Mosaic Magazine opened an important dimension in the old debate about Wagner’s anti-Semitism with Nathan Shields’ January essay, “Wagner and the Jews.” Shields argues that Wagner’s music itself has anti-Jewish implications, an important riposte to the usual excuse that Wagner harbored Jew-hatred despite his great artistry. Shields argues rather that Wagner’s anti-Semitism and his music are of the same ilk. That is a breakthrough, but only that: Shields, whose own music offers the sort of atonality that most modern listeners abhor, knows that something is amiss in Wagner’s music but does not know what it is.
Now Edward Rothstein, a New York Times critic, has responded to Shields’ essay with a claim that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is “metaphysical.” That gets rather far afield. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is not “metaphysical” at all. It is musical, and must be understood in musical terms.
It can be put quite simply: Wagner is a neo-pagan, and paganism is self-worship. Neo-paganism is narcissism, the glorification of the impulse in place of obligation. In place of Beethoven’s celebrated epigraph to the Quartet Op. 135, “Es Muss Sein!” (It must be), Wagner insists that it can be whatever he wants. Music proceeds in time, and classical composition preceding Wagner uniquely achieved an ordering of time that bespeaks necessity: goal-oriented motion towards a desired conclusion. The journey to the goal may take detours, encounter surprises, and evoke suspense as well as humor, but it must reach its conclusion. Classical music was conceived to portray in sensuous terms the Christian journey to salvation. The great Ashkenazic Jewish cantors used the mechanism of Western music to evoke the reversal of time’s arrow, for redemption in Judaism looks backward as well as forward.
At Mosaic, Nathan Shields argues that Wagner’s anti-Semitism arises from his music itself–quite different from the usual view that Wagner was a wicked man who wrote wonderful music.
That’s a courageous and important thing to say. Shields veers into the tendentious when he claims that,
“Is Wagner’s most troubling legacy, then, the longing he instills in us for a completion and finality that music alone can provide? Failing to receive such resolutions from the world, one might attempt to force them upon it. Perhaps Wagner’s music is, itself, the abyss toward which that music points us—not only the purest of the arts, but also the most guilty.”
There is no way to judge music except in musical terms, and that is where Shields’s essay is deficient: Wagner does not aim for abstract musical purity, but rather for a perverse alternation of the way his audience heard the music of his predecessors. Some examples can be found here.
As for Shields’ own music: for those who like this sort of thing, it is just the sort of thing they would like. One can’t accuse him of aiming for abstract musical purity.
Joseph Bottum is my favorite among Christian writers; I read him religiously, as it were, for a decade before we met, and before he asked me to join the masthead of the monthly magazine First Things in 2009. The fact that he is a close friend, therefore, has nothing to do with my admiration for his work; I have several close friends who write badly, and admire any number of writers whom I abhor as human beings. His Christmas meditation “Angels I Have Heard on High” was a holiday delicacy to be savored. Jody has heard angel voices singing, “high in the wind, across a western meadow frozen stiff and covered with the fallen snow.” I wish him many more such blessed encounters.
Jody is now writing Christmas carols, and we’ve been corresponding about the form, from an aesthetic vantage point, to be sure. The great poet of Spain’s Golden Age, Lope de Vega, wrote a marvelous song in which the Virgin Mary responds to the glory of angels ruffling the palm trees by asking them to hold onto the branches and quiet down; her child, she explains, is already exhausted by the world’s suffering and needs to rest. The juxtaposition of maternal ordinariness and supernatural splendor is a successful poetic conceit. Christian poets work wonders with angelic encounters, and Lope’s famous Christmas meditation is sublime. One really must read it in the original: with its Romance meter (comparable to our ballad meter) and unrhymed alliteration, the poem bestrides the divide between sublime and secular in technique as well as content.
By pure coincidence, the conversation around the Shabbat table last week at Hong Kong’s modest Israeli synagogue, Shuva Israel, centered on angels as well. Jews sing “Peace onto you, ministering angels” before Friday night dinner, on the basis of an ancient homilectic that two angels accompany a Jew home from synagogue on the eve of Shabbat:
Peace upon you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High,
of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Come in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Bless me with peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High,
of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
May your departure be in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Note that the appearance of the angels is a scheduled weekly occurrence, to be welcomed, but nothing to get excited about. The odd thing, though, is that the angels are asked to leave. One hears many explanations for this, but I like best the one proposed by the Chafetz Chaim, the leader of observant Jewry in Eastern Europe during the interwar years, and recounted last Friday by a young Israeli rabbi. When the high priest entered the Temple’s Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he went in alone–not even an angel dared accompany him into this most holy place. The recreation of the Temple in the Shabbat table of a Jewish home is so holy that even the holy angels cannot abide there; after they have done their job of accompanying us home from synagogue they are politely asked to go away.
The Holy of Holies in Judaism is found in the most ordinary things of life once they have been dedicated to the Holy One, blessed be he. The Shekhinah (the Indwelling of God) resides on the Shabbat table, and in marital relations between husband and wife. Such things surpass the holiness even of angels.
The holiness of the sanctified ordinary, to be sure, doesn’t always make for compelling poetry; as a latecomer to Jewish observance I tend to sniff at the poetic merits of the classic songs sung around the Shabbat table, although some of them, drawn from the Psalms, are hauntingly beautiful.
Baden-Baden has been a spa town since Roman times, drawing tourists for its therapeutic waters, and more recently for a festival hall that features prominent classical artists. It also has a Faberge museum, which seems appropriate at this time of year: Christmas in Germany is like a brightly decorated eggshell with no egg inside. The forms of the holiday are merrily observed, but not the faith. To declare one’s belief in a personal God counts for proof of mental defect here as well as in most parts of Europe, especially among educated people. Nonetheless there is more faith left in Germany’s Protestant establishment than among America’s mainline Protestant churches, and it’s something for a visiting Jew to rejoice about here at Christmas time.
The Presbyterian Church USA, the flagship church of America’s fading Protestant mainline, voted to boycott the State of Israel earlier this year, and nearly voted to prohibit the use of the word “Israel” in its prayers. The new Marcionism of the mainline churches justifies its aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies by rejecting a link between the living Jewish people and the God of Abraham. By contrast, Pope John Paul II of blessed memory and Benedict XVI both emphasized that God’s covenant with the Jewish people never was revoked.
My last post (“May the Farce Be With You“) drew 280 comments, most of them infuriated, and most of them ill-informed. By way of remedy, I repost below an April 4, 2007 review-essay on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Children of Hurin. My literary friends point out that Tolkien’s style is turgid and his literary muse is lame. I don’t care. No writer in the English language did more to uplift popular culture. Star Wars, I observe, derives from Richard Wagner’s noxious Ring cycle by way of the odious Joseph Campbell, and had a corrupting effect on the culture. The contrast with Tolkien is instructive. Rather than remasticate the pagan idea of the hero, Tolkien created a pagan anti-hero (specifically, an anti-Beowulf and anti-Siegfried) in the tragic figure of Turin. Reconstructed from manuscripts by Tolkien’s son Christopher, the Turin story sheds light on the broader purpose of The Lord of the Rings, and illuminates the fraught relationship between the pagan and Christian worlds.
Many readers objected to the way I threw Harry Potter into the same kettle as Luke Skywalker. A qualification is in order: J.K. Rowling stole from Star Wars as well as from Tolkien (and of course from Thomas Hughes), so that one can read a variety of different standpoints into her work. They all are there, in unhappy cohabitation.
