Spencer Klavan On God And The Humanities

The young conservative wants to reinvigorate the canon.
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Spencer is a writer and podcaster. He’s currently an associate editor at the Claremont Review of Books and the host of the “Young Heretics” podcast. He’s also the author of How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises and the editor of Gateway to the Stoics. You can follow his latest writing on Substack.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on finding God in the humanities, and why so many gays throughout history have been drawn to the Church — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: Spencer’s upbringing in NYC and London and elsewhere; his rigorous schooling in Britain; his dad the prominent novelist; his lapsed Catholic mom and lapsed Jewish dad; Spencer as a teen converting to Christianity — “conversational, not doctrinal”; coming to terms with his homosexuality; Yale for undergrad and Oxford for a PhD in the Classics; his initial calling as an actor; learning Latin and ancient Greek; how the Greeks had two words for forgiveness; the Gospels; Aquinas; the Scientific Revolution; how evolution is compatible with Christianity; James Madison; Tocqueville; the suffering that brings one closer to God; the waning of both the humanities and religion in American life; climate doomerism; postmodernism; Judith Butler; the transing of gender-dysphoric kids; Alasdair MacIntyre; and how genetics is “necessary but not sufficient” for seeking truth.

Browse the Dishcast archive for another convo you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: David Brooks on his new book How to Know a Person,” his fellow NYT columnist Pamela Paul, and the authors of Where Have All the Democrats Gone? — John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Also: David Leonhardt, Cat Bohannon, and McKay Coppins.

Have a question you want me to ask one of those future guests? Email dishpub@gmail.com, and please put the question in the subject line. Send any guest recs, pod dissent and other comments to dish@andrewsullivan.com.

Here’s a listener on last week’s episode with Martha Nussbaum:

I appreciate the number of guests you interview about animal welfare. It’s an important issue. My concern with your latest guest’s perspective is that she seems to fall into the trap of anthropomorphizing non-human animals. For example, she talked about spaying female cats the way one would talk about family planning for women. She thinks cats should be provided with contraception because raising multiple litters of kittens could be too exhausting for them — but, they should be permitted to have at least one litter of kittens so they can fulfill their potential as cats.

But why just one litter? Why not two litters? Why not no litters at all? Does your guest really know what cats need for fulfillment? I doubt that cats know. I doubt that cats even contemplate this question. Even if cats do contemplate this question, they don’t seem to be able to express their conclusions or preferences to us humans in any actionable sort of way.

Sadly, in a state of nature, there’s no family planning. Excess population is managed with mass starvation and predation. Life in the wild has always been, and will always be, “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

I take your point. But there are ways in which humans can help wild animals. Take the Sheldrick Trust: it rescues orphaned and wounded and assaulted elephants and rhinos. And Martha’s point is not that cats and humans have the same rationality or feelings; but that cats obviously have life goals of a sort, and we can help them realize them.

We also talked rats and contraception:

Another fan of the episode:

I enjoyed your convo with Martha Nussbaum and I’m delighted to see you exploring this challenging subject. But I was surprised to hear her say that parrots are “solitary” and thus fare fine in labs. Perhaps some species are exceptions, but parrots are generally intensely social, living in flocks that share much with elephant troupes in forming strong, often lifelong, monogamous pair bonds. This has come home as I’ve watched one of my daughter’s formerly two conures grieve and, as they say, “act out” after his (male) companion died. He’s become conspicuously needy and emotionally dependent on her. Perhaps parrots’ ability to bond with humans helps them endure laboratory isolation.

Huh. Martha and I also talked fish:

This next listener is “thankful for this episode on animal suffering and humanity’s part in it”:

For what it’s worth, I’m that annoying guy who gave up red meat, back in college in 1992. My father, a British diplomat, was posted to Brazil at the time and I was very aware of deforestation in the Amazon. Waiting for my plane back to Heathrow, and so Oxford, in those pre-iPhone days I used to shuffle around the bookshop in São Paulo’s airport, reading magazines I had no intention of buying. I came across a Newsweek article saying that the largest contributor to deforestation was cattle ranching. At the time I thought lumber was the problem.

