Why Greeks Hate Jews, or: Talmud and Tragedy

July 19th, 2015 - 4:32 am



From Asia Times.

The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith polled 10,000 Greeks this June, and was shocked to learn that Greeks hate Jews. Greece, wrote Alana Goodman in the Washington Free Beacon,

…surpasses Iran and trails just slightly behind Turkey in the percentage of its residents who hold anti-Semitic views. In total, 67 percent of Greek respondents agreed with the majority of a list of anti-Semitic statements included in the survey. Other European countries, particularly France and Germany, have experienced a decrease in overall anti-Semitic attitudes in the wake of recent attacks on Jews. According to the ADL poll, 90 percent of Greeks agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much power in the business world” and 85 percent agreed “Jews have too much power in international finance markets.” In addition, 70 percent said that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust” and 51 percent said “Jews don’t care about what happens to anyone but their own kind.”

Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad, said the Greeks of antiquity. Whom YHWH wishes to destroy, he first makes an anti-Semite. Greeks are among the world’s cleverest peoples—their diaspora overflows with accomplishment in every field of intellectual endeavor—and it is disconcerting to hear them expectorate the sort of vulgar prejudice that one might expect from a semi-literate Anatolian peasant. Then again, the Germans of 1933 were the world’s most cultured nation. Endemic Jew-hated in Greece reminds us that ignorance is an implausible explanation for anti-Semitism.

Consider two countries nestled into the same corner of the Eastern Mediterranean, both of ancient provenance and of roughly equal size. At its height around 565 C.E., the Greek branch of the Roman Empire had a population of perhaps 26 million, against a world population of 1 to 1.5 million Jews. Today there are more Israelis aged 15 to 24 than Greeks—about 1.2 million vs. 1.1 million—and at current fertility rates, there will be 1.8 million young Israelis by 2050 and just half as many young Greeks. Israel is a military and economic superpower while Greece has become a byword for state failure. How could the Greeks not hate us?

There is also some tragic history between Jews and Greeks. Only a century ago a fifth of the Anatolian population was Christian. About 1.5 million Armenians were murdered in the genocide of 1915-1923, and 1.5 million Greeks were expelled from Turkish territory in 1923 after the Greek-Turkish War that followed World War I. The Turks massacred several hundred thousand. Right-wing Greek blogs (for example here) make the paranoid claim that the “Anatolian disaster” was the work of Zionists in cahoots with the future Turkish president Kamel Ataturk, whom Greek (as well as Muslim) conspiracy theorists claim was a secret Jew.

More poignant, perhaps, is guilt over Greek complicity in the deportation of 47,000 Jews from the northern Greek city of Salonika in 1943. Modern Greece spins a narrative of national resistance to the Nazis, but Greek police put the Salonika Jews on trains to Auschwitz and the locals helped themselves to Jewish property. If the Germans won’t forgive the Jews for Auschwitz, the Greeks won’t forgive the Jews for Salonika.

Envy at Jewish success, though, is scum floating atop a deeper source of rancor. The Greeks hate the Jews for the same reason they hated Socrates, only more so.  Life is an acquired taste.  Those who have not acquired it seek “life-affirming” illusions that distract their bearers from their underlying revulsion from life, of which the archetype is the cult of the eternally-beautiful Olympians. Socrates told the classical Greeks in so many words that their Olympians are figments of their imagination, and they made him drink hemlock. As it happened, he caught the Athenians at a moment of emotional fragility, right after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War with the loss of a quarter of the city’s population. This was Socrates the ironist, in Kierkegaard’s account, who ridiculed at Athens’ civic ailments but offers no cure, Socrates the destroyer of tragedy in Friedrich Nietzsche’s report—precisely this Socrates who was put to death by popular vote of the whole citizenry of Athens.

Nietzsche famously paired Apollonian beauty with Dionysian despair in The Birth of Tragedy. Forty years after first reading Nietzsche, I finally am persuaded that Nietzsche had the Greeks nailed.

There is an ancient story that king Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When at last he fell into his hands, the king asked what was best of all and most desirable for man. Fixed and immovable, the demon remained silent ; till at last, forced by the king, he broke out with shrill laughter into these words:  “Oh, wretched race of a day, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to say to you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is forever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die.”

Nietzsche continues:

How is the Olympian world of deities related to this folk-wisdom? Even as the rapturous vision of the tortured martyr to his sufferings. Now the Olympian magic mountain opens, as it were, to our view and shows to us its roots. The Greek knew and felt the terrors and horrors of existence: to be able to live at all, he had to interpose the shining dream-birth of the Olympian world between himself and them.

Through tragedy, Nietzsche argued, the Dionysian impulse towards self-destruction was sublimated into an Apollonian sense that the flickering evanescence of mortal life had some claim on the eternal. Man’s fate on earth was tragic but

…the most sorrowful figure of the Greek stage, the hapless Oedipus, was understood by Sophocles as the noble man, who in spite of his wisdom was destined to error and misery, but nevertheless through his extraordinary sufferings ultimately exerted a magical, wholesome influence on all around him, which continues effective even after his death.

Tragedy is the antivenom to Greek despair, whose stylized masks and dance and verse offer the Hellene “a glance into the secret and terrible things of nature, as it were shining spots to heal the eye which dire night has seared.”

There is a canonical joke that expresses the Jewish view of tragedy. There’s an old Jewish coupl, Abe and Esther. Esther says, “Abe, let’s go to the theater!” Abe replies, “I don’t want to go to the theater. It’s boring.” “What do you mean, ‘It’s boring?,” Esther objects. “The theater is there because people want to be entertained! People go to the theater because it’s entertaining, and if it were boring, they wouldn’t go, and there wouldn’t be any theater–so how can it be boring?” Abe sighs, “It’s boring. When he wants, she doesn’t want. When she wants, he doesn’t want. And when they both want, it’s over.”

Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy, the Jewish convert to Christianity now best remembered for his correspondence with Franz Rosenzweig, recounts an anecdote that clarifies the import of the joke:

In Germany during the orgies of Hitlerism a certain Jewish journalist was asked to correct the book of a Nazi authoress; and in return for the favor she agreed to take him to see Goebbels and Goering. After tea with them he came back as though enlightened and told his friends: ‘They cannot help persecuting us; they are playing Red Indians, and they know that we cannot take their game seriously.’

And Rosenstock-Huessy added that the Jewish community

…was created above and beyond all human divisions. It reminds men of the hope beyond their daily hopes, of a more important step to come. By their persecution the Gentiles defy this challenge from the side of Eternity and finality. They always accuse the Jew of provocation, because although he is quite capable of playing Red Indian out of love for his neighbors, he is incapable of any of their idolatries, and though he can shed his blood for his country, he will always feel that no skyscraper, no man-of-war, no Venus of Cnidos, and no glory of arms is more important than the tears of the widow or the sigh of the orphan.

Or, one might add, the pots and pans of the kosher kitchen. The truth is that Jews look at the cultural exertions of the Gentiles as children’s games that grownups should find boring. For the players, though, these are not mere games, but a response to existential despair. The world today abounds in such games. Caitlin Jenner believes that she is a woman, and the Persians believe they are an empire. The Palestinian Arabs believe they are a nation (rather than migrating Jordanians or Syrians or Egyptians, which most of them were until the 1970s) and the Europeans believe they are peace-loving altruists. The practitioners of identity politics find it cognitively dissonant to hate any identity group, even the Jews, so they claim only to hate the State of Israel.

The triumph of identity politics in the United States has brought with it a wave of revulsion against the State of Israel, which has the misfortune to live in circumstances that demand a judgment about right vs. wrong. Either Hamas is a wicked entity that shoots rockets behind a screen of civilians in order to maximize the casualties of its own non-combatants—a new and horrible innovation in the cruel history of warfare—or Israel is a racist nation that murders Arab babies. Never mind that the government of Egypt, by far the largest Arab nation, is allied with Israel against the same band of malefactors: what matters in identity politics is the self-defining narrative of the putatively oppressed. Almost half of Democratic Party members now believe that Israel is a “racist country,” the pollster Frank Luntzreports, and more than three-quarters of Democrats think that Israel has “too much influence” in America.

Many of the Israel haters whose prejudice registered in the Luntz poll are themselves Jews, to be sure, the kind who wallow in a mythical Israeli past “of pioneers who set out not only to safeguard a nation, but to remake the world,” as Barack Obama told the congregation of Adas Yisrael in Washington May 22. But it really isn’t about Israel: it is about “the right to define and express an identity,” posited by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the notion that right and wrong exist independently of what identity we might choose.