The Children of Hurin, by J R R Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
Reviewed by Spengler
J R R Tolkien was the most Christian of 20th-century writers, not because he produced Christian allegory and apologetics like his friend C S Lewis, but because he uniquely portrayed the tragic nature of what Christianity replaced. Thanks to the diligence of his son Christopher, who reconstructed the present volume from several manuscripts, we have before us a treasure that sheds light on the greater purpose of his The Lord of the Rings.
In The Children of Hurin, a tragedy set some 6,000 years before the tales recounted in The Lord of the Rings, we see clearly why it was that Tolkien sought to give the English-speaking peoples a new pre-Christian mythology. It is a commonplace of Tolkien scholarship that the writer, the leading Anglo-Saxon scholar of his generation, sought to restore to the English their lost mythology. In this respect the standard critical sources (for example Edmund Wainwright) mistake Tolkien’s profoundly Christian motive. In place of the heroes Siegfried and Beowulf, the exemplars of German and Anglo-Saxon pagan myth, we have the accursed warrior Turin, whose pride of blood and loyalty to tribe leave him vulnerable to manipulation by the forces of evil.
Tolkien’s popular Ring trilogy, I have attempted to show, sought to undermine and supplant Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle, which had offered so much inspiration for Nazism.  With the reconstruction of the young Tolkien’s prehistory of Middle-earth, we discern a far broader purpose: to recast as tragedy the heroic myths of pre-Christian peoples, in which the tragic flaw is the pagan’s tribal identity. Tolkien saw his generation decimated, and his circle of friends exterminated, by the nationalist compulsions of World War I; he saw the cult of Siegfried replace the cult of Christ during World War II. His life’s work was to attack the pagan flaw at the foundation of the West.
It is too simple to consider Tolkien’s protagonist Turin as a conflation of Siegfried and Beowulf, but the defining moments in Turin’s bitter life refer clearly to the older myths, with a crucial difference: the same qualities that make Siegfried and Beowulf exemplars to the pagans instead make Turin a victim of dark forces, and a menace to all who love him. Tolkien was the anti-Wagner, and Turin is the anti-Siegfried, the anti-Beowulf. Tolkien reconstructed a mythology for the English not (as Wainwright and other suggest) because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity.
“Alone among 20th-century novelists, J R R Tolkien concerned himself with the mortality not of individuals but of peoples. The young soldier-scholar of World War I viewed the uncertain fate of European nations through the mirror of the Dark Ages, when the life of small peoples hung by a thread,” I wrote in an earlier essay.  Christianity demands of the Gentile that he reject his sinful flesh and be reborn into Israel; only through a new birth can the Gentile escape the death of his own body as well as the death of his hopes in the inevitable extinction of his people.
The default Western strategy towards China’s rise as an economic and military superpower appears to be to sit back and wait for it to fall apart. That isn’t going to happen, as the dean of Beijing’s foreign press corps, Francesco Sisci, observes in this short essay entitled, “The Great Resilience of the Communist State”:
As a modest chronicler of events in China for over a quarter of a century, I witnessed at least four events that might have caused the government to crumble, and yet nothing of the sort happened. These include the protest in Tiananmen in 1989, the demonstrations of the Falun Gong in 1999, the SARS epidemic in 2003, and the political attempt of Bo Xilai in 2012. Except for SARS, the other three were caused by deep rifts in the top leadership and efforts of one faction to eliminate another. They were violent internal power struggles causing more damage to Chinese politics than any foreign interference, and yet nothing happened to society.
The deep-seated reasons for this can be found in an essay I wrote a decade ago. True to that analysis, ten years later, and despite many predictions to the contrary, there still has been no revolution in China. The fact remains that while democratic protests have been raging for a month in Hong Kong, adjacent Shenzhen, whose people receive uncensored news from the territory, has shown no sign of contagion.
In a nutshell, now is no time for revolution for the Chinese people, who are experiencing a golden age in their history and have had no past experience with democracy to pine for.
China will need to reform at some point, Sisci argues:
This does not mean that revolutions or democratic demands are impossible in China. A mix of internal forces and international constraints could change the situation in the next decade. There are two elements which could drive change. The Chinese economy will be roughly as large as that of the US, and this will draw increased attention and fear from other countries because China does not share the political framework of the countries that have dominated the world over the past two centuries – the UK and US. Additionally, a large portion of the Chinese population will enjoy Western middle-class purchasing power, and private enterprises will be required to pay a larger portion of taxes as they will represent a large share of the GDP but as a whole they mighthave limited control over how their tax money is spent.
Dr. Sisci, the first foreigner to complete a Chinese-language doctorate at China’s Academy of Social Science, has been my colleague at Asia Times Online almost since its founding. He was right about China ten years ago and he’s right now.
For background on China’s economic resilience, see the presentation “China’s Two Economies” prepared by my colleagues and me at Reorient Group.
Tuesday night I had the honor of sharing the podium with Prof. Angelo Codevilla under the auspices of the Claremont Institute at New York’s Yale Club. He is one of the wisest and sharpest strategic thinkers to come out of the Reagan Revolution, and his new book, To Make and Keep Peace is a must read: if you read only one book about politics (and especially foreign policy) this year, this should be the one.
I reviewed the work in the Claremont Review of Books, and my review has been posted at the Federalist website. It is excerpted below.
To Make and Keep Peace: Among Ourselves and with All Nations by Angelo M. Codevilla. Hoover Institution Press, 248 pages, $24.95.
To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, Lady Bracknell observed in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but to lose both looks like carelessness. To have lost the peace three times in the past century suggests something worse than carelessness in American foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson set the stage for World War II by making the best the enemy of the good when negotiating the resolution of World War I. Franklin Roosevelt’s naïveté about the Soviet Union set the world adrift into the Cold War. And now a succession of mistakes following the fall of Communism has left America flailing. The overwhelming American majority that favored foreign interventions after 9/11 has melted, yielding isolationism unseen since the 1930s. How did it come to this?
One political party or the other may blunder, but disasters on this scale can be achieved only by consensus. Angelo Codevilla contends that a self-perpetuating foreign policy elite, incapable of taking in abundant evidence about all the things it neither knows nor does well, has steered American foreign policy in the wrong direction for the past century. The shrill partisan debates, he argues, obscure an underlying commonality of outlook among the “liberal progressive,” “realist,” and “neo-conservative” currents in foreign policy. All three schools of thinking derive from “turn-of-the-twentieth-century progressivism.”
All regard foreigners as yearning for American leadership. Their proponents regard foreigners as mirror images of themselves, at least potentially. Liberal internationalists see yearners for secular, technocratic development. Neoconservatives see budding democrats, while realists imagine peoples inclined to moderation…. Different emphases notwithstanding, there is solid consensus among our ruling-class factions that America’s great power requires exercising responsibility for acting as the globe’s ‘policeman,’ ‘sheriff,’ ‘umpire,’ ‘guardian of international standards,’ ‘stabilizer,’ or ‘leader’—whatever one may call it.
From Hyperpower to Hyperventilator
It isn’t just that the emperor has no clothes: the empire has no tailors. In the decade since President George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech, America has gone from hyperpower to hyperventilater. The Obama administration and Republican leadership quibble about the modalities of an illusory two-state solution in Israel, or the best means to make democracy bloom in the Middle East’s deserts, or how vehemently to denounce Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, everything that could go wrong, has. Europe’s frontiers are in play for the first time since the fall of Communism; Russia and China have a new rapprochement; American enemies like Iran have a free hand while traditional American allies in the Sunni world feel betrayed; and China has all but neutralized American sea power within hundreds of miles of its coast.
