Muslims, Europeans and Boiled Frogs

May 7th, 2015 - 7:26 pm

from Asia Times:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why can’t Muslims laugh at Mohammed?

May 6th, 2015 - 12:16 am

Cross-posted from Asia Times.

In Mel Brooks’ comedy “History of the World Part I,” Moses is shown descending from Mount Sinai with three stone tablets in hand. As he declares, “I give you the Fifteen Commandments,” one falls and breaks, and Moses corrects himself, “er, Ten Commandments.” Jews, including the observant, find this funny rather than offensive. As we learned once again in Garland, Texas, Muslims do not laugh at jokes about Mohammed, the purported author of the Koran (as Moses is the author of the Torah). Two wannabe Jihadists with assault rifles and body armor were no match for an off-duty Texas traffic cop with a sidearm, but the incident might have turned into a massacre worse than the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff in January.
Why do Jews as well as Christians–but not Muslims–laugh at jokes about the founders of their faiths?

The answer is that radically different deities are in question. Judaism begins with a covenant between God and human beings–Abraham and his descendants–that is a partnership in which God is normally, but not always, the senior partner. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observes, the Jewish sages of antiquity envisioned Moses acting as a judge for God, permitting God to annul his earlier vow to destroy the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf. This is unimaginable in Islam, just as unimaginable as the Christian God who humbles himself on the cross.

That does not diminish the sanctity of holy writ: if a Torah scroll is dropped accidentally during Jewish services, Jewish law binds the congregation to a month of fasting. But the Jewish (and hence also the Christian) God allows his children to give him an argument, as Abraham does in the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses does on several occasions. Humor arises from the impossible tension between an infinite God and finite man. “Humor is intrinsic to Christianity,” wrote the great Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, “because truth is hidden in mystery.”

Jewish and Christian Scripture are human reports of an encounter with the Divine. The foundation of the Christian Bible are four separate reports of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth that in some respects contradict each other. The Koran, to be sure, has contradictory elements, which are addressed through so-called Abrogation Theory (Naskh), allowing one Koranic verse to be nullified by another. But Mohammed’s revelation of the Koran is not a human report so much as a stenographic transcription of the purported words of Allah. No Muslim argues that Mohammed was more than human, but for practical purposes he is indistinguishable from Allah, because he was simply the vessel into which Allah supposedly his directions.  To make light of Mohammed is to impugn Allah. It is not blasphemous to laugh at Moses, whose human failings prevented him from leaving the people of Israel into the promised land. To humanize Mohammed, though, is an act of lèse-majesté against the Muslim God. That is not quite the same thing as joking about Moses or St. Matthew.

Personally, I find most convincing the argument by the German convert to Islam, Prof.Muhammed Sven Kalisch, that the Prophet Mohammed did not exist in the first place–at least not a man who in any way resembles the figure portrayed in the standard Muslim account. That is in some ways beside the point: there is no divine-human encounter in Islam, no revelation, only the selection of a human mouth as the loudspeaker by which Allah declares his Koran. Allah could as well have employed a talking rock. The Muslim god therefore remains utterly remote from humans, unconstrained in power and arbitrary in his actions. It is Allah’s caprice that electrons spin around an atom’s nucleus, or that planets describe an ellipsis around the sun.

As Franz Rosenzweig observed, the actions of God are indistinguishable from naive observation of the natural world. They simply are the way things are, and for no other reason than it is Allah’s whim that they be that way. An atheist who believes that the world is utterly chaotic and random will see the world in precisely the same way, with one grand difference: the way things are, to Muslims, includes the sedimentary layers of centuries of tribal practice: wife-beating, slavery, punishment by amputation, female genital mutilation (depending on the tribal history), and so forth. To slight Mohammed, and by extension Allah, means the ruin of the way things are, the dissolution of the ties that hold society together. To question the way things are is to inspire social chaos.


