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.
Egypt’s pound has fallen by 40% since last December, from 6 to the dollar to 8.25 to the dollar on the black market. The prices of basic food items like beans and milk have risen by more than that, pricing all forms of protein out of the range of the half of Egyptians who live on less than $2 a day. And the worst is yet to come: according to the U.S. embassy, the Muslim Brotherhood government has vastly inflated its estimates of this year’s wheat harvest in order to keep export orders down — because it doesn’t have the money to pay for them. Egypt reportedly got $5 billion in emergency loans from Libya and Qatar (although it is not clear how much of that can be spent), but that barely covers the government’s arrears to oil companies operating in the country. I published an update on Egypt’s economic free fall in Asia Times Online this morning.
Mohammed Morsi’s Islamist government is living hand to mouth, stiffing suppliers and exporters, and cadging emergency loans, but it hasn’t ordered a shipload of oil or wheat since January. When things get this bad, everyone who can get dollars out will. The ship is sinking, and the cry is, “Women and children last!”
Here’s an example.
Just after I filed the story, Al Ahram reported that the country’s cotton exports had dropped 40.6% between September-November of 2012 and the same period of 2011 (hat tip: Daniel Pipes). According to the Egyptian daily, the drop is due to much larger domestic purchases of cotton by local textile companies:
Egyptian textile companies bought 415.8 thousand metric quintals of the local cotton in the period September-November 2012, a whopping increase of 326 percent compared with the corresponding quarter a year before.
That makes no sense, because Egyptian textile exports also fell by a big margin.
All who love the Free World heard with sadness today’s news of the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, whose physical infirmity caused him to step down from the chair of St. Peter. As the shepherd of the founding institution of the West, Benedict personally embodied its best traditions. He is one of the last men living to have assimilated the fullness of European culture, a member of the “heroic generation” of Catholic theologians that included Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
We will remember many acts of intellectual courage from this pope. One in particular comes to mind today, namely his speech at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006. In the face of great controversy, Benedict cited the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologue: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” And he added:
The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God,” he says, “is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” . . .The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. . . . The editor [of the Greek text from which Benedict is quoting], Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.
Benedict’s commitment to theological truth as he understood it at the expense of political correctness is unique among today’s religious leaders.
Jewish communities in particular have reason for sadness at Benedict’s abdication. He is a true friend of the Jewish people. As Israeli journalist Assaf Sagiv wrote in the Autumn 2009 issue of the quarterly journal Azure on the occasion of the pope’s May 2009 visit to Israel:
Benedict XVI—the former Joseph Ratzinger—is actually one of the best friends the Jewish people has ever had in Vatican City. On the eve of the pope’s visit, Aviad Kleinberg, a scholar of Christian history and a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, attempted to remind his readers of this. Ratzinger, he explained, “was the confidant of Pope John Paul II, and his immense theological authority was a critical aspect of the previous pope’s moves…. John Paul and Ratzinger buried once and for all not only the accusation of the Jews’ murdering the messiah, but the entire theological theory that the Christians replaced the Jews and are now the Chosen People and that the New Testament annuls the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still valid, declared the two, and the Jewish people is still God’s chosen and beloved people.”
I wrote at the time on the website of the religious magazine First Things where I was then an editor:
Benedict’s unprecedented efforts to draw near to Judaism as a religion were summarized by the Bonn University theologian Karl-Heinz Menke, who argues that His Holiness is the first pope since St. Peter to read the whole of the Gospels as a Jewish work. From a theological standpoint, the Jewish people have had no better friend in the Vatican since the founding of Christianity.