America’s credibility around the world is weaker than at any time since the Carter administration. American policy evokes contempt overseas, and even more at home, where the mere suggestion of intervention is ballot box poison, while the Republicans’ isolationist fringe wins straw polls among the party’s core constituents. In 2013 the Pew Survey found 53 percent of U.S. respondents considered America less important and powerful than a decade earlier, the first time a majority held that view since 1974, just before the fall of Saigon. And four-fifths of respondents told Pew that the United States should not think so much in international terms but concentrate on its own problems, the highest proportion to agree with that proposition since the survey began posing it in 1964.
How War Is Like Pregnancy
Codevilla offers a bracing antidote to stale, wishful thinking. A professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, he is one of our last sages, an actor in the great events that brought down the Soviet empire during the 1980s, as well as a distinguished scholar of political thought. Among the modern-day classics he’s authored—including “War: Ends and Means” (1988, with Paul Seabury) and “The Character of Nations” (2000)—“To Make and Keep Peace” is his “Summa,” a tour d’horizon of American and world history crammed with succinct case studies of success and failure in war and peace.
Read the whole review here.
Crossposted from Asia Times Online
The late Leo Strauss (1889-1973) was a thinker sufficiently nuanced to allow a wide range of interpretation of his views, and a teacher broad-ranging enough to influence students with divergent interests. I am honored to contribute occasionally to the Claremont Review of Books, associated with the so-called West Coast Straussians (although I am persona non grata among some East Coast Straussians). In fact, some of my best friends are Straussians.
As my friend Peter Berkowitz argues in a recent essay for RealClearPolitics, it is silly and not a little mendacious to portray the late emigre philosopher as an arachnidan spinner of right-wing plots.  My problem isn’t simply with Strauss, but with the ancients whom he admired. He taught that we have something fundamental to learn about statecraft from the ancient Greeks. This in my view is woefully wrong.
Greek philosophy, to be sure, remains one of the ornaments of human endeavor – as it applies to epistemology, ontology, aesthetics and logic, among other fields. Plato and Aristotle, though, came into adulthood just as the Greek city-states destroyed themselves through their own cupidity. What was left of Athens after the disastrous Peloponnesian War was ruined by Alexander of Macedon, who employed Aristotle as a tutor. I do not mean to deprecate the importance of the Greek polis as an exercise in democracy, but Aristotle was hardly its advocate.
“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim,” begins the Nichomachean Ethics. But Aristotle’s assertion that all men seek the good (or at least the good as they see it) is wrong on the face of it. Frequently men seek perversion, violence, and the destruction of themselves and all around them. That is typical of civilizations that have reached their best-used-by-date, and at some point has been true of every civilization west of the Indus during the past 2,500 years with the exception of Israel.
By the time the Romans walked in, all of Greece could not field two regiments of phalanx-men. The rational, logical Greeks chose not to have children and disappeared. They did so after Athens built an empire that looted its colonies to pay off the Athenian mob, relying on imperial exactions for half of its food supply. Athens was a slave society that preyed on its neighbors. What is the sum of Athenian wisdom after the war was lost? For Sophocles (in Oedipus at Colonnus) it was that the best of all possibilities is never to have been born (“But who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand!,” said Yankel to Moishe in the old Jewish joke). It was Sophocles more than Aristotle whom Hellas took to heart, and ensured that its next generations would not be born.
Chicago University Professor David Nirenberg’s 2013 book Anti-Judaism received rapturous reviews from most Jewish media, including by Michael Walzer at New York Review of Books (via Mosaic) and Adam Kirsch at Tablet. My review at First Things was less enthusiastic: Nirenberg, in my view, got lost in the labyrinth of error that arises when secular Jews try to judge religious matters by their own standards. Below is a draft of my review, which is due to come out from behind the paywall at First Things momentarily.
by David Nirenberg
W.W.Norton, 624 pages, $35
David P. Goldman, a former senior editor of First Things, writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times
World history is the history of Israel, averred Franz Rosenzweig, meaning that the nations of the West so hearkened to the Jewish promise of eternal life that their subsequent history was a response to Israel, whether they emulated or abhorred it. By contrast, David Nirenberg contends that the West has defined itself for two thousand years by its rejection of Israel. Both cases can be argued. The difference is that Rosenzweig propounded a clear and mainly traditional concept of Judaism, whereas Nirenberg means by “Judaism” whatever he wants it to mean at different points in time. In its better moments Nirenberg’s account of Western anti-Judaism is conventional; in its worse moments it is arbitrary. His aversion to thinking of Judaism in traditional terms gets him into repeated trouble.
Until the nineteenth century, “Judaism” meant the normative tradition embodied in Hebrew Scripture, Talmud, rabbinic responsae, and observances that had remained consistent throughout the two millennia-long Jewish diaspora. The past two hundred years have produced any number of deviant interpretations, none of which has had much staying power. Nirenberg, a professor of history and social thought at the University of Chicago, tells us that he is searching for yet another non-traditional reading: Judaism is not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas,” he declares. The trouble is that we never are told what this, except ad hoc as the opinion of particular Jews at particular times. Nor is anti-Judaism “simply an attitude toward Jews and their religion, but a way of critically engaging the world.” Neither the Jews nor the anti-Semites have a clear idea of what they are about in his account. Nirenberg’s recourse to the postmodern idea of self-definition via the “Other” does not help, for his protean depictions of Judaism and anti-Judaism chase each other into infinite regress. It recalls Heinrich Heine’s “fog-figures that rise up out of the ground/and dance a misty reel in weird chorus.”
That is a shame, because the tendentiousness of the book’s central thesis obscures some fine research ensconced in the inner chapters, including a highly readable summary of Nirenberg’s scholarly publications on the treatment of Judaism in the Koran and Hadith. There are many good things in the book, or rather, things that would have been good had they appeared in a different book.
Simon Schama made his reputation as a cultural historian, and one would expect his new “Story of the Jews” to have something to say on the subject of Jewish culture. His incompetence strains the capacity of the Yiddish language for derogation. He is a yutz. Of the many silly things in his PBS series, the silliest perhaps was the claim that Harold Arlen’s and E.Y. Harburg’s song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” expressed characteristically Jewish longing for a better world–as if longing for a better world were a distinctively Jewish activity. As far as music and poetry are concerned, Schama hasn’t a clue; the text and voice-leading of the song following long-established, overused conventions for the evocation of nostalgia. These are taught to undergraduates in musical analysis. Schubert and Wagner among many others employed them. (In the context of a review of Wagner’s Siegfried for Tablet magazine, I recorded a brief discussion of the musical examples, embedded below. The review itself analyzes the musical trick in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”).
I didn’t like anything else about Schama’s presentation, but I can claim professional credentials in this particular matter.
Cross-posted from Spengler
By any standard, the Palestinian problem involves the strangest criteria in modern history.
To begin with, refugees are defined as individuals who have been forced to leave their land of origin. A new definition of refugee status, though, was invented exclusively for Palestinian Arabs, who count as refugees their descendants to the nth generation.
All the world’s refugees are the responsibility of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, except for the Palestinians, who have their own refugee agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine. Among all the population exchanges of the 20th century — Greeks for Turks after World War I, Hindus for Moslems after the separation of India and Pakistan after World War II, Serbs for Croats after the breakup of Yugoslavia during the 1980s — the Palestinians alone remain frozen in time, a living fossil of long-decided conflicts.
