There are as many Islams as there are Moslems. There are as many Christianities as there are Christians. And there are twice as many Judaisms as there are Jews. This is because for any one of us it’s invariably “On ze vun hand … but on ze ozer …” So in offering my colour commentary on all three Religions of the Book, I’m going to be painting with a very wide brush. I make no apology for that because, well, what good would it do me?

The first thing I want to say is that orthogonal to the distinction between Jews, Christians, and Moslems, is the distinction between a set of metaphysical claims and a set of instructions on how to live. Historically, the latter always precedes the former, though in the telling of our foundation myths the order is invariably reversed. That is, first God created the heavens and the earth. Then, a bit later, He flooded it. Then, later still, came His encounter with Abraham. And only then did He hand down His Law to Moses, and/or to Jesus, and/or to Mohammed.

But in fact that’s not how it actually happened. How do I know? Because He told me. First there were people in need of law. Only then came the metaphysical stories. Why? What work did those stories do? Did these stories in some way justify the law? It’s hard to see how. First, beyond what the law does for us, it doesn’t need justification. And second, there’s nothing in these stories that does seem to be justifying the law. So the metaphysics must be doing something else. What else? The same thing secular metaphysics is doing. It’s explaining why the world’s this way rather than some other.

Does every civilization need an explanation for why the world’s this way rather than some other? Probably not. But it does provide a base upon which the regularities we identify in the world can supervene. For example, if you ask what caused this, and then what caused that, and so on, eventually you’re going to want to know what caused the whole thing. And since even a cave man knows better than to be satisfied with an infinite regress, what you get is the Uncaused Cause, or the Grounding of all Being, or, as it came be called, God.

Anthropologists of religion tell us that originally God – or more commonly the gods – bore only natural properties like sunshine or rain or wind, but no moral properties. Or if they did they were conceived of as either a) good, b) evil, or c) complicated. Which, not surprisingly, is pretty much how we think of ourselves or each other.

These anthropologists have advanced various theories about how these traits got combined into one Being, though of course they haven’t really. None of our three religions has transcended the need to personify the forces of both light and darkness. And not just “the better [and worse] angels of our nature” but also the myriad other facets of being human. Hence the mother of God, the pantheon of saints, and so on. The amalgam of theism and Greek metaphysics drives us ‘upwards’ to theoretical monotheism, but we’re forever pulled back down. Our inherent polytheism will not be denied.

As plausible a story as any as to how polytheism devolved into monotheism, or at least monolatry, is that in the wake of conquest it’s almost invariably less costly to absorb the gods of the vanquished than try to kill them off. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Yahweh, God, and Allah are names for the same god. What’s at issue between us, then, is not so much who God is, but rather a) what He’s been up to, and b) what He wants from us.

When going to war we need our God on our side, and this means we need our respective histories with Him to reflect this partiality. Thus we get the switch between Isaac and Ishmael in the two competing accounts of the Abrahamic Covenant. We get the Book of Exodus, notwithstanding scholars are now saying none of it ever really happened. And we get Jesus’ infamous “Lo, I turn to the Gentiles!”, from which we get the supersessionism that poisoned Jewish-Christian relations right from the get-go and culminated in the Shoah, which in turn gave rise to the Naqba, which has since given rise to coming up now to seventy years of internecine warfare that will come to an end when hell freezes over.

That God’s moral judgments are projections of our own is shown conclusively by Plato’s Euthyphro. So apart from the Problem of Evil, a.k.a. theodicy, there’s nothing philosophically perplexing about what God wants from us that’s any different from what we want from ourselves. But it’s the metaphysics of God that is, for me at least, utterly fascinating.

That a coherent metaphysics for post-apologetic theism is impossible goes without saying. Or if it needs to be said, it can be shown, and then said, pretty quickly. But that is not a proof for the nonexistence of God. It’s only a proof for the nonexistence of the kind of God of whom the requisite metaphysics is incoherent. So yes, the God of (what’s sometimes called) high theology is one whose existence is a piece of cake to refute. But the God of low theology is not such an easy target.

It’s not an easy target, complains the atheist, only because it’s a moving one.

But I’m not so sure about that. I think there is a stand-its-ground conception of God the metaphysics for whom, though implausible, need not be incoherent. And it’s this which makes me (what I call) a sympathetic atheist, by which I mean I do not think one has to be crazy to believe in God, provided her conception of Him is of this coherent variety. The reason why theism is such an easy target for atheists is because too many theists want to have their cake and eat it too. The low theology God does all the explanatory work that needs to be done by their belief in God. And yet they’re greedy. They want their God to do additional explanatory work, work, He can’t do and, more to the point, work that doesn’t need to be done.

To see this, imagine two possible worlds, one of which has a grounding to its being, the other of which does not. Beyond the having of this grounding, what property, pray tell, had by the one is not had by the other? None. So, it would seem, it’s not, as some atheists have argued, that being can be its own grounding. It’s that being isn’t the kind of thing that needs a grounding in the first place.

Grounding-talk is patter. As are any of the pseudo-properties one would like to assign to the God of high theology – omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, all-loving, eternal, and so on.

The key to the proof that this kind of talk is mere patter is (what I call) the univocality requirement, which is the insistence that any words predicated of God must be univocal with those same words predicated of anything else, since otherwise we don’t know what’s being said. And if we don’t know what’s being said, neither does the speaker. And if he doesn’t know what he’s saying, then, to paraphrase Rudolf Carnap, he should just shut the fuck up!

This is not to say there couldn’t be something ‘out there’, so to speak, which is ineffable. In fact I’m reasonably confident there is. But if it’s ineffable then we can’t say anything about it. And if we’re not going to say anything about it, then let’s talk about something else.

So here’s the summary of my argumentative strategy. From the univocality requirement we get the unintelligibility of high theology. And from its unintelligibility we get its vacuity.

It’s an unforgiving line of argument. One might even call it brutal. But it’s pretty much the same argument I use in dismissing the lion’s share of what masquerades as philosophy on the Continent. It’s why the first thing I say when I wake up every morning is not, “Thank God I was not born a woman!” – which, as a Jewish male, is what I’m supposed to thank Him for – but rather, “Thank God I was tenured into a proper analytic philosophy department!”

Now if only I could get my foaming-at-the-mouth atheist colleagues, when I’m on my way to teach my Phil of Religion class, to let me pass their open doorways without their mocking me with, “Off to Bible study are we? Well, break a leg. Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to make light of genuflecting.!”


It had to happen. It was just a matter of time. In fact it’s been happening incrementally, probably since before we came down from the trees. When there was nothing around we just shut our eyes and masturbated to what we imagined. For some it was adults, for others children, and for still others sometimes adults and sometimes children. In what proportions we don’t know because there was no Kinsey Report back then, no Masters and Johnson with clipboards at the mouth of our caves. And we still don’t know, because lusting after children has become something of a thought-crime of late, if not legally then certainly socially.

When there was something around – something we might associate with a token of the type for whom we lusted – we used it as a masturbatory aid. The smell of a piece of clothing, a lock of hair, a shoe, a handbag … Association has no limits.

Fast forward to modern times. You can’t tell me no man ever masturbated gazing into the sultry eyes of his daughter’s Barbie doll, or that no one ever bought a bigger baby doll rather than a smaller one so he could improvise a hole between its legs and line it with something soft and warm. So let’s not get too excited. Child sex dolls, commercially produced, distributed and consumed, have been with us for centuries.

Zealous defenders of the common good have burned books ever since there have been books to burn. But people tell each other stories, those stories are written in our minds, and as soon as the Torquemadas aren’t looking, they’re committed once again to paper. Zealous crusaders for the penitent silence God demands of us have smashed cd’s ever since there’s been cd’s to smash. But people hum and tap their fingers anyhow. And soon enough they find other media by which to invite others with them into perdition. So I’m not terribly concerned that people who want these dolls may have to improvise a little, or spend a little more for the contraband dropped just offshore to be retrieved in the dead of night by brave men in fisherman’s knits and blackened faces.

Eventually all this enforcement will just seem either couterproductive  or silly, as it did with Prohibition, prohibitive taxes on cigarettes, hardcore porn, and yes, someday soon – or so I predict – child porn. The civil liberties issue is there, of course. And I don’t mean to minimize it. But at the end of the day the customer is always right. And apparently there are more customers in the queue for sex dolls, both adult and child, than for the new Tesla.

But that doesn’t settle the issue. Which issue? The issue of whether our disapproval of these dolls, adult or child, is justified.

Look, there are all kinds of malfeasance the criminalization of which will never do away with completely. Think of murder, think of theft, think of tax evasion. But that hardly means we shouldn’t criminalize these things, provided criminalization reduces the frequency of this malfeasance. Even supposing, however implausibly, that consumption of alcohol and abortion were both wrong, their criminalization failed to reduce their frequencies. Hence their decriminalization. But one could hope that criminalization of child sex dolls will, if not reduce their frequency, then at least retard the increase in their frequency.

So as I say, the debate need not focus, at least not up front, on enforceability. If there’s no justification for interfering with their production, distribution and consumption, then the enforceability issue doesn’t arise. If and when it does arise we can then talk about the balance between the need for criminalization and the invasiveness of enforcing it. In short, then, we need to know what if anything is wrong with the production, distribution and consumption of child sex dolls.

In the case of child pornography, one could argue that the harm lies in its production. But that argument is getting weaker and weaker as animation gets more and more sophisticated. Very soon now, if not already, animation will outperform live action pornography, both adult and child, both economically and aesthetically.

Inadvertent production is another story. A trusted uncle posts unstaged but nonetheless provocative photos of his young nephew or niece on a child porn site. Since few very small children are recognizable from one year to the next, the right to privacy is probably not being all that seriously violated. And besides, this is one area where what counts as provocative really is in the eye, or loins, of the beholder.

In any event, mens rea isn’t enough. There has to be actus reus. So to convict the judge must himself confess to being stimulated, or pretend he’s not but the man on the Clapham omnibus would be. Either that or the actus reus must be met by the venue in which the images are being shown. The baby Jesus in the manger is one thing. The identical baby Larry in the identical manger is something else. The law has to try not to make a laughing stock of itself. But the juxtaposition at the front of the courtroom of these two images would be just a tad risible.

Then what about some third party – one incapable of interfering with the interference – filming the sexual interference with the child? Then what we have, it seems, is something jurisprudentially indistinguishable from the photo-journalist filming, for example, an ISIS execution. Here the public’s right to know what’s going on in the world – or so it’s standardly argued – trumps the victim’s right to privacy. Fair enough. But then why should small children be afforded greater such rights than an equally innocent adult?

So here the issue must come down to seemliness. It’s unseemly to expose the public to ugliness. That’s why newscasts do tend to cut away from the uglier scenes of man’s inhumanity to man. Or to child. But the pedophile doesn’t find the scene ugly. Quite the contrary. That’s what makes him a pedophile. Come to think of it, by definition. So since no one’s forcing you to look, neither should anyone force him not to.

So confining ourselves, as we have so far, to Mill’s harm principle, there seems to be no good reason, or soon won’t be, to criminalize the production, distribution and consumption of child pornography, and so by parity of reasoning, no good reason to criminalize the production, distribution and consumption of child sex dolls.

But this might be too quick. In addition to Mill’s harm principle there’s Joel Feinberg’s offense principle. No one’s being asked to watch the consumer having his way with his doll, but apparently the very knowledge that he is is deeply offensive to some people.

But it hardly needs saying that this argument proves too much. We fought wars to assuage our outrage at how others worship, and in the wake of that slaughter we decided to live and let live rather than kill and let kill. Anyone who wants to reprise those wars we should kill right now, to save us the bother of having to do it later. This applies to both the recent surge in Islamicism in the Moslem world and of the Christian right in America. No, Fatima, no Virginia, what I do in the privacy of my bedroom is none of your fucking business!

Still too quick. Neither the harm principle nor the offense principle captures what’s come to be called the symbolic harms argument. It’s been most rigourously articulated by Melinda Vadas in a 1987 Journal of Philosophy paper entitled “Could Pornography be the Subordination of Women?”, but it’s since been ratified by the Supreme Court of Canada in its dicta in Butler (1992).

Suppose a female student comes to my office to discuss a paper. I’m looking at her over my glasses, as I’m wont to do when I’m listening intently. But behind me is one of those tacky Mexican velvet paintings of a nude woman. The question is not whether I’m looking at her the same way I’d be looking at a male student. It’s whether she feels herself being looked at the same way I’d be looking at a male student. And that painting has a great deal to do with that. So, argues Vadas, insofar as pornography represents women as meat, and women know they’re being represented that way, such representation needn’t cause the subordination of women because it just is the subordination of women.

