Monday, November 16, 2009

First they came for the … : Of pink triangles and yellow stars, a reply to Shimon Cowen

In the October 2009 issue of Quadrant, Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, Director, Institute for Judaism and Civilization—which advocates basing civilisation on the Noahide laws—has an article entitled “Rights” as a Weapon in Culture War. The article argues for the basing of law and public morality on religious values and not a hedonistic, materialistic secularism that he sees as becoming, in effect, the “official religion” in modern democracies. Dr Cowen uses abortion, incest, bestiality and homosexuality as examples of improper use of rights language and of secularist attack on religious foundations of a moral society.

Religious exclusion
What struck me when I first read the article was that, if one added “and Jews” to his attacks on equal protection of the law for homosexuals, the article could have, with minor adjustments, been written by any Catholic conservative denouncing equal rights for Jews prior to about 1945. If one added “and Papists”, it could have been written by any Anglican or Presbyterian attacking giving equal rights to Catholics prior to Catholic emancipation. If one added “Jews and Christians”, it could have been written by a contemporary Iranian mullah or Saudi cleric.

Just as Shimon Cowen takes legal equality for homosexuals as a reductio ad absurdem of liberal modernity, so Christian conservatives (particularly Catholics) in decades past took legal equality for Jews—the “God killers”, the “Messiah deniers”—as a reductio ad absurdem of liberal modernity. Similarly, “decent Muslims” in the Ottoman Empire bitterly rejected the pressure from Western powers to have legal equality for dhimmis—the deniers of the Mission of the Prophet, in the empire of the Caliph.

The historical arguments for the persecution of the Jews have—prior to the development of racial theory in the C19th—overwhelmingly been religious ones. By denying Jews (or Catholics, or Protestants, or Christians, as the case may be) equal rights, one was showing respect to God and the religious basis of society. The argument that “God does not want X group to have equal rights” has proved to be enduring, a moveable feast and regularly aimed against Jews. In the Islamic world, it still is.

Having agreed that…
Such an argument has far more power if it has a “lift off” example. Some case that “everyone agrees” with so, having established acceptance of the idea that there is some group out there for whom it is an offence against God—against basic religious values—to give equal rights to, one can just add in extra examples as convenient. And the extra group that has most commonly been “added in” are Jews.

But they are not the “lift off” group. The “lift off” group has been “sodomites”, the same-sex oriented and active—the form of the human that the Noahide laws specifically exclude from human society. They are a group that the otherwise very divided Abrahamic religions of Jerusalem can agree to hate, for example.
They are the “lift off” group not only in terms of moral and religious exclusion but, even more grimly, in terms of virtuous extermination. The group God not only excludes from decent society, but specifically wants exterminated. This notion, this adaptation of Genesis 19 so it became a tale of God’s Wrath as virtuous extermination of “that group over there” (a nicely differentiable group, since most people are not interested in sex with members of their own sex; as well as a nicely vulnerable group, since they grow up as isolated individuals in families and social milieus overwhelmingly dominated by the other-sex oriented) was originally developed by Philo of Alexandria but was enthusiastically taken up by the Catholic Church.

Having accepted Philo’s marriage of natural law with Scriptural Revelation, and having defined the same-sex active out of being our moral neighbours, so the fundamental tenements of Christ’s teaching:
Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
did not apply to those who committed “treason” against the purposes of the Creator, the Author of Nature, by committing acts of “unnatural sex”, this denial of being moral neighbours was immediately extended to the Jews, notably by St John Chrysostom, who both accepted Philo’s reasoning, to the extent of adapting his metaphors, and was a notorious preacher against Jews and Judaising. For had the Jews not committed “treason” against the purposes of God by killing Christ? By refusing to heed His message?

So gays and Jews have both held to be “in Rebellion against God”, which made their exclusion from moral and religious decency their fault, and their fault very grave indeed.

Indeed, it is by considering how “arguments against homosexuality” (which, given the centrality of sexual orientation to human nature, are arguments against people’s natures) are still acceptable in many quarters when “arguments against blacks”, “arguments against Jews” or “arguments against women” are not, that we can enter into the mindset of Jew-hatred in particular. The still contested case within the Western world for the exclusion of some group of humans is an excellent one to look at the dynamics, the logic, of bigotry.

