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Obama Keeps Us Safe from Muslims and Transsexuals

January 29th, 2015 - 1:50 am

An Internet search of Arabic news sources uncovers no comment in that language about the weirdest utterance ever made by an American president during a major speech, namely Barack Obama’s promise to keep America safe from Muslims and transgenders in last week’s State of the Union address. Obama said that “we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims, the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That’s why we defend free speech and advocate for political prisoners and condemn the persecution of women or religious minorities or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. We do these things not only because they are the right thing to do but because ultimately, they make us safer.”

No doubt Obama meant to say that it is right not to offend transgenders, whose feelings might be hurt, and safer not to offend Muslims, who otherwise might commit acts of terrorism, but what he actually said was that condemning the persecution of transgenders (among other things) makes America safer. Like so much bad writing, it illuminates a deeper truth.

There is a reason why Muslims and transgenders both are sensitive in the extreme. Fragility, thy name is trans-woman.  To be a Muslim or a transgender is to live on the fringe of humiliation. Once the conquerors of the world from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees, Muslims now live poor and fragile lives compared to the prosperous East or West. In their three largest population concentrations, namely India, Indonesia and Pakistan, they are chronically poor and ill-educated. Only in Muslim countries are civilians murdered by the tens of thousand, and only by other Muslims. For the most part their diaspora in the West is impoverished, isolated and resentful. Worst of all, they have few defenses against the leveling force of modernity, which threaten to rip out the roots of a religion with deep roots in tribal society. It is helpful to remember that ancient Israel as it conquered Canaan, and medieval Christianity as it converted and pacified the pagan barbarians, were keen to kill heretics, and no-one more than St. Thomas Aquinas. Islam is all the more fragile today, and views not only heresy but insult as an existential threat.

Many Muslims would rather die than be humiliated. No other group of people in history has produced so many prospective suicides willing to die in order to kill civilians on the other side, and the overwhelming majority of murdered Muslims are murdered by other Muslims. Despite President Obama’s good offices to deny the future to those who defame the prophet of Islam, Americans have low opinion of Muslims. The Zogby poll last year showed that only 27% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Muslims, vs. 35% in 2010. Americans are tolerant folk; what East Asians think is not printable on a family website.

Traditional life in the Muslim world is unraveling; as Muslim women learn to read, they reject traditional family life, marry late or not at all, and have fewer children. Muslim birthrates are falling drastically. Of course Muslims are sensitive: they view criticism, let alone ridicule, as an existential threat that portends the extinction of their community and social death.

Transgenders, until very recently, did their best not to draw attention to themselves. Apart from the extremely small number of children born with ambiguous genitalia, they comprised a very small minority of individuals convinced from early childhood that they were born with the wrong gender. Explain it however you might, these individuals could not be persuaded otherwise, and live the best lives they can under pitiable circumstances.

That was before the Gender Studies departments at elite universities promoted designer sexual identities, and before confused American young people set out to try on these identities as a means of personal exploration. We are in the age of self-invention.  That is “why it’s a big deal that Obama said ‘transgender,’ Time Magazine—the dark heart of the American mainstream—wrote on Jan. 21.

“Many people still mistakenly assume transgender people are only really transgender if their bodies look a certain way,” Time wrote. Nope, you are whatever you think you are! Actress Laverne Cox talked about this issue during an interview with TIME for our cover story on trans issues: “We have to listen to people about who they are and not assume that there’s something wrong with trans people. Because we know who we are. And I think the biggest thing is folks want to believe that there’s something, that genitals and biology are destiny. … When you think about it, it’s kind of ridiculous. People need to be willing to let go of what they think they know about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.”

