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Monday, September 20, 2010


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.


Dan said...

That's clearly not what he meant. He obviously meant that it's easy to kill a Muslim and get away with it. Your reading anti-religious bigotry into Peretz's statements doesn't change that.

Seriously - do you really think the guy thinks Muslims' lives have less moral worth than others'???

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Frankly, I think he means all the various ugly things you can read into the statement.

David Pilavin said...

"the Israeli government arranges for the exchange of a single Israeli soldier ... 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.

2 objections:

1. There is an obvious difference between retaliation and prisoners' exchange.

2. Maybe the Nazis did cherish their comrades. What is in that? Are you implying that because the Nazis cherished their comrades, there is something wrong with valuing one's comrades? Or that there is nothing particularly good about that? I am sure that there were many Nazis who in their private lives [or even in their official capacity] did perform commendable actions.

Alan Gilbert said...

Many elegant observations. Would invoking the occasional good Nazi (a species of the good German)help Marty? Here is part of a post from my blog:, today on Robert's earlier post:

Marty Peretz's emptiness and the corruption of Harvard

Harvard has named a professorship for Marty Peretz in Yiddish studies and proposes to honor him at a 50th anniversary of the Social Studies program this coming Saturday. 4 undergraduates have sent a pointed letter below, featuring three racist citations form Marty about Muslims, blacks and Chicanoes. If the tradition of the jews is to stand for internationalism and against bigotry, Marty is not a jew. That there is such a letter is a true and sad comment on Marty’s career, despite the largely purchased honors, and a deep one about Harvard.

I was an undergraduate in Social Studies in 1962, the second year of the program. It could be quite lively. As a senior I wrote a thesis with Barrington Moore on why there was a peasant-based Communist revolution in China but not a working-class based socialist evolution in Germany. Though I often receive information about class reunions I would have been happy to have heard Robert Paul Wolff, whose work I have known for years. Social studies was then a multidisciplinary, social theoretical program which encouraged students to go their own way. Its leading spirit was Stanley Hoffmann, a lecturer of wonderful eloquence and irony and an exemplar in collegiality (he has also led the West European Studies program). Quite a contrast.

I saw Marty around in Social Studies. I was in the first anti-Vietnam War movement, the May 2nd Committee, that had rallies on campus when President Lyndon B. Johnson bombed North Vietnam. I spoke at one, and was later nominated by the group to debate National Security Advisor and former dean, McGeorge Bundy, one of 6 questioners, on a panel at the end of the year. I asked Bundy how he expected to win a war against a successful peasant revolution by fighting to restore the landlords. See poem: Sanders Theater here. Most of the 800 people in the audience cheered. Saying something that is true to the powerful, even if it is attacked ferociously just then, tends to stand up over time. I had run into Marty the evening before. He encouraged me in speaking out – he opposed the war – and wished me well. I have always remembered Marty for that.

I was in Widener library around the same time and ran into John Rubinstein, a European history graduate student and social studies tutor who had a table piled high with books on early 20th century German social thought, mostly in German, some in translation – Sombart, Weber et al. I asked: “John what are you working on?”

“Oh”, he said, a little embarrassed, “death in German social thought. I’m helping Marty with his thesis.”*

“Gosh,” I said, “I thought you were supposed to write your own thesis.” On his blog, Wolff refers to Marty as a “wannabe leftist” below. Among students and junior professors, everyone knew that Marty was not quite real.

Later, Marty married a wealthy woman and purchased the New Republic. Marty’s voice and some others' are loud to persecute anyone who notices these the oppression of Palestinains. No, Marty, Palestinians including Muslims and Christians, Arab citizens of Israel as well as a billion people, are human. If your gut rises up against them, something is wrong with your gut. It is being able to think about such feelings and understanding one's worst prejudices which marks off someone who will do evil acts – call for aggression against Iraq or Iran - and someone who can free herself of partisanship, and occasionally, think intelligently about politics.

As is true of all universities, the people who make Harvard deservedly well-known are often not those honored or celebrated by the University.

Alan Gilbert said...
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Alan Gilbert said...
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David Pilavin said...

