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Spengler

Christian and Jewish Angels

December 24th, 2014 - 3:32 am

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Joseph Bottum is my favorite among Christian writers; I read him religiously, as it were, for a decade before we met, and before he asked me to join the masthead of the monthly magazine First Things in 2009. The fact that he is a close friend, therefore, has nothing to do with my admiration for his work; I have several close friends who write badly, and admire any number of writers whom I abhor as human beings. His Christmas meditation “Angels I Have Heard on High” was a holiday delicacy to be savored. Jody has heard angel voices singing, “high in the wind, across a western meadow frozen stiff and covered with the fallen snow.” I  wish him many more such blessed encounters.

Jody is now writing Christmas carols, and we’ve been corresponding about the form, from an aesthetic vantage point, to be sure. The great poet of Spain’s Golden Age, Lope de Vega, wrote a marvelous song in which the Virgin Mary responds to the glory of angels ruffling the palm trees by asking them to hold onto the branches and quiet down; her child, she explains, is already exhausted by the world’s suffering and needs to rest. The juxtaposition of maternal ordinariness and supernatural splendor is a successful poetic conceit. Christian poets work wonders with angelic encounters, and Lope’s famous Christmas meditation is sublime. One really must read it in the original: with its Romance meter (comparable to our ballad meter) and unrhymed alliteration, the poem bestrides the divide between sublime and secular in technique as well as content.

By pure coincidence, the conversation around the Shabbat table last week at Hong Kong’s modest Israeli synagogue, Shuva Israel, centered on angels as well. Jews sing “Peace onto you, ministering angels” before Friday night dinner, on the basis of an ancient homiletic that two angels accompany a Jew home from synagogue on the eve of Shabbat:

Peace upon you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High,

of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Come in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Bless me with peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High,

of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

May your departure be in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Note that the appearance of the angels is a scheduled weekly occurrence, to be welcomed, but nothing to get excited about. The odd thing, though, is that the angels are asked to leave. One hears many explanations for this, but I like best the one proposed by the Chofetz Chaim, the leader of observant Jewry in Eastern Europe during the interwar years, and recounted last Friday by a young Israeli rabbi. When the high priest entered the Temple’s Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he went in alone–not even an angel dared accompany him into this most holy place. The recreation of the Temple in the Shabbat table of a Jewish home is so holy that even the holy angels cannot abide there; after they have done their job of accompanying us home from synagogue they are politely asked to go away.

The Holy of Holies in Judaism is found in the most ordinary things of life once they have been dedicated to the Holy One, blessed be he. The Shekhinah (the Indwelling of God) resides on the Shabbat table, and in marital relations between husband and wife. Such things surpass the holiness even of angels.

The holiness of the sanctified ordinary, to be sure, doesn’t always make for compelling poetry; as a latecomer to Jewish observance I tend to sniff at the poetic merits of the classic songs sung around the Shabbat table, although some of them, drawn from the Psalms, are hauntingly beautiful.

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Baden-Baden has been a spa town since Roman times, drawing tourists for its therapeutic waters, and more recently for a festival hall that features prominent classical artists. It also has a Faberge museum, which seems appropriate at this time of year: Christmas in Germany is like a brightly decorated eggshell with no egg inside. The forms of the holiday are merrily observed, but not the faith. To declare one’s belief in a personal God counts for proof of mental defect here as well as in most parts of Europe, especially among educated people. Nonetheless there is more faith left in Germany’s Protestant establishment than among America’s mainline Protestant churches, and it’s something for a visiting Jew to rejoice about here at Christmas time.

The Presbyterian Church USA, the flagship church of America’s fading Protestant mainline, voted to boycott the state of Israel earlier this year, and nearly voted to prohibit the use of the word “Israel” in its prayers. The new Marcionism of the mainline churches justifies its aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies by rejecting a link between the living Jewish people and the God of Abraham. By contrast, both Pope John Paul II of blessed memory and Benedict XVI emphasized that God’s covenant with the Jewish people never was revoked.

