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Why Are the Bushies Attacking Ted Cruz?

October 7th, 2014 - 9:18 am
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The Republican Party has played Marley’s Ghost for the past half-dozen years, dragging behind it the sins of the foreign-policy utopians who persuaded George W. Bush to bet the farm on nation-building in the Middle East. Bush’s 2004 Second Inaugural, written with the help of the Weekly Standard‘s Bill Kristol and the Washington Post‘s Charles Krauthammer, was the high-water mark of foreign-policy overreach and the cusp of Republican fortunes. By the 2006 congressional elections, the electorate had had enough, and the public’s disgust with the pointless sacrifice of blood and treasure helped propel the junior senator from Illinois into the White House. The Bushies who blundered so badly–occupying Iraq, pushing for the West Bank elections won by Hamas, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against the Egyptian military–are still fighting for what is left of their reputations. And their greatest fear is that a Republican leader will come along untainted by their mistakes, and able to admit what we Republicans should have admitted years ago: the Bush administration made some big mistakes.

That leader is Sen. Ted Cruz, who said Sept. 24,

I think we stayed too long, and we got far too involved in nation-building…. We should not be trying to turn Iraq into Switzerland.

Cruz is a foreign policy hard-liner, not an isolationist, but he is a tough-minded realist in a party contaminated by the ideological impulse to export America’s political system to the Middle East. His way of looking at things is close to that of the original Reagan foreign policy team, for example, Prof. Angelo Codevilla, whose new book I reviewed recently. Codevilla argued that  “U.S. viceroys spent most of a decade fruitlessly trying to negate the Shias’, Sunnis’, and Kurds’ democratically expressed mutual antagonism.” The much-lauded “surge” “consisted of turning over to Sunni insurgents the tribal areas into which the Shia were pushing them. Rather than defeating them, the U.S. government began arming them.” And the result: “After a  bloody decade, Iraq ended up divided along ancient ethno-religious fault lines but more mutually bitter.”

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Horror as an Instrument of War

September 28th, 2014 - 6:35 am

A young Orthodox rabbi of my acquaintance denounced Jews who exult in the mutual slaughter of Muslims from the pulpit on the Jewish New Year. He is of course correct: no-one should take pleasure in the death of noncombatants. One can, of course, be glad that one’s enemies are fighting each other; former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir famously quipped about the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, “I want them both to win.”

Our problem, though, is quite different: Since 9/11 I have argued that the strategic plan of Islamist terrorism is to poison the Western soul with horror, by setting in motion atrocities too grim for the Western mind to bear. There is very good reason to believe that they are succeeding. Judging by the proliferation of the horror genre in popular entertainment, we are succumbing to horror by stages, as I contended in a 2009 essay for First Things. It is the “Black Breath” from Mordor that Tolkien described in The Lord of the Rings.

This is not simply the brutality of the pagan world employed by the Romans with their mass crucifixions as much as it was by Muslim conquerors of the Middle Ages: it is a refined and exquisite sense of horror learned by modern Muslims from the Nazis, whose example inspired the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Ba’ath Party. Strictly speaking, the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing more than the Arab-language wing of National Socialism, and movements like ISIS a more radical version of the same thing, something like Ernst Röhm’s Sturmabteilung.

We have seen this throughout, and most recently in Gaza, where Hamas used every means possible to maximize its own civilian casualties in order to horrify the world. Whatever the circumstances, one should not rejoice in the death of civilians, but it is necessary to harden our hearts against an enemy who detects weakness in our delicate sense of humanity. Because we misunderestimated the nature of the enemy we confront, we have no means to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe on a frightful scale. We face an apocalyptic enemy, with a lot to be apocalyptic about.

On the next page are extracts from an essay I published about this in October 2011. The conclusions have not changed, except for one: Evil will oft evil mars, to quote Tolkien again. The Sunni-Shi’ite war could prove to be the grave of radical Islam if the West takes the appropriate measures. We must remember, though, that the target of radical Islam is not territory or power in the conventional sense, but the vulnerable Western soul. In this respect we should be afraid–very afraid.

