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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Mullah Ron Paul

December 29th, 2011 - 6:16 am

Rep. Ron Paul’s defense of Iran’s nuclear weapons program should surprise no one. The same resentment motivates Ron Paul and the Iranian leadership — a paranoid hostility toward a world that is swiftly changing and has little mercy, and a Millenarian desire to return to a mythical, untroubled past. Get rid of the Federal Reserve, scourge the bankers, return to a gold standard and erect a wall around the United States — and we will return to when? To 1957, when the Russians launched the first space satellite, alerting the United States to the danger that it might lose the Cold War? Then, as always, we prevailed, but by the skin of our teeth. Ron Paul’s program is an American version of the Iranian desire to return to a world of Islamic purity that never existed, any more than did a golden age of American isolationism.

America is not the embodiment of hope, but the abandonment of one kind of hope in return for another. America embodies the spirit of creative destruction, selecting immigrants willing to turn their back on the tragedy of their own failing culture in return for a new start. Its creative success is so enormous that its global influence hastens the decline of other cultures. For those on the destruction side of the trade, America is a monster. Now China has become an agent of creative destruction as well, the consequence of its partial adoption of the American model. China indirectly brought about the so-called Arab Spring, by driving up world grain prices and pricing the Arab poor out of the world market for food. Chinese pigs will eat before Arab peasants; food insecurity (if not actual starvation) undermined the Arab dictatorships.

Iranian resentment is understandable. They recall the Brontosaurus in an old Far Side cartoon, standing at the dais addressing an auditorium full of dinosaurs: “The climate is changing, our food supply is dwindling, and we have a brain the size of a peanut. I’d say we’re in trouble.” Islam is a religion of traditional society, of iron constraints and unquestioned hierarchies. By teaching Iranian girls to read, the late Shah set off a cultural chain-reaction: fertility has fallen from 7 children per female a generation ago to just 1.5 today, a catastrophic decline unparalleled in demographic history. And mosque attendance is down to only 2% by some estimates. Creative destruction has burst in upon Iran and turned its society inside-out. The mullahs still have all the money in Iran’s hydrocarbon monoculture, and almost all the guns, and they will do anything necessary to turn the clock back. Their world is disappearing in front of their eyes. They have nothing to lose.

Of course, the mullahs would have nothing without the global economy; after oil, Iran exports nothing but pistachios and carpets. Without foreign oil companies, the mullahs could not drill, pump, or ship their hydrocarbons. The whole apparatus of Iranian Islam is a theme park, an Shi’ite Disneyland funded by oil revenues, perpetuating a barbaric society that could not feed itself without global demand for the natural resources that, by unlucky accident, happen to be located in Iranian territory.

Mullah Paul voices the same fear and resentment in its milder American form. He has in common with the Iranians a desire to make the world go away, and a fixed idea that an evil conspiracy brought about all the problems. Ron Paul isn’t an Iranian, to be sure; he’s just the closest an American can come to thinking like an Iranian without actually moving there.

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Civil War as the Second-Best Option

December 23rd, 2011 - 12:50 pm

The best is the enemy of the good, Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. liked to say. The best option for the Muslim states of the Middle East and Western and Central Asia is liberal democracy. That, I have argued for years, is unattainable. For years, the second-best option was a dictatorship friendly to American interests. That option collapsed with the Tunisia uprising a year ago, when it became clear that the dictatorships could not even reward subservience with nutritional security (as I wrote last Feb. 2 under the title, “Food and Failed Arab States“). Sixty years of Nasserite dictatorship left Egypt with 45% illiteracy, unemployed and unemployable youth, and 50% dependency on food imports.

Now the options in Egypt appear to be stable rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, or disintegration. Which benefits American interests more?

The options in Syria are similar: continuing civil war between Muslim Brotherhood-led Sunnis and the Alawite Assad regime. Which do we prefer — a stable ally of Iran, or chaos?

The options in Iraq may come down to a pro-Iranian Shi’ite dictatorship, or a permanent multi-sided ethnic and sectarian civil war. I forecast this outcome (“General Petraeus’ Thirty Years War”) after the United States funded and armed the Sunni Awakening. Again, which is better for the United States: a stable Iranian ally, or perpetual civil war? Outside of the Salafist theme park known as Saudi Arabia, where oil revenues sustain a caricature of traditional society, and a couple of other oil states, that is the question to be asked from North Africa to Afghanistan.