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Why Liberals Really, Really Hate Us

December 18th, 2014 - 12:36 am

They really, really hate us. George Orwell wrote a morning “Two Minutes Hate” session into the daily life of his dystopia in 1984. One blogger notes that 2,000 of Rachel Maddow’s facebook fans wished that Ted Cruz would fall into an open elevator shaft. What would he have made of the hyperventilating hatred that liberals display against conservatives? Over at National Review, Katherine Timpf reports on a hate manifesto published by the chair of University of Michigan’s Department of Communications. Republicans “crafted a political identity that rests on a complete repudiation of the idea that the opposing party and its followers have any legitimacy at all.” wrote Prof. Susan Douglas. “So now we hate them back,” she explains. “And with good reason.”

In fact, they have their reasons to hate us. They are being silly. We know they are being silly, and they know we know, and they can’t stand it. It isn’t quite how we repudiate the idea that the opposing party has any legitimacy at all. But we can’t stop giggling.

“Reductio ad absurdum” does not begin to characterize the utter silliness of liberals, whose governing dogma holds that everyone has a right to invent their own identity. God is dead and everything is permitted, Zarathustra warned; he should have added that everything is silly. When we abhor tradition, we become ridiculous, because we lack the qualifications to replace what generation upon generation of our ancestors built on a belief in revelation and centuries of trial and error. Conservatives know better. G.K. Chesterton said it well: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

The antics of the “small and arrogant oligarchy” that controls the temples of liberal orthodoxy have turned into comic material that Monty Python couldn’t have dreamed up a generation ago. There are now dozens of prospective genders, at least according to the gender studies departments at elite universities. What do the feminists of Wellesley College do, for example, when its women become men? The problem is that no-one quite knows what they have become, as a recent New York Times Magazine feature complained:

Some two dozen other matriculating students at Wellesley don’t identify as women. Of those, a half-dozen or so were trans men, people born female who identified as men, some of whom had begun taking testosterone to change their bodies. The rest said they were transgender or genderqueer, rejecting the idea of gender entirely or identifying somewhere between female and male; many, like Timothy, called themselves transmasculine.

Use the wrong terminology and you’re burned for a bigot. There used to be jokes such as: “How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, and it’s not funny.” You can’t tell that sort of joke about  Wellesley because the LGBTs never will agree on the lightbulb’s gender. There are rare cases of babies born with ambiguous genitalia, to be sure. There also are a few individuals obsessed from early childhood with the idea that they were born in the wrong body. They have difficult lives and deserve sympathy (but not public mandates for sex-change operations). Gender ambiguity in its morphological infinitude as a field of personal self-development, though, has become the laboratory for cutting-edge liberal thinking, the ultimate expression of self-invention. LGTB Studies (or “Queer Studies”) departments have or soon will be established at most of America’s top universities, classifying, advocating and defending an ever-expanding number of newly-categorized gender identities.

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America Is Losing Its Edge

December 13th, 2014 - 4:20 pm

We have heard over and over again that America is still the world’s fountain of innovation, the home of fracking and Facebook. The two “F’s” of American innovation are about to become one: The collapse of oil prices portends a collapse of the shale boom. High-yield energy bond yields have soared from 5% to 12% in the past few months, and investors are fighting to get to the door. Most unconventional oil and gas projects are unprofitable at $60 a barrel, and that’s where oil will trade for the next year or two.

Facebook is a clever gimmick, but it doesn’t do much for productivity.

It doesn’t help to crank up the theme from Rocky and chant, “We’re Number One!” We are in trouble, with a stagnating economy and falling incomes, and we are about to be in much, much worse trouble.

What’s left of the U.S. economy net of alternative hydrocarbons doesn’t look impressive. Here are a few facts about American capital investment:

Take out the energy sector, and capital investment by S&P companies remains 8% below the 2008 peak. We never had an investment recovery.