Some 700,000 Jews were expelled from Muslim countries where they had lived in many cases more than a thousand years before the advent of Islam, and most of them were absorbed into the new State of Israel with a territory the size of New Jersey; 700,000 or so Arabs left Israel’s Jewish sector during the 1948 War of Independence, most at the behest of their leaders, but few were absorbed by the vast Muslim lands surrounding Israel.
Instead, the so-called refugees were gathered in camps (now for the most part towns with a living standard much higher than that of the adjacent Arab countries thanks to foreign aid) and kept as a human battering ram against Israel, whose existence the Muslim countries cannot easily accept.
Some 10 million Germans who had lived for generations in what is now Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic were driven out at the end of World War II (more than half a million died in the great displacement).
Imagine that Germany had kept these 10 million people in camps for 70 years and that their descendants now numbered 40 million — and that Germany demanded on pain of war restitution of everything from the Sudetenland to Kaliningrad (the former Konigsberg). That is a fair analogy to the Palestinian position.
It is a scam, a hoax, a put-on, a Grand Guignol theatrical with 5 million extras. Because polite opinion bows to the sensibilities of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, it is treated in all seriousness.
As a matter of full disclosure, I want to put my personal view on record: The mainstream view amounts to a repulsive and depraved exercise in hypocrisy that merits the harshest punishment that a just God might devise.
As my friend Daniel Pipes wrote some days ago at National Review, the Middle East Forum is debating whether one can speak meaningfully of “moderate Muslims,” with Dr. Pipes defending the affirmative and Raymond Ibrahim the negative thesis. I respect both Pipes and Ibrahim, but I am not satisfied with the content of the debate. The first issue to be settled is what moderation might mean in the case of adherence to a religion, which is after all not a list of positions but an existential stance towards life. One can speak of a moderate Communist (e.g. Gorbachev) or moderate conservatives, but not quite as simply about moderate faith. Below is an essay I published on the subject in Asia Times in 2006 that attempts to set a theological context for the question.
The West in an Afghan mirror
Death everywhere and always is the penalty for apostasy, in Islam and every other faith. It cannot be otherwise, for faith is life and its abandonment is death. Americans should remove the beam from their own eye as they contemplate the gallows in the eye of the Muslims. Philistine hypocrisy pervades Western denunciations of the Afghan courts, which were threatening to hang Christian convert Abdul Rahman until the case was dropped on Monday.
Afghanistan, to be sure, is a tribal society whose encounter with the modern world inevitably will be a train wreck. The trouble is
that the West has apostatized, and is killing itself. There turned out to be hope for Rahman, but there is none for Latvia or Ukraine, and little enough for Germany or Spain. That said, I wish to make clear that I found the persecution of Rahman deplorable.
The practice of killing heretics has nothing to do with what differentiates Islam from Christianity or Judaism. St Thomas Aquinas defended not just the execution of individual heretics but also the mass extermination of heretical populations in the 12th-century Albigensian Crusades. For this he was defended by the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, author of learned books about the faith of the United States of America’s founding fathers (see Muslim anguish and Western hypocrisy, November 23, 2004).
Western religions today inflict symbolic rather than physical death. One’s local priest does not like to preach such things from his post-modern pulpit, but the Catholic Church prescribes eternal hellfire for those who come into communion with Christ and then reject him. Observant Jews hold a funeral for an apostate child who is spiritually dead to them (retroactive abortions not being permitted).
The last heretic hanged by the Catholic Church was a Spanish schoolteacher accused of Deist (shall we call that “moderate Christian”?) views in Valencia as recently as 1826. Without Napoleon Bonaparte and the humiliation of the Church by the German and Italian nationalist movements, who knows when the killing of heretics would have stopped?
“Where are the moderate Muslims?” sigh the self-appointed Sybils of the Western media. Faith is life. What does it mean to be moderately alive? Find the “moderate Christians” and the “moderate Jews”, and you will have the answer. “Moderate Christians” such as Episcopalian priests or Anglican vicars are becoming redundant as their congregations migrate to red-blooded evangelical denominations or give up religion altogether. “Moderate Jews” are mainly secular and tend to intermarry. There really is no such thing as a “moderate” Christian; there simply are Christians, and soon-to-be-ex-Christians. The secular establishment has awoken with sheer panic to this fact at last. In response we have such diatribes such as Kevin Phillips’ new book American Theocracy, an amalgam of misunderstandings, myths and calumnies about the so-called religious right. 
The tragedy of Abdul Rahman also is the tragedy of Western religion. Islam differs radically from Christianity, in that the Christian god is a lover who demands love in return, whereas the Muslim god is a sovereign who demands the fulfillment of duty. Christian prayer is communion, an act of love incomprehensible to Muslims; Muslim worship is an act of submission, the repetition of a few lines of text to accompany physical expression of self-subjugation to the sovereign. The People of Christ are pilgrims en route to the next world; the People of Allah are soldiers in this one. Contrary to all the ink spilled and trees murdered to produce the tomes of Karen Armstrong and John Esposito, Christianity and Islam call forth different peoples to serve different gods for different reasons.
But the fact that Christianity and Islam educe different peoples for different gods should not obscure that one cannot be either Christian or Muslim without belonging to a People of God in flesh as well as spirit. Christianity demands that the gentile, whose very origin is redolent of death, and whose heathen nature is sinful, undergo a new birth to join God’s people. Whether this second birth occurs at the baptismal font for a Catholic infant or at the river for an evangelical adult is another matter. The Christian’s rebirth is also a vicarious death – the death of the Christian’s heathen nature – through Christ’s sacrifice. No vicarious sacrifice occurs in Islam; the Muslim, on the contrary, sacrifices himself (The blood is the life, Mr Rumsfeld!, October 5, 2005).
Where is the moderation? The Christian either joins the People of God in its pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven, or he does not; the Muslim either is a soldier of the ummah, or he is nothing. Religious conversion is not mere adaptation to another tradition. It is a change of people. If God is “able of these stones to raise children of Abraham” (Matthew 3:9), Christians are the Gentiles made into sons of Abraham by miracle. In Islamic society, the convert to Christianity instantly becomes an alien and an enemy.
God may be able to raise sons of Abraham from stones; that is not necessarily within the power of earthly churches. European Christianity, as I have argued often in the past, made a devil’s bargain with the heathen invaders whom it made into Christians in the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the conversion of the Balts. It permitted them to keep one foot in their national past and another in the Catholic Church, under the umbrella of universal empire. The peoples revolted against church and empire and reverted to their pagan roots, and then fought one another to a bloody standoff in the two great wars of the 20th century.
In parallel to Christianity, but in a different way, Islam made its own compromise with the nations it absorbed. It would defend the pure traditional society of tribal life against the encroachment of the empires that encircled them: first the Byzantines and Persians, then Christian Europe, and now America. Traditional life inevitably must break down in the face of globalization of trade and information, and the ummah closes ranks to delay the time when the descendants of today’s Muslims will look with pity upon ancestral photographs, as they turn momentarily from their video game.
Europe’s Christians could not summon up the “moderation” necessary to tolerate their Jewish neighbors until after 1945, when Europe was conquered and rebuilt by the Americans. Once the ambitions of Europe’s peoples were crushed in the world wars, European Christianity became “moderate” indeed, so moderate that Europeans no longer bother about it. They also do not bother to reproduce, so that the formerly Christian populations of Europe will disappear, starting with the captive nations of the former Soviet Union.
No Christian People of God emerged from Europe. In a century or two, few European peoples will exist in recognizable form. Americans, by contrast, arrived in the New World with the object – at least in the case of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – of becoming a new People of God in a new Promised Land.