That is why most Muslims in the most populous Muslim countries (with the notable exceptions of Indonesia and once-secular Turkey) believe that apostasy should be punished by death. It is also why the moment that the literacy rate in Muslim countries reaches the 80% mark, the proportion of people claiming to be non-religious jumps. I published the chart below in 2006:


Iran, the first Muslim country to approach universal adult literacy, is by far the least religious, despite its theocratic regime. When the regime falls, as it eventually must, we will discover that there are no more Muslims in Iran than there were Communists in the Soviet Union. Iran’s mosque attendance rate is the lowest in the Muslim world at less than 30% by one estimate (see chart below), and much lower by other estimates.

Religious Participation among Muslims: Iranian Exceptionalism (Tzcur, Azadarmaki and Bahar, Journal of Critical Religious Studies, Fall 2006)

Religious Participation among Muslims:
Iranian Exceptionalism
(Tzcur, Azadarmaki and Bahar, Journal of Critical Religious Studies, Fall 2006)

To question the way things are is blasphemy in Islam. Religious observance in Iran collapsed in tandem with the country’s fertility rate (down from 7 children per female in 1979 to just 1.6 in 2012), a gauge of how rapidly traditional society has dissolved.

The organizers of the Garland, Texas exhibition of Mohammed caricatures–the Dutch politician Geert Wilders and the anti-jihad campaigners Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer–have proven their point: To placate Muslims in their resistance to modernity would require the West to give up being the West. Today’s resurgence of Muslim fundamentalism is something of a Ghost Dance, a grand flourish of existential despair before the way things are turns into the way things were, and never will be again.

Baltimore burns and America declines

April 29th, 2015 - 12:12 am

Crossposted from Asia Times


When do you declare a point of no return? The burning of Baltimore might appear in future history texts as the turning-point in America’s fortunes. Six years after the election of America’s first African-American president, the prospects of black Americans seem bleaker than at any time since the First World War, when the great migration began from the cotton-fields of the South to the factories of the North.

Percentage of births outside of marriage

Percentage of births outside of marriage

Nearly three quarters of black children are born outside of marriage, which means that the vast majority of black children are raised by single parents. Black women, meanwhile, are carrying the economic burden of their families more than men. Roughly 3 black women are employed full time for every 2 black men (for American whites, the ratio is 3:2 in favor of men).




It is hard to blame racism for this discrepancy: why should there be less discrimination against female black job applications than against male job applicants? Two-thirds of Bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans, moreover, go to women. No people in the history of the world has managed to raise and educate children without a father’s contribution to family income. Where are the black men? For every 100 black adult women not in jail, the New York Times reports, there are only 83 black men. The missing 17% are dead or in jail.


The reason that so many black men are in jail is because they have committed crimes. There is an argument, to be sure, that many black men are incarcerated for “non-violent” crimes such as selling illegal drugs; the counterargument is that the drug business is inherently violent, and that it is easier to catch a miscreant selling drugs than to catch him in the act of shooting a rival. In any case, America’s higher incarceration rate has coincided with a drastic drop in the incidence of violent crime. Statisticians will argue ad infinitum about causality, but a common-sense reading of the data tells us that there is less crime because more violent offenders are in jail.

The criminal justice system has contained crime in America, at dreadful cost: One in 87 white men of working age is incarcerated, vs. 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 12 African American men. There are more African American men aged 20 to 34 without a high school diploma or GED are behind bars (37 percent) than are employed (26 percent).

It is nonsense to suggest that police violence has much impact on the big picture: 94% of black murder victims are killed by blacks. Black men have a 1 in 21 chance of being murdered, vs. 1 in 131 for white men.

No matter what anyone does, things will get worse before they get better. Never in his history has the United States spent so much to support a nonworking population. As Nicholas Eberstadt observed in his 2012 book “A Nation of Takers,” one out of every three American households has at least one person receiving some kind of means-tested government payment.

If African-American rage takes the form of arson on a mass scale–after the election of a black president–there is no apparent solution. It is merely a symptom of American decline.

