At my age it isn’t necessary to cultivate a feeling of responsibility for posterity. The feeling blooms in my breast quite naturally each time I look into the faces of my grandchildren. What kind of world will they live in? Will they know peace and security? Will they have a real chance at achieving the American Dream? Will their grandchildren even have the chance to exist? This book is for them, and their children’s children, and so on down that great living line. Here I offer thoughts and observations from a lifetime of political study and experience, in hopes that my own humble perspective might help make the world a better place for those who come after me.
Few in the Western World can fail to recognize that we humans are facing a great challenge, the ultimate end of which amounts to species survival. Perpetual war, environmental degradation, social and political unrest, the rising economic status of so many in a world of limited resources, and the almost limitless potential for the abuse of power—political and economic—have become so obvious that it cannot be reasonably denied. The deniers of this situation, though their voices are loud because they have so much corporate money behind them, are relatively few, and even those few not made disingenuous by money seem to miss the larger point. We are not talking about the extinction of the human species within a generation or two (though that is possible with the push of a few buttons), but rather about the quality of life for the next few generations, and the possible extinction scenario would be perhaps 15 or 25 generations hence. This requires some abstract thought, but the mere fact that so many today have recognized the peril of our human situation gives me great hope. I am an optimist when all is said and done.
99.9 percent of all species known to have existed on this planet are now extinct—failed experiments in evolution. The idea, whether religious or secular, that the human species is somehow exempt from this calculation is no longer credible. We are the first species on this planet to “do science,” as Carl Sagan pointed out; but, thereby, we are also the first species to engineer a means of mass collective suicide (nuclear, chemical, and biological).
The 4000-year history of the Jewish people offers great lessons in survival strategies on a tribal and “distinct people” level, many of which can be magnified and applied on a “species survival” level. The fact that the Jews survived as a distinct people through thousands of years of persecution, the holocaust, without a homeland and dispersed all over the globe, is evidence enough of their success. More recent Jewish and Israeli history also offers lessons in bad survival strategies. Israel’s bull-in-the-china-shop approach to relations with its neighbors in the Middle East is clearly bad survival strategy—it has created a state of perpetual war, which means perpetual insecurity for everyone. Israel must survive and thrive, but so must her neighbors; that, in the long run, will be a great benefit to the entire species. I wish to see the state of Israel healthy and at peace, and in this book I will offer what I believe to be a better strategy for achieving that end.
The United States, as Israel’s most ardent ally, is therefore also practicing bad survival strategy, and this is why, in the big picture, the current political situation in the Middle East must matter to American voters. For more than ten years Americans have known the same state of perpetual war, perpetual insecurity, and it is rapidly draining not only our coffers, but also our spirit. The time has come for American voters to do something about this state of affairs. The power rests with you. I am neither democrat nor republican, and as I do with my own grandchildren, I insist that you vote your conscience. Only do so as well informed as possible on the issues. That is your responsibility as a citizen, and here I offer my humble help.
Chapter One: Framework
As a professor I was an inter-disciplinarian, meaning that I approached subjects from a variety of perspectives—anthropological, biological, sociological, political, economic, religious, and more—in an attempt to see entire systems whole, from their smallest detail to their global architecture. For instance, the term “tribe” can be classified and sorted into dozens of disciplinary definitions, and trying to get professors to agree is like opening a can of mixed nuts. As an inter-disciplinarian, I concede that each definition (whether genetic, geographical, sociopolitical etc.) has relevance; but for purposes of this book and with an inter-disciplinary approach in mind, “tribe” has only one broad meaning: an internal sense of being a single, distinct people.
For practical purposes, this perspective renders moot the debate about who is and who is not a Jew. From this perspective, one who considers himself a Jew, is a Jew; one who does not consider himself a Jew, is not. I do not say that the debate is irrelevant, but merely that it need not hinder our purposes in the present book.
Professors like to build conceptual structures. While not perfect, while there are always exceptions and examples that don’t fit within the structure, the exceptions tend to prove the rule. These conceptual structures enable us to cover vast amounts of information without becoming overwhelmed; they help us to see the entire beach in a single grain of sand. In attempting to survey 4000 years of Jewish history and culture, the advantages of such a conceptual structure should be obvious.
So let me sketch the framework of our approach here. Societies progress—and sometimes regress—in three distinct stages that I call the “Society of Status,” the “Society of Contract,” and the “Society of Dignity.” I have taken the bulk of this formula from Sir Henry Maine, the British jurist, historian and social theorist. In 1861 he asked: “Why do societies like England and India not advance concurrently, but at different rates of progress?” [Italics are mine.] His answer was that societies that are characterized by rigid class and caste systems “fixed a man’s social position irreversibly at his birth, but modern law (read Contract) allows him to create it for himself.” In other words, in a Society of Status, what and who you are at birth (rich or poor, nobleman or peasant, shoemaker or statesman), is what and who you will be when you die. But in a Society of Contract, what and who you are at birth has less bearing on what and who you will be at your death. The Society of Contract makes social and economic mobility not only possible, but probable. Contract represents the throwing off of the yoke of Status and the ushering in of an epoch in which each man (though not quite yet with women—that is to follow in a Society of Dignity) is at liberty to explore his own abilities and merits.
There is a major social revolution tucked into Sir Henry’s observation, and it describes in summa what we call the American experiment. It is an experiment in human progress, and I believe it has clearly shown that a Society of Contract is far superior to a Society of Status. Modern law, as Sir Henry noted, quickened the “activity of man in discovery, in invention and in the manipulation of accumulated wealth.” Hence, “the movement of progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract.” There can be little doubt that this movement represents human progress. Modern India and China are two prime examples of the globalization of the progress inherent in Status to Contract.
