Peter Beinart On Zionism, China, Apartheid

One of the most influential Jewish critics of Netanyahu's Israel talks foreign policy with the Dish.

  
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Peter is a long-time friend and fellow former editor of The New Republic. His latest book is The Crisis of Zionism, and he’s the editor-at-large for Jewish Currents and the creator of his own substack, The Beinart Notebook. In this episode we focus on foreign affairs — China, Israel, and South Africa — as well as our shared apostasy when it comes to Iraq and neoconservatism. In the last half-hour of the pod, we get into a heated debate over the merits of racial diversity and viewpoint diversity in magazines and op-ed pages.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For three clips of my conversation with Peter — on how the U.S. should deal with China; on whether Zionism has failed; and how Peter has dealt with the Jewish-American tribalism — head over to our YouTube page.

Related to our latest episode with Michael Pollan, here’s a reader response to my October 23 column, “The Psychedelic Election”:

I can’t say thank you enough for your piece. As you probably know, nature-based psychedelics were decriminalized in Ann Arbor, where I live. 

And it’s personal for me. I spent the better part of a decade slowly circling the drain because of alcohol addiction, unexamined effects of child abuse on my personality, and career frustrations trying to become a successful orchestra conductor. I sought out the “best” addiction treatment, went to rehab, dragged myself to AA and frequent individual and group therapy sessions for years. It kind of all sucked. Intuitively, I just knew it wasn’t working for me on a deep level, and it took a long time for me to recognize it and get over the guilt of just feeling like a I was a broken, bad person.

I suspect I am not alone. One of the unfortunate cultural outcomes of AA is that people just assume that’s where you get better. That is the case for some. But if a thinking person truly digs deep into the data, the success of AA and rehab, etc. is abysmal.

Finland has a drinking cessation treatment (pioneered in the USA) called the Sinclair Method, which utilizes the drug naltrexone in the service of “behavior extinction” issuing a remedy of drinking while taking naltrexone, decoupling the reward of the high, and hence ending reliance on ethanol. I tried this too, after having had to do a lot of research, and I found only one in four doctors in the state of Michigan who utilize this method (and even then, my MD was an AA fundamentalist who only begrudgingly endorsed the Sinclair method). But naltrexone caused me terrible anxiety and the inability to feel pleasure, or “anhedonia,” as is the warning of possible side-effect issued with naltrexone. 

Finally, in part due to Michael Pollan’s book, but also my hair stylist, Sam Harris’s podcast, and various YouTube videos, I decided to seek out a trained trip sitter and have a spiritual experience on psilocybin mushrooms. I’ve done this four times now in three years, and I can tell you: it is an anti-addictive experience. It’s way too intense to want to repeat with any regularity. But it was the only thing that truly, interrupted my drinking and depression by permanently altering my worldview just as you described, with respect to the view of death, and several incredibly powerful experiences of what felt like a Divine Feminine, bathing me in pure light, love, beauty, and acceptance. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that these trips saved my life and my sanity, and gave me unexpected insights about my life, relationships, work, and the beauty of the world. And yes, I used to be an evangelical Christian, and am now an agnostic/atheist (thank you Hitch, Sam), but in a softer way, where I now have a deep sense of the inner spiritual capacity that is even more stupefying to me as a natural occurrence of molecules and processes inside my body, and the potential that lay deep within each of us. Talk about the ultimate rejection of woke/identity politics, as an experience like this explodes these crushingly small-minded categories of difference. 

Speaking of wokeness, the persistent debate over CRT continues with this reader:

I found your reader’s dissent recognizing the tendency of cultural values to swing like a pendulum, and suggesting that the pendulum be encouraged to swing to pro-black racism, an example of limited insight. Yes, cultural opinions nearly always swing from one extreme to another, but I am not convinced that this is an insurmountable law of nature. Swinging the pendulum to a new kind of racism guarantees the future ascendance of the Proud Boys ideology, as they will be joined by previously reasonable people angry at being displaced through the hypocrisy of racism.