I think Vadas is right. But does the argument transfer, first to child porn, and thence to child sex dolls? It’s hard to see how. Child porn doesn’t subordinate children. Children just are subordinate to adults. That’s just what we mean by their being children and our being adults. And so how does a child sex doll subordinate them further? By representing them as acceptable objects of lust? But why wouldn’t they be? Surely that’s what has to be established. And however that is established, it can’t, on pain of circularity, invoke the symbolic harms argument.

And there’s something odd – is there not? – about saying some object, animate or not, ought not to be an object of lust. In what sense of ‘ought’? God has made it clear that a man ought not to lay with a man as with a woman. Well, okay, no one’s asking Him to. But what makes Him think He’s entitled to impose His heterosexuality on the rest of us?

Leaving aside for the moment what does and doesn’t count as an infant, a child, a statutory child, and so on – and so what would count as pedophilia – I’d guess that pedophilia plays a much bigger role in male sexual fantasy than homosexuality. The latter, or so I’m told, runs about 7%. The former must be well over 50%. By which I don’t mean 50% of us are pedophiles. I just mean that for 50% of us pedophilia is included in our fantasy repertoire. If having a sexual response to children is ‘an abomination in the eyes of God’, He’s going to have a whole lot of retooling to do come the Rapture.

Okay, so the unacceptability of lusting after children can’t lie in either the lusting, nor on their being children, but rather in one’s acting on that lust. Is masturbating with a child in mind acting on one’s pedophilia? Presumably not. Is masturbating with a child-associated masturbatory aid acting on it? Hard to see the distinction. So it must be that masturbating with a child-associated masturbatory aid, like a picture or a doll, is thought to increase the likelihood of acting on one’s pedophilia with an actual child.

There’s a preponderance of evidence that those who have acted on their pedophilia entertained pedophile fantasies before doing so. But that’s just a duh. The question is whether these fantasies upped the frequency of the actual interference. Common sense might tell us they must. But common sense is often wrong. Hard to prove it wrong, of course, since it’s hard to imagine how research into it would pass muster with any ethics board.

Nor can we invoke what’s called the precautionary principle, which counsels us, when operating under two or even one-dimensional uncertainty, to take the safer route. But since it’s as much common sense that access to child sex dolls would actually be cathartic rather than provocative, we’re not sure which route is in fact the safer one.

Then try this. Sexual play is practice for the real thing. Practicing on children, even if only simulacra of children, is just poor sexual training. Children aren’t sex partners, and a fortiori neither are dolls. Real adult sex partners don’t act like either children or dolls, and certainly not like child sex dolls. And a fortiori real children don’t act like dolls. For one thing, they cry when you hurt them, and that, for most pedophiles of my acquaintance, is an immediate turn-off.

But the bad training argument hangs on the image of a young man prepping for his first ‘going all the way’, buying the doll, getting the hang of things with it, losing his virginity, and then selling it on Ebay. I’m not saying this couldn’t happen. I’m just saying it doesn’t. It doesn’t because that’s not what people buy these dolls for.

All right, let’s try again. Sex with a prostitute is cheating. Not on one’s wife, though certainly that too if one were married. No, it’s cheating because it’s getting sexual access without having to invest the time and energy the rest of us do. Sex with a sex doll is doubly cheating because it’s getting sexual access without having to pay the prostitute. And sex with a child sex doll is the ultimate cheat because it’s getting sexual access without even having to conjure the illusion of having to work for it. That is, with an adult sex doll one might run a conquest scenario in one’s head. But no such scenario would make sense with a child.

I’m not sure this is right. It seems to me the pedophile could imagine himself seducing the child, though I concede that a resistance scenario, available with the adult doll, would be a bit of stretch with the child one.

Still, I don’t think there’s much to this ‘authenticity argument. The authenticity objection to prostitution is that it puts the prostitute in a position of having to be inauthentic, not the john. Replacing her with a doll relieves the prostitute of that burden. But maybe that’s the problem. It’s yet another case of automation putting real breadwinners out of work. And that, I think, the proliferation of sex dolls will, especially when, with economy of scale, these products become affordable on pretty much any budget.

But it’s not just prostitutes who’ll now have to fend for themselves with more ‘honest’ toil. It’s also a lot of ordinary women who’ve been making their way in the world on the backs of their sexuality. The sex doll is the men’s movement’s revenge on the lesbian separatists. If you say you don’t need us, well neither do we need you!

But from feminists or others, the worry seems to be that these dolls, adult or child, are going to have a devastating impact on the fundamental nature of our social relations, relations which supervene in large measure on our interpersonal sexuality. When one’s buddy is having sex with his Angela Jolie simulacra, how long can the neo-Luddite keep up his claim to the moral high ground with his aging crone? Just as drones and google glasses are doing away with all pretense of privacy, so will sex dolls retire the sexual component of love. Philia will survive. And maybe, if God’s lucky, agape. But not eros. And with eros goes the lion’s share of all poetry, music, drama, and art.

But what does this really amount to, if not the same argument that your same-sex marriage devalues my heterosexual marriage. This is nonsense, on stilts. One could as readily argue that heterosexual marriage devalues same-sex marriage, which, since it doesn’t, neither does the opposite. So no, Virginia, you’re not going to be so special any more, at least not for your vagina. I guess you’re just going to have to find your self-esteem somewhere above your waist.

The argument for these dolls is predictable enough. It’s simply false that there’s a girl for every guy. And certainly false that there’s a child for every pedophile. Some guys just really are too ugly, or socially inept, or isolated in a fire tower, or whatever. To deprive these people of a fundamental human need is a violation of a fundamental human right. It’s not a positive right. No one has a correlative duty to provide these ‘losers’ with sex. But it’s a negative right, imposing a duty not to interfere with their pursuit of it.

My intuitions tell me that the human rights argument trumps. It wouldn’t if there were actionable costs to the exercise of this right. But so far as I can tell, there aren’t.

Of course I’ve been thinking about this entirely from the male perspective. Suppose it were women buying male dolls and so cutting me out of the action. That would be a very different story. Turnabout is not fair play. What’s good for the goose is definitely not good for the gander. Then I’d have to rethink the issue from the ground up.

A dildo is one thing, and if it were attached to a doll in the image and likeness of me, I could probably live with that. But I have a sneaking suspicion the doll wouldn’t be in my image and likeness, because women are notoriously shallow. But I suppose I’ll just have to bite the bullet and concede that if automation renders me redundant, I shall walk off into the sunset knowing I was there when I was needed.

Note to self: Maybe not a line to recommend to post-menopausal women looking to console themselves for the loss of their husbands’ fidelity.


You and I allow each other to freely be in each other’s presence on condition that we won’t misbehave. Were this not so we’d all still be cowering in our caves, “and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In aid of our being able to exit the cave we forfeit our means of self-defense to authorities who promise to defend us from this misbehavior. If instead they employ the very means we’ve seconded to them to misbehave, then that misbehavior is (what jurisprudes call) aggravated by their authority.

On this much we’re all of a mind. Now put this on the backburner for a moment.

Suppose you’re being raped. If there are no such authorities in earshot but you have the wherewithal to render your attacker incapable of proceeding, you’re entitled to do so. Now suppose you did not have that wherewithal. He stands before the court convicted. If you were entitled to render him incapable of rape then, why are you, or that now-present authority, not entitled to render him incapable of rape now?

Well, you’re not, but that authority is. That authority figures, quite rightly, that he’d be incapable of rape if he genuinely saw the error of his ways and was not under any kind of irresistible compulsion. That would make him indistinguishable from me. Neither he nor I are exactly incapable of rape, but we’re near-enough-good-enough incapable of it. So any punishment could only be justified by its deterrent effect on others.

But suppose at least one of these conditions is unsatisfied. Either he doesn’t see the error of his ways or his behavior is compulsive. He’s rendered incapable of rape if he’s incarcerated, but only so long as he is. Once released he’s indistinguishable from the man he was just before he raped you. I understand why the authorities are loathe to render him permanently incapable of rape, either by killing him or at least castrating him. That’s not the kind of polity any of us, including you qua one of us, want to live in. But what about you qua you? If you were justified in rendering him incapable of rape then, why aren’t you justified in rendering him incapable of rape now?

The answer, of course, lies in (what’s called) the clear and present danger test. That the Turks and Caicos Islands might invade England some day is not grounds for England to invade the Turks and Caircos Islands. But that Egypt had blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba did justify Israel’s preemptive strike on the Alexandria airfields, the first and decisive salvo in the Six Day War.

That the rapist has raped before goes some distance towards satisfying the clarity component of the test, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient. Suppose that, having raped you, he retires to the bathroom, you find a loaded pistol in the drawer of the bedside table, he emerges from the bathroom, and you put a bullet through his head. Most jurisdictions would recognize you had a reasonable expectation of further bodily harm and so acted in self-defense. But now suppose it was reasonably clear he was finished with you, at least for now. Perhaps he emerged wearing a shirt and tie as if readying himself to return to the office.

Some members of the jury would say shoot the fucker anyhow. But if they say this because they know you know that if you take the matter to the authorities the voluntariness of the encounter will be your word against his, then what they’re saying, in effect, is that you have the right to take the law into your own hands – to be judge, jury, and executioner. They can reason this way – and should reason this way – if conviction is a virtual impossibility. Then what the court is facing is jury nullification, and the only way for the judge to protect the accused from a violation of natural justice is to override the jury’s guilty verdict. And if he does that there’s going to be a lot of dead rapists on a lot of bathroom floors!

So there’s an interesting dialectic at play, not just in rape cases but likewise in cases of vigilante behavior in general. In evolutionary game theory getting this equilibrium right is called an evolutionary stable strategy (or ESS). Elsewhere it’s just called common sense.

Being locked in a closet with a snake that may or may not be poisonous is a present danger but not a clear one. Being buried alive in a coffin with a breathing tube to the surface is a clear danger but not a present one. So the score for the test is cumulative. There’s no formula for the requisite threshold to trigger a defense of self-defense. It’s what the reasonable man on the Clapham omnibus would do, or in this case the reasonable women taking an evening stroll through the park.

Can that reasonableness be informed by past experience, be it hers or that of her sisters? Certainly it can. And should. But this way too there be dragons. The less acceptable term for past experience is stereotyping, a.k.a. prejudice. A black youth wearing a hoody in a white neighborhood at three in the morning is up to no good. Stand your ground. An aboriginal man blocking your egress from the park is likely drunk and thinking himself sexually irresistible. If you don’t shoot him now you won’t be able to once he’s grabbed you. And so on.

These are precisely the issues that come before the courts, both of law and of public opinion. Juries tend to acquit the cop who kills the unarmed black man, whereas the public thinks the case should be open and shut. No doubt there’s a fact of the matter as to who’s right and who’s wrong. But is that a material fact or a political one?

The fact to which I’m referring here is not what happened that day. I’m referring to whether the shooting was justified. And justification, as it’s used in jurisprudence, is a political term. We decide what we’ll accept as justified and what we won’t. And we decide that by balancing conflicting interests.

The onus of proof on a charge of rape is being lowered because there are enough women who want it to be and too few men who don’t. If this be doubted ask yourself why else was it mutatis mutandis until recently that a man couldn’t be charged with raping his wife? What does the work here is power, physical power, sexual power, and now economic power. Arguments for and against come ontologically afterwards, and are therefore epiphenomenal. And if this be doubted, in turn, ask yourself how the legal status of the fetus could be settled metaphysically. Or the age of consent could hang on some discoverable material fact about nonage. Omar Khadr has been called a ‘child soldier’ because he was fifteen when he got his licks in at Ayub Kheyl that day, notwithstanding that fifteen is at or above the mean age at which men have gone to war pretty much since we emerged from the cave. Cats get pregnant in their first heat. So did our own females within a month of their first period. That we’ve decided it should be otherwise has been a political decision, and a local one at that.

