While I wait to find out what the Harvard Committee on Social Studies decides to do about their decision to honor Marty Peretz on Saturday, at the lunch where I am scheduled to speak [ugh], I thought I would add a few scholarly footnotes to his ugly rant. I see that Peretz has taken the occasion of Yom Kippur to "atone" for his remarks. I think it is too much to hope that he has seen the light.
The part of his remarks that got the most initial attention was his suggestion that the protections of the First Amendment are a "privilege" that Muslims have not earned. [By the way, the word "privilege" comes from the Latin for "private law," suggesting that a privilege is a special legal dispensation for the benefit of a single person.]
But the more offensive part of his remarks was what he had to say about Muslims. "But frankly," he wrote, "Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims." I thought I might just remind everyone what that oft-used phrase actually means. What it does NOT mean is that Muslim lives are unimportant, or are thought to be unimportant by Muslims or anyone else. That is what Peretz meant, but in this, and in so much else, he simply shows himself to be ignorant.
The first use of the phrase appears to be in King Lear, Act II, Scene iv, but the following passage from David Ricardo's great work, THE PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, conveys the correct meaning in economic and social theory. This is from Chapter V, "Of Wages":
"It is not to be understood that the natural price of labour, estimated even in food and necessaries, is absolutely fixed and constant. It varies at different times in the same country, and very materially differs in different countries. It essentially depends on the habits and customs of a people. An English labourer would consider his wages under their natural rate, and too scanty to support a family, if they enabled him to purchase no other food than potatoes, and to live in no better habitation than a mud cabin; yet these moderate demands of nature are often deemed sufficient in countries where "men's life is cheap", and his wants easily satisfied. Many of the conveniences now enjoyed in an English cottage, would have been thought luxuries at an earlier period of our history."
The point here is that when wage goods [food, clothing, shelter] are cheap, then it costs relatively little to reproduce labor by keeping the worker alive and raising his or her children. To this, Ricardo adds the very important point that there is a social and conventional element in the determination of the subsistence wage, a fact that helps to explain a good deal of the content and direction of labor struggles over the course of the life of capitalism. [I have written about this in my book, UNDERSTANDING MARX].
What Peretz was trying to say is that the he thinks the lives of Muslims are of little moral worth, and are thought to be so even by Muslims themselves. On occasion, the Israeli government arranges for the exchange of a single Israeli soldier who has been captured, in return for releasing from their jails a number of Palestinian captives. This is sometimes taken to show the relative value the two sides place upon their comrades. The Israelis tend to forget the Nazi practice of killing ten or one hundred villagers when the resistance managed to kill one Nazi soldier.
I am still uncertain what I shall do on Saturday.