To make it clear - I was not defending Marty Peretz: I do not have the slightest idea who he might be [I am not an American. I am an Israeli].

The proposition that I *was* defending though is the proposition Prof. Wolff contested. Namely:

That the fact that "the Israeli government arranges for the exchange of a single Israeli soldier ... in return for releasing from their jails a number of Palestinian captives." does testify to "the relative value the two sides place upon their comrades".

So I do not know whether the occasional good Nazi would help Peretz, but it would certainly help when a Reductio ad Hitlerum needs to be refuted..

Alan Gilbert said...

David -

Does it not reveal something about the Israeli occupation that it holds so many Palestinians prisoner to make swaps of this sort? Is this holding - if not Lidice as you say - not a form of collective punishment?

David Pilavin said...

To Alan:

1. Those are not just random Palestinians that are sitting in Israeli jails, you know. So the comparaison to Lidice is not in place.

2. The Israeli government, for all that I understand, does not hold those guys in prison *to* make swaps of the sort.

It is rather the other way around: it is *because* those guys are sitting in jail that soldiers get kidnapped so that Israel would be willing to exchange tens of Palestinians for a corpse. [I am not exaggerating].

Now, maybe the natural conclusion from this would be: "so do not hold those Palestinians in jail at all!"

Some do indeed draw that conclusion around here.

My personal opinion is that we should rather let this or that soldier die and be buried in captivity then encourage further kidnappings by our willingness to pay excessively for his release, let alone the release of his corpse.

But I seem to be in a minority opinion around here. So the point does stay the same: the Israeli society does cherish its soldiers [for better or for worse] more than the Palestinians cherish theirs.

[btw - to make it clear - I am not being generous at someone else's expense:

I served and continue to serve as a combat soldier in the IDF - first in a regular unit and now in the Reserve. I always held this opinion regarding the Hostages Controversy - and this opinion I expressed vociferously to my commanders and comrades.

Every time I leave for the Army, I leave a letter asking not to be exchanged for more than one terrorist if I am alive and not to be exchanged for anything at all if I am dead.

So now there is a testimony on the Internet... ]

Alan Gilbert said...


I hear that you are a soldier. May you come home to live in peace.

Israel has occupied the territories and hold all Gaza in a large open-air concentration camp. It arrests and brutalizes and kills innocents (the last attack on Gaza involved the killing of 300 children to one murdered by Hamas; and war crimes as the group of soldiers "Breaking the Silence" revealed). The idea that everyone sitting in an Israeli jail is a "terrorist" or guilty of some serious crime is a fantasy. Worse yet, Israel is the aggressor toward people who had done them no harm, both in the original ethnic cleansing - "transfer" - and now. Israel is very well armed and could make peace. It could treat Palestinians decently. That is its only way forward.

David Pilavin said...

To Alan:

You see, this issue is a totaly different issue altogether. The question whether the Occupation is good or bad or justified or otherwise is a question too complex to be discussed here and I am certainly not qualified to offer a reasoned and a well informed response to your claims.

Hitherto I was only addressing the issue of prisoners' exchange and what are the implications thereof for the value the Israeli Society assigns to the life of its members -- and even to their dead bodies. This issue I am well qualified to discuss -- as I am part of that society.

I cordially thank you for your wishes. I wish you too only the best.

Truth be told, though, I am at home now and living quite in peace:
I served my term as a regualr soldier a few years ago and now I do only a one-month-a-year reserve service - which consists mostly of standing in checkpoints in Samaria.

[So, if anybody is intent upon shooting an evil Israeli subjugator - here I am :-)]

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Nobody is intent on shooting anybody -- and especially not a regular contributor to this blog. I have few enough as it is!!

Seriously, my objection to Peretz is not that his views on the Middle East differ from mine. It is that his statemets over many years bespeak a contempt for people and a dismissal of their humanity. I do not think anyone contributing to this blog shares this mindset.

David Pilavin said...

I certainly hope so :-)

EDB said...

