Two Cheers for the Neo-Conservatives

August 23rd, 2015 - 7:21 pm

Crossposted from Asia Times

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the neo-conservatives, every country looks like Poland, whose democracy movement in the 1980s was the thin end of the wedge that ruptured the Iron Curtain. When the self-styled “realist” Stephen Walt taunts the neo-conservatives as “wrong for so long” about Iraq, he occults a more important piece of history: the neo-conservatives won the Cold War and rescued the world from a nightmarish half-century. They did this when Prof. Walt and the so-called realists had one foot nailed to the metaphorical floor and were turning tight little circles in pursuit of “balance of power.”The term “neo-con” in the parlance of the global left replaces more cumbersome epiphets such as “Running Dog of Imperialism,” but it has a specific meaning. The neo-conservatives were anti-Communist social democrats recruited by Washington to fight fire with fire, through such entitles as Encounter Magazine (edited during the 1950s by the neo-conservative “godfather” Irving Kristol) and the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. Backed by the international department of the American trade union movement at the AFL-CIO, with aid from the Vatican, the democratic socialists helped the Polish Solidarnosc movement challenge the Soviet empire. President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II were the godparents of Eastern European democracy, as Thatcher aide John O’Sullivan reported in a 2007 volume.

It was the tragedy (and sometimes tragicomedy) of a lesser, second generation of neo-conservatives to imagine that the colonial construct that called itself Iraq, beset by ancient ethnic and sectarian hatred, and wallowing in backwardness and ignorance, could reproduce what the profoundly Catholic, formerly democratic, and modern nation of Poland had done. But that does not obviate the neo-conservatives’ accomplishments.

The neo-conservatives were responsible for the Reagan economic reforms that launched the longest economic expansion in US history. Irving Kristol’s small but influental magazine The Public Interest first brought the work of future Nobel Laureate Prof. Robert Mundell to broader public attention in 1974, and it was Kristol, then head of the American Enterprise Institute, who gave my future business partner Jude Wanniski a grant to write his book The Way the World Works. Mundell was not a conservative of any recognizeable ilk. On the contrary: He was trained by the arch-Keynesian and liberal economist Paul Samuelson at MIT. Mundell took the one-period, closed economy Keynesian model and turned it into a multi-period, global model, and reached radically different conclusions.

The conservatives of the 1970s (like today’s Tea Party) were small-government libertarians who wanted to cut taxes in order to “starve the beast,” that is, force cuts in government spending. Milton Friedman, their standard-bearer, was obsessed with now-discredited monetary rules and odd schemes like allowing each bank to issue its own currency after the fashion of wildcat banking in the 1940s. Ronald Reagan like to quote their anti-government rhetoric, but followed Mundell.

As Reuven Brenner and I summarized the issue some years ago:

Robert Mundell showed that an increase in government debt may sometimes represent wealth. It happens when a well-funded public debt (to borrow Hamilton’s term) is supported by future prosperity, which implies both more creation of assets and more tax revenues. Tax cuts stimulate growth and produce an increase in wealth when the rise in tax revenues exceeds the interest that the government pays on the bonds it issued to cover the initial loss in revenue. This insight underlay the “supply-side economics” of the Reagan administration, unfortunately reduced even by some of its backers into simplistic caricature.

Yet, as Mundell observed, curing the stagflation of the 1970s required fighting inflation with tight monetary policy while promoting creation of assets through tax incentives. That is just what Paul Volcker’s Federal Reserve and the Reagan administration did during the early 1980s, launching a quarter century of noninflationary prosperity.

Reagan’s tax cuts led to a substantial increase in government debt, and the government debt represented an addition to wealth, just as Mundell said it would–the opposite of the mainstream conservative agenda. The National Review never would have proposed this (and didn’t). What is more, Reagan launched a massive military buildup, including an enormous increase in government funding for basic R&D in the context of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

To be sure, the Reagan tax cuts opened wide the gates of entrepreneurship, and helped new industries and new companies overturn the stagnant corporate giants of the 1970s. Reagan unleashed the forces of the private market, but he did so by using fiscal and monetary tools in a way that the traditional conservative movement abhored on ideological grounds.

The neo-conservatives didn’t invent Reaganomics, but they adopted it and sold it to the body politic, through Jude Wanniski’s bully pulpit at the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. It helped that unlike the traditional conservatives, they bore no ideological prejudice against using the mechanisms of government where those mechanisms were helpful.

