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The Winner in Ukraine is China

May 16th, 2014 - 3:11 am


I’ve been predicting that Russia would not send its army into eastern Ukraine, but stand back and let the country dissolve into chaos. The crisis erupted because the country is dead flat broke, after nearly $200 billion in aid over the past twenty years, most of it stolen. All the huffing and puffing about a new Hitler seizing a new Sudetenland in preparation for a Drang nach Westen is beside the point. The center ring of this bathetic circus has shifted to Beijing, where Vladimir Putin is negotiating the terms of a new Sino-Russian deal. This isn’t a fusion of the two countries by any means, but rather a cautious, self-interested alignment of interests. The Indian journalist M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former ambassador to Turkey and several Central Asian Republics, has a useful assessment on his blog today. Bhadrakumar is a sympathetic and canny observer of Russian policy.

The highlight of the two-day state visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to China on Tuesday is probably going to be the signing of the long-awaited 30-year mega gas deal. The Russian media have been speculating such a strong possibility.  The Chinese official remarks, however, remain cautiously optimistic and flag that the “main difference”, namely, over the price of gas, “still lingers.” To be sure, it is a political call now for the Kremlin.

Russia took a tough stance in the recent years insisting that the price of gas should be linked to the price of oil, which is the formula it maintains in dealings with Europe. With the passage of time, China’s negotiating stance (which rejected such a linkage), has strengthened.

Time worked in China’s favor. Beijing has been in no tearing hurry to conclude the deal while it kept lining up LNG supplies from other sources — Qatar and Australia — and kept up the momentum of overseas upstream investments, including in Canada, as well as boosting further supplies from Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries.

China is also estimated to have the world’s largest source of shale gas. On the contrary, Russia’s negotiating hand has weakened. A ‘Look East’ strategy for energy exports is increasingly a matter of compulsion rather than of choice, as the United States pushes for Europe’s diversification of energy imports to reduce high dependence on Russia.

At any rate, Europe’s energy needs have come down and is preparing for an influx of North American feedstock. Suffice to say, for a variety of factors, the gas deal will now have to be struck on China’s terms. The Russian negotiators are practically left with no option but to compromise, even as the Russian economy moves into recession and increased income from the gas sale to China is becoming vital for Moscow.

The Russia-China natural gas deal is in many ways symptomatic of the true character of the two countries’ so-called bilateral “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” Prima facie, the deal may create an impression of an emergent alliance between the two countries suggestive of a fundamental shift in global power balance.

But that will be a misperception. The painful birth pangs of the gas deal alone testify to a pragmatic partnership based on cool calculations of mutual benefit. The two countries “coordinate” selectively on international issues but have a long way to become alliance partners.

He concludes, “Essentially, an unbalanced relationship is moving progressively in China’s favor by the day. For Russia, it is going to be an entirely new experience, historically speaking, to settle for the role of a junior partner in relations with China.”

American policy–Administration as well as opposition–isn’t even wrong, as I have been warning for weeks. It is simply irrelevant. We aren’t looking at the whole chessboard. The German media signaled in March that sanctions against Russia will drive Moscow and Beijing closer together, and that is precisely what has happened. We indulged in a frenzy of impotent, self-consoling posturing against the nasty aggressive Russians, and succeeded only in toppling a pillar of Cold War diplomacy. We set out to propagate democracy in Eastern Europe, and helped to push Putin’s popularity rating at home above 80%. In the entire sorry history of US diplomacy, I can think of nothing that more resembles an own goal. Nice going, guys. Putin isn’t a genius. We are complete idiots.

We have urgent national security needs, but we don’t talk about them. Where is the sense of urgency, the Sputnik moment, over the fact that America depends on Russian rocket engines to launch its satellites? Where is the outcry over China’s ability to sink American aircraft carriers hundreds of miles from its shores? Where is the concern about Russia’s sale to China of its S400 air defense system (not the older S300 that Iran and Syria have tried to acquire)? The clock is ticking. It’s later than you think.


image illustration via shutterstock /  valdis torms

David Nirenberg’s “Anti-Judaism”

May 11th, 2014 - 7:59 am

Chicago University Professor David Nirenberg’s 2013 book Anti-Judaism received rapturous reviews from most Jewish media, including by Michael Walzer at New York Review of Books (via Mosaic) and Adam Kirsch at Tablet. My review at First Things was less enthusiastic: Nirenberg, in my view, got lost in the labyrinth of error that arises when secular Jews try to judge religious matters by their own standards. Below is a draft of my review, which is due to come out from behind the paywall at First Things momentarily.



Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

by David Nirenberg

W.W.Norton, 624 pages, $35


David P. Goldman, a former senior editor of First Things, writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times


World history is the history of Israel, averred Franz Rosenzweig, meaning that the nations of the West so hearkened to the Jewish promise of eternal life that their subsequent history was a response to Israel, whether they emulated or abhorred it. By contrast, David Nirenberg contends that the West has defined itself for two thousand years by its rejection of Israel. Both cases can be argued. The difference is that Rosenzweig propounded a clear and mainly traditional concept of Judaism, whereas Nirenberg means by “Judaism” whatever he wants it to mean at different points in time. In its better moments Nirenberg’s account of Western anti-Judaism is conventional; in its worse moments it is arbitrary. His aversion to thinking of Judaism in traditional terms gets him into repeated trouble.

Until the nineteenth century, “Judaism” meant the normative tradition embodied in Hebrew Scripture, Talmud, rabbinic responsae, and observances that had remained consistent throughout the two millennia-long Jewish diaspora. The past two hundred years have produced any number of deviant interpretations, none of which has had much staying power. Nirenberg, a professor of history and social thought at the University of Chicago, tells us that he is searching for yet another non-traditional reading: Judaism is not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas,” he declares. The trouble is that we never are told what this, except ad hoc as the opinion of particular Jews at particular times. Nor is anti-Judaism “simply an attitude toward Jews and their religion, but a way of critically engaging the world.” Neither the Jews nor the anti-Semites have a clear idea of what they are about in his account. Nirenberg’s recourse to the postmodern idea of self-definition via the “Other” does not help, for his protean depictions of Judaism and anti-Judaism chase each other into infinite regress. It recalls Heinrich Heine’s “fog-figures that rise up out of the ground/and dance a misty reel in weird chorus.”

That is a shame, because the tendentious of the book’s central thesis obscures some fine research ensconced in the inner chapters, including a highly readable summary of Nirenberg’s scholarly publications on the treatment of Judaism in the Koran and Hadith. Ther are many good things in the book, or rather, things that would have been good had they appeared in a different book.

Nirenberg’s aversion to the traditional understanding of Judaism gets him into trouble at the outset, as he tries to understand the stance of early Christianity towards the Jews. He recites the familiar catalogue of Jesus’ accusations against the Pharisees: they are hypocrites, wicked tenants, and so on, but he misses the decisive point: However much Christians abhorred the Jews, Christianity could not quite extirpate Judaism without destroying its own foundations.

Nierenberg notes the ambivalence of Christian attitudes towards the Jews, citing “Paul’s extraordinary formulation” in Romans 12:28: “As regards the gospel, they are enemies, but for your sake; but as regards those who are God’s choice, they are still well loved for the sake of their ancestors.”  But his attempt to explain why the early Church chose not to “other” the Jews out of existence is strained; if anti-Judaism really is the founding principle of the West, why didn’t Marcion succeed in suppressing the Hebrew Scriptures?

Christianity cannot survive severed from its Jewish roots, for the Christian promise of the Kingdom of Heaven stems from the Jewish promise of eternal life, as Benedict XVI argues in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, which cites Rabbi Jacob Neusner. In Matthew 12:8, Jesus compares his disciples’ Sabbath violation to that of the priests who perform sacrifices on the Sabbath at the Temple. If the priests are exempt from Shabbat restrictions, Jesus tells the Pharisees, so can his disciples, for Jesus’ person is the new Temple, the wellspring of eternal life as it was understood by Judaism. Jesus’ break with Judaism is enacted within Jewish terms, and the radical Christology of Matthew 12 exposes its Jewish roots: Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom of Heaven is incomprehensible except in context of its Jewish foundation.