Peter Jackson’s first of three “Hobbit” films took a thrashing from the critics, who disliked the effect produced by the new 48-frames-per-second projection system. This makes everything a bit too clear, a bit too smooth, such that sets and costumes seemed artificial to some. It is off-putting at first. Halfway through the film, though, I suddenly thought, “This is the way I saw the world when I was a child!” There are many wonderful things about Jackson’s film, of which the choice of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins stands at the top of my list; unlike the listless Elijah Wood, a boy playing the role of the middle-aged Frodo in the “Rings” trilogy, Freeman is a grown-up. He is a master of English understatement but also an actor of great range, and he carries the film brilliantly. As in the “Rings” trilogy, the sets and settings are marvelous. Especially gratifying was the inclusion of many of Tolkien’s poems with affecting settings by Howard Shore.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s enduring popularity is cause for hope in popular culture. He did not write fantasy so much as roman à clef about the past and future of the West. His Hobbits are the English standing against totalitarian aggression — the two towers of Berlin and Moscow — with decency and courage. “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. In the midst of today’s Great Extinction of cultures, and at the onset of civilizational war, Tolkien evokes an uncanny resonance among today’s readers,” I wrote when the first of the Rings films appeared. I am no maven where Christian literature is concerned, but Tolkien’s theological depth impressed me:
Tolkien is a writer of greater theological depth than his Oxford colleague C S Lewis, in my judgment. Lewis is a felicitous writer and a diligent apologist, but mere allegory along the lines of the Narnia series can do no more than restate Christian doctrine; it cannot really expand our experience of it. Tolkien takes us to the dark frontier of a world that is not yet Christian, and therefore is tragic, but has the capacity to become Christian. It is the world of the Dark Ages, in which barbarians first encounter the light. It is not fantasy, but rather a distillation of the spiritual history of the West. Whereas C S Lewis tries to make us comfortable in what we already believe by dressing up the story as a children’s masquerade, Tolkien makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Our people, our culture, our language, our toehold upon this shifting and uncertain Earth are no more secure than those of a thousand extinct tribes of the Dark Ages; and a greater hope than that of the work of our hands and the hone of our swords must avail us.
Is it illegal to be a Catholic in the United States? That’s kind of a grey area, after Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services Department issued an Aug. 1 order requiring all employers offering medical insurance to cover “reproductive services,” including contraception as well as abortion drugs (hat tip: www.politicaloutcast.com). Under the “required health plan coverage guidelines,” HHS lists:
All Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity.
That includes abortion-inducing drugs. If you manage a Catholic institution, you either violate your most basic religious principles or fail to comply. The correct answer, evidently, is that you can be a Catholic at home with closed shutters, but you can’t have Catholic institutions.
It’s still legal to be a Jew in the United States, but not in some parts of Europe. After a June 26 ruling by a Cologne court defining infant circumcision as “inflicting grievous bodily harm,” you can go to jail (at least in theory) for performing Jewish ritual circumcision. Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other political leaders have promised to find a legislative way around the court and uphold religious freedom for Jews and Muslims, policies against circumcisions are proliferating. Two Swiss hospitals have stopped circumcisions (although they continue to offer euthanasia). One Austrian province banned circumcision before the Justice Ministry intervened. Now Norway’s ombudsman for children’s rights demands that circumcision be replaced with a “symbolic ritual.”
While a ban on kosher slaughter was narrowly averted in the Netherlands, European rabbis warn that a new wave of attacks on this basic Jewish practice is in the offing. Jews who stand by while America’s largest religious community, the Catholic Church, is persecuted should remember that we’re next. The Catholic Church is the only European institution that has consistently defended Jewish religious freedom in Europe. It would be hypocritical as well as self-damaging if we Jews failed to do everything in our power to support Catholics against this new persecution.
The “meaning of life” business is booming despite the recession. After eviscerating Jim Holt’s new meaning-of-life tome in an Asia Times Online review, I felt sufficiently saturated with antibodies to watch Terrence Malick’s Oscar-nominated existential epic Tree of Life on pay-per-view. Giggles overcame me after about half an hour.
As G.K. Chesterton said (actually, he didn’t quite, but should have), if you stop believing in God, you’ll believe in anything. For all their self-righteous scientism, atheists turn into the soupiest spiritualists when it comes to problems like birth and death. Malick’s silly flick wants to project the problems of a 1950s Texas family onto a cosmological backdrop, with images of the birth of the universe, or whatever. It so pretentiously idiotic that I wrote off the $4.99 I had paid to Time Warner Cable in short order.
Woody Allen had it down pat in Antz. An ant on a couch tells an ant psychiatrist, “I feel so insignificant!,” to which the ant psychiatrist replies, “That’s a breakthrough. You are insignificant.” I’m not out to proselytize, but the choice is digital: either the Maker of Heaven loves you, which makes you significant, or the idea of a Creator God is as of the same ilk as Richard Dawkins’s Flying Spaghetti Monster, in which case you are insignificant. In the latter case, get over it.