On April 23rd 1891 the Jews of Moscow were expelled from that city and forced to resettle in the pale of settlement. It was one more pogrom added to the endemic but accelerating European anti-Semitic assault that reached its horrific climax fifty years later.
In the seventy years since my great grandfather Nathan Channen’s death, a tattered piece of paper, the remnant of an official form of Imperial Czarist Russia, has been passed down in my family. His daughter, my paternal grandmother, gave it to my father back in 1975 and a few months ago my father gave it to me. None of us ever had any idea what it was. Last week I finally got this ragged piece of paper to a good friend of mine who is a native Russian speaker. He and his wife kindly translated as much of this archaic and fragile document as they could. Here is what we have learned from that paper.
On June 6th of 1891, forty four days after the pogrom in Moscow began, Nachum Khannina, journeyman tailor, applied to the Russian authorities of the Vitebsk Gubernia in what is now Belarus for permission to travel to an unspecified location to complete his training and receive his certification as a master tailor.
The physical identification was oddly antique because of its descriptive categories, but then they didn't have digital photography to embed in the document back then.; Age: thirty-three years, Height: indecipherable, Eyes: brown, Hair: black , chin: medium, Nose: moderate, Face: clean. His wife Sarah and two daughters Rivka and Maiva are listed as well.
The paper specifically states that if he was not back in Vitebsk at the end of six months he would suffer penalties under the law. In Czarist Russia, Jews could not move about freely either on personal visits or business travel. They had to purchase official permission to do so. This, now bedraggled, piece of paper, for which he paid 85 kopecks, was the means by which Nachum took his wife and daughters out of Vitebsk never to return. I say this with confidence because another document I received from my father at the same time as he gave me this one is a legal deed, dated November 4, 1894, to two seats in the The Baldwin Place Synagogue in the North End neighborhood of Boston. According to the deed the seats cost him one hundred dollars which was a great deal of money in those days for a recent immigrant to pay. If, only three years after the permission was issued, he was settled in Boston and prosperous enough to pay one hundred dollars to purchase synagogue seats he must have left immediately upon receiving it. Under their new Anglicized names Nathan and Sophia Channen, founded an American family that would eventually include five daughters and two sons. One of those girls was my father’s mother- my grandmother.
This newly found window into my family’s history has been on my mind as I have been composing my ideas for this second installment in my Cultural Insanity series. I have not been able to shake it loose from the ideas that I am percolating about culture and how it affects people and their lives. When he left Czarist Russia one hundred sixteen years ago, my great grandfather was a man who had been born and raised into the beleaguered Jewish community that had a culture that was very distinct from the larger Russian culture surrounding it. That larger Russian culture, ruled by an aging monarchy, was so afraid for its own future that it had virtually invented the institution of the secret police force which focused on political repression. If you had asked him, Nachum might have simply said he was escaping persecution and seeking a better life for his family; but he was also voting a referendum on the moribund Russian culture and on the vigorous and confident culture of The United States of America.
Two Hundred and Seventy years earlier, in 1620, the very year The Pilgrims landed and founded Plymouth colony, Sir Francis Bacon wrote in his Novum Organum, of the natives of the Americas (which he calls New India), “There is a startling difference between the life of men in the most civilised province of Europe, and in the wildest and most barbarous districts of New India. This difference comes not from the soil, not from climate, not from race, but from the arts.” By arts Bacon clearly was referring to the same arts that are among the “arts and Sciences” taught in Liberal Arts Colleges. The arts Bacon is talking about together make up what anthropologists call culture.
1620 was a momentous year because in the very instant that Bacon was rightly pronouncing the superiority of the European culture, the seeds of a more vigorous and open scion of that culture were being sown on that wild but fertile shore. In the two hundred and seventy years between 1620 and 1891, the new culture had taken root and had become a magnet for a tidal wave of new Pilgrims. Nachum was only one drop of humanity in a flood that was cascading out of all of the “civilised provinces” of Europe and swelling the urban centers and farm lands of the new world with wave upon wave of enterprising and courageous immigrants. The thing they shared above all was confidence in and commitment to the future.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists three entries for the word pilgrim
1. one who journeys in foreign lands : nomadic
2. one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee
3. capitalized : one of the English colonists settling at Plymouth in 1620
That last one, I would broaden to include every soul who has come to America to have a better life, and every Israeli who has escaped persecution and death in Europe, all of the Islamic countries, The former Soviet Union and almost everywhere else to be free and to contribute to the American future. The other two are mere manifestations of chaos and atavism.