Reinventing one’s gender is ultimate assertion of the postmodern belief that we can define ourselves to be whatever we want to be (in “South Park,” a plastic surgeon turns Kyle into a tall black basketball player and turns his father into a dolphin, while Mr. Garrison gets a vagina. That was 10 years ago; no way that episode would be filmed today). Ultimately there is an either/or: either you receive tradition, or you can presume to be anything you want. The trouble is that we are not clever enough to reinvent ourselves, to recreate on a whim what Creation (or, if you will, millennia of evolution) and hundreds of generation of human learning have created. In short, when we recreate ourselves, we become a pack of caricatures and clowns. When venerable Mount Holyoke College cancels its annual staging of “The Vagina Monologues,” once the cutting edge of feminist transgression, because it “excludes the experience of transgender women who don’t have a vagina,” we have entered a realm of self-ridicule in which any response beyond a fixed stare and regular respiration constitutes “micro-aggression.”

Social movements of this sort are self-liquidating. Proponents of the various gradations of designer sexuality will die of lockjaw from trying not to offend each other, or they will slaughter each other like Sunnis and Shi’ites. Sex, drugs and rock and roll will do for the Muslims, whose grandchildren will identify with their mustachioed fathers and masked mothers less than we do with cavemen. We gender-normative humans will prevail, if only because we are much more likely to raise children—unless, of course, the transgenders get the bomb. Unless Obama starts to negotiate with them, that’s not likely to happen.

How US policy blunders hurt Israel
By Spengler

Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on the eve of an official visit to Moscow, offered Israel’s good offices as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. RIA Novosti reports:

“Israel’s neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is the most reasonable position but neutrality does not mean inaction,” Lieberman said ahead of a meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. “We have good relations with both countries. Moscow and Kiev trust us.”

“This is a good basis for mediation efforts. We have repeatedly said that we were ready to deploy and these are not only statements,” he added. “It is precisely because we are from these countries that we can understand both parties.”

One has to appreciate Lieberman’s sense of humor, but there is a serious side to this. It has been obvious for a dozen years that Russian policy involves a trade-off between Ukraine and Iran. Russia, that is, would respond to Western efforts to bring Ukraine (and above all Crimea) into any of the Western alliances by subverting American interests elsewhere.

The Russian government stated as much last March 19, as reported by the Associated Press: “Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said, according to the Interfax news agency, that Russia didn’t want to use the Iranian nuclear talks to ‘raise the stakes,’ but may have to do so in response to the actions by the United States and the European Union.”

As I said, it’s obvious. I wrote in Asia Times in 2008:

Russia’s help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the “Orange” revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia’s assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia’s existential requirements in the near abroad.

Anyone who thinks this sounds cynical should spend a week in Kiev. Russia has more to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran than the United States, for an aggressive Muslim state on its borders could ruin its attempt to Russify Central Asia… If Washington chooses to demonize Russia, the likelihood is that Russia will become a spoiler with respect to American strategic interests in general, and use the Iranian problem to twist America’s tail.

Attempting to split Crimea from Russia was one of the stupidest things America has done, as a number of old Reagan Administration Cold Warriors have observed, for example, Norman A Bailey. Henry Kissinger has attempted to explain this to anyone who will listen, He told Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading news site, last November 13:

Crimea is a special case. Ukraine was part of Russia for a long time. You can’t accept the principle that any country can just change the borders and take a province of another country. But if the West is honest with itself, it has to admit that there were mistakes on its side. The annexation of Crimea was not a move toward global conquest. It was not Hitler moving into Czechoslovakia…

Putin spent tens of billions of dollars on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The theme of the Olympics was that Russia is a progressive state tied to the West through its culture and, therefore, it presumably wants to be part of it. So it doesn’t make any sense that a week after the close of the Olympics, Putin would take Crimea and start a war over Ukraine… We have to remember that Russia is an important part of the international system, and therefore useful in solving all sorts of other crises, for example in the agreement on nuclear proliferation with Iran or over Syria. This has to have preference over a tactical escalation in a specific case.