In a December essay in First Things titled Our American Babylon, Father Richard John Neuhaus argues that the United States itself is not the Promised Land or the Kingdom of God; it is still another place of exile. In Christian theological terms that is quite true. But the stubborn fact remains that if the English Separatists who founded Massachusetts had not deviated from Christian theology, and set out to become a new chosen people in a new Promised Land, we would not be talking about the United States of America to begin with. Christianity drew the notion of a People of God from the Jews, upon whose trunk it proposes to graft the reborn Gentiles. But the graft did not take except where radical Protestants emulated the Jews, and set out to make a new people in a new land.
Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy, warns that America’s religious right is “abetting far-reaching ideological change and eroding the separation of powers between church and state”, giving the Republican Party “a new incarnation as an ecumenical religious party, claiming loyalties from hard-shell Baptists and Mormons, as well as Eastern Rite Catholics and Hasidic Jews”. On the face of it, this is a nonsensical statement, for how can a coalition of Baptists, Mormons, Catholics and Jews oppose separation of church and state, a doctrine promulgated by dissenting Protestants to protect their own religious practice against the persecution of an established church?
The fact that the US boasts roughly 200 major Christian denominations, none of which can aspire to a plurality of members, ensures that no possible theocracy ever could emerge. When Phillips uses the word “theocracy”, he simply means the emergence of a religious vote on such issues beloved of the secular left as homosexual marriage, abortion, or censorship of pornography. But there is nothing theocratic in people of faith forming occasional coalitions to impose what the law calls community standards.
American Christians are migrating en masse to denominations that preach Christ crucified and the saving power of his blood, eschewing the blancmange Christianity of the old mainline sects (‘It’s the culture, stupid’, November 5, 2004). But the United States is unique among the nations, an assembly of individuals called out from among the nations, where Christian identity is compatible with a secular definition of peoplehood. Even in the US Christians find that one cannot be half-pregnant: either one is saved, or one is not.
Islam does not know moderation or extremism: it only knows success or failure. Unlike Christianity, which prevailed only through the improbable project of abandoning its old center to create a new land altogether, Islam cannot exist outside of traditional society, which by definition knows no doubt. Nowhere else but in the United States has personal conscience rather than religious establishment succeeded as the guiding principle of Christianity. “Moderate Islam” is an empty construct; the Islam of the Afghan courts is the religion with which the West must contend.
1. American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Phillips. Viking, US$26.95, 462 pages.
The essay below appeared six years ago in Asia Times Online.
During 1992-1993, I advised the Russian Finance Ministry on currency stabilization and sovereign debt issuance–a fruitless exercise, given that the Yeltsin government presided over a general free-for-all. At the time I was chief economist at Jude Wanniski’s firm Polyconomics. Our most prominent client was private equity investor Theodore Forstmann, a friend of America’s ambassador to the Russian Federation, Robert Strauss. Ambassador Strauss secured my appointment as an external advisor to Finance Minister Yegor Gaidar, including one with then Bear Stearns chief economist Larry Kudlow. Our efforts came to nought, to be sure, but I got something of an education.
Americans play Monopoly, Russians chess
August 19, 2008
On the night of November 22, 2004, then-Russian president – now premier – Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding “Orange” revolution in Ukraine. “They lied to me,” Putin said bitterly of the United States. “I’ll never trust them again.” The Russians still can’t fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine. They underestimate the stupidity of the West.
American hardliners are the first to say that they feel stupid next to Putin. Victor Davis Hanson wrote on August 12  of Moscow’s “sheer diabolic brilliance” in Georgia, while Colonel Ralph Peters, a columnist and television commentator, marveled on August 14 , “The Russians are alcohol-sodden barbarians, but now and then they vomit up a genius … the empire of the czars hasn’t produced such a frightening genius since [Joseph] Stalin.” The superlatives recall an old observation about why the plots of American comic books need clever super-villains and stupid super-heroes to even the playing field. Evidently the same thing applies to superpowers.
The fact is that all Russian politicians are clever. The stupid ones are all dead. By contrast, America in its complacency promotes dullards. A deadly miscommunication arises from this asymmetry. The Russians cannot believe that the Americans are as stupid as they look, and conclude that Washington wants to destroy them. That is what the informed Russian public believes, judging from last week’s postings on web forums, including this writer’s own.
These perceptions are dangerous because they do not stem from propaganda, but from a difference in existential vantage point. Russia is fighting for its survival, against a catastrophic decline in population and the likelihood of a Muslim majority by mid-century. The Russian Federation’s scarcest resource is people. It cannot ignore the 22 million Russians stranded outside its borders after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, nor, for that matter, small but loyal ethnicities such as the Ossetians. Strategic encirclement, in Russian eyes, prefigures the ethnic disintegration of Russia, which was a political and cultural entity, not an ethnic state, from its first origins.
The Russians know (as every newspaper reader does) that Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is not a model democrat, but a nasty piece of work who deployed riot police against protesters and shut down opposition media when it suited him – in short, a politician in Putin’s mold. America’s interest in Georgia, the Russians believe, has nothing more to do with promoting democracy than its support for the gangsters to whom it handed the Serbian province of Kosovo in February.
Again, the Russians misjudge American stupidity. Former president Ronald Reagan used to say that if there was a pile of manure, it must mean there was a pony around somewhere. His epigones have trouble distinguishing the pony from the manure pile. The ideological reflex for promoting democracy dominates the George W Bush administration to the point that some of its senior people hold their noses and pretend that Kosovo, Ukraine and Georgia are the genuine article.
Think of it this way: Russia is playing chess, while the Americans are playing Monopoly. What Americans understand by “war games” is exactly what occurs on the board of the Parker Brothers’ pastime. The board game Monopoly is won by placing as many hotels as possible on squares of the playing board. Substitute military bases, and you have the sum of American strategic thinking.
America’s idea of winning a strategic game is to accumulate the most chips on the board: bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a pipeline in Georgia, a “moderate Muslim” government with a big North Atlantic Treaty Organization base in Kosovo, missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and so forth. But this is not a strategy; it is only a game score.
My review of Jody Bottum’s important new book (An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, Image Books, 2014) appeared today in The American Interest. An extract:
Joseph Bottum…examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.
European Parliament Leader Martin Schulz provoked an uproar last week in a speech before Israel’s Knesset, citing in passing a Palestinian claim that Israelis get four times as much water as Arabs in Judea and Samaria. The Israel Home party delegation (led by my favorite Israeli politician Naftali Bennett) walked out on the German politician in protest; Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz called the protest “disproportionate.” In this case I think Steinitz is right: Schulz is not an anti-Semite. He’s the sort of German who loves Israel in a peculiarly German way. By and large, Germans do not hate Israel; on the contrary, they love to love the Israeli left. They really, truly, sincerely want to be philo-Semitic (that brings to mind the old definition of a philo-Semite: an anti-Semite who likes Jews). The Germans are post-Christian and post-nationalist. In more than forty years of traveling in (and occasionally living) in Germany I have not met a single German who can abide religion, except for full-time clergy. Their experience of nationalism, like the experience of most Europeans, has been unrelentingly horrible. They cannot help but identify with the “post-Zionist,” existentially-addled Angst of the Israeli Left.