In the heady days after the fall of Communism, we all believed that we had discovered the key to everything, what Wanniski called “the way the world works.” A few trips to Russia in 1992 and 1993 as one of many neo-conservative missionaries for free-market capitalism cured me of that. In a fatherly way, Irving Kristol would admonish us that we had to pay more attention to cultural differences. He did so at a panel discussion that Wanniski’s consulting firm Polyconomics held for its clients in 1992 where I was his warm-up act. Wanniski stood up and remonstrated, “But Godfather, you told us to concentrate on the economics!” Kristol laughed and agreed. Despite Kristol’s admonition, the neo-conservatives remained social engineers, and what Charles Krauthammer in 2003 dubbed “democratic globalism” was the worst idea in American foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson.

I have spent the past fifteen years excoriating my neo-conservative friends for their obtuseness, deriding the premises of their thinking as well as its consequences.  I have proposed that parts of the world dominated by religious fanaticism must be understood through the lens of religious existentialism rather than classical political philosophy. But the likes of Stephen Walt, whose contribution to America’s Cold War triumph was on par with a root vegetable, have no right to speak of how wrong the neo-conservatives have been. Without them there would have been no Reagan administration, no Cold War victory, no great economic expansion. One shudders to contemplate what the world would have come to without Irving Kristol. They deserve two cheers for their contributions of 1949-1989, and a catcall for the follies of democratic globalism.

(New York Observer columnist Lisa Schiffren is one of the smartest journalists I know. A one-time Republican speechwriter, Lisa has written widely for conservative publications. I’m honored to offer this gem as a guest essay — DG).


Scene: A wood-paneled room, no windows, the late hour at which posh N.Y. fundraising dinners end. Hillary Clinton enters to find three middle-aged, intelligent-looking women seated at a long table. Tea and cookies are proffered. 

Good evening, Secretary Clinton. May we call you Hillary? Thank you for coming to see us. You are wondering why we have summoned you. We dislike intervening in domestic politics. But … things are a bit dire at the moment. We believe that we can help you, and you can help us.

We see that your support is down. Voters don’t trust you. They don’t think you understand their problems. That nasty piece of work, the Grand Vizier Valerie Jarrett, has leaked information about forthcoming indictments for your transgressions at the State Department. She has boxes of evidence. The accusations of financial corruption are piling high.

We know this is upsetting. But you must be coming to understand that you are not going to be president of the United States. It is possible that you will not even win your primary.

For the record, it was always going to be an uphill struggle. Your presidency seems to cycle between your two parties every eight years. We wanted you to have it in ‘08. We expected you to win your primary and the general. We were shocked to see a great party nominate someone whose disdain for America was on full display.

We wished, of course, that you had had the fortitude to release the damning information you had gathered. We knew, as you did not, that Obama was a man bent on destroying all that we love and hold dear. Yes, the Holy Land. But also, America. America first, actually. Like most students of human governance, we admire America’s Constitution above all others. We have always respected the virtue and restraint of the American people. The world’s security has rested on your nation’s righteous efforts. These years have taken a heavy toll.

But we understand that you decided to play for Obama’s team out of ambition. We respect that. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to help us now.

It is our task to inform you that the position you have lusted after for thirty years will not be yours. But we are here to offer you a different deal.

Your people are unhappy with the results of Obama’s policies. And, of course, it’s a flaw in a democracy that voters prefer candidates who are likeable. Relatable. Moses himself had a stutter. His brother Aaron did the talking. It is frightening to consider what might have occurred had he faced popular election.

It’s best if we are frank. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as things stand you will be remembered, if at all, as the unpopular, power hungry, corrupt wife of a popular president, who twice sought her own power and lost.

But we can ensure that you are not a footnote, if that, in the history books. We can guarantee you a place greater than being the first female nominee — or even the first woman president.

Hillary … we know that you are not a friend of the Jews. No, don’t bother … we’ve always known. It’s okay. You will be more effective because you are not our friend.

We are deeply concerned — worried sick is more like it — about your president’s deal with the leaders of Iran.

Governor Huckabee is close in his evaluation. He is a minister, given to dramatic pronouncements. No one likes hearing that an American president and secretary of State are all but sending Jews to the ovens. Of course, a nuclear fireball will annihilate Israel faster than any gas or oven.

Jordan, Syria, the Saudi Kingdom — they are vulnerable, too. The remaining Christians of the Levant, the small tribes, the Kurds, Turks, and anyone else with whom the ayatollahs take issue will all be vulnerable once they have these weapons. The nuclear-arms race of our nightmares has already begun.