The problem is that the people willing to listen are German and British media; the former Secretary of State’s views have been shut out of American media. That is not surprising, for a broad bipartisan consensus wants to demonize Russia. As a matter of record, on every recent occasion in which a broad foreign policy consensus has formed, America has done something abominably stupid. In 2013, I wrote over at Tablet Magazine: “Errors by the party in power can get America into trouble; real catastrophes require consensus.” My title then was “Dumb and Dumber”, and the subject was the late and unlamented Arab Spring:

Rarely have both parties been as unanimous about a development overseas as they have in their shared enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring during the first months of 2011. Republicans vied with the Obama Administration in their zeal for the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak and in championing the subsequent NATO intervention against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Both parties saw themselves as having been vindicated by events. The Obama Administration saw its actions as proof that soft power in pursuit of humanitarian goals offered a new paradigm for foreign-policy success. And the Republican establishment saw a vindication of the Bush freedom agenda.

If possible, the Ukraine affair is dumberer. Why is it that every time we Americans reach a national foreign policy consensus, we do the stupidest possible thing?

The answer, of course, lies in our own narcissism. We think it’s inevitable that everyone will act the way we do, and that some Hegelian Zeitgeist will unfold the Manifest Destiny of democracy throughout the rest of the world. In the Middle East, that got us a Sunni-Shi’a version of the Thirty Years War and an increasing count of failed states harboring dangerous terrorists. In Ukraine it got us a bloody nose, and a huge rise in Vladimir Putin’s popularity at home – even after the collapse of oil prices and ensuing shock to the Russian economy.

Putin has played his side of the chessboard with skill, keeping Ukraine in chaos and on the verge of bankruptcy. Putin doesn’t want to conquer Ukraine: he wants to create a running sore of permanent instability on the West’s eastern flank. That is precisely what I would do in his position, and what I predictedwould happen in February 2014: “[The] West [has] a limited number of choices. The first is to do nothing and watch the country spiral into chaos, with Russia as the eventual beneficiary. The second is to dig deep into its pockets and find US$20 billion or more to buy near-term popularity for a pro-Western government – an unlikely outcome. The third, and the most realistic, is to steer Ukraine towards a constitutional referendum including the option of partition.”

A year later, Ukraine is in economic freefall, its debt trading at 50 cents on the dollar, just a tad better than Venezuela’s. Germany is politely asking the Ukrainian government to start negotiations with creditors, which it has not done because it still has no economic program. Russia, in short, has done precisely what it set out to do.

Russia, meanwhile, has also made good on its threat to make life miserable for the United States in Iran. Putin must be frustrated to encounter an American administration so eager to reach an accommodation with Iran that it doesn’t appear to notice when its interests have been impaired. The Israelis notice, however.

Russia’s indication on January 20 that it might – after years of delay – sell its sophisticated S300 air defense system to Iran surely has Jerusalem’s undivided attention. That would be a serious setback to Israeli interests.

American commentators flip between consigning Russia to the dustbin of history and panicking over Russia’s prospective prowess in high-tech military gear. The truth is somewhere in between: Russia’s air defense systems are excellent. There are many versions of the S300, including antiquated versions a generation old, and then there is the new S400 (already promised to China) and the S500 (scheduled for delivery in 2017), capable of engaging multiple missile or aircraft targets at long ranges.

Israel has to maneuver with Russia because Washington – including many of Israel’s best friends and supporters – has done more to harm Israeli interests through sheer stupidity than its enemies have done through malice.

The bipartisan consensus to overthrow Hosni Mubarak and nurture a Muslim Brotherhood regime (backed by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham among other prominent Republicans) was an enormous strategic setback for Israel. Mubarak’s overthrow by the moderate Muslim (yes, there is such a thing ) General Fatah al-Sisi – with backing from the Saudis but not Washington – secured Israel’s southern flank.

Security cooperation between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is well in place – again, no thanks to either side of the aisle in Washington. Both the Bush “Freedom Agenda” as well as Obama’s efforts to run his administration as if it were an NGO have declining relevance, and regional powers will manage as best they can.