Armenia’s Genocide and Obama’s Shame

April 22nd, 2015 - 2:05 pm

Despite a 2008 campaign promise “to recognize the Armenian genocide,” President Obama refuses to follow Pope Francis’ example and call the murder of 1.5 million Armenian civilians by its right name. Of all the despicable things this administration has done, this one stands out for vile hypocrisy. CNN reports:

President Barack Obama, wary of damaging relations with Turkey amid growing unrest in the Middle East, won’t use the 100th anniversary of the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire to declare the brutal episode a genocide.

Despite Obama’s campaign promise in 2008 to “recognize the Armenian Genocide” as president, the White House on Tuesday issued a carefully worded statement on a high-level administration meeting with Armenian groups that avoided using the term “genocide.”

An administration official said Obama, who will mark the centennial this Friday, would similarly avoid using the word. The term angers Ankara, which denies that Ottoman Turks carried out a genocide.

“President Obama’s surrender to Turkey represents a national disgrace. It is, very simply, a betrayal of truth, a betrayal of trust,” said Ken Hachikian, the chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America.

Despite the threat of retaliation against Turkey’s small and defenseless Christian community–the remnant of what once was a fifth of the Turkish population–the Vatican has had the courage to use the word genocide, and first did so in 2000. Not Obama, whose concern for Muslim sensibilities outweighs every other consideration.

If you don’t think telling the truth matters, think again: The world’s disgusting indifference to the Armenian genocide is what convinced Adolf Hitler that he could get away with genocide, too. This is what Hitler said about the matter in 1939:

My decision to attack Poland was arrived at last spring. Originally, I feared that the political constellation would compel me to strike simultaneously at England, Russia, France, and Poland. Even this risk would have had to be taken….Our strength consists in our speed and in our brutality. Genghis Khan led millions of women and children to slaughter — with premeditation and a happy heart. History sees in him solely the founder of a state. It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me.

I have issued the command — and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum)which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

43 countries–including Russia, Italyk, France, Sweden Poland and the Netherlands–recognize the Armenian genocide. Not the United States of America. It is a shame and disgrace.


David Brooks shares a stage with pundits during a panel discussion, “2012: The Path to the Presidency”, at the University of Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Dear David Brooks:

We have never met, and I do not regularly follow your work. Because you are a public intellectual of Jewish origin, though,  your spiritual peregrinations are of broader interest. It may be chutzpah for me to offer you advice, but I could not help thinking of the case of Franz Rosenzweig while reading a post at Aletaia claiming that you may convert to Christianity. Rosenzweig, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, had decided to convert to Christianity. Raised in a secular family and trained in the high tradition of German critical philosophy, Rosenzweig nonetheless thought that he should do so as a Jew. He attended the Day of Atonement services at a Berlin shtuebl with Polish Jews, and liked it so much that he not only remained Jewish, but devoted the rest of his sadly short life to Judaism.

Of course, you have attended Day of Atonement services (in fact, we have done so at the same Conservative synagogue in New York, Or Zarua, albeit in different years). My experience, though, was that my conversion to Judaism began after I left “Conservative Judaism” and began observing Shabbat, eating kosher and wrapping tefillin. In retrospect, it occurred to me that the rarified Judaism I encountered in the progressive Jewish world was really a strange form of Christianity, Methodism with a yamulka. There is a word for rarified Judaism, and that is Christianity: living in an ambient Christian culture, I could not help but bring Christian sensibilities to a Judaism without the commandments. In a sense I was a Christian, despite my best intentions, and had to “convert” to Judaism. I did this while an editor at First Things, then the premier Christian intellectual magazine in the United States.

I suspect that your experience is not too different, which is why I am kibbitzing. There is the matter of the bagel that you offered to The Forward’s editor Jane Eisner, in the middle of the Passover holiday, when Jews are forbidden any matter of leavened bread. Observing Passover is the first of all commandments, given to us the night we left Egypt, before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. To eat leavened bread on Passover (and to offer it to another Jew) suggests that there is not a shred of Jewish practice in your everyday life.