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Erdoğan’s Flying Carpet Unravels

September 24th, 2014 - 5:45 am

Ross Shouldn’t Do That

September 13th, 2014 - 7:09 pm

I had to read the penultimate paragraph of Ross Douthat’s New York Times piece on “friendless Middle East Christians” before the enormity of it sunk in. Douthat wrote:

If Cruz felt that he couldn’t address an audience of persecuted Arab Christians without including a florid, “no greater ally” preamble about Israel, he could have withdrawn from the event. The fact that he preferred to do it this way says a lot–none of it good–about his priorities and instincts.

In so many words: Jew-hatred among Middle Eastern Christians is so rampant that it should be ignored in the interests of saving this oppressed minority. Never mind that it is impossible to conceive of any strategic configuration on the Middle East that might help Middle Eastern Christians without including Israel; never mind that Israel’s supporters in the United States are among the first to urge America to act on their behalf; and, above all, never mind that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Christians can practice their religion in security and safety, and that Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population.

The statement is outrageous, capping a long list of inaccuracies. The problem is NOT, as Douthat argues, that “the Middle East’s Christians simply don’t  have the kind of influence to matter” in American strategic calculations. The problem is that Middle East Christians threw in with (and some helped invent) a movement directly opposed to American interests in the region, namely the Arab nationalism embodied in the Ba’ath Party. I reviewed this sad history in a 2009 essay reposted on this site.

No-one proposes to blame the afflicted Christians of the Middle East for previous choices under duress: they had no good choices, and hardly can be faulted for bad ones. Unlike some of my conservative friends, moreover, I can’t blame Syrian Christians for supporting the Assad regime, which protects them from murdering Sunni jihadists. It isn’t about blame, but about the future–if there is one. Israel has a prominent role in any possible state of the world in which Christianity continues to exist in the Middle East (outside of Israel itself).

As I observed in the linked essay, the Catholic Church remains in the grip of nostalgia for its past influence in the region, and a great many of its Middle Eastern specialists simply cannot abide the idea that  Israel might be the home to the remnant of Middle Eastern Christianity as well as the protector of Christian minorities elsewhere. But that is how things have worked out. That’s reality, and it’s the job of political leaders like Sen. Cruz to explain reality to their constituents. That’s not “florid.” That’s leadership.

An analogy might be useful: Evangelical Christians are among Israel’s strongest supporters in America, yet some Jews–including liberals as well as Christianophobic ultra-Orthodox–reject this support. That is hysteria. Israel’s supporters in America are among the strongest defenders of Middle Eastern Christians, yet some Middle Eastern Christians reject this support. That is also hysteria. Jews who reject Christian support are crazy, and Middle Eastern Christians who reject Jewish support are crazy. It’s the job of leaders to tell them so.

Also read:  

Why Did Middle Eastern Christians Drive Sen. Cruz from the Stage?

 

When Sen. Ted Cruz told an audience of Middle Eastern Christians that they have no better friend than Israel, he stated the literal truth: the Assyrian Christians of Iraq’s north are at greater risk than any Christian population in the world, and their only effective defenders are the Kurdish Peshmerga, which was trained and armed by Israel almost from inception. These facts are widely known. Why, then, did Sen. Cruz’s remarks provoke an eruption of Jew-hatred? A large part of the audience could not control its rage, and drove their keynote speaker from the podium.

There’s a history, and a sad one. I published the essay below in 2009 and reprint it here to help put this event in context. It is a dark day indeed when the government of Egypt can see its way clear to an alliance with Israel against radical Islamists, but many (and perhaps most) Middle Eastern Christians can’t bear the idea of an alliance with Israel. It does not augur well for their survival in the region.

The closing of the Christian womb
By Spengler (crossposted from Asia Times Online)

A century ago, Christians dominated the intellectual and commercial life of the Levant, comprising more than one-fifth of the 13 million people of Turkey, the region’s ruling power, and most of the population of Lebanon. Ancient communities flourished in what is now Iraq and Syria. But starting with the Armenian genocide in 1914 and continuing through the massacre and expulsion of Anatolian Greeks in 1922-1923, the Turks killed three to four million Christians in Turkey and the Ottoman provinces. Thus began a century of Muslim violence that nearly has eradicated Christian communities in the cradle of their religion.

