This book's central premise is that Nazism is misunderstood. Hitler's antisemitism was not of a more intense degree than that of Imperial Russia; rathThis book's central premise is that Nazism is misunderstood. Hitler's antisemitism was not of a more intense degree than that of Imperial Russia; rather, it was of an entirely different kind. Snyder argues that Hitler believed that the mere existence of the Jew damaged the earth because the Jew created artifices that prevented the natural "Darwinian" struggle between races, which thereby caused humans to be weaker than nature intended. Capitalism and Bolshevism were both Jewish artifices designed to this end, as, indeed, was the state itself.
Snyder then argues that Hitler's program was to annihilate the state itself, not just make it totalitarian. Because he could not do this in Germany, the Holocaust did not begin in Germany. Rather it began in Eastern Europe, where the existing states--themselves young and rootless replacements for the decayed Russian Empire--were utterly destroyed by both Soviet and Nazi occupation.
I'm not done yet, but I'm not sure I understand why, under this logic, killing Jewish peasants would be more effective than killing powerful gentile exponents of "Jewish ideas."
This book arrives in the same year as Francis Fukuyama's Political Order and Political Decay which strikes some of the same basic themes as this book. Together, I would call these books "Neo Hobbesian." While we have ample evidence that prior to civilization humans didn't exist in anything like Hobbes's "state of nature," it appears that when states decay they in fact do. We can't see Hobbes in paleolithic societies, but we can see him in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, and Afghanistan today and in Eastern Europe of the late 1930s and early 1940s.
If Hobbes's central thesis is that any state is better than no state (and a genocidal "state" is no state at all if you follow Snyder) then both Fukuyama and Hobbes concur with this argument on more modern grounds. For Fukuyama, it is only in the presence of a strong state that political freedoms can later evolve effectively; for Snyder, it is only in the absence of a state that genocide occurs. Following Fukuyama, it is absurd to carve out lines on a map and say "here is the Republic of X" if the government there cannot (even with corruption) pick up the garbage, defend the frontiers, and provide basic health, education, and welfare services. For Snyder, when a state loses its monopoly on violence to the will of a racial or ethnic group, it ceases to function even if does all the rest. These two concepts bookend this Neo-Hobbesian political theory.
This can be difficult for an American to except, reared as we are on the notion that revolution is justified when certain rights are not provided by the state. But here we must be careful. The American revolution, at least, did not destroy the state as such, it merely replaced the government.
One can prefer a western liberal democracy and still acknowledge that sometimes the alternative to even a bad government if chaos. Again, look to Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Somalia or Libya.
In the 90s, there was much talk of the threat and problem of "failed states." With millions of Syrians flooding the world, it must become clear that failed states are indeed a threat to stability and that illusory notions of pluralistic democratic societies can only come after a long evolution and not at the snap of a finger of western powers. This isn't the "soft bigotry of low expectations," it's the concern for our fellow human that we must have before destroying even an evil state for fear of the obvious consequences. I think of North Korea, a regime that, when it collapses, will probably not do so peacefully.
Finally, Snyder warns that failure to understand that it was the absence of a state instead of an overly powerful one that led to the Holocaust has condemned ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum towards an overly anti-statist view, one which will only lead to further calamity.
I found these arguments persuasive with respect to the narrative of the Holocaust, the understanding of Nazism, and to the future....more
This books starts out incredibly strong. I may end up assigning the first several chapters to my religion students, but the end, in an attempt to defiThis books starts out incredibly strong. I may end up assigning the first several chapters to my religion students, but the end, in an attempt to define the current era of alleged religious violence ties itself into contradictions and overly simplified colonial/resistance dichotomies, does not address what is perceived by many as religious terrorism in the last two decades unrelated to Muslim groups. Even in the very strong historical chapters a sentence will pop out that seems to make a connection with a current event that seems tenuous or even contradictory given the historical context provided.
Armstrong's two central theses are clear:
(1) the separation of religion and politics is a distinction drawn by Europeans, mostly Protestant, in the Modern period.This distinction does not fit the rest of the world. She masterfully shows how this is the case in most of the world's great religions. She discusses that this separation was largely created in the birth of the nation-state when the ideology of the state became the far more dangerous nationalism; and,
(2) Violence is inherent in the state.
Therefore, blaming violence on religion assumes the Modern European politics/religion dichotomy and is incorrect. She argues that most religions have some kind of warrior tradition and that these traditions originate in the religion having to grapple with statehood or porto-statehood at some point.
So far, so good.
Where I think Armstrong goes wrong is when she tries to define contemporary jihadi and terror groups as mostly motivated by politics. She repeats numerous times that jihadis were motivated by a desire to ease suffering and despair at the current world order. The glaring problem with this excuse is that she spends the first three quarters of the book trying to define religion and politics as inseparable. So which is it? For me this is a very difficult flaw to overlook in an otherwise wonderful book.