But I digress. Let’s scroll back up the page and move that pot about aggravated misbehavior from the back burner to the front. Because we’re so habituated to authority we often forget the conditionality of our having given uptake to it. The merely corrupt cop we can understand. There are temptations wherever there are, well, something tempting. But the core of the cop’s entitlement to the monopoly on the means of violence we afford him is that with it he will protect our lives. Everything else can be recouped, but not that. So when a cop kills one of us, in neither self-defense nor in the defense of others, he returns himself to the jungle – and us along with him – and to the law of the jungle, which is precisely that “life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In less ‘civilized’ polities it’s understood that the police are just one gang of thugs morally indistinguishable from any other. (Or in Libya, the Coast Guard just another cartel of human smugglers.) But in more ‘civilized’ polities, like America is presumed to be, the recent spate of cops emptying their sidearms into innocent (mostly black) bodies is undermining the very raison d’etre of the police. They are becoming to black America what the IDF has been to the Occupied Territories. Nor does the recruitment of black officers counteract this, any more than the recruitment of Palestinian collaborators has made the Occupation less intolerable.

I do not presume here to be telling the American people something they don’t already know, if not in the forefront of their minds then at least in the periphery. But not unlike the Israelis, their solution of choice seems to be to double-down rather walk it back. Just as with rape, what’s needed in America is, mutatis mutandis, a lowering of the bar for conviction in cases of police-authored homicides.

Or so it’s being argued. But apart from every such lowering inviting violations of natural justice, what would be the autonomous effects of this? Certainly fewer police-authored murders. But also fewer police. No one wants to place himself in a position where he’s in fear of losing his life and, at the same time, in fear of losing his liberty. So the smart money goes to finding something else to do for a living. So once again we have a balancing of interests in search of a stable equilibrium.

As with the climate, the stability of an equilibrium between the police doing their job and being willing to do their job, can’t be measured over the duration of a few news cycles. Decades is probably the right calibrant. About two or three decades behind the climate alarmists, the talking heads are just beginning to talk about America’s descent into another Civil War. Since I likely won’t be around to see either, I can prognosticate without having to buy a cookbook on how to prepare crow. It’s like I tell my students. “Every marriage eventually ends in divorce.”

“But Professor Viminitz, my grandparents have been happily married for …”

“Look,” I interject. “I never said some people don’t die before they have to chance to get divorced.”

I’ve argued elsewhere that Guantanamo Bay has set jus in bello and jus post bellum back at least two thirds of a century, to the beginning of the Second World War. And for the same reason that these police-authored murders of unarmed black men is setting race relations in America back to the early Sixties.

The counterargument – and it’s a good one – is that ‘twas always thus. There’s nothing new about post-Geneva violations of the Geneva Conventions, nor about American cops murdering black American kids. In fact if anything the rate of such murders has been steadily declining since the outset of the civil rights movement.

Right on both counts. But two things have changed. Social media has made it almost inevitable that these murders will go viral within minutes, complete with video. And we’re living in a much more symbol-sensitive age. The killing of a black teenager means something it didn’t mean before.

But on second thought I take it all back. The one thing I promised myself I’d never become is just another Laocoon like my colleagues. Their end-of-civilization-as-we-know motif is anthropogenic global warming, and I mock them mercilessly for it. Surely I deserve no better.


It never ceases to amaze me that whatever it is, it’s almost invariably a thing. Who knew, for example, that if you google “diary” and “Holocaust”, there are tomes upon tomes of articles on whether the Anne Frank diary was forged, and thousands upon thousands of people taking a keen interest in what I had no idea even could be an issue.

Well, turnabout is fair play. I know you know that serial killing is a thing. But I’ll bet you didn’t know that being a serial killer is its own thing. By which I don’t mean we have our own chat lines. As with pedophiles that goes without saying. Rather I mean we have our own online conferences, how-so seminars, how-not-to seminars, our own organizations – I’m VP External of the Southern Alberta Chapter of Off Your Knees, Serial Killers, or OYKSK. In short, it’s a thing. And it’s a thing as multi-layered and multi-faceted as 9/11-Trutherism, anthropogenic global warming, and yes, pedophilia.

And just as pedophiles take umbrage at all being painted with the same brush, so do we serial killers. We are not tokens of some type. We are sui generis individuals, each with his own axe to grind – or wield – his own strengths and weaknesses, his own penchants and would-never’s, his own religious affiliation, party membership, sexual orientation, allergies, underlying medical conditions, hopes and dreams and fears – usually of getting caught – and so on.

In a blog entry of this size I can at most touch on the tip of the iceberg. But some consciousness-raising is better than none.

There is an organization called Serial Killers Anonymous (or SKA), but we consider them outliers, because they’re trying to quit, which we liken to apostasy. Do LGBT clubs welcome members who are ashamed of being LBGT? Why then should we welcome members of SKA? That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily proud of being serial killers, any more than heterosexuals are proud to be heterosexuals. Pride is just the wrong concept here. Each of us is what he is.

And I say ‘he’ here because yes, almost all of us are male. (Well okay, ‘male’ according to our birth certificates. Sheesh! One has to be so careful these days!) According to StatsCan – Canada, by the way, is one of the few jurisdictions willing to regard this data as important for social policy purposes – only 3% of serial killers are female, whereas our own internal survey shows it’s actually even lower. Some psychologists argue that this has to do with lower testosterone levels in women. Others conjecture that it’s because men place a higher value on justice, whereas women tend to value maintaining social relationships. I suspect they’re both right. But I digress.

We don’t deny that there are, among us, those who fit the stereotype promoted by Hollywood thrillers, according to which we kill prostitutes because my mother laughed at my penis, or we kidnap and starve fat women so we can harvest their skin to make ourselves a coat less hirsute than the one we were born in. But there are crazies in every organization or walk of life. Not unlike what you call terrorists, their numbers are less than miniscule, and yet those are the people you’re obsessed with. Get a grip, we say. We have a grip. That’s why we harbor our ‘damaged’ people the same way you’re finally learning to harbor yours. With compassion. But we don’t give them the reins of our government, which is more than we can say for who you’ve elected as your President. (Okay, that was a Trump-shot. Not terribly clever, I admit, but it had to be inserted somewhere.)

No, the vast majority of serial killers are, as the Blues Brothers put it, “on a mission from God”. Only the sexually repressed think God has a problem with prostitutes. Or Kantians that He has a problem with your garden variety murderer. (We call the latter ‘one-offs’, by the way. We use it in the sense wizards use ‘muggles’.) Or with abortionists. Or with the ‘greedy’ point-zero-zero-one-percent. Truth be told, we don’t really give a shit what God has a problem with. We have a problem with what we have a problem with. And on that score there’s no limit to the variation within our ranks.

What I can attest, however, is that to the best of my knowledge there are no racists in our ranks, no homophobes, no anti-Semites, and no Islamophobes. We simply don’t tolerate intolerance. There are, amongst us, two who kill Scots, but not because they’re Scots. It’s because of the haggis. There’s one who kills country-and-western signers, but not because, with the exception of Charlie Pride, they’re all white. On the contrary, we all kill with a reason, and for the most part with good reason.

Of the 8,861 members currently on our books here in North America, only eleven have been brought up on Justification Beyond Wonky charges. And of them only three have been found to be killing with JBW. We may not be “stomping out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored” – we leave that to the Salvation Army – but we’re doing the work God should be doing but is otherwise occupied because of His own personal hang-ups about seafood and fabric blends. In fact there’s more than a few us us who’ve filed for permission to put Him on our hit list. But because the Christian Caucus still controls 41% of the vote, we’re still 8% shy of the two thirds we need to override their theological squeamishness.

And you’d be amazed at what some of us are squeamish about. Like Leon in The Professional, some won’t do women and children. Others, for reasons intelligible only to them, give vegetarians a free pass. As is said in Sad Cat Diaries, “There is no logic in this place.”

And yet there is a logic of sorts about who does not get a pass. For example, mass murderers don’t get a pass. Does that mean none of us can kill mass murderers en masse without having to then commit suicide?

Nice try, but no cigar. Attend to the meaning of the word ‘murder’. A murder is a wrongful killing. But since killing a mass murderer isn’t wrong, it’s not murder, and so nothing prevents us killing any number of them, especially if – as would be the case with the thousands of SS officers involved in the Shoah – killing them en masse would be a matter of efficiency.

Some of our members have argued that, by parity of reasoning, mass murderers of mass murderers – the Tutsi militias in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, for example – aren’t really murderers at all, and therefore not mass murderers, and therefore ought not to be targeted, at least not on the grounds that they’re mass murderers. This is my own position. But others have argued that the mere sight of Tutsis mass killing Hutus, even though they deserved it, triggers the same visceral reaction in the ‘avenging angel’ in us as did the mass murder of Tutsis by Hutus, and therefore that visceral reaction should be serviced with like abandon. But these non-cognitivists – or Non-Cogs, as we call them – are as much an embarrassment to us as are Hasidic Jews to sensible-hat Jews. I agree that we should have a visceral reaction to mass killing. But we need to override those instincts. Killing killers of killers isn’t fair. If you want to kill Tutsis for killing Hutus who had it coming, do it because of their cooking.

Because as I say, we don’t only kill killers. I’ve already mentioned our two serial killers of Scots, and our serial killer of country-and-western singers. And, of course, we also have serial killers of abortionists, of anti-abortionists, of overly officious loan officers, rude immigration officers, university administrators … As I said, we’re a motley crew. In fact the only thing that keeps us from killing each other is, as Thomas Hobbes explained it, that no one wants to be killed himself.

Which busts yet another myth, namely that we all have a death wish, or subconsciously want to be stopped. No we don’t. (Well, yes, obviously we do have a death wish, but not for our own.) We do what we do because we think we’re in the right. Some of us, no doubt, are not in the right. For example, one of us has been killing Roughrider instead of Stampeder fans. But we believe in live and let live, or in our case kill and let kill.

All this said, let’s turn to some of the conceptual issues surrounding our ‘thing’. And those issues are legion. To begin with, suppose I want to kill all whooping crane chefs, but there being a serious shortfall of whooping cranes in the world, it turns out there was only one whooping crane chef to kill. Having killed him, how do we distinguish between a whooping crane chef serial killer and a one-off? This should be a question of import not just to us but to members of any Genocide Studies Department. Suppose the Wannsee Conference included a plan to keep a few Jews in a zoo after the war. It’s the same question, is it not?

A related but more general issue is whether one can remain a serial killer if he’s run out of victims. Can he say to the judge, Yes I was a serial killer, but I’m no longer a danger to the public? And if so, should it be, like the sign by the pond in the park, “Catch and release!”?

And then comes the obvious problem of distinguishing the serial killer from the solider. The standard distinction – at least since we decided going to war needed justification – has hung on this business of killing in self-defense or in defense of others versus just for the fun of it. That, in turn, hangs on satisfying the clear and present danger test. And both ‘clear’ and ‘present’ can be mean whatever one damn well likes. So the more honest answer has been that the soldier, but not the serial killer, has leave in the jurisdiction which would otherwise treat him as a serial killer. It would seem, then, that ‘serial killer’ is a political designation, not all that distinguishable from ‘insurgent’ or ‘terrorist’.

Not so, counters the legitimacy realist. An insurgent or terrorist is challenging the authority of the state, whereas your garden variety serial killer is not. He votes, he pays his taxes, he gives uptake to all the institutions of the state. Most importantly, he considers himself a criminal, albeit the criminal protagonist, not unlike the George Cluny or Brad Pitt character in one of those caper movies.

This helps, but only a little. What about the serial killer of abortion doctors? He too votes and pays his taxes, he gives uptake to all the institutions of the state. He just thinks the state is in error in not protecting the unborn, in much the way you and I would consider the state in error if it thought, as in Canada, that aboriginal women don’t matter, or in America, that black lives don’t matter. So what’s the difference between the so-called terrorist, the serial killer of abortion doctors, and the cop-killer who’s killing cops not to resist arrest but to avenge those of his brothers and sisters who are being gunned down in America like a replay of Sharpeville?

So yes, other than the crazies, all serial killers regard themselves as crusaders, but only some – I’d say about a fifth – are making a political statement. The rest – typified by our anti-haggis activists – aren’t trying to have haggis outlawed. So in that sense they don’t consider their crusade political.

And so once again, drawing these distinctions isn’t a challenge peculiar to us. Drawing the same or similar distinctions is central to the concept of a hate crime and/or of a terrorist attack. If the victim was a Jew but it would have been any Jew, then it’s a hate crime. If he bombed the tax office because it wouldn’t recognize his golf clubs as a business expense, that’s one thing, and perfectly understandable. If he bombed it because it collects money to buy ordnance to be dropped on children playing in an Afghan playground, that’s something else. That’s terrorism.