Election Envy: The Europeans and the Jews

January 21st, 2015 - 7:07 pm

Why do Europeans feel such revulsion toward Jews? At a certain level, to be sure, European leaders deeply regret the new persecution of Europe’s Jews. Many share the sentiment of European Commission Vice-Chairman Frans Timmermans, who warned yesterday that an exodus of Europe’s Jews would call into question the premises of European society. Last September, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel told a rally in Berlin that it was the duty of every German to fight anti-Semitism. Nonetheless even the best-intentioned Europeans feel their skin crawl in the presence of the sort of Jews who represent the future of the Jewish people: those who follow Jewish tradition, raise Jewish families, and embrace the cause of Zionism. Europeans adore secular Israelis who wallow in existential doubts, for example, the novelist Zeruya Shalev, a bestseller in Germany and the winner of any number of European literary awards. I’ve never read Shalev, but then again, I don’t like fiction. Jews like Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister and leader of the Jewish Home party, give them the creeps.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter much whether the assimilated, secularized Jews of Europe stay or leave, for most of their children and very few of their grandchildren will be Jewish. Among non-Orthodox French and British Jews, intermarriage rates are around 45%, not as alarming as the 71% among non-Orthodox U.S. Jews and 80% among Russian and Ukrainian Jews, but high enough to sharply reduce Jewish numbers over a generation or two. Except for a minority of non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews, the impassioned and engaged Jews whose children and grandchildren will be Jewish identify strongly with the state of Israel. The infertile and feckless Europeans don’t have much of a future, either; at present fertility rates, the German and Italian languages will disappear altogether in two hundred years. It is easy for them to swap existential spit with denatured secular Jews who don’t have a future, either. Religious Jews are most likely to leave, for they depend on communal institutions — synagogues, schools, kosher food providers, and so forth — that offer easily identifiable targets for terrorists.

It’s been so long since Europeans took their own national identity seriously that it’s hard for them to remember why it is that they can’t stand the sort of Jew who represents the Jewish future. One has to put them on the proverbial couch and coax it out of them: Europeans hate Jews because European national identity from the outset was a dreadful parody of Jewish identity. One learns this most clearly from the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, who argued the secret of European identity was the desire of every nation to be chosen in the flesh. As I wrote in this space on the anniversary of the First World War, “The unquiet urge of each nation to be chosen in its own skin began with the first conversion of Europe’s pagans; it was embedded in European Christendom at its founding. Christian chroniclers cast the newly-baptized European monarchs in the role of biblical kings, and their nations in the role of the biblical Israel. The first claims to national election came at the crest of the early Dark Ages, from the sixth-century chronicler St Gregory of Tours (538-594), and the seventh-century Iberian churchman St Isidore of Seville….Saints Isidore of Seville and Gregory of Tours were in a sense the Bialystock and Bloom of the Dark Ages, the Producers of the European founding: they sold each petty monarch 100% of the show. One hardly can fault them. Transmuting the barbarian invaders who infested the ruined empire of the Romans into Christians was perhaps the most remarkable political accomplishment in world history, but it required a bit of flimflam that had ghastly consequences over the long term. The filth of the old European paganism accumulated in the tangled bowels of Europe until the terrible events of 1914-1945 released it.”

When real Americans — the kind of Americans who identify with the American Founding — meet real Jews — the kind of Jews who embrace Israel’s past and future — there is an instant sympathy, for Jews remind Americans of what is best in their character: the new mission in the Wilderness, the vision of a new City on a hill. New England was settled in response to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, and as many German Protestants — the losers in that war — came to America as Englishmen. When Europeans meet Jews, we remind them of what was worst in their character: the lampoon of Jewish identity that infected European nationalism. The Nazi delusion of a “Master Race, ” after all, was a satanic parody of the Election of Israel. In the past, each European nation that fancied itself God’s instrument on earth set out to humiliate, expel, or even exterminate the Jews, for how could France or Spain or Russia or Germany be the Chosen Nation when the Jews claimed that status? Old Europe hated the Jews because it envied election; New Europe hates the Jews because it eschews election altogether. The old hatred suppurates and boils under the ectoderm of the new hatred.