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A Thoughtless Age

August 9th, 2015 - 5:06 pm

John Agresto’s Aug. 7 essay “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts”  is one of the more eloquent of the elegies for high culture that appear from time to time in the quality press. A former president of St. John’s College (Santa Fe), perhaps the best undergraduate Great Books program around, Agresto wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

When properly conceived and taught, the liberal arts do not by themselves make us “better people” or (God knows) more “human.” They don’t exist to make us more “liberal,” at least in the contemporary political sense. But the liberal arts can do something no less wonderful: They can open our eyes.

They show us how to look at the world and the works of civilization in serious and important and even delightful ways. They hold out the possibility that we will know better the truth about many of the most important things. They are the vehicle that carries the amazing things that mankind has made — and the memory of the horrors that mankind has perpetrated — from one age to the next. They teach us how to marvel.

Western culture has become inaccessible to the general public because we have lost the ability to see the world through the eyes of those who created it. A generation ago, the literary critic Harold Bloom complained in The Western Canon that it no longer was possible to teach English literature to undergraduates because they lacked the cultural references to make sense of it: imagine reading Moby Dick without knowing who Ishmael and Ahab were in the Bible, or Joyce’s Ulysses without knowing that someone named Homer had written an epic about a certain Odysseus. (Outside the English realm, Bloom is guilty of the same sort of ignorance, but that is a different matter).

There is a deeper problem, though: Why should we read works by long-dead authors with concerns entirely different than ours, and if we should, how can we do so?

Last week, my younger daughter (a St. John’s graduate) and I saw a Spanish-language production of Tirso de Molina’s 1630 classic The Trickster of Seville at New York’s Repertorio Espanol, a play I had been waiting to see for fifty years since I first encountered one of its derivative works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. That was Don Juan’s debut as a literary personage, and no fewer than 1,720 published versions of the story followed during the next two centuries. The original was grittier than the Johnny Depp version: Juan is a sadist, but also a believing Catholic, who expects to repent at some future date and spend eternity in heaven.

In a 2010 essay for Tablet magazine, I wrote:

Concealed in its puppet-theater plot is a Jewish joke: Don Juan exists to prove by construction that a devout Christian can be a sociopath, and by extension, that the Christian world can be ruled by sociopaths. The Enlightenment’s most insidious attack on Catholic faith, then, came not from atheists like Voltaire, but from a Spanish monk with buried Jewish sensibilities.

Juan held the audience of the 17th and 18th Centuries in thrall, because he personified the Christian world’s foreboding about its own vulnerability. Tirso’s trickster poses an impossible paradox for the Christian concept of salvation: The story is not about eros, but evil. Christian society is founded on the premise that it requires “only one precept,” as St. Augustine put it: “Love, and do as you will.” Once humankind accepts the utterly unselfish love of Jesus Christ, Christianity asserts, the elaborate body of Jewish law becomes redundant, for Christian love will elicit the right behavior spontaneously.

The trouble, Tirso demonstrates, is that society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none. Don Juan is a predator inside the Christian world with no natural enemies. Juan enjoys murdering the male relatives of his female victims almost as much he enjoys seducing the women. To the extent that we can speak of Juan’s descendants in today’s fiction, they are not so much lovers but serial killers.

When the West cared about Christianity and its paradoxes, it couldn’t take its eyes off Tirso’s villain. By the time Byron wrote his eponymous epic, Christianity had faded from the culture and with it the public’s interest in Don Juan. Without Mozart, he would be forgotten. My daughter had attended a seminar on Mozart’s opera, and we had discussed Tirso’s theological joke beforehand. She called me crestfallen afterwards: most of the students wanted to know why Don Giovanni’s behavior was a problem in the first place. Wasn’t it a lifestyle choice?

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Mel Brooks, call your office

August 9th, 2015 - 12:52 pm

Where is Mel Brooks, now that we need him? Ahe Jewish webzine Tablet, Marjorie Ingall reports on prize nominations from the Romance Writers Association for a bodice-ripper about an SS officer and a Jewish concentration camp prisoner. This is not a joke:

The hero of the book is an SS Kommandant who rescues the heroine from a firing squad in Dachau and brings her to Theresienstadt as his personal secretary. She’s blonde and blue-eyed, and he believes she’s not Jewish even though he knows she was raised in a Jewish family. They fall in love with the help of a magic Bible (!). The story is designed to be a retelling of The Book of Esther, with the prisoner Hadassah as Esther, and the high-ranking Nazi Aric as Ahasueros. (I guess that makes Hitler Haman?)