Before the American Experience there were only two meanings of the word pilgrim and they both began with the lower case “p”. Now there are three and the American Pilgrim is redefined every time a new soul arrives here in the USA or in Israel.
This brings us to the threshold of a new understanding of what the left and Islam have as a common cause against America, Israel and The West. Up to this point I have concentrated on the similarities between The Left and the Islamists. As important as it is to understand those similarities, we cannot solve the dilemma they put us in without looking at the ways in which they differ. Ironically, the only way to highlight those differences is to point out one last, critical similarity. That is, that they are both afraid of and at war with the future.
Now, it is true that to conceal this fear (even from themselves) both groups put up a brave front by claiming to be “the wave of the future”. Communists and socialists, of course, have always presented themselves as the avant-garde. From the theses of Marx, to the perpetual revolution rhetoric of the Russians and the Chinese, to the presumptive (and pathetically hopeful) appellation “Progressive” that much of today’s European and American left has adopted as its title, the left has always presumed that their ideas and practices would sweep away the “old order” and bring in a new and finer age of political, economic and social equality. But we have seen that whenever a leftist government has been in control, change has immediately become the enemy, a new, more exclusive ruling class has arisen and extraordinarily harsh measures have been used to repress individual initiative and thought. That same fear of the future is what turns liberal western politicians into “control freaks”. It fuels their desire to give the government control over all aspects of life. They want government health care, to make government the monitor
of the balance of conservative and liberal conversation on the broadcast media, to call on government to become the enforcer of racial preferences on hiring and educational opportunity, it even (in Massachusetts, any way
) wants the government to specify and police the fat content of perfectly edible foods. It is the atavistic fear of the future that desires the government to control the distribution of wealth and resources.
The left’s fear of the future results in paralysis. The logical extension of those creeping government controls is a soviet-like, centrally controlled economy, and history has shown that to be a failure. It was that very central management of the economy and the stagnation it created, not any internal political heresy or subversion, that caused the Soviet Union to fall apart. The leftists paralyze themselves politically with their cultural relativism and the illusion that they can create equality in an unequal world. They are unable to make value judgments on cultural cornerstones such as family, education, morality and ethics because they are mired in intellectualized, multicultural “non-judgementalism”. They have no way forward because they have prohibited themselves from favoring any one course over another- or even considering what the differences might be. Their ethos is one of an intellectually nomadic existence, wandering from one platitudinous, ineffectual idea to the next.
As long as the leftmost “progressives” are a tiny minority this might seem a harmless, if perverse, pastime. But they are never content with strangling and avoiding their own future. They are convinced that everyone must be forced to participate in their dystopian dream. The left is always attempting to force others to share their unproductive illusions. They take a particular interest in becoming educators and trying to bend, fold and mutilate the children of others into becoming the vanguard of the new social order of stagnancy they aspire to. My post
about the “progressive” teachers who banned their classes from playing with Legos because, “the children were building their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys — assumptions that mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society — a society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive” shows how they take normal childhood behavior and turn its energy not into a productive learning experience but a pedantic inquisition into thought crimes.
They don’t seem to know who they are, really. They deny that they are children of this culture. They do not seem to recognize that they owe their education and freedom of expression to this culture. They keep themselves assiduously ignorant of the fact that no other culture in the history of the world was ever as free as ours, and that their pose as perpetual social gadflies and Cassandras would have landed them in prison or mental asylums in most other cultures. They are in total denial that is that very “ownership and social power” that they detest that has given them the opportunity to work with (and attempt to indoctrinate) the children of gainfully employed, productive citizens. This is a classic example of the dissociation of a borderline personality expressed in the cultural dimension. How else could a human being of at least average intelligence (many of these lefties are very intelligent) propose the least successful, most class-based (the ruling class in a communist system decides everything by fiat) and repressive system known in modern times as a “better alternative” to the most successful and freest one. Remember that the definition of Borderline Personality Disorder is, in part; “(3) self-image, (4) identity, and (5) behavior, as well as a disturbance in the individual's sense of self. In extreme cases, this disturbance in the sense of self can lead to periods of dissociation.”
