A brief review of Equality: The Impossible Quest by Dr. Martin van Creveld (Castalia House, 2015)

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Dr. Martin van Creveld received his PhD in History from the London School of Economics in 1971. He put forward a theoretical model of low-intensity conflicts and predicted the demise of conventional warfare (The Transformation of War, Free Press, 1991). A Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he has recently written a few less uniformly well-received books about the culture of war (The Changing Face of War: lessons of combat, from the Marne to Iraq and The Culture of War, Presidio Press, 2008); and a book about gender that did not find a publisher (The Privileged Sex, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013). His recent bestselling historical survey Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (Cambridge University Press, 2013), however, received glowing reviews from generals, military historians and wargamers.

In Equality: The Impossible Quest (Castalia House, 2015), Dr. van Creveld surveys the struggle for equality across the millennia. Only part of the population of Sparta or Athens enjoyed equal rights, he writes, which “goes far to explain the limited success” of the city-states. At the end of that era, “equality, appearing for the first time in history as a consciously held and, to some extent, realized ideal, flickered and went out.” (Chapter 2.) The ideal survived in Buddhist and Christian monastic traditions, but outside such walls, “all attempts to establish equality in practice seem to have failed,” typically because “no sooner had the leaders of a revolt seized power, they started making themselves more equal than the rest.” (Chapter 4.)

Dr. van Creveld examines the impact of the Enlightenment with particular attention to the Jews: “In one country after another, Jews received full civic and political rights. Legally speaking, they were put on an equal footing with other citizens.” Yet “civic and political emancipation did not necessarily mean that, socially speaking, Jews were really accepted as equals,” even in the United States. (Chapter 5.)  He contrasts communities like Brook Farm with the more successful Israeli kibbutzim, distinguished by the way they were held up as models of Zionism. Still, he notes that even the kibbutz succumbed, as living standards rose, to greater inequality and acrimonious disputes. “A shame, some would say: it was a nice try.” (Chapter 6.)

Dr. van Creveld brushes past the early Soviet Union and communist China, noting that by the 1970s, many socialist ideals were widely accepted even to a limited degree in countries like Britain and the United States, but “in socialist and communist countries, the attempt to create and maintain socio-economic equality led to economic stagnation and decline. In many of the latter it also led to immense bloodshed, mass starvation, and some of the worst totalitarian regimes in history.” Western-style democracy enabled “both the process of nationalization and the privatization that followed to go ahead without civil war,” in contrast to the dismal Soviet failure, but “the outcome was the re-opening of socio-economic gaps. So large have they become that, in the West, some believe they are threatening their societies with disintegration.”

Dr. van Creveld then addresses the importance of equality in Nazi Germany. “Entire libraries have been written to explain how National Socialism was the lackey of German capitalism and thus an instrument for maintaining the existing inequality between the classes. The claim may or may not have been true; but there can be no doubt that both the Nazis and those who voted for them did advocate a certain kind of equality, known as Gleichheit.” In his examples, Hitler ate along with everyone else at the goulash-cannon, working conditions were improved, schools were instructed to ignore social class, and visitors often returned with stories of “the equality and national solidarity they had witnessed.” But this applied only to “racially pure members of the Volksgemeinschaft,” and the “unfit,” such as those of mixed race, the deaf, or chronic alcoholics, were often sterilized. Thus, “Nazi crimes against the supposedly less than equal were committed in the name of a certain kind of equality, or homogeneity (from the Greek homos, meaning equal, similar, one and the same).” (Chapter 7.)

Dr. van Creveld has harsh words for the Allied nations: after World War II, scientists confirmed “what the Nazis themselves already knew: that there were no mental and psychological differences among people of different races and that race-crossing carried no disadvantages,” but the Americans, French and British continued to mock Jews as “towels,” Algerians as dirty peasants, and Vietnamese as “gooks.” (He notes that the Israelis, “not to be outdone,” coined a term “best translated as dirty little Arab.”) Sooner or later,” he notes, “all of these peoples, and many others as well, learned the lesson that the people whom they despised so much were at least their equals in the place where it mattered most of all, i.e. the battlefield.” However, racial discrimination still remains today throughout the world, despite successes like the Civil Rights movement and laws passed by the US Congress to prohibit discrimination, or the demise of Apartheid. Some countries have chosen to “spend heavily in an effort to change attitudes towards immigrants and integrate them,” abolishing legal forms of racial discrimination, but discrimination continues underground, and “when it comes to accepting immigrants, often all that has changed is the terminology.” (Chapter 7.)