It is not simply that Israel’s predicament requires a judgment about right and wrong, a choice between a culture of life and a culture that proclaims “We love death more than you love life!” The Jews were the first people in history to specify an absolute right and wrong, that is, laws promulgated by the Maker of Heaven that apply to all peoples at all times. The Greeks understand this. They don’t require rationalizations about Israel being beastly to the Palestinians. They simply hate Jews. They have been around long enough to know what the issue really is. Among the surviving cultures of the world, the Greeks have known us the longest. They got to know us well enough when we threw Antiochus IV out of the Land of Israel in B.C.E. 164. We’ve had longer to annoy them than all the other cultures who at one time or another hated the Jews.

Nothing Jews do will make the Greeks like us, not even the embrace of “classical political rationalism” by prominent Jewish intellectuals. This brings to mind Kant’s quip about one man milking a billy-goat while another holds a sieve. Kant might have added that it will annoy the billy-goat no end.

Jews find Greek theater boring; Greeks find Jewish Scripture trivial. But Judaism does not aim at cathartic moments but at practical solutions. The stories of the Hebrew Bible are tragic in construction but not in outcome: even Cain is given a chance to redeem himself. Isaac is not sacrificed like Iphigenia but replaced on the altar by a ram. Jacob and Esau do not kill each other like Polynices and Eteocles inSeven against Thebes, fulfilling the curse of their father Oedipus. Jacob propitiates his brother whose birthright he stole, and by another deception puts himself and his family at a safe distance just in case Esau might change his mind. There is neither conflict nor reconciliation, and Israel’s relationship to Esau’s descendants remains fraught and ambiguous through subsequent books of the Bible. A pivotal episode in the Bible, where Jacob acquires the name “Israel,” ends with an anti-climax that does not show Jacob in a particularly heroic light. Jacob’s heroism is manifest the night before his last meeting with Esau, when he wrestles an angel on a riverbank. Jacob is not a hero in the Greek sense, yet he does what no Greek hero ever did: He changes.

When Cleon determines to kill Antigone for the crime of burying their brother Polynices, to be sure, a Jew will say under his breath, “Shmendrick! Get a life!” But the fact is that ordinary life is full of conflicting loyalties, not always as dramatic as Orestes’ conflicting filial obligations to the father he has avenged through the murder of his mother, to be sure, but painful and often devastating nonetheless. Greek-inspired literature is devoted to uncovering tragic conflicts and bringing them to denouement; Jewish law tries to defuse such conflicts before they become tragic. Talmud is the diametric opposite of tragedy: among other things, it is the practice of reconciling conflicting loyalties in the course of everyday life. At what point does the mandate to preserve life override the laws of the Sabbath? Under what circumstances is a man who lights a fire responsible for an accidental conflagration, or a man who owns an ox responsible when it gores his neighbor? Under what circumstances may a rabbi ignore a lesion on the lung of a chicken that a poor housewife has purchased for the Sabbath meal?

To the Greeks, Judaism appears as a hodge-podge of pointless rituals performed obsessively. An observant housewife lights the Sabbath candles with a gesture as practiced as the upbeat that a conductor gives an orchestra. The twin loaves of Sabbath bread must be covered while the wine is blessed; the wine-glass must be filled to the brim and drained to the bottom for the Sabbath blessing; water must be poured from one hand to another three times after which a blessing is said, but not another word isuttered until the bread is blessed. The origin of many of these rituals is unknown to many who learned them mimetically; the learned will delve into their source and enrich their practice.

The Greeks will never understand the Jews. Not the sculptor’s marble or the artist’s palette or the musician’s tones, but the ordinary life of families is the locus of Jewish aesthetics. The techne of Jewish art is found in the beautification of the Sabbath table, the precision and spontaneity of communal prayer, in the elevation and sanctification of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary events of life: the weekly Sabbath meal, and birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death. After each of the seven Sabbath Torah readings (or “ascents”), the blessing praises God “who given us true Torah (teaching) and has planted eternal life amongst us.” God has planted eternal life among the Jews, and Judaism is its cultivation.

The aesthetic sense in Judaism beautifies the signs and symbols of eternal life that are visible in the pots and pans of the kosher kitchen, the Sabbath candles and festive meal, and marital relations between Jewish spouses. These are as miraculous and filled with portent as Moses’ burning bush, or Jacob’s ladder, or Ezekiel’s chariot. But the central and most characteristic Jewish activity is Torah study, the endless investigation of the infinite mind of God. As Rabbi Meir Soloveichik observes (citing his grand-uncle Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik), Torah study sustains a colloquium across all generations, and keeps our ancestors alive with us. Every Jew should feel as if he actually left Egypt, reads the text for the Passover liturgy, but every Jew actually can feel as if he debated with the sages of antiquity, with Maimonides, with Rav Soloveitchik.

The trouble is not only that the Greeks found Jewish practice trivial, but that they found Jewish existence threatening. When Antiochus IV took Jerusalem in 134 BCE, “the majority of his friends advised the king to take the city by storm and to wipe out completely the race of Jews, since they alone of all nations avoided dealings with any other people and looked upon all men as their enemies.” This is reported by David Nirenberg in Anti-Judaism, along with a plethora of similar citations. The Babylonians burned the Temple but let the exiled Jews practice their religion, and the Persians who conquered them sent exiles back to build the Second Temple. But the Greeks who replaced the Persians felt a unique sort of antipathy to the Jews. Why?

Nietzsche quotes of the myth of Silenus to explain the despair just below the surface of Hellenic culture, but he never explains why this should be the case. Silenus’ dictum, to be sure, also appears in Ecclesiastes 4:2-3, although it is answered in Chapter 9 7-9:  “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works… Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.” Ecclesiastes sayeth, Get ye a life. The Jews cannot take Silenus seriously, as in the canonical joke on the subject: Two yeshiva students are learning Ecclesiastes. Moshe says to Yankel, “He’s right! Life is so painful, pain is so long, joy is so short, it’s better never to have been born.” “Yes,” says Yankel, “but who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand.”

The cultivation of communal and family life as art-work has sustained the Jewish people for 3,500 years, and given the Jews a sense of surety for their future unlike that of any other people west of the Indus.  The alternative is to worship youth itself, which the ancient Greeks did, in a way not much different than our own youth-obsessed popular culture.  Our ultimate pop icon was Michael Jackson, who never wanted to grow old and suffered endless plastic surgeries to appear young. Caitlin Jenner does not want to be a woman of her age, namely 65, but rather a woman still redolent of youth, scalpeled and sutured and airbrushed onto the cover of Vanity Fair. Heidegger wrote that man’s existence is defined by Being-towards-Death. What we do is more like Being-towards-Botox.

I examined the Greek youth cult in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die, from which the paragraphs below are extracted.

The Greeks worshipped the eternally-young Olympians, to be sure, but in most of ancient Greece, it adored eternal youth in another form, namely adolescent boys. Sparta was (after the island of Crete) the first Greek polis to formalize the practice of pederasty.[i] Plato complained about this; the “Athenian Stranger” reproaches his Spartan and Cretan interlocutors in Plato’s Laws, “This custom, which is long-standing, seems to have corrupted the life-style and pleasures of sex that are natural not only for humans but also animals. Someone might make these accusations first of your states and of whatever other states are particularly inclined to the gymnasium.”[ii] If pederasty was not universal, it nonetheless was common enough to be characteristic in classical Greece. That this practice was no matter of idealized admiration, but explicitly sexual, is demonstrated by the hundreds of surviving vase-paintings showing explicit sexual acts between bearded men and beardless youths.[iii]

Pederasty had a deep connection to Greek religion, which was above all a cult of youth. Not even Zeus was immune, abducting the boy Ganymede to be the gods’ cupbearer. The older lover, or erastēs, is the needy worshipper before the god-like object of his love, the erômenos. “Though the object of importunate solicitation, [the youth] is himself not in need of anything beyond himself. He is unwilling to let himself be explored by the other’s needy curiosity, and he has, himself, little curiosity about the other. He is something like a god, or the statue of a god,” explains Martha Nussbaum.[iv] But chastity was not considered a virtue for an adolescent boy. In Greek legend the gods turned Narcissus into a flower to punish his pride in refusing male suitors; only the older lover, not the erômenos, is allowed to be a Narcissist.

The love of Greek men for adolescent boys embodies the same longing for immortality we observe in the cult of eternally youthful gods. No Greek would pray along with King David, “O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.” Every Greek, even heroes beloved of the gods, expected to go down to the pit. The dead hero Achilles tells Odysseus in Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey that he would rather be a poor farmer’s hired hand than king over the underworld. Not even the immortal Zeus would enjoy a life that was properly eternal, for one day his successor would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his own father Chronos.

The Olympian Greek religion did not propose to overcome death, but only to flee from it for a while—into the arms of perpetual youth. If, as Rose Castorini said in Moonstruck, today’s men chase women because they want to live forever, Greek men found it more compelling to chase a youthful version of themselves. The older lover worships his own youthful image in the form of his adolescent beloved. The separation of sexuality from procreation in Greek culture helps explain the terrible demographic decay that Greece would suffer during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., leaving Athens (as Polybius reported) a city mainly populated by statues when the Romans finally took possession.