So the governance of the serial killer community is in many respects a microcosm of the governance of society at large. Some of us consider ourselves dissidents, but most do not. The crazies aside, we all consider ourselves justified in what we do. But then so do all of you. You might want to sit us down and disabuse us of the justifiability of our actions. But then how open are you to sitting down with your interlocutors and working out how best to accommodate conflicting views about vaccination safety or anthropogenic global warming?

You think you have the moral high ground on us because you’re not killing each other over the issues that divide your polity. An alternative interpretation is that that’s because your Precious, whatever it happens to be, is just something to identify with so that people won’t think you’re shallow. I think Sartre would call this your inauthentic self. By contrast, the one thing that cannot be said about us serial killers is that we’re inauthentic.


Here’s a newsflash for all those American servicemen serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. And for their wives.

When you enlist in a nation’s armed forces, there’s an understanding that at some point you may be asked to go off somewhere to try to kill some people. No, not people who were trying to kill you first. They’re only trying to kill you now because you’re there trying to kill them. If you went home, they wouldn’t be trying to kill you anymore. Maybe, so long as you’re not still trying to kill them, they’d even invite you to stay on for a while, as their guest. But as I say, not if you’re only staying to try to kill them.

It might be supposed that they were trying to kill you first. Certainly your government has taken pains to describe 9/11 as unprovoked, as in “We wuzn’t doin’ nothin’!” If you believe that you’ll believe pretty much anything, including that the cannons trained on their villages had nothing to do with the aboriginal peoples of your country signing away their land in exchange for the promise of … What was it again? Ah yes, a medicine bag.

But don’t get me wrong. To say, as I’ve just done, that 9/11 was your due, is not to say you ought not to have done the things you did to earn it. On the contrary, the occasional lick the people you’ve aggrieved manage to get in – 9/11 was just a lucky shot, and probably a one-off – pales when compared to what your people have gained from your government’s policies abroad. Nature’s red in tooth and claw. It’s how natural selection works. It’s the way God intended it to be.

Some day God will intend that it’s someone else’s turn to be the Amalekites. Maybe yours. But not today. Today you’re riding high. So enjoy the ride. But do not whine about the pittance you have to pay as your fare. Whining is unmanly, the gender-neutral term for which is unseemly. And the one thing God cannot abide – I’m one of His Chosen People, and He and I’ve talked about this – is unseemliness.

Joining the army is different from just joining the police force back home. Between law enforcement officers and those over whom they’re charged with enforcing the law, there’s an unwritten understanding. If you tell me to move along now, and I go quietly, you won’t shoot me. That’s win-win all around. But when we’re at war, if I have to move from where I am it’s a loss for me, because which of the two of us has to move is precisely what we’re at war about.

You can bethink yourself just a peace officer, a peace keeper, a keeper of the peace, call yourself what you will. You’re just lending a hand to the local government – right? – albeit the quisling one you’ve just installed. But thinking so doesn’t make it so. Or at least not your thinking so. What matters is what I’m thinking. If I’ve given uptake to the quisling regime you’ve installed, then I’ll move along when instructed to do so. But if not we’re going to have to try to kill each other. And this is why you can’t just install a quisling, instruct him to invite you to remain, and then redefine our war as a mere police action.

Well, you can. But then you should be neither surprised nor offended when someone tosses a grenade into the open window of your police car.

So in bringing our jurisprudential intuitions to bear on a particular killing – was it a crime or an act of war, and if the latter was it a war crime or fair game? – we need to decide, before anything else, whether the parties were at peace or at war. Here, however, we can’t allow the answer to depend on what the belligerent in question might think, because then every petty criminal will demand to be treated as a POW, immediately thereafter declare surrender, and then, since there’s now a cessation of hostilities, claim his right to be released. The Japanese soldier who hid in the jungle because he didn’t know his Emperor had surrendered was one thing. But if he’d known but decided to fight on anyhow, that’s something else entirely.

And it’s for drawing that distinction that we have both the concept and the institution of something we call sovereignty. Sovereignty is not a normative notion, it’s a descriptive one. A nation is sovereign if there’s someone who, in his negotiations with other sovereigns, can reliably speak on behalf of his citizens, not because he has their proxy, but because he has the power to force their compliance with the terms he’s negotiated.

And it’s here wherein lies the rub. In neither Afghanistan nor Iraq was there a sovereign in place to enjoin his subjects to lay down their arms and then enforce that injunction. The installation of a quisling doesn’t alter this unless that quisling can now enforce the order that we all lay down our arms. But even if he can, is he the new sovereign or just an agent of the occupier? And if just the latter, aren’t an occupied people supposed to resist their occupation?

Well yes and no. If I raise the white flag I thereby forfeit my right of resistance in exchange for you forfeiting your right to kill me. If I don’t honor my forfeiture I can hardly expect you to honor yours. In the course of specific battles in both Afghanistan and Iraq, white flags were indeed raised. But since no sovereign was in place to surrender on behalf of all his subjects, any combatant who did not signal surrender remained legally and morally free to resist.

The occupier, of course, will disagree. But it’s a specious disagreement. And a disingenuous one. The only people who’ll buy it – and they’re really the ones to whom it’s addressed – are the same ignorant citizens back home who thought, vis a vis 9/11, that “We wuzn’t doin’ nothin’!”

So with respect to the firefight that took place in the Afghan village of Ayu Kheyl on July 27, 2002, in which one Christopher Speer was killed, one Layne Morris was wounded, and Omar Khadr was captured, the first issue that must be resolved is the jurisprudential status of that firefight. And that, in turn, hangs on the jurisprudential status of the type of which that firefight was a token. If Khadr was an ‘illegal combatant’, indistinguishable from a cop-killer on any street in America, then he’s entitled to the same due process as that cop-killer – which, by the way, he wasn’t afforded – but also liable to the same kind of post-conviction punishment. But if Khadr was an unencumbered soldier when he threw the grenade that killed Speer and wounded Morris, he is to be congratulated for having done his job well. If, upon his capture, he remained a soldier, but now an encumbered one, then there’s no question that his treatment at and after Guantanamo Bay has been unconscionable. He is owed an apology, by the Canadian government, by his American captors, by Morris, and by the widow of Speer. If they think he owes them one, they need to pull their heads out of their asses.

As a political philosopher, and as a philosopher of war, I can attest that this is the single most difficult problem in either, and therefore in both. It surfaces and resurfaces like the dolphin off the port bow. It dominated the jurisprudence, both in the court of law and in that of public opinion, with the hunger strike deaths of Bobby Sands and nine others in 1981. And now, with Guantanamo Bay, it’s come back to haunt us yet again.

Why? Because it was never resolved. It was never resolved because it can’t be, and it can’t be because there’s no fact of the matter to which we can appeal or on which we can triangulate. Unless Khadr and his captors are willing to refer the matter to compulsory arbitration and abide by that arbiter’s decision – and that ain’t never gonna happen! – any talk of justice will be mere phonemes in the wind. As Hobbes put it, “[In] this warre of every man against every man … the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place.” So yes, Abu Ghraib was, and Guantanamo Bay remains, a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions to which the Americans are signatories. But so what?!

A law is enforceable. If not it’s just entreaty. A convention lies somewhere in between. It’s enforced by nothing other than the retaliatory behavior-in-kind of one’s co-negotiators. Under normal conditions that nothing-other-than is not nothing. It’s what stands between us and a return to inter-tribal savagery. But the Americans don’t have to worry about their POWs facing like treatment, because they’re dropping their Daisy Cutters from altitudes beyond the range of the enemy’s SAMs.

And so ISIS has rightly taken its gloves off to fight as dirty as it can, given its limited wherewithal to fight at all. Such is the nature of ‘asymmetrical warfare’. Always has been, always will be. Fighting clean is the luxury of symmetrical pugilists, like the jousters of old, or the battle lines at Jena or Waterloo.

Some fights can be fought clean. Others cannot. Occupations can get particularly grotty. And whether fairly or not, the stench tends to cling disproportionally to the occupier. The Germans found that out in Poland and the Ukraine, the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, the Americans in Vietnam, and now they’re finding it out again in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In fact opposition to those invasions was driven not so much by worries about body bags – no one thought the cost of Afghanistan or Iraq would come anywhere close to the 55,000 in Vietnam, and it hasn’t – but by the moral morass a long-term occupation would invite. And they were right to worry. Soldiers at the end of their tour bring that morass back with them. Hence the epidemic of Islamophobia in America, and the emerging fascism that invariably accompanies xenophobia.

The occupied eventually recover from their occupation. The occupier never does. Which is not to say occupation is invariably a bad thing. It’s to say only that it carries costs, some of which defy quantification by the usual designated bean-counters.

Since we’re comparing war and mere criminality, I should add that a parallel analysis can be drawn about capital punishment in America. Most abolitionists hang their case on their worries about wrongful conviction, the argument being that a wrongful execution cannot be repaired. Well, neither can time lost in prison. Nor, save where there’s been malicious prosecution, will it even be compensated.

A better argument – one which police associations are too thick to recognize – is that the bank robber who’s already killed someone in the bank, isn’t an idiot. He knows that with a hundred cops surrounding the building, he’s not going to miraculously escape. But the prospect of capital punishment removes any reason not to just go down fighting, taking a cop or two down with him. So given that the deterrence argument is well known to fail, capital punishment can’t save lives, it can only endanger them.

But even in Texas, the number of executions is very very small. And so the better argument still is the symbolic one. It’s what capital punishment signals to all the rest of us. In a polity in search of civility – and God knows America could use some – it brutalizes instead. It’s hard to kill without a healthy dollop of hatred. So if killing is acceptable, so is hatred. Fascism feeds on hatred. And so Americans have allowed yet another vector to encourage rather than combat the fascism lurking within the American ethos.

But I digress.

I’ve said that there’s no fact of the matter to which we might appeal to decide whether Khadr was

a) a soldier entitled to whatever our conventions on the treatment of our POWs afford him, or

b) a criminal who, having been charged with a promulgated offense, is entitled to due process, including a jury of his peers, or

c) some third category concocted ad hoc for the sole purpose of ducking both (a) and (b).

There is, however, a fact of the matter – even if difficult to precisify – about the consequences of whichever of (a) or (b) or (c) we select. But there are certainly some general inferences we can make:

Opting for (a) is going to encourage resistance to occupation. Opting for (b) is going to require amendments to America’s criminal code that the rest of the world will consider laughable. And opting for (c), though it might marginally discourage resistance, is going to set any progress we’ve made in jus in bello and post bellum back about two-thirds of a century, pretty much to the beginning of the Second World War.

Of course an additional consideratum – albeit now only in retrospect – is how each of these options would have sat with the American military, and with American public. Neither (a) nor (b) would have sat well with either. So from the purely short-term political perspective, (c) was pretty much a duh. And that, no doubt, is why your government chose it.

But have these short-term gains been worth the long-term damage? I think not. But then I’m not an American. But neither am I a disinterested onlooker. I’m a philosopher of war, not because I’m a pacifist – I’m not – but because I think that when we have to draw blood, there are more and less pareto ways of going about it. I think that by honoring Khadr, as option (a) would do, yes we’re rewarding resistance. But by rewarding resistance we might encourage the occupier to be less provocative of that resistance. And that, I think, would be pareto. The occupier would get less of the fruits of victory, but at a lower cost, and the occupied would retain some of that fruit at virtually no cost at all. Back to win-win.

Win-win yes, scoffs, the pacifist, but not nearly the payout of not going to war in the first place. If America hadn’t invaded Afghanistan, Omar Khadr would have had no reason to toss that grenade. If America hadn’t invaded Iraq, there’d have been no Malachi regime, hence no persecution of the Sunni minority, and hence no rise of the resistance to that persecution which then morphed into ISIS.

All of which may be true, but so what? Nations don’t go to war to make the world a better place. They go to war to make the world better for them. Tooth and claw, remember, tooth and claw. If “men had all agreed to put an end to war,” then “last night” you did indeed “dream the strangest dream [you’]’ve ever dreamt before.” War is how natural selection works. It’s the way God intended it to be.

The invasion of Afghanistan was a bad idea. The invasion of Iraq was a worse one. The latter is now the second longest war in American history, but only because the former is the longest. Neither has been the most expensive. That was still WWII. Vietnam takes first place for lowest return on investment. In short, America has a rather checkered track record in victories and defeats. But there’s something churlish – is there not? – in taking one’s humiliation out on a hapless fifteen year old kid after the fact for just doing what he was there to do in precisely the way Speer and Morris were just doing what they were there to do.

