Hey, You’re Truly Unlimited: Didn’t You Know?
Published on: March 19, 2013
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  • WigWag

    It seems that Adam Garfinkle has developed quite a fan club over on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Not only did Tom Friedman give a shout out to Adam’s new E-Book, but David Brooks wrote a compelling and highly complementary forward to Adam’s last book, “Political Writing: A Guide to the Essentials”

    In his introduction to Adam’s book on political writing Brooks wastes no time getting to the point when he says,

    “In these pages Garfinkle holds up a standard of excellence for how to think, argue and be that very few of us can match.”

    I mention this not to flatter Adam (though he has every right to feel flattered by the admiration that luminaries such as Brooks and Friedman have for his work) but because this post put me in mind of a recent column by Brooks that appeared in the March 7th, 2013 edition of the New York Times entitled “The Orthodox Surge.” This extraordinary column can be found here and is well worth a look,


    In the column Brooks deals with many of the same themes that Adam touches on in this post although he does so in microcosm. Speaking of society writ large Adam says,

    “… most societies, most of the time, tend to govern themselves to one extent or another without much help from formal political structures. The glue, metaphorically speaking, that enables societies to do this is referred to as social trust, or sometimes as social capital.”

    This is precisely the same point that Brooks is making in his warm, affectionate and insightful essay about the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Using the metaphor of the Pomegranate Supermarket (sort of a Kosher Whole Foods) that he visits, Brooks is captivated by what the strong social capital of this community has wrought; strong and loving families, a healthy appreciation of the pleasures of sex (as evidenced by the community’s extraordinary fecundity), the delight in debating different interpretations of God’s commandments and the ability to function at a high level in two communities, the secular and the observant.

    The same issues that animate Adam in this post also seem to animate Brooks in his column. Brooks says,

    “Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.

    For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order.

    The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.

    The laws are gradually internalized through a system of lifelong study, argument and practice. The external laws may seem, at first, like an imposition, but then they become welcome and finally seem like a person’s natural way of being.”

    Busy as he’s been getting his new E-Book out, I don’t know whether Adam has followed the controversy surrounding the Brooks essay, but the obvious respect that Brooks has for the Orthodox community that he encountered in that Midwood, Brooklyn neighborhood has been roundly criticized by the secular Jewish establishment; in fact Brooks has been excoriated. Ironically (or perhaps not so ironically) the most vitriolic criticism has emanated from both Reform and secular Jews.

    In the pages of the Jewish Telegraphic Association (March 17th), Shai Franklin calls Brooks praise “misguided” and “agenda driven.”

    In the March 8th, “Jewcy” column in the “Tablet Magazine” Dvora Meyers ridicules Brook’s “Orthodox Fantasy” and claims that Brooks has been taken in by the Orthodox Jews. Doesn’t he realize, she wonders that “Passover is to competitive piety as the Olympics are to Gymnastics-it’s the biggest stage on which to show your neighbors how much more religious you are then them?” Remarkably, Meyers isn’t trying to be funny. She may not realize it, but she has become a parody of herself.

    In the “Forward” (March 14, 2013) Jordana Horn, complains the Brooks’ expression of admiration for the Orthodox people he met at the Pomegranate Supermarket is somehow denigrating to her experience growing up in a conservative Jewish household and attending Jewish summer camp. At “JBog Central” at the “Israel Forum” the Brooks column is described as “terrible” and “deceptive.” At “Open Zion, Gershom Gorenberg accuses Brooks of finding “God in a supermarket.” I guess the idea that God might be everywhere is simply too unsophisticated a concept for the urbane Gorenberg to contemplate. Gorenberg goes on to heap additional disdain on Brooks. He says, “…He does mention God twice in passing, but he devotes much more loving attention to shopping. For Brooks, you are what you buy.”

    It would be easy to chalk up all of this idiocy to the internecine disputes that characterize virtually every religious tradition, but I think that it goes deeper than that. Adam says,

    “People in their communities establish over time certain reciprocal standards and expectations of conduct. These standards and expectations may be the result of a religious culture whose institutions tutor young people during their socialization to conform to behavior that is understood to be commanded from outside the human world. In such cases, moral behavior is ratified by the theotropic inclinations of human nature, in other words, by the sacred. Presumably, other forms of social authority, fully intrinsic to the community, can accomplish the same ends. Sometimes, usually in fact, both occur simultaneously, bringing about a merger encouraged by the fact that as people mature they learn to appreciate the virtues of civility, integrity, honesty, politeness and other social-guidance systems through which people reassure one another that we are allies-in-common by virtue of sharing a basic interest in the safety, security, prosperity and beauty of our surroundings.”

