»  The American Conservative

March 10, 2003

  The Marx of the Anti-Semites

The Culture of Critique
by Kevin MacDonald


[Couple of notes here.  (1) The review title, like most titles of pieces, was not mine. It was thought up by the editors of The American Conservative. For the record, I submitted this review under the suggested title "The Jew Thing."  (2) This review generated a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with readers and commentators. I have put some of this, with my own responses to it, following this review.]


One evening early on in my career as an opinion journalist in the U.S.A., I found myself in a roomful of mainstream conservative types, standing around in groups and gossiping. Because I was new to the scene, a lot of the names they were tossing about were unknown to me, so I could not take much part in the conversation. Then I caught one name that I recognized. I had just recently read and admired a piece published in Chronicles under that name. I gathered from the conversation that the owner of the name had once been a regular contributor to much more widely read conservative publications, the kind that have salaried congressional correspondents and full-service LexisNexis accounts, but that he was welcome at those august portals no longer. In all innocence, I asked why this was so. "Oh," explained one of my companions, "he got the Jew thing." The others in our group all nodded their understanding. Apparently no further explanation was required. The Jew thing. It was said in the kind of tone you might use of an automobile with a cracked engine block, or a house with subsiding foundations. Nothing to be done with him, poor fellow. No use to anybody now. Got the Jew thing. They shoot horses, don't they?

Plainly, getting the Jew thing was a sort of occupational hazard of conservative journalism in the United States, an exceptionally lethal one, which the career-wise writer should strive to avoid. I resolved that I would do my best, so far as personal integrity allowed, not to get the Jew thing. I had better make it clear to the reader that at the time of writing, I have not yet got the Jew thing — that I am in fact a philosemite and a well-wisher of Israel, for reasons I have explained in various places, none of them difficult for the nimble web surfer to find.

If, however, you have got the Jew thing, or if, for reasons unfathomable to me, you would like to get it, Kevin MacDonald is your man. MacDonald is a tenured professor of psychology at California State University in Long Beach. He is best known for his three books about the Jews, developing the idea that Judaism has for 2,000 years or so been a "group evolutionary strategy." The subject of this review is a re-issue, in soft cover, of the third and most controversial of those books, The Culture of Critique, first published in 1998. Its subtitle is: "An evolutionary analysis of Jewish involvement in twentieth-century intellectual and political movements." The re-issue differs from the original mainly by the addition of a 66-page preface, which covers some more recent developments in the field, and offers responses to some of the criticisms that appeared when the book was first published. The number of footnotes has also been increased, from 135 to 181, and they have all been moved from the chapter-ends to the back of the book. A small amount of extra material has been added to the text. So far as I could tell from a cursory comparison of the two editions, nothing has been subtracted.

The main thrust of this book's argument is that Jewish or Jewish-dominated organizations and movements engaged in a deliberate campaign to de-legitimize the Gentile culture of their host nations — most particularly the U.S.A. — through the twentieth century, and that this campaign is one aspect of a long-term survival strategy for the Jews as an ethny. In MacDonald's own words: "[T]he rise of Jewish power and the disestablishment of the specifically European nature of the U.S. are the real topics of CofC." He illustrates his thesis by a close analysis of six distinct intellectual and political phenomena: the anti-Darwinian movement in the social sciences (most particularly the no-such-thing-as-race school of anthropology associated with Franz Boas), the prominence of Jews in left-wing politics, the psychoanalytic movement, the Frankfurt School of social science (which sought to explain social problems in terms of individual psychopathology), the "New York intellectuals" centered on Partisan Review during the 1940s and 1950s, and Jewish involvement in shaping U.S. immigration policy.