I find it hard to get worked up over reports that you might convert to Christianity. In a way, you (like me) were always there. I do not judge the religious lives of others — I am the last person who should, considering that I spent the first half of my life as the most egregious sort of atheist. But you might try Judaism. It’s well and good to read Joseph Soloveitchik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith,” an essay written for a Christian audience, and a marvelous book, but you should also keep in mind that Rav Soloveitchik supervised kashrut in Boston.

Why is it so fundamental to eat kosher? Permit me an almost-rational argument: There are things that Torah tells us, that no prior document in the whole history of humanity told anyone else, for example, to regard every human being as an image of God, with the attendant reverence. There is no philosophical justification for this: it is beyond reason. But (as Michael Wyschogrod argues) we are not wholly different from the animals. We recognize that in refraining from eating cats and dogs, for example. Which animals may we eat? That question is above our pay grade, and we accept a divine answer to that question (ruminants but not swine, for example). Precisely because we accept a divine mandate in the matter of meat consumption, we also accept it in the requirement to view human life as sacred, and each human as an image of God. 

Judaism lives in the details of everyday life, “in the pots and pans in the kosher kitchen,” as our mutual friend Rabbi Meir Soloveichik put it, in the rules of Sabbath rest and the sublime commandment to put on tefillin. One can’t intellectualize this: to describe what it’s like to live like a Jew (as opposed to theorizing about it) is like the difference between actually having sex, and reading a sex manual. You won’t make any sense of this without doing it. I am not trying to persuade you of the benefits of Jewish practice. I am daring you to try it. Read up on Rosenzweig. Don’t consider becoming a Christian until you’ve at least tried being a Jew.

I mean this respectfully. I have a couple of friends with secular Jewish backgrounds who converted to Christianity, and lead happier lives for it. My respect for Christianity and my affection for Christians is a matter of public record. Nonetheless, I cannot see how you would fail to benefit from learning what it is like to be a Jew.

Yours sincerely,

David P. Goldman, Aka “Spengler”

April 21st, 2015 - 2:43 pm

How Americans became poor

Crossposted from Asia Times

Americans are poorer –poorer by half—then on the day Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981. By this I mean simply that the per capita income that Americans can expect to earn on their aggregate wealth is half of what it was in 1981. How did it come to this?

1981 2014
Nominal Wealth (Bns) $11,975 $97,067
Wealth in 1982 Dollars (Bns) $13,639 $41,107
Per Capita Wealth in 1982 Dollars $59,539 $128,457
Income Per Capita from Wealth, 1982 Dollars $9,387 $6,089


On paper, to be sure, the wealth of Americans has risen to $97 trillion in 2014 from $11.975 in 1981. After adjusting for inflation, wealth has tripled from $13.6 trillion in 1982 dollars to $41.1 in 1982 dollars. Adjusting for the growth in population, per capital wealth has doubled, to $128,457 per American in 1982 dollars from $59,539 per American in 1982 dollars.

If we were Scrooge McDuck, and enjoyed wallowing in a swimming pool filled with currency, there would be no problem. But people accumulate wealth in order to earn income. The incomethat Americans can earn on their wealth has shrunk, because prospective returns to capital have fallen. Long-term medium-grade (Moody’s Baa-rated) bond yields are the lowest in half a century.  At a yield of just 4.74% for long-term corporate bonds, the aggregate wealth of Americans would generate a paltry $1,903 per capital in 1982 dollars, against $3,965 per capital in 1981. In its capacity to generate income, the wealth of Americans stands at half the level of 1981.

1981 was a bit of an anomaly, because bond yields were extraordinarily high due to inflation and the Fed’s monetary tightening in response to inflation. But it’s clear from the chart below showing per capita interest income on the aggregate US private wealth that the great period of US wealth creation was between 1962 and 1975, when the Great Stagflation of the 1970s began. Since then, per capital income on wealth has fluctuated in the range of $6,000 to $8,000 1982 dollars.