    What drives the secular and reform Jews who are incensed with the Brooks column so insane is that Brooks so clearly agrees with Adam’s view that,

    “Government can encourage and structure the formation of such benign attitudes, but it usually cannot create them de novo.”

    The irony in all of this is that it’s the secular community that has become intolerant, bigoted and even hateful while the religious community that the secularists love to hate has become more tolerant, more open minded and far more open to spiritual enlightenment. What these uber-liberals fail to realize is that it’s their form of liberalism, which denies liberalisms roots in the Judeo-Christian world-view, which represents the biggest threat to the Liberal enterprise.

    Two last thoughts; (1) kudos to Adam Garfinkle. I never thought I would see Haystacks Calhoun mentioned in the same blog post as Kropotkin and Bakunin. (2) I hope that the next New York Times columnist to rave about Adam’s work will be Paul Krugman or Ross Douthat. If Adam ever gets a shout out from Maureen Dowd, he should head for the hills. After all, the reprehensible Dowd’s last interesting insight came during the 2000 Presidential election. She claimed that Al Gore was so “feminized” that he was “practically lactating.”

    • I met David Brooks a long time ago at the offices of National Affairs. David used to come around to talk to Irving Kristol, Adam Wolfson and other staff at The Public Interest. I was across the suite at The National Interest. The two magazines existed in the same office, separated only by air and a bookkeeper common to both magazines. Tom Friedman I have known for a shorter time and not as well. I went to David to ask him to write the foreword for the political writing book, but Tom came to me based on his admiration for TAI On-Line, Walter Mead’s work, Frank Fukuyama and Peter Berger’s work, as well as mine. Just so you know the backstory.

      As to social trust, that’s a theme important to nearly every serious political sociologist for a long, long time. Fukuyama wrote some years ago an excellent book about trust, but even before that I was tutored by Robert McIver, Karl Polanyi and many others in the importance of this, and it was a constant in all the anthro courses I took back when.

      As it happened, I guess I missed the Brooks column on the Orthodox to which you refer, and I know nothing of the ensuing controversy. All I can say is that there is a difference between the individuation of a society and its segmentation. In many Middle Eastern societies social trust is low among those not kin to one another, but very high within tribes, families and clans. (And in ultra-Orthodox communities here and elsewhere.) This gives the result of a social trust stratification that looks metaphorically like the mountains of Afghanistan–shark’s teeth, with valleys separated by mountains one after the other. A society whose social trust profile is narrow but deep and segmented has challenges different from a society in which low social trust is more homogeneously distributed.

      Otherwise, Brooks has discussed trust lots of times, including in his most recent book, The Social Animal, and in a recent column about “brutality cascades.” I think a lot of people agree that it’s an important metric of social well-being. Obviously, I do too.

      Finally, I don’t worry about Ms. Dowd becoming a Garfinkle fan. We don’t vibrate on similar wavelengths.

  • Anthony

    Social trust, how to engage it and successfully sustain it in both creedal and globally interactive world, remains billion dollar question. Yet, your many inferences (within essay) suggest social trust (reciprocal standards and expectations) as sine qua non to America (Americans) coming to terms with her (their) Sprint’s zeitgeist. However, for me, human interactions are less an affair of institutions and systems (anarchism – statism) than of people and an interplay of motivations (conscious or unconscious) and abilities. In this regard, current American individualism benefits from convenient institutions, ideologies, gadgets, etc. while heedless perhaps to the hallowing out of societal social trust (gobalization and technology present revolutionary challenges). “Where will this lead.”

  • dan berg

    You “generalize boldly” that high trust societies (i.e. America)needs less government whereas “low trust societies (ie. China)need more government”. But the descriptions which then follow don’t seem to apply.
    The “individuating tendencies inherent in the technology” in America reverberate very differently in China. If you’re looking at the horned end of the beast – it looks quite different from this end. Looking foreward to reading the book.