Dr. van Creveld’s assessment of the efforts to end discrimination against women, gays, and the disabled is scattershot, and difficult to summarize. He notes that calls for women’s emancipation met with “very mixed success,” with relatively few women working outside the home until World War II. The Soviets “made divorce so easy that the family itself was all but abolished,” but Soviet women “refused to give up their children” to collectivization and family life was reestablished, with certain reforms like education for women and free kindergartens; finding equality a “burden” due to housework and the lack of consumer goods, they chose to have fewer children. Dr. van Creveld sets out the perspective of Betty Friedan that non-working women were the root of American society’s ills, such that, for example, “if many American men were homosexual, that was because, in their youth, they had been spoiled by bored stay-at-home mothers with too much time and not enough to do.” However, he then asks, how can women who claim to suffer psychological trauma from workplace harassment be trusted to withstand the pressures of business life? Women are less suited for combat roles, he believes, and “the point has been reached where many women, by focusing on their careers and refusing to have children, are literally waging war against their own genes. The better educated they are, the more true this is.” He describes the successes in ending discrimination against homosexuals, with most discriminatory laws being taken off the books by the final decades of the 20th century, but notes there is continued discrimination in areas like the military, jobs, housing or the priesthood. He stresses that legal equality is not the same as social equality, “let alone a complete end to discrimination” or hate crimes. (Chapter 8.)

Dr. van Creveld expresses reservations about the rise of broad anti-discrimination measures relating to “race, sex, sexual orientation, and, as far as possible, physical and mental disability.” He singles out the parental and government attention to children with “special needs,” for example giving “flexible hours” to “slow students” writing exams, and describes students who “claim to have ADHD in order to get all kinds of privileges.” Most disturbing for him is that the quest for equality “has caused not only physical but verbal behavior to be regulated and penalized. It is no longer ‘acceptable’ to mock or denigrate anybody on the basis race, sex, sexual orientation, appearance, etc.,” so that even if there is no law against the behavior, people can be punished for it. He asserts that “the drive towards equality has reached the point where almost anybody who says anything about a member of a ‘disadvantaged’ group” can be accused and punished for a “thoughtcrime” such as “believing that women are different” or “that homosexuality is unnatural,” with the list of prohibited terms constantly expanding. In his examples, it is difficult for a restaurant owner to know when it is permissible to refuse service to smelly patrons, a policeman to ask immigrants for papers, or airport security to target likely terrorists. For Dr. van Creveld, although anti-discrimination measures were well-intentioned, “the outcome is a new phenomenon known as reverse discrimination. Its targets are groups, usually white males, whose members were, at one time or another, perceived as the ‘dominant’ ones.” (Chapter 8.)

Thus, a “Brave New World” approaches.  Even while poor countries do not have the luxury of worrying about “discrimination against this or that group,” affirmative action in the US “is utilized even when the groups in question have long ceased to be minorities” and equality continues its “march of conquest.” Being “white, male and heterosexual gradually became a handicap,” yet the upper middle class are “safely beyond the reach of most minority groups,” and it is the elderly, blue collar, and male who have been turned into “unpersons” by anti-discrimination legislation. Dr. van Creveld predicts a war between the genders: “Men, a minority, are finding themselves with their backs up against the wall. But how long will men’s lamb-like acquiescence with their new status in which women have all the privileges and they bear all the burdens last? Will they go on strike, refusing to study, work, marry, and have children, as some already do? Will they rise in rebellion? May some of them not feel compelled to use the one quality in which their superiority over women is undisputed, namely, physical force? There are signs that this is beginning to happen.” He is concerned for the welfare of forcibly over-medicated children, and in the decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy when possible abnormalities are identified, sees an echo of Hitler’s decision to “take care” of those too feeble to serve the Volksgemeinschaft. Envisioning the rise of genetically modified children, Dr. van Creveld concludes, “The point is, in this day and age, people believe they have the right to be equal. Not only legally and politically, as liberals used to demand; nor simply socioeconomically, as the socialists did; but in many other ways as well. If the rich and the powerful can have something, shouldn’t the poor and the powerless have it too?” “The very idea of equality,” he predicts, “will be blown sky-high.” (Chapter 9.)

Note: I decided to review this book in response to a controversy centered on the editor and publisher of Equality: The Impossible Quest, as outlined in this article in “Gawker Review of Books,” because it is important to consider carefully before using certain words to describe authors, publishers or readers.


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