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Monthly Archives: December 2012

(Cross-posted from Asia Times Online.)

Consider two situations. First, a madman kills 20 schoolchildren in America for unexplained reasons. Second, Muslim terrorists kill 22 children in Israel (at Ma’alot in 1974), or 186 children at Beslan in the Russian Caucusus in 2004, for clearly stated reasons.

What do they have in common?

The suicidal jihadi is the Doppelganger of the angst-ridden Westerner. The jihadi attempts to reconstruct a faux version of a traditional society that cannot survive the bright light of modernity; the Westerner seeks distractions from the inevitability of death. What the jihadi does in practice, the jaded West does in its imagination — and occasionally in real life.

Slaughter of innocents is commonplace in many Muslim countries. In this morning’s news, we hear that 10 Afghan girls were killed by a roadside bomb, and that 27 Iraqis were killed by bombs near Mosul. The National Counterterrorism Center counts 79,766 terror attacks from 2004 through 2011, with 111,774 killed and 228,317 wounded. It does not report how many of the dead and injured were children.

Why are so many Muslims willing to kill themselves and others? It is an expression of cultural despair. Muslim civilization is disintegrating under the onset of modernity, as I argued in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). The encroaching sense of social death motivates the most horrific sort of acts.

What kind of mind could walk into an elementary school and shoot 20 young children to death? Whatever it was that motivated the Sandy Hook killer, he had something in common with the Chechnyan and Arab terrorists who systematically murdered 186 school children during the 2004 Beslan massacre. That probably was the single most horrific act since the downfall of National Socialism.

The slaughter of children is sufficiently rare in the West that it overwhelms us with horror and grief. There have been five school shootings in Europe during the past 10 years with 10 or more dead, and two in the United States — the 2007 Virginia Tech incident and the Sandy Hook shootings. Despite its much stricter gun control, Europe has been the scene of more mass school killings than the United States. We Americans would be fooling ourselves to think that stricter gun laws would help.

Meanwhile, we in the West suppurate in imagined mass killings. The only surprising thing is that we are surprised when the fantasy turns into reality in the case of a deranged individual. The horror genre consumes a tenth of Hollywood’s total output of films and television programs. The zombie apocalypse, with its images of repetitive killing, is the subject of the most-popular cable series ever, AMC’s The Walking Dead.

And that doesn’t count the action films whose main content is the mowing down of numerous assailants by a heavily armed hero. We should not be surprised at incidents like the Sandy Hook horror. We should be surprised, instead, that deranged individuals do not cross the line between fantasy mass killing with greater frequency.

Why does the West wallow in images of death — not merely death, but death in massive doses, in the form of zombie armies of the walking dead? Jihadi atrocities and mass murders in the West do not occur in different worlds. On September 11, 2001, the horror of Muslim despair broke into American consciousness. As I wrote on the 10th anniversary of the attack (How the hijackers changed American culture, Asia Times Online, September 8, 2011), the popularity of horror films increased sharply after 9/11, from one in 25 in 2000 to one in 10 in 2009. During the 1930s, the proportion was only one in 200.

Earlier this year, I wrote :

We have dismissed the Jewish and Christian hope of eternal life as superstition offensive to reason, but instead, we find ourselves trapped in a recurring nightmare. We know that we will die, but (as Woody Allen said) we don’t want to be there when it happens. We act as if exercise, antioxidants and Botox will keep the reaper away, but we know that our flesh one day must putrefy nonetheless. The more we try to ignore death, the more it fascinates us. The more we tell ourselves that mortality doesn’t apply to us, the more it surrounds us. And the more we try to fight off the fear, the more we feel like the beleaguered survivors resisting the zombie herd. (Zombies remind us that death is social, Asia Times Online, May 15, 2012.)

Nothing horrifies more than the murder of children. It is not only that all children are beautiful in their own way, and that their innocence testifies to something inherently good in humankind. Children are our future. We know that we will die, and we hope that something will remain of our time on earth after we die. Otherwise our lives will have no ultimate meaning.

Man’s much-discussed search for meaning is a search for enduring meaning. The murder of children is the ultimate rejection of life, for it destroys our hope to bringing meaning to our own lives. Among the pool of prospective suicides, there is a small but disturbing number who not only wish to destroy their own life, but life in general. These are the candidates for mass killings.