MacDonald writes from the point of view of evolutionary psychology — a term that many writers would put in quotes, as the epistemological status of this field is still a subject of debate. I have a few doubts of my own on this score, and sometimes wonder whether evolutionary psychology may eventually turn out to be one of those odd fads that the human sciences, especially in the U.S.A., are susceptible to. The twentieth century saw quite a menagerie of these fads: Behaviorism, Sheldonian personality-typing by body shape (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph), the parapsychological reseaches of Dr. J.B. Rhine, the sexology of Alfred Kinsey, and so on. I think that the evolutionary psychologists are probably on to something, but some of their more extreme claims seem to me to be improbable and unpleasantly nihilistic. Here, for example, is Kevin MacDonald in a previous book: "The human mind was not designed to seek truth but rather to attain evolutionary goals." This trembles on the edge of deconstructionist words-have-no-meaning relativism, of the kind that philosopher David Stove called "puppetry theory," and that MacDonald himself debunks very forcefully in Chapter 5 of The Culture of Critique. After all, if it is so, should we not suppose that evolutionary psychologists are pursuing their own "group evolutionary strategy"? And that, in criticizing them, I am pursuing mine? And that there is, therefore, no point at all in my writing, or your reading, any further?

To be fair to Kevin MacDonald, not all of his writing is as silly as that. The Culture of Critique includes many good things. There is a spirited defense of scientific method, for example. One of the sub-themes of the book is that Jews are awfully good at creating pseudosciences — elaborate, plausible, and intellectually very challenging systems that do not, in fact, have any truth content — and that this peculiar talent must be connected somehow with the custom, persisted in through long pre-Enlightenment centuries, of immersing young men in the study of a vast body of argumentative writing, with status in the community — and marriage options, and breeding opportunities — awarded to those who have best mastered this mass of meaningless esoterica. (This is not an original observation, and the author does not claim it as such. In fact he quotes historian Paul Johnson to the same effect, and earlier comments along these lines were made by Koestler and Popper.) MacDonald is very scathing about these circular and self-referential thought-systems, especially in the case of psychoanalysis and the "pathologization of Gentile culture" promoted by the Frankfurt School. Here he was precisely on my wavelength, and I found myself cheering him on. Whatever you may think of MacDonald and his theories, there is no doubt he believes himself to be doing careful objective science. The same could, of course, be said of Sheldon, Rhine, Kinsey et al.

It is good to be reminded, too, with forceful supporting data, that the 1924 restrictions on immigration to the U.S. were not driven by any belief on the part of the restrictionists in their own racial superiority, but by a desire to stabilize the nation's ethnic balance, which is by no means the same thing. (In fact, as MacDonald points out, one of the worries of the restrictionists was that more clever and energetic races like the Japanese would, if allowed to enter, have negative effects on social harmony.) MacDonald's chapter on "Jewish involvement in shaping U.S. immigration policy" is a detailed survey of a topic I have not seen discussed elsewhere. If the Jews learned anything from the twentieth century, it was surely the peril inherent in being the only identifiable minority in a society that is otherwise ethnically homogeneous. That thoughtful Jewish-Americans should seek to avoid this fate is understandable. That their agitation was the main determinant of postwar U.S. immigration policy seems to me more doubtful. And if it is true, we must believe that 97 per cent of the U.S. population ended up dancing to the tune of the other 3 per cent. If that is true, the only thing to say is the one Shakespeare's Bianca would have said: "The more fool they."

Similarly with MacDonald's discussion of Jewish involvement in the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian Empire and the many horrors that ensued. This was until recently another taboo topic, though the aged Alexander Solzhenitsyn, presumably feeling he has nothing much to lose, has recently taken a crack at it. I believe MacDonald was driven by necessity here. Having posited that Jews are out to "destroy" (this is his own word) Gentile society, he was open to the riposte that if, after 2,000 years of trying, the Jews had failed to accomplish this objective in even one instance, Gentiles don't actually have much to worry about. So: The Jews destroyed Russia. Though MacDonald's discussion of this topic is interesting and illuminating, it left me unconvinced. As he says: "The issue of the Jewish identification of Bolsheviks who were Jews by birth is complex." Paul Johnson gives only 15-20 percent of the delegates at early Party congresses as Jewish. If the other 80-85 per cent were permitting themselves to be manipulated by such a small minority, then we are back with Bianca.