I hummed and hawed over quitting meat, but a friend who knew I adored Big Macs bet me that I couldn’t quit, so I did, at the start of my summer term.

I told myself various comforting things about chicken, principally for laughs — the main one being that if you could cut the chicken’s head off and the body could still run round the farmyard for 20 seconds, there clearly wasn’t that much in the head to begin with. I, of course, knew this was hollow, and always intended to revisit the decision once my choice was more mainstream. I did so 20 years later, after a video someone showed me: “free range” chickens being — and there is no other way to describe this — vacuumed up in a transparent tube, with rotating plastic arms capturing chickens trying desperately to get out of the way. The live chickens were ejected from the tube and placed into trays by people dressed as if in Intel chip fab bunny suits. This was cold, clinical, and I think worse because this was the “ideal” form of industrial death.

I could not be a part of that. I do miss chicken (masala!), but I can’t unsee that video.

I am a little more equivocal about fish. I don’t feel a sense of outrage or even sadness at the death of an individual fish. After all, very few fish die of old age. What I struggle with is with the mass destruction of dragnets and other forms of industrialised fishing, laying waste to sections of the ocean floor. Fish remains my go-to zone of compromise.

In 2123, we will have manufactured proteins. I am convinced that those people will look back on the way we treat animals in ways essentially indistinguishable from how we think about slavery today.

I suspect the same thing. But my flesh is weak. Next up, a guest recommendation:

I became a subscriber recently and very much enjoy listening to the Dishcast. You may want to consider inviting on Meir Soloveichik. He is an American Orthodox rabbi and a brilliant thinker on topics at the nexus of Jewish and non Jewish philosophy. His work is widely published in magazines and newspapers that I have a lot of respect for.

Another rec:

John Podhoretz, please! First, his command of the media/cultural landscape and political history can (almost!) rival yours. Second, he’s the perfect candidate with whom you can explore the Israel/Gaza catastrophe and the state of Zionism. Finally, he’s funny. Book the man!

JPod! The thing is, I don’t think on the Israel/Gaza question, JPod is willing to explore anything.

On the Palestinian side:

I would talk to Tareq Baconi, who has an interview in The New Yorker with Isaac Chotiner. He’s the author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance.

That title hasn’t aged well though, has it? Another:

The Arab Israeli journalist, Khaled Abu Tomeh, may be an interesting choice for you. He’s Palestinian and lives in East Jerusalem, but he is quite willing to be critical of the PA and even his own people when he feels it is warranted. I suspect he’s considered an outlier by some, but his critique has the benefit of coming from one who is deeply informed and lives the context about which he opines. I’ve met with him before, but it has been many years, and my recollection is that his English is very good.

I definitely want to find a Palestinian. One more reader with recs:

Thought I’d reach out with a few suggestions for Palestinians you might invite on the pod, as I do try to read and follow as many of the Palestinians as possible — both pro 2-state and anti-Zionist:

  • Mohamad Jamous, a relatively moderate Palestinian peace activist.
  • Any of the Palestinians featured on The Sulha, a channel for discussion between Israelis and Palestinians (whose videos you would greatly enjoy).

Or, if you would like an Israeli Arab, consider:

  • Mansour Abbas, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset who made history last year in many ways.
  • Muhammad Zoabi, a very well spoken, pro 2-state, gay, Arab-Palestinian-Israeli activist.

Here’s a reader taking issue with my latest column:

I must dissent from the conclusion of your heartfelt piece on the Israel-Palestine tragedy: “There is no future for Israel without a state for the Palestinians, however hard that may be.” On the contrary, there is no future for the state of Israel if there is a state of Palestine.

You wrote in your 2017 essay “America Wasn’t Built for Humans” that tribalism is the default setting of human nature. Twenty years ago, during the Second Intifada, I was teaching at Yeshiva University and still believed a two-state solution was possible. Several of my very intelligent, committed, and Talmud-trained students disagreed with me. They called for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Presenting the conflict in existential tribal terms, they said: “This is a war for survival. It’s Us or Them. Either we push them over the Jordan, or they push us into the sea. There is no middle ground.”

I have come to understand the logic of their position. At one time I shared your concern and anguish over the tragic history and unjust fate of the Palestinians. I no longer do.