Zeruya Shalev, the Israeli novelist who dissects the disordered lives of disappointed utopians, is a bestseller and a cultural icon in Germany. Her last book was the subject of a gushing review by Adam Kirsch, book critic for the Jewish webzine Tablet and a stalwart at The New Republic. Every major German news publication has profiled or interviewed Ms. Shalev. In 2011, the popular weekly Stern asked her whether the then-ongoing “social justice” protests portended a “New Israel,” that is, an Israel more to the liking of Stern and Ms. Shalev; the Israeli writer was hopeful. The German interviewer simply took for granted that Stern’s readers would identify with the lefty literati against the Netanyahu government. Shalev writes the sort of introspective fiction that I find less tolerable than gum surgery; the great Israeli novelist in my view was the Nobelist S.Y. Agnon, whose masterwork Only Yesterday is not available in German translation. It is a wrenching, difficult book first published in Hebrew in 1945, and I am not surprised that the German public would avoid it. Today’s Germans have sensibilities hardly distinguishable from those of Adam Kirsch and prefer the Freudian meanderings of Ms. Shalev. (Of course, I’m the wrong person to ask about such things. I don’t like fiction.)
The socialist utopians of the Israeli Left cling to a vision of Israel as a nation-state like any other, liberated from the notion that there is anything special about the Jews. Israel in this view should become a Levantine Belgium or Holland, dissolving into the postmodern cultural muck with its European peers. As Israel becomes more Jewish, and more religious, and its continued success draws an ever-sharper boundary against the failed states that surround it, the utopians go into panic. To salvage their position they propose to ally with the Europeans, the way that Antipater of Idumaea allied with Pompey the Great to establish the Herodian dynasty. For background on Pompey, I recommend Lucan.
Here, for example, is journalist Ben Caspit writing in Al-Monitor:
For 40 years, Israel has entrenched its hold on the West Bank, in a belief that the problem would resolve itself somehow. It hasn’t been resolved. We can’t continue to fool everyone, all of the time. At some point, we will have to make the difficult decision, and undo this Gordian knot, not to be dragged with it into the depths.
It seems that as time passes, our ability to reach this decision is diminishing. As time passes, it turns out that we might need someone, or something, that will force it on us. And so, I don’t think we need to call on the Europeans to boycott us, but if and when they do so, we will be able to understand their position.
Of course (as Caspit observes) Kerry is using the Europeans to threaten Israel with boycotts. Does that mean Kerry is an anti-Semite, a charge that his Jewish brother bitterly disputes? It brings to mind the old Viennese joke: “Anti-Semitism was getting nowhere until the Jews got behind it.” Suffice it to say that the Israeli Left hopes that Kerry and the Europeans will batter Israel into a peace deal. Anti-Semitism is not the issue, unless we want to call the Israeli left anti-Semitic.
Many commentators, most eloquently Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal, draw a parallel between the appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 and the appeasement of Iran at Geneva. There is another, more chilling parallel: Iran’s motive for proposing to annihilate the Jewish State is the same as Hitler’s, and the world’s indifference to the prospect of another Holocaust is no different today than it was in 1938. It is the dead’s envy for the living.
Dying civilizations are the most dangerous, and Iran is dying. Its total fertility rate probably stands at just 1.6 children per female, the same level as Western Europe, a catastrophic decline from 7 children per female in the early 1980s. Iran’s present youth bulge will turn into an elderly dependent problem worse than Europe’s in the next generation and the country will collapse. That is why war is likely, if not entirely inevitable.
Iran’s Elderly Dependent Ratio
|Year||Elderly Dependent Ratio|
Source: UN “Low Variant”
The table above is drawn from United Nations projections. It probably underestimates Iran’s predicament: the UN’s “low variant” puts the country’s total fertility rate at 1.9 children as of 2015, but it already has fallen to just 1.6. This means in simple arithmetic that a generation hence, there will be two elderly dependents for every three workers, compared to 7 elderly dependents for every 93 workers today. That is a death sentence for a poor country, and at this point it is virtually irreversible.
As the United States Institute of Peace wrote in its April 2013 “Iran Primer”:
“Iran’s low fertility rate has produced a rapidly aging population, according to a new U.N. report. The rate has declined from 2.2 births per woman in 2000 to 1.6 in 2012. This has pushed the median age of Iranians to 27.1 years in 2010, up from 20.8 years in 2000. The median age could reach 40 years by 2030, according to the U.N. Population Division. An elderly and dependent population may heavily tax Iran’s public health infrastructure and social security network.”
In 2005 and 2006, I was the first Western analyst to draw strategic conclusions from this trend, the steepest decline in fertility in the history of the world. Iran must break out and establish a Shiite zone of power, or it will break down.
Iran’s theocracy displays the same apocalyptic panic about its demographic future that Hitler expressed about the supposed decline of the so-called Aryan race. Unlike Hitler, whose racial paranoia ran wild, Iran’s presentiment of national death is well founded on the facts. That is not to understate Iran’s paranoia. In 2013 Iran’s vice president alleged that Jews ran the international drug trade. In a June 2013 Facebook post earlier this year Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei wrote, “U.S. President is being elected [sic] only from two parties while Zionist regime is controlling everything from behind the scenes.” That captions a cartoon showing fat men with moneybags for heads under a Star of David. Iranian officials routinely threaten to “annihilate the Zionist regime.”
The London Economist observes Remembrance Day under the headline, “Avoidable brutality,” citing a new book by Margaret MacMillan claiming that the whole horrible mess was the result of blunders. That also is the view of Sir John Keegan, who in his history of the First World War calls it a “tragic and unnecessary conflict.”
That is a contradiction in terms, for “tragic” implies necessity. MacMillan and Keegan, in my view, offer in place of hard analysis a Utopian rescue fantasy. The same Utopian view infects Western policy towards Iran. If only reasonable men could sit down and split the differences, there would be nothing to fight about. I do not believe this is always, or even often, the case. In the case of Iran, the West encounters a dying civilization with a death wish: Iran’s fertility rate has fallen from 7 children per female in 1979 to perhaps 1.7 at the moment, the fastest demographic decline ever recorded, which ensures societal collapse at the horizon of one generation. Iran is like a hostage-taking bank robber with a brain tumor. It has little to lose and can only be dissuaded from building nuclear weapons by force.
The flaws in Europe were fundamental, not arbitrary: Russia as an empire depended on Poland and other industrialized Eastern provinces for its tax base. The pull of the German cultural-economic sphere constantly threatened to dislodge the Eastern part of the Russian Empire from the center, which would have caused its economic collapse. That is why Russia sponsored pan-Slavic movements including the Serbian terrorists who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914. I listed the reasons for war some years ago (in an essay titled “In praise of preemptive war”) as follows:
1. With a stagnant population, France could not hope to win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine it had lost to Germany in 1870 unless it fought soon.
2. Germany could not concentrate its army on a crushing blow against France if it waited for Russia to build out its internal railway network.
3. Austria could not keep its fractious ethnicities within the empire if it did not castigate Serbia.
4. Russia could not maintain control over the industrialized western part of its empire – Poland, the Baltic states and Finland – if Austria humiliated its Serbian ally, and Russia depended on these provinces for the bulk of its tax revenues.
5. England could not maintain the balance of power in Europe if Germany crushed France.
Pop culture critic Terry Teachout has a piece at Commentary magazine on the half-century anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s behind the paywall, so I won’t cite it. Fiddler disgusts me, not because of the cheesy faux-Klezmer score, but because it misrepresents Sholom Aleichem’s character Tevye as a lovable schlemihl, a Stetl variant of Seinfeld or Sergeant Bilko. The original stories have their comic moments, but they are not overall cheerful (one of Tevye’s daughters drowns herself, an incident excised from the Broadway version, for example). But the high point of the Tevye stories occurs when Tevye faces down a mob of Ukrainian pogromists who have come to burn down his house. At risk to his life, and with high nobility, Tevye demands that the mob consider whether there is a God in Heaven who judges us, and asks whether they believe that God would look favorably on their actions. He speaks with eloquence and desperate courage and persuades the mob to disperse.
