Monday, July 11, 2011

Singer, Simon, and the Question of Jewish Social Justice

In the last post we left off with many attacks on Singer, but in my opinion, not many strong ones. However, the topic requires so much background work and reading that I can only hope that this series of posts serves as an introduction into the dense, and still open topic of distributive justice. In that vein, I hope to offer some final thoughts on what still requires investigation, and where we can go from here. One area of investigation, of which I admittedly understand nothing, is the realm of economics. (Seriously, I don’t get these crises. Why don’t we just print more money and solve all the problems. Done. I get it, inflation, but come on, really we can just print more money, no?) Distributive justice, in which we give away large chunks of our money, appears to run into similar issues of a progressive tax, trickle down theories, etc, again, much of which, lamentably, I know little about. But still, a basic question: if we divert all of our “extra” money away from our luxury markets: movies, operas, clothing etc then wont we kill our markets? I know this is probably a dumb question, but I don’t see an easy way around it. Isn’t most of the money we wish to give as aid come from huge companies that if we enacted Singer’s plan would go under? Wouldn’t giving that kind of charity inevitably hinder our ability to give continuously? Again, using constructs from previous posts, this is a technical problem with Singer’s suggestions, not a fundamental, conceptual problem, per se, but a question nonetheless.
Another question that Singer attempts to tackle, though my knowledge allows me only to act as a spectator, is the question of the government’s role in distributive justice. America gives a considerable amount of money for aid. But, as Singer points out, not only is this money miniscule in percentage compared to how much money America makes and spends on everything else, but this aid comes with some qualifications that weaken the efficacy of the money. For instance, America often gives aid on the condition that the recipients do business with America, which in the long run hinders the creation of an independent self-sufficient economy in these third world countries.
Additionally, on a more moral level, what role should the government play when it comes to our personal moral obligations? Should we just let the government decide how to deal with these issues because they are bigger?
Many thinkers, including Tony Judt and David Foster Wallace note that though we value, as Americans, autonomy and liberty more than anything we ironically give up much of our moral autonomy and liberty by giving the power to the government to decide these moral issues (How much aid, to whom, and with what conditions….) Here’s Wallace on this phenomenon:

Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens–parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality…
There's something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it.  Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience.  Our superego, you could say.  It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with capitalism, but  don't understand much of the theoretical aspect---what I see is what I live in.  Americans are in a way crazy.  We infantilize ourselves.  We don't think of ourselves as citizens---parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities.  We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes t our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities.  We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality.  