It may seem odd to blame the Jews for the misery of Middle East Christians, but many Christian Arabs do so – less because they are Christians than because they are Arabs. The Christian religion is flourishing inside the Jewish side. Only 50,000 Christian Arabs remain in the West Bank territories, and their numbers continue to erode. Hebrew-speaking Christians, mainly immigrants from Eastern Europe or the Philippines, make up a prospective Christian congregation of perhaps 300,000 in the State of Israel, double the number of a decade ago.

The brief flourishing and slow decline of Christian Arab life is one of the last century’s stranger stories. Until the Turks killed the Armenians and expelled the Greeks, Orthodoxy dominated Levantine. The victorious allies carved out Lebanon in 1926 with a Christian majority, mostly Maronites in communion with Rome. Under the Ottomans, Levantine commerce had been Greek or Jewish, but with the ruin of the Ottomans and the founding of Lebanon, Arab Christians had their moment in the sun. Beirut became the banking center and playground for Arab oil states.

The French designed Lebanon’s constitution on the strength of a 1932 census showing a Christian majority, guaranteeing a slight Christian advantage in political representation. With the Christian population at barely 30% of the total and 23% of the population under 20 – Lebanon’s government refuses to take a census – Lebanon long since has lost its viability. The closing of the Christian womb has ensured eventual Muslim dominance.

Precise data are unobtainable, for demographics is politics in Lebanon, but Lebanon’s Christians became as infertile as their European counterparts. Muslims, particularly the impoverished and marginalized Shi’ites, had more babies. In 1971, the Shi’ite fertility rate was 3.8 babies per female, against only 2 for Maronite Christians, or just below replacement. Precise data are not available, but Christian fertility is well below replacement today.

Even before the 1975 Lebanese Civil War, infertility undermined the position of Lebanon’s Christians . The civil war itself arose from the demographic shift towards Muslims, who saw the Christian-leaning constitution as unfair. Christianity in the Levant ultimately failed for the same reason that it failed in Europe: populations that are nominally Christian did not trouble to reproduce.

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14 Million Refugees Make the Levant Unmanageable

September 8th, 2014 - 9:33 pm

There are always lunatics lurking in the crevices of Muslim politics prepared to proclaim a new caliphate; there isn’t always a recruiting pool in the form of nearly 14 million displaced people (11 million Syrians, or half the country’s population, and 2.8 million Iraqis, or a tenth of the country’s population). When I wrote about the region’s refugee disaster at Tablet in July (“Between the Settlers and Unsettlers, the One State Solution is On Our Doorstep“) the going estimate was only 10 million. A new UN study, though, claims that half of Syrians are displaced. Many of them will have nothing to go back to. When people have nothing to lose, they fight to the death and inflict horrors on others.

That is what civilizational decline looks like in real time. The roots of the crisis were visible four years ago before the so-called Arab Spring beguiled the foreign policy wonks. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrian farmers already were living in tent camps around Syrian cities before the Syrian civil war began in April 2011. Israeli analysts knew this. In March 2011 Paul Rivlin of Tel Aviv University released a study of the collapse of Syrian agriculture, widely cited in Arab media but unmentioned in the English language press (except my essay on the topic). Most of what passes for political science treats peoples and politicians as if they were so many pieces on a fixed game board. This time the game board is shrinking and the pieces are falling off.

The Arab states are failed states, except for the few with enough hydrocarbons to subsidize every facet of economic life. Egypt lives on a$15 billion annual subsidy from the Gulf states and, if that persists, will remain stable if not quite prosperous. Syria is a ruin, along with large parts of Iraq. The lives of tens of millions of people were fragile before the fighting broke out (30% of Syrians lived on less than $1.60 a day), and now they are utterly ruined. The hordes of combatants displace more people, and these join the hordes, in a snowball effect. That’s what drove the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, and that’s what’s driving the war in the Levant.

When I wrote in 2011 that Islam was dying, this was precisely what I forecast. You can’t unscramble this egg. The international organizations, Bill Clinton, George Soros and other people of that ilk will draw up plans, propose funding, hold conferences and publish studies, to no avail. The raw despair of millions of people ripped out of the cocoon of traditional society, bereft of ties of kinship and custom, will feed the meatgrinder. Terrorist organizations that were hitherto less flamboyant (“moderate” is a misdesignation), e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood (and its Palestine branch Hamas), will compete with the caliphate for the loyalties of enraged young people. The delusion about Muslim democracy that afflicted utopians of both parties is now inoperative. War will end when the pool of prospective fighters has been exhausted.

