francis’s eloquent emphasis on lifting up the poor, so visible during his recent trip to Brazil, could make him a transformational leader.
Conservatives need to pay attention to the power of justice and compassion. Otherwise, they will find their cause undercut, even within their religious base, by a refusal to grapple with the economic system’s unfairness. As for progressives, they would be foolish to push away religious allies who are instructed by scripture of the Almighty’s ambition to “loose the bonds of injustice” and “let the oppressed go free.”

The Ax Is Laid to the Root of the Academic Research Tree. By Walter Russell Mead.

The Ax Is Laid to the Root of the Tree. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, December 19, 2011.

The Great Brain Robbery. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, January 26, 2012.

Cuts to Political Science Research Blamed on Politicians. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, August 5, 2013.

The Research Bust. By Mark Bauerlein. The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 4, 2011.

The Humanities and Common Sense. By Roger Berkowitz. NJBR, February 20, 2013.

Mead (The Ax):

From the Chronicle of Higher Education comes a story that should make every mediocre academic in this country shudder in fear.  Mark Bauerlein has looked under the hood of the “research” that professors in English literature conduct and he has documented what many of us know but few want to think about: nobody reads much of this stuff.
Nobody.  Not even the other scholars in the field.
Much, perhaps most, of the research that American university professors do could be dumped into the ocean rather than published — and nobody, not even the other professors, would notice.  Looking at two universities and what happened to the articles their literature professors published in peer-reviewed journals, Bauerlein reports:
Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.
Measuring the impact of research by counting citations to some degree tends to overstate the actual value of the research.  Scholars writing articles for peer-reviewed journals are expected to show a thorough command of the research in the field; many articles are cited less because they provide valuable help to a scholar writing something new than because literature reviews complete with multiple citations are part of the game.  Many, and sometimes most of the cited articles are more listed than used.  If no one even cites an article in literature reviews, then the tree has truly fallen in a forest where nobody heard.
Bauerlein responds to some possible objections to his depressing findings:
Research makes professors better teachers and colleagues. Agreed, but not at the current pace. We want teachers to be engaged in inquiry, but we don’t need them to publish a book and six articles before we give them tenure. We shouldn’t set a publication schedule that turns them into nervous, isolated beings who end up regarding an inquisitive student in office hours as an infringement. Let’s allow 10 years for a book, and let’s tenure people for three strong essays. The rush to print makes them worse teachers and colleagues.
So some works get overlooked—so what? We need lots of research activity to produce those few works of significance. Agreed, but how much, and at what cost? If a professor who makes $75,000 a year spends five years on a book on Charles Dickens (which sold 43 copies to individuals and 250 copies to libraries, the library copies averaging only two checkouts in the six years after its publication), the university paid $125,000 for its production. Certainly that money could have gone toward a more effective appreciation of that professor’s expertise and talent. We can no longer pretend, too, that studies of Emily Dickinson are as needed today, after three decades have produced 2,007 items on the poet, as they were in 1965, when the previous three decades had produced only 233.
The real problem, and if the state and federal fiscal crunches go on for much longer it will be upon us very soon, is that our society is less and less willing and able to pay for research that nobody really wants or needs.
Our universities today look a lot like the monasteries in the time of Henry VIII: vulnerable targets for a hungry state.  State legislators are going to be wrestling with questions like whether to cut the pensions of retired state workers, cut services for voters, or raise taxes.  In this atmosphere, the research university model (in the humanities and, economics and management excepted, the social sciences) may not long survive, at least in the public sector.  (Highly endowed private universities may keep the old model alive.)
Bauerlein, who for all the radical implications of his work remains a fairly conservative reformer looking to prune the hedge rather than burn the building, underestimates the costs of “research”.  If college teachers were paid to teach rather than research, they would also need to be trained less expensively.  We would need (and probably do need) many fewer Ph.D programs and degrees than we now have.
Imagine the (not unlikely) scenario in which more and more state universities shift to a two and two model: almost all undergraduates spend two years in low cost community colleges and then the best of them go on to two more years at a university.  It is hard to see why the humanities departments in the community colleges would need to be staffed with holders of Ph.D degrees — in part because it is overwhelmingly clear that most students need basic skills in community colleges rather than advanced courses.  There might be a small “honors college” with something like the traditional structure of a 20th century university faculty, but demand for Ph.D’s would drop precipitously and the majority, possibly a very large majority of existing doctoral programs would close their doors.  That would further diminish the demand for Ph.D’s, and would lead to another round of cutbacks in doctoral programs.  In the end we might have a small number of excellent programs, producing a relatively small number of top scholars capable of doing important work — as opposed to large number of mediocre scholars most of whom don’t produce anything that even their fellow specialists and academic colleagues value.
This would be a distressing thing for a number of people, but would our society really suffer from the closure of dozens of mediocre programs turning out intellectual drones who publish research that nobody, even the other drones, really wants to follow?
Via Meadia thinks that the republic might survive even this.
Bauerlein is a cautious thinker; his research cuts the ground out from under the existing US university model but he does his best to limit the damage.  He is thinking about tweaks and incremental reforms — though the confederacy of dunces that makes up the majority of every academic field in the country will do its best to do him in even so.
From the Via Meadia point of view, the problem lies precisely in the statement that Bauerlein accepts: “Research makes professors better teachers and colleagues”.  Wrong.  What makes better teachers and colleagues is a love of the beauty and truth found in a particular discipline, and a deep personal commitment to follow that love and share it with others.  A professor who inspires her students with a lifelong love of Shakespeare is infinitely preferable to the industrious drone who publishes two unread and unreadable journal articles a year, an equally pointless book every four years, and bores students to tears.  The first is an asset of the first order; the second is a danger to literature and makes America stupider and less cultured every year he grubs on.
In the humanities and most of the social “sciences”, the Ph.D and peer review machine as it now exists is a vastly expensive mediocrity factory.  It makes education both more expensive and less effective than it needs to be.  There are islands and even archipelagos of excellence in the sea of sludge but we needn’t subsidize the sea to preserve them.
We need college faculty who inspire as they teach: who infect their students with the love of knowledge and give them the skills to pursue that love on their own once they leave school.  Our Shakespeare teachers shouldn’t worry about making sure their students know the latest hot craze in Shakespeare studies — but they should make sure that as many of their students as possible become lifelong fans of the Swan of Avon.  A deep grounding in the twists and turns of contemporary literary theory may support that vocation — but it often does not, and the resources of a college ought to go towards the promotion of the core mission (leading students to fall in love with the life of the mind while giving them a set of skills that enable them not only to pursue that love but to function effectively in the adult world) not to subsidize academic hackery.
Worse, our current system encourages students to think that if you really love a subject, you should become a hack: a “serious” student of literature in our perverted world is someone who scribbles unreadable and unread treatises about minutiae rather than someone who takes that love into the public arena and encourages new generations to love, revere and, who knows, expand the literary heritage with which we are blessed.