Nirenberg looks at Christianity nor Judaism as ideologies rather than religions. The redemptive promise of Judaism and the salvific claim of Christianity do not register in his view of the world. What, then explains Christianity’s ambivalence towards Judaism? If the West really founded on anti-Judaism and Christians need to define themselves against the Jewish “Other,” why did the Church repudiate Marcion? Nirenberg doesn’t have a convincing answer to this most basic question. He looks for an explanation in mere  ideological consistency: The Arians who rejected Jesus’ divine nature were too corporeal, the Monophysites who rejected Jesus’ human nature were too spiritual,   but Augustine was just right, in a sort of ecclesiological version of “The Three Bears.” Augustine “restored a literal and spiritual value to the Hebrew Bible and its people. His approach to reading scripture domesticated (though it could not entirely tame) the tendency of letter and meaning, flesh and spirit, Old Testament Jew and New Testament Christian, to fly toward opposite poles.”

But it was not just “letter and meaning” that threatened to fly apart, but the newly converted pagans and the Church itself. The Church could not lay claim to the promises of Hebrew Scripture while destroying the people to whom those promises were made. To the extent it persecuted the Jews, the Church made itself vulnerable to neo-paganism, which always sailed under the flag  of Jew-hatred.

Nirenberg’s account of anti-Judaism in modern Europe is one-sided. He cites at length the anti-Jewish invective in Baena’s 1430 Cancionero, whose “poets, nearly all Christian, are constantly defaming one another, and the accusation of Jewishness is prominent among the charges they hurl.”

But he makes no mention of the most influential Spanish work of the period, the converso Fernando de Rojas’ 1499 dialogue novel La Celestina. Translated into Hebrew seven years after its appearance (and soon into all major European languages), Celestina was read by Jewish contemporaries as a savage satire of the Christian Spain that expelled its Jews in 1492.

Jews were not only the victims of the new literature, but often its progenitors. His account of the Spanish persecution ends with the observation that “Spain had succeeded in converting and expelling all its Jews. But the result was the thorough ‘Judaization’ of Spain. Foreigners tended to put the point most bluntly. “Spain is not pleasing,” wrote Europe’s leading intellectual, Desiderius Erasmus in 1517, “because it is full of Jews.”

Of Martin Luther’s stance towards Judaism, Nirenberg writes, “Luther realized very early that if the literal meaning of scripture was to be amplified, its ‘Judaizing’ potential needed to be contained. . . . The energy necessary for Luther’s transformation of the figure of Judaism was generated by the friction between ‘letter’ and ‘law’ in his thought, not by his collision with living Jews in the ‘real’ world. . . . Luther’s words about Jews were weapons forged for service in conflicts with other Christians.”

That is misleading. “Judaizing” was not a linguistic exercise but a nascent social movement in Luther’s time, for example among Moravia’s Sabbatarians. Luther’s pamphlet On the Jews and Their Lies, which demands the destruction of every Jewish home as well as every synagogue, was addressed to the Moravians who had adopted Jewish practices such as Sabbath observance. A century later, “Judaizing” Protestants would transform the political world.

The English Reformation, Nirenberg observes, reflected Judeophilia as much as anti-Judaism. Israel played a “systematically central role . . . in the elaboration of constitutional claims and political philosophies during the English Civil Wars.” The Hebraist John Selden corresponded with rabbis “to buttress the parliamentary claim that God intended the powers of law and its institutions to extend even over church and Crown.”

Anti-Judaism reasserts itself in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Hobbes feared the political millenarians who could “bewitch” their others “into rebellion . . . and by this means destroying all laws, both divine and human, reduce all order, government, and society to the first chaos of violence and civil war.” His solution was to extirpate prophecy from politics.

“Prophecy became law . . . through a people’s founding contract with their sovereign,” Hobbes wrote. “It was as sovereign, not as prophet, that Moses imposed the Mosaic law on his people.” It follows that “since only Israel had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and covenanted with Moses to make God its civic sovereign, only in that bygone nation could scripture ‘be made law.’” And “For everyone else, God’s command was whatever the sovereign decided it was.”

To suppress the republicans, Hobbes found it necessary to marginalize Judaism. Like the Christian Fathers, Nirenberg contends, Hobbes “assigned to the Jews and their history a role that was simultaneously exemplary and exceptional, paradigmatic and peculiar,” in opposition to men like Seldon who proposed to universalize the Hebrew model.