As a counter-argument to the polemics of New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great, this book should be devastating, and it should change the debate. There really is no response to the fact that it has been in the service of ideologies like nationalism that the world has suffered far more and that religion has actually done much to temper state violence throughout history.
On another front, I take issue with Armstrong's overly simplistic dichotomy between colonizer and colonized. Armstrong has, in the past, rejected this kind of oversimplification and political correctness, for example, in addressing the "Aryan Conquest Theory," whose detractors argue is a legacy of British rule in India, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. She does not mince words about this being the case in this book. India is not as rich as many of the post-Colonial Arab states, yet she casts the Arab world as much more troubled by colonialism than India. Other times she substitutes "humiliation" for colonization. American troops in Arabia may be humiliating, but it is not colonization. By that definition, there is no basis for terrorism against the UK or Germany, where American troops would be "colonizing." This sort of ghost of Edward Said lingering in the pages troubles me.
Reducing the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict to colonialism also is troubling. There is no answer Israelis can make in that framework. But in a broader context, Israel as a refuge for the Jewish people who were, after its founding, expelled en masse from many of the post-colonial and allegedly secular Arab states, not to mention the events in Europe, the issue appears different.
The New Atheists aside, I think the popular perception of religion causing violence stems largely from the very groups bucking under the pressure of the modern world and seeking the very alternative Armstrong suggests gave birth to many of the world's religions: fundamentalists. She points out that under threat of annihilation, many groups become more extreme.
Also, one nitpick. Armstrong references the "Samson Option," which allegedly is or was an Israeli nuclear strategy whereby Israel would target non-enemy countries so as to trigger a global nuclear conflict, if they were threatened with conquest. Her citation for this fact isn't to a news report, but to a book by Talal Asad about suicide bombing. Officially, Israel doesn't even admit to having nuclear weapons, and while I've read about the "Samson Option" before, it triggers so many antisemitic tropes for me that I needed more proof than one CUNY Professor's text on a different subject. In looking for sources, I found nothing but the usual Neo-Nazi garbage on the web. Even if this idea did come from some Israeli official, it could just be used as a psychological ploy, whereby, ironically, those who will gobble up antisemitic garbage will spit it out in furtherance of Israel's goals. I try not to judge the rest of this work by this one work, but as a Jewish Studies scholar, I bristled at her reductive treatment of the Israeli-Arab conflict and this makes me wonder more.
Looking at Asad's book, I only see him reference the "Samson Option" as the name for Israel's nuclear arsenal and his discussion of Israel (allegedly) teaching its children than Samson was a "tough Jew." Continuing the metaphor to Samson bringing the temple down on himself and everyone else isn't backed up as part of Israel's nuclear strategy, even if that's the name. It's just assumed in the antisemitic halo about this name that it involves a totally suicidal use of those weapons against non-aggressors. Asad's reference to the "tough Jew" seems both more apt and more consistent with Zionist and later Israeli self-image.
Yet Armstrong's explanation is that it is "a strike that would inevitably result in the destruction of the nation to be an honorable duty and a possibility that the Jewish state has freely chosen." From Samson to Masada to the Crusades, Jewish suicide has been a theme in its history, but to my eyes the comparison that is apt, and more likely looming in the minds of Israeli strategists, is the Holocaust, not suicide bombing. The name isn't about the enemy, but the self. It's about the ghostly question of why (it is perceived that) so many Jews went (seemingly) willingly to their death in the Holocaust. Of course, that's just not true and the assumption of this being the case is a good way to pick a fight.
Armstrong needed to show more care and insight in bringing this topic up.
Plus, I'm completely at a loss as how explaining Jewish history and memory this way excuses suicide bombing or makes it not religious violence. It's an example of how, I think, Armstrong damages her own argument when she gets out of history and in to today. The very argument that the New Atheists make is that, yes, all religions foster violence by causing people to act on the basis of mythological memory and fake history, be it recalling Samson or be it suicide bombing. Her argument that these things are both happening in the context of secular Israeli Zionism and (mostly) secular anti-colonial Arab resistance movements, again, undermines her case that religion and politics are only artificially separable.
In what one of our most liberal Supreme Court justices referred to as "ceremonial deism," the US upheld the use of the motto "In God We Trust" and not some other ceremonial deism based on, say, a Sikh legend. The New Atheist argument is that, essentially, we must strip all of these symbols out and that because of things like this we have never really seen a "secular state" because even secular states are made up of, at least until possibly today, people who aren't atheists.
In other words, if Armstrong's first argument holds, our politics is influenced by our religion and vice versa. We cannot separate the two when convenient, even in the United States. I remain open to being convinced, but on the merits of this book alone, I can't agree that what motivates the jihadis, or America's home-grown terrorists who kill abortion doctors and bomb federal buildings, are purely secular motivations most of the time, or even ever. To me it seems much more likely that the dominant factor is some kind of mental illness, not the absence of religious influence.
Finally, it's unclear that resistance to colonialism or "humiliation" is entirely universal in any religion. As Armstrong mentions, some religions have always been "colonized" or minorities and some have sought and fought for independence and others haven't. In some cases it depends on the era.