  • Pingback: Adam Garfinkle on Emergent Institutions | Mercia Rising()

  • Who, hold on there. I never said flatly that America was a high-trust society, and I never mentioned China at all. I think the levels of social trust in America have fallen, and I said that. I also said that, generally, less less modern and more homogeneous societies tend to be higher trust, and more modern and less homogeneous societies tend to be lower trust, all things equal. In this I break no new ground; this is what all the literature says, pretty much. But things are never “all else equal” and different, large and complex societies–like America and China–are obviously going to display case-specific differences. Not, please, to put words or points in my mouth, and then critique something I never said.

    So how does galloping individuation look in China, compared to the U.S.? Please do tell.

    • dan berg

      I said: America is a high trust society, even if the levels have fallen.
      You said (and repeat): “less modern and more homogenous societies tend to be higher trust.” Then I thought: who, hold on there. China is less modern, rather homogenous, but trust is spectacularly low.
      The point I was attempting to make about “recent widespread commercial applications of IT”: it apparently works very differently in China (which you did not mention)than the US. You say: this technology “trends toward the individuation of American society.” ok. I say: in China, the same technology trends toward community, concern for the environment, anti-govt criticism, ect.

  • Jim.

    While I’m in general agreement with Garfinkle’s insights on social authoritarianism vs. anarchism (and most of his specifics, really), I have to question his religious metaphor. In Paul’s time, Judaism was anything but tolerant (“Samaritans need not apply”), and was also famous for being tremendously rules-centric (Pharisaic). This has changed in many Jewish traditions (though not all!) in the years since the fall of the last Temple, but since we’re talking 2000+ year old intellectual traditions here, it’s a fair comment to make.

    To accuse “Pauline” ideas of being socially authoritarian is similarly dissonant; sure, he has an enormous number of helpful guidelines for leading a good life and directing strong communities. However, underlying and undermining the whole litany of rules is the concept “Yes, but no one can ever hope to follow them all. God’s Grace through Christ trumps the Law.” Antinomian? Hardly. (Neither was Jesus.) But certainly not “authoritarian”.

    Are you sure it isn’t the “Petrine” tradition you’re thinking of? The one with infallible authority, rigid hierarchy, and the rest?

    • I do not concur with your descriptions; these all come from early Christian apologetics, which were anti-Judaism for both political and proselytizing reasons. But that is beside the point I was trying to make. I was trying merely to point out that Judaism’s view of human nature is sunnier than that of Christianity, as anarchism is sunnier in that respect than socialist statism. The hallmark of Jewish thinking, from Patriarchal times through First and Second Temple times and into Rabbinic times is that humans are free to create their individual and social circumstances as a consequence of their behavior. Life is not cyclical, but it progresses. Gods in the dome of Heaven, or the stars, do not determine human fate. Humans can freely choose to do good, or evil–hence the statement in Deuteronomy, “therefore choose life.” Mainstream Christian views (maybe I should have said that instead of Pauline, but I think they’re the same) denies human freedom to do good–even Augustine’s doctrine of free will doesn’t go that far. Humans are inherently sinful, fallen–doctrines alien to Judaism–and can only be saved through grace, which comes from outside the human realm. Some even believe that this theology is a regression from the Abrahamic revolution back to the cyclical/deterministic pagan beliefs prevalent in Hellenic culture, from which early Christianity took as much or more than it took from Judaism. I am not expert enough in the period to have a firm view on that proposition.

      Obviously, a lot more can be said about this, and has; but I stand by my remark, on this basis.

  • Ah, now I see what you mean. You’ll recall that I mentioned Tahrir Square and said that it’s so early in the cyber-era that we don’t yet know how the gadgets will play out. China, it seems to me based on no expert knowledge, is best described as a segmented society in terms of social trust. Among patrimonial clusters (extended families, clans) trust is deep but narrow; in society at large it is low. That’s how in transitional societies you get cronyism and clientalism, because people tend to trust those to whom they are related. It’s similar in many Arab societies. So there’s a difference between low/high trust measures on the one hand and how segmented across groups trust is in general. I think that’s part of the explanation for the different trajectories you note. But clearly, this is an interesting and still open-to-research subject.

  • victoria wilson – mn

    Tying social exchanges to morality is where acumen is deflected from the essence of social economics. The complication of such a pairing has been mentioned by others. If social trust is the result of religious choices why do thugs and bandits like the mafia have high social cohesion within their group yet profit from amoral behavior?