Since the notion of "group evolutionary strategy" is central to MacDonald's case, I wish he had been better able to convince me of its validity. For instance: I happen to be fairly well acquainted with the culture and history of China, a nation which, like the diaspora Jews, awarded high social status and enhanced mating opportunities to young men who had shown mastery of great masses of content-free written material. Anyone who has read stories from the premodern period of China's history knows that the guy who gets the girl — who ends up, in fact, with a bevy of "secondary wives" who are thereby denied to less intellectual males — is the one who has aced the Imperial examinations and been rewarded with a District Magistrate position. This went on for two thousand years. Today's Chinese even, like Ashkenazi Jews, display an average intelligence higher by several points than the white-Gentile mean. So: was Confucianism a "group evolutionary strategy"? If so, then plainly the Chinese of China were, in MacDonald's jargon, the "ingroup". But then … what was the "outgroup"?

The more I think about the term "group evolutionary strategy," in fact, the more I wonder if it is not complete nonsense. From an evolutionary point of view, would not the optimum strategy for almost any European Jew at almost any point from a.d. 79 to a.d. 1800 or so have been conversion to Christianity? Rather than learning to argue fine points of theology, wouldn't a better strategy have been to learn, say, fencing, or Latin? Sure, the Jews held together as a group across 2,000 years. The gypsies held together pretty well, too, across many centuries; yet their "group evolutionary strategy" was the opposite of the Jews' at almost every point. And the Jewish over-representation in important power centers of Gentile host societies became possible only after Jewish emancipation — which, like abolition of the slave trade, was an entirely white-Gentile project! Did the genes of 12th-century Jews "know" emancipation was going to happen 700 years on? How? If they didn't, what was the point of their "evolutionary strategy"? There is a whiff of teleology about this whole business.

Kevin MacDonald is working in an important field. There is no disputing the fact that we need to understand much more than we currently do about how common-ancestry groups react with each other. Group conflicts are a key problem for multiracial and multicultural societies. Up till about 1960, the U.S. coped with these problems by a frank assertion of white-Gentile ethnic dominance, very much as Israel copes with them today by asserting Jewish ethnic dominance. This proved to be quite a stable arrangement, as social arrangements go. It was obviously objectionable to some American Jews, and it is not surprising that they played an enthusiastic part in undermining it; but they were not the sole, nor even the prime, movers in its downfall. It was replaced, from the 1960s on, by a different arrangement, characterized by racial guilt, shame, apology, and recompense, accompanied by heroic efforts at social engineering ("affirmative action"). This system, I think it is becoming clear, has proved less stable than what went before, and has probably now reached the point where it cannot be sustained much longer. What will replace it? What will the new arrangement be?

At times of flux like this, there are naturally people whose preference is for a return to the older dispensation. It is obvious that Kevin MacDonald is one of these people. If this is not so, he has some heavy explaining to do about phrases like: "the ethnic interests of white Americans to develop an ethnically and culturally homogeneous society." Personally, I think he's dreaming. The older dispensation wasn't as bad as liberal commentators and story-tellers would have us believe, but it is gone for ever, and will not return. For America, the toothpaste is out of the tube.

And on the point of Israel having something very much like the old American dispensation, I am unimpressed by MacDonald's oft-repeated argument — it is a favorite with both Israelophobes and antisemites — that it is hypocritical for Jews to promote multiculturalism in the U.S. while wishing to maintain Jewish ethnic dominance in Israel. Unless you think that ethnic dominance, under appropriate restraining laws, is immoral per se — and I don't, and Kevin MacDonald plainly doesn't, either — it can be the foundation of a stable and successful nation. A nation that can establish it and maintain it would be wise to do so. The U.S.A. was not able to maintain it, because too many Americans — far more than 3 per cent — came to think it violated Constitutional principles. Israel, however, was founded on different principles, and there seems to be no large popular feeling in that country for dismantling Jewish-ethnic dominance, as there was in Lyndon Johnson's America for dismantling European dominance. The Israelis, most of them, are happy with Jewish-ethnic dominance, and intend to keep it going. Good luck to them.