Needs an update. Cambodia and Iraq provide interesting counterexamples for each other's counterfactual scenarios. The theory of how the world reacts tNeeds an update. Cambodia and Iraq provide interesting counterexamples for each other's counterfactual scenarios. The theory of how the world reacts to genocides is interesting, and depressing....more
I like Rachel Maddow a lot. People who draw a false equivalency between her and her purported counterparts on the right are far too facile in their coI like Rachel Maddow a lot. People who draw a false equivalency between her and her purported counterparts on the right are far too facile in their comparisons. Maddow is quirky, intelligent, unorthodox, and, above all, she is not angry. And those who have refused her admittance to the ranks of the Very Serious, like The New Republic, are only showing their own rust.
Drift discusses a topic that should be of great concern to any subject of our great empire: that of the increasing militarization of politics. Maddow is obviously not aiming this book at the Chomskian air of academia. In fact, it is what she says it is: a small-'c' conservative review of the drift of which she speaks. It is an argument premised on the beliefs of our Founding Fathers, not merely on the current expediencies of empire.
The one fatal problem with it: it only tells the post-Vietnam part of this issue in that it is premised on the change from wars fought by your neighbors and paid for in your taxes, to wars fought by other people without costing you an immediate penny.
This is certainly a key transition, but it is only the resolution to the set up of the plot that began with the Manhattan Project during World War II and the messianic sense of America's role in the world that that war established. Without these elements, Vietnam would not have been Vietnam. And without the dread of the bomb and the vortex of secrecy that surrounded it and the power to use it from the beginning, there never would have been the same hook for secrecy to sink into to government and metastasize. Maddow is a little bit older than I am, so she is certain to remember the ever-present but subtle terror that the world could simply end in half an hour. This surely informed not only the government's urge to keep its military doings secret, but also fed the public's demand for a sense of security.
The drift began with Truman and the bomb, not with Reagan and his Hollywood gestures about Panama, Grenada, and the salute of the commander-in-chief. At that point, it just became regularized.
If the national command authority, which is the group that controls the use of nuclear weapons (and may or may not be identical with the Constitutional chain of succession) can launch doomsday, it seems, a fortiori, they can send a few troops here or there. Plus, if not for their ability to launch a deadly retaliation, the whole framework of Cold War brinksmanship would break down. Keeping America's nuclear secrets secret, and our ability to spy on Soviet nuclear capabilities secret, created the security state.
To that extent, Gary Wills's Bomb Power is a more incisive telling of this story.
Maddow has a section on the eerie decay of our nuclear forces which are foreshadowed by her comment that they are unusable. But this entire chapter does not seem to support or undermine her thesis, which is entirely separate from considerations of nuclear weapons. Her thesis, that the President can too easily launch wars detached from any cost to the citizenry (and which arrangment is antithetical to our Founders' vision). She makes no argument as to whether conventional wars are more or less likely in absence or presence of a strong and ready nuclear deterrent, and, despite explaining the current condition of our nuclear forces, never really connects the dots between the nuclear arms race in the Cold War and the massive centralization of military authority.
As I mentioned, Gary Wills explains this is great detail. But a simple example familiar to most should suffice. FDR tried and tried to get the US into World War II. Congress just would not do it. Not until Pearl Harbor. There was a formal declaration of war. The next war, Korea, was launched by the President without a declaration of war. We never really stood down from World War II. And there is where the drift began.
Leaving aside the nuclear issue, in the immediate post World War II era and its following years, the President ordered, without declaration of war, involved us in the overthrow of governments in Guatemala and Iran (the latter Maddow mentions), sovereignty-violating overflights of the Soviet Union, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and many other military adventures before we went to Vietnam. Even if you only consider those events that incurred massive mobilization, there is always Korea.
These defects undermine an otherwise informative and fun read and places it right in the center of the firing range conservatives are likely to attack Maddow on whether or not it's what she wrote: another liberal book blaming our problems on Reagan and Vietnam. In this case, this is not only a correct criticism, it's also one that should undermine the book even for liberals.
There are a noticeable amount of typos in this book, very few of which render the sentence unintelligible, though some do. This is a great book that iThere are a noticeable amount of typos in this book, very few of which render the sentence unintelligible, though some do. This is a great book that is made even more poignant for me because I began reading it just a week or two after returning from Jerusalem.
I tried to contact Mr. Montefiore on Facebook regarding his claim (or repetition of the claim) that the rounded menorah was a Roman invention (or the sense of the text implying that on his footnote on p. 132) and his response didn't make any sense to me. Recent archaeological evidence pretty much puts this issue to bed, but he claims it's still a "controversy." Well, between archaeology and the faith of the Lubavitchers, yes, but not in a scholarly book like this.
Especially in the latter part of the book, we veer off course a little and get caught up in geopolitics, which seems to be a bit of a departure from a biography of a city. Obviously, a certain amount of background must be given, but I felt like the background became the foreground towards the end of the book. ...more