There is a lot more to it, to be sure: the old Kantian illusion of perpetual peace, what Germans call the “Multi-Kulti” belief that all cultures must have equal outcomes as well as equal opportunities, the whole ideological apparatus of social engineering — these all influence European thinking. But what rattles around in the European cerebrum is less important than what ferments in Europe’s viscera.

After three devastating wars lasting two generations each — the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, the Napoleonic Wars of 1799-1815, and the two World Wars of the 20th century — the Europeans grew weary of their contentious national identities. They agreed to become nothing in particular. Patriotism is an obscenity in Germany, a joke in Italy, a curse in Spain, a relic in England, and a faux pas in France. To declare one’s self a Jewish patriot, a Zionist, transgresses the boundary of civilized discourse in today’s Europe. Personally, I find this disappointing; I speak three European languages apart from English and have nothing to say to anybody in any of them.

So when we hear expressions of sympathy from European leaders who treasure their Jewish communities, but tell Israel not to defend itself against rocket attacks from Gaza, and propose to concoct a Palestinian State without an end-of-hostilities agreement from the Arab side, our instinctive and correct response is to send them to hell. We well know wes Geistes Kind es sei.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)

One Cheer for Gen. Petraeus

January 12th, 2015 - 2:34 pm

The Obama administration is still deciding whether to bring felony charges against former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus, according to Attorney General Eric Holder. As a senior DOJ official in the Clinton administration, Holder arranged a presidential pardon for fugitive tax cheat Marc Rich. As attorney general, he ignored the unconscionable use of the IRS against conservative-leaning organizations seeking tax-exempt status.

This is a political prosecution. Petraeus’ supposed crime, leaking classified information to a girlfriend, is the sort of victimless infraction that never has been brought to the point of criminal prosecution at any time in the past. Petraeus’ offense, rather, is political: He is credited with the 2006-2007 surge that in Republican mythology won the Iraq War before President Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. One risks being run out of the Republican Party on a rail for questioning this mythology, but someone has to say that the emperor has no clothes.

Petraeus improved the optics of the Iraq mess at the end of the second Bush administration, to be sure, but he also helped set in motion the catastrophe that has now engulfed the Levant.

The story already has been told in depth by Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Daniel Bolger, whose memoir Why We Lost appeared last year. I reviewed it in Asia Times Online after observing that not one of the mainstream media reviews mentioned the most important assertions in Gen. Bolger’s excellent book: First, that American success in imposing majority rule on Iraq in 2006 set in motion the Sunni insurgency, and second, that America’s sponsorship of the Sunnis in 2007-2008 (the “Sunni Awakening” built with American funds as part of the “surge”) made the insurgency intractable.

Below is an extract from my Nov. 21, 2014 review:

Proof that America has set out to destabilize the Persian Gulf region, a well-regarded Chinese specialist argued recently before a Beijing foreign-policy seminar, is that the Islamic State is led by Sunni officers armed and funded by General David Petraeus, the US commander during the 2007-2008 “surge”. The observation is correct, to be sure: ISIS shows impressive leadership capacity and mastery of large-unit tactics involving sophisticated equipment, and it learned much of this from the Americans. But the Americans acted out of short-term political expediency rather than medium-term malevolence.

