The Cleese Test

Yesterday afternoon, having no greater pleasure in life than to read than my own writing, I found a terrible error in yesterday’s blogpost which needs to be apologized for posthaste. In what I wrote yesterday about the Baltimore Symphony, I accidentally left out two words from that post which I suppose could have been misconstrued to the point of causing a scandal if anybody actually read it… For that error, in case you read it and care, I do most surely repent.

The error was as follows — in that blogpost, I bemoaned of the Jewish abdication of responsibility from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that we its Jewish benefactors once made into one of the best in the nation by financing almost 50% or much more of its operating costs, and then wrote: “What abdication of responsibility happened to our community that we went from the city’s most crucial benefactors of culture to the city’s most ignominious destroyers?” I meant to say “that we went from the city’s most crucial benefactors of culture to the city’s most ignominious destroyers of culture,” not to imply that Jews were Baltimore’s most ignominious destroyers ‘OF EVERYTHING ABOUT BALTIMORE.’ But the fact that those two words are missing would probably make it sound to certain people as though I meant that Jews, more than anybody else, are responsible for the decline of Baltimore. I would hope that readers of good faith would realize that such a statement was quite far from my intention. But let’s get real, this is 2018, and if anybody were reading this but a few friends, I’d have been beheaded, then hanged, then impaled, then put on red hot spikes, then burned, then manacled, then drowned, then flayed alive. We now live in a world where everybody seems to interpret the statements of everybody who disagrees with them in the worst possible faith. Perhaps those of us observing this phenomenon should interpret its participants with the charity they lack, but one day, we find their firepower inevitably turned on us, so why should we withhold what we know they won’t? Turning the other cheek is a Christian concept, not a Jewish one.

In conversation, everything we say is full of ambiguities the size of Swiss cheese holes that can be interpreted in any manner to convey much worse sentiments than we intended. It’s just what we do as people. But if the particular person to whom we’re talking is worth our time at that particular moment, they’ll interpret what we say with some charity. But if they’re not interpreting ambiguous statements with charity, they’re manipulating our statements with a malicious intent – the maliciousness may range from the slight to the extraordinary, but it’s still malice.

What provokes this malice is not that evil lurks in the hearts of these people, just fanaticism, and that impulse behind fanaticism — infantilism. The desire for life to be no more complicated than the certainties of childhood. Isaiah Berlin, a political north star for all Jewish liberals, put it best as always:

The very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past.

Once you decide that a certain notion is important enough to the well-being of the world, there is no action extreme enough to make your dream a reality. So many people on the Left these days invoke the cliché: ‘Words matter,’ because words can potentially lead to violence. Perhaps that’s true, though I’d imagine that 70-99.999% of the time, individual instances of people saying malicious words have little-to-no direct impact on people’s decisions to commit any act of violence whatsoever; but even if it’s true that there is a direct path between malicious words and bloody acts, then if the words of others can lead to violence, then why would that notion not apply to themselves too? So many invokers of the necessity of social justice willfully excuse violent agitation in service of their own cause and pretend that violence on their own side can lead to expense of blood no less drastic than violent agitation in any other direction.

Granted, it may seem absurdly disproportionate to stridently criticize some methods of theirs when they live in a country that alternates, as we and so many powerful semi-democracies do, between a reactionary government who cracks down violently at the first sign of certain forms of dissent and a liberal government who at the best of times softens the reins of tyranny without removing them. There is certainly a valid point to that notion. But if these Leftists knew anything, really, anything at all, about late 19th/early 20th century history, they would see that by agitating as they do, they only strengthen the conservative stranglehold on the country, which further radicalizes parties within their own camp, which strengthens conservatives further. Eventually, the conservative government becomes so authoritarian that they lose touch with reality, and the conservatives make a mistake so costly that the entire country comes tumbling down, often at the expense of millions of lives. In the chaos that follows, naive progressives and socialists see it as an opportunity to finally enact the reforms of which they’ve long dreamed; but in 95% of cases, it never comes to pass. It is inevitably the most ruthless and extreme political actors with the will to commit the most heinously bloody acts who rise to power. This isn’t just how the world ended up with the reigns of Mao and Stalin and you-know-who, this is how we got Napoleon, and the Young Turks, and the Khmer Rouge, and Showa Japan, and Ayatollah Khomeini, and Mussolini, and Mugabe, and Idi Amin, and Hissene Habre, and Siad Barre, and the Assads, and the ibn-Sauds, and Chiang Kai-Shek in addition to Mao, and thousands of other absolute rulers throughout history both recent and distant who enacted a regime of murder. Whatever your problems with a government, so long as the government is not completely radicalized, the best way to make your country more free is to become part of the establishment as best you can and change the government from the inside.