The demographic decline of Hellenistic Greece is history’s first well-documented case of a culture that died of its own indifference to life. The Greek genius for mathematics and physics did not avail them. Greece fell to Roman domination at the peak of its intellectual power, when Archimedes of Syracuse and Hero of Alexandria made discoveries that the West would not put work for another 2,000 years.

Today’s Greeks seem as diffident about their future survival as their 5th-century antecedents.  The Greeks never quite liked life. They only liked to play at it. The decline of today’s Greece bears out Marx’s quip that historical tragedies repeat themselves as farce.

[i] Thomas F. Scanlon, “The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century BC Greece,” in Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, Beert C. Verstraete and Vernon Provencal, eds. (Psychology Press, 2006) pp. 64-70.

[ii] Laws 636ab; quoted by Scanlon, p. 66.

[iii] J.D. Beazley, “Some Attic Vases in the Cyprus Museum”, Proceedings of the British Academy 33 (1947); p.199

[iv] Martha Nussbaum, The fragility of goodness (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.

from Asia Times


As the New York Times reports this morning, not a single Republican presidential candidate has the courage to tell South Carolina to stop flying the Confederate battle flag from its state capitol. It is a bit late for that, to be sure; public display of any kind of the symbol of the slaveholders’ rebellion should have been banned after the Union victory in 1865. Removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s seat of government has become an African-American cause in the wake of last week’s Charleston church massacre. It may be incommensurate with the crime, but black Americans are entirely justified in their rancor against official sanction of a symbol of slavery.

On moral grounds I sympathize with the African-American view, but there is an even more urgent reason to rip down the Confederate flag. Our refusal to look squarely at the evil character of the American Confederacy turned us into idiots. It may be a bit late to remedy this national lapse in mental capacity, but one has to start somewhere.

America never recovered from its Civil War, which killed nearly a million combatants on both sides. The Union won on the battlefield but conceded a cultural victory of sorts to the defeated South, spinning a myth of Southern gallantry in a lost cause. This myth dominated the popular culture from D.W.Griffiths’ 1916 epic “Birth of a Nation” (which celebrates the rise of the Klu Klux Klan) to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind with its romantic image of antebellum plantation culture.

This concession to a wicked cause cut America off from the principles of its Founding and ultimately turned us into idiots. It was not always so, as Angelo Codevilla explained in his masterful 2014 book “To Make and Keep the Peace.” John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln performed brilliantly in the foreign policy arena; Lincoln’s alliance with Russia kept Great Britain from joining with the Confederacy to carve up the American republic.

wrote not long ago on the anniversary of the Southern surrender at Appomattox Courthouse:

The white churches, though, were three generations ahead of the black churches in distancing themselves from the dangerous passions of the Civil War. When Julia Ward Howe of blessed memory sang in”The Battle Hymn of the Republic” of “grapes of wrath,” she invoked the terrible words of Isaiah 63, in which God comes from Edom with his garments stained red, saying, “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.” By the turn of the 20thcentury, the apocalyptic Protestantism of what Lincoln called an “almost-chosen people” had turned into Social Gospel and universal salvation.

That is American exceptionalism: the belief that America can be a better kind of nation than the ethnocentric nations of Europe, in emulaton of the biblical Israel. That was the impulse of the Founders, born, as Harvard’s Eric Nelson explains in The Hebrew Republic, of the English Revolution’s attempt to design a polity on biblical principles. The Civil War destroyed this impulse, because it killed too many of the New Englanders who believed, as Lincoln put it, that America was “an almost chosen nation.”

Protestantism in America shifted from saving souls to social engineering. The sin of the South was too great to acknowledge; after the sacrifice of nearly 30% of its military-age man and the reduction of its standard of living by half, the defeated white South could not admit to itself that it had gotten precisely what was coming to it for wickedness of slavery. It is revolting to read Southern writers’ rationalizations for Southern wickedness, for example, David French last week in The National Review. French argues:

When the war began, it was not explicitly a war to end slavery. Indeed, had the Union quickly accomplished its war aims, slavery would have endured, at least for a time. When hundreds of thousands of southern men took up arms (most of them non-slave-owning), many of them fought with the explicit belief that they were standing in the shoes of the Founding Fathers, men who’d exercised their own right of self-determination to separate from the mother Country.

That is nonsense: the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, offered to keep the southern states in the Union after Lincoln’s election in 1860 if only Lincoln would agree to the annexation of Cuba as a new slave territory, a history I reviewed here. The South fought for the dream of a slave empire stretching southwards, and the 90% of Southern soldiers who owed no slaves hoped to get them–like Wallenstein’s mercenaries or Napoleon’s foot-soldiers with field marshall’s batons in their rucksacks. Like Wallenstein’s and Napoleon’s armies, the Confederates fought with desperate courage, but for rapine rather than right. Crushing them was the noblest thing the United States ever did.

The South could not live in the knowledge that its heroic sacrifices were offered in a wicked cause, and its response was to excise from religion the notion of sin and virtue, and replace it with social engineering. Woodrow Wilson’s father was a Southern clergyman who preached a biblical justification of slavery; as president, Woodrow Wilson replaced American foreign policy with social engineering on a global scale. The North could not live with its own enormous sacrifice; as I argued elsewhere, “Americans decided that they would rather not have a God who demanded sacrifice from them on this scale – 10% of military-age Northern men, 30% of military-age Southern men. They did not want to be a Chosen People held accountable for their transgressions. They wanted instead a reticent God who withheld his wrath while they set out to make the world amenable to their own purposes. The New England elite went to war as convinced Abolitionists singing of the coming of God who trampled out the vintage of the grapes of wrath and wielded a terrible swift sword. They came back convinced that no idea could be so righteous or so certain as to merit the terrible sacrifices of their generation.”

Americans are not inherently stupid. The Civil War made us stupid. It persuaded us that we were better off playing God than leaving the outcome to a God who might demand such terrible sacrifices of us once again. The most brilliant physicist will go mad if he becomes obsessed with perpetual motion, and the most brilliant statesman will go just as made if he devotes his life to perpetual peace.

Abraham Lincoln told Americans in his last major utterance, the Second Inaugural Address: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?” That isn’t what Americans wanted to hear. Instead, they wanted to hear that clever social engineers could fix the world’s problems and obviate the need for such sacrifices in the future.

The trauma of the Civil War drove us towards Wilsonian Universalism, which lives on in the form of George W. Bush’s “world democratic revolution.” America confronts a number of cultures that are bent on genosuicide. We fail to recognize the symptoms, because we shut our eyes to one of modern history’s most striking examples of civilizational self-destruction, namely the American South. America can’t hope to make sense of the world if it refuses to think about its own history.

Intelligence begins with emotional acceptance of the consequences of one’s actions.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

An addendum: A friend with some background in Constitutional law writes:

I disagree with part of your historical interpretation. I think Southern leaders did secede for slavery, but the North did not resist (at least not uniformly) in opposition to slavery, but overwhelmingly in defense of the Union, meaning very largely tranquil borders and free use of the Mississippi, to the benefit of the growing western territories. Lincoln says as much in several places. These are not trivial or morally insufficient motives, and they are not even unconnected to America’s highest ideals–after all the world’s ‘last best hope’ would have to survive if it was to bless the world with prosperity, equality, etc. But there isn’t the neat symmetry, I think, between yankee abolitionists and cavalier slavers that makes it a nice morality tale.  Also, the issue of political right (the constitutional questions and the lockean right of revolution) was not at all window dressing.  Davis of course would keep the South in if he thought southern slavery interests were served, but if they weren’t served he would fight for their absolute right to leave, just as I suppose either of us would assert a woman’s right to refuse even her own husband’s sexual advances, however ‘unreasonable’ or ‘wicked’ her reasons might be. Their moral-political-legal right to leave was the nub of the whole problem.  And each side could appeal to different aspects of the founders’ legacy in facing that problem. The founders fought for political self-determination at least as clearly as they fought for human equality.

My response:

As many people have pointed out (Michael Novak, Meir Soloveichik), there is a biblical (covenantal) as well as a natural law (contractual) component to the Founding; in my view the covenantal component is primary and in need trumps the natural-law component. That is why I entitled an essay “When America flew on one wing” (with reference to Michael Novak’s “On Two Wings”). The Constitutional mechanism broke down (in fact, the slave party controlled the government for almost all of the period 1800-1860, and an eruption of apocalyptic spirit was required to correct it — bringing to the fore America’s Hebraic-Protestant mission. Of course Lincoln ran roughshod over elements of the Constitution but this, in my view, was what the Talmud calls “sin for the sake of heaven.” The natural-law apparatus (checks and balances, separation of powers, states’ rights, etc.) is the plumbing of government, and it is certainly necessary, but it is contingent on the higher, covenantal imperative. For a metaphysical approach to the issue, see my essay on Kierkegaard.