America did not have to choose the wrong mission, Bolger argues:

Bush’s war began narrowly, knocking out al-Qaeda and its Taliban backers in Afghanistan. Within weeks of 9/11, the basic goals were fulfilled, not perfectly, not completely, but probably close enough. Had we stopped there and reverted to the long, slow Clinton-era squeeze of terror cells and Islamist supporters , it might have done the job. … Again, as after the fall of Kabul, the swift seizure of Baghdad offered another opportunity to close out the conventional military phase and go back to the slow, steady, daily pressures of global containment of Islamist threats. That moment passed. Instead … with minimal domestic debate – and, notably, no known military objection – the administration backed into two lengthy, indecisive counterinsurgency campaigns.Careful what you wish for: by 2006, the US had sponsored national elections in Iraq and brought to power the Shi’ite leader Nouri al-Maliki, who promptly purged Iraqi’s security forces of Sunnis. Fearful of Shi’ite vengeance, Iraq’s Sunnis revolted and Iraq dissolved into violence. In response, junior officers operating in Sunni-dominated Anbar province devised the stratagem that lay at the heart of the “surge”. The commitment of 20,000 additional combat troops helped suppress the Sunni insurgency, but paying the Sunnis not to fight for the time being was more effective. As Bolger reports,

The Anbar tribes had always helped AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq]. … When individual tribal sheikhs objected, the elders lost their heads. Families were attacked. Houses were demolished and cars burned. The AQI men began to impose Wahhabi discipline – no gambling on horses, no drinking alcohol, and no smoking. The AQI leaders had crossed the line at last. The Persian-influenced sheruggis in Baghdad were far away from Anbar Province. The Americans were right there, and they had little interest in what sheikhs did with their tribes. Forced to choose between the AQI boot on their necks and the US military, [tribal leaders] decided to try the Americans.That did the trick. Petraeus, lobbying for the Iraq command from his post at the staff college in Leavenworth, Kansas, took careful note of the junior officers’ proposals. Bolger has no patience for Petraeus’ politicking. “Junior soldiers wondered about his real motivations. Service or self? With Petraeus, you never knew for sure, but you often suspected the latter, and it meant trouble.”

With the whole of the senior Army staff opposing the surge, president Bush looked for an officer who would improve the optics in Iraq, and Petraeus was his man. Bolger adds:

“Combined with the troop surge in Baghdad, the Sunni Awakening effectively ended the sectarian bloodshed by the summer of 2007. It split the Sunni resistance, and they stayed fragmented during the remainder of the U.S. campaign. It was not a victory, not by any of the criteria the optimistic Americans set for themselves back in 2003, seemingly in another lifetime. But it was something like progress.

“… The Sunni Awakening expanded rapidly … Ever conscious of marketing, [Iraq commander Gen David] Petraeus and his inner circle settled on a more inspirational name. With the approval of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunni became the Sons of Iraq.

“Although the troop surge made the news in America, in country, the Sunni Awakening delivered the real and lasting difference in the rate of attrition. … The Sons of Iraq proved overwhelmingly loyal. Nearly a hundred thousand strong, half of that number in and near Baghdad, the Sahwa movement allowed the Sunni to carry weapons lawfully and get paid, effectively removing much of the incentive for the “honorable resistance.” It was by far the most successful and widespread jobs program in Iraq … The Sahwa, however, paid tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs to kill each other, not Americans. Cynical it might seem, but you couldn’t argue with the results. The Sons of Iraq fielded some six times as many Sunni with firearms as the highest estimate of enemy strength. It showed the potential depth and resiliency of the Sunni insurgency.”One might put the matter even more forcefully: by funding and training the “Sons of Iraq”, Petraeus and his team assembled the elements of the new Sunni insurgency now using the name of Islamic State (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Andrew McGully’s 2007 report in Agence France-Pressedescribes the first meeting of Sunni tribes near Baghdad with Petraeus and his team.

“Tell me how I can help you,” asks Major-General Rick Lynch, commander of US-led forces in central Iraq … One [tribal leader] mentions weapons, but the general insists: “I can give you money to work in terms of improving the area. What I cannot do – this is very important – is give you weapons.”

The gravity of the war council in a tent at the US forward operating base at Camp Assassin is suspended for a few moments as one of the local Iraqi leaders says jokingly but knowingly: “Don’t worry! Weapons are cheap in Iraq.”