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Under the headline “The World in Flames,” Henry Kissinger warns in a London Sunday Times op-ed of the consequences of state failure and anarchy in the Muslim world. Read it carefully: Kissinger reviews the collapse of America’s idea of exporting democracy during the Arab Spring and its dire consequences. He suggests that the US needs to work with Russia to put out the fire:

Participants in the contests search for outside support, particularly from Russia and the US, in turn shaping relations between them.

Russia’s goals are largely strategic: at a minimum to prevent Syrian and Iraqi jihadist groups from spreading into its Muslim territories and, on the larger, global scale, to enhance its position vis-à-vis the US.

America’s quandary is that it condemns Assad on moral grounds — correctly — but the largest contingent of his opponents are al-Qaeda and more extreme groups, which the US needs to oppose strategically.

Neither Russia nor America has been able to decide whether to co-operate or to manoeuvre against the other — though events in Ukraine may resolve this ambivalence in the direction of Cold War attitudes.

Political Islam has brought large parts of the world into something resembling the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, Kissinger says (and of course I agree: I have been citing the 30 Years War example for a decade):

Zones of non-governance or jihad now stretch across the Muslim world, affecting Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, Sudan and Somalia. When one also takes into account the agonies of central Africa — where a generations-long Congolese civil war has drawn in all neighbouring states, and conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan threaten to metastasise similarly — a significant portion of the world’s territory and population is on the verge of falling out of the international state system altogether.

As this void looms, the Middle East is caught in a confrontation akin to — but broader than — Europe’s 17th-century wars of religion. Domestic and international conflicts reinforce each other. Political, sectarian, tribal, territorial, ideological and traditional national- interest disputes merge. Religion is “weaponised” in the service of geopolitical objectives; civilians are marked for extermination based on their sectarian affiliation.

I am surprised that Kissinger does not mention China in this context; perhaps his forthcoming book (from which the Sunday Times op-ed was excerpted) will do so.

Kissinger is magnificently right.

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The Trouble Is that Obama DOES Have a Strategy

August 29th, 2014 - 11:27 am

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Obama’s “we-don’t-have-a-strategy” gaffe was so egregious as to distract attention from the fact that he does indeed have a strategy, which has blown up in his face. His strategy is accommodation with Iran at all costs. As I wrote earlier this month, our ISIS problem derives from our Iran problem: Bashar Assad’s ethnic cleansing, which has displaced 4 million Syrians internally and driven 3 million out of the country, was possible because of Iranian backing. The refugee flood in Iraq and Syria gives ISIS an unlimited pool of recruits. Iraqi Sunni support for ISIS, including the participation of some of Saddam Hussein’s best officers, is a response to Iran’s de facto takeover of Iraq.

Now we have analysts as diverse as Karen Elliott House and Angelo Codevilla proposing that the Saudis should use their considerable air force to degrade ISIS. Unless the U.S. commits its own forces in depth, the Saudis never will do so (unless they are defending their own territory, which ISIS is not stupid enough to attack). It is a sad day when America’s appetite for a fight is so weak that we count on the Saudi monarchy to do our dirty work for us. Codevilla writes:

Day after day after day, hundreds of Saudi (and Jordanian) fighters, directed by American AWACS radar planes, could systematically destroy the Islamic State—literally anything of value to military or even to civil life. It is essential to keep in mind that the Islamic State exists in a desert region which offers no place to hide and where clear skies permit constant, pitiless bombing and strafing. These militaries do not have the excessive aversions to collateral damage that Americans have imposed upon themselves.

That is entirely correct: in that region, air power could drastically weaken ISIS, if not quite eradicate it. It certainly could contain its advances (as fewer than 100 American sorties already have in northern Iraq). But the underlying problem will remain: Iran’s depredations have triggered an economic and demographic catastrophe in the region, and that catastrophe has created the snowball effect we call ISIS.

It may be entirely academic to argue that America should bomb not only ISIS, but also Iran’s nuclear facilities and the bases of its Revolutionary Guards. No Republican candidate I know is willing to argue this in advance of elections. Nonetheless, I repeat what I wrote Aug. 12: “The region’s security will hinge on the ultimate reckoning with Iran.”