David Pilavin wrote:
2. Maybe the Nazis did cherish their comrades. What is in that? Are you implying that because the Nazis cherished their comrades, there is something wrong with valuing one's comrades? Or that there is nothing particularly good about that? I am sure that there were many Nazis who in their private lives [or even in their official capacity] did perform commendable actions.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, you missed the point: valuing the lives of one's own nationals or soldiers more than the lives of the "other" is the significant parallel here. If the Nazis killed hundreds in retaliation for the killing of one, or if the Israelis release hundreds of Palestinians in exchange for one of their own, the moral valuation of the other's life is similar (Israeli hand-wringing and oh-it-hurts-us-more-than-it-hurts-them-when-we-kill-their-children rhetoric not withstanding): 1 dead German = 100s of murdered Jews/Poles, et al. 1 dead Israeli soldier= 100s of Palestinians. We needn't even view this in terms of prisoner exchanges. For 3 dead Israelis during the winter 2008-2009 Gaza war, Israel killed 1,500 Palestinians. Of course Palestinian life is cheap to the Israelis: how often do Israelis hear the names and stories of Palestinians who are killed compared to the personal anguish collectively experienced on behalf of one Gilad Shalit? Hezbollah and Hamas have simply used this logic that values Israeli lives exponentially over Palestinian/Lebanese ones for their own benefit: they know that kidnapping 1 Israeli will secure the release of thousands of Palestinians/Lebanese.

David Pilavin said...


Obviously, we cherish our soldiers and citizens more than we cherish Palestinian soldiers and citizens.

In any war, a belligerent party that would not cherish *its* soldiers and citizens more than it does the other party's soldiers and citizens is sure to loose.

This said, I do not quite see how it refutes my objection, which you quoted, to Prof. Wolff's appeal to the Nazis.

David Pilavin said...


Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not sure I should weigh in on this debate, even though I sparked it, but there is one thing I want to clarify. What is at stake here has nothing whatsoever to do with the sentiments of one group of people or another concerning members of their group. I could not care less what Nazis or Israelis or Palestinians or Americans feel about their comrades in arms. Occupying powers return attacks a hundred or thousand fold as a way of subduing a population whom they control militarily but whose loyalty and obedience they cannot win. Occupying powers are always in the minority, and so they use a monopoly of military force and terror as a way of maintaining control of the occupied population.

The occupied and oppressed have very few weapons at their control, so they use stealth, and sneak attacks, and even suicide attacks, as a way of refusing to yield to their oppressors. The oppressors respond by saying that the oppressed hold their lives cheap, even that their lives ARE cheap, that the behavior of the oppressed proves the justice of the occupation. This is an old, old story. Those of you who are observant Jews might usefully remind yourselves of Masada.

Jerry Haber said...

Prof Wolff, may I first thank you for helping me understand Rawls when I was a philosophy grad student at Columbia in the late 70s.

As for the sources of Peretz's "Muslim life is cheap" line, I would not discount Major Strasser's line in Casablanca, "My dear Mademoiselle, perhaps you have already observed that in Casablanca, human life is cheap"

It strikes me that Peretz's knowledge of Islam doesn't go much past that movie, which, as you know, was a big hit at Harvard in the sixties, playing to packed houses at the Brattle Theater.

I am only half-joking.

As for Masada,your reference to orthodox Jews is puzzling. Rabbinic Judaism has nothing to say about Masada (though it certainly celebrates martyrdom); the story of Masada was resurrected by secular Zionists in an effort to glorify the Jewish heroes (terrorist Zealots who turned on their fellow Jews as well as the Romans, causing catastrophe to all.) It is Josephus who discusses the incident, which is missing in rabbinic literature.

By the way, I invite you to look at some of my posts at the Magnes Zionist blog.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Jerry. That just reveals my ignorance of such matters, which I freely confess.

Ibrahamav said...

Prof. Wolff,

Your last comment is rather puzzling. You alluded to the Masada incident as illumination for your message yet later confess to ignorance of the actual Masada story.

Actually, the Masada story is far from the morality that imbues Judaism, however, it may show an interesting light on Islamic morality, much of what seems to be borrowed from Judaic tales before the 7th century.