“That’s right, that’s exactly right,” laughs Lynch in reply.”Having armed all sides of the conflict and kept them apart by the threat of arms,” I wrote in a 2010 essay on Asia Times Online, titled “Gen Petraeus’ Thirty Years’ War”, “the United States now expects to depart leaving in place governments of national reconciliation that will persuade well-armed and well-organized militias to play by the rules. It is perhaps the silliest thing an imperial power ever has done. The British played at divide and conquer, whereas the Americans propose to divide and disappear. At some point the whole sorry structure will collapse, and no-one knows it better than Petraeus.”

Petraeus doesn’t deserve criminal charges. But he shouldn’t occupy a pedestal in the Republican pantheon, either.

Anti-Semitism in Wagner’s Music Explained

January 12th, 2015 - 5:27 am
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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.

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What Can France Do Now?

January 8th, 2015 - 9:55 am

Along with journalists and writers everywhere, I mourn our murdered colleagues at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly that had the courage to poke fun at Islam, and paid a horrendous price. This is a new and terrible step on the part of the terrorists: they have threatened individual journalists for years and forced a few into hiding or witness protection. But the assault on the premises of a news organization and the massacre of its staff is an entirely new thing. We have never seen anything like this before in the sorry history of terrorism.

How will France respond?

France now faces an existential dilemma. By most independent estimates France now has a Muslim population of 6 million, or almost 10% of its 65 million people. If we assume that just 1% of this population are radicalized to the point of engaging in or providing support for terrorist activities, that is a pool of 60,000 individuals. We are not speaking of 60,000 potential bombers or shooters, but a support network that will allow a much smaller number of terrorists to blend into the broader population. In the “no-go” zones of France now effectively ruled by Muslim gangs, moreover, the terrorists can intimidate the Muslim population. France already has lost the capacity to police part of its territory, which means that it cannot conduct effective counter-terror operations.

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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.

image via

Tantrums about China

January 6th, 2015 - 7:59 am

Over at Commentary, Jonathan Tobin rants about China’s supposed Maoist Counter-Revolution. This in my view is an hallucination: Tobin has been reading the New York Times and believes what he reads, which is a dangerous thing to do. Nonetheless China should concern us.  China is now (or soon will be) the world’s largest economy. At “only” 7% growth it will double every 10 years. China is close to challenging America’s conventional military advantage in the Pacific, as the perspicacious Elbridge Colby observes over at National Interest.

What can we do about China now? “Nothing,” sighs Mr. Tobin. “We lost all our economic leverage over the regime when Congress bowed to a business community that loves commerce more than it loathes Communism and stopped the practice of voting China Most Favored Nation trading status a long time ago.”

The idea that the Congress won or lost anything of value is whimsical, to put it charitably.  China is succeeding despite many problems (including authoritarian administration) because the Chinese are working very hard. The most important New York Times dispatch about China was the magazine item last week that reported on the cram schools that offer rural students a shot at admission to top universities. China now produces as many PhDs as the U.S., and twice as many STEM PhDs. Western commentators tend to dismiss Chinese as uncreative imitators, and there is some truth to the charge. China’s merciless meritocracy makes university admission entirely dependent on examination scores. It is a transparent, rules-based system that cannot be gamed. One can bribe a public official in China by covertly paying the college tuition for a child at an overseas university, but not at a university in China itself. Any transparent, rules-based system requires inflexible rules; inevitably, a great deal of effort is devoted to memorization. That is the secret of China’s social cohesion: not only have living standards soared, but even the rural kids portrayed in the Times cram school story have a chance to grab the brass ring. You can’t fund a new building at Peking University and get your kid accepted: it’s the raw exam score, and nothing else.

No matter: memorization also requires work. An economy doesn’t need a lot of creative people. It needs a few creative people and a great many people who are simply competent.