On Canada’s Sun TV earlier today, commentator Ezra Levant asked me what Obama will do now. My guess is: very little. The reported Egyptian-UAE attack on Libyan Islamists is a harbinger of the future. Other countries in the region will take matters into their own hands in despair at American paralysis. Russia and China will play much bigger roles. And the new Thirty Year War will grind on indefinitely.

Also read: 

When You’re a Leftist President Who’s Lost Esquire…

Some of my best friends are Straussians

August 26th, 2014 - 5:17 am

Crossposted from Asia Times Online

The late Leo Strauss (1889-1973) was a thinker sufficiently nuanced to allow a wide range of interpretation of his views, and a teacher broad-ranging enough to influence students with divergent interests. I am honored to contribute occasionally to the Claremont Review of Books, associated with the so-called West Coast Straussians (although I am persona non grata among some East Coast Straussians). In fact, some of my best friends are Straussians.

As my friend Peter Berkowitz argues in a recent essay for RealClearPolitics, it is silly and not a little mendacious to portray the late emigre philosopher as an arachnidan spinner of right-wing plots. [1] My problem isn’t simply with Strauss, but with the ancients whom he admired. He taught that we have something fundamental to learn about statecraft from the ancient Greeks. This in my view is woefully wrong.

Greek philosophy, to be sure, remains one of the ornaments of human endeavor – as it applies to epistemology, ontology, aesthetics and logic, among other fields. Plato and Aristotle, though, came into adulthood just as the Greek city-states destroyed themselves through their own cupidity. What was left of Athens after the disastrous Peloponnesian War was ruined by Alexander of Macedon, who employed Aristotle as a tutor. I do not mean to deprecate the importance of the Greek polis as an exercise in democracy, but Aristotle was hardly its advocate.

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim,” begins the Nichomachean Ethics. But Aristotle’s assertion that all men seek the good (or at least the good as they see it) is wrong on the face of it. Frequently men seek perversion, violence, and the destruction of themselves and all around them. That is typical of civilizations that have reached their best-used-by-date, and at some point has been true of every civilization west of the Indus during the past 2,500 years with the exception of Israel.

By the time the Romans walked in, all of Greece could not field two regiments of phalanx-men. The rational, logical Greeks chose not to have children and disappeared. They did so after Athens built an empire that looted its colonies to pay off the Athenian mob, relying on imperial exactions for half of its food supply. Athens was a slave society that preyed on its neighbors. What is the sum of Athenian wisdom after the war was lost? For Sophocles (in Oedipus at Colonnus) it was that the best of all possibilities is never to have been born (“But who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand!,” said Yankel to Moishe in the old Jewish joke). It was Sophocles more than Aristotle whom Hellas took to heart, and ensured that its next generations would not be born.

Not since the late Roman Empire has the problem of willful self-destruction been so relevant to contemporary events. The whole of the industrial world excepting Israel is failing to reproduce itself, and great swaths of Europe and East Asia face demographic ruin at the hundred-year horizon. The civilized world, moreover, confronts mass suicide cults in the Islamic world happy to destroy themselves if only they can take the hated West down with them. About the despair that enervates the childless West as well as the self-immolating Muslim radicals, “classical political rationalism” has nothing to say to us.

Kierkegaard called Socrates an “ironist,” that is, a thinker who can look backward to the errors that brought his society into its parlous state, but cannot look forward to a way out (see Socrates the destroyer, Asia Times Online, May 25, 2004.) That explains why Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes give us mutually-incompatible reports of Socrates’ views (Strauss attributed this instead to esoteric expression). For Socrates, “the whole substantial life of Greek culture had lost its validity,” Kierkegaard wrote. An ironist “is prophetic, but his position and situation are the reverse of the prophet’s. The prophet walks arm in arm with his age, and from this position he glimpses what is coming … The ironist, however, has stepped out of line with his age, has turned around and faced it. That which is coming is hidden from him, lies behind his back, but the actuality he so antagonistically confronts is what he must destroy; upon this he focuses his burning gaze.” Socrates, in short, was playing with his interlocutors.