This is Nirenberg’s most successful chapter, mainly because it treats the influence of normative rabbinic Judaism on seventeenth-century politics, rather than the “Othering” of an undefined “Judaism” removed from its traditional roots. But his depiction of anti-Judaism in German philosophy is less persuasive.

It is easy to point to anti-Semitism among German philosophers. Immanuel Kant deprecated Judaism, arguing, “Judaism as such, taken in its purity, entails absolutely no religious faith.” But the revival of Kant’s influence during the second half of the 19th century was the work of Hermann Cohen, Germany’s most influential academic philosopher during his lifetime  as well as a proud defender of Judaism.  The phenomenlogist Edmund Husserl took Hermann Cohen’s neo-Kantianism in a new direction. The principals in the great Germany philosophical debates of 1920s were students of Husserl and Cohen.

Nirenberg mentions none of this. Instead, he picks up the story when Husserl’s student Martin Heidegger debated Cohen’s protégé Ernst Cassirer at a the celebrated1929 debate at Davos. Heidegger’s critique of Cassirer, he claims,  resonated with “explicitly anti-Jewish critiques of modernity that were everywhere swirling in the political discourse of the day.” It is true that Heidegger subsequently joined the Nazi Party. But the notion that the Heidegger-Cassirer contested reflected the battle of Judaism and anti-Judaism is simply wrong. The German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig thought that Heidegger had bested Cassirer at Davos. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the leading thinker of 20th century Modern Orthodoxy, dismissed Cassirer’s scientific determinism. Cassirer, for that matter, had nothing say about Judaism, unlike his teacher Hermann Cohen.  Nirenberg holds up Cassirer as an exemplar of  modern Jewish thinking, without quite explaining what Cassirer thought.

A long chapter entitled “Jewish Enmity in Islam” is an aside to the central narrative about the West. Nirenberg translates and comments on Muslim sources largely inaccessible to the general reader. It shows how deeply Islam drew on Jewish scripture and rabbinic commentary while claiming that the Jews falsified the prophecies given to them. There is valuable scholarship here that would have fared better in an independent volume. Some readers may take issue, though, with Nirenberg’s conclusion. “The Muslim charge of Jewish alteration and falsification of scripture would come to fundamentally distinguish Islamic attitudes toward the Hebrew Bible from Christian ones,” Nirenberg writes, yet he emphasizes that “Both were doing similar political and theological work within the same overarching prophetic tradition.” It is hard to imagine a Jewish-Islamic dialogue comparable to the postwar reconciliation of the Jews with the main branches of Christianity.

In an afterward, Nirenberg sympathetically quotes Walter Benjamin: “Just as a man lying sick with fever transforms all the words that he hears into the extravagant images of delirium, so it is that the spirit of the present age seizes on the manifestations of past or distant spiritual worlds, in order to take possession of them and unfeelingly incorporate them into its own self-absorbed fantasizing.”

That is a fitting epigraph for this sometimes brilliant but often confused and tendentious repurposing of Western history. Nirenberg projects his own discomfort with normative Judaism onto “past and distant spiritual worlds,” and too often gets lost in them.

So touching to see the Obamas’ expression of sympathy for Nigerian girls kidnapped and enslaved by Jihadists — except that the Obama administration supported Jihadists who enforce female genital mutilation, namely Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. One would think that some feminist somewhere in the mainstream media would have the perspicacity to ask Jay Carney whether the Muslim Brotherhood’s aggressive defense of FGM is sufficient grounds to repudiate the organization. The hypocrisy of the Obamas vies for vileness with that of the MSM.

Dr. Dre and Putin

May 9th, 2014 - 4:12 pm

Unlike Pat Buchanan and some other conservatives, I don’t think that Vladimir Putin’s support of traditional values makes him a good guy. Freedom comes first. I also support traditional values but I don’t want the government to shove them down my throat. Banning obscenity from entertainment media, Putin’s latest ukase,  would keep Shakespeare, Goethe and Dante out of circulation in their original form, not to mention Rabelais or Villon.

What we do with our freedom is another thing. Apple has just bought Dr. Dre’s earphone company for $3.2 billion, making the rapper one of the country’s wealthiest men. One presumes that the selling point of his earphones is not their superior technical characteristics but their association with Dre’s rapping, which is too disgusting to illustrate on this site; readers may satisfy their prurient curiosity here.  Dre raps about drug use, rape, pimping and violence: he is a repulsive degenerate whom a healthy society would excrete and forget. Dre’s $3.2 billion score gauges the popularity of evocations of rape and murder.