There are two reasons that interest rates are so low. First, the Federal Reserve has kept short-term rates at the lowest level in history after adjusting for inflation since the 2008 financial crisis, and has added more than $4 trillion in bonds to its balance sheet. Both suppress the yield on all financial instruments.


Second, the prospective return on capital investments is low. We know this because US nonfinancial corporations have shifted from net borrowing during the 1980s and 1990s, to net lending during the 2000s. This is a long-term factor that monetary policy can’t change. Raising prospective return on capital would require drastic fiscal and regulatory reform.


US corporations can’t reinvest their profits in new projects, and overall economic growth remains at much lower levels than the growth rate that prevailed since the early 1980s. S&P corporations have doubled the amount of cash on their books in the past ten years.


This corresponds to what Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps calls a “structural slump,” characterized by a downshift in the growth rate of GDP.




Two rounds of capital misallocation–the Internet bubble of the 1990s and the housing bubble of the 2000’s–dissipated the gains of the Reagan era. America might have gotten away with one decade of misspent capital. Two decades made Americans poor. It is a Shibboleth that free markets allocate capital efficiently. No such thing is the case: allocation of capital ultimately depends on investors’ vision of the future, and a vision of the future founded on (for example) downloading pornography, games and popular music was warped to begin with. That was the issue I addressed in the first “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online in January 2000: if Internet stocks were not a bubble, it would mean that American culture had become pathological. By the same token, uninterupted increases in home prices were not consistent with a declining rate of family formation.

Another hallmark of shrinking growth expectations is the collapse of the “real” interest rate, gauged roughly by the yield on inflation-protected government bonds.

The income available on assets has shrunk. The present value of assets has risen because shrinking future growth prospects has reduced the discount rate on assets. America’s prospective retirees, including the top 20% of income earners who own most of the assets, are rich on paper but poor in terms of income. That helps explain why the consumer spending boom forecast by the consensus macroeconomic model never materialized.

Note: Part of this essay was published by Reorient Group Ltd (“The US Savings Gap: Implications for Consumer Spending”).

Over at Mosaic magazine, Tikvah Fund president Eric Cohen offers an essay on the “Spirit of Jewish Conservatism” without, however, mentioning the subject of Judaism — that is, Judaism in the normative sense of observance of Jewish law and Torah study. This is pointed out in the most courteous manner by a distinguished Jewish public intellectual, Herzl Institute president Yoram Hazony, in a response published in Mosaic this morning. As Hazony explains:

I am troubled, however, by one central issue. I do not understand the absence of God and Scripture from Cohen’s list of central “values and ideas” that he wants Jewish conservatives to conserve. To me, if his ambitious vision is to succeed, these have to be positioned at the head of the line…

Everyone understands that the Jews came into the world to fight for certain principles and to teach certain things. Everyone understands that Israel’s God and the tradition handed down from Sinai are at the very heart of the matter, and until only very recently have been the basis of all subsequent Jewish moral and political thought. The question facing us is whether, in formulating a new conservative-Jewish “ideology” (Cohen’s term), we can afford not to place front and center the principles that undoubtedly form the core of Jewish teaching—and that have animated and preserved the Jewish people for the last 25 or 30 centuries.

I have had some minor quibbles with Yoram Hazony, but I offer him the heartiest “yasher koach” (“More power to you”) for his riposte. The liberal Jewish denominations, which long confounded Judaism with what they mistake for social justice, have discovered that one doesn’t have to be Jewish to be a liberal, and are at risk of disappearing as a result. Their congregants cease to be Jews, but remain liberals. Neither does one not have to be Jewish to be a conservative. There are, I argued in this space earlier this month, inherently Jewish reasons to be conservative, but that is a different matter.

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Appomattox, Through a Glass Darkly

April 14th, 2015 - 7:53 am

Crossposted from Asia Times:

Fittingly, the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse fell on the sixth day of Passover, “the season of our freedom,” when Jews celebrate God’s eruption into human history to free them from Egyptian slavery. Appomattox denoted the end of the American Civil War, which claimed 750,000 lives. The equivalent number proportionate to today’s population would be 7 million. Understandably, Americans remain obsessed with the conflict, by far the bloodiest in our history.