Well, we could use a prequel to “Springtime for Hitler.” But there’s nothing new about skanky Nazi-Jewish romance, in fact, nothing more distasteful than the decades-long affair between philosopher Martin Heidegger, an unrepentant Nazi and anti-Semite, and the secular Jewish philsosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt made herself hated in the Jewish world by pooh-poohing Eichmann’s crimes in her famous New Yorker series on the Eichmann trial, as mere “mediocrity of evil.” The implication was that lofty minds like Heidegger’s couldn’t be implicated in such crimes.

Arendt started sleeping with the married Heidegger as a graduate student in the 1920s, and bolstered his postwar reputation by appearing with him in public, although Heidegger had remained a Nazi Party member until 1945 and never offered  word of apology. Mel Brooks get Arendt back, though, by including her in “Young Frankenstein.” Her married name really was Frau Blucher, and her film incarnation–the aging spinster pining for the mad maker of monsters, the mention of whose name terrifies animals–suits her perfectly.



Donald Trump is a baleful influence on American politics in my view, but he’s not wrong about everything. Part of the reason for his popularity is that he refuses to carry Republican baggage from the Iraq war.

Last May he mocked Sen. Marco Rubio, telling a Fox News interviewer:

These characters, like Rubio, made a total fool of himself on Chris Wallace’s program, talking about “We’re better off without Saddam Hussein.” Give me a break. Right now we have ISIS, which is worse than Saddam Hussein.

Sadly, he’s right about Rubio, and about the Republican mainstream in general. Listening to Rubio twist and turn on Iraq was excruciating. As for Iraq, Daniel Pipes had a better take in 2003: get rid of Saddam, install a strongman we like, and then leave. But that’s beside the point.

Despite strong public opposition to the Iran nuclear non-deal, President Obama wields an enormous advantage: he can tar his opponents with the mistakes of the early 2000s, as Eli Lake complained at Bloomberg News. Obama said:

The same columnists and former elected, former administration officials that were responsible for us getting into the Iraq war and were making these exact same claims back in 2002, 2003, with respect to Iraq.

That’s a wilful misrepresentation on many levels, most of all because none of the neo-conservatives who promoted “democratic globalism” (Charles Krauthammer’s phrase) propose to occupy Iran and build a democracy as they attempted to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one is talking about boots on the ground in Iran (except, perhaps, for small special forces teams), but about surgical strikes against nuclear facilities.

Republicans, though, are terrified to use the “W” word (and I don’t mean Bush 43′s middle initial). My neo-con friends gave war a bad name. Norman Podhoretz, who fears nothing and nobody, wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal that “there was no ‘better deal’ with Iran to be had”:

Unfortunately, however, I am unable to escape the conclusion that Mr. Obama is right when he dismisses as a nonstarter the kind of “better deal” his critics propose. Nor, given that the six other parties to the negotiations are eager to do business with Iran, could these stringent conditions be imposed if the U.S. were to walk away without a deal. The upshot is that if the objective remains preventing Iran from getting the bomb, the only way to do so is to bomb Iran.

But it’s hard to find a single elected Republican who is willing to state the obvious in in public. The Republicans are pushing a mirage of a “better deal” instead of proposing the use of limited military force. That gives the advantage to Obama in one of the decisive political contests of our time.

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Trump Deserves a Darwin Award

July 30th, 2015 - 8:45 am

My inbox is full of emails touting Donald Trump’s “Time to Get Tough” book, now with Rush Limbaugh’s endorsement. He blames most of America’s problems on a “tidal wave” of illegal Hispanic immigrants and unfair Chinese trade practices. He reminds me of H.L. Mencken’s classic one-liner: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” One might add, “dangerous,” because Trump appeals to our desire to blame someone else for problems we created. If you want something to worry about, have a look at the math questions that Chinese high school students have to answer to qualify for college admission.

Let’s review the facts.

Immigration from Mexico actually fell after the 2008 crash, mainly because construction jobs disappeared.

Source: Pew Institute

The best data we have suggest that net immigration from Mexico was negative between 2005 and 2010–that is, more Mexicans left the U.S. than arrived. Hispanics, to be sure, are more visible in the workforce–their share of total employment has risen from about 14% 10 years ago to to 17% today–but that is due to the natural increase in the Hispanic population. In 1990, non-Hispanic whites had a fertility rate of 1.7 children per female, vs. 2.9 children for Hispanics. This bumper crop of Hispanic children has been entering the workforce for the past several years. But that has nothing to do with recent trends in immigration.

As for China: During the early 2000s, U.S. imports from China were growing at 20%-30% a year. Since 2011, imports from China have hardly grown. That’s because China’s currency has appreciated by one-third since 2005 (from 12 cents to the dollar to 16 cents), making Chinese goods pricier in the American market.



That’s not what we ought to be worrying about.

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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.