Enlightened secular culture tells us that the brain is a machine, albeit a very sophisticated one, that ultimately will be decoded by the neuroscientists; that sin and salvation were sad imaginings of our ignorant ancestors; that the soul is an illusion of flickering neural impulses; that human life has nothing more to offer than fleshly satisfaction combined with a random sense of idiosyncratic spirituality; that our choices of lifestyle are ultimately arbitrary, such that every culture, quirk, and sexual subculture has equal rights to social esteem; that there is nothing sacred to human sexuality, such that we may enjoy our partner’s bodies the that the only truth is that there is no truth; and that we are all one our own to seek whatever meaning we might eke out of the chaos.
That is a prescription for despair, and to counteract the effects of postmodern despair we consume vast amounts antidepressants, tranquilizers and narcotics. Eleven percent of Americans take antidepressants, the most-prescribed drug in the US.

If it were not for the residue of Judeo-Christian faith, a great many more people would go mad, and kill themselves, or kill others around them. Most Americans still believe in a personal God, even if their idea of what this God might require of them might be vague and confused. Our laws, institutions and common civility derive from this heritage of faith.

Our civilization is not doomed by modernity. To a great extent, our civilization is what made modernity in the first place. We have good reason for optimism. Nonetheless, despair is gaining ground. The fantasy-world of our young people revolves around objects of horror: zombies, vampires, werewolves, demons, not to mention human mass killers. What people do in fantasy, they also can do in reality. We should be afraid – very afraid.

Constitutionally, it is easier for Americans to censor film violence than to restrict the possession of firearms. There is a constitutional guarantee of the right to bear arms, but no such guarantee of the right to splash rivers of fake blood across movie screens. That is a matter of judicial interpretation of the First Amendment. Censorship of violence might or might not survive court challenges, but it is time to make a stand.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman, president of Macrostrategy LLC. His book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It’s Not the End of the World – It’s Just the End of You, also appeared recently, from Van Praag Press. 

A Worthy “Hobbit”

December 16th, 2012 - 8:52 am

Peter Jackson’s first of three Hobbit films took a thrashing from the critics, who disliked the effect produced the new 48-frames-per-second projection system. This makes everything a bit too clear, a bit too smooth, such that sets and costumes seemed artificial to some. It is off-putting at first. Halfway through the film, though, I suddenly thought, “This is the way I saw the world when I was a child!” There are many wonderful things about Jackson’s film, of which the choice of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins stands at the top of my list; unlike the listless Elijah Wood, a boy playing the role of the middle-aged Frodo in the “Ring” trilogy, Freeman is a grown-up. He is a master of English understatement but also an actor of great range, and he carries the film brilliantly. As in the Rings trilogy the sets and settings are marvelous. Especially gratifying was the inclusion of many of Tolkien’s poems with affecting settings by Howard Shore.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s enduring popularity is cause for hope in popular culture. He did not write fantasy so much as roman à clef about the past and future of the West. His Hobbits are the English standing against totalitarian aggression — the two towers of Berlin and Moscow — with decency and courage. “Alone among 20th century novelists, J.R.R. Tolkien concerned himself with the mortality not of individuals but of peoples. The young soldier-scholar of World War I viewed the uncertain fate of European nations through the mirror of the Dark Ages, when the life of small peoples hung by a thread. In the midst of today’s Great Extinction of cultures, and at the onset of civilizational war, Tolkien evokes an uncanny resonance among today’s readers,” I wrote when the first of the Ring films appeared. I am no maven where Christian literature is concerned, but Tolkien’s theological depth impressed me:

Tolkien is a writer of greater theological depth than his Oxford colleague C S Lewis, in my judgment. Lewis is a felicitous writer and a diligent apologist, but mere allegory along the lines of the Narnia series can do no more than restate Christian doctrine; it cannot really expand our experience of it. Tolkien takes us to the dark frontier of a world that is not yet Christian, and therefore is tragic, but has the capacity to become Christian. It is the world of the Dark Ages, in which barbarians first encounter the light. It is not fantasy, but rather a distillation of the spiritual history of the West. Whereas C S Lewis tries to make us comfortable in what we already believe by dressing up the story as a children’s masquerade, Tolkien makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Our people, our culture, our language, our toehold upon this shifting and uncertain Earth are no more secure than those of a thousand extinct tribes of the Dark Ages; and a greater hope than that of the work of our hands and the hone of our swords must avail us.