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Note: This essay was first published two years ago on the website of First Things magazine. It referred to a specific circumstance of the Jewish calendar: the fact that Sabbath that year  fell twice within the eight days of Hanukkah. Nonetheless its content is sufficiently general to allow republication in honor of the Festival of Lights that begins at sundown tomorrow.
Dec 18, 2009

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights commemorating the miraculous restoration of the Temple following the Hasmonean expulsion of the Greek occupiers from Jerusalem in 165 B.C., began this year on Friday evening, the beginning of the Sabbath. When the Hanukkah holiday begins on a Friday night, the eight days of celebration will end on Shabbat as well. The coincidence of two Shabbatot with the Festival of Lights is a matter of great moment, for both the celebration of Shabbat and the observance of Hanukkah constitute a direct link to the Temple, the dwelling-place of theShekhinah—God’s indwelling on earth—and the wellspring of eternal life in the language of the Psalms.

In modern America, Hanukkah has become the Jews’ poor cousin to Christmas, a gift-giving and house-decorating holiday that shows drearily in juxtaposition to the universal Christian holiday. But the sages of antiquity instituted Hanukkah as a feast in perpetuity, not to commemorate a military victory, but to celebrate the miracle that ensued upon the dedication of the despoiled Temple. A single day’s supply of oil for the Menorah, specially purified for ritual use, burned miraculously for eight days. But the miracle too often is relegated to folklore attendant upon past glory. That sort of presentation of the Festival of Lights is a dissipation of the inheritance of Jewish children, whose home should be the living extension of the Temple. The parallelism to Christmas is far deeper than the annual trek to the toy store: where Jesus is to Christians the Temple and its promise of eternal life, the observant Jewish home is testimony that the Temple lives on in the Jewish home. It lives directly and literally, for the flame of the Hanukkah candles is the living and eternal flame of the great Menorah of the Temple still burning in the windows of Jewish homes.

The Hanukkah miracle does not so much symbolize as embody the eternal life of the people Israel. As Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson write in their 2008 book Resurrection, the “experience of the Temple in Jerusalem” is “an intimation of immortality, for “the Temple is the antipode of Sheol, as life is the opposite of death,” and “longing for the Temple can also represent a longing for immortality.” Hanukkah observance in the home, like the Shabbat ritual itself, transfers the functions of the Temple to the home.

This is misunderstood, or ignored, by secularizing Jews who find unreasonable the promise of eternal life. Writing in the New York Times December 10, 2009, David Brooks sympathizes with the Greek occupiers: “At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. . . . It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem. Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas,” just like the reasonable Brooks.

Brooks is not sure that he likes the outcome. “The Jewish civil war raised questions: Who is a Jew? Who gets to define the right level of observance? It also created a spiritual crisis. This was not a battle between tribes. It was a battle between theologies and threw up all sorts of issues about why bad things happen to faithful believers and what happens in the afterlife — issues that would reverberate in the region for centuries, to epic effect.”

There is a bit of misrepresentation here, an anti-salvation history, perhaps, as Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson observed in an essay on www.yeshiva.net. Brooks, Rabbi Jacobson drily observes,

sheds light on the brighter side of the Greeks…and also illuminates the darker side of the Maccabees, who liberated the Jews from barbaric Syrian-Greek oppression, but whose own regime became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. While admiring the Greek contributions to civilization – its politics, philosophy, art and architecture—it is easy to forget what Greek society was really like. Mr. Brooks fails to discuss the barbaric daily practices in Hellenist culture—Infanticide, pedophilia, pederasty, the Spartan lifestyle, and the glorification of torture in many instances. None other than Aristotle himself argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote: “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state.”

Apart from the odd paramour of an Olympian who turned into a star or a flower, no Greek expected to escape death, which was a dismal affair, as the shade of Achilles complained to Odysseus. Jews may or may not adopt the ambient culture—that separates today’s Modern Orthodox and Haredi—but what makes them Jews is their expectation that God will deliver them from death. What separates observant Jews from soon-to-be-former-Jews, though, is the very un-Hellenic idea that God so loved Abraham that he offered eternal life to the people Israel.

In Hasmonean times this promise of eternal life was manifest in the Temple at Jerusalem. But the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Not long ago a Catholic prelate asked me: “I never quite understood how Temple Judaism became rabbinic Judaism. Just how did that happen?” I answered: “Excellency, the altar of the Temple was smashed into millions of pieces, but each of them became the Sabbath table of a Jewish home. Come to my house any Friday evening, and I will show you the Temple.” The coincidence of the Sabbath with the first night of Hanukkah brings an additional dimension of continuity of the Temple with the Jewish home.

