We fear uncertainty, and yet it pervades life. We can be certain only about the moment – THIS moment. Beyond that? We can only assume what the next moment will bring. We usually assume correctly. Circumstances change, but usually in a quotidian, barely perceptible evolution.
Today will pass similarly to yesterday. After a series of days passing similarly, time passes into the indistinguishable. We relax and the fear uncertainty stimulates subsides. Our mind disengages from the endless loop of infinite fearful scenarios when we consider what tomorrow could bring. We become comfortably anesthetized by the undisturbed routine and habit.
Some cultures are more desirous to tamp down uncertainty and cling to what’s known. After spending time in Germany, I’m convinced Germans are more desirous of certainty than most European cultures. Germans embrace systems, rules, and rigidity like few others. The carbon-copy rebuilding after the second world war, the thirty-five-hour workweek, the legislated idleness on Sundays, the exaggerated fear of climate change, corporate protectionist policies, and the expansive welfare network support my assertion.
True for most, but not for all. The Jewish culture is the mighty exception. The culture, including the religious and secular, had been formed and fed by the teachings of the Torah. The Torah is no book of stasis. This life has meaning, and our time in this world matters, the Torah tells us. We are much more than timeservers. Our job is to wrest order from chaos, to counter the forces of entropy. To grow, to improve… to prosper.
To prosper, and few cultures have like the Jewish culture. Jews are far wealthier, as a percentage of the population given their absolute numbers, than any other religious or ethnic group. For this they can thank a unique culture formed by a unique book.
To create wealth, one must be willing to not only confront uncertainty, but embrace it. Wealth will fail to materialize by simply selling wares as the white-clothed beach peddlers do on the beaches of western Mexico. Wealth is created not by doing what’s being done as everyone else is doing it, but by doing it better, by doing it more efficiently, with more novelty. Wealth is created by gazing into the ether to conjure and then create new products, services, methods, and strategies that address the problems of the day, that ensure greater ease for tomorrow. The process guarantees nothing, of course, except disruptions and uncertainty, which Joseph Schumpeter labeled creative destruction.
Through the history of the past millennium, Jews had always been a subculture within the majority German culture. They were usually tolerated, even accepted, but never integrated. The intractable differences between Judaism and Christianity might allow for comity, but never integration.
When the perception of uncertainty is low, tolerance is high. But when the pendulum swings to the other side, the opposite is true. The Germans’ sense of security was low and their sense of uncertainty was especially high following the end of World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The Weimar hyperinflation that soon followed only exacerbated their uncertainty and their fears.
When a culture obsessed with the past confronts a future infused with uncertainty, discontent is sure to arise. Something outside and malevolent must be to blame. An explanation must exist. Blame must be apportioned, though not to those who followed the rules and obeyed the cultural mores of the majority. The Germans failed in choosing their political leaders, but egoism prevented them from apportioning blame from within, apportioning had to be directed to that without.
An enterprising politician understood the cultural zeitgeist. More important, he was oratorically skilled enough to exploit the opportunity the zeitgeist presented. The Germans demanded a scapegoat – that outside malevolent force that ravaged them with war and runaway inflation, which drove away the blissful, certain days of yesterday. The enterprising politician gave them their scapegoat. It couldn’t be more obvious. The subculture within was also the malevolent force from without. The culture that agitates, pursues change, continuously questions, anticipates, and alters the future has to be the culture responsible for the uncertainty and fear of today.
How could it not be the Jews? They don’t quite look like us. They don’t quite act like us. They refuse to adopt our mores, ceremonies, and religion. They, therefore, must be covertly working to undermine our culture. You’re miserable? They made it so. They are the reason the war was lost and the inflation ensued. The reasoning reads as absurd to the intelligent mind, yet it persuades when recited in Stentorian oratory.
Timing further assisted the German political entrepreneur. The Great Depression followed the loss of War World I and the Weimar hyperinflation, thus providing more fuel for his fiery oratory. Start rumors, spread lies, and assert them with conviction and confidence that leaves no room for doubt.
Among the common rumors circulated at the time were that Jews had been profiteering at home during the first world war. A rumor was started that Jews had been “war shirkers” – a term used to describe those avoiding military responsibilities at the front lines. A scapegoating theory arose -- the “stab-in-the-back” theory: Through their manipulative business practices, Jews profited during the war and Weimar hyperinflation that occur a few years later. They purposefully undermined Germany’s war effort. They were undermining the German culture today.
Theodor Adorno, deceased German sociologist, offers some theorizing of his own. Adorno extended a theory of those who concede to the authoritarian personality. Adorno theorizes that the person who concedes to authority is obsessed with rules and order. He denigrates those he thinks fail to follow form; he thinks of them as inferiors. In a position of authority, he demands the same respect and obedience he gave to those in authority. He obsesses over rule and order.
Though a person will occupy an adult body, the mind hasn't necessarily followed. The body might be mature, but the mind could very well remain inchoate. The mindset of rule-following, want of stasis and rigidity, the need for an authoritarian to solve problems, failure to acknowledge your part in your demise, is the thinking of children. It’s not a problem of only German society, but of all societies.
When reading the better self-improvement books (and those by Orison Swett Marden and William George Gordon are better than most), you’ll find that they generally preach what the Jewish culture practices: the importance of education, initiative, work, patience discipline, confidence, curiosity, entrepreneurship, sociability. Much of what is found in a good self-improvement book is simply an extended riffing and embellishing of what’s found in most of the Hebrew Bible.
The Hebrew Bible is the reason Jews succeed no matter how pernicious the persecution. Success arouses envy, never sympathy. Jews will repeat time and again “Never Again” and create memorials and ceremonies and continually remind the rest of us that we must never forget. I suspect little of it resonates with non-Jews. The majority acknowledges the inhumanity of it all and the legitimacy of the large number, but the individuality of it all is lost in that large number. The majority acknowledges it happened, but only in the abstract. After all, the majority thinks, “Here you are today again captains of business and finance; leaders in medicine, law, philanthropy, and literature in far larger percentages than that represented by other ethnic or religious groups. Like the dropped cat, you always land on your feet.” I’m unsure Jews understand this outside perception.
Jews can ensure “never again” with certainty, if they so wish. I suspect they won’t like what would be required of them to do so, but here it goes: Jews can leave well enough alone. They can jettison their history and meld with the majority. They can excel to no greater extent than those within the majority excel. They can dumb it down, in other words. In short, they can cease being Jews.
As I said, I suspect they won’t like it. Unfortunately, the benefits of achieving “never again” come at a very dear cost, but such is the cost of certainty.