Tevye may be an ordinary Jew, but he is capable of heroism inspired by deep faith. Sholom Aleichem may not have been a great writer, but this is a great scene. (The movie version has Tevye telling the Czarist official who has delivered the order expelling Jews from the district that he still owns his land for three days, demanding that the official get off it — a cheap shot).
The Harvard Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse has taken Fiddler to task for distorting the humor of the original. There are other things to object to (for example Tevye’s anachronistic tolerance of his daughter’s intermarriage: the dramatic issue in the original is whether Tevye will forgive his daughter after she abandons her Gentile husband). But the recasting of Tevye as a clown is unforgivable.
“Normality is overrated,” I wrote some years ago. “The normal condition of the nations of the world is to vanish beyond memory. If you want to remain an exception, you have to be a hero.” Tevye was a hero. Most American Jews, by contrast, want to be normal. That’s why non-Orthodox American Jews are disappearing.
By Spengler (cross-posted from Asia Times Online)
Since the fall of communism in 1991, Washington consistently underestimated Russia. American policy in consequence has crashed and burned repeatedly: in the Ukraine, where the American-backed “Orange Revolution” of 2004 collapsed in favor of an administration friendly to Moscow; in 2008, when America backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempt to incorporate Russian-majority provinces on Georgia’s borders; and in 2013, when Russia trumped American in the Middle East and took the diplomatic lead in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis.
American diplomats have had their heads handed to them by Moscow yet again. If they are so poor, how come they ain’t dumb? Americans play Monopoly; Russians play chess. Russia has found the fault lines in American policy and compensated for its light footprint with superior leverage. In particular, Russia has exploited the timidity of the last two US administrations towards Iran, presenting itself as the purveyor of a solution to problems it helped to create. In terms of technique, Moscow’s performance is praiseworthy, even if its intent is malicious.
Russia, to be sure, is in crisis. But Russia has been in crisis since Peter the Great built modern Russia with one foot in Siberia and the other in Eastern Europe. It is not a nation-state but an empire, badly constituted from the beginning. Russia always taxed its European provinces to support uneconomic expansion in its Far East, a policy that collapsed between the 1905 war with Japan and the 1914-1918 war with Germany. Russia regained its eastern influence in 1945 and lost it in 1989.
Its population has declined from a peak of 149 million in 1992 to 143 million in 2012 and threatens to decline even faster. Russia’s demographics are weak, although it is worth asking whether they are much weaker than in 1945, after Russia had lost 15% of its total population in war, not to mention a great deal of its productive capacity and infrastructure. That didn’t stop the Soviet Union from building thermonuclear bombs and ICBMs and beating America into space. The Soviet economy suffered from the equivalent of arteriosclerosis, but it nearly won the Cold War. Putin’s economy has suffered a string of self-inflicted failures, but that doesn’t remove Russia from the field.
Russia was down but not altogether out after the Soviet Union broke up, and the self-consoling triumphalism that has characterized American accounts of the country has proven a poor guide to policy-making. Ilan Berman’s new volume – really an essay stretched to book length by long appendices – weighs Russia’s recent return to world power status against a projected long-term disaster which, in my view, will not occur within the policy horizon.
“For the moment, the unraveling of Russia is still far from the minds of most observers,” writes Berman, who works for the American Foreign Policy Council. “In fact, Russia’s future looks comparatively bright. While the decade that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 saw a Russia that was humbled and diminished, over the past dozen years it has roared back onto the international stage under the guidance of its current president, Vladimir Putin.” Berman published before Russia grabbed the initiative in the Middle East with a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, which underscores his point.
Ich kann gar nicht so viel fressen, wie ich kotzen moechte: I can’t eat enough to puke as much as I want to. The words of the great German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann as he watched the Nazis march through the Brandenburg Gate came to mind as I saw Ron Howard’s Showtime documentary about Jay Z’s 2012 “Made in America” festival. We’ve seen this all before: the emotive orator with a twisted face evoking surge of rage from a mass audience that responds with rhythmic arm gestures. I’m late to this discussion, to be sure:
This is the face of American fascism. Compared to the confessed crack dealer and knifer Jay Z, to be sure, Adolf Hitler was a man of high intellect and deep culture. Jay Z, our most successful and wealthiest performing artist, honored White House guest and proprietor of a pop-culture empire, is no Hitler: he lacks the talent to field a political movement, and, fortunately, does not appear to hate Jews. Fascism, though, is not ipso facto directed against Jews. Mussolini began as an anti-clerical socialist with support from a great deal of Italy’s small Jewish community, and did not persecute Jews until Hitler told him to.
Who would have believed that a performing genre (it is a stretch to call it “music”) dominated by convicted and confessed criminals, brutally misogynistic, preaching and practicing violence, would come to dominate American popular culture? Jay Z, who brags of dealing drugs and shooting an older brother in his youth, and pleaded guilty to stabbing a record producer, could “help shape attitudes in a real (sic) positive way,” according to President Obama. Jay Z texts regularly with the president and is a regular White House visitor after opening Obama campaign rallies.
Jay Z’s message to the Philadelphia crowd that Ron Howard filmed last year is the same thing he puts on the airwaves — for example:
We formed a new religion
No sins as long as there’s permission
And deception is the only felony
So never fuck nobody without telling me
Sunglasses and Advil, last night was mad real.
Music, Jay Z told Howard’s cameramen, can unite people in a way that politics and religion cannot. Everyone is a genius, everyone is oppressed. He is the prophet of a new religion: African-American music has gone from Thelonius Monk to felonius priest. Violence is not only a legitimate form of expression: it is the only manly form of expression, as in his rap “D.O.A.”:
This might offend my political connects
My raps don’t have melodies
This should make niggas wan’ go and commit felonies
Get your chain tooken
I may do it myself, I’m so Brooklyn!
I know we facing a recession
But the music y’all making gon’ make it the Great Depression
All y’all lack aggression
Put your skirt back down, grow a set man
Nigga this shit violent
The explicit call to violence (including chain-snatching as a form of political expression) is a playful challenge to his “political connects,” namely the president. One should not conclude from this that Obama favors criminal violence, but rather that the popular response to Jay Z’s evocation of felonious rage is so great that Obama finds it convenient to exploit it. There is nothing at all new in any of this: we heard it before from Nietzsche in his evocation of the “blond beast’s” life-affirming violence, from George Sorel, from Mussolini’s call for “creative violence.”
Apropos of England’s royal baby, a kind word for monarchy is in order. The popular fascination with Britain’s royal family reflects something less shallow than a collective celebrity crush: the longing for something more permanent, more reverential in the character of the state. One of the most penetrating discussions of the issue was penned by the great Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod in the journal First Things in 2010. There is something profoundly inadequate in the mere rough-and-tumble of political interests so beloved of the Hobbesians who dominate what now passes for political philosophy on the secular right wing of American academia.
The moment we place any restriction on popular will (as does the U.S. Constitution), Wyschogrod observed, we impose a higher criterion which must in some way be thought of as theological. That is obvious on a moment’s reflection:
To discuss theological criteria for the constitution of a secular republic runs against the grain of modern political thought, even though constitutional restrictions on popular sovereignty imply reliance on an authority that is greater than human. In a republic the people are sovereign, yet the purpose of a constitution is precisely to restrict the power of any future majority. If popular sovereignty is absolute, what right has a constitution to frustrate a future majority by, for example, imposing some form of supermajority? In the extreme case, suppose a majority of the delegates to a constitutional convention enacts a constitution that forbids any change forever, or requires a 98 percent majority of the future legislature to enact any constitutional change.