Some people think Khadr should be excused because of his age. I think he should be lionized all the more for it. Child soldier my ass! Fifteen year olds have been going to war since before we emerged from the cave. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if fifteen has been at or above the average age of ‘enlistment’ since before we emerged from the cave. And to suggest that he was a mere dupe of his even more infamous ‘terrorist’ father is even more myopic. It suggests that Speer and Morris were not dupes of whomever or whatever sent them into battle. Doesn’t the obituary of every soldier who’s fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq include the mandatory assurance that “He believed in the mission.”? I suspect Khadr knew a helluva lot more about what he was fighting for than pretty much any of the soldiers he was defending his country against.

“Not his country!” you counter.

Why? Because he was born in Canada? If so, then what do you want to say about the young people, some of them no more than fifteen, who came from every corner of the world to fight against Franco and the fascists in the Spanish Civil War? They too lost, and many of them died for trying. But some of the greatest literature of the century was penned to honor their courage, while for his Khadr has spent a decade in a brutal prison, and a couple more years behind bars in the country that was complicit in the violation of his military, civil, and human rights.

Yes, in 2015 he was finally released. And yes, just recently he’s been given a begrudging apology and a few shekels to try to make something of a life for himself. But it’s not an apology if it’s begrudging. And an out-of-court settlement settles nothing if it’s opposed, as apparently it is, by two thirds of the taxpayers whose ‘settlement’ with him it is.

A judge in Utah awarded Morris and Speer’s widow $134,000,000 for the injury to the former and the wrongful death of the latter, though thankfully neither will collect a penny of it. Still, the suit was unmanly of Morris, and unseemly of the widow Speer. Both of them knew, or should have known, that when you enlist in a nation’s armed forces, there’s an understanding that at some point you may be asked to go off somewhere to try to kill some people. And that when you do, there’s an understanding that those you’re trying to kill are going to try to kill you first.

If you can’t accept that, then you had no business enlisting in the first place, or allowing your husband to. If they want compensation for their loss – and I wish them God’s speed in getting it – their claim is against their own government, not the outnumbered and outgunned kid who had the good fortune, but also the balls, to take two of the enemy down with him, and then, after thirteen years of unlawful confinement, the dignity to stand tall and just get on with his life.

I’ve never met Mr. Khadr. But I’d be honored to. Some men aspire to greatness. Others have greatness thrust upon him. I doubt whether Omar Khadr is a great man. But I have little doubt he’s a good one. If, at the end of the day, just that is the most that can be said of me, I’d be okay with that.


The nineteen martyrs of 9/11 were never charged let alone convicted of a crime. This is because – so as not to squander precious prosecutorial resources – we tend not to indict dead people.

But now let’s suppose the Truthers are right. Since these nineteen young men didn’t do it, they’re probably not dead. Or if they are, it’s because they were killed as part of the cover-up. In either case, nothing that gets turned up about 9/11 can have any effect on those nineteen young men, because either they’re dead or they’re happily ensconced in some not-to-be-a-witness protection program. I’m picturing them in a charming turn-of-the-century Victorian in a small town in upstate Vermont, with a giant oak out front and a generous vegetable garden in back. The neighbors, being unfamiliar with the sound of Arabic, just assume they’re from Bangladesh. “Who knew?!” they all say. “They all seem so nice.”

All right, so let’s suppose, as do the 9/11 Truthers, that they didn’t do it. Of course if they can’t tell us who did, they don’t have a very interesting story. They’d be a bit like the revisionists. “Yes, there are six million missing persons reports, and we don’t claim to have closed the file on any of them. But the one thing we do know is that none of them were gassed.” Helpful, I suppose. But not very.

So let’s suppose we’d just discovered who did do it. Let’s suppose further, given that it’s still only been sixteen years, that the guilty parties, or at least most of them, are not dead. What would have to happen for there to be any consequences – any consequences at all – for these devilishly clever dastardly fellows? Or for anyone else for that matter?

Well first, who is this ‘we’ who’ve just made this discovery? Whoever we are, we’d have to share this revelation with someone with both the wherewithal and the willingness to affect those consequences. Presumably some district attorney or other

Most Truthers have this one covered. “It’s not that the authorities won’t believe us. It’s that either they were all in on it from the get-go or else they’ve been warned off by, you know, those men in the black Suburbans.”

To be fair, that a hypothesis is non-falsifiable like this doesn’t show that it’s false. It’s just that non-falsifiable hypotheses can be multiplied until the cows come home. And then there are just too many of them for any one of them to be very interesting.

So to make it more interesting, let’s suppose our district attorney has the requisite chutzpah to do his job. Even so, he would have to be confident he could persuade a jury to convict. If it did, then certainly some heads would roll. But how far up the conspiratorial ladder those heads might be is hard to say. I’m guessing you might get a couple of colonels, or maybe a senator. But hey, boys will be boys! A stern talking to will certainly be in order. But beyond that, probably just time to move on.

So what we have so far is nothing very momentous. No matter how high up they go, those involved were by definition rogue actors. So sixteen years ago the government of Israel did something roguish. Or the government of the United States did. Or maybe it was the Koch brothers. Or maybe it was the second gunman on the grassy knoll who’d been coaxed out of retirement. Whatever the case might be, what exactly would anyone like to do about it?

If it was the Israelis, should the U.S. now nuke Tel Aviv?

No, because Israel has nuclear weapons of its own.

All right then, surely the least it should do is break off diplomatic relations.

And leave thousands of pimply-faced Jewish-American teenagers doing their Aliyah without consular services? I think not.

All right then, suppose it was the American government itself. Would this be the first time it’s been caught committing atrocities on its own soil? No, it’s targeted its indigenous peoples, people of colour, trade unionists, commies …

But never before white-skinned chartered accountants!

Point taken. Except it’s probably not a point any Truther would want to be heard taking. From Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound the Truther lives on land made available to him by state-sponsored genocide. And yet it’s only when the beneficiaries of this genocide get a little comeuppance that he gets his dander up. Not great PR. So best not to be too vocal about “what [you didn’t] ask your country [to] do for you.”

Look. Governments kill people, often people of another country, but sometimes their own. Without the threat of violence both abroad and at home – and the occasional Clausewitzian following-through on that threat – it’s hard to imagine how any government could govern. And so if it’s unmanly to whine when the people one’s government has been killing in another country manage to get a few licks in in return, how much more unmanly is it to whine if, to gets its people pumped for a little bloodshed abroad, it sheds a little of it at home?

And in fact, contrary to what the Truther hopes, voters have pretty short memories. And even when they don’t, they can be very understanding, even when they don’t really take the trouble to understand. Were the American people outraged over the premie-ward lie of 1991? Were there calls for impeachment in 2003 when it became clear that the Bush administration had cooked the intel on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction? No? Why not? Because when the truth would just take the wind out of their sails, people need to be lied to and want to be lied to.

So the bottom line is this. A lot has happened over the past sixteen years. Even if any of what’s happened could be reversed, sixteen years on no one’s going to have the slightest inclination to do so. Unless, that is, they were already so inclined; and so inclined quite independently of 9/11. Netanyahu would still be bulldozing Palestinian homes to make way for yet another Jewish settlement. American soldiers would still be in Iraq because, well, it had always been on the Bush dynasty’s bucket list. The Trump administration would still be pushing for its ban on Moslems entering the country. And social justice warriors, both on the left and on the right, would still be peenging about how the Koch brothers and the rest of the point-zero-zero-one-percent are hijacking American democracy. So the official line on 9/11 would simply be adjusted to read, ”Okay, but just because those Ay-rabs weren’t involved this time doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like to have been.”

If any of this be doubted, draw the distinction, if you can, between September 11, 2001 and November 22, 1963. Suppose the second gunman on the grassy knoll had just made his deathbed confession. Suppose it was the mafia, or the Cubans, or the CIA, or Lyndon Johnson. What would any of us say, other than either “Told you so!” or “Now whodathunkit?!”?

The difference between 16 years after the fact and 54 is 38, as is the difference between 1 and 39. But we’re not just talking numbers. We’re talking about the interval in years before justice delayed becomes justice denied. If the Truthers could have made their case by September 2002, things might have gone differently. But to have made the case if and when they ever do – and as time goes on that if-and-when becomes increasingly unlikely – will be about as earth-shattering as when Pluto lost its place as the ninth planet. To a so-what not a whole lot of what.

I’m told that Egyptologists are becoming increasingly doubtful that there ever was an Exodus. But they’d be embarrassed to assign themselves the moniker ‘Exodus-Truthers’. Truthers fancy themselves serious historians. But by pointing out, “It couldn’t have been this way!” without adding, “So it must have been that!”, one is no more doing historical revisionism than she’d be doing a Kuhnian paradigm shift by saying, “The speed of light can’t be that!”, without adding “So it must be this!”

Building 7 is to the official story what the magic bullet was to the Warren Commission. Fair enough. But you can’t just make up whatever story you like, like the theist’s God of the Gaps. The God of the Gaps doesn’t explain anything. It’s a bedtime story. Children like bedtime stories. And apparently so do adults.

I like the official bedtime story, because it makes heroes of the underdog. Perhaps you don’t like it because in your mind it makes villains of them. So instead you make villains of those you already regard as villainous. It was the Jews, say some of you. It was the point-zero-zero-one-percent, say others. Who was it really? I don’t know, and neither do you. But other than in the service of this independently motivated vilifying, what difference would it make?

And this, I think, is why Truthers – be their ‘truth’ about the Holocaust or the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 or global warming – are so kneejerkedly treated with such suspicion. No one’s ever going to do anything about the Holocaust, or the Kennedy assassination, or 9/11, or global warming. So getting at the ‘truth’ of these things is not about making more informed public policy decisions. It’s about proselytizing the Truther’s particular vitriol, be it against Jews or the CIA or the neocons or the Koch brothers.

At one time we Jews celebrated Easter by drinking the blood of Christian babies. Now we collapse skyscrapers. At one time the federal government controlled the America people by fluoridating the water supply. Now it kills a few Americans so the rest of the country will demand that it kill a whole lot more o’ them thar Ay-rabs. At one time the point-zero-zero-one-percent were content to sponsor conservative think tanks. Now, apparently, they fund false flag terrorist attacks so they can keep the money coming in via all the security companies they own.

Is any of this true? Probably not. Well, except for that bit about how we celebrate Easter. But the problem with ridiculing Truthers this way is that, on pain of begging the question, it cuts both ways. In what sense are any of the official stories about the Holocaust, or the Kennedy Assassination, or 9/11, or global warming, not themselves Trutherisms? Trutherisms that just happened to have caught on.

So apart from those half dozen people in the world who actually know who did it – know in the robust sense of having justified true belief – there’s a discomforting symmetry – is there not? – between the stories that’ve caught on and those that haven’t. Or at least haven’t yet. So though I mock my 9/11-Truther colleagues – and yes I do mock them mercilessly – I keep a little intellectual humility in reserve just in case I have to eat some crow.

Why am I so cautious? Because when the premie-ward story came out after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, I remember saying to myself, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kuwaiti government-in-exile hired some Madison Avenue PR firm to come up with something like this to get the American people to support going to war.” Well, I was wrong. I was wrong because I was surprised when it turned out I was dead right.

As they say, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. The Truthers think he does. I have no opinion on the matter, one way or the other. My point here, however, has been that if all the Devil’s going to do is lie about a few things that don’t matter, then we really needn’t get our tail feathers in a knot about him. So for those of us who don’t have a pre-existing grievance against Jews or the Bushes or the point-zero-zero-one-percent, we should move on to things that do matter, even if only a little. Like what? Well, like whether the toilet paper should come from the front of the roll or the back, or in an egg cup which goes up, the big end or the little end? The answers, by the way, are the former and the latter respectively.



There’s not a whole lot that’s special about us Jews. Yes, we do celebrate Easter by drinking the blood of a Christian baby, preferably one still wet from the baptismal fount. But other than that we’re pretty much like everyone else. As Shylock asked rhetorically, “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

What’s a little bit different about us, however, is that most of us have far fewer relatives than most of our gentile friends and acquaintances. And this oddity has provoked some of us, myself included, to wonder why. It’s not that I miss the relatives I don’t have, or just wish I had more. Given the relatives I do have the ones I don’t would probably be very much like them, which I realize doesn’t say much, except that, well … Nor do I feel sad on their behalf for their not being, since not being they can hardly feel anything at all, let alone sad about it.