The Sabbath is both a remembrance of Creation—whose purpose was to create the single Day that stands outside of temporality—and the Exodus from Egypt, the moment of creation of God’s people—in the words of the Friday evening Kiddushchanted at the Sabbath table. It is also a continuation of the Temple itself.

When Hanukkah falls on Sabbath, all the symbols of the Temple live and shine again inside the Jewish home. The Sabbath table with its two loaves of Challah (representing the two rows of showbread at the Temple) is an extension of the Temple altar. The head of household acts in place of the priest, blessing the children of the family by laying on of hands, and offering the benediction of Numbers 6:24: “May the Lord bless you and keep you: May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” The three Sabbath meals, an obligation of Jewish law, recalls the Jerusalem Temple and helps keep alive the belief that it will some day be restored.

Hanukkah transplants another dimension of the holiness of the Temple into the Jewish home: the seven-branched Menorah, which can be seen on the Arch of Titus at the ancient Roman Forum, carted away by Roman soldiery. The eight-branch menorah of Hanukkah, once a year, is lit in continuity with the purloined Menorah—not as a remembrance, but as a living recreation of the eternal flame.

This is explained by rabbinic authorities cited by Nathaniel Helfgot on the “Text and Texture” blog sponsored by the Orthodox Union. As Rabbi Helfgot reports, Rabbi Isaac Judah Trunk of Kutno (1879–1939) “proffers a fascinating theory in relation to the genesis of the lighting of Chanukah candles. He begins by noting that in the famous Talmudic discussion about the origin of Chanukah the section concludes with the statement that the next year they established it as a holiday “with Hallel and Thanksgiving” without any mention of the institution of the lighting of candles in each and every home.”

Rabbi Trunk wrote,

Since it is explained in the derasha of Hazal [the sages of late antiquity] cited by Ramban [Nachmanides] (Bemidbar 8:12) that the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles is an extension of the mitzvah of the lighting of the Menorah in the Temple, that through the lighting of Hanukkah candles, the lighting in the Temple is continued eternally, it is not far from (reason) to conclude that in truth, as long as the Temple stood, Hazal did not institute the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles, for at that time the Menorah in the Temple was still functioning…and only once the Temple was destroyed were Hazal concerned that the miracle might be forgotten for the lights of the Temple Menorah had been extinguished. Therefore, Hazal instituted the mitzvah of lighting on the doorsteps as a continuation of the mitzvah to light in the Temple.

Rabbi Helfgot further cites the interpretation of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903–1993), the Rav of Modern Orthodox Judaism:

This novel, some might say radical, suggestion yields an interesting view of the neirot [lights]  of Hanukkah. In contrast to other rabbinic practices that are termed zeikher le-mikdash [remembrance of the Temple], no such terminology is used in the halakhic literature to describe the lighting of the candles. In short, in this conception, the candles are not a zeikher [remembrance], but actually a continuation of the original mitzvah. In this reading it emerges that the home, the house itself, becomes the mikdash [Temple] in an intense fashion with the menorah perched in its outer “chamber”. We usually think of the synagogue as serving in the role of mikdash me’at [Temple in minature], but in this reading the home itself has taken on that role.

Judaism is not a doctrine but a life: the continuation of the life of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Hanukkah is the living continuation of the Temple of Jerusalem, and Jewish children should understand that the great gift of Hanukkah is to keep alive eternally the sacred fire of the Temple.

During Thanksgiving week of 2009 the death of a close friend took me to Israel for a funeral and shiva. A bright light in that sad occasion was the opportunity to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, and to say Kaddish (with a minyan of Hasidim) for my late mother at the conclusion of the prescribed eleven months following her passing. My mother was not an observant woman, but the lighting of Hanukkah candles was a solemn event in our house, and the first Hebrew prayer I learned was the Hanukkah blessing of God “who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time of year.” To pray at the Wall is a reminder of the Messianic promise, for the Shekhinah, as the sages explained, went into exile with the Jewish people; it no longer dwells on the Temple Mount but in the fragile flames of the Sabbath candles, and, once a year, when a Jewish mother kindles the Temple flame before her children upon the eight-branched candelabra of her home.

Thomas Friedman and the Higher Education Bubble

December 18th, 2011 - 12:00 am

That Thomas Friedman would spout stupidity and anti-Semitism surprises me no more than the appearance of a gumball after I put a quarter into the machine and turn the knob. But one line in the New York Times‘ calumnist’s (sic) Dec. 13 tantrum against Israel was worth a double-take:

I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby. The real test is what would happen if Bibi tried to speak at, let’s say, the University of Wisconsin. My guess is that many students would boycott him and many Jewish students would stay away, not because they are hostile but because they are confused.