The Palestinians have never wanted a two-state solution. This most recent Hamas pogrom has confirmed what I came to understand after the Second Intifada: the goal and aspiration of the Palestinians, and not just Hamas, is the destruction of the Jewish state and the genocide of the Jewish people. They want to complete Hitler’s work. So I no longer care about the fate of the Palestinians. My concern is for my own tribes: America and the Jews.

Geopolitically there is simply no room for two viable states between the Jordan and the sea. The Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world and the West recognize this, which is why their battle cry is “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!”

Israel will never allow a truly sovereign Palestinian state to emerge because the threat to its security and survival will be too great a risk: an existential risk, which in the wake of the Holocaust, no Israeli government will be willing to take. Neither Israel, nor the Palestinians, can meet the minimal requirements of the other, or give them the guarantees they need. The gap between them is simply too great to be bridged.

The least bad outcome under the circumstances would be some sort of continuation of the pre-war status quo: Israel having effective control over the entire country, and the Palestinian Authority, corrupt as it is, having de-facto autonomy in the parts of the West Bank currently under its control, and perhaps with a Hamas-free Gaza added to it. This is far from ideal. It might, as you fear, lead to a sort of slow-motion ethnic cleansing. But the outcome you are looking for is simply beyond the capacity of either side to achieve.

The hard, tragic, reality is that you can have Israel, or you can have Palestine, but you can’t have both. Geopolitics and tribal human nature are a bitch.

I certainly fear this is the case. This next reader also defends Israel:

The United Nations and, I don’t know, world opinion have given Israel short shrift for some time now. The Six Day War comes to mind. At the end of hostilities, Israel for the first time had more than a narrow isthmus at the center of its landmass and had captured the Golan Heights, which had a commanding view of most of Israel. And yet from the beginning, it was demanded of Israel that these lands and others be surrendered before meaningful talks began.

Israel gave back the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace with Egypt. That still stands, despite Sadat being killed for his efforts. Gaza was vacated and left to the Palestinians. Hamas won the only election ever held. I ask you, before 10.07.2023, what was Israel’s motivation to be more magnanimous in peace talks then they have been?

I forgot Clinton’s Camp David talks at the end of his administration. Israel agreed to the most generous terms to the Palestinians in its history. Arafat declined.

And now this. You call it a pogrom. What other nation in memory has been expected to be as magnanimous as the world demands of Israel?

Another dissent:

Israel has not built new settlements in many years, no less “relentlessly.” (It has built new housing units within the perimeter of existing settlements.) The year 2000 wasn’t a “near miss”; it was a travesty. Arafat walked away from Clinton’s peace “parameters,” which Clinton blamed on Arafat. Abbas similarly walked away from Olmert’s 2008 even more generous offer.

And, more broadly, the PA’s continuing incitement against Jews, hero-worship of craven terrorists, and paying generous stipends to terrorists and their families are effective ways of saying that they will never, ever accept Jewish sovereignty on any borders. What Hamas did two weeks ago was only a more extreme way of expressing the rejectionism and Jew-hatred at the core of the Palestinian “cause.”

This is propaganda. Just this February, Israel approved of nine new illegal settler outposts, telling the US to go jump in a lake (as usual), and streamlined the process for establishing new settlements. In the first six months of 2023, 13,000 new housing units were approved, more than in all of 2022, and supervision of the entire West Bank was given to Netanyahu’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a fanatic who lives himself in a settlement. There are now over 700,000 Israelis living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, deliberately making a two-state solution impossible.

Another reader looks to the Geneva Conventions:

While Israel should of course take all the steps that it can to avoid civilian casualties (and it does appear to be taking many such steps), the laws of warfare clearly state that the ultimate responsibility for these casualties lies with the terrorists using them as human shields. Distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants is one of the oldest rules of war. Regarding hospitals, for example, Article 19 states: “The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit, and after such warning has remained unheeded.” (Italics mine.)