Still, there’s something that niggles. Other than had they otherwise been destined to be childless from either infertility or choice, for every person who isn’t there’s a whole string of people who won’t be as well. What of it? But there’s something different about the whole string of people who won’t be notwithstanding there was someone who was. I suppose this is why we feel sorry for people who want but can’t have children, or disapprove, if only mildly, of people who choose not to. And so – no, I won’t say what’s special, so I’ll just say – what’s different about the string of people who aren’t but would have been my relatives if they were, is that they aren’t notwithstanding there were people who were, and so would have been their ancestors and mine, were it not for …

Well now, that’s the wondrous part. They were, but then of a sudden they weren’t. Of a sudden, not in the trivial sense that everyone who’s ever been or ever will be has gone or will go from being to not being, pretty much of a sudden. Rather of a sudden in the sense that the lion’s share of the ancestors of the relatives most of us Jews don’t have, all ceased to be within an unnaturally short period of time, namely from September of 1939 to April of 1945.

The Hebrew word for this mass ceasing to be within an unnaturally short period of time is ‘shoah’, which roughly translates to disaster or catastrophe. And the word for the particular shoah that happened during those five and half years is the same word but capitalized.

I’ve already confessed that their having ceased to be within this unnaturally short period of time is not much of a catastrophe for me. After all, I managed to squeak through. And I can’t see why I should be a whole lot different from any other Jew of my generation. So the capital-S Shoah must refer to its having been a catastrophe for those who ceased to be during those years, and for those who knew and loved them. And since – give it another decade or so – all of those people will be dead, any disastrousness will shortly be entirely over. That it was a disaster will perdure, but that it is one will not.

But surely this can’t be right. Surely as a Jew I have as much right to appropriate to myself the disastrousness of the Shoah as did any of those handful of orphaned children who walked out of those camps.

Or do I? Let’s see.

I say “as a Jew” for two reasons. First, no one has an automatic right to grieve. It has to be, if not earned, then at least inherited. So no, a gentile is not entitled to share in our grief. This is why most Jews are not comforted by gestures of solidarity over the Shoah, and only pretend to be so as not to offend their well-meaning gentile friends.

I realize this is a bit off-putting. “Why can’t I feel your pain?” you might ask. For the same reason I can’t feel yours. You need it said more philosophically? Okay then, pain is theory-laden. The difference between a muscle spasm and an orgasm is in the head. It’s in what it means to you. You’ve lost a child. So have I. Do you really want to say what you’re feeling and what I’m feeling are indistinguishable?

And second, though there’s no gentile who hasn’t suffered some shoah of her own – be it a tsunami, a car crash, a plane crash followed by the collapse of a building – these people didn’t die because they were gentiles.

In fact there’s a sense in which, even if a sick one, because the Shoah was racial it wasn’t personal. That’s no consolation, of course. For any one of us his death is his death, and we all die alone.

Of course in that sense neither was 9/11 personal. But it wasn’t collective either. That is, they weren’t sought out as gentiles. They were people who both just happened to be gentiles – or at least most of them were – and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their dying, as distinct from three thousand other people dying in an office tower in LA rather than New York, has no more significance than the three thousand people who died on American highways the weekend before 9/11 and the three thousand who’ve died on its highways every weekend since. And the fact that it was done deliberately rather than accidentally makes it no more significant than the number who die every week in gun violence in America. So no, those kinds of shoahs are one thing, the Shoah was something else.

Why? Because of the numbers? In part yes. Since we emerged from the cave, if not before, people have been slaughtered because of their race, or their religion, or their whatever, by the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands … I don’t know. How many Amalekites were there when God told the Israelites to leave not so much as an anencephalic alive? Met any Amalekites lately? Well now you know why. And if the Final Solution had proven truly final, and the entire history of the Jews expunged as was the history of the Amalekites – tried any Amalekite recipes lately? – in a couple hundred years we’d shrug off the Shoah with the alacrity with which we shrug off the ethnic cleansing of Canaan. “Oh well,” we’d say, “nature red in tooth and claw. So, moving on …”

So the numbers yes, in the sense that we don’t place the Maori extermination of the Moriori anywhere near the category of the Shoah. But also, I suspect, it matters that, unlike the former, the latter was unfinished business. The Sephardic population was left pretty much intact. We Ashkenazis were cut to about a third, So combined our numbers were pretty close to halved, from about 13 million in ’39 to about 7 in ’45. And since ’45 we’ve almost, but not quite, kept up with the rest of the world, current estimates running somewhere between 16 and 18, depending on who counts and who’s doing the counting.

And so that, unlike the Amalekites, we weren’t wiped out – though certainly until Stalingrad it looked like we’d soon be on the endangered species list – is important in two ways. First, that we’re here to play our Jew cards, and second that, well, let’s face it, we’ve got great PR! So, it would seem, for a genocide to claim the status of anything approaching the Shoah, it needs numbers, check, incompleteness, check, and probably – but maybe now I’m reaching – at least a modicum of systematicity.

By which I don’t mean that it has to be done efficiently. By most accounts neither the Armenian nor the Rwandan genocides were. In fact that lack of efficiency has been used by both the Turks and the Hutu to show that the violence, such as it was, was entirely spontaneous, and only appeared systematic and so government-sponsored, from the outside. And at that only because of the unusually high body count.

In fact the same argument is used by Holocaust [sic] deniers. Yes, they concede, conditions in the camps were less than ideal, and became especially desperate towards the end of the war. And had there been gas chambers, that would be a sure sign of the intention to exterminate rather than intern and harness these internees for the war effort. But there weren’t, and so there wasn’t. And they have the forensics to prove it!

But I’m not sure that the significance of systematicity ends with the establishment of intention. I suspect we focus on it because it betokens a kind of Nietzschean transcendence of morality that runs a shiver up our spines. Hannah Arendt saw it as a rendering ho-hum the whole genocidal enterprise, in her words “the banality of evil”.

But whether rightly or not, we sense that the same cannot be said of the Turks or the Hutu. There’s probably no small measure of racism in this judgment. These people, we tell ourselves, are in (what John Stuart Mill called) their nonage. Their passions of the moment overtake them. Whereas not so the Germans. They’re white. White violence, though certainly violent, seems less passionate, and hence all the more frightening, precisely because it’s measured, under strict rational control.

I’m not the first to try, however fumblingly, to capture what makes the Shoah unique, or at least what makes us think it is. Nor will I be the last. But very soon now – I give it another fifty years tops – I would be the last, because this navel-gazing will be lost on high school history students a couple generations hence. In fact it’s already beginning to fade.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This idea of Santayana’s that “those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it,” stirring pith though it be, is just patter. As the treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza clearly demonstrates, the lesson learned from the Warsaw Ghetto was not “Never again!”, but rather “Never again us!”

But in saying that the ethos of the Shoah will gradually fade, I’m clearly adding yet a fourth consideratum, namely that the Shoah stands out because it’s still relatively recent.

But so is Rwanda.

Yes, but Rwandans are black.

So as I say, if what makes the Shoah special was that it was genocide, then it really wasn’t. It wasn’t special, that is, not that it wasn’t genocide. It was genocide, but that didn’t make it special. The Armenians can file a similar grievance, as can the Tutsi. For that matter, so can the Hutu. The reason why we don’t make much of the Hutu genocide as such is because we think they had it coming. But of course some think the same about the Jews. And I know of at least nineteen young men who thought the same about 9/11.

So sympathy turns out to be more than a little partisan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fair game, but Auschwitz and Treblinka were not. If the Manhattan Project had succeeded a few months earlier than it did, would Berlin have been fair game? Or would Germans have been given a pass because they’re white? If the Israelis don’t stop treating Gaza the way the Nazis treated the Warsaw Ghetto, would a second Shoah – supposing, however implausible, the Palestinians had the wherewithal – inherit the injustice of the first? Or would it have to be assessed on its own merits?

But back to my right to play my Jew card, which, to my credit, I do only very sparingly. What’s at issue, I suspect, is this business of collective inherited entitlement, and its inverse, collective inherited liability.

Philosophers of law warn that this way there be dragons, because our intuitions are all over the map on this. On the one hand, why should I be liable for acts of malfeasance committed before I was born? On the other, how else could a treaty between two peoples ever end a war?

On the one hand, one’s Confirmation is needed to confirm what was done in her name by others. On the other, in the absence of our foundation myth – according to which Abraham made covenant with God on behalf of his seed – we wouldn’t be Jews.

So we want to be able to claim some entitlements for ourselves – the summer cottage, the Land of Israel – and at the same time deny others – aboriginal land claims, that the invasion of Iraq, a.k.a. the Tigris-Euphrates valley, was really just a homecoming.

We want to be able to impose some liabilities on others – war reparations, Christian guilt over the Shoah – and yet shirk those that others would impose on us – compensation for the internment of Japanese-Canadians, or for the failure to provide proper consular services to Maher Arar and Omar Khadr.

What masquerades as principle, in these cases, is really just expense. We’re not going to just get on our boats and go back to wherever our ancestors came from, so we tell ourselves that the cannons trained on those Blackfoot villages couldn’t have had anything to do with the signing of Treaty 7. Ultimately Arar, and then more recently Khadr, did get a payout, but it was much less than what it would have cost Canada diplomatically, and therefore economically, to have protected them from American malfeasance back when that malfeasance took place. So yes, justice is a bean counter. Entitlements and liabilities are always just a function of cost. And the same holds for entitlements and liabilities claimed and imposed past the lifetimes of the original actors.

But all this establishes is that I could claim the Shoah as my personal tragedy, not that that claim should be honored. I play my Jew card and you might answer with, “Sorry, that came out of your sleeve, not the deck.”

And it’s here, I suspect, that we’ve hit pulp. Whether I can play my Jew card is just a matter of whether you’ll let me. And you might let me even if I’m not Jewish. After all, what are you going to do? Ask to see my circumcision? I have a friend who regularly plays his I’ve-had-a-child-die card. What am I going to do? Ask for the death certificate? So since I can play either card to the same effect whether real or counterfeit, it’s really just a question of your giving or declining to give uptake to its domain-specific trump. If you’re a Palestinian I’m guessing you won’t. And not because you’re a Shoah-denier or because for you, because Moslems also circumcise, my circumcision doesn’t establish my Jewishness.

A card laid is a card played. Fair enough. I’ve lost a child too, a daughter as it happens, though that’s a card I’ve never played nor ever will. But an ace is high in only some games. It would be churlish for you to call me on my child-of-the-Shoah card, just as it would be churlish of me to call you on your I’ve-had-a-child-die card. So to trump in whatever games they’re being played, both cards, it seems, must be accompanied by the don’t-be-churlish card, which can only be trumped in turn by the don’t-play-your-don’t-be-churlish-card card. And so on.

This is the problem with identity politics. Identities are cards. Cards are constituents of games. We pick the card we think will be treated as trump. When it’s not we feel cheated. I probably have as many alleles in common with Nelson Mandela as I do with Moses. But you’re not allowed to point this out. Those drummers performing down in the Atrium for Native Awareness Week have no more awareness of what they’re drumming than I do. But I’m not allowed to say that either.

So the bottom line seems to be this. The Law of the Return [sic] covers me, notwithstanding it’s possible, indeed quite likely, that not a single ancestor of mine has ever laid foot on Palestinian soil. But it doesn’t cover my Palestinian neighbor whose birth certificate proves he was born there. Why? Because a) I self-identify with the fiction that some ancestor of mine had laid foot on Palestinian soil, and did so as an Israelite, and because b) those administering the Law of the Return have accepted that identification. And because my neighbor, notwithstanding he was born there, in the judgment of these administrators, he was born there as a Palestinian rather than an Israelite.

And what this shows is that self-identification is neither a sufficient nor even a necessary condition of identity. Plenty are the gentiles who were gassed having had no idea they were Jewish. In a very real sense, then – and for many if not most intents and purposes – you’re Jewish just in case other people regard you as Jewish. And this raises the question of whether it makes sense to ask whether they could be mistaken. If self-identification is analytic and so infallible, why should other-identification be any different? And this just leads to what logicians call ‘detonation’. That’s where absurdities multiply exponentially ad infinitum.

We can prevent these absurdities by doing away with identity politics altogether. No borders, no citizenship, no treaties, neither collective entitlements nor collective liabilities … But we can’t function without these. So we’re stuck.

We can’t prevent detonation, but unlike with logic, we can limit it. We limit it by saying, Yes, such and such is a logical implication of how we’ve identified who’s entitled to what, but that particular implication is unacceptable to us, and so we’ve just decided not to recognize it.