The aspect of MacDonald's thesis that I find least digestible is his underlying assumption that group conflict is a zero-sum game, rooted in an evolutionary tussle over finite resources. This is not even true on an international scale, as the growing wealth of the whole world during this past few decades has shown. On the scale of a single nation, it is absurd. These Jewish-inspired pseudoscientific phenomena that The Culture of Critique is concerned with — Boasian anthropology, psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School and so on — were they a net negative for America? Yes, I agree with MacDonald, they were. Now conduct the following thought experiment. Suppose the great post-1881 immigration of Ashkenazi Jews had never occurred. Suppose the Jewish population of the U.S. in 2003 were not the two to four per cent (depending on your definitions) that it is, but the 0.3 per cent it was at the start of the Civil War. Would anything have been lost? Would America be richer, or poorer? Would our cultural and intellectual life be busier, or duller?

It seems incontrovertible to me that a great deal would have been lost: entrepreneurs, jurists, philanthropists, entertainers, publishers, and legions upon legions of scholars: not mere psychoanalysts and "critical theorists," but physicists, mathematicians, medical researchers, historians, economists — even, as MacDonald notes honestly in his new preface, evolutionary psychologists! The first American song whose words I knew was "White Christmas," written by a first-generation Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant. The first boss I ever had in this country was a Jew who had served honorably in the U.S. Marine Corps. Perhaps it is true, as MacDonald claims, that "most of those prosecuted for spying for the Soviet Union [i.e. in the 1940s and 1950s] were Jews." It is also true, however, that much of the secret research they betrayed to their country's enemies was the work of Jewish scientists. The Rosenbergs sold the Bomb to the Soviets; but without Jewish physicists, there would have been no Bomb to sell. Last spring I attended a conference of mathematicians attempting to crack a particularly intractable problem in analytic number theory. A high proportion of the 200-odd attendees were Jews, including at least two from Israel. Sowers of discord there have certainly been, but on balance, I cannot see how anyone could deny that this country is enormously better off for the contributions of Jews. Similarly for every other nation that has liberated the energies and intelligence of Jewish citizens. Was Hungary better off, or worse off, after the 1867 Ausgleich? Was Spain better off, or worse off, before the 1492 expulsions? "To ask the question is to answer it."

Now, Kevin MacDonald might argue that he, as a social scientist, is not obliged to provide any such balance in his works, any more than a clinical pathologist writing about disease should be expected to include an acknowledgment that most of his readers will be healthy for most of their lives. I agree. A scientist, even a social scientist, need not present any facts other than those he has uncovered by diligent inquiry in his particular narrow field. He is under no obligation, as a scientist, to soothe the feelings of those whose sensibilities might be offended by his discoveries. Given the highly combustible nature of MacDonald's material, however, it wouldn't have hurt to point out the huge, indisputably net-positive, contributions of Jews to America, right at the beginning of his book, and again at the end. MacDonald has in any case been fairly free in CofC with his own opinions on such matters as U.S. support for Israel, immigration policy, and so on. He is entitled to those opinions: but having included them in this book, his claim to dwell only in the aery realm of cold scientific objectivity does not sound very convincing.

This is, after all, in the dictionary definition of the term, an antisemitic book. Its entire argument is that the Jews, collectively, are up to no good. This may of course be true, and MacDonald is entitled to say that the issue of whether his results are antisemitic is nugatory, from a social-science point of view, by comparison with the issue of their truth content. I agree with that, too: but given the well-known history of this topic, it seems singularly obtuse of MacDonald not to keep a jar of oil close at hand to spread on the troubled waters his work is bound to stir up. From my own indirect, and rather scanty, knowledge of the man, I would put this down to a personality combination of prickliness and unworldliness, but I am not sure I could persuade less charitable souls that my interpretation is the correct one, and that there is not malice lurking behind MacDonald's elaborate sociological jargon.


[This review brought me a huge volume of e-mail, and regular mail too, and was the occasion of much comment in Internet discussion groups and elsewhere.