The American Republic which the Civil War renewed, purged with blood of the stain of slavery, arose from a biblical vision of governance in the English Revolution of the 17th century, as Harvard’s Eric NelsonRabbi Lord Jonathan SacksRabbi Meir Soloveichik and others have shown.

For Jews, the primary goal of Passover observance is to make every Jew feel as if he personally had left Egypt with Moses and stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. With respect to our Civil War, many Americans yearn to feel like participants. Europeans do not reenact the great battles of their wars, but thousands of Americans don blue and gray, learn to fire muzzle-loaders, and camp on the battlefields of the Civil War.

But for all the reenactments, films, books, ceremonies and memorabilia, Americans cannot place themselves inside the minds of the men who sacrificed themselves with such terrible abandon. Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington stare at the chiseled words of the Second Inaugural Address on the marble walls with as much comprehension as American tourists viewing hieroglyphs at Abu Simbel.

Our past may be lost to us, a matter of remote myth like the battles of the “fair-haired Achaians” in the eyes of contemporary Greeks. Perhaps we have become a different, lesser people, staring without comprehension at the relics of the race of giants that inhabited this land a century and a half ago. Perhaps we still can return to the moral grandeur of the generation of 1861. I do not know.


America’s mission hung by a thread at the outbreak of the Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln did not understand at the outset where the war would take him. As Richard Brookhiser observes, a religious conversion separates the Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address from the Lincoln of the Second Inaugural Address, with its explicit reference to a Providence that directs human affairs, and not necessarily in a way that men find congenial. The evangelical historian Mark Noll argues that Lincoln did not receive his theology from his religious contemporaries, but rather rediscovered it and taught it to them:

Views of providence provide the sharpest contrast between Lincoln and the professional theologians of his day. The American God may have been working too well for the Protestant theologians who, even as they exploited Scripture and pious experience so successfully, yet found it easy to equate America’s moral government of God with Christianity itself. Their tragedy – and the greater the theologian, the greater the tragedy – was to rest content with a God defined by the American conventions God’s own loyal servants had exploited so well.

The grandchild remembers what the father never learned, a Yiddish proverb has it; Lincoln, the grandchild of the American Founding, remembered what the preceding generation had forgotten. That offers us a modicum of hope in an age which has forgotten how to remember.

See the whole post here:







Iran through the eyes of Valerie Jarrett

April 12th, 2015 - 4:09 pm

Crossposted from Asia Times:


A battle over American foreign policy is looming such as this country has not seen since the penultimate days of the Vietnam War nearly half a century ago. I can’t remember the last time that two distinguished former Secretaries of State co-signed an article denouncing a presidential initiative in terms as harsh as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger applied to Obama’s proposed Iran deal. Kissinger was the great conciliator, the architect of the opening to China and the advocate of detente with Russia. Obama’s own party is split on the issue, and usually supportive commentators in the press view the outcome of the Lausanne talks with skepticism, if not out right hostility.

What explains the great gulf fixed between Obama’s perceptions and those of a large part of the liberal establishment, not to mention the Republicans?

One has to see the world through the eyes of African-Americans in the years after the Second World War to understand why Barack Obama and his inner circle cling with such passion to the prospect of peace with Iran. More than any other event, the war emancipated American blacks:more than a million migrated from the Deep South to the North, mainly to the industrial Midwest, to take industrial jobs vacated by white workers mobilized into the armed forces. Two million blacks were employed in defense industries: Men whose fathers were impoverished, marginalized sharecroppers became well-paid industrial workers. The first effective anti-discrimination laws were enforced by the Roosevelt administration in defense industries. Despite racial separation in the armed forces, 2.5 million blacks registered for the draft and 125,000 fought overseas, many with great distinction.