Denial of ordinary humanity
Arguments against homosexuality are, of course, typically mounted against homosexual activity—Dr Cowen does this, for instance. But that is a spurious distinction. As noted, sexual orientation is sufficiently central to our nature, that it is an attack on the nature of particular individuals, on them as not being proper manifestations of the human.

In his article, Dr Cowen writes:
No one will deny that homosexual impulses are part of the polymorphous perversity of the human being, and the impulse may be physically an extremely powerful one in certain individuals. But the boundaries established by morality, the concept of Divine purpose and function established by revealed morality, require its containment and inhibition in actual practice.
In other words, same-sex orientation does not count as a legitimate manifestation of the human and so any claims the same-sex oriented may have, have to be radically discounted.

The notion of homosexuality as the “silent sin”, the crimen nefandum or peccatum mutum makes perfect sense, because allowing the same-sex active to speak grants them status as legitimate persons: for if they can speak in their own defense, it becomes effectively impossible to deny them the legitimacy of their desires. Hence the radical discounting of their claims has to become a radical discounting of them. Hence also the endless, and often bitter, fight by religious conservatives against any public space for homosexuals-as-homosexuals: the denouncing and boycotting of books, films, TV series, whatever. The entire point is to deny them the status of “just folk”, to deny them ordinary humanity.

For there has been nowhere near the same campaigning against portraying thieves and murderers as ordinary folk (as distinct from concerns over direct portrayal of violence), for no matter how ordinary they are portrayed, the reality of theft and murder remains. Portray being homosexual as ordinary and the moral case against it [and thus them] begins to collapse.

Such dismissal or denial of their ordinary humanity was exactly what was done against Jews. Dr Cowen writes of:
… for example an overtly practicing homosexual maths teacher may have to be taken by the school, even though this contradicts its ethic. The school may not model its ethic through its staffing.
Just as an anti-Semite could complain that a school might be required to take an overtly practicing Jewish maths teacher, thus denying its “Christian” or “Aryan” ethic (as the case may be).

Dr Cowen writes:
The public square belongs as much to its religious constituents as to its non-religious constituents and it has to be livable for everyone.
Except, apparently, its homosexual constituents, who are to be excluded. The inherently non-reciprocating nature of bigotry (making claims for itself and/or against others which it will not tolerate by them) is here well displayed.

[It really is about respecting, or not, the personhood of the same-sex attracted. This is what has changed in the wider society. In the words of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:
over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.
The division is between those who get that attacking same-sex activity is attacking the personhood of the same-sex attracted and those who think the activity is so wrong their personhood needs to be attacked/constrained.]

Dr Cowen treats homosexuality as being of the same category as incest, abortion and bestiality. But that is precisely what it is not. Incest is wrong because it breaches necessary boundaries in family life, opposition to abortion is all about defending the vulnerable (hence turns on the moral status of the foetus) while bestiality breaches species boundaries: all three issues are about vulnerability and radical imbalance in ability to give consent. Same-sex attraction is about adults building lives together. Hence the need to deny them any right to speak in their own defence, because there is no vulnerable party, except in cases which equally apply to other-sex attraction. [On the contrary, anathematising same-sex attraction and activity greatly expands vulnerability.]

To give the same-sex active their humanity is to give the game away. Just as to give Jews their humanity was to give the Jew-hating game away. What, was, after all the power of the case of Ann Frank but that her story, her words, her tragedy shrieked the ordinary humanity of Jews.

The constant battle of religious conservatives to deny the same-sex active their ordinary humanity is, indeed, their necessary battleground. But that tells you all you really need to know about what they are advocating. Any commitment to one’s faith that is based on making other people miserable, in a blatant denial of moral reciprocation, is not worth a scintilla of respect.

The secular peace
When Dr Cowen writes of:
the concept of Divine purpose and function established by revealed morality
that could equally be taken—and has—to operate against Jews who fail to accept Christ as the Son of God and Jews and Christians for failing to accept Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets. Or one flavour of Christians against another.