Rather than repeat myself, I have posted some of the commoner remarks here, with my responses to them.

Kevin MacDonald tells me he will post his own review of my review on his personal website here. [Added September 2021:  Now defunct, so far as I can tell.] He has already sent me a copy, which was the basis for some of my comments below.

For my 8/21/00 National Review Online article "Is Antisemitism Dead?" see here. For my 4/10/01 National Review Online article "The Jews and I," see here. (Note: Kevin refers to this article in his review of my review.)]


        •  Responses to common remarks

Comment.   Having admitted in "The Jews and I" that I do not understand the theory of "group evolutionary strategy," on which The Culture of Critique rests, I have no standing to pass an opinion on the book.

Response.   Kevin MacDonald is an academic. He spends his life preparing papers for publication in learned journals, or for presentation at scholarly gatherings, where his academic peers can discuss and criticize them. That is the main thing that academics do. Occasionally, however, an academic feels the urge to write a book for the general public. When he does so, he exposes himself to the attentions of lay reviewers, and he must take his chances with them. Part of the system for bringing new books into the world is the giving of them to decently well educated but non-specialist drudges, to read and pass an opinion on for a fee of (usually) a few hundred dollars.

Now, this is an unsatisfactory system in all sorts of ways, especially for academics. Bertrand Russell said: "I would rather be reviewed by my worst enemy among philosophers than by a friend ignorant of philosophy." I sympathize. However, this system, as unsatisfactory as it may be, has been going along for 300 years now, during which time nobody has been able to think of a better one. Academics who are seriously unhappy with it have the choice to stay comfortably ensconced in the world of peer review. Nobody is going to force them to publish for a general market, or to expose themselves to the attentions of ink-stained ignoramuses who read books for (gasp!) money.

The fact that academics frequently do venture into the general book market is not a mark of their folly or unworldliness. Rather the contrary: they know that even wrong-headed or uncomprehending reviews — even bad reviews — generate interest, create sales, and make money. An academic can, in fact, get considerably rich from bad and stupid reviews — ask Charles Murray. In conversation with Kevin MacDonald, I have never heard him complain about bad reviews. What he complains about, constantly, is that nobody reviews his books. With that, I really do sympathize. Kevin has interesting things to say, based on years of study and reflection. He ought to be heard.

Comment.   MacDonald is an antisemite. You should not pay attention to people like that. It only encourages them.

Response.   I have an open mind about whether Kevin is an antisemite, and am not much interested in the matter. The Culture of Critique is a solid book, dense with arguments, references, and examples. Faced with a book of that type, the question a reviewer should tackle is not: "Why did the guy write this book?" The question is: "Does he make the case he has set out to make?" People write books from all sorts of motives, some of them disreputable. (Vanity and greed predominate.) A book that has obviously been written with great care, after long research, deserves to be taken on its own terms, as an extended argument. Does the author prove his case? That is the main question a reviewer should try to answer.

As strongly as I believe in anything, I believe in free enquiry and open debate. I believe in the marketplace of ideas. I believe that "sunlight is the best disinfectant." I don't like the idea that there are certain things we should not talk about. The influence of Jews on 20th-century society, particularly American society, is an interesting topic. I have often found myself thinking about it. Kevin has a lot to say about it. The Culture of Critique is an interesting book. (It is also, by the way, better-written than most books by academics — though this is not a very extraordinary achievement.)

Comment.   Er, wait a minute. You just said you "have an open mind about whether Kevin is an antisemite." Yet in your review you say that The Culture of Critique "is, after all, in the dictionary definition of the term, an antisemitic book." If Kevin's book is antisemitic, how can he not be an antisemite?