War buoyed the fortunes of black Americans, who had been freed from slavery in 1865 and betrayed by the post-Civil War reconciliation with the South. After black Americans proved in their millions that they would work and fight as well as their white counterparts, they were betrayed once again. President Harry Truman made desultory efforts to extend wartime anti-discrimination laws to the postwar economy, but had little effect in practice. To his credit, Truman ended segregation in the military in 1948, and blacks fought in the same units as white soldiers during the Korean War. Through African-American eyes, though, postwar America pretended that black wartime accomplishments had never happened.

A small but highly significant number of black intellectuals emigrated in disgust, including my namesake, Paul Robeson–my middle initial “P.” stands for Paul, for my late parents belonged to the Communist Party in the late 1940s. W.E.B Dubois (1868-1963), the distinguished sociologist and a late-in-life convert to Communism, died in self-imposed exile in Ghana. The writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin moved to France and remained there as expatriates. And Dr. James E. Bowman, trained as a physician by the U.S. Army during World War II, moved to Iran. According to his obituary:

“In those days,” he recalled in a 2006 interview for an oral-history project, “there was complete segregation. … One could only go to theaters, movies, restaurants in the black neighborhood.”

Still, Bowman said, he managed to get a “wonderful education” at Washington’s all-black Dunbar High School, where many of his teachers had PhDs from leading universities but were unable to secure college-level teaching positions….During this period, he met Barbara Taylor, the daughter of Robert Taylor, the first African American chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. They married in 1950, two weeks after she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Barbara Bowman went on to become president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate program in child development…When his military obligations ended, the Bowmans decided to move overseas. “My wife and I decided that we were not going to go back to anything that smacked of segregation,” he recalled. He was soon offered a job as chairman of pathology at Nemazee Hospital, a new facility in Shiraz, Iran. “We were recently married, so we took a chance,” he said. “It changed our lives completely.”

In 1956, a year after moving to Iran, their daughter, Valerie, was born.

Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s mentor since his first days in Chicago politics, is heiress to this life-changing experience. On the right-wing fringe of American politics rumors abound that Jarrett is a Muslim. That is paranoid nonsense. Jarrett’s family, including her parents and future in-laws, moved in circles influenced by the American Communist Party. That should be no surprise. In those days everyone did. But Jarrett also has roots in the black Democratic establishment; a great-uncle was Vernon Jordan, the longtime head of the Urban League. Betrayed by an American government that required their services during the Second World War, and temporarily suppressed racial discrimination when black workers were needed in war industries, but left them at the mercy of Jim Crow when the war ended, a high proportion of black intellectuals identified with America’s adversaries. The most important and significant activity of the Communist Party during the 1940s and 1950s was in the field of civil rights. My parents were in the middle of it. In 1950, my father, then a PhD candidate in economics at Columbia, drove to Mississippi with a small group of left-wingers to protest the forthcoming execution of Willie McGee, a black man railroaded into a rape conviction. My first memory is of looking up at a circle of white and black faces. It must have been a meeting of the Edison Township, NJ chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which my parents helped to found. At the time there weren’t a lot of white Americans outside the Stalinist left willing to risk life and limb to fight racism.

In retrospect, one marvels at the motivation of the Oxford intellectuals who spied for Russia against their own country–Kim Philby and his fellow traitors. The African-Americans who abandoned America during the 1940s and 1950s hardly felt that it was their country to begin with. James E. Bowman got his medical education from the US armed forces, but he and his wife “decided that we were not going to to back to anything that smacked of segregation.” White Americans chose this country; black Americans were brought here in chains. The Civil War freed the slaves at staggering sacrifice, including 400,000 Union dead, but postwar politics consigned the freedmen to another century of fear, poverty and humiliation. The Second World War mobilized black Americans, brought them out of the rural south, and allowed them to prove their worth, and the postwar government abandoned them again. Exactly a century after the Civil War, black Americans gained equal status under the law in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a new black political class arose in proportion to black voting power. By that point US manufacturing employment already had peaked. Opportunities for economic advanced moved out of the manufacturing sphere into work that required university degrees, and black Americans were again left behind.