As citizens we cede more and more of our autonomy, but if we the government take away the citizens' freedom to cede their autonomy we're now taking away their autonomy.  It's a paradox.  Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them.
Is he right? And if so, how do we combat this? 
Lastly, in terms of Singer, many people attack his position because of his inability to draw the line, which I believe is an unfair attack. They say, yes, conceptually, morally that sounds correct, but what line could we draw, and how would we know how to draw that line, one movie, two, three, maybe only on vacations? Taken to the absurd we can always say that everything we do, for the most part, stops us from saving people in Africa. In a sense, this is true, but because we cant draw the line that does not mean the idea is incorrect. In fact, if we redrew our standards of living, or if we gave just ten percent more than we did we could solve numerous global issues that are more pressing than we realize, and more able to be solved then we realize. So yes, how to draw the line is a murky issue, one that Singer deals with this article ( but one, I believe that does not undermine the argument. In fact, in all my investigation, I found no compelling attack on Singer, but that’s my opinion.  If you are interested, Singer has written prolifically, and more ably on this topic.
In this specific post I would like to begin to tackle a less daunting question. Where does religious law fit in this whole question of distributive justice? Particularly, I feel a need to take up the mantle and defend the Jewish community from David Simon’s attack. Simon attacked the Jewish Federation for using it’s 28 million dollars for New Orleans to build up it’s Jewish community, the JCC, its synagogue etc. Simon noted that they didn’t use any of that money to help the truly struggling, dying people around them. Simon does not believe this to be a specific problem to the Jewish Federation and its work in New Orleans, but endemic to Jewish charities in general. His own words provide a burning critique that cannot easily be argued with. (These quotes are taken from a must read article –
“Look, I’m not self-hating. I have a great deal of cultural pride and sense of people-hood as a Jew. But until organized American Jewry turns itself to the places of greatest need in this country, we cannot pretend to be a light unto the nations…At the point when they were doing that(giving charity to the Jewish community), tens of thousands of New Orleanians were still living elsewhere and couldn’t get home. The average income of a Jewish family in New Orleans was $180,000 a year. The average income in New Orleans, $30,000 a year. And you’re subsidizing the Jews? That hyper-segregation of the Jewish community from the problems in the world, that alienation from tragedy that isn’t tribal is one of the most disappointing things to me as a Jew…Come on. There are lives in the balance down there. This is the community where the people are the most vulnerable, where the desperation is profound. The Jewish community has the resources to help. It should do so aggressively because there is real need.”
I hope to defend the Jewish federation, not because I believe they are right, nor do I think that religion demands we fix our community before we help the poor, but because I think Simon does not necessarily attempt to see the pull of the other side. Here’s the question: Some billionaire comes up to you and offers you the chance to decide what to do with 20 million dollars. As a religious person you feel a strong connection to your religious community, but as a denizen of the world you also feel a strong connection to the suffering throughout the universe. How do you decide this question? Furthermore, let’s say you just came back from Africa. You went on a trip to see the devastation on your own and it rattled your values. Back at home though, a tornado tore up both the synagogue you pray at and the Yeshiva in which your children study religious texts. Your community, religiously, lives and dies by the strength of these institutions. Two choices present themselves. Save hundreds of thousands of lives, physically, or as it appears in your mind, save hundreds, if not thousands of lives spiritually. 
This is where Simon appears to not necessarily see the other side. He appears to forget what William James states in his 3rd lecture in his The Varieties of Religious Experience:
Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul. I wish during this hour to call your attention to some of the psychological peculiarities of such an attitude as this, or belief in an object which we cannot see. All our attitudes, moral, practical, or emotional, as well as religious, are due to the "objects" of our consciousness, the things which we believe to exist, whether really or ideally, along with ourselves. Such objects may be present to our senses, or they may be present only to our thought. In either case they elicit from us a reaction; and the reaction due to things of thought is notoriously in many cases as strong as that due to sensible presences. It may be even stronger… and in general our whole higher prudential and moral life is based on the fact that material sensations actually present may have a weaker influence on our action than ideas of remoter facts… But in addition to these ideas of the more concrete religious objects, religion is full of abstract objects which prove to have an equal power….Such contemplations are expected (and abundantly verify the expectation, as we shall also see) to influence the believer's subsequent attitude very powerfully for good.
In essence, religious people can respond to Simon that saving souls for eternity trumps saving physical bodies. Though this sounds awful, and crude, to a person who actually believes in hell, in a divine command, in consequences to spiritual actions, all of this understandably complicates questions of morality. Coming from a Jewish background, I can only attest to certain areas that highlight this split. For instance, many go through the rituals of mourning, treating a child as dead, if that child marries outside the Jewish nation. I don’t defend this at all, necessarily, I simply want to assert that this idea makes infinitely more sense if you believe in an infinite spiritual world, one that this child chose to cut themselves off from. In that sense, if one truly believed that, then intermarriage would engender mourning, no? This singes our more modern sensibilities, but we would be blind to think that people don’t truly believe this way.
Simon though, foresees this argument and responds:
The preservation of the Jewish faith and people-hood, while an essential task, says nothing to any  nation beyond our own, especially if we preserve ourselves for no purpose other than the perpetuation of one branch of monotheistic thought. Surely, the world needs the Jewish mind and spirit for something more fundamental than that.
Besides this argument, in defense of Simon, I believe he can use an argument in regards to knowledge and arrogance, one that more directly addresses idea of the demands of a spiritual world. True, he could say, you believe you live in a physical and spiritual world, but your claim to living in a physical world differs drastically from your claim that you also live in a spiritual world. He can assert that we know we live in a physical world full of suffering, but we only believe we live in a spiritual world. It then takes some real arrogance to wager the lives of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of poor people in the certain physical world, for the supposed souls that you believe exist. Are you willing to really take that wager?
In general, this takes us to the question of the differences, if any, between social justice and Jewish social justice. Many Jews pride themselves on their sensitivity to social justice, and many of those same Jews connect to Judaism through their devotion to social justice, but what exactly is Jewish social justice, is it an system of laws separate from whatever conception of Halacha you follow? Does it differ in its source of obligation i.e. Godly as opposed to humanistic, in its content or style of aid, or in its scope? Should it? Essentially, what I hope to bring out is how do religious people balance the demands of the spiritual world and the demands of the physical world when they clash? These are complex question that need much unpacking. With these questions in mind, I would like to sign off with these scathing, but hopefully thought provoking quotes from Simon:
No, there is no barbed wire around West Baltimore. No, there is no political imperative to segregate them from the greater society, or ultimately, to murder them en masse. That would be a Holocaust at normal speed. Instead, we have simply participated—either tacitly or actively—in constructing a national economic model that throws away 10 to 15 percent of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. There is no work for more than half the adult black males in Baltimore. Other than the drug corners, of course. Can anyone argue that the percentage of human destruction among adult males of color in these neighborhoods has not for generations approached the genocidal?”
I know there were people at that federation gathering who resolved not to listen to me because of the Holocaust reference, self-righteously claiming a higher perch on the pyramid of collective martyrdom. That’s the corruption of holding the Holocaust experience to be something beyond any possible point of comparison for other collective tragedy. We like to tell ourselves that we are educating the world about the extraordinary nature of the Shoah, that we are sensitizing them to the breadth and depth of the horror. In fact, the opposite occurs. By holding ourselves aloof from the rest of human tragedy, by denying any possible points of comparison, we desensitize ourselves. And we only manage to alienate the rest of the world from their natural commonalities with the Holocaust experience.

Thanks for reading, 


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