Genosuicide and its causes

June 15th, 2015 - 2:18 pm

From Asia Times

“Black lives matter” became the slogan of the anti-police protests that followed the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Do they? Does yours? Parts of black America appear determined to destroy themselves—black men, that is, rather than black women, who graduate from university at twice the male rate and hold more full-time jobs. Call it genosuicide, the self-willed extinction of a people, and it happens all the time, especially when young men decide that to matter, they must assert themselves violently. There is nothing uniquely “black” about the inner-city catastrophe now unfolding in America, as some historical examples will show.In the reasonable fear of legal persecution, police in America’s inner cities have stepped back from aggressive enforcement of the law, and the result is a sudden surge in homicides that have killed hundreds of people, almost all of them black. As Heather MacDonald reported in the Wall Street Journal May 29, “Gun violence in particular is spiraling upward in cities across America. In Baltimore, the most pressing question every morning is how many people were shot the previous night. Gun violence is up more than 60% compared with this time last year, according to Baltimore police, with 32 shootings over Memorial Day weekend. May has been the most violent month the city has seen in 15 years. In Milwaukee, homicides were up 180% by May 17 over the same period the previous year. Through April, shootings in St. Louis were up 39%, robberies 43%, and homicides 25%. Murders in Atlanta were up 32% as of mid-May. Shootings in Chicago had increased 24% and homicides 17%. Shootings and other violent felonies in Los Angeles had spiked by 25%; in New York, murder was up nearly 13%, and gun violence 7%.”

To demonstrate that they matter, young black men kill other young black men in appalling numbers. The Economist notes that if black America were a country, it would have the highest murder rate in the world, adding,  Black Americans are still eight times more likely to be murdered than whites and seven times more likely to commit murder, according to the FBI. An incredible one-third of black men in their 30s have been in prison.”

What it means to “matter” is a question of culture. To “matter” in the hip-hop culture that predominates among young black men is to be tougher and more rapacious than one’s fellows, to be indifferent to the prospect of prison or death, to get rich or die trying. No-one put it better than President Obama’s regular houseguest Jay-Z:

I’m from the streets where the
Hood could swallow ’em and, bullets’ll follow ’em and
There’s so much coke that you could run the slalom
And cops comb this shit top to bottom
They say that we are prone to violence, but it’s home sweet home
Where personalities clash and chrome meets chrome
The coke prices up and down like it’s Wall Street holmes
But this is worse than the Dow Jones, your brains are now blown
All over that brown Brougham, one slip you are now gone
Welcome to hell where you are welcome to sell
But when them shells come you better return ’em
All scars we earn ’em…

Compare to the Cavalryman’s Song that concludes Friedrich Schiller’s drama Wallenstein’s Camp:  ”Freedom has disappeared from the world/And perfidy rules in its place/And there’s nobody left but masters and slaves/Of the cowardly human race./The man who can look death straight in the face/The soldier is the only free man.”

My contention is that there is nothing particularly “black” or even “ghetto” about this credo. The freebooters who followed Wallenstein or Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War, Napoleon’s privates with field marshal’s batons in their rucksacks, the Confederate rebels of the American Civil War, the Germans of the Third Reich, or even the Athenians at the disastrous campaign against Syracuse—all of them sought lives that “mattered” in terms of wealth and social advancement, and all of them kept fighting until their armies bled themselves into inertia.

The lives of a third of young black Americans have been ruined. That is an important statistic: wars never are fought to the point of actual extinction, but rather to the point at which there are too few prospective fighters to continue the war. Violent self-assertion is the common theme in such wars. Before the dawn of civilization, in fact, that was the norm of the human condition: two-fifths of prehistoric males typically died in tribal warfare, according to the anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley.

Wars of near-extinction are not universal but are remarkably common in ancient as well as modern history. Europe has had four of them during the past several hundred years: the Thirty Years War of 1618=1648; the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1814; World War I; and World War II. America had its Civil War, and the Middle East now has its own Thirty Years War.

To name a few historic examples:

  • Athenian dead in the Peloponnesian War reached 25% of the city-state’s total manpower before Athens capitulated to the Spartan-Persian alliance;
  • The Thirty Years War killed 30% to 40% of the population of Central Europe and left wide swaths of Spain and France empty of people
  • The Napoleonic Wars resulted in 1.4 to 1.7 military French military deaths out of a total French population of 29 million. Men aged 17 to 49 were probably 20% of the total, or about one-fifth of the population, or 5.8 million. That puts the war dead at about 24% to 30% of total manpower pool.
  • Confederate casualties in US civil war were at least 28% of military age men, and historians are revising the casualty numbers upward.
  • German military casualties in World War II were 5,330,000, out of 17,718,714 men 15 to 44 years, or 30% of the manpower pool.

The 30% casualty rate is common to great conflicts across time and geography. Two other common factors are noteworthy.

The first is that really big wars typically last for two generations. You kill the fathers in the first phase of the war, and in the second phase you will their sons. Usually there aren’t enough grandsons to continue the war. The American Civil War is a big exception: with their characteristic energy and dedication, the Americans of the mid-nineteenth century managed to accomplish in four years what took other peoples thirty.

The second is that casualty rates typically rise in inverse proportion to the probability of victory. The young men who fight great wars are not game theorists, calculating the likelihood of dying in battle against the probability of victory. On the contrary, casualty rates typically rise sharply after hope of victory has faded. What matters is to “matter.”

Casualty rate rises sharply after South loses Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 (and the war)

Casualty rate rises sharply after South loses Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 (and the war)

During the First World War, casualty rates declined sharply after the initial stalement, but rose to their highest point in 1918 when Germany launched the Ludendorff offensive  in the hope of delivering a knock-out blow to the French — after America’s entry had already given Germany a losing position.

World War 1 casualty rates rise to a maximum during the 1918 German offensive

World War I casualty rate peaks during the 1918 German offensive

The vast majority of German casualties during World War II occurred during the last year of the war, when the German armies were in full retreat from Russia and the Allied beachhead in Normandy had turned into a full-scale I have not been able to find month-by-month casualty for the Germany army, but American casualties by month are a reasonably good proxy.

Most World War II casualties were incurred after Germany's position had become hopeless

Most World War II casuaties occurred after Germany’s position had become hopeless

A frequently-heard slogan in the anti-police protests declared, “From Ferguson to Palestine.” It seems odd to confuse the American civil rights movement with the tortuous history of the Palestinian Arabs; Dr. Martin Luther King was a fervent and outspoken supporter of the State of Israel. The young men of Gaza and the young men of Baltimore have nothing in common but a propensity towards genosuicide, something they share with the Pappenheimer Curassiers of 1631, Napoleon’s Old Guard in 1814, the Waffen-SS of 1944, the Athenian Hoplites of 414 B.C.E, and the Confederates at the Battle of Waynesboro.

We are only in the first phases of a great Sunni-Shi’ite war in the Middle East, but it seems likely to produce similar results. The bulge in military-age population occasioned by the high fertility rates of twenty years ago has produced an enormous number of young men with little hope of employment or marriage who learn daily that they do not matter. As ISIS terrorists they can claim to matter, and will continue to sacrifice their lives with abandon.

The bulge in military-age men in the Levant and Mesopotamia feeds the new Thirty Years War

The bulge in military-age men in the Levant and Mesopotamia feeds the new Thirty Years War


As Europe leared in 1618, 1812, 1914 and 1939, and as America learned in 1860, there are circumstances in which the usual path of war-avoidance through compromise is blocked, and two successive generations will exsanguinate in order to “matter.” What we have learned from the Arab Spring, the overthrow of Qadaffi, and the imposition of majority rule in Iraq is that the sad, oppressive, old regime is better than any possible improvement. The heavy hand of the police in inner cities, despite its frequent brutality and disregard for legal niceties, saves black lives. The old Sunni dictatorships, vicious and cruel and backward as they were, prevent the all-consuming disorder that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced nearly twenty million people in the Middle East.




China’s South China Sea dominance is the price U.S. pays for Iraq and Afghanistan

Author:  June 8, 2015

Over at Asia Times, M.K. Bhadrakumar parses the press statements following US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s New Delhi visit, noting that the Americans spoke grandly of “strategic convergence” (against China) while Modi maintained a deliberate ambiguity about the nature of India’s defense relationship with the US. I will offer a prediction as to what will come of China’s territorial assertions and America’s oppostion: China will get what it wants.

There won’t be a war, because there is no practical way to have a war, even if the US wanted to take the matter to the point of military confrontation. A nervous pilot might loose a missile at his opposite number, to be sure, but even a live fire incident will not ignite a broader conflict. There is a simple reason to be so confident about the outcome: American aircraft carriers, for decades the source of America’s hegemony in East Asian waters, are now vulnerable to Chinese surface-to-ship missiles and diesel-electric submarines. There is a good deal of debate about the effectiveness of China’s DF-21D “carrier killer missile,” which goes into space and heads straight down at its target, but the probabiity is that Chinese missile artillery can swamp a US carrier’s defenses. If missiles don’t get it, the subs likely will: running on electric batteries, diesel eletric submarines are extremely quiet, and have “sunk” American carriers in NATO exercises in the past.