Take out the top six companies in the S&P technology sector (IBM, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, HP, Micron), and S&P tech capital expenditures are down by a 40% since 2000 and down by 25% since 2013. The top six account for 75% of all capital expenditures among S&P tech companies (in 2000, it was less than 50%). All but the quasi-monopoly tech giants show an investment depression.

In deflated dollars, nondefense capital goods orders from American manufacturers are 20% below the 2000 peak and 5% below 2008.

It’s no surprise that productivity and wages are stagnating: investment in plant and equipment is falling. America is losing its edge. We had better fight to keep our lead before we have to play catch-up.

Meanwhile, R&D and engineering capabilities are burgeoning abroad. As a Dartmouth business school professor reports on the Harvard Business Review blog, U.S. multinationals are building R&D centers in China and India. The quality of engineering and scientific talent in the world’s two most populous countries is rising rapidly:

The remarkable reality is that many big American R&D spenders have undergone a quiet transformation of their product development capabilities during the last decade that includes embedding Asian capabilities much closer to the core of their operation. Offshore engineering centers have become central to businesses such as Microsoft, Abobe, and Synopsys.

As an investment banker active in Hong Kong, I see brilliant innovations popping up in China every day. Per capita, China may be less innovative than America, but with 1.4 billion people, a very small proportion of prospective innovators adds up to a very big number.

America still has the world’s best technology, but the gap is closing. If we don’t change course, we are going to go the way of Britain.

Reaganeconomics was founded on tax cuts and sound monetary policy, but it also included a massive high-tech R&D effort, the Strategic Defense Initiative, driven by federal R&D spending. As a young consultant for the National Security Council, I researched the issue for Norman Bailey, then special assistant to the president–and the president cited the economic benefits of SDI-related R&D in a subsequent speech.

What do we need? I offer 6 ways for America to regain its edge…

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Reason Dreams of Monsters

Francisco Goya’s 1799 etching “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos” usually is mistranslated as “the sleep of reason produces monsters.” The word sueño typically (and clearly in this context) means “dream.” The mistranslation implies that monsters emerge when reason ceases to be vigilant; what Goya meant, rather, is that “monsters are what reason dreams about.” 

Now that we have extirpated religion from politics, we have entered a new age of monsters. Liberal politics, as Joseph Bottum observes, has become spiritualized, with its own Inquisitions and witch-hunts. And our popular culture is populated by monsters as never before (roughly one in eight feature films features supernatural monsters of one sort or another).  Our foreign policy proceeded as if Montesquieu were a universal salve to heal the wounds of distressed societies, and has merely succeeded in launching monsters upon the world on the grand scale.

Holy Russia, Holy Everybody Else

December 6th, 2014 - 3:22 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin took a lot of ridicule in the West for his assertion that Crimea is as sacred to Russia as the Temple Mount is to Jews and Muslims. Even in the context of Orthodox theology, Putin struck a cognitive dissonance. But there should be no surprise at the invocation of Holy Russia. Russia has considered itself holy since the fall of Byzantium, when the headquarters of the Orthodox Church passed from the “second Rome” at Constantinople to the “Third Rome” of Moscow.

Laugh at Putin at your peril. The bell tolls for you. Every nation that ever has existed considered itself holy in some way. It is impossible to have a nation except on the premise of the sacred. Men cannot bear mortality without the hope of immortality, and it is the continuity of our nation that vouches for this hope. We are not immortal as disembodied spirits playing harps on clouds, but concretely, in our earthly form. Nations that give up their hope of immortality roll over and die, often through infertility, for example today’s Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Hungarians and Poles.

To be sacred is not necessarily to be good: the Aztec priest excising a captive’s heart had a sense of the sacred as intense as Mother Teresa’s. Putin’s assertion of the sacred character of his country is no more or less than a statement that Russia intends to survive. After all we have read of Russia’s impending demographic collapse, Russia’s fertility rate has climbed back to 1.7 last year from just 1.2 a decade ago, an unprecedented peacetime recovery. America’s total fertility stands at just 1.86. Russia is in much worse demographic shape because of the extremely low birth rates of the past generation, to be sure. The point is that Russia won’t be written off.