Despite what Dr Cowen implies, secularism did not develop as some conspiracy against God or religious belief. It developed as a way of dealing with radical differences in what revealed morality meant. Now that significant proportions of society do not accept any revealed morality, it is even more necessary. Dr Cowen notes that:
… personal religious identification is acknowledged by 70 per cent of the Australian and more of the American public—that is, that religious identification is the salient fact of the “public” …
But that means 30 per cent do not so identify, and they are citizens too. Moreover, religious identification does not mean accepting any particular characterisation of revealed morality. Only 35% of Australians, in a recent poll, agreed that homosexuality is immoral. Among Christian denominations, the proportion so agreeing ranged from 34% of Catholics to 68% of Baptists. Basing public policy on the notion that homosexuality is immoral—particularly that they be denied any right to be sexually active according to their natures—in fact goes against majority views.

This is the problem of authority from which secular states grew. God’s authority is not contestable, it is not examinable, it is not able to be definitively established. Faced with its absoluteness and indeterminacy, using God’s authority as the basis of public policy always ends up in an exercise of exclusion, coercion and violence. As we can see in our time in Wahbabist Saudi Arabi, in the Islamic Republics of Iran and Sudan and in the past of Western civilisation.

Dr Cowen attacks the Enlightenment heritage as inadequate, writing:
The very term “rights”, with its Enlightenment lineage, has to do with a concept of the autonomy and the sovereignty of the human being. Religion, whilst acknowledging human free will, looks at the Sovereignty of God and the role of human agency in the fulfilment of Divine purpose.
Such as Islam’s claim that we should submit to the Sovereignty of Allah and the purpose of universal submission to His Sovereignty, perhaps?

Or perhaps not. (That is, after all, the basis of the Islamist assault on Israel.) The notion of rights in Western civilisation is rather older than the Enlightenment, as we can see from the 1537 Papal Encyclical Sublimus Dei and its statement that:
that the Indians are truly men and that … the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
If Sublimus Dei shows what being within the protection of moral universalism means, the Golden Legend's presentation of the Nativity shows the extreme of being outside it.

Also outside the protections of moral universalism were Jews herded into ghettos and subject to various legal exclusions (not to mention periodic pogroms and expulsions). It was not the strength of religious belief that saw the emancipation of the Jews in Western societies, but the Enlightenment’s attack on priestly authority and religious exclusion, its pursuit of a basis for social order not subject to the violence, exclusion and strife of religion. For a genuinely human and humane moral universalism. What Dr Cowen refers to as:
… anchored in the common tradition of the world religions, which holds to objective, universal and enduring values
availed Jews little in deeply religious pre-Enlightenment Europe. Indeed, typically the more deeply religion was tied into the policy of the state, the worse the situation for Jews. With the most religious state of all (the Vatican) being much the worst offender.

There are countries where concern for what God wants pervade public policy: but Iran and Saudi Arabia are places far worse than any Western secular society. Not least for their rampant misogyny: a common feature of monotheism-based public policy, with its masculine religious authority both human (no female rabbis, clerics or priests, until very recently) and divine (God-the-Father, the ultimate authority, being conceived in highly masculinized form).

Dr Cowen wants to rehabilitate claims based on tradition. But exclusion of Jews from public life was highly traditional. It was only the overturning of long-established tradition that gave Jews legal equality. Dr Cowen wants to base public morality on values, but the exclusion of Jews was most emphatically based on values: deeply religious values. We may well say that any commitment to one’s faith that is based on making other people miserable is not worth a scintilla of respect, but that hardly stops with treating Jews decently.

Dr Cowen argues against hate speech laws making “homophobia” a crime. Hate speech laws are noxious, but if he is committed to the Noahide laws, he would appear to be therefore committed to laws against blasphemy. Any position of “my laws against hate speech are good, but yours are bad” is just another case of the lack of any genuine reciprocating universalism in many religious claims. God is so useful for bigotry, since His trumping authority means embarrassing lacks of reciprocation can be defended as fulfilling the Highest Purpose of all.

Secular ascents
Dr Cowen claims that “Hedonistic Materialism”—what he calls Hedonomat—encourages greed and theft. Yet the reality is that life and property are much safer in modern Western secular societies than they were in medieval religion-based polities, for example. The claim of religious conservatives that we are in an age of moral decline hardly fits the long-term drop in violence and cruelty. But his claim is much larger than that:
Hedonomat … can also promote a culture of greed and theft, not only on the count of its materialistic culture, but also for the simple reason that the child or adult can ride a train without paying because “no one” (not the conductor and not God) is watching.
The implication that there was no morality before monotheism, or without monotheism, is just nonsense. That Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius were not moral or did not live in societies where morality was alive and vital.