Response.   By being a scientist. Science is "cold." That is, it doesn't care about the researcher's feelings. Kepler was a Ptolemian in astronomy: he believed the planets moved in epicycles. After calculating and re-calculating, he slowly came to accept that this could not be so, that the planets move in ellipses. He only accepted this with extreme reluctance, though. I'm not sure you could ever say that he stopped being a Ptolemian and became a full Keplerian. That's what science is like. It has no respect for the feelings of the scientist. Now, Kevin MacDonald claims to be doing cold, objective social science, and I have taken him at his word on that, not knowing any grounds for supposing otherwise. A researcher doing cold, objective social science on the history and sociology of the Jews might come to the conclusion, as Kevin has, that they practice a "group evolutionary strategy," one of whose 20th-century manifestations was a campaign to destroy Gentile culture. This researcher might come to this conclusion very reluctantly, like Kepler. He might be a philosemite, or even a Jew. A man and a book are two different things. A man who is not an antisemite might do research that led to antisemitic conclusions. If he set them out in a book, that would of course be an antisemitic book.

Is this actually the case with Kevin MacDonald? Just as I said, I have an open mind on the issue, and don't find it very interesting. I reviewed Kevin's book in the spirit I have already described, trying to assess whether his arguments prove his conclusions. Those conclusions are antisemitic. They say that the Jews are up to no good. That is antisemitic. What else is it?

Comment.   You have done a complete one-eighty, having said you found MacDonald's arguments "persuasive" in "The Jews and I," then pooh-poohing them in this review.

Response.   Here is the only reference to Kevin in "The Jews and I" (for the full text, see the link I have provided above):

I also find the theories of Kevin Macdonald (The Culture of Critique) about the partly malign influence of Jews on modern American culture very persuasive — though this is not an endorsement of Macdonald's theory of "group evolutionary strategies," which I do not understand.

Now, here I am in my American Conservative review:

These Jewish-inspired pseudoscientific phenomena that The Culture of Critique is concerned with — Boasian anthropology, psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School and so on — were they a net negative for America? Yes, I agree with MacDonald, they were.

I don't myself see a lot of daylight between these two remarks. Now, I certainly do contradict myself sometimes. In calendar year 2002 I published over 194,000 words of commentary and review on a wide array of topics. That is considerably more words than there are in the New Testament. (And that was a slack year for my journalism, as I also produced a 400-page book.) You try writing 194,000 words of commentary without contradicting yourself. I am generally unembarrassed about contradictions. In this particular case, though, I don't see it.

Comment.   It is insulting to call MacDonald "the Marx of the antisemites."

Response.   I'm not sure that it is. In any case, whether it is or not, I am not responsible. The titles of magazine pieces are mostly thought up by editors and sub-editors. So it was in this case. I submitted the review under the title "The Jew Thing." If you don't like the published title, take it up with the editors of The American Conservative.

Comment.   It is insulting, and borderline antisemitic, of you to describe traditional Talmudic scholarship as "content-free" and "meaningless esoterica." The Talmud is chock full of content and very meaningful.

Response.   Is it? Then I can only say that I am surprised how little actual good has come out of all those centuries of intensive study. A person who has devoted his life to the study of Judaic texts ought, if those texts have meaningful content, to be wiser, better equipped to live in the world, better, than a person who hasn't. Is this actually the case?

Possibly it is. I didn't mean to insult anyone, and in fact I confess to a slight regret over this remark. By way of excusing myself, let me say that my own early training — my first degree, in fact — was in mathematics. Now, studying math at the higher levels makes you a terrible intellectual snob. No other discipline has the standards of rigor required in mathematics. Of course, none really can have, so this is a very unfair point of view. It is, though, one that mathematicians find hard to avoid. "When you've worked on a farm, nothing else ever seems like work," said J.K. Galbraith. Similarly, when you've studied higher math, nothing else really seems like study. For this reason, I approach all the human sciences with an opening attitude of deep skepticism — though I am always willing to be convinced. I guess this attitude shows in my review.

Now, pure mathematics is a very peculiar thing. Consider the man I have just written a book about, for example, the 19th-century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann. On June 10, 1854, Riemann delivered a paper to the faculty of Göttingen University. In that paper he laid out the fundamental ideas of Riemannian geometry, a challenging and very beautiful branch of pure mathematics which he thought up entirely out of his own head. Riemann's ideas were pure intellection, rooted in some philosophical ideas about the nature of space. They had no conceivable practical application. It was sixty years before Albert Einstein picked them up and used them as the basis for the General Theory of Relativity.