Why on earth is the “real test” at the University of Wisconsin? For liberals, the only people who count are the smart people, because it is an article of faith that  social engineering can fix all the world’s problems, and a logical conclusion that only smart people qualify as social engineers. It doesn’t matter what the dumb people think. They are the ones who need to be socially engineered. To Friedman, it is irrelevant whether Americans at large support Israel by a 4:1 margin or better, and that support for Israel is growing steadily, as the Gallup Poll consistently shows:

Middle East Sympathies, Full Trend, 1988-2011

That poll includes dumb people, so it doesn’t count. To Friedman, what matters is what university audiences might think. The insularity of the liberal mind is astonishing. It brings to mind the anecdote about Emperor Ferdinand of Austria (deposed for incompetence in 1848). He went hunting and shot and eagle. The bird fell to his feet, and Ferdinand said, “It’s got to be an eagle — but it’s only got one head!”

The American university system exists for the most part to produce the social engineers who will fix all the world’s problems. During the 1960s, those of us who had the misfortune to attend the better colleges were taught that our mission was to make the world perfect, through the Great Society, arms control, internationalism, disarmament, and so forth. When the Vietnam War and the urban riots of the 1960s showed that the liberalism of our elders had not fixed the world’s problems, we abominated them, and pursued even more radical versions of social engineering. The radicalization of the universities produced a generation of clever people unsuited to productive activity in the real world but skilled at bloviating, and they became the tenured faculty of today. And their salaries, privileges, and perks continued to grow to the point that $50,000 in annual tuition barely covers them. Overall CPI is up 70% since 1990, but tuition and fees have risen by 300%.

tuition-cpi-college

Source: Moody’s

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According to a review of Joseph Epstein’s new book on gossip, the author argues that

…gossip is a delicious human vice, one that people should most certainly indulge, but in moderation. The problem, as Epstein sees it, is that the old, intimate style of gossip, practiced in the neighborhood, or within the royal court, or among friends and frenemies — a style that required tact, discretion and wit — has been replaced in the age of mass communications by the crude violation of tabloid and Internet gossip.

What distinguishes the “delicious human vice” from the mass market item?

As an example of the old gossip, Epstein offers a chapter on the Duc de Saint-Simon, Louis XIV’s court yenta. Saint-Simon was the most discreet gossip imaginable. He arrived at Versailles in 1691, at the age of 16, and three years later he began taking careful notes on everything he saw and heard. He wrote up his memoirs after leaving court; they were published quite posthumously, in 1788, making Saint-Simon, as Epstein admits, less a gossip than a gossip historian.

But Saint-Simon was a great aesthete of gossip and, according to Epstein, “deplored raucous, scattershot, motiveless gossip, or so he claimed. His own gossip tended to be subtle, well aimed, and (he would assure you) never out of line because of the purity of his own motives.”

Kim Kardashian and Saint-Simon are an unlikely pairing, but the highbrow-lowbrow distinction is less important than what they have in common. In a celebrity culture, people are famous for being famous; in court culture (royal, authoritarian, or corporate), people are promoted for being promoted, or punished for being punished. It is a commonplace that Stalin’s terror succeeded because it destroyed people at random, but promotion at random is the flip side of the coin. Severing reward from accomplishment is just as important to autocrats as separating punishment from crime. To wield arbitrary power, the king/dictator/CEO must wield power arbitrarily.

That is when gossip reigns. Every dictatorship lives off a rumor mill; no-one knows who will be rewarded or punished in the next round, so the principal occupation is speculating about it. Gossip also provides a store of weapons to be used against prospective rivals; since no-one knows who will be a friend and who will be a rival in the next round, everyone gathers dirt on everyone. The same principle applies to a fixed population of marriageable women competing for the same population of prospective husbands, for example.

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From YaLibnan:

Egypt’s new interim prime minister broke into tears in front of journalists on Sunday as he spoke about the state of the country’s economy, saying it was “worse than anyone imagines.

Egypt’s transition in the months since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster has been rocky, with protests against the military council leading the process, an increase in crime and the battering of the tourism industrythat was once a pillar of the economy.

Kamal el-Ganzouri, the third temporary prime minister since Mubarak’s ouster in February, said his priorities were the restoration of security and economic progress.