Hamas explicitly and intentionally disregards that international law. Hamas has a long history of using civilian structures such as schools and hospitals to conduct military functions. Israel has given numerous warnings of its impending operations in Gaza, which Hamas has not heeded. Indeed by “ordering” the civilian populations to evacuate, Israel is not “expelling” Palestinians from their homes, but merely trying to adhere to the very laws of war that Hamas gleefully ignores.

I fervently pray for the civilians of Gaza, particularly those who never asked to live under Hamas’ tyranny. But when the images of dead women and children inevitably begin to appear, international law and basic morality require that we assign blame to the bloodthirsty terrorists who cowered behind them.

Another reader provides a very concise history:

Thank you for your unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and the barbaric pogrom that these monsters perpetrated against Israel and humanity. I highly recommend Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf’s book, The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace, for a methodical and detailed view of “the obstacles to successful diplomacy and lasting peace in the region.” I will summarize as concisely as possible:

At the time of the UN Special Committee on Palestine in 1947, the Jewish position was political independence and the creation of a sovereign Jewish state. Zionism calls for Jewish self-determination, but the historical record shows that the Jews understood any state was better than no state. They were willing to accept borders that David Ben-Gurion admitted were “politically and militarily bad.”

For Arabs in 1947, their essential position was to resist the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine. Rather than accept effectively half of the territory which they were partitioned to build a state for Palestine, the Arabs waged war. You could argue that the native Palestinians did not “consent” to the portion of land they were allocated, but neither did the indigenous Jews. Yet the Jews accepted not all, but some, of their historic homeland, while the entire Arab world explicitly committed itself against Jewish independence.

The Palestinians were promised a state, but they chose a war to exterminate any Jewish presence in the land over the opportunity to construct a nation. And they have repeated this decision, again and again and again, over the last 75 years (see, e.g., 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006, 2014, and now 2023). That is, to use your words, the “sobering reality.”

Israel has made peace with other Islamic bordering neighbors who have begrudgingly resigned themselves to coexistence. Today, much of the Arab world is more accepting of a Jewish state than it has ever been before. Yet the Palestinian national identity is, tragically, committed to the destruction of Israel, and the Arab and Palestinian refusal to accept anything but the entirety of the land is the crux of the conflict. “From the river to the sea” — words that are being shouted across the world today from Gaza to the West Bank, from California to NYC, across Europe to Australia — embodies the Palestinian ethos, which at its core negates Jewish self-determination in any part of the land between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This is not hyperbole — it is a literal battle cry that defines the Palestinian movement both in the Middle East and around the world.

If the goal of Palestinians or Hamas was to remove settlements, end the occupation, better the horrific humanitarian conditions in Gaza, or create an independent state, they would have fulfilled it long ago. This is not their goal, and the Western and Arab world must stop indulging a Palestinian delusion of a “right of return” to land that Israel won in a series of defensive wars. The Palestinians and the Arabs waged (many!) wars to eliminate another people, and they lost. Further, Israel has returned some land over the years in hopes of peace, like Gaza in 2005 — a gesture which was met with nothing but rockets, terror and, just last weekend, a bloodbath that Jews have not seen since the Holocaust.

Israel has had right-wing, left-wing, and centrist governments over the last 75 years. Undoubtedly Netanyahu and his current illiberal coalition have fanned the fervor of Jewish nationalists who, like the Palestinians, believe all the land belongs to only one people. But this is not the ethos of true Zionism, nor does it represent the majority of the Israeli people — how could it, when in the last year alone almost half the population has come out to protest its own government’s policies for over 30 weeks in a row?

In contrast, how many Palestinians, in their own words, over the last 75 years, have publicly and clearly come out in support of recognizing the equal Jewish right to self determination in at least part of the land? Today, Palestinians despair first and foremost because of decades of malignant leadership who brainwashed them to believe that a land without Jews is the only way for them to be free, leaders who enrich themselves by keeping their people impoverished, stateless, and hopeless. The true roots of Palestinian terror are not any Israeli government policy, but Jewish existence itself. In Einat Wilf’s words:

Palestinians have never pursued a constructive cause, not for a single minute. It was always a destructive one. Which is why they have failed to achieve it. A people pursuing as a top priority the goal of destruction of everything another people built, will never themselves build anything of value.