Moral universalism is prone to two pathologies. One is using the rhetoric of abomination, and the language of moral degradation and exclusion, to tell a moral story against some group so as to exclude them from the protections of moral universalism. That was notoriously done against the Jews, just as Rabbi Cowen wants to do so as to exclude homosexuals.

The second pathology is universalising the parochial: taking something specific to particular cultures, times, social milieus and claiming that it is some moral universal. Across the breadth of human cultures, homosexuality is not remotely a universal sin or crime. Human cultures have varied in their attitudes from homicidal anathematisation to making it compulsory or near compulsory (typically, as processes of passage to adulthood).

That monotheisms have been so virulent in their anathematisation is just a manifestation of the sexual obsessions monotheism is so prone too. As is monotheism’s typical fearfulness about female sexuality. It is standard justification of such obsessiveness with sex-roles and sex-forms to claim that it reflects the natural world and is necessary for proper social order. Dr Cowen runs the two claims together:
… so the liberation of the essential (the pristinely animal) human being must give expression to morphing across boundaries. Indeed the human is here accorded a freedom which the animal does not possess: whilst generally the animal does not cross boundaries, human freedom is to be expressed in the social facilities of “polymorphous perversity”, the crossing of boundaries.
Which is false both in its characterisation of nature as existing in neat sex and gender boxes and in its claim of rigidity or chaos as the only options.

Dr Cowen puts the battles as being between two alternatives:
We live in a time of powerful contrast between two philosophies: one which believes in God and in a transcendent, an objective and an enduring morality; the other which does not believe (or suppresses its belief) in God, and allows the morphing of values and moral institutions in accordance with mere desire.
Buddhists might feel to be in the excluded middle here. As might many folk. But Dr Cowen’s characterisation of some religious unity is patent nonsense.

Nor are all secularisms the same. The prevailing notions of secularism in the Anglosphere are rather different than that prevailing in France, for example. It is always useful to trot out Peter Singer, as Dr Cowen does, since he can be guaranteed to provide a wonderful reductio whipping boy. But the good philosopher’s pronouncements are widely contested and not merely by religious folk.

Indeed, many of Dr Cowen’s more cogent criticisms of Hedonomat are precisely in the areas where it is most like religion in its exclusiveness and trumping claims.

Dr Cowen’s tendency to conceive matters in apocalyptic divides is also on display when he writes:
Hedonomat is the deregulation of sexual activity: including not just the normalisation (and thereby in the educational system, also the cultivation) of homosexual practice …
This notion that equality-means-hegemony is precisely the sort of claim that was made against Jews. Just as anti-gay activists nowadays talk of equal protection of the law for homosexuals meaning the “homosexualising” of society, so equal protection of the law for Jews was taken to represent the “Judaizing” of society. Treating the same-sex attracted as “just folks” is the cultivation of nothing except ordinary human decency. Just as treating Jews as “just folks” is and was also.

That same accusations, the same claims of threat and justified exclusion, are used against the same-sex attracted now has were used against Jews previously does not show that there is something wrong with Jews after all, but that what we are dealing with is the common logic of bigotry, with its purloining [of] the language of morality. For bigotry denies the objects of bigotry the reciprocal protections of morality, a denial which is itself a moral claim and so is cast in moral language. But it may purloin the language of morality, that does not remotely make it moral.

Even given the feeding on the wish of parents for grandchildren, and rulership for the breeding of workers and warriors, exacerbated by monotheism’s problems with eros, the central dynamic in the anathematisation of same-sex activity has always been priests, clerics (and, indeed, rabbis) parading their role as “gatekeepers of righteousness” by selling effortless virtue to a huge majority at the expense of a small, easily isolated, and vulnerable minority.

Rabbi Cowen might see “God-defying, decency-destroying, immoral homosexuals”, corrupting all they touch. I see generation after generation of vulnerable young men and women, growing up in utterly unnecessary emotional misery: self-fearful, self-loathing, told they are rebels against God, against the natural order, against the very moral order itself.