The US is working on countermeasures, to be sure, but chronic underinvestment in cutting-edge defense R&D has left them underdeveloped and under-deployed. The Bush administration spent $1 trillion or so in Iraq and Afghanistan, mainly on personnel, and reduced defense R&D to accommodate its nation-building ambitions in the region. That was a bad trade-off. The US has little to show for its efforts except the chaos that has enveloped the Levant and Mesopotamia after the collapse of the Iraqi state. China has had time to close the technology gap with the US, and neutralize if necessary America’s principle means of projecting power in the region.

Washington is not happy with China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea, nor should it be. The de facto seizure of the Spratley Islands humiliates American allies and violates norms of international good behavior. I am not happy about it. But there is no way to force China to stop, and no way to persuade it to stop.

This is not, as any number of analysts opine, the use of “Chinese nationalism” to take the population’s mind off slowing economic growth. “Chinese nationalism” is an oxyomoron; China is not a nation, but an empire that subjects nations to a common system of written characters and a central authority in Beijing. When the Chinese say that their “historic” borders are inviolable, what they mean, simply, is that the assimilation of the myriad ethnicities and language groups that comprise the Middle Kingdom is irreversible. If it could be reversed, the integrity of Chinese culture and the premises of Chinese civilization would be in jeapordy. One can argue about China’s “historic rights” to islands in the South China Sea, to be sure, but there is an element of a fortiori at work in Chinese thinking: if China will draw a hard line around uninhabited islands, all the more so will it resist centrifugal forces in Tibet or Xinjiang.

All of the talk about Indian-US strategic convergence, or an alliance with Japan and India against China, is only talk. India isn’t going to sent an aircraft carrier to face off the Chinese around the Spratleys. Japan isn’t going to sent missile ships to the Indian Ocean if India gets into a territorial spat with China in the Himalayas. If it did, what would it accomplish?

America won the Cold War in large part because the Russians knew that American avionics would give NATO control of the air in any prospective war; that the Pershing missiles in Germany and Italy gave NATO an advantage in any prospective nuclear exchange; and that the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative portended a new range of technologies that Russia couldn’t match. China looked on from a distance and aligned itself with the dominant technological superpower.

If America wants to command China’s respect, it has to widen the technology gap, rather than watch it shrink. If China believed that its weapons systems were ineffective against American countermeasures, it would show far more caution. But the opposite is true: the technology gap is closing, and China knows it. America still has a technological lead and the resources to widen it–should it choose to do so. There is no obvious political constituency for such an effort though, and no prominent leader commited to doing so. A return to the Eisenhower-Kennedy-Reagan commitment to American technological superiority would also have enormously beneficial effects for America’s lagging productivity. But it is hard to persuade Americans that it is better to be tough than to sound tough.

Mosaic Magazine, Neal Kozodoy’s website of Jewish ideas, published last month an essay by Tikvah Fund president Eric Cohen entitled “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism,” and invited an enormous range of Jewish and other conservative thinkers to comment. I couldn’t finish Cohen’s rambling essay, but the responses make for pithy reading. Cohen proposes to nudge American Jews away from liberalism towards conservatism on the strength of nationalism, historical identity and wealth creation. Like his mentor Leon Kass and many of the Chicago political philosophers of the past generation, Cohen wants to reproduce the benefits of religion without the unpleasant bit about fear and trembling. It’s an unsuccessful as well as a dated view, and most of the respondents invited by Mosaic to comment shredded Cohen’s argument.

The question to ask about “Jewish conservativism” is whether the point of the discussion is to bring Jews to conservatism, or to make conservativism itself more “Jewish.” The former is desirable but probably impractical; the latter is eminently possible, and a matter of existential urgency.

Among the dozens of respondents whom Mosaic grandly asked to comment, one name was missing, namely Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, without doubt the most prominent Jewish conservative in public life today (and cited by Cohen in his essay). Perhaps he will turn up later. Rabbi Sacks long ago put his finger on what is wrong with American secular conservatives, who believe that the forms of democratic government will teach people to honor the content—as in the failed Bush Freedom Agenda.  His absence from the discussion makes for a deafening silence.

I can’t recall a symposium where the guest of honor took so many beatings from the respondents. Eric Cohen failed to impress religious Jews, that is, those Jews who are most likely to hold conservative views in the first place. Herzl Foundation president Yoram Hazony wrote: “I do not understand the absence of God and Scripture from Cohen’s list of central ‘values and ideas’ that he wants Jewish conservatives to conserve. To me, if his ambitious vision is to succeed, these have to be positioned at the head of the line.” And Rabbi Meir Soloveichik added, “It is the giving of the Torah at Sinai that formed ancient Israel as a nation before it ever entered the land; it is obedience to the Torah that will insure Israel’s moral and spiritual flourishing when it settles the land; and, ultimately, should Israel be expelled from the land, it is the Torah that will preserve the Jews and Jewish continuity.” Other Jewish scholars politely noted that Cohen’s attempt to read the biblical Book of Joshua as a political rather than  religious document was simply wrong (for example Harvard’s Jon Levenson).

Soloveichik  and Hazony are Orthodox Jews. The Conservative rabbi Daniel Gordis (the capital C denotes a brand of liberal Judaism somewhat more traditional than Reform) observed, “Cohen’s hopes for a not-exclusively-Orthodox revival raise a question. Why should non-Orthodox Jews seek intellectual richness for their conservative worldview specifically in the Jewish tradition? After all, some American Jewish conservatives locate their intellectual roots in Christian sources, others in continental philosophy, still others in secular political thought. If Cohen hopes that non-Orthodox Jews will turn to the Jewish tradition, and give it primacy over others, that primacy is in need of a non-theologically based argument that will appeal to and convince a wide swath of Jews. So far, nothing we have tried has worked.”

Rabbi Gordis is exactly right. “For all Jews—religious and secular—the will to survive rests upon a belief that Jewish civilization is not only ‘my’ civilization, but a great civilization,” wrote Eric Cohen. The American Founders saw it differently: Israel was not simply a great civilization among many great civilizations, but the “exemplar and standard of a people,” in Franz Rosenzweig’s words. The Election of Israel is one of the core beliefs that divides Jewish Orthodoxy from the progressive brands of Judaism. Either Israel is unique and eternal, or it is destined to disappear into the melting pot of the nations.

There is yet another problem—in my view far more serious–with Cohen’s attempt to meld conservative views with a big-tent, secular approach to Jewish identity. That is to be found not on the Jewish side but in the conservative movement: the Kristol-Krauthammer variety of conservatism (often lumped together under the label “neo-conservative”) reached its apogee of influence during the Bush administration, but crashed and burned. Eric Cohen is persuaded of the rightness of his views, and wants to persuade Jews to adopt them; on the contrary, his views are flawed, and Jewish religious thought offers a prospective remedy.

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The Axolotl, St. John's College Mascot

From Asia Times


Twenty years ago, Yale University’s Harold Bloom offered a reading list in great literature under the title The Western Canon, with the caveat that it was impossible to teach literature to American undergraduates. So threadbare was their background, he lamented, that they could not grasp the dialogue across time among literary masters. The good news is that Bloom was wrong: not only great Western literature, but philosophy, mathematics and science are still grasped at a high level by undergraduates. The bad news is that they are doing so in tiny numbers, at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Western civilization isn’t extinct, but it survives in the cultural equivalent of a tide pool, with limited access and egress.

Last weekend I climbed the long hill crowned by St. John’s Santa Fe campus to observe its graduation exercise (it was held on Shabbat, which required me to walk). Led by a faculty member in full academic regalia carrying a ceremonial mace, its graduating class marched to the music of Haendel and received diplomas and the Bacculaureate hood between choral interludes of Campion and Palestrina. Like the St. John’s program itself, the ceremony carried the dignity of an older and better world, but it faced an audience of parents and siblings in T-shirts and sandals.

St. John’s great books curriculum spans Homer to Heidegger, and requires a working knowledge of ancient Greek as well as conic sections and Calculus, along with some familiarity with French and quantum mechanics. Other undergraduate schools require survey courses in Western civilization, to be sure—St. John’s itself is a spinoff from the old University of Chicago curriculum—but they have for the most part surrendered to the new barbarian invasion from the Left, which demands that universities retrofit intellectual history to repair the fragile self-esteem of history’s losers. Classical education has just the opposite goal, namely to teach us to distinguish between self-doomed societies whose flaws tragically destroy them, and polities with the prospect of survival.

Mainstream university life has gone mad. Satire herself stands mute before incidents like the following dispatch from my old undergraduate college, which used to teach Greek and Roman sources in mandatory courses:

“Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” wrote four [Columbia University] students, who are members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.”

Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, has cancelled its annual performance of “The Vagina Monologues”—itself a vulgar slap at the supposed male bias of Western civilization—because it is upsetting to transgendered women whodo not have vaginas. Perhaps the politically-correct women of Wellesley could rewrite the play as “The Anus Monologues.” That lowest common denominator would include everyone.

There is more than smidgen of fairness in the feminist accusation of male bias at major universities: locker-room culture is the observe side of political correctness. The issue has become so colored ideologically that it is impossible to make an unbiased judgment about the extent misogyny at American universities. The cover-up of rape allegations at the University of Florida by academic authorities as well as local police is one case in point; the fabrication of a rape case at University of Virginia by Rolling Stone magazine is another. Nonetheless, sports culture is a simian exercise in mass stupidity inherently prejudicial to the gender with smaller biceps. Nonetheless, sports are the key to alumni fundraising at most major universities, a gauge of the infantilism of intellectual life in America.

The gladiatorial violence of university sports requires the recruitment of cyclopean dolts with a propensity for mayhem, and this sets the tone for university life; for color, one might browse (but not read) Tom Wolfe’s dreadful but informative academic novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.

America’s sports-centered culture excludes women when it does not victimize them; it explains why America never has produced a Margaret Thatcher, who went to Oxford on a science scholarship, nor an Angela Merkel, a first-rate quantum chemist, nor a Golda Meir. European women can ascend to the top of the power structure on intellectual merit, a quality that Americans characteristically regard with distrust. The only American woman with a chance to become president trades on her husband’s previous success. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is an exception that proves the rule. As David Samuels quipped in a 2007 Atlantic profile, “Rice’s obsession with sports makes it easier for her to function in a world of men who may not be immediately comfortable taking direction from a younger black woman, but who will respect anyone who can name the winning quarterback for every Super Bowl off the top of her head.”

St. John’s axolotl mascot emblemizes its unique mission. The college has as much contempt for campus sports culture as it does for political correctness. There is simply nothing like this combination of curriculum and instruction to be found anywhere else in the United States. There are a few small Catholic and Protestant schools that teach classics, but none with this intensity (and the Catholic schools are stuck with an excess of Aristotle and Aquinas, whom I think dull).


St. John’s takes in a hundred freshmen each year and graduates perhaps seventy of them on each campus. Many do not survive freshmen year, with two or three daily hours of homework in ancient Greek. The faculty (called “tutors” rather than professor) is an eclectic assemblage of brilliant and sometimes eccentric scholars who come there to teach undergraduates rather than play academic career games. There are no lectures, only seminars and tutorials: Johnnies not only have to read the great works of the West but stand up and explain them before their teachers and peers.

I have a number of quibbles with the course work: there is far too much emphasis on French at the expense of German, for example. Nothing has been written in French in the past two hundred years excepting Baudelaire and a couple of other poets that cannot be read as well in translation, and none of it is of real importance to undergraduate education. Without knowingGoethe really well, though, it is impossible to make sense of 19th and 20th century philosophy, Nietzsche and Heidegger in particular—and a great deal of Goethe is lost in translation.

A deeper problem accounts for the lacunae in St. John’s curriculum: the “Great Books” curriculum arises from consensus and custom rather than authority. Goethe is important not because he is a great lyric poet, but because he led the grand program of the German Classic to recreate the accomplishments of religion by secular means. His character Mephistopheles looks back toEcclesiastes and forward to Heidegger. Goethe mediates the great question—why is life worthwhile in the first place?—between the biblical and the modern worlds. The designers of the St. John’s curriculum in their 20th-century secularism failed to grasp the tension between religion and the Enlightenment.

Here the religious schools have an advantage, because the Magisterium of the Catholics and the masorah of the Jews set down a canon tested over the centuries. There are fewer than 800 undergraduates at the two St. John’s campuses, while one American yeshiva (center of traditional Jewish higher learning), Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., has ten times that number of students. The number of religious Jews studying traditional sources worldwide outnumbers the total number of students of classic Western texts by an order of magnitude; more than 300,000 read a daily page of Talmud (Daf Yomi), completing the voluminous compendium of Jewish teaching in a seven-year cycle.

The traditional Catholic colleges attract a surprising small number of students; the three colleges that offer the most intensive classical curriculum (St. Thomas Aquinas, Wyoming Catholic College and Ave Maria) have fewer than 1,400 students among them, and the total number of students in conservative Catholic colleges (according to the Cardinal Newman Society list) barely totals 10,000.

By coincidence, the graduation ceremonies I attended fell on the eve of the Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Jews do not simply read the Torah (Bible and rabbinic commentaries) as a “great book,” but relive it. As Rabbi Berel Levertov reminded his small congregation at Chabad of Santa Fe, “All Israel”—every Jew who ever lived and all those yet to be born–are present at Mount Sinai, and Shavuot is less an anniversary celebration than the enduring presence of the original revelation. Jews read the Torah as autobiography, and that explains why Jews, who comprise just 0.5% of the world population, are so eager to learn classic sources that they make up the vast majority of such students in the West.

St. John’s cannot find enough qualified students (although more recruitment in Asia might eventually solve that problem). Once it trains them, it doesn’t know what to do with them. At the elite Ivy League schools, undergraduates absorb a kind of intellectual content, but this mainly amounts to socialization in the liberal elite’s current fancies. Johnnies graduate with a Jovian disdain for the ephemeral and a burned-in skepticism about academic fads. That makes them unsuitable for most aspects of professional life; it is hard for them to become stupid enough to succeed in public service. The Great Books curriculum arose from a concern with political leadership, and its original object was to train leaders for public life—diplomacy, the military and intelligence. I asked the outgoing president of St. John’s Santa Fe, the distinguished soldier and diplomat Michael Peters, how the college’s public-service agenda was faring. “It’s mixed,” Peters allowed.

The topics of Johnnies’ senior papers are published; very few this year were devoted to political philosophy, and most of those were written by Asian students. Many papers were devoted to imagery in Virginia Woolf or character development in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I cannot read Virginia Woolf and don’t like Tolstoy, but that’s beside the point. The Johnnies know they are at odds with the world around them, and understandably drift towards self-absorption. That is less the school’s problem than the problem of the ambient culture, but it cannot fail to have an impact on the students.

For undergraduates without the deep religious commitment that might bring them to Yeshiva University in New York or St. Thomas Aquinas College in California, St. John’s remains the last, best place in America to learn Western civilization in seriousness. I do not mean to deprecate other Great Books programs, but no other school trains its undergraduates as intensively. It is a sad gauge of the state of American culture that so few students rally to the Fighting Axolotls. It is even more alarming that St. John’s graduates do not pass easily into positions of responsibility in public life.

From Asia Times.


I have been reading Peter Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash with brief pauses to wipe the puke off the computer screen. For the past fifteen years, there has been no sewer too stinky for Bill and Hillary to bathe in. Most of Schweizer’s research has already made the mainstream media, but the sheer mass of it still amazes. It’s not one malfeasance or three, but an unbroken pattern of overtly corrupt behavior trading half-million-dollar speaking fees and multi-million-dollar payoffs to the Clintons’ foundation in return for billion-dollar mining concessions and corporate takeovers staged by the most revolting gangsters in the jungle of Third World governance. The English language needs a word like the Yiddish term “chutzpah” to describe them, but without the connotation of modesty and discretion.

What kind of people are we Americans, that we allow these kleptocrat’s hirelings to persist in public life? The answer, I fear, is that we have become corrupt ourselves. I’ve seen enough corruption in the Third World to know that it requires the consent of the governed. Between 1988 and 1993, I directed a Mexican research project on tax and regulatory reform. In 1990, I advised Violeta Chamorro after her election victory over Nicaragua’s Sandinistas for exactly one week, coaching her team in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Back then I was chief economist for the consulting firm Polyconomics, and I canceled the contract after one of Mrs. Chamorro’s advisers handed me our fee in the form of an envelope full of $100 bills–duly declared and reported to the U.S. tax authorities. In 1992, I was asked to advise Russian Finance Minister Yegor Gaidar on currency stabilization after the fall of Communism, and made several trips to Moscow. I never did meet Gaidar, but I saw enough of the looting of state assets to persuade me to get out of Dodge. Rather than pursue emerging markets, I shifted to quantitative modeling of high-grade bonds. Even that field turned rotten in the subprime scam two decades later, but that’s another story.

Corruption in Third World kleptocracies starts at the top but trickles down to the grass roots. Every bill-collector for the public utility takes bribes not to turn off the gas or electricity–it’s cheaper to pay a bribe than to pay the bill. Every secretary in a government office takes a tip to give you the form you need to fill out to hand to the boss who will take another mordida, or bite. Everyone hustles, everyone has a scam. The people at the bottom look up in envy and contempt at the billionaire thieves who run their country, but live their lives in emulation of them; if they were tough or smart enough, they would steal billions, too. We Americans used to be better than at. I don’t think we are any longer.