America’s mishandling of Putin shows once again the utter bankruptcy of secular political science. The devotees of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Machiavelli, the game theorists and systems analysts, the liberal idealists and neoconservatives, failed to grasp that Russia would look on any attempt to sever Crimea from Russia as an existential threat. Russia threw itself into the arms of its old rival China, and the Russian population rallied behind Putin, in a response that leaves America at a strategic disadvantage.

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My last post (“May the Farce Be With You“) drew 280 comments, most of them infuriated, and most of them ill-informed. By way of remedy, I repost below an April 4, 2007 review-essay on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Children of Hurin. My literary friends point out that Tolkien’s style is turgid and his literary muse is lame. I don’t care. No writer in the English language did more to uplift popular culture. Star Wars, I observe, derives from Richard Wagner’s noxious Ring cycle by way of the odious Joseph Campbell, and had a corrupting effect on the culture. The contrast with Tolkien is instructive. Rather than remasticate the pagan idea of the hero, Tolkien created a pagan anti-hero (specifically, an anti-Beowulf and anti-Siegfried) in the tragic figure of Turin. Reconstructed from manuscripts by Tolkien’s son Christopher, the Turin story sheds light on the broader purpose of The Lord of the Rings, and illuminates the fraught relationship between the pagan and Christian worlds.

Many readers objected to the way I threw Harry Potter into the same kettle as Luke Skywalker. A qualification is in order: J.K. Rowling stole from Star Wars as well as from Tolkien (and of course from Thomas Hughes), so that one can read a variety of different standpoints into her work. They all are there, in unhappy cohabitation.

Tolkien’s Christianity and the pagan tragedy

The Children of Hurin, by J R R Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Reviewed by Spengler

J R R Tolkien was the most Christian of 20th-century writers, not because he produced Christian allegory and apologetics like his friend C S Lewis, but because he uniquely portrayed the tragic nature of what Christianity replaced. Thanks to the diligence of his son Christopher, who reconstructed the present volume from several manuscripts, we have before us a treasure that sheds light on the greater purpose of his The Lord of the Rings.

In The Children of Hurin, a tragedy set some 6,000 years before the tales recounted in The Lord of the Rings, we see clearly why it was that Tolkien sought to give the English-speaking peoples a new pre-Christian mythology. It is a commonplace of Tolkien scholarship that the writer, the leading Anglo-Saxon scholar of his generation, sought to restore to the English their lost mythology. In this respect the standard critical sources (for example Edmund Wainwright) mistake Tolkien’s profoundly Christian motive. In place of the heroes Siegfried and Beowulf, the exemplars of German and Anglo-Saxon pagan myth, we have the accursed warrior Turin, whose pride of blood and loyalty to tribe leave him vulnerable to manipulation by the forces of evil.

Tolkien’s popular Ring trilogy, I have attempted to show, sought to undermine and supplant Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle, which had offered so much inspiration for Nazism. [1] With the reconstruction of the young Tolkien’s prehistory of Middle-earth, we discern a far broader purpose: to recast as tragedy the heroic myths of pre-Christian peoples, in which the tragic flaw is the pagan’s tribal identity. Tolkien saw his generation decimated, and his circle of friends exterminated, by the nationalist compulsions of World War I; he saw the cult of Siegfried replace the cult of Christ during World War II. His life’s work was to attack the pagan flaw at the foundation of the West.

It is too simple to consider Tolkien’s protagonist Turin as a conflation of Siegfried and Beowulf, but the defining moments in Turin’s bitter life refer clearly to the older myths, with a crucial difference: the same qualities that make Siegfried and Beowulf exemplars to the pagans instead make Turin a victim of dark forces, and a menace to all who love him. Tolkien was the anti-Wagner, and Turin is the anti-Siegfried, the anti-Beowulf. Tolkien reconstructed a mythology for the English not (as Wainwright and other suggest) because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity.