That might not get us a pass on a logic test, but we’re not trying to pass a test, we’re trying to pass muster. Political identity, not unlike the status of the foetus, is just one of those things that can’t be jammed into one our either-it’s-a-this-or-it’s-a-that categories, and when we try to force it we just get jam on our hands. No, Virginia, the foetus is neither a person nor someone’s property. It’s a possible someone’s premains. No, Virginia, Jews aren’t a race or a religion or an ethnicity. They’re a collection of damned-if-I-know’s. There are plenty of other damned-if-I-know’s in the world. Learning to live with them is sometimes a bitch. We’re very sorry about that.


I made a stab at this in my blog in an earlier post entitled “Holocaust Denial and Anti-Semitism”. Since that post, an internal investigation of an internal complaint against Tony Hall has exonerated him, and the Administration’s complaint against him to the Alberta Human Rights Commission has been rejected, both pretty much on the same grounds I laid out in that post. But now I want to go a tad deeper into the issue. Not the issue of denying the Holocaust or of being an anti-Semite. On those scores I’ll stand by what I said in that earlier post. Rather what I want to know is this: Assuming I wanted to deny the Holocaust or reveal myself as an anti-Semite, how would I go about it?

Being that I’m Jewish it’s unlikely I’d want to – though there are Jews who would and have. Rather I’m asking because – see that earlier post – my colleague is being accused of both, and I want to know if there’s any way – any way at all – that accusation could stick.

To this end I want to grant to his accusers everything that can be granted, beginning with the concept of conversational implicature.

Suppose you ask whether I think it’s going to rain tomorrow and I answer, “Is the pope Catholic?” Have I asserted that it’s going to rain? Yes I have. That’s because “Is the pope Catholic?” is an expression we use to say yes to whatever question was just asked.

Suppose you ask whether so-and-so is attractive, and I answer that she has a wonderful personality. Have I changed the subject? No I have not. I’ve answered your question in the negative. To claim afterwards that I never said she was ugly would be disingenuous. I did say it, even though I didn’t ‘say’ it. One can say without ‘saying’. In fact one can say without ‘saying’ anything at all.

But to know that “Is the pope Catholic?” means yes to whatever question was just asked requires that one be party to that convention. By this I don’t mean one must think it’s a good convention. Some overly devout Catholic might think it’s disrespectful to the pope. All I mean is that one is aware that the convention is in place. So if I answer a question with “Is the pope Catholic?”, I know perfectly well that I’ve just answered in the affirmative to the question that was just asked.

But it’s not always easy – is it? – to know what conventions are in place, or at least what conventions are taken to be in place by one’s interlocutors. For example, a couple of U.S. elections back, I was surprised to learn that Democrats take “New York values”, when spoken by a Republican, to be code for Jewish values. And I suspect it came as a surprise to a lot of Republicans as well. And so the question naturally arises: Are we accountable for what was said, or for what was heard?

Certainly in the case of “Is the pope Catholic?” and “She has a wonderful personality!”, what was said and what was heard are one in the same. But what about “The Holocaust, like every event in history, should be open to new research, and our understanding of it open to revision.”? In the same way that Democrats take “New York values” to be code for Jewish values, some Jews – and apparently, with a little urging, some of their gentile supporters too – take that statement as code for “The Holocaust is a Zionist myth!” And one of the to-be-made-explicit premises underpinning Tony’s accusers’ argument is going to be that Tony knew this. Or if not, then – like the reasonable man on the Clapham omnibus – he should have known it, and therefore what he said – said without scare quotes – was that “The Holocaust is a Zionist myth!”

Let’s suppose, however implausibly, that they’re right. Not about Tony saying that the Holocaust is a Zionist myth, but that the convention is in place and that Tony should have known it. How, then, could Tony say that “The Holocaust, like every event in history, should be open to new research, and our understanding of it open to revision.” and mean that the Holocaust, like every event in history, should be open to new research, and our understanding of it open to revision!? If his accusers don’t want our understanding of the Holocaust to be open to revision, then they’ll decide that any way of saying it will be code for “The Holocaust is a Zionist myth!” And that’s precisely what they’ve decided. It’s a great trick, if anyone’s stupid enough to let them get away with it. And apparently some people are that stupid. Let’s just hope no judge is among them.

But now let’s suppose, albeit counterfactually, that Tony had said – and by said I mean said – that the Holocaust is a Zionist myth. How exactly does this count as hate speech? What would have to be shown – and this is an empirical matter – is not that Holocaust denial is associated with hatred towards Jews – that, I think, can be granted – but that it causes hatred towards Jews. And this would require an experiment involving some kind of control group. Take a non-biased sampling of a hundred people, disabuse half of them of the historicity of the Holocaust – including, if you like, that it was a Zionist invention to guilt the world into backing what would become the State of Israel – and see whether they, but not the control group, begin to exhibit signs of hating Jews. My guess is that most of the disabused group will be gobsmacked by the brilliance of the subterfuge, just as I would be if I were convinced that 9/11 was the work of Mossad.

In a world of realpolitik, the exposure of subterfuge has never of itself been grounds for hatred. At most it adds insult to what’s already regarded as an injury. So no, Holocaust denial may be a consequence of anti-Semitism, but it can’t be the cause of it. So even if Tony were denying the Holocaust – whatever that might mean – that would not constitute hate speech.

All right, so Tony’s off the hook vis a vis his alleged Holocaust denial. But what about dumping 9/11 – and the lion’s share of the little 9/11’s that followed in its wake – on Mossad?

As often as not Tony’s trutherisms are expressed as conjectures rather than assertions. But as we did earlier, let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that conjecture can be taken as code for assertion. So by conversational implicature, Tony has accused agents of the State of Israel of murdering thousands upon thousands of noncombatants in the furtherance of the interests of that state.

But hang on a minute. I make the same assertion every day. Well, okay, maybe not every day. But certainly whenever the subject comes up. I’ve made the same assertion, mutatis mutandis – and I’m hardly alone in these accusations – about the United States, about England, about France, about El Salvador, about Myanmar, about Syria … In fact pretty much about every state in the world. So clearly there must be more to hate speech than the banal observation that rulers of countries sometimes feel a need to kill people, people both outside the country they rule and within it.

Some of these accusations will turn out to be false. But the spreading of false information, other than in the service of fraud, is for very good reason not an actionable offence, at least not in Canada. And even if it were, the onus would be on the state – or in Canada the Crown – to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mossad wasn’t involved in 9/11. And how could it do that? It couldn’t. Even if some Israeli agent was acquitted in a court of law, that would show not that he was innocent, but only that there was insufficient evidence to convict.

So if Tony is guilty of hate speech, the truth or falseness of his various trutherisms is irrelevant. What’s needed is the connection between claiming malfeasance on the part of the Israeli government and promoting hatred of Jews, in a way that claiming malfeasance on the part of, say, the American government, does not constitute the promotion of the hatred of Americans, the latter being, of course, ridiculous. That is, heaven forefend we should think that criticism of a government is criticism of its citizens. On the contrary, don’t we regularly criticize a government for beings at odds with the druthers of its citizens?

About a fifth of the Israeli citizenry are (mostly Moslem) Arabs. Of the four fifths remaining most are Jews. But about a third of these are staunchly opposed to Netanyahu’s ultra-Zionist policies. So even if we hold those who support Netanyahu responsible for those policies, that’s about the same percentage of the Israeli population as was the percentage of the American population that supported Obama. Did we hold the American people – Democrats and Republicans alike – responsible for the policies of the Obama administration? And even if we did, did we, as a consequence, hate all Americans?

So even supposing Tony were able to convince us of his trutherisms, how would this constitute hate speech against Jews? Against the Jewish perpetrators of these attacks, perhaps. But then surely, if your loved one was in one of those towers that morning, or in that nightclub in Paris that evening, that hatred would be warranted. But against Jews-qua-Jews? And if Jews-qua-Jews, then surely the official 9/11 story likewise promotes hatred of Arabs-qua-Arabs, or perhaps even Moslems-qua-Moslems. And yet that’s precisely what defenders of the official story take pains to deny that their story should promote.

So having given them everything they could ask for, what’s left to Tony’s accusers? Well, apparently, Tony’s conjectured – remember: that’s code for he’s accused – B’nai Brith of having false-flagged that virulently anti-Semitic attachment to one of his Facebook posts, the attachment that Tony claims got this smear campaign against him off the ground. But once again, how does this accusation constitute hate speech? And that question stands as a rhetorical one whether B’nai Brith was involved or not.

That is, let’s suppose that I did it. After all, I’m Jewish, and many if not most Jews are staunch Zionists. So it’s perfectly plausible that I did it to smear that anti-Zionist bastard Tony Hall. Now that I’ve confessed I should hardly be surprised that Tony now hates me. But why would Tony hate my brother, who happens to be a staunch anti-Zionist Jew?

All right, now let’s suppose I didn’t do it. It was done by some pimply-faced never-out-of-his-parent’s-basement adolescent shit-disturber for the sole satisfaction of disturbing shit. Probably the same pimply-faced never-out-of-his-parent’s-basement adolescent shit-disturber who’s photo-shopped Pope Francis giving head to Bashir al Assad. So Tony’s mistaken about me. Does his falsely accusing a Jew of malfeasance promote hatred of Jews?

Well, it would, I suppose, if Tony were saying – or for that matter even just saying – that wherever there’s malfeasance, chances are there’s a Jew behind it. And to be fair to his accusers, Tony does sometimes come across as thinking this. But according to his narrative it’s not Jews – or least not Jews-qua-Jews – who are trying to take over the world. It’s the point-zero-zero-one-percent. These neocons and Zionists just happen to have found common cause, at least for now.

But this idea that there’s a worldwide conspiracy of point-zero-zero-one-percenters – see my entry on the subject – is by no means unique to Tony. Most of my colleagues in the Philosophy department – being almost as idiotic as Tony – share this idiotic view. So if Tony’s going down, oh please please please, take my colleagues with him!

Your Honour, I move to dismiss. It’s not that my client is innocence of the charges against him. It’s that those charges – I think the legal term is – fail to disclose an offense.




There are, among the Great Unwashed – that’s everybody except me, by the way – some pretty serious misconceptions about law. Some people, including some philosophers, think there’s something called natural law, by which they mean rules that govern how we should behave – and would govern how we should behave – even in the absence of any kind of civil authority to promulgate those rules and to enforce them. Thus, for example, if it’s wrong that “a man should lie with a man as with a women”, then it was already wrong, even before the law of the land thought to outlaw it, as it did in Canada until 1982; and it remains wrong, even after the law of the land now permits it, as it does in Canada since 1982.

Let’s put the ontological status of these rules aside for a moment. The plausibility of this view hangs on how we might come to know what these rules are. Presumably we don’t want to let someone just pull them out of his ass, because there’s not a whole lot that can’t be pulled out of one’s ass, including that it’s wrong that “a man should lie with a man as with a women.” So to avoid this reaching in and just pulling out whatever one wants, some people think a law is only a law if it’s pulled out of God’s ass.

But these Divine Command Theorists, as they’re called, don’t like that characterization of their position, and so they modify it a bit. God wouldn’t be just pulling it out of His ass if instead He had some kind of privileged epistemic access to these rules. So their claim is rather that there are things God knows that we don’t. Or at least that He knows them more reliably than we do.

But in that case we can’t put the ontological status of these rules aside. We need to know what kinds of things are such that some observer, say God, can see them but the rest of us can’t. So most natural law theorists – Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, and so on – hold that the rest of us can see them, if only we take the trouble to look.

What would we be looking for? Well, remember that whatever they are they have to be such that having seen these rules we’d consider ourselves subject to them. That is, they have to be such that they’re normatively incumbent upon us. Well then, how ‘bout they’re the rules which, experience tells us, best serve our survival, delectation, and civility? That would make them empirically discoverable by pretty much any of us. And so we wouldn’t need God to tell us not to “lie with a man as with a woman.” We’d have figured that out ourselves.

Or, perhaps, we’d have figured out that that would be a stupid rule. That is, since these rules are empirically discoverable, and hence not self-evident, it shouldn’t surprise us that – contrary to Aquinas and Locke and thinkers of their ilk – reasonable people can and do disagree about what they might be. Not only that, but the rules might change over time. Or they might differ from place to place. Where there’s no refrigeration – as was the case three millennia ago – pork and seafood don’t keep. Now we do have refrigeration. In the absence of birth control premarital sex wasn’t such a great idea. Today saving yourself for marriage is just an invitation to disappointment. And so on.