As Schweizer reports, America’s favorite power couple made millions from Kazakhstan dictator Nurslatan Nazarbayev. In 2005 Bill came to the homeland of Borat with Canadian penny-stock speculator Frank Giustra. Giustra’s  shell company UrAsia Energy, a paper entity with no track record, beat out bigger competition to scupper Kazakhstan”s uranium mining concession. Bill endorsed Nazarbayev’s bid to head the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe. a human rights organization founded by the 1975 Helsinki Accords, despite Nazarbeayev’s execrable human rights record. Senator Hillary Clinton lifted her previous objection to Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the organization.

Schweizer reports:

In the months that followed, Giustra gave the Clinton Foundation $31.3 million. It was the first of several large donations he would make as he went on to secure other lucrative national resources deals in development countries around the world…

At the time of Clinton’s visit, Kazakhstan was on the verge of a national election. Days after Clinton departed, the opposition party’s campaign headquarters were ravaged by fire in an arson attack. On October 12 heavily armed policy temporarily arrested the opposition party’s leader….In December 2005 Nazarbayev won reelection with more than 90 percent of the vote. Bill sent him a note of congratulations. “Recognizing that your work has received an excellent grade is one of the most important rewards in life,” he wrote. “At the start of your new term as president, I would like to express confidence that you will continue to live up to the expectations of your people.” The Kazakh dictator promptly released Clinton’s congratulatory note to the public.

There’s more, and more, and more in Schweizer’s book. Less astonishing than the facts he has assembled is that everything is on the public record. They put the Mexicans to shame. Latin American dictators and their cronies don’t twerk their wallets in front of the television cameras. For example: During the “reform” administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the government privatized billions of dollars of state assets, including the country’s largest commercial banks. Mexican politicians bought shares through secret Caribbean bank accounts from the government and flipped them back to private buyers at a higher price, and the private buyers took the deal as the price of admission. I know this from private-sector bidders for state assets who turned the deal down. None of it was traceable, much less visible to the public; if some public officials made vast sums from the scam, they didn’t flaunt their ill-gotten gains. They kept them in offshore bank accounts and lived with a minimum of publicity. Bill Clinton does his act in front of any gangster who will pay him–including two in Lagos, Nigeria for $700,000 each, in return for evident favors to unspeakably corrupt Nigerian “businessmen.”

Americans are becoming a nation of hustlers. 87% of American men of working age used to belong to the labor force. Now it’s down to 70%.


What are the other 30% of American men doing? Nicholas Eberstadt gave part of the answer in his 2012 book A Nation of Takers:

Although almost all families with seniors use government benefits, over a third of families without any seniors were on at least one government benefit program—even before the Great Recession.

In 2010, over 34 percent of American households received means-tested benefits—households which included nearly half of America’s children. Yet the poverty rate was only 15.1 percent.

In 1983, fewer than 30 percent of households received one or more government benefits. By 2011, this number had skyrocketed to 49 percent. Source: Eberstadt, 31–32. The growth in entitlement spending is a bipartisan phenomenon. In fact, for the last half-century, entitlement spending has grown faster under Republican presidents than under Democratic presidents.

From 1940 to 1960, entitlement transfers accounted for under a third of federal spending. Today over two-thirds of federal spending goes to entitlements. In 2010 alone, governments at all levels oversaw a transfer of $2.2 trillion—three times as much as all military and defense spending that same year.

It isn’t just government handouts, though. The subprime scam of 1998-2008 corrupted a higher proportion of Americans than any economic phenomenon since slavery (and slavery, although wicked, was legal). Filing a false mortgage application is a felony, and millions of ordinary homeowners engaged in serious fraud during the peak years of the housing boom. The chart below was included in a 2010 FBI study of mortgage fraud:


Scamming the government or scamming the banks is so commonplace that we take fraud for granted. Why shouldn’t we? The financial industry has no qualms about it. Researchers from the University of Notre Dame’s business school (courtesy of Dealbreaker)  interviewed 1,200 respondents in the U.S. and UK and found that

More than one-third (34%) of those earning $500,000 or more annually have witnessed or have first hand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace

23% of respondents believe it is likely that fellow employees have engaged in illegal or unethical activity in order to gain an edge, nearly double the 12% that reported as such in 2012.

-One in 10 respondents has signed or been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement that would prohibit reporting illegal or unethical activities to the authorities.

-This figure surges to 25% for those respondents earning $500,000 or more annually.

After the biggest scam in U.S. financial history, the Obama administration has put exactly zero bankers in jail. Of course, it has levied tens of billions of dollars of fines on the banks, which is to say on the shareholders of the banks, who are mainly pension funds and life insurance companies. In other words, the Obama Justice Department taxed the savings of ordinary people to punish the malfeasance of the bankers. The bankers who committed the crimes walked away with their bonuses except in a small number of cases.

It’s like the old joke about the housewife who calls her husband during the evening commute and says, “Be careful, dear–the television says there’s a lunatic driving in the wrong direction on the freeway.” “What do you mean, ‘lunatic?’, the husband says, “There are thousands of them!”

Democracy exists to give people the kind of government they deserve. If the American people do not have the moral fibre to extirpate corruption on the Clinton scale, they will deserve what’s coming to them.

Ted Cruz is intellectually arrogant, like Ronald Reagan. The difference is that Reagan masked his arrogance with self-deprecating humor. Sen. Cruz does a Reagan impression that would do a nightclub comedian proud, but he doesn’t have Reagan’s easy and spontaneous humor.

One doesn’t think of Reagan as arrogant,  but he was in fact the most arrogant leader we have had since Lincoln. He ignored the whole of the foreign policy establishment in his conviction that America stood to win the Cold War and bring down Communism. Then as now, the foreign policy establishment resembled Jonathan Swift’s scientists on the floating island of Laputa, treading perilously close to the edge with noses in the air.

Sen. Cruz is authentically bright, sufficiently so for the liberal Alan Dershowitz to declare that he was the best student he had ever had at Harvard’s Law School. The conservative legal theorist Robert P. George, who taught Cruz at Princeton, says the same thing. He’s so smart that he is not the least impressed by the conservative foreign policy establishment.

That’s what qualifies Ted Cruz for the presidency.  Among the Republican candidates, Cruz is the only one to state plainly that we stayed too long in Iraq and erred in trying to turn it into Switzerland. (I exclude Rand Paul, who is a dumb rube isolationist of the old school and unqualified for national office.) Contrast this to Jeb Bush, who thinks we didn’t stay long enough. Cruz still has some things to learn, to be sure. Sending arms to Ukraine, as he proposes, is pointless. Russian leader Vladimir Putin wants to keep Ukraine in civil war indefinitely, and will match whatever we send in order to do so. Putin wants revenge for the West’s effort to break Ukraine out of the Russian sphere, and leaving the West with a bloody, bankrupt, ungovernable mess on its doorstep is his best move.  As Prof. Angelo Codevilla told a Claremont Institute gathering last October, the way to frustrate Putin is to let him keep the Russian-majority Eastern Ukraine, a rust-bucket and money pit of no value to the West; the Western part of Ukraine would then be Catholic and pro-Western.

Sixteen years of George W. Bush and Barack Obama will leave the next president with a different world: a new Sino-Russian entente directed against the US, and chaos in most of the Middle East. Both are the consequence of foreign policy utopianism.  We destroyed the century-long balance of power in Iraq and Syria by forcing majority rule in Iraq, and stood godfather to a perpetual Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. We tried to flip Ukraine to the West, and Putin allied with China. We have scored nothing but own-goals. We are spending a trillion and a half dollar on the Edsel of the air, the F-35, and have allowed China to narrow the technology gap that once made the United States the dominant superpower.

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From Asia Times


There is one leader in the world who has taken courageous steps across religious boundaries to help Middle Eastern Christians in their hour of need, breaking precedent and in many cases offending adherents of his own religion.

Of course, I am not talking about Pope Francis, but about Egyptian President Fatah al-Sisi, a devout Muslim who appeared last Christmas at the cathedral of his country’s Coptic Christians, the first Egyptian leader to do so. The Copts are a persecuted minority who comprise about a tenth of the Egyptian population. The Coptic language derives from ancient Egyptian, and the Copts are the remnant of old Egypt, conquered by Alexander the Great and Christianized by Constantine, before the Arab invasion of the 7th century C.E. Standing next to the Coptic Pope Tawadros II, al-Sisi declared, “We cannot say anything but: we, the Egyptians.”

President al-Sisi is locked in a life-and-death battle against the terrorists of the Muslim Brotherhood, allied to elements of al-Qaeda. During the Muslim Brotherhood’s less than year-long reign as Egypt’s government during 2012-2013, forty Coptic churches were burned to the ground, 23 were damaged, and hundreds of Coptic Christians murdered. For the moment the Copts are secure, but we are witness to “the twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity” in the Levant, as Hisham Melham wrote 28 February in al-Arabiya.