    On a subtler note, I recently heard a local debate flushing out the prerogative of the central city to draw subsidized housing funds versus relocating them to the suburbs. The center city folks thought their need was greatest, so receipt of the funds was the ‘right’ way to go. The opposing voice argued that in order to keep the greater metro strong it would be ‘right’ to house disadvantaged peopled in outer lying areas where they could potentially tap greater resources in wealthier communities. Both parties can be ‘right’ if you distinguish which public they are championing. From the central city prospective it is ‘right’ to demand greater funding for their poor. Form the greater metro public perspective it is ‘right’ to deter a core of highly concentrated poverty (because in the end the pocket will be supported by the greater group). From the mafia boss perspective he is ‘right’ in providing for his family.

    Social trust is developed through reciprocal exchanges all over the world. But I think it is a mistake to build a model that bases the motivation of these exchanges on religion.

    • adam garfinkle

      Faith communities are good examples of nodes where social trust develops. Traditionally, these communities have been the major node. There are others, as I said. I was making a sociological observation, which you apparently misunderstood as an advertisement for religion. As for your housing example, I am afraid is relevance to the discussion is completely lose on me.

      • victoria wilson – mn

        When I read your text, references to social exchanges are soon followed by references to religious culture, moral behavior or the font of any moral order. This tie between the mechanics of social exchanges to a gradient of morality is what I was trying to point out.

        I would like to see more discussion on the actual exchanges and their outcomes. Instead there is an admission of their existence, that they in fact bring structure to self-governance within a society, and with the accompaniment of a little social trust, they are quite successful.

        The housing example was an illustration of how activists claim higher moral ground (they need to take care of their inner-city poor) to obtain public funds; whereas others view the distribution of housing funds to a greater metropolitan area as a way to engage other public funds in the care of the poor. Both claim the greatest good without a verifying measure.

        We need fewer activists claiming the highest moral ground and more pragmatists evaluating the trade-offs that occur during reciprocal exchanges.

  • Thanks to WigWag for flagging my op-ed response to David Brooks. As my old friend Adam can attest, I am no secular Jew. I am Orthodox. My previous job involved representing the Orthodox Syrian Jews of Brooklyn. Most of my Orthodox friends appreciate Brooks’ promoting of Orthodox Jews, while also sharing my apprehension at his misrepresentation of our socio-economic status as a measure of our piety. Mo’adim le-simcha!

    • WigWag

      In your critique of David Brooks column, Mr. Franklin you say,

      “The average Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn cannot afford Pomegranate, and thousands each week rely on food pantries stocked by organizations like the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and Sephardic Bikur Holim. Approximately two-thirds of New York’s needy Jews live in Brooklyn. The average Orthodox family, including those living in the suburbs and on Manhattan’s swanky West Side, lives on a tight budget, and that includes many of those 10-percenters. They struggle to keep up with household bills, yeshiva tuition for their numerous children, support for community needs and extravagances like any other American.”

      Perhaps you can explain what if anything this has to do with the point that Brooks was trying to make. It seems to me that the socioeconomic status of the average shopper at Pomegranate could not be more irreleant to Brook’s thesis.

      Brooks was trying to share the nature of a devout lifestyle with his readership, the vast majroity of whom are not pious. Why the fact that he did it in a warm, affectionate manner so irritated you and other critics is a mystery to me.

      Whether observant Jews are rich, poor or middle class isn’t what interested Brooks; it’s the fact that the choices they make in every day life are governed by their understanding of the nature of the covenant that they have with the deity. It’s a lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans have no familiarity with and Brooks was merely pointing out that it comes with many psychic and communal benefits. The prices that they charge at Pomegranate couldn’t be more besides the point.

      In your article for the Forward you say that Brooks praise is “agenda-driven” but you never actually come out and say what you think his agenda is. I would be interested to know what you think Brooks agenda is and why you worry that its so nefarious.

      As for suggesting that you were a secular or reform Jew, my mistake; I apologize. No offense intended.

  • Jeff Campbell

    Fascinating stuff. If you could only recommend one book for a layman to read on the subject of “social trust”, what book would it be?

  • Well, Francis Fukuyama’s book Trust is the place to start, but Robert Putnam’s famous Bowling Alone is also very good. These two will certainly get you going.

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