It is my contention that a Society of Dignity is the next step, and a necessary one. We are not there yet, though hints of it are beginning to appear, giving us a peep at what the future could be, if we will it. While the Society of Contract preaches merit and ability, the Society of Dignity would expand on that to include the worth and dignity of every individual. Not everyone is successful in the Society of Contract—the disabled, minorities, the luckless. A Society of Dignity is a Society of Contract with Purpose; it represents the coming of the Judaic ideal, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and of the Christian ideal, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven.” The Society of Dignity represents affirmative rights for all, including a minimum standard of living—dignified and humane work to do, healthcare, education, freedom from hunger, freedom from discrimination of any kind—and these human rights are for all, regardless of merit and ability. The Society of Dignity is one that takes seriously the notion that “I am my brother’s keeper,” one that takes seriously the notion that “as you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Picture Scrooge’s softening heart as he stands gazing at Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. The old miser sees that Tiny Tim will die unless he learns the lessons of charity and benevolence. Scrooge is learning the lessons necessary for a Society of Dignity to appear among us one day.
To survive as a species, I believe it is imperative that we achieve the Society of Dignity, in as many parts of the world as possible. There will always be conflict in the world; to minimize that conflict is the goal here. The Arab Spring is about the transition from Status to Contract. The U.S. War on Terror is about the transition from Status to Contract. The U.S. war in Iraq was about the transition from Status to Contract. (In the latter two instances we are missing what President Obama has called a “teachable moment.” Namely, that attempting to force Contract on a society at the muzzle of a gun doesn’t work, and ultimately produces a disproportionate reactionary backlash.)
By casting many of these recent conflicts in a religious light, we have missed the real source of the trouble—and missed another “teachable moment.” The real source of the trouble is the social transition from Status to Contract, the struggle of the have-nots against the haves, the struggle to become haves themselves. And this is why the Society of Dignity is so vital to our survival; violent conflict is as unlikely as it is unnecessary in such a society. Israel, the United States and much of Europe are beginning to see the rosy-fingered light of Dignity on the horizon. There are powerful forces at work that wish to blot that light out, however. We must continue to pursue the ideal of Dignity.
The progression from Status to Contract to Dignity needs to be understood in evolutionary terms. The process is a slow one that proceeds in fits and starts, the ebbs and flows can last decades or millennia. As an example, let’s begin with England in 1694. That was the year that the Bank of England was established; it was an invention of capital accumulation, and it worked. Over time it bankrolled discovery and invention, which fueled the Industrial Revolution. That revolution, in turn, fired another revolution, this one peopled by two groups: an expanding middle-class that wanted better goods and who demanded their first say in government; and a laboring class that wanted to be done with the hard times that Dickens wrote about, and who also demanded a say in their government.
Those who already had their say in government—the noblemen/landowners—were horrified by the idea of the mob and the middle-class having a hand in their own governance. Those already privileged with power, in any society, are the brakes that slow down the progress from Status to Contract, and from Contract to Dignity—this was true in 18th century England, and it is true in 21st century America. In 1832 only 400,000 landowners in England could vote, out of a total population of 24 million—0.017 percent. Acting under the perceived threat of bloody revolution in the streets, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill of 1832, adding another 800,000 eligible voters, mostly shopkeepers and propertied city dwellers; so, 1.2 million voters out of a population of 24 million—0.05 percent. Progress; slow, but progress nonetheless. In the next fifty years two more such reform bills were passed—slowly adding more voters.
In England today, as in America and much of the Western world, almost everyone has the right to vote. Politically, America progressed from Status to Contract faster than England, and more dramatically. But lest we forget, the same brakes were applied to the process here—it was 1920 before women were granted full voting rights with the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, 131 years after the U.S. Constitution took effect. Two-hundred-nineteen years after ratification of the constitution we have our first African American in the White House; we have yet to send a woman to that supreme position in our democracy. The United States of today remains in the early-adulthood phase of Contract: we are still trying to define “all.” Until our definition of “all” becomes absolute—meaning absolutely no one is excluded from the feast at the table—we cannot count ourselves a Society of Dignity.
The progress from Status to Contract to Dignity cannot be fully understood if it is seen as only political or economic. It is as much a social and psychological and street-level process as it is political. Allow me to explain. Let’s say I ask you what your father did for a living, assuming that your answer will tell me a great deal about who you are, and thus how I should treat you, how I should behave around you. That is Status. When such a question ceases to matter—in fact, when such a question does not even enter my mind upon meeting you—Status has been left behind and we have entered Contract. In the Society of Contract I do not assume to know very much about you until we have spoken at length (though prejudice and stereotyping continue to cloud the process of learning who you are). That is where the Society of Dignity comes in. In a Society of Dignity prejudice and stereotyping (based on anything from race to mode of dress) are reduced to the minimum possible within the range of human capacity. (I am realistic on this point; assumptions about people based on pre-judgment are a natural psychological process with us; however, I do firmly believe we are capable of keeping these things in check, and thus not allowing them to cloud the process.) We are not talking here about eradicating the distinctions of race, religion, creed, sex, culture et cetera ad infinitum, we are talking about accepting them.
In an age when we are beginning to recognize that we are facing a species-survival situation, we had better learn to get along with one another. No one of us, nor any particular group of us, can do it alone. As we pass the torch to future generations, it is important that we continue to push these processes of advancement from Status to Contract and to Dignity. And that is where I believe the lessons from the Jewish experience can be helpful. In terms of survival, the Jews are, I contend, the most successful “tribe” in history—bar none.