There is no guarantee that freedom will prevail over dictatorship. I reviewed some of the history here.

Democracies do not necessarily field the most efficient or enthusiastic armies. The French under Napoleon and the Germans under Hitler were the best soldiers of their day. Democracies have one important advantage, namely the capacity to correct errors. Democracies do not necessarily make better decisions than dictatorships in each case, but they are less like to perpetuate errors. It is easy to replace an elected leader who goes mad; not so a charismatic tyrant. This makes the ultimate victory of democracies more probable, but hardly inevitable. It may be likely that a charismatic tyrant will make decisive errors, but it is far from assured that such error will be made soon enough to make it possible to defeat the tyrant at the right moment. I like to think that providence was at work during the Second World War, but that sort of question is above my pay grade.

A people can will itself out of existence democratically as well as by any other means: France did so during the 1930s, and survived the clutches of Nazi Germany thanks to the Allies.

Putin’s mission is to save Russia from dissolution. Ten years ago, with a fertility rate of just 1.2 children per female and fourth-world life expectancy for men, Russia seemed doomed. The fertility rate since has recovered to 1.7, for reasons we do not adequately understand. Part of the reason surely is renewed national self-confidence.

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Update: Bloomberg reports that Russia is seeking Chinese investment. What Bloomberg has a very superficial idea of what is at work: Russia and China now are collaborating on strategic technology. For example, Putin has approved the same of Russia’s new S400 air defense system to China, brushing aside past Russian rancor about Chinese reverse engineering of Russian systems. Russia has opened the door to Chinese tech investments in China which it previously prohibited.

“An historic investment-for-resources deal between Russia and China will neuter Europe’s punitive efforts over Ukraine and redraw the world’s energy map, but more importantly create a Eurasian dynamic that otherwise would take decades to evolve. In the 1970s, former US president Richard Nixon used the region’s complexities to divide Cold War enemies. Now his doctrine is being used against America,” write my Asia Times Online colleague Francesco Sisci today. I hope he’s wrong. Last month I noted in this space that Germany fears a Russian turn towards Asia more than any other outcome of the Ukrainian sitcom.

Sisci writes:

BEIJING — It has not happened yet, but expectations are already enormous. A massive strategic and economic shift is expected to result from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s to China in May.

After decades of fruitless talks, Moscow and Beijing are now likely ready to sign a sweeping deal which will see China invest billions of dollars in Russia, with vast resources being sold in the other direction. This correspondent first saw the agreement signed 20 years ago, when Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin were the presidents, and not much occurred since. However, this time things seem to be real.

In the past, the two parties failed to finalize the fine print of the deal. There were too many differences on the price of gas, the route of the pipeline, the ownership of resources in Russia and on the distribution network in China. Now all these problems are solved — or so it appears — because of a sudden change of heart in Russia linked to the ongoing Ukrainian crisis.

The threat for Russia resulting from the crisis is that Europe will not buy its gas and oil, or will decrease its purchases. Oil prices have remained pretty low, despite the fact that the supply from other oil-exporting countries has been low or dwindling…

Now, and for the foreseeable future, problems with the oil supply hurt the producers far more than the Western consumers, who now have access to the American hoard. This makes it an issue of life and death for Russia to find an alternative consumer to Europe. Europe may suffer somewhat without Russian oil, but Russian economy could easily crack without its sales.

Now, apparently, China could realize up to 30% of its energy needs from Russia, which would equal over a third of the latter’s production. This will partially unload the European gun of not buying Russian oil and create a new dimension to ties in the whole Eurasian continent. Russian can play Europe against China and vice versa. Beijing knows this, and it is interesting to think about why China is willing to be played and help Russia in this way.

This seems a bit premature; Russia might not let its economic relations with Europe collapse so easily. Germany not only buys hydrocarbons from Russia: as The Economist reported recently, “Russia is Germany’s 11th-biggest export market, worth €36 billion ($48 billion) last year. The Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, a lobby group representing big businesses, says that 300,000 German jobs depend on trade with Russia, 6,200 companies with German owners are active in Russia, and German companies have invested €20 billion there.” Russia does not relish the prospect of economic dependency on China. That is the logic of misguided Western policy, however. We may pull defeat out of the jaws of Cold War victory, two decades after the fact. The stupidity of Western policy is epic.