The kind of pure intellection that Talmudic scholars immerse themselves in is as abstract and, from a worldly point of view, useless as Riemannian geometry … but there is never an Einstein. Talmudic concepts never have any real fruit in the world of men. Talmudic scholarship consists (it seems to me) of racing the engine of the brain without engaging the gears.

Another influence on the way I think about this is my own studies of Chinese history and culture. Candidates for the Imperial examinations in old China had to engage in the same kind of years-long concentrated study of huge masses of accumulated written material that Talmudic scholars have to master. At the end of their studies, for the Imperial examinations, the Chinese scholars had to write an "eight-legged essay"  — that is, one conforming to certain traditional patterns of style and presentation. You can find translations of prize-winning "eight-legged essays" in books about Chinese culture. I have one here. It is gibberish. It is content-free. However, if you passed the exam, you got a lifetime job as a Mandarin, a guaranteed income, and a choice of breeding partners.

The attitude of the Chinese themselves to the material these scholars had to master is encapsulated in the old proverb: "Learning is like a brick, which you can use to break down a door. When you have broken down the door, you can throw away the brick!"

Comment.   "A scathing ad hominem attack on Kevin MacDonald."

Response.   If you think my review was "a scathing ad hominem attack," you don't get out much. I can do "scathing ad hominem" stuff when I feel like it. See here, for example. In the case of The Culture of Critique, I did not feel like it, because (a) I believe Kevin MacDonald is an honest man, and (b) I don't feel sure enough about my understanding of his theories to attack them with real confidence. I therefore dealt with the book respectfully, and gave the author the benefit of most doubts. The entire ad hominem content of the review is at the very end, where I express the opinion that Kevin is "prickly" and "unworldly." If you think that is "scathing," well, as I said, you really should try to get out of the house more.

Since the ad hominem issue has been raised, here is what I really think about Kevin MacDonald: I think he is a reactionary. There's nothing much wrong with that. Some of my personal heroes were reactionaries. Chesterton was a reactionary; Evelyn Waugh was certainly a reactionary. George Orwell was a reactionary, though of a subtle and contradictory kind. "In love with 1910," said one of his friends. Kevin MacDonald is in love with 1950. As I said in my review (and as he confirms in his response to my review), Kevin would like to restore the white-Gentile ethnic dominance of American society, as it was fifty years ago. I don't (again, as I said in my review) find this particularly objectionable. I just think it's a fantasy — ain't gonna happen. Kevin's entitled to his dreams, though; and he is certainly entitled to argue that the social arrangements of fifty years ago were superior to those of today. In some respects, I agree with him about this.

Comment.   You ask rhetorically: "Was Spain better off, or worse off, before the 1492 expulsions?" Of course she was worse off. The 16th century was Spain's golden age!

Response.   Nonsense. The Inquisition, the Counter-Reformation, and the flood of silver from the New World were disasters for Spain. The first and second led to the stifling of intellectual life; the third to chronic inflation, the impoverishment of the peasantry, the sapping of commercial energy, and rule by an arrogant plutocracy of nobles, with the cortes (parliament) sidelined. Spain sank into a long stagnation, from which she did not really recover until the latter 20th century. Do I really need to argue the downside of despotic imperialism to readers of The American Conservative? Spain should have kept her Jews. England re-admitted hers in the 1640s. Two hundred years later, she was the greatest commercial power in the world.

For further insight into this topic, you might go here, and try clicking first on the maps of France, Britain, and Germany, then on Spain's. Of course, all sorts of reasons might be adduced for this curious case of national creative failure, but in my own mind I am clear about the most important reason: Not enough Jews!


[Some years later, in February 2009, I got the following interesting email from a Talmudic scholar. It's tangential to the main discussion, but too good to leave out.]