Men do not always, or even typically, seek the good. Just as fatuous as the Cliff Notes classicism of the American neo-conservatives is the pop-Thomism of certain Catholic exponents of “natural law.” A young man knocking on the door of a whorehouse is still seeking God, wrote G K Chesterton. If all human endeavor seeks the Good, then it is only necessary to show people what the Good really is through “right reason” in order to put them on the right path. (My objection to “natural law” goes farther than that; nature herself is flawed and requires frequent correction, as I argued in Why ‘Intelligent Design’ subverts faith, Asia Times Online, October 23, 2012).

If men naturally sought the good, then they all could be persuaded that Western-style liberal democracy and free markets were desirable, because they lead to good results. That happens to be what I consider good, but other people would rather kill everyone around them as well as themselves rather than accept this. I do not think it advisable to send American soldiers to occupy their countries to teach them differently. Strauss knew that a substrate of irrationality lies at the foundation of human society, because he spent a lifetime engaging the 20th-century philosopher who expounded irrational self-destruction as an existential choice: Martin Heidegger.

When Heidegger speaks of “non-Being” in the ontological sense, he conceals (or rather discloses) a sly nod to Goethe’s Mephistopheles: boredom, an objectless anxiety and alienation from life, gives us an intimation of “non-Being,” Heidegger said. He might have mentioned rage, perversion, horror and violence. Heidegger followed the logical conclusion of his thinking into membership in the Nazi Party. (See Now for something about nothing, Asia Times Online, July 24, 2012). I do not mean to attribute too much authority to Heidegger; as Michael Wyschogrod showed in his classic study of the two philosophers, he borrowed his best material from Kierkegaard. Nor did Heidegger discover intimations of non-Being in the pre-Socratics; Fernando de Rojas’ citation of Heraclitus in the introduction to La Celestina(1499) long preceded him. Still, Heidegger gave us the modern formulation of the problem in its standard form.

Strauss had studied with Heidegger at Freiburg and understood the issues as an initiate. But he relegated the Heidegger problem for the most part to a few asides. A whole scholarly literature about Strauss and Heidegger has arisen from the fact that Strauss was obtuse about the issue. He did not believe that rationality was enough, which is why thought religion a desirable, perhaps even necessary illusion for the masses (as opposed to philosophers).

One cannot blame Strauss for the insistence of some of his prominent disciples that political rationalism can be transplanted from the West to non-Western cultures. Strauss might be blameless, but I would like to hear Straussians who oppose this conceit explain why (in their view) it is not Straussian.

The self-destructiveness of great nations and cultures is the decisive problem of our time; about this Strauss has little to teach us. In fact, no set of generalizations will yield much of a result in this sort of inquiry (although I have offered a set of aphorisms on the subject). One has to learn the language, read the literature, learn the history, and get the jokes. These are the sort of things one learns not in the classroom but at 3 am over a fourth bottle of wine.

The most important things are beyond the reach of philosophy. More important than and prior to democracy, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argued in his 2007 book The Home We Build Together is the concept that human beings have inherent rights which no king or parliament can violate. This we inherit from the Hebrews, not the Greeks:

The concept of the moral limits of power is more important to freedom than is democracy. For democracy contains within it a fatal danger. Tocqueville gave it a name: the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ A majority can oppress a minority. The only defense against this is to establish the moral limits of power … Biblical politics is limited politics – the political of liberal democracies, not of the Greek city state.

Leo Strauss, contemplating the madness of the Nazi mob, taught virtue and moderation, and looked backwards to the ancients as a counterweight to the passions of the moderns. There is nothing malicious in this, but there is also nothing right about it. Men are immoderate. The country that most attracts me is Israel, whose people are impassioned, boisterous, loud, risk-friendly, unruly, rude, and altogether wonderful. They also have three children per female, uniquely in the industrial world.

Moderation is overrated. Passion is to Kierkegaard the primary stuff of ontology. It is the starting-point of human existence. In Jewish thought, the “evil impulse” (ha-yetzer ha-rah) – ambition, sexuality, competitiveness – is indispensable to life. “If not for the evil impulse, no one would build a house, marry, have children, nor engage in trade,” wrote the rabbis of the Talmud. In one Talmudic homily the rabbis capture and imprison the yetzer ha-rah, and observe the next day that not a chicken in Israel had laid an egg. Suppress the passions, like the Greeks after Aristotle, and you get a country populated mainly by statues.