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Why Liberals Don’t Care About Consequences

April 29th, 2014 - 12:35 pm

No amount of evidence will convince liberals that they were wrong. Evidence abounds, to be sure: Appeasement invites aggression. Handouts increase dependency. Coddling terror-states like Iran elicits megalomania. Big government stifles the economy. They don’t care. Really.

John Kerry romanced Basher Assad and Vanity Fair published a fawning profile of the Assad family, while the Obama administration secretly courted Iran. As a result we have in Syria the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the Arab world in modern times. Algeria racked up more casualties during the independence war of 1954-1962 and the civil war of 1991-2002, to be sure, but the casualties are coming faster in Syria and the displacement of immiserated civilians is greater. Do you hear liberals wringing their hands and asking, “Where did we go wrong?” They don’t, and they won’t. Ditto the disaster in Libya, which is turning into a Petri dish for terrorists post-Qaddafi. It doesn’t matter. Being in love with yourself means never having to say you’re sorry.

In the one part of the Middle East where nothing bad is happening or likely to happen–namely Israel–liberals are in full-tilt panic, with John Kerry warning that Israel will turn into an apartheid state. It’s not just Kerry, who is a national embarrassment, but the whole liberal world that thinks this way. In reality, Israel’s booming economy is enriching Israeli as well as Palestinian Arabs, to the extent that the kleptocratic Palestinian Authority lets them do business. There is no urgency at all to Israel’s situation–not, at least, where the Palestinians are concerned. Iran is another story.

Why don’t liberals seem to notice the catastrophic consequences of their policies, and why to they imagine imminent horrors where none exist? If you corner a liberal and point to a disaster that followed upon his policy, at very most he will say–with a tear in the eye and a quivering upper lip–”We did the right thing.”

It’s all about having done the right thing according to the dogma of the ersatz liberal religion. Liberalism has nothing whatsoever to do with policy and its real-world consequences. Instead of finding one’s salvation on the path of traditional religions, liberals look for salvation in a set of right opinions–on race, the environment, income distribution, gender, or whatever. Last month I called attention to Joseph Bottum’s new book An Anxious Age, which I reviewed at the American Interest. Jody argues that modern liberalism is the old Mainline Protestantism, and especially the old Social Gospel, turned into a secular cult. I wrote:

Today’s American liberalism, it is often remarked, amounts to a secular religion: it has its own sacred texts and taboos, Crusades and Inquisitions. The political correctness that undergirds it, meanwhile, can be traced back to the past century’s liberal Protestantism. Conservatives, of course, routinely scoff that liberals’ ersatz religion is inferior to the genuine article.

Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.

It’s hard to make sense of liberalism without recourse to theology–not the superficial theology of doctrinal comparison, but Jody’s sensitive investigation of how the liberal religion looks from the inside, from the vantage point of its true believers (the “poster children,” as Jody calls them). It’s a rare book that helps us to peer more deeply into everyday phenomena, and Jody’s is one of them. It really must be read.

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Simon Schama made his reputation as a cultural historian, and one would expect his new “Story of the Jews” to have something to say on the subject of Jewish culture. His incompetence strains the capacity of the Yiddish language for derogation. He is a yutz. Of the many silly things in his PBS series, the silliest perhaps was the claim that Harold Arlen’s and E.Y. Harburg’s song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” expressed characteristically Jewish longing for a better world–as if longing for a better world were a distinctively Jewish activity. As far as music and poetry are concerned, Schama hasn’t a clue; the text and voice-leading of the song following long-established, overused conventions for the evocation of nostalgia. These are taught to undergraduates in musical analysis. Schubert and Wagner among many others employed them. (In the context of a review of Wagner’s Siegfried for Tablet magazine, I recorded a brief discussion of the musical examples, embedded below. The review itself analyzes the musical trick in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”).

I didn’t like anything else about Schama’s presentation, but I can claim professional credentials in this particular matter.