Black Americans felt betrayed again–if not by the oppression of law or custom, by the tides of economic change.

To Valerie Jarrett, Persia is a land of wonders, the kind country that offered hospitality to her parents after race hatred drove them out of America, the wellspring of a life-changing experience. Newsweek wrote in 2009:

The fact that Valerie Jarrett spent her early childhood in Iran made it easier to bond with Barack Obama. The subject came up the first time the two met, at a restaurant in the Loop area of downtown Chicago in 1991. Obama had grown up overseas—spending four years in Indonesia as a boy—and Jarrett was born in the ancient city of Shiraz, where her American father, a medical doctor, helped found the city’s first modern hospital. Valerie’s early languages were Farsi, French and “a little bit of English.” To this day, her favorite foods include lamb and rice with Persian spices. “If I walk into a house and I smell saffron, I’m happy,” she says.

In that first encounter, Jarrett recalls discussing with Obama how their years overseas helped shape their world views. “I guess the most basic way is by being around people who have such a broad diversity of backgrounds,” she says.

President Obama went much further than Ms. Jarrett in praising the culture of Muslim countries at the expense of the United States. He (or Bill Ayers) wrote in his autobiography Dreams of My Father, “And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.”

One has to have been there, back during the death throes of American racism, to appreciate the residual rancor that views America as a malefactor, and views its “post-colonial” adversaries through rose-colored glasses. Iran, to be sure, is not a victim of imperialism, but the rump of an empire with irredentist ambitions that redefine megalomania.

I was there, albeit as a small child, and imbibed these intoxicants through my parents and the radical circles they moved in. America is the worst country in the world, except for all the others, I came to believe as an adult; with no illusions about America’s deficiencies, I believe America embodies the world’s hopes. When Chinese speak of the “Chinese dream,” they know they are paraphrasing the expression, “the American dream” — for we are the country where the right to dream first took root. Today’s Iran is not the fairyland of Valerie Jarrett’s childhood recollection, but a fey, fading remnant of a flawed empire, a case study in cultural necrosis. One can understand, and even empathize, with the emotional impulses that drive Obama’s camarilla. But there is no haggling with this current in American politics. One has to put a stake through its heart.


Riddle me this, fellow Republicans. An NBC survey April 9 reports that a huge majority (70%) of Americans doubt that Iran will abide by any agreement to limit its nuclear arms–but a majority (54%) still thinks Obama will do a better job than the Republicans in dealing with Iran!

A majority of Americans – 54 percent – trust Barack Obama to do a better job handling an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, compared to 42 percent who say they trust the Republicans in Congress. But nearly 7 in 10 Americans say that Iran is not likely to abide by the agreement that has been reached.

Fifty-three percent think Iranian nukes are a “major threat,” and only 37% think they are a “minor threat.” Most Americans, in short, think Iran is a major threat to American security and think that Obama’s nuclear deal is a joke–but they still want Obama in charge of the negotiations, not us.

Maybe NBC made the numbers up. Maybe a proofreader got the numbers reversed. And maybe pigs will sprout wings.

There is a much simpler explanation: Most Americans don’t trust Republicans on matters of war and peace. Not after the nation-building disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is. Why should they trust us? Our leadership has never admitted it made a mistake. Sen. Ted Cruz, to be sure, had the gumption last fall to say that “we got too involved in nation-building” and that “we should not be trying to turn Iraq into Switzerland”–and was excoriated for his trouble by the Bushies. The Republican mainstream is too busy trying to defend the Bush record to address the distrust of American voters.

One gets weary and grows shrill sounding the same note for a decade. I wish the problem would go away.  A couple of weeks ago a friend who served in senior defense positions in the Bush administration remonstrated, “Why do we have to worry about what mistakes were made back then?” The American public doesn’t remember a lot, but it does remember the disruption of millions of lives after the deployment of 2.6 million Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan–not to mention 6,000 dead, 52,000 wounded in action, and hundreds of thousands of other injuries.

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