This is no different in principle from the two-thirds supermajority that the United States requires for constitutional amendments. The only basis for a polity to accept severe restrictions on popular majority rule is the conviction that the founding constitution derives its power from a higher form of sovereignty than the voters in any given legislative session. Without such a theological foundation, a republic cannot feel bound by the rules laid down by its founders. A purely secular republic would self-destruct because it could not protect its constitution from constant amendment.
That is not the way that classical political rationalism looks at the matter, but Wyschogrod’s logic is sound. Where does that higher authority come from? And how can it be embodied in politics? In America it was embodied in a religious consensus, as de Tocqueville explained so well in his 1836 Democracy in America. In England it is expressed not only by democratic forms, but also by tradition, and embodied by the monarchy, which also is the custodian of the national church. That is a problematic arrangement in many respects, but one that has endured and still has the power to evoke loyalty and love of country.
Since the conversion of the Visigoths in Spain and the foundation of the Merovingian dynasty in France around 700 C.E., though, the notion of monarchy in the West has derived in important ways from the biblical concept of monarchy, centering on the reign of King David — which we now know to be a historical fact, rather than a legend as an earlier generation of skeptical scholars falsely believed. And it is in the State of Israel today that the issue might be brought most clearly into focus, Wyschogrod argued.
Enlightened opinion holds that legalizing drugs (at least some drugs, e.g., marijuana) will reduce the catastrophically high American incarceration rate. As Fareed Zakaria wrote last year in Time magazine:
Over the past four decades, the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs. The results? In 2011 a global commission on drug policy issued a report signed by George Shultz, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan; the archconservative Peruvian writer-politician Mario Vargas Llosa; former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker; and former Presidents of Brazil and Mexico Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo. It begins, “The global war on drugs has failed. … Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.” Its main recommendation is to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”
As Zakaria observed, “The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain–with a rate among the highest–has 153. Even developing countries that are well known for their crime problems have a third of U.S. numbers. Mexico has 208 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, and Brazil has 242.” For African-Americans, the rates are terrifyingly high. In an earlier post I quoted a Pew Institute survey noting that “more African American men aged 20 to 34 without a high school diploma or GED are behind bars (37 percent) than are employed (26 percent).”
Why should decriminalizing drugs, though, reduce crime? Criminals do not get involved with drugs because they like drugs, but because they like crime. They tend to be young, unskilled, and marginalized and unlikely to earn a living in the legal economy, while the illegal economy offers them opportunities — especially for those who hold their lives cheap.
The overall unemployment rate for Americans aged 16 to 19 years has reached levels not seen during the postwar period:
It’s considerably worse for minorities.
Forty-five percent of blacks aged 16-19 presently are unemployed, up from 25%-30% during the two George W. Bush administrations. Enormous numbers of young Latin Americans are unemployed as well; it is estimated that the Mexican drug cartels employ 500,000 of them. Decriminalizing marijuana would give a windfall to cigarette manufacturers, for example, but erase the income available to young, unskilled unemployed Americans. If they can’t make a living selling pot, they will sell whatever drug we continue to criminalize, or engage in some other form of remunerative criminal activity, just like the Mexican cartels, who are as happy to make money through kidnapping (for example) as through drug sales.
My earliest memory is looking up at a circle of black and white faces. I was seated in the living room of the family home in Edison Township, N.J., and the group I saw was the local chapter of the NAACP. My association with the civil rights movement goes back to the age of two. The year would have been 1953 or 1954, and my parents were left-wing activists, among the very few white people involved at the time. Their activism was deep. In 1950, my father drove from New York with a group of Columbia University students to protest the impending execution of Willie McGee, a black man convicted and eventually electrocuted for the alleged rape of a white woman in Mississippi. I followed my parents’ example: in my senior year of high school I organized and led a student civil rights demonstration and marched next to Andrew Young. You can look it up.
I believe in civil rights as much now as I did then. That’s why it’s painful to watch the degeneration of the NAACP with its silly petition to persuade the Justice Department to bring a civil rights case against George Zimmerman. The leaders of what used to be a civil rights movement want to talk about everything but the main problem afflicting black people in the United States. That is the breakdown of the black family.
Just 29% of black women over the age of 15 were married in 2010, according to the Census Bureau’s comprehensive Current Population Survey. That compares to 54% of white women. At all ages, black women were about half as likely to be married as white women. That is an astonishing number.
The percentage of out-of-wedlock births has risen from 18% in 1980 to 40% in 2010. Twenty-nine percent of white births were non-marital, against 73% for black births. That’s nearly three-quarters of all black births.
Young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be in jail than to be employed, reports the Pew Institute:
Collateral Costs details the concentration of incarceration among men, the young, the uneducated and African Americans. One in 87 working-aged white men is in prison or jail compared with 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 12 African American men. Today, more African American men aged 20 to 34 without a high school diploma or GED are behind bars (37 percent) than are employed (26 percent).
The report also shows more than 2.7 million minor children now have a parent behind bars, or 1 in every 28. For African American children the number is 1 in 9, a rate that has more than quadrupled in the past 25 years.
The worst oppressors of young black men are older black men who abandon their children. And the second-worst oppressors of young black men are other young black men – 94% of black murder victims are killed by blacks. The accelerating decline of the black family portends a much worse situation in the future.
Why have civil rights organizations and black clergy wagered their reputations on the Zimmerman case? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the issues that really concern African-Americans simply are too painful to discuss. Five years after the ultimate boost to self-esteem — the election of the first black president — things are getting worse faster. If black leaders — from Barack Obama and Eric Holder on down — can’t talk about the real problems, the prospects for the future are frightening indeed.
image courtesy shutterstock / vasabii
Thirty-six million Chinese kids now study classical piano, not counting string and woodwind players. Chinese parents pay for music lessons not because they expect their offspring to earn a living at the keyboard, but because they believe it will make them smarter at their studies. Are they right? And if so, why?
The intertwined histories of music and mathematics offer a clue. The same faculty of the mind we evoke playfully in music, we put to work analytically in higher mathematics. By higher mathematics, I mean calculus and beyond. Only a tenth of American high school students study calculus, and a considerably smaller fraction really learn the subject. There is quite a difference between learning the rules of Euclidean geometry and the solution of algebraic equations: the notion that the terms of a convergent infinite series sum up to a finite number requires a different kind of thinking than elementary mathematics. The same kind of thinking applies to playing classical music. Don’t look for a mathematical formula to make sense of music: what higher mathematics and classical music have in common is not an algorithm, but a similar demand on the mind. Don’t expect the brain scientists to show just how the neurons flicker any time soon. The best music evokes paradoxes still at the frontiers of mathematics.
In an essay for First Things titled “The Divine Music of Mathematics,” just released from behind the pay wall, I show that the first intimation of higher-order numbers in mathematics in Western thought comes from St. Augustine’s 5th-century treatise on music. Our ability to perceive complex and altered rhythms in poetry and music, the Church father argued, requires “numbers of the intellect” which stand above the ordinary numbers of perception. A red thread connects Augustine’s concept with the discovery of irrational numbers in the 15th century and the invention of calculus in the 17th century. The common thread is the mind’s engagement with the paradox of the infinite. The mathematical issues raised by Augustine and debated through the Renaissance and the 17th-century scientific revolution remain unsolved in some key respects.