You wrote that “there is no future for Israel without a state for the Palestinians, however hard that may be.” But if Israel does not exist, then there is no future for Jews. October 7, 2023 and the world’s response has shown us that “Never Again” is now. If our existence is at stake, then we must and we will defend our people at whatever cost. There is no other choice.

I appreciate the lucid and sobering email. One more reader also looks to history — and the future:

First, a correction that might seem pedantic but I promise it’s not: the camp that Easy Company liberates in Band of Brothers is not a *death* camp. Even Auschwitz–Birkenau was only partially a death camp. The pure death camps — which Eastern European and Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder more aptly terms “death factories” — were Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, and Chelmo, where collectively around a third of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were gassed to death with carbon monoxide from tank or truck exhaust.

Among those names, only the first and third are well-known — even among Jews with real knowledge of the Shoah, and Sobibor only because of a movie with its name in the title. Half a million Jews, plus or minus a hundred thousand or so (!), were gassed at Belcez — and the name of the place has been nearly totally lost in historical memory, even among its victims’ people.

Why? Because virtually no one survived those camps, and because the Nazis demolished and paved them over once the Jewish communities assigned to each had been completely liquidated, which indeed they were by the second half of 1943. This knowledge gap represents a ghastly instance of survivorship bias: the odds of ever encountering a survivor from one of these death factories is infinitesimal. There was no selection at these camps, no one being sent to the left or the right as at Birkenau; if you survived the harrowing cattle car, you were gassed immediately upon arrival. The only survivors of these camps were the tiny handful who managed to escape. As a result, the absolute darkest episode of the entire Shoah (and, I’d contend, all of human history) remains obscure in so many people’s understanding of the Holocaust. It matters to me to make sure it’s remembered.

Turning now to the substance of your column:

First of all, I can’t express to you how deeply I appreciate your full-throated affirmation of what the Hamas massacres were (genocide) and were not (a response to the occupation of the post–1967 Palestinian territories). No conversation with any Jew — any *proud* Jew, I should say — can start from any other premise.

Same goes for your revulsion at those far-left elements who have debased themselves with their apologetics.

As for the “yes, and…” part of your column, I think I’m there too. I wouldn’t have been 20 years ago when I thought discussion of the settlements amounted to disingenuous whataboutism in the face of what I saw as the true core of the conflict: Palestinian religious fanaticism and irredentism. To be clear, I still think the latter are very much at the center of things. But over the past five to ten years — and especially over the past year or so — either the settlements have become more central or I’ve simply come to see them that way. Even in the absence of Israeli civilian casualties at scale in recent years, Bibi has cynically allied himself with the most fanatical elements of our side, and has pushed the settlements forward. And the settlers themselves have acted increasingly appallingly. We haven’t been acting in good faith. We’ve been cruel.

So just as the Second Intifada broke the Israeli left, I hope October 7 breaks the Israeli right. (I should add here that the “judicial reform” disaster is the other side of the same coin as Bibi’s cynicism toward the Palestinians — with a measure of personal corruption and shamelessness thrown in for good measure.) If you’re an Israeli who’s supported Bibi because he’s winked at your religious fever dream of Greater Israel, then you’ll likely continue to support him through anything. But if you’ve supported him primarily on security grounds, well … how do you feel about him now? I believe the latter contingent will rightfully lead the charge to defenestrate him. If not? Then Israel is on the same path to ruin as the United States. Bibi has to go. I pray it happens.

Beyond sacking him, I don’t know precisely where we go from here. Hamas has to be dealt with, even if I have no idea how. Iran has to be dealt with. (That, incidentally, is the one major thing I’d take issue with from your column — and with your perspective on the conflict in general: you have to zoom out and take more account of the regional context.) But once we’ve done that, we must re-engage with the Palestinians — and from a place of deep, shared humanity. From a place of mutual, unutterable loss. We have to care more about our children and their future than about settling the scores of the past.

I don’t know exactly how. But we have to try. Maybe this new plane of carnage to which the conflict has ascended will finally shake both sides enough, once and for all, to place compassion over anger, mercy over justice, life over death.

I sure hope so. As always, thanks so much for the dissents and other emails. You can always send yours to dish@andrewsullivan.com.

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