The western left seems always to be behaving as if they want to tear down the government and the culture that supports it while not admitting to the knowledge that were there to be a change of regime, even a leftist one, the vast majority of them would be among the very first to be purged, imprisoned or marginalized by whatever autocratic or totalitarian regime arose in its place. They are literally sitting on the limb that they appear to be trying to saw off. Either they have supreme confidence that nothing they do will actually cause the bough to break they are simply so blinded and consumed by their fear of the future, they are blind to the kind of future they would bring down on themselves if they were successful. They clearly do not feel at home in their own culture and have no clear idea of what their new home might look like if they could move to one or build it themselves. They only know what they hate (Bush, capitalism, ownership, power, competitiveness, patriotism and meritocracy, etc...) about this one. They really seem to be happiest knowing that the culture they despise will not hurt them, nor will it expel them thereby forcing them to fend for themselves in other, less hospitable, societies. They are homeless, nomadic foreigners in their own homeland. Which, in a cultural sense, is the first definition of pilgrim (with a lower case “p”): one who journeys in foreign lands: nomadic
As for the Islamists, their primary goal is to restore the ancient Caliphate
. They want a Caliphate, not just in the old local incarnation, they want to extend it world wide. They want the entire world to be ruled under Sharia Law. Sharia Law is, in fact, a system designed not just to petrify the present but to return the world to the illusory erstwhile glory of that bygone era. It is also a cannily designed system to thwart the evolution of new ideas about and interpretations of the Koran and other Islamic texts. It also attempts to curb social change by mandating bloody forms of capital punishment for moral and ethical decisions that express the powerful pull of personal liberty and choice such as, apostasy(a broadly defined catchall including merely disagreeing with the local Imam), marriage to a non-Muslim, pre-marital sex (or even the accidental appearance of the opportunity of having pre-marital sex), that are not even considered to be questionable behavior anymore in enlightened western countries. It especially seeks to control women. It proscribes their sexuality. It governs their child bearing. It forces them to dress and behave as will-less, personality-less ciphers. With laws decrees, customs, strictures and bans it mutilates them, holds them captive, demeans them and sanctions their murder but above all it denies them the ability to modernize and moderate the culture.
Even worse than the way it enslaves women, the way Islam warps, abuses and destroys the life of its children is the clearest manifestation of this fear. I have already written my testimony
of how a child of five went to Iran as a typical American boy and came back with homicidal ideas about my own daughter . I have also written about the plight of children in Islam
in general here. The use of children for suicide missions has been an acknowledged problem for many years. Even Amnesty International
has noticed and commented on the Arab/Islamic/Iranian practices of turning children as young as nine years old into weapons platforms and minesweepers in military and paramilitary operations. The evidence of the warping
of the innocence of their children is obvious but its implications still need to be explored.
The torture, murder and betrayal of children guarantees a sterile future. A world in which it seems desirable to poison the hearts of its children with hatred and bigotry is a world that is in open warfare with its own future. it will insure its own demise. When a society sacrifices its children and the children of those it claims as enemies it is a sure sign that any true connection with the future is severed. It is burning the hearts and minds of its children the engine that powers its movement- how can they grow up to desire anything but destruction? The horrors of the Soviet Union lasted three generations. Hitler’s burned out in less than one. However long the fires of Islamist hatred will blaze, it must eventually run out of fuel.
In the meantime the highest goal of their lives is not progress toward a better life but the yearning for a return to a golden age of Islamic hegemony that was only golden in retrospect. It was a time of internecine conflict and bloody conquest in the name of Allah. They act this out symbolically every year by performing the Hajj to world wide gathering of the faithful who, at least once in their lives, spare no expense bear sometimes unbelievable hardship and travel thousands of miles to visit the ancient shrine in Mecca- the second definition of pilgrim is “…one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee...”. I would add that this is a manifestation of the desire to avoid the future and crawl back into the womb of the past.
Søren Kierkegaard wrote:
"He who fights the future has a dangerous enemy. The future is not; it borrows its strength from the man himself, and when it has tricked him out of this, then it appears outside of him as the enemy he must meet."