Wars against people as they are
Enough, already: the notion of One True Sexuality is every bit as tyrannical and oppressive as the notion of One True Race, One True Class or One True Religion. They are all wars against people-as-they-are in the name of people as-they-are-allegedly-supposed-to-be. Nor is the trumpeting of their evil any stronger than that of the Holocaust: the pink triangles of the death camps are, every bit as much as the yellow stars of those same death camps, a warning against that deadly and brutal delusion in all its forms. It a grotesque betrayal of the lessons of appalling human misery to hold that some of the suffering in those death camps is a warning and others are not. If it is monstrous, as it is, to take that warning and burden away from Jew-hatred, it is no less monstrous to take that warning and burden away from queer-hatred.

It is a tribute to the power, and appeal, of effortless virtue, and the human capacity to fail to see others except as stick figures in one’s own internal or collective enthusiasms; to not see the simple human consequences of what one preaches, to not even consider such; that even the common experience of the death camps apparently conveys no message, no warning. No shred of human empathy.

Tammy Faye Bakker is no doubt few people’s idea of a great moral paragon. But her comment on such matters:
We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt and God didn’t make any junk
denying any notion of “proper” and “improper” forms of the human, showed an elementary capacity for human empathy that apparently eludes so many of the “gatekeepers of righteousness”. If there is something more pathetic that members of a huge majority railing against a small, and inherently vulnerable, minority it is a member, a community leader, of a small minority who has suffered appalling levels of persecution, keeping alive that same dynamic.

We know that rhetoric of abomination, and the language of moral degradation and exclusion, can turn back against their source, because they have been. Just as Christians held Jews to be rebels against God’s purpose by rejecting the Messiah they brought forth, so Muslims held Christians and Jews both to be rebels against God’s purpose for rejecting His Prophet. Orthodox priests who had railed against those rebels against the purposes immanent in creation found themselves crushed as rebels against the purposes immanent in History. And the notion of God the Virtuous Exterminator also recoiled back on its source.

According to the chroniclers, the first case of members of Jewish community being massacred by a Christian mob occurred in 414 in Alexandria. The city and community of Philo, from whose pen the notion of God the Virtuous Exterminator of the different had flowed into Christian thought. The massacre was the culmination of decades of violence and horror against the Jews stirred up by the greatest names in Christendom, notably St Augustine’s mentor St Ambrose and St John Chrysostom, the “patron saint of preachers” and an avid propagator of Philo’s ideas: of God as the Virtuous Exterminator of the morally set apart.

Why did that Christian mob act with such murderousness? Because those they slaughtered were Jews and, as such, “obviously” hateful to God: “obviously” separated from decent God-fearing folk by an enormous moral divide, for had they not denied and killed His Son?

It is way past time for rejecting the deeming of categories of people, who are otherwise just folk, as hateful to God. To use God as a weapon against one’s fellow humans, to deny them the reciprocation which is at the heart of morality. It is certainly way past time to suggest that public policy should reflect or echo such views. It is way past time to put Philo’s homicidal intolerance, and its continuing echoes, finally to rest. Ideas have consequences. A leader of the Jewish community should understand that better than most.

For is it not one of the great warnings of our time: “first, they come for the Jews”? But it is not true. For first, they come for the queers.

And if your response is “but throughout the history of Western civilisation they have always been coming for the queers”, the answer is yes, precisely. Once it has been established that there is a small, vulnerable minority who God hates, who God wants dead, who are a pathological betrayal of humanity, who corrupt anything they touch, who are a profound threat to moral decency, who absolutely cannot be treated as equals, then moving on to the next group is so much easier.

After all, if you can convince yourself that moral decency requires that young, isolated, same-sex attracted teenagers represent some great moral threat; that making their lives miserable, full of deception and self-loathing, is some great moral necessity; that they are un-persons whose suffering is entirely their fault and their burden; then doing the same to the Jews (or whoever) is easy.

You can even use exactly the same accusations. Just ask the Catholic Church.

Shimon Cowen is not protecting his people, he is keeping alive the states of mind that are their greatest threat and danger. His embrace of the un-personhood of homosexuals is doing his bit to keep alive that same logic of belief on which Jews have been crucified.

That does not show moral commitment, it shows enormous moral blindness.

The pink triangles of the death camps give exactly the same warning as the yellow stars of those same death camps, exactly the same warning of the dangers of denying our common humanity and all that goes with it. No more, no less.

ADDENDA The post has been updated to fix a spelling error and to add in the words in [ ].


  1. Watch and read mohammed T-shirt art from Sweden at,

  2. Great post, Lorenzo. Not much else to say, really.