Keep in mind that in a nominally democratic society, the pendulum will tend to swing harder in favor of the majority. So aiming for a neutral centrist approach to “race” seems like a far better long-term strategy for poor minorities, not just the majority. A culture that denies any relevance for race has no fuel for a white supremacist movement. Reverse racism is the surest way to create a resurgence of white supremacism.

I feel exactly the same way. We have come so far with liberalism, and to junk it now would be a disaster. The perfect should never become the enemy of the good - especially if that perfection is ultimately unachievable. Another reader sees what I’m trying to clarify:

Your summary of CRT in your latest item about Kendi and DiAngelo finally helped me understand what you have been trying to express, namely this line: “If you merely believe that the legacy of ‘white supremacy’ is indeed one core aspect of America, but that it isn’t and never has been the sole one, then you are not a critical race theorist.”

Yes, for me, I do believe that White Supremacy was a major contributor to the foundation of this country but not the sole contributor. To suggest it as being the sole contributor seems, for lack of a better word, too simplistic. The human condition and motivations are just simply not that simple. The unfortunate reality, however, is that white supremacist thoughts, actions, processes, policies, views, etc. appear to have had a major influence in this country for far too long. Not finding ways to eradicate it earlier is our biggest crime as a nation. Going forward, if we do nothing else as a nation but simply have a greater awareness of that impact and reflect that awareness in our education and policy making, etc., I think we’ll be OK. At least, that is my hope.

My issue with CRT is precisely this: its crudeness, its obsession with race in everyday life to the exclusion of everything else, its inability to see diversity and agency among minorities, and its naiveté with respect to history across the world.

Another reader thinks I’ve been painting with too broad a brush:

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your writing, how excited I am for your book, and also how much I enjoy hearing you pronounce the word “risible.” But I must correct you on a comment you made on your Dishcast interview with Amy Chua. You lamented that CRT has become so widespread that it’s infected every cultural institution, including “the entire education establishment — high schools, elementary schools” and cited a cultural sensitivity course from the NEA and the AFT’s invitation to Kendi to speak at one of their conferences as somehow evidence of CRT's influence in American public education. 

As a former teacher and current administrator in the New York City public schools, I can assure you that CRT’s influence is very small indeed, and that most teachers in this country probably couldn’t even tell you what “NEA” or “AFT” are acronyms for, what their ideological positions are, or, more importantly, what those organizations actually do. Those organizations, while nominally representing millions of teachers, have no influence on what actually happens in classrooms and are regarded by most teachers as purveyors of the occasional junk mail or annoying robo-call. 

I think most people who freak out about what happens in American classrooms have no real idea about what actually happens in American classrooms or how American classrooms actually work. It bears keeping in mind that there are 14,000 school districts, about 130,000 K-12 schools, over 3.3 million teachers and millions upon millions of individual classes taught each year. There’s simply no idea, or text, or policy that’s going to have much of an effect on what happens at 10:30 am on a Tuesday in an Algebra class in El Paso.

We have no national curriculum (or even national standards), like South Korea. Most teachers listen to the national conversation about school closings or curriculum with mild bemusement, looking up briefly from the stack of essays they’re grading before diving back into the real work of teaching, which is at once far more interesting and far more tedious and far less political than most non-educators realize. 

I’ve written about this in my own Substack newsletter, Cafeteria Duty, which I pray you peruse, if only to get a clearer idea about what actually happens in schools:

The brilliance of American public school is in the slow, steady indoctrination of students that happens over the course of many, many days, and many, many years, under the care of many, many adults. The pat idea that one teacher, or one intervention (like free Warby Parkers), or one curriculum alone will transform a child is false, for the groundwork for that transformation was laid by a thousand previous lessons and a hundred other teachers, and a million little words and corrections and pieces of feedback, most of which we will all eventually forget, or might not ever see.

And though there’s tremendous variation not just across districts and schools but often within a teacher herself (see above example), everyone involved has the same idea about what we’re supposed to do: make kids smarter — academically, emotionally and socially. And most of the time, most people aim for that target.