“Alone among 20th-century novelists, J R R Tolkien concerned himself with the mortality not of individuals but of peoples. The young soldier-scholar of World War I viewed the uncertain fate of European nations through the mirror of the Dark Ages, when the life of small peoples hung by a thread,” I wrote in an earlier essay. [2] Christianity demands of the Gentile that he reject his sinful flesh and be reborn into Israel; only through a new birth can the Gentile escape the death of his own body as well as the death of his hopes in the inevitable extinction of his people.

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May the Farce Be With You

November 28th, 2014 - 10:31 am

George Lucas will inflict yet another Star Wars film on us momentarily. I detest the series, along with its successor, Harry Potter, and its antecedent, Wagner’s Ring cycle. Luke Skywalker is a retreaded Siegfried, with inborn powers that make him nearly invincible, asserting his will against authority (Wotan/Darth Vader). There are minor differences; at least Harry doesn’t have to kill Dumbledore. George Lucas explained on a recent American Movie Channel retrospective that he dipped into this swamp first as an anthropology student, reading the likes of Joseph Campbell.

Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of  a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false. This sort of figure is largely absent both from biblical and Chinese narrative (that in part explains Campbell’s unconcealed hostility to the Jews and their sacred texts). The patriarchs could be tough, like Abraham, or averse to conflict, like Isaac, but “heroic” is not a qualifier that springs to mind. For that matter, the protagonist of every Kung Fu creaker is a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.

My friend Francesco Sisci observes that Europe was ruled by a hereditary aristocracy while China was ruled by mandarins:

Even now there are families in Rome claiming a lineage back to Julius Cesar , living in the same area and the same buildings for millennia, despite many changes in the ruling elite of the land. The concept of aristocracy, of blue-blood privileges, was very strong for centuries in the West. Apart from the many crowned heads of State in Europe, England’s House of Lords is a modern vestige of the old Roman Senate: a group of grandees – largely chosen by the merits of their forefathers – ruling the nation of common people. In ancient China… there were no birth-determined social divides, and upward mobility based purely on merit had been encouraged and idealized since very ancient times.

China is ruled by the equivalent of the faculty of Harvard College, which William F. Buckley famously compared unfavorably to the first hundred people in the Boston phone directory. This sort of system has good points and bad points. It is embedded in popular culture, e.g., the plot of almost every martial arts film. It also encourages an educational system in which almost everyone learns calculus, as opposed to America, where one  out of eight high school students learns calculus.

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How Far Down Do You Define Deviancy in Ferguson?

November 26th, 2014 - 11:59 am

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s celebrated phrase “defining deviancy down” first appeared in a 1993 essay in The American Scholar. “I proffer the thesis,” wrote Moynihan, “that, over the past generation…the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized.”

What used to be a civil rights movement has drawn a bright line behind the late Michael Brown, whose guilt in two violent felonies (robbing a convenience store while assaulting a store clerk, and assaulting a police officer) is not in dispute. It is sad, to be sure, that Brown died in a confrontation with a police officer, but no legal case can be made that the police officer rather than Brown chose to make the confrontation deadly.

Two generations ago the NAACP chose Rosa Parks as the subject of its anti-segregation lawsuit in Montgomery, AL, because she was a woman of unexceptionable character and reputation. Today the NAACP and its allies have chosen Michael Brown as their poster-boy, precisely because he was a violent criminal. The argument of what now might be termed a “criminals’ rights movement” is that the police should not have the right to use force against felons whose crimes do not reach a certain threshold. What that threshold might be seems clear from the repeated characterization of Brown as an “unarmed black teenager.” Unless violent felons use deadly weapons, it appears, the police should not be allowed to use force.

To restate the “civil rights” argument in a clearer way: Young black men are disproportionately imprisoned. One in three black men have gone to prison at some time in their life. According to the ACLU, one in fifteen black men are incarcerated, vs. one in 106 white men. That by itself is proof of racism; the fact that these individuals were individually prosecuted for individual crimes has no bearing on the matter. All that matters is the outcome. Because the behavior of young black men is not likely to change, what must change is the way that society recognizes crime itself. The answer is to remove stigma of crime attached to certain behavior, for example, physical altercations, petty theft, and drug-dealing on a certain scale. The former civil rights movement no longer focuses its attention on supposedly ameliorative social spending, for example, preschool programs for minority children, although these remain somewhere down the list in the litany of demands. What energizes and motivates the movement is the demand that society redefine deviancy to exclude certain classes of violent as well as non-violent felonies.