Mr. Derbyshire — Among the things available at your site, I found the following comment:

"The kind of pure intellection that Talmudic scholars immerse themselves in is as abstract and, from a worldly point of view, useless as Riemannian geometry … but there is never an Einstein. Talmudic concepts never have any real fruit in the world of men. Talmudic scholarship consists (it seems to me) of racing the engine of the brain without engaging the gears."

The response this deserves is much longer than I am willing to write, and, I suspect, longer than you are willing to read. However, I can't resist commenting on one particular facet: the mathematical one.

As an amateur mathematician and a Yeshiva student, I was naturally inclined to look for mathematical wisdom in the Talmud. It's quite disappointing in this respect. For the Talmud itself, π is three, the diagonal of a square is 1.4 times the side, there is no hint of e, and so on. On the whole, this is not surprising, since these things were needed only for the most ordinary uses. a rough approximation is often enough. Later medieval scholars did point out that these were only approximations, but they didn't feel any need to improve on them as a rule.

Still, even for rough calculations, one needs some rough version of the Pythagorean theorem. The Talmud deals with laws, and the laws deal with the real world. Since the real world is Euclidean, one does need some working knowledge of euclidean geometry.

In this connection I had something of a surprise. I'll spare you the details, unless you're very interested. The bottom line is that one Talmudic commentator, the Rash Mishantz, came to the conclusion that a section of the Talmud required that the diagonal of a 20 by 30 rectangle have length 32 or less.  [Note by JD: The actual length of the diagonal is an irrational number whose first twenty digits are 36.055512754639892931.]  He then points out that, according to the "theorem of the wise men of measurement," the diagonal must be a bit more than 36. this is because

362 = 1296 < 1300 = (20)2 + (30)2

The theorem in question is clearly the Pythagorean theorem. He states it exactly he even gives a proof for the special case when the triangle is isosceles as well as being right angled. It's also fairly clear that he was capable of using it.

So, according to the Rash, the Talmud contradicts the Pythagorean theorem. What's the conclusion, then? Of course, the Pythagorean theorem must be false. We've given a proof of a special case, but it must not generalize to the general theorem.

You might think this supports the idea that we're dealing with "pure intellection," completely abstract. But no, the Rash has one more thing to say. In case you doubt his conclusion, he says "and it is easy to draw this and check it," in other words, just check and see that the Pythagorean theorem is false.

Of course, it is indeed easy to draw, and see that the Pythagorean theorem is true, at least to a good approximation. Presumably the Rash did make a rough drawing himself. However, he was so confident of the truth of divine Revelation, when in conflict with "Greek wisdom," that he managed to get the answer wrong.

I'd say that the problem here is not that we're dealing with a "content-free" type of study. On the contrary, we're dealing with something of direct relevance to any technological enterprise. Nor is the way of thinking completely abstract, the Rash is quite willing to do experiments, at least so he says. Nor are we dealing with stupid people. Two generations after the Rash, his special-case proof had been generalized to a proof of the full theorem, a proof quite different from the one given in Euclid.

The central problem here seems to be hubris. The Talmud is Tora, after all, divine revelation, and all wisdom is in it. It's not possible that the godless gentiles really have that much to teach us. So actually studying Euclid would practically be heresy. even doing your experiment too carefully would indicate too much in the way of doubt of the teachings.

That's why "there is never an Einstein" in this field. You can't really criticize your predecessors, not enough to allow mistakes to be systematically removed, or to allow models to be improved. Yes, talmudic study allows a lot in the way of internal criticism, maybe more than Christian or Moslem systems. Still, it's nothing like the culture of science. Also, you can't learn from non-Jews, or from non-religious Jews, at least not too much and not too openly. Contrast this with mathematics, where a Jew, Lipa Bers, develops the theory of Teichmüller, an enthusiastic Nazi.

In case you want to follow this up: the Rash Mishantz is also known as R. Shimshon of Shantz, Rabeinu Shimshon of Sens, or Samson ben Abraham of Sens. The section of the talmud in question is the Mishna in Kilayim 5,5.