If I still have this blog, there will be plenty of time to slam the Right, but today, we’re going to concentrate on the Left. I live in a very radicalized city — understandably so given how difficult life in Baltimore can be, but when I talk to so many people I know, it’s clear that in their worldview, Mao and Stalin and Pol Pot and Kim Il-Sung never happened. When you’re dead, it doesn’t matter whether you’re killed in the service of maintaining a social hierarchy or leveling a social hierarchy. You’re still dead. All these events happened within the lifetime of our parents and grandparents, and yet somehow, people maintain a belief that humanity has so changed in fifty years that what was true about human beings in 1968 is somehow not true about them in 2018.

So it therefore follows that even among supposed liberals, I’ve had hundreds of acquaintances over the years who would not pass ‘The Cleese Test.’ No doubt there were a number of years of my life when I wouldn’t have either. To be sure, one doesn’t simply pass the test by holding centrist beliefs or even by being civil in all your discourse. You pass it by retaining a cast of mind independent enough that you don’t feel the need to silence disagreement. How insecure must we be if another person’s objectionable opinion carries the same weight as an objective pronouncement? It might be worth re-evaluating your beliefs when one person whose input you value become offended at something you say in conversation, but when you see thousands get angry about the exact same issue in the exact same manner, these thousands are not thinking with their prefrontal cortex, they’re thinking with their limbic system, the piece of brain that dictates our animal drives, not our higher consciousness.

But then again, here I am stridently criticizing people for their strident criticism of cautious, boring, un-radicalized liberals like me. Perhaps I’ve failed the Cleese test too. Perhaps by doing so and not offering them the charity they refuse to give, my political character is no better than theirs. Like so many things in life, like so much which Judaism instructs, it is a paradox whose square we cannot circle. It is almost impossible to criticize in a supportive manner. The best you can do is to refrain from silencing those you criticize.

Whatever happened to the Jewish idea that you don’t silence the opposition, you just yell past each other until everybody gets exhausted? Is it really better to not know what the other person thinks in their heart? If you want people to silence their disagreeable thoughts, then by definition, you want to live in an alternate reality where those thoughts don’t exist.

We have to have faith that eventually, through a period of years, we can win another person over to our way of seeing the world by at least 1 degree every decade, and perhaps our own way of viewing the world will move to theirs by 1 degree too. Dialogue happens through exchange, not conversion. Let yourself get angry in the midst of debate, at least within reason. But only the un-confident in what they believe, won’t have faith that the strength of their ideas should be enough to win an argument without cheating by saying that the other person’s thoughts are not welcome. To say the least, no one will be perfect in this regard, but we can at least improve ourselves a little bit.

And that’s why I think I’ve passed it.

About the Author
Evan Tucker, alias A C Charlap, is a writer and musician residing in Baltimore. He is currently composing music for all 150 Biblical Tehillim. A Jewish Music Apollo Project - because "They have Messiah, we have I Have a Little Dreidel." He is currently on #11. Eight of the first ten are pretty avant garde, but they're going to get more traditional as he gets further in. Evan also has a podcast called 'It's Not Even Past - A History of the Distant Present' which is a way of relating current events to history and history to current events. Most importantly, he is also currently working on a podcast called Tales from the Old New Land, fictional stories from the whole of Jewish History. The podcast is currently being retooled, the link to the new version will be up in the next month or so.