Garcia Marquez Lied About Macondo

April 23rd, 2014 - 1:21 pm

Gabriel Garcia Marquez died last week. His was a reputation built on the enthusiasm of the reading public, not just the accolades of the critics. He was beloved, and for all the wrong reasons. I despised his work when forced to read it in undergraduate Spanish-language courses and again when I tried to read it later in life. His most popular work, 100 Years of Solitude, pictures the unreality and weirdness (the “miraculous real,” mistranslated as “magical realism”) in the isolated Colombian hamlet of Macondo through several generations of the Buendia family. They eventually are carried off by a cyclone in Garcia Marquez’ account. But that isn’t what happened to them. They were murdered hideously in Colombia’s “Violencia” of 1948-1958, along with 300,000 other Colombians, after committing hideous murders of their own.

Wikipedia says the following about Colombia’s civil war:

Because of incomplete or non-existing statistical records, exact measurement of La Violencia’s humanitarian consequences is impossible. Scholars, however, estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 lives were lost, 600,000 and 800,000 injured, and almost one million displaced. La Violencia affected 20% of the population, directly or indirectly.

Yet, La Violencia, did not come to be known as La Violencia simply because of the number of people it affected; it was the manner in which most of the killings, maimings, and dismemberings were done. Certain death and torture techniques became so commonplace that they were given names. For example, “picar para tamal,” which involved slowly cutting up a living person’s body, or “bocachiquiar,” where hundreds of small punctures were made until the victim slowly bled to death. Former Senior Director of International Economic Affairs for the United States National Security Council and current President of the Institute for Global Economic Growth, Norman A. Bailey describes the atrocities succinctly: “Ingenious forms of quartering and beheading were invented and given such names as the “corte de mica”, “corte de corbata”, and so on. Crucifixions and hangings were commonplace, political “prisoners” were thrown from airplanes in flight, infants were bayoneted, schoolchildren, some as young as eight years old, were raped en masse, unborn infants were removed by crude Caesarian section and replaced by roosters, ears were cut off, scalps removed, and so on”. While scholars, historians, and analysts have all debated the source of this era of unrest, they have yet to formulate a widely accepted explanation for why it escalated to the notable level it did.

The cute, weird, quaint and magical mannerisms of Macondo obscure a bitter, desperate, paranoid propensity to violence. Garcia Marquez’ tale is more popular than the actual history of rural Colombia for the same reason that the fairy-tale “Hansel and Gretel” is more popular than accounts of cannibalism, which became widespread in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). From a purely narrative standpoint, though, I never forgave Garcia Marquez for wasting my time. A short story, a novella at best, was expanded into a novel where nothing happened a dozen times (beating Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” where nothing happens twice).

Garcia Marquez was a journalist and his Spanish never challenges the reading ability of a high-school student, unlike that of the great Latin American novels he emulated: Tyrant Banderas by Ramon del Valle-Inclan, and Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier. The latter is about the violence following the French Revolution in Europe as well as the Caribbean, and is to my taste the great Latin American novel of the 20th century. If you want to understand Latin America, these are the books to read. I also recommend the films of the great Luis Bunuel. To be sure, I don’t like fiction. These are exceptions.

Postscript: Lesson Redux

April 18th, 2014 - 11:45 am

Composed on election eve 2008.


I wandered the beach at midnight by the hamlet of Oyster Bay,
A fugitive from the fell report that would come on Election Day.
And upon a hill in the distance I espied a flickering light
Where the shade of Rudyard Kipling kept its vigil through the night.
And the shade of Kipling chortled through the dank November chill
To the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt there on the porch at 
 Sagamore Hill:

“You ought to admit it fairly, as a business people will:
You have had no end of a lesson: it will do you nothing but ill,
Not on a single issue, or in one direction or twain,
But conclusively, comprehensively, and several times and again.

“You have lived too long with the stink of your sweat, and mistaken it for a perfume;
Beyond the horizon there rose a mirage, and it lured you along to your doom.
The mirage showed an ersatz American world from Tokyo to Timbuktu
In which every belligerent nation and tribe would look and think like you,
Where Shi’ite and Sunni and Turkmen and Druze, and Yazidi and Shabak and Kurd,
Would settle their problems by voting, instead of by massacre as they preferred,
Where the Taliban killers of Kandahar, and the mullahs who govern Iran,
And the suicide bombers of Hezbollah, and each sev’ral religion and clan,
Would stack up their guns by the parliament’s door, and embrace those whom they detest
‘Til the murderous hordes of the bloody Mideast look like Methodists in the Midwest.
In fact they all hate their neighbors more than ever they hated you,
Which is why they invest in your government bonds, just like any Christian or Jew.
You were taught an imperial lesson there on the Mesopotamian plain,
I fear it will profit you hardly at all; you will live in a planet of pain.
Your citizens ought to recite this verse, whenever your flag is unfurled:
‘O, we are an almost-chosen Land, the swankiest club in the world,
The club of survivors who left the Old World to sink in Eternity’s sand, And founded the New.’