Students are aircraft carriers, not light switches. So all of this is just to say that there is never one clean line of causation between even a well-researched intervention, like tutoring, and academic outcomes. Or one clean line of influence between one kind of curriculum, and student beliefs. There’s a whole lot of other stuff that happens around it. Be skeptical of anybody who claims the opposite. Schools are a hot mess.

In a good way.

This next reader zooms out to a philosophical vantage point:

From what I’ve gleaned so far, CRT is fundamentally pointing out that unconscious, implicit biases have cumulative negative effects. I don’t think this is controversial at all, or at least it shouldn’t be. I work in finance, and it’s similar to efforts to eliminate cognitive biases in decision-making. Nothing about the theory directly implies that the USA is inherently racist, as there’s a distinction between overt racism and the effects of implicit biases.

This is interesting to me philosophically, as democracy and classic liberalism sort of presume the existence of free will, or at least that the aggregation of various free opinions results in better outcomes than alternative forms of government. Cognitive biases challenge the concept of free will since choices are influenced by unconscious factors baked into the way our brains work. It also potentially means that democratic decisions can be “polluted” by unconscious biases, resulting in less-than-optimal outcomes. To me, this doesn’t mean that any alternative forms of government are preferable — rather, that we need to incorporate some safeguards to help people be aware of their unconscious biases, and perhaps implement processes that mitigate their effects. Though I haven’t seen these particular terms used, that’s what it seems CRT is ultimately “for.” If such training is good for cops, why wouldn’t it good for everyone?

My guess is that CRT freaks out many people because it implies that they don’t have full control over their actions. This is particularly disturbing to religious fundamentalists because cognitive biases undermine the concept of a soul that makes free choices that are subsequently rewarded or punished. This might be the source of the gap between secular “elites” and the rest of the country — there’s been a bit of a revolution in secular thinking regarding the existence and effects of cognitive biases that hasn’t happened among religious fundamentalists because the concepts are tied to evolutionary theories (i.e., that various cognitive biases, including preference for those who look like yourself, had evolutionary advantages in our past). And ironically, the current Republican Party, while attempting to cater to these fundamentalist voters, seems intent on exploiting every cognitive bias that exists rather than attempting to minimize their effects to make better decisions.

Count me skeptical of the notion of “unconscious bias” and programs to weaken it. Here’s one more reader, who offers a way to think about the dual rise of Trumpism and wokeism:

I love Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety and I think it offers a reason for the dangerous trends you highlight. If you are unfamiliar, Alain argues that the “free” nature of American society — the lack of a rigid class system — actually creates “anxiety.” In a rigid caste system like in India, you are born into a class and die in it. It’s not your fault and there is no opportunity to move up, so there is not anxiety about it for most people; it’s just your lot in life.

But in a “free” system like in America, you are told “anybody can make it if you work hard enough,” and it’s probably truer here than anywhere else. Many immigrants, underdogs and hustlers do take advantage of the opportunity. But for those who don’t (or can’t), status anxiety is a state of knowing it’s your fault for your low station, for not taking advantage of the opportunities to move up. This is an emotionally painful state that is uniquely American — and I think the Obama presidency unleashed its fury around 2015.

On the one hand, for underachieving whites (for many socio-economic reasons), Obama’s presidency especially highlighted their status anxiety because it made them think, “Even a black guy could become President, so why am I not moving up? It must be my own fault.” That was a painful realization, and rather than admit to their own failings, they looked for a way out. Trump offered that way out of the painful reckoning with Trumpism and his war on elites: Obama was not a regular black guy who made it; he was an elite who represented a rigged system. The “rigged system” lie is very appealing to the Trumpists because it relieves their status anxiety.

On the other hand, Obama’s presidency also excited status anxiety in black America.  If Obama could be president, and we were supposedly in a post-race America, then why wasn’t every black person doing better? Individually, a lot of black people felt status anxiety in a new and potent way with Obama’s success. 

I think the pain of that reckoning opened the door to CRT. They replaced “Obama is president, so I should be doing more with my opportunity” with another (Trumpian) lie: the system is racist, rigged against me — thus CRT and BLM’s surge in popularity.

Maybe you can interview Alain on your substack.

But first, next up: Wesley Yang, followed by Michael Lewis.