Teachers must be evangelists for knowledge.  We have a society that produces an ever growing torrent of unread “research” while fewer and fewer people know or care anything about the cultural heritage that the “research” ostensibly aims to examine.  This is idiocy and it is madness, and the expense can no longer be borne.  It will change.
There is one ray of light in the Bauerlein study.  We can applaud the common good sense of a nation that would still rather read Emily Dickinson than squint over peer reviewed articles about her.  However few people read her today, even fewer read the tedious pablum the hacks write about her.  (I emphasize again that it isn’t all hackery; literary scholarship at its best matters.  It is the mediocrity and worse in the field that needs no encouragement.)
It is a good sign, not a bad one, that most of this research goes unread. As long as most Americans continue resolutely to ignore this tripe, hope remains.

Mead (Cuts):

Well, yes, it is due to “politics” in a sense. But political scientists should know better: university faculties ultimately depend on taxpayers and their representatives for many of the resources they need for their work. This fact of life is truer than ever when health care and other costs are forcing discretionary spending down. Funding for political science is just another budget line item that needs to be justified. Writing obscure articles for peer-reviewed journals that nobody, not even other people in your discipline, will read is not the best way to do that.
And here’s another thought: making departments in social sciences and other disciplines more welcoming to political conservatives and—horrors!—seriously religious people may help build that bipartisan support without which federal funds will be increasingly hard to get.