That was then. Alas for your almost-Chosen Land!” 

The specter of Roosevelt boomed out in reply, “I fear it is even worse:
Where an almost-Blessing has succored this land, now there follows an almost-Curse,
A Biblical curse from Him with Whom we find ourselves at odds,
And chastens the almost-Chosen folk that whored after foreign gods.
I fear that the land will expectorate us, like the heathen who lived here before us,
And we will die out like the Romans of old, or the dodo and brontosaurus.
We have builded an idol offensive to God as the Israelites’ Golden Calf,
But stupider still, and with poorer excuse, and more obnoxious by half.
We have named the idol ‘Inclusiveness’, but forgot what inclusion entails:
The nations are drops of the bucket, and specks of small dust on the scales.
We included the remnant that left its past to rot on a distant strand,
And made them an almost-Chosen folk for an almost-Chosen land,
That was the source of our Blessing, but today the source of our Cuss
Is the foolish idea that the rest of the world is exactly the same as us.
We never have done stupider things in the past than were done by this President George,
And the very same God who sustained us so long has sent us instead a scourge
In the form of Barack Obama, a malevolent fellow with smarts,
Who took our measure with malice and gazed too deeply into our hearts.
We hail him the God of Inclusiveness, this self-promoting know-it-all,
The way Moctezuma mistook Cortes for the deity Quetzalcoatl!
The Aztecs invited their conqueror in, and that put an end to their drama,
And tomorrow, America does the same thing by electing Barack Obama.
Generations to come (if any there are) will condemn us for losing the scrimmage,
And we’ve no one to blame but ourselves for the sin of adoring our own silly image.”

And that was the answer that Roosevelt made without regret or apology;
If Kipling were still alive you would find it reprinted in every anthology.

Vladimir Putin happily allowed the Kiev authorities to shoot a few pro-Russian demonstrators while keeping his military forces on ice across the border. I predicted (and am sticking to my story) that Russia will not seize more territory in Eastern Ukraine–not for the time being, in any case. Russia will stand back and watch Ukraine implode, the way Egypt did during the two years following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Before the Maidan coup, Putin was willing to sit on $15 billion in arrears to Gazprom and put up $18 billion in new money. Now he wants $35 billion in back gas bills, on top of Ukraine’s $15 billion a year current account deficit. The IMF wants massive cuts in subsidies, which will make the Kiev government an object of hatred without putting  a dent into the problem. Western taxpayers won’t cough up $50 billion for Ukraine, not even a small fraction of it.

Yankee Doodle went to Maidan, stuck a feather in his hat and called it democracy. Our foreign policy ideologues are like UFO cultists who are so convinced that space aliens are invading the earth that they see moon men in every glare of swamp gas. In this case, it isn’t moon men, but aspiring republicans. First Tahrir Square, then Maidan, were glorious proof of the Manifest Destiny of Western democracy.

A Google search with the terms “Putin” and “genius” yields over 10 million hits. If I hear another pundit’s panegyric to Putin’s great intellect, I’ll lose my lunch. Putin is not that smart; the trouble is that we are complete idiots. When Ukraine imploded, our leaders–from Victoria Nuland at the State Department to the neo-conservatives–rather assumed that we would reverse Ukraine’s polarity to the West, and humiliate Russia with the loss of Crimea. Putin called our bluff, and we had no viable military options.

Putin doesn’t need to send the Red Army into Ukraine. Every Ukrainian officer above the rank of major came up through the ranks in the Red Army. Ukrainian commanders won’t fight the Russians. They are the Russians. Yesterday we watched Ukrainian paratroopers turn their armored vehicles over to Russian separatists. Maybe John McCain can send them more weapons to hand over to Moscow.

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