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What Do We Do with Suicidal Cultures?

November 23rd, 2014 - 10:21 am

The overriding, terrible theme of the 21st century is the suicide of cultures. Small civilizations die for any number of reasons; great civilizations die because they want to. My book on the subject was reasonably well received in the U.S. but made no real impact on the public debate, although it seems to have had some influence in Hebrew translation.

The suicide of cultures is incomprehensible to liberalism, which places the human condition in a Petrie dish for the edification of social scientists. It is also incomprehensible to the main currents in American conservativism, that is, the Straussian and Catholic versions of natural right and natural law. We flounder in the face of suicidal cultures because we lack the intellectual tools to confront them. Men do not always seek the good, as Aristotle opines in at the outset of the Nicomachean Ethics: often they seek nothingness. When in history have so many volunteered to commit suicide to murder civilians, as the jihadists now do? When in history has a combatant tried to maximize the number of casualties among its own civilians, as does Hamas? The liberal mind reels with horror at the phenomenon of mass suicide.

We learn how to grapple with cultural suicide from Ecclesiastes, from Augustine’s reflections on Ecclesiastes, and from Goethe’s reflections on Ecclesiastes in Faust, which take us to Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig and Heidegger. The latter’s embrace of “Non-Being,” as Michael Wyschogrod observed in his masterwork The Body of Faith, is consistent with his support for Hitler. Our highbrow culture averts its gaze from the philosophical inquiry into Non-Being; our popular culture cannot take its eyes off the personification of self-destruction in the form of zombies and vampires. Our popular culture is infested by existential horrors which our intellectual culture refuses to acknowledge.

The Muslim Brotherhood (and its Palestine chapter, Hamas) and ISIS are the Arabic-language branches of the NSDAP, and they employ the same theater of horror to demoralize their enemies. Mere rationalism quails before such horrors. We require a phenomenology of the irrational to address it.

We simply do not understand the world in which we live. That is why we mistook the terminal decline of Muslim civilization for an opportunity to extend Western democracy to the Middle East. That is why we mistook Russia’s desperate efforts to revive its old nationalism as an antidote to cultural despair for a replay of Munich in 1938. These have had baleful consequences: we destroyed an ugly but efficient system of governance in the Middle East and left chaos in its place in Libya, Syria and Iraq. We undid one of the premises of Cold War victory, namely keeping Russia and China apart, and stood godfather to a new Sino-Russian alliance. And we did this systematically and deliberately, because we think the wrong way.

In doing so we demoralized a generation, much as the failures of Vietnam motivated the counter-culture of the 1960s. The inability of evangelical Christians to retain a majority of their young people has a good deal to do, I suspect, with disillusionment over America’s frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have lost the confidence of the American public in foreign interventions through overreaching. Our blunders helped elect Barack Obama, the gravedigger of America’s influence in the world.

Alas: there is no-one left to teach the intellectual tools required to repair the damage. I could sketch a full curriculum in philosophy, history and politics (as I have for literature); if a billionaire wrote a blank check, he couldn’t find the faculty for it. Prof. Wyschogrod was among the last (he is now frail and retired). Perhaps there still are a few survivors hiding in remote crevices of academia.

We will make more mistakes. If there is a consolation, it’s that God looks out for drunks, small children, and the United States of America. America never looked worse than it did in 1859, and never looked better than it did in 1865. Abraham Lincoln, as Mark Noll observes in “America’s God,” had no institutional precedent or formal connection to the theology of his time, yet he was his era’s great theological mind. That is as close to a miracle as we are likely to get in politics. I believe in miracles, and I am praying.