There are plenty of creative people in China, as it happens, for example Alibaba’s Jack Ma, the country’s wealthiest man, who has done more to transform commerce through the Web than anyone else in the world. And there are dozens of high-tech companies that are first in their league on a global basis. And they have an army of millions of highly competent people coming into the labor market. That’s what we should worry about.

I believe that China is a competitor, but not necessarily (and hopefully not) an enemy. If we want to compete more effectively against China, we should look toward our capacity to innovate. But we aren’t innovating. Half the CapEx among tech companies in the S&P 500 is conducted by just five firms (Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Micron, HP). Take out the monopolies and the cupboard looks pretty bare. The rest of the tech world is investing less (in current dollars) than in 1999. We no longer have a tech sector: we have consumer electronics monopolies run by patent trolls whose job is to crush innovation. I am tired of hearing about the wonders of American innovation as manifest in hydraulic fracking. Yes, that is a good technology, but it has been crushed commercially by the world’s least modern government, namely Saudi Arabia. Here’s a factoid: two-fifths of all U.S. corporate capital expenditure went to the energy sector in 2014. The collapse in oil prices could cut that in half, and reduce overall CapEx by 20% year-on-year. That’s a recession.

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The Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg, the founding troupe of modern ballet, was in residence this week at Baden-Baden’s Festival Hall. They are glorious. I am not an aficionado, much less a connoiseur, of dance, but I have no qualms asserting that the Mariinsky “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker” outshine anything to be seen west of the Memel. Not just the stars but the secondary principals are spectacular, and the corps de ballet evokes swans or snowflakes with preternatural facility. Russia has its problems but it surely good for some things, and its edge in this art form, at least, is undiminished.

The Mariinsky dancers faced an audience mainly composed of local burghers; one heard a bit of French (Baden-Baden is half an hour from Strasbourg) and even a bit of Japanese, but the provincial audience in Germany still is big enough to fill an enormous hall. I met some of the locals at the gala Christmas dinner at the Badischer Hof, which I attended because it was the only place to get dinner on Christmas Eve in an otherwise shuttered small German city, and because the staff was kind enough to improvise a vegetarian meal — not perfectly kosher, but acceptable.

I was seated at a table of elderly ladies and their middle-aged daughters. One enquired politely why I ate vegetables instead of the Beef Wellington, and I explained that it had to do with Jewish dietary laws. There followed the obligatory outpouring of regrets for the terrible things that Germany did between 1933 and 1945–I do not mean to deprecate such expressions, well-intended as they were. I listened and drank the excellent local wine. And drank some more.

“Tragisch. Hitler haette den Krieg nie verloren koennen, wenn er nur die Juden auf seiner Seite gehabt haette,” I offered in response. (Tragic: there’s no way Hitler could have lost the war if only he had had the Jews on his side). This led to some moments of silent confusion.

One of the elderly woman broke the silence, turning to her daughter, exclaiming, “Siehst Du? Das ist ein juedischer Witz. So machten einst die Juden Witzen in Deutschland, mit genau dieser Art von Ironie!” (You see? That is a Jewish joke! That’s the kind of joke Jews used to make in Germany, with just this sort of irony”). The other ladies at the table were relieved to hear that it was indeed a joke, and nodded attentively as the elderly woman explained to them the character of Jewish jokes. I drank some more wine.

“So eine Zeit kommt nie wieder,” the old woman sighed — a time like that never will come again.

“So ist jede schoene Gabe/Fluechtig wie des Blitzes Schein/Schnell in ihrem duestern Grabe/Schliesst die Nacht sie wieder ein” (For the Beautiful must vanish/Like the fleeting spark of light/That the stormy vapors banish/To the darkling grave of night”), I quoted in reply.

The old woman’s face lit up. “Remind me of the poet.”

“Schiller,” I said. From “The Favor of the Moment.” I bid my table-companions a Merry Christmas and left.

Christian and Jewish Angels

December 24th, 2014 - 3:32 am

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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 homiletic 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 Chofetz 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.

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