While the government of Egypt stands siege against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Palestine branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, namely Hamas, got a boost from the Vatican May 13 when the Vatican announced that it would recognize a Palestinian State. Although the titular president of the Palestine Authority Mahmoud Abbas sat in the Vatican garden with Pope Francis for the announcement, Hamas has a margin of support over Abbas’ feckless Fatah party of 2:1 by most estimates. Abbas is in the eleventh year of a five-year term, and cannot call elections because Hamas would win. He holds office because the Israeli Army props him up in power against the radical majority.

In the Levantine war of all against all, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are not quite the same entity as ISIS, which beheads Christians en masses, rapes and enslaves Christian girls, and razes Christian churches in Iraq and Syria. Last month ISIS fighters besieged a Hamas-controlled Palestine refugee settlement at Yarmouk in Syria, killing a hundred Palestines including two Hamas leaders. But dozens of terror cells in the Gaza Strip, notionally controlled by Hamas, now are loyal to ISIS.

Judging from the opinion polls, a State of Palestine today would have a Hamas majority of about two-thirds, with substantial representation from elements of ISIS. Why would the Vatican wish this plague upon itself? If a Palestnian State rules the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian holy sites will be razed by Muslim radicals, just as they were in Iraq. Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem. How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem? The Vatican should ponder this question.

There are two answers. The first is that for the most part, Arab Christians are Arabs first and Christians second, just as French and German Christians in 1914 were French and Germans first, and Christians second. The leadership of the Arab churches in confession with Rome has always tried to prove its loyalty tot he Arab cause by taking an especially vociferous stand against Israel, for example, during the 2010 Synod of Middle East Bishops. I reviewed the sad history of Levantine Christianity in a 2009 essay for Asia Times. It is impossible to exaggerate the anguish of a Church on the verge of extinction in his historic cradle.

The second answer lies in the peculiar theology of Pope Francis himself, who has a pronounced millennarian streak, as I wrote in this space last year. For reasons we may never learn, his predecessor Benedict XVI abdicated his office in good health and fullness of intellectual powers. Benedict wanted a smaller but more devout Church; Francis wants a big tent that includes everyone, including people whose nominal acceptance of Catholic doctrine is tenuous or heretical. God in this case is in a position like that of the bondholders of Argentina, who have been neither paid nor repudiated, but wait indefinitely for the Holy Spirit to motivate some future Argentine government to make them whole. Francis is a pope for people who want the warm feeling of Catholicism without its obligations, and that is what makes him so popular.

It is one thing to forgive one’s enemies, and quite another to encourage them. That is what Pope Francis has done by recognizing the fiction of a Palestinian State. When the pope visited the Holy Land last year I warned, “ear that the Church, the founding institution of the West, its pillar and mainstay, has lost its moorings. The State of Israel will do quite well without it; it was founded in 1947 against the opposition of the Church then immeasurably more influential, and does not require the blessing of the Church to flourish today. But Bergoglio’s behavior in the Holy Land bespeaks a dilution of the Church’s self-understanding and a deviation from its mission.”

Benedict XVI emphasized God’s particular love for Israel; Francis hopes that all will be saved. Except for the good offices of the Egyptian Army and the Israel Defense Force, his hope will be vain where Middle Eastern Christians are concerned.


Muslims, Europeans and Boiled Frogs

May 7th, 2015 - 7:26 pm

from Asia Times:

Today’s New York Times editorial on the Garland, Texas affair protests a bit too much. One might expect liberal journalists to express solidarity with their murdered colleagues at Charlie Hebdo. Instead, the Times offers outright condemnation:

Some of those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may earnestly believe that they are striking a blow for freedom of expression, though it is hard to see how that goal is advanced by inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. As for the Garland event, to pretend that it was motivated by anything other than hate is simply hogwash.

Not to quibble, but a cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, like the 2005 Mohammed caricatures in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the 2014 Charlie Hebdo depictions, only reached a large Muslim audience because Muslim organizations chose to make an issue of images that appeared in obscure publications with a small circulation. The cartoonists did not cause the anguish of millions of Muslims: Muslim authorities of various sorts elicited the anguish of their constituents by denouncing them. If Muslim leaders had ignored the cartoons, the millions of devout Muslims cited by the New York Times would have gone about their daily lives suffering anguish from another source: the cruel and inevitable encroachment of modernity on traditional life.

Islam is fragile, far more fragile than the traditional Catholicism which flourished in Italy, Spain, Ireland and Quebec only two generations ago and now is in shambles. We know this because the number of live births to Muslim women is falling faster than in any documented case in the history of the world.


Fertility and faith are inextricably linked; academic literature on the theme is deep and persuasive (I reviewed it in my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). As Mary Eberstadt argued in her 2013 book How the West Really Lost God (which I reviewed here), sterile societies lose their desire to bring children into the world before they admit that they have lost their faith.

Europe had two centuries in which to adapt to the great wave of secularization, and the old adage about how to boil a frog comes to mind: drop a frog into hot water and it will leap out of the pot, but a frog left in cold water that is slowly heated will not notice that it is being boiled. The Europeans suffered the latter fate, although traditional society in some cases raged against its end, for example Spain’s Civil War. Europe had the advantage of two centuries of wealth creation, an explosion of scientific knowledge, social mobility and modern governance; Islam has the disadvantages of two centuries of economic stagnation, isolation from the scientific revolutions, the prevalence of tribal society and governance that is as cruel as it is corrupt. Modernity crept up on the Europeans, but has hit most of the Muslim world with the suddenness of a boiling bath.

That is the source of the anguish of millions of Muslims. Unlike their grandparents, who sent missionaries to the Muslim world to open Western universities that would bring the benefits of Western civilization to Muslims, today’s liberals agonize over Muslim anguish. A notable example is President Obama’s mother Ann Dunham.

Ms. Dunham abandoned her young son to return to Indonesia to complete her doctoral dissertation, entilted, “Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving against all odds.” Her struggle to help the traditional craftsmen of Indonesia in their resistance to globalization clearly formed Obama’s view of the world. He  (or perhaps Bill Ayers) wrote in Dreams of My Father;

And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.

Nostalgia for the supposedly halcyon past of traditional society, and fear for the consequences of modernity, lead the likes of the New York Times’ editors to twist themselves into pretzels when they address such issues. The Times in 1999 endorsed the showing at a public museum in New York of a supposed art work consisting of a crucifix in a vial of urine, arguing, “A museum is obliged to challenge the public as well as to placate it, or else the museum becomes a chamber of attractive ghosts, an institution completely disconnected from art in our time.” This blatant contradiction at the Times has become a staple of conservative bloggers.

In Yiddish, one says: es soll gor nisht helfen (it won’t help at all). Europe’s confrontation with modernity in the 19th and 20th centuries was tragic; Islam’s encounter with modernity, I believe, is more likely to be terminal. Some parts of the Muslim world cannot sustain the transition. A Chinese expert on South Asia told me not long ago, “Pakistan is simple. DO NOT MODERNIZE. Keep them feudal. Just make sure that the army chief of staff is the biggest feudal landlord.” That is sad to hear, but the Chinese are connoisseurs of civilization. China is proof that large populations can make the transition to modernity from traditional life. But China was “modern” in a sense from inception: it united countless ethnic and language groups into a culture founded on a common system of characters and a system of governance that at its best was a meritocracy, often destroying unruly barbarians on its borders who failed to assimilate. Most of the Muslim world by contrast is tribal. Where Muslim societies try to modernize, they typically proceed from infancy to senescence in a single generation (as in the collapse of Iran’s fertility rate from 7 children per female in 1979 to 1.6 children in 2012).

Civilizations that become aware that they have past their best-used-by-date typically destroy themselves. That is not inevitable. Some Muslim countries may succeed. Egypt is most likely to, after rejecting a brief experiment in Muslim Brotherhood rule in favor of a true moderate, President al-Sisi. Most, however, will not.

There is no greater anguish than knowing that your grandchildren–if any there be–will look with disgust at your photograph, at the quaint costumes of traditional society and antique poses, the relics of a world with which they have nothing in common. To know that the certainties of your daily life will dissolve and disappear, to be replaced by alien nations, is a kind of living death. That is the fate of traditional society everywhere. It was the fate of many of the Europeans a generation or two ago and it is the fate of the Muslims today. The survivors–if any there be– will be countries whose culture was modern from the outset–the United States of America in one way, China in another, and in yet another way Israel.

Muslim anguish will deepen, whether or not anyone publishes nasty cartoons about Mohammed (which I do not do, because I do not like vulgar insults against anyone’s religion–although I will defend to the death the right to do so). Liberals will agonize along with them. The millions of devout Muslims mentioned by the Times deserve a modicum of sympathy, for life has dealt them a losing hand. The liberals on the other hand provide a fine opportunity for Schadenfreude.

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