The set of shared cultural symptoms that I identified in the first post
of this series derive their compelling force from this one primal fear. The twisting, prevaricating and fulminating that the left and the Caliphate Islamists indulge in is primarily motivated by it.
Although they both have chosen to fight the future, they have very different solutions to the problem. The left's pilgrimage is an aimless wallowing in the undifferentiated present- a kind of holding action in which obfuscation of true values and arbitrary non-goals take the place of real values and lofty aspirations. The Caliphatist on the other hand, is in a desperate pilgrimage to the sacred, mostly imaginary and inaccessible past.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
This is a profound observation. It captures the very essence of the problem with the left. Culture, you see, is the supra-organism that human beings have evolved in tandem with for the last four million years. It is the totality of the behavior, values, traditions, norms and technology of a group of humans by which it adapts to and changes in response to its environment. Culture changes organically when external conditions change or when the people within it develop new capabilities. Culture is the way that human societies survive in this constantly changing universe. Every cultural decision is in some sense critical because it affects the survivability of the culture. Law making in the American system is a messy but effective genius system. In it the conflicting factions of the nation meet in a contest to prove out what new direction or preservation of an old one is most healthy for the body politic. The danger is over-legislation in which unnecessary changes may be instituted to the detriment of all.
When liberals attempt to change culture with legislation there is a great danger that they are merely trying to hide from the future. I believe The fairness Doctrine is a perfect example of this defensive reaction in action. The manifest failure of liberal and leftist talk radio is discomforting to them but instead of learning from the fact that the flaccid, obfuscatory aversions of liberal talk shows cannot hold an audience and the cold logic, incisive wit and common sense conservative idea mongers on conservative radio have attracted large and loyal ones the are trying to institute mandatory boredom in the form of equal attention for liberal ideas. This, of course, will only result in turning frustrated listeners away from radio altogether and into the shelter of streaming audio on the web and satellite radio. They will become Intellectual Pilgrims. The liberal belief that the adaptive process of cultural change can be controlled and directed by making laws is no less short-sighted than the Caliphate’s belief in force.
I am going to presume to guess that if Mr. Moynihan were alive today, he might have added a third sentence to the above quote. I’d like to think that sentence would go something like this: “The central truth of Caliphate Islam is that culture comes from God, is prescribed in the Koran (as interpreted by whatever mullah or despot wields the most power) and must be conformed to that prescription by any means necessary including terror, intimidation and murder.”
Cultures that cannot adapt have a limited lifespan. That is why, up until the 1960’s the original Caliphate had been withering on the vine for several centuries. In fact, it had all but disappeared. The infusion of Oil wealth and the self-serving policies of the Arab oligarchs have temporarily revived it but it is far too brittle and ignorant a system to survive long.
Here is an odd little bit of symmetry: That little piece of paper, my great grandfather used as his declaration of independence from the Czar, was written out by a minor functionary of an already moribund regime 115 after Thomas Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and 115 years before I started this blog, which places him precisely half way between the document that expressed the cultural aspiration of the new nation and today.
Nathan Channen was a true upper-case Pilgrim. He was, in fact, one of the multitude that broadened and elevated the original name Pilgrim. He came here to America and with his love of the freedom he found here, his honest labor, his love of family and his devotion to his God and he helped to build the nation that Jefferson did so much to launch. I never met him but I know that his daughter (my grandmother) was a woman of heart, insight, valor and generosity of spirit and I know that such traits do not just appear in people, it arises from family and culture.
I have, I know, presented a kaleidoscope in this long, rambling post so permit me one last paragraph to tie it up. When, in my first Cultural Insanity post, I said that the left and Caliphate Islam suffer from the cultural analog of Borderline Personality Disorder I meant to try to explain behavior that I find inexplicable. In writing this post I have learned that BPD is a good scale model for something that I am tempted to call Cultural Dissociation. Culture functions in the best interest of the people within it when it promotes a healthy and comfortable life in the present. The only way to do this is to learn from and value the past while welcoming and adapting to the future. When some aspect of the culture like religion, ideology or phobia short-circuits the clear-eyed evaluation of alternatives and options, the culture becomes dissociated. There are ways to repair that dissociation.
In my next post I will go back and retrace the phenomenal success of the west and explore what it can teach us about the values and ideas that we need to get through the present crisis and continue to welcome the future.