Nevertheless, in a given place at a given time, there are better and worse decisions about what rules we should be imposing on each other, and these can be convincingly argued for. There is no case to be made that a man ought not to “lie with a man as with a woman.” There is no case to be made – at least here in the West in the early part of the 21st Century – that a woman ought not to be free to end a pregnancy or carry it to term. For the issue, recall, is not what may or may not be “an abomination in the eyes” of some real or imagined god, or what may or may not be the metaphysical status of the fetus. Rather it is, as already noted, what best serves our survival, delectation, and civility. I suspect that at this point in our history – and thankfully so do most of our parliamentarians – recriminalizing homosexuality and abortion would just provoke civil war. And as Thomas Hobbes observed, civil war is not exactly conducive to survival, delectation, and civility.

But the stupidity of recriminalizing homosexuality and abortion is a contingent matter. That is, we can easily imagine times and places – because there have been times and places – where heterosexism, pro-natalism, even slavery, made perfect sense to us. I suppose, as did Locke, the only rule that would be nigh-universally insisted upon would be respect for private property, without which civil society would be impossible. But everything else, including how property is to be assigned in the first place, is pretty much up for grabs.

Here again, is there a fact-of-the-matter about how the dividends of civil society are best divvied up between us? Yes in the sense that there’s a mind-independent fact-of-the-matter. But no in the sense that any of us – least of all any of these self-styled economic experts – has apodictic access to that fact. And it’s because there’s no universally shared view on how best to divvy up the goodies of civil society – and yet these goodies must nonetheless be divvied up – that we have (what we call) positive law.

Most positive laws are enacted with an eye to what our rulers take to be the best-making features of this divvying up. But some positive laws, like whether we drive on the right or the left, are simply solutions to pure coordination problems, and so can be entirely arbitrary. They’re what we might call merely regulatory laws. So, why do we need positive (i.e. posited) laws? Because without solutions to these coordination problems there could be no cooperative enterprise at all, and hence no cooperative dividends to divvy up.

It’s true that some people would prefer we do things this way rather than that, and others that we do them that way rather than this. So Hobbes acknowledged that, relative to any alternative positive law, every positive law produces winners and losers. But, he pointed out, relative to any alternative to positive law, every positive law produces nothing but winners.

So insofar as a) there’s nothing ‘natural’ about natural laws, that b) they’re nothing more nor less than what experience tells us are good rules of thumb by which to arrange our interpersonal affairs, and that c) any positive law, if it stands a hope of being respected, will likewise have to be sensitive to these rules of thumb, there’s really nothing left for natural law to be. Which is not to say that all rules are posited. It’s to say only that some of the rules by which we get along with one another have to be. And those that don’t, like queuing up, take care of themselves.


In the 19th Century, John Austin proposed (what came to be called) the command theory of law. And this resurrected a worry that had been around for centuries. Baruch Spinoza was exercised about it back in the 17th Century.

The difficulty with thinking of law as “the commands of the sovereign” is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to distinguish the commands of the sovereign from the demands of the highwayman. This is because sovereigns typically come by their power over us, and maintain that power, pretty much the same way highwaymen do, namely at the point of a gun, or by what Hobbes called acquisition (a.k.a. conquest) rather than by institution (a.k.a. election.)

More recently, in The Concept of Law (1961), H.L.A. Hart set himself to task providing that distinction. According to Hart, a command/demand is a law if and only if a) it’s embedded in a legal system, and b) those subject to it give it uptake, by which is meant they consider themselves subject to it. This doesn’t mean they need consider the law in any wise legitimate. Nor need they consider themselves morally obligated to obey it. It requires only that if they’ve defied the law they acknowledge that it was the law that they defied. So, for example, were it not that the smell of marijuana makes me nauseous I probably would smoke the stuff, because I consider its prohibition an illegitimate law. But I speed, notwithstanding I regard speed limits as perfectly legitimate. Neither the French during the War nor the Palestinians today consider the Nazi and Israeli occupations legitimate But that has nothing to do with whether resistance is or is not legal, except to say it might be illegal under Nazi and Israeli law, and yet perfectly legal under the laws of war.

And this raises the central question of the relationship between law and morality. Can we be simultaneously subject to two conflicting normative regimens? Apparently not, at least according to Jesus. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, render unto God that which is God’s.” Or, less theologically, “that which is dictated by your conscience.”

Some philosophers of law – Justice Devlin, for example – hold that if the law requires us to do something egregiously immoral, it can’t be a law, and therefore one needn’t obey it. Others, including Hart, insist that it’s a law all right, but some laws ought not to be obeyed. What’s at issue between them, it seems, is whether one minds being a criminal. Devlin does, Hart doesn’t.

In any event, what distinguishes the commands of the sovereign from the demands of the highwayman is that in the case of the former, but not the latter, we give it uptake. This does some work, but not enough. We still need to know at what point might the demands of a highwayman become the commands of a sovereign, and vice versa. That is, is the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza and the Golan an occupier or merely a highwayman? If the former then Netanyahu is right to call Hamas criminal terrorists. (Though, as we’ve just seen, on Hart’s account that can be a badge of honour.) But if the latter – if the IDF are just thugs – then the ‘occupation’ can rightly be treated as one would a home invasion. As with the Stand-Your-Ground laws in many parts of the U.S., feel free to just shoot the fuckers!

And those collaborating with these thugs are likewise fair game. So insofar as international law – assuming such a thing exists – is largely derived from Just War Theory, and insofar as 9/11 would seem to have satisfied the just cause condition, it was a perfectly legitimate military operation.

Or at least it would have been were it not for the non-combatant immunity condition. That is, international law has no problem with the Palestinian resistance targeting Israeli and American soldiers. But to deliberately target civilians is a war crime, right?

Well, maybe not. During the Indian Wars in the American West, their braves burned out ‘our’ settlers, and ‘our’ soldiers burned out their villages. Were these war crimes? Well yes, as long as you grant that not all crimes are created equal. That is, it’s hard to imagine how the West could have been won without such ethnic cleansing. In fact conquest invariably requires the targeting of non-combatants. How else can they be induced to “Move along now!”? And so if the targeting of non-combatants is a war crime, conquest is a war crime. But since, Antarctica aside, there isn’t a square inch on the planet that hasn’t been, at one time or another, conquered, the history of civilization is just one extended war crime. But if everything is a war crime then nothing is.

For most of human history the conquest of one people by another fell outside the range of any moral assessment. Today, for some reason I’ve never understood, conquerors have to tell themselves they have justice on their side. And so when the not-yet-entirely-vanquished hit back – as they’ve done in Palestine and Afghanistan and Iraq – they’re dubbed criminals and terrorists. This is hypocrisy to be sure, not to mention a tad unseemly. But what necessitates it, if not this puerile need to think oneself just and therefore so terribly hard-done-by?

There is no entitlement to the other guy’s land. But then neither is there entitlement to our own. As Hobbes put it, it’s ours “onely for so long as [we] can keep it.” Any other notion of ours-ness is the invention of children!

Of course it must be pointed out that though respect for the law – especially as it pertains to what belongs to whom – is not incumbent on those who decline to give it uptake, the law, to count as such, must treat those who don’t give it uptake the same as it does those who do. That is, one can say to the judge that “I don’t recognize the jurisdiction of this court.” And that might well be true. But if any judge took that as grounds to remove the matter from his court and refer it to the laws governing prisoners of war, then every accused could rightfully demand to be treated as a prisoner of war rather than as a criminal. Then, the next morning, he could simply concede defeat, and so an end to hostilities, and so invoke his right to go home. So we need a way to distinguish between a captured soldier and a convicted criminal. And that can’t depend on how the captive self-identifies.

This isn’t just an issue in jurisprudence; it’s the issue. And it came to a head with Bobby Sands during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. To this day the issue has never been resolved. But how can it be? Jurisdiction isn’t something about which there’s a mind-independent fact-of-the-matter. Rather it’s something that’s simply declared. But then the highwayman can declare himself authorized as readily as can the judge. So, it would seem, a law is a law just in case both a) the jural agent in question declares himself competent to enforce the rule in question, and b) the subject in question gives uptake to that declaration. Otherwise, no matter how much one’s robes might attest to his holding an office in a legal system, for all intents and purposes he remains nonetheless a highwayman.

It could be argued – indeed it has been argued – that what makes the highwayman a highwayman is that there’s someone, namely the sovereign, who can be appealed to to forcibly override the highwayman’s demands, whereas one cannot appeal to the highwayman to override the commands of the sovereign. But that merely begs the question. Of two pretenders, which is the sovereign and which is the highwayman? Both might declare themselves the former. Prince John declared Robin Hood a simple outlaw. Robin Hood proclaimed himself a servant of the absent king. But to ask who’s right and who’s wrong is just to misunderstand the problem.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that some ‘critical legal theorists’ regard law as a blind for power. We talk the talk with bromides like “the rule of law”, “equality under the law”, and so on. But beneath this rhetoric lies something far less laudatory, namely brute raw power.

But even if this is so, what lies beneath this power? What underpins it? Force of arms, certainly. But also what Hart called “the internal point of view”, or what I’ve been calling uptake. If this be doubted, ask yourself what would happen if one day we all just decided not to recognize those pieces of coloured paper as tradable for our goods and services, or those badges on those chests, or the titles by which one claims his authority? We give uptake because it serves our purposes to do so. And only for as long as it does.

Well no, not always. Sometimes – perhaps far too often – we’ve become so habituated to our having given uptake that it doesn’t occur to us that we can withdraw it. This is how sovereigns become highwaymen. It’s done in increments. Not unlike frogs, who have mechanisms for detecting rapid changes in temperature but none for detecting temperature itself, we allow ourselves to be boiled.

This is what happened to the Jews in Germany between 1933 and 1939. The sovereign morphed into a highwayman. This regularly happens with liberators turned tyrant – Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam in Iraq. But the creation of a dystopia is not always as Mephistophelian as that. As often as not we boil ourselves. Hence the oft-cited distinction between George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

So the bottom line, it seems, is that for all our efforts – Spinoza’s, Hobbes’, Hart’s – there is no distinction between the sovereign and the highwayman save that our thinking makes it so. If all things considered you like the rules you’re being expected to follow, then follow them. If all things considered you don’t – but make sure all things have been considered – then feel free to just shoot the fuckers!


I’m not the first to say what I’m about to say here, but I think it has to be said over and over and over again, to at least attempt to counter the nonsense that’s been spouted over and over and over and over again. What nonsense is that? The nonsense about the unemployment problem. Am I saying that there is no unemployment? No. what I’m saying is that it’s not a problem. What I’m saying is that, if anything it’s something to be celebrated.

Look. It’s been several generations, at least here in the West, since we needed as many hands as possible to work the field. Now one man, plus the contents of his Quonset, can feed a small city. What’s in his Quonset has freed the rest of us up to work on other things that enhance the quality of our lives, but also to do nothing at all but consume those things that enhance the quality of our lives. So unemployment isn’t a scourge. It’s a boon. Why, then, would anyone be complaining that the government isn’t creating enough jobs?

If you enjoy pulling a plow, then, say I, knock yourself out. No one’s going to stop you. But why would you expect to be paid for it?

“Because,” you answer, “without a job I don’t get paid. And without money I can’t buy those things that enhance the quality of my life.”

To which I respond: And isn’t this precisely what we mean by featherbedding? We’re not asking you to produce anything. At least not in the sense that but for your producing it it wouldn’t get produced. We’re just making it a condition of being paid that you turn up to where we don’t need you to work. And we’re doing that because if we didn’t then no one would turn up to work, and so nothing would get produced, and so no one’s quality of life would be enhanced.

I get that. And I also get why there’s a limit to what we can do about this silliness, like welfarism and job-sharing and earlier retirement. All that I’m saying is that unemployment is serving, in our language, as a metonym for not having money. And it’s a metonym which, like using crime as a metonym for harm, is doing us considerable disservice. We could cut the crime rate in half by legalizing marijuana, and I personally think we should. But in so doing we wouldn’t have reduced social harm by one iota, except the social harm of incarcerating young people for preferring a joint over a beer.

Similarly, then, we could eliminate unemployment overnight by featherbedding everyone, but that wouldn’t make the aggregate any the richer. It would just redistribute the wealth. But if we think we need to redistribute the aggregate wealth – and as the child of a socialist father and a Bolshevik grandmother I’m all in favour of doing so – surely with a little rejigging of our attitudes we can do so without the moral absurdity of workfare.