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Speaking at a private meeting this week, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned that he had “bargaining chips” to use against the Muslim Brotherhood, which he denounced as a “new extremist alliance” in the Arab world. The news site AI-Monitor today translates a report from al-Hayat, citing sources from the meeting. “Rhe Jordanian monarch was full of reproach for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood,” al-Hayat wrote. “The king added that the Egyptian leadership had ‘marginalized the Jordanian role during the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to stop the recent aggression on the Gaza Strip.’”

The Muslim Brotherhood has targeted Jordan’s monarchy as the next domino to fall after Egypt. At the Dec. 10 meeting, King Abdullah accused Egypt of economic sabotage.

The king said that “Jordan was severely damaged as a result of frequent interruptions of Egyptian natural gas, which cost the state treasury about 5 billion Jordanian dinars [$7.04 billion],” stressing that the interruption of gas ”is the real reason behind the economic crisis plaguing the country.”

Under previous agreements with the Egyptian authorities, Jordan used to import 80% of its gas needs for the production of electricity, which equates to a daily amount of about 6.8 million cubic meters of imported gas. However, the pipeline which supplies gas to Jordan and Israel was subsequently the target of frequent bombings.

The Jordanian monarch warned that his country would retaliate:

King Abdullah II said that “Amman has bargaining chips through which it can send messages to Cairo, including the fact that 500,000 Egyptians are working in Jordan. Moreover, the kingdom is the only passageway for Egyptian vegetables being exported to Iraq, and tens of thousands of Egyptians working in the Gulf states are using the Nuweiba-Aqaba waterway in their travels.”

…Other official sources talked about the arrest of thousands of Egyptian workers who have breached the conditions of their residency in the past two weeks, as well as the deportation of about 1,900 of them to Egypt, according to Jordanian Minister of Labor Nidal Qatamin. He said his country is not targeting Egyptian laborers, saying that the deportation decisions resulted from “violations of the usual procedures and applicable laws.” Remarkably, according to official sources, of the 500,000 Egyptians working in Jordan, approximately 320,000 have violated the conditions of their residency.

It is unlikely that Jordan would take on Egypt without strong backing from Saudi Arabia. A further 1.7 million Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia and an additional 500,000 in Kuwait. The Egyptian diaspora is the last thing holding up Egypt’s economy. Workers’ remittances stood at $18 billion in 2010, according to the World Bank, or about half of Egypt’s present $36 billion trade deficit. The expulsion of Egyptian workers from the Arab monarchies would have catastrophic impact on the disintegrating Egyptian economy. Two million Egyptians worked in Libya before the civil war, but many fled the country earlier this year.

As it is, President Morsi was forced to postpone negotiations on a proposed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund,  after scrapping a proposed tax increase that the IMF considered a condition for the package. With a government budget deficit at 11% of GDP and a trade deficit at 16% of GDP, Egypt must cut expenditures to survive financially. No Egyptian government, though, appears capable of persuading a population half of which lives on less than $2 a day to accept austerity.

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

If the re-elected Obama administration has not quite shown its true colors, it’s given the world a peek.  As former UN Ambassador John Bolton observed, the Palestine Authority could not have swung a UN vote for “observer” status without the passive support of Washington. After Israel responded to the Palestinian end-run around the Oslo Agreement by approving 3,000 new apartments in a Jerusalem suburb, five European countries–Spain, Britain, Denmark, France and Sweden–formally reprimanded Israel by summoning its ambassador, an unprecedented diplomatic step. As the Daily Telegraph wrote Dec. 4, the gang of five did so in connivance with the Obama administration.

The newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, quoted unnamed Israeli diplomats as saying the outcry could not have occurred without the complicity of the Obama administration, which has profound differences with Mr Netanyahu over settlements.

“We would not be mistaken to say that Europe was acting with Washington’s encouragement,” the paper’s commentator, Shimon Shiffer wrote. “The White House authorised Europe to pounce on the Netanyahu government and to punish it.”

One Israeli official told the Daily Telegraph that while the US was unlikely to have ordered such a move, it may have signalled approval.