At one point in his news conference, el-Ganzouri became teary eyed as he recalled seeing “an Egyptian man on TV saying I want security, not bread.”

That’s ridiculous. What I imagine is worse than el-Ganzouri imagines, by a long shot. I’ve been predicting a Somalia-on-the-Nile for months, with millions of deaths by starvation–a humanitarian catastrophe of biblical proportions. There never was a liberal revolution in Egypt, as the credulous left and Pollyannish right proclaimed earlier this year. Today’s absolutely must-read Middle East story is at the Jewish website The Tablet. Amr Bargisi and Samuel Tadros write, “Boosters insisted the Egyptian revolution would yield a liberal democracy. Islamists’ electoral success vindicates the pessimists.” I agree completely; my only caveat is that Egypt, which imports half its caloric consumption and is about to go dead flat broke, will dissolve into starvation-driven chaos. The story of Egypt’s supposedly democratic revolution will end like the Buendia family at the end of Garcia Marquez’ Hundred Years of Solitude. A great wind will blow the whole place away, like the biblical plagues, except entirely man-made and self-inflicted.

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Why did the mainstream American Jewish organizations react so angrily to Israeli government advertisements urging expatriates in America to come home? In a “Spengler” essay at Asia Times Online today, I observe that the same Jewish organizations who denounced the Immigration Ministry’s videos as “offensive” and “insulting” regularly publish Jeremiads about the decline of American Jewish life. Outside of the small but fast-growing Orthodox community, Jewish demographics are imploding.

As I wrote in my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too):

Nowhere is the fertility gap between religious and non-religious more extreme than among American Jews. As a group, American Jews show the lowest fertility of any ethnic group in the country. That is a matter of great anguish for Jewish community leaders. According to sociologist Steven Cohen, “We are now in the midst of a non-Orthodox Jewish population meltdown. … Among Jews in their 50s, for every 100 Orthodox adults, we have 192 Orthodox children. And for the non-Orthodox, for every 100 adults, we have merely 55 such children.”

According to the last National Jewish Population Survey in 2000, the ultra-Orthodox in the U.S. have an average of 7 children per family and the Modern Orthodox 3.4, while Reform Jews have only 1.34 and secular Jews only 1.2.  Jonathan Sarna observed in the Dec. 2 Wall Street Journal that the Jewish organizations have undertaken no new census of American Jews in more than a decade. One wonders if they are afraid of what they might find today.

Half of the non-Orthodox children, moreover, marry non-Jews, and very few children of mixed marriages will remain Jewish. As Reform Rabbi Lance J. Sussman wrote in 2010, “With the exception of a number of Orthodox communities and a few other bright spots in or just off the mainstream of Jewish religious life, American Judaism is in precipitous decline … the Reform movement has probably contracted by a full third in the last ten years!”

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Corruption and Islamism in Egypt

December 2nd, 2011 - 11:37 am

Egypt under Mubarak was a tightly-controlled kleptocracy, and Egypt since Mubarak has been an uncontrolled kleptocracy, in which public officials steal whatever isn’t tied down. Shiploads of rice, diesel fuel, and other tradables are leaving Egyptian ports for hard-currency markets, while the country–which imports half its caloric consumption–runs out of money. Mubarak’s elite has helicopters revving on their roofs. It’s no surprise Islamists swept this week’s parliamentary elections. Whom do we expect Egyptians to vote for?

A new book by an economics reporter at Egypt’s al-Wafd party’s newspaper alleges massive corruption at the country’s central bank. Reviewed in al-Wafd newspaper today, the book by Mohamed Adel Ajmi claims that central bank chief Farouk Abd El Baky El Okdah exercises one man rule over the country’s banking system through cronies in all the central bank’s major departments. The central bank’s reserves, Ajmi claims, are unaudited and subject to the personal control of the central bank governor, who abused his position to enrich political allies of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Theft on the grand scale from central banks is nothing new in the Muslim world. Last September, “Mahmoud Bahmani, the head of Iran’s Central Bank, denied rumours that $2-billion has already been transferred out of the country as part of a $3-billion embezzlement,” for example. The al-Wafd report has some credibility, considering that the Egyptian military dismissed all the central bank’s outside directors in October, leaving no-one but political appointees.

The central bank has financed perhaps $7 billion of flight capital out of its reserves, according to Raza Agha of Royal Bank of Scotland, as the Financial Times reported Nov. 4. Egypt’s spendable liquid reserves are well below the $22 billion figure mentioned in most news accounts–probably $13 billion, according to Agha, or less than three months’ import coverage.

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