Let the Straussians sort out Strauss; truth told, I never found his work compelling, and studied it only because one cannot make sense of the contemporary conservative movement without it. Some of Strauss’ most celebrated assertions have not survived the withering critique of scholarship. Moshe Halbertal’s superb study Concealment and Revelation (Princeton 2007) makes short work of Strauss’ argument about esoteric writing, for example. Perhaps, like Kierkegaard’s Socrates, Strauss was playing with his students, acting as ironist rather than prophet, as a few critics have suggested.

Strauss’ strengths and weaknesses, though, are of secondary importance. What makes his influence so baleful are not errors of analysis or emphasis, but rather the insidious way in which “classical political rationalism” (Thomas Pangle’s phrase, not Strauss’s) supports a wholly irrational impulse, namely American narcissism. Forgetting our origin – the impassioned radical Protestantism that motivated the American Revolution – we Americans tend to assume that if only everyone did things the way we do, the world would be a wonderful place. Exporting democracy is perhaps the most fatuous conceit in the long, sad history of American policy failures. By no means is Leo Strauss to blame for this. But our narcissism explains a good deal of his enduring popularity. We like rationalism because we flatter ourselves that we are masters of our fate, and our use of reason enables us to control our destiny.

Quite the contrary: America made it by the skin of her teeth, by the grace of God. We nearly dissolved in the Civil War, and no-one but a president with the character of a Hebrew prophet could have extricated us from disaster. We aren’t that smart, and we aren’t that good. We are only the best there is – a depressing thought indeed.

Notes:
1. Leo Strauss’ Political Philosophy: Reviled But Redeemed, RealClearPolitics, August 16, 2014.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. He is Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and the Wax Family Fellow at the Middle East Forum. 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 that fall, from Van Praag Press. 

The Beam in Our Eye

August 19th, 2014 - 6:19 am

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The essay below appeared in Asia Times Online on April 8, 2008. Apropos of the Ferguson riots it is reprinted below. It should make no-one happy. The crippling failure in American culture, I argue, is our refusal to come to terms with our own Civil War. This failure afflicts the conservative movement. For example: Last June I had the privilege to teach a course at the annual Acton University in Grand Rapids, MI. One of the keynote speakers was Judge Andrew Napolitano, whom I admire and whose remarks in the main I applauded. But Napolitano argued in passing that Lincoln had done a terrible thing by fighting the Civil War: surely, the judge said, he could have found a better way to end slavery than by tearing the country apart. That is utter nonsense for two reasons: the first is that a large part of the South was willing to die to preserve slavery, and the second is that the European imperial powers were already conspiring with elements of the South to expand slavery through Cuba, Mexico and Central America. If Lincoln had not fought the Civil War in 1861, the French invasion of Mexico in 1862 would have established a link with the Confederacy and prevented a Northern blockade.

Perfectly intelligent and well-motivated men like Napolitano ignore the obvious about the Civil War because it is still too horrible to contemplate. More broadly, the conservative movement continues to tolerate a revolting form of nostalgia for the slave era euphemistically called “Southern Traditionalism.” ISI’s middle-brow list of “Fifty Greatest Books of the 20th Century” includes a biography of Gen. Robert E. Lee, labeled “The tragic life of a great Southern traditionalist beautifully chronicled by a great Southern traditionalist.” The ISI list is mostly mediocre, but this is offensive in the extreme.

Below I demand of Americans “a higher threshold for horror.” I don’t expect you to like it. I didn’t like writing it. But what I say is true. Someone has to say it.

Horror and humiliation and Chicago
By Spengler

What causes the Reverend Jeremiah Wright to imagine that “the government gives [young black men] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, [and] passes a three strikes law” to incarcerate them? It is the same kind of unbearable grief that still causes white Southerners to believe that their ancestors fought the Civil War for a noble cause? It is too humiliating to think that the miscreants had it coming.

An uncanny parallel links the fate of young African-Americans today and that of the young white men of the slave-holding South in 1865. Both cohorts have lost a terrifying proportion of their number to violence. One third of black Americans between the ages of 20 and 30 passed through the criminal justice system in 1995, according to the Sentencing Project, a prisoners’ advocacy group. Nearly a third of military-age Southern men military age were killed or wounded during America’s Civil War. [1]

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