“It’s more likely that they [the Americans] have been informed and have not raised any objection, but also showed some understanding and maybe even more,” he said. “There’s probably an understanding between the US and the Europeans that this is the right thing to do at this point.”

But it really doesn’t matter what Britain, Spain, Denmark, France and Sweden think. There’s only one European country whose opinion matters, and that is Germany — where Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received a warm welcome from Chancellor Angela Merkel. Washington sandbags America’s closest ally while Berlin gives it backing. The world is changing. Obama’s strategic withdrawal, while lamentable, has one good side: it limits Obama’s capacity to do damage.

Here is how Akiva Eldar read the Netanyahu-Merkel meeting in AI-Monitor, a Middle Eastern news site that tilts towards the Arab viewpoint:

The summoning of Israel’s ambassadors to the European capitals in the wake of the decision to approve the construction of some 3,200 housing units between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim took place only after those countries rejected Israel’s demand that they vote against the admission of Palestine as a nonmember observer state of the UN. The parties to the left of the right-wing Likud Party as well as some political pundits portrayed Germany’s decision to abstain at the UN General Assembly vote and its strong protest against the decision regarding E1 as a colossal diplomatic failure. They called the crisis in the relationships with Chancellor Angela Merkel — Israel’s greatest supporter in Europe — as a monumental failure by Netanyahu’s government.

But lo and behold, at the end of that week, Israeli voters saw Netanyahu sporting a broad smile while standing next to Merkel at the press conference in Berlin shortly after their meeting. The prime minister had good reason to feel content with his host; the headlines that had previously reported a rift with Germany were supplanted by the chancellor’s wishy-washy statement that “with regard to the settlements, we agreed to disagree. That topic has been addressed time and again, yet this doesn’t prevent us from exchanging similar views on security issues that are important to Israel […] As close partners, we can convey our assessment whether it would be correct or incorrect to promote the two-state solution, and there’s disagreement on this point.” Merkel explained that “Israel is a sovereign state that will make its own decisions.”

“When an important state such as Germany brushes a flagrant violation of the law and international consensus under the red-carpet treatment it gives Netanyahu, it in fact endorses the joint Likud-Beitenu slate as well as the settlements in the eyes of the Israeli voter,” Eldar fulminated.

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Prospective economic ruin has energized Egypt’s political crisis since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. Mohammed Morsi’s Islamists and the opposition are not battling in the streets of Egyptian cities about economics,  to be sure, but about how to govern a country that cannot meet the basic needs of most of its citizens. Egypt’s pound dropped suddenly on the foreign exchange market Thursday as the country’s central bank announced a drop in foreign exchange reserves during November. If the pound collapses–and it is hard to see how this can be avoided–the cost of necessities will soar and the crisis will deepen.

Egyptian Pounds to US Dollar

Egyptian news media are reporting signs of crumbling as the country’s cash runs out. Western media have focused on the politics and the street fighting, but have reported almost nothing about the breakdown of economic life. Arab-language media, though, are full of alarming news. A few examples:

  • The Food Industries Association warned Nov. 27 that lack of foreign exchange to purchase food commodities may reduce food imports by 40% during the next several months. Egypt imports half its total food consumption. Upper Egypt already is suffering a drop in food supplies (I presume other than state-subsidized bread) by 40%. Banks are refusing to  provide financing for food imports because importers are already deeply in arrears.
  • The Misr Beni Suef Cement company shut five plants due to a natural gas shortage.
  • An epidemic of bird flu threatens to destroy Egypt’s chicken population because of a lack of natural gas to heat poultry farms.
  • Egypt’s government electricity company warned that the provision of power is in danger because government agencies are 15 billion Egyptian pounds (US $2.5 billion) in arrears on their electricity bills.
  • Gas and diesel supplies at filling stations are down 70% from normal levels since President Mohammed Morsi’s constitutional declarations.
  • Shortage of fertilizer has cut agricultural exports by 10%, according to the Agricultural Export Council, and it is likely that overall production has fallen by a similar margin.

In thirty-five years of following debt crises in emerging economies, I have never seen anything like this. Latin American economies suffered from hyperinflation during the 1970s and 1980s, but no-one went hungry, because the economies in question all exported food, while Egypt imports half its food. The difference between Egypt and a banana republic is — the bananas.

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