Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I occassionally post the following quote from Solzhenitsyn. It's that time again.

Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Daniel Larison on Herman Cain's "Lybian Pause"

As long as candidates can be relied on to back Israel, hate the current vilified countries, favor increased military spending, and endorse the latest war, they normally aren’t expected to know very much. Cain probably thought that was how it worked in the nominating contest, too, and he has now been disabused of that notion.

If you are a foreign policy junkie and not yet reading Daniel Larison......well, you should be. This post is a good place to start.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Don't Know Much About History"...

My life is not yet so pitiable that I spend Saturday night at home watching the latest Republican "debate," supposedly devoted to foreign policy. As this is a particular interest of mine, I did, however, try to follow the reviews and commentary afterwards. For starters, the only two candidates on the stage that could speak to foreign affairs with any degree of authenticity--Paul and Huntsman--were shut out of the debate. Herman and Rick just looked silly. Mitt and Newt tried to see which one could be the more bellicose towards Iran. But the prize has to go to Rick Santorum. As someone with even less a chance of winning the nomination than Perry (and that is setting the bar pretty low), why does it matter what he said? Here is why: his views are hardly out of the mainstream of GOP thought these days--or Democratic either, for that matter. Santorum's contribution, as follows:

Romney said he would take military action "if all else fails."

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania agreed. Noting that a mysterious computer virus had caused disruption inside Iran's nuclear labs, and that Iranian scientists have been assassinated in recent months, he said, "I hope that the U.S. has been involved" in those and other covert actions.

Doesn't anyone study History anymore? This attitude displays an appalling lack of understanding about the country in question. Iran is no thrown-together construct of post-colonialism, but the proud modern inheritor of some 3,000 years of Persian civilization. And even a cursory overview of Persian history will note the 1953 CIA-led Anglo-American coup d'etat (Operation Ajax) which overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossaddegh, setting up the formerly constitutional monarch, Reza Shah Pahlavi, as the absolute ruler. His increasingly autocratic 26-year reign and repressive secret police caused the simmering resentment against the Crown and its enablers (us) to boil over in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The rest, as they say, is history.

And now, Santorum--the quintessential "pro-life" candidate--is hopeful that we have been in on the assassination of Iranian scientists. The only problem with an ends-justifies-the-means foreign policy is that the ends so seldom end up where we think they will.

Where the Real Money Is

Gail Collins offers an interesting insight that will be of great value to young collegiate types trying to figure out a career path. If you are going after the big money, forget about that MBA. Instead, you might want to consider History, perhaps a M.A. in Medieval Studies. At least that is the story Newt Gingrich is selling these days.

Newt, on the other hand, is always good in debates if you like extremely pompous people who appear to be practically levitating with their own sense of personal wonderfulness. During the last outing, Gingrich’s most fascinating moment came when he explained why the mortgage lender Freddie Mac paid him $300,000 in 2006. First of all, it had nothing whatsoever to do with lobbying, or attempting to influence the Republicans who happened to control Congress at a time when there was talk of clamping down on the way Freddie operated. Just put that out of your mind.

No, Gingrich explained very clearly that Freddie gave him the three-hundred grand for his “advice as a historian.”

This is fantastic and important news. Right now a great many college students are trying to decide on a course of study. Some of them would probably like to major in history but are wondering if they should pick something that might be more lucrative. Not to worry, college students! Look at Newt. Three-hundred-thousand dollars for advising! And the way he described it in the debate, it appeared to involve about only an hour of his time.

So, if given a choice between an M.B.A. in finance or an M.A. in medieval studies, you know where to go. And tell them Newt sent you.

Rethinking Greece

Greece has been in the news a lot recently, and not in a good way. This article, by George Zakardakis, puts the crisis in historical perspective--always a refreshing touch.

I have a good friend who enjoys traveling in Greece as much as I do. She is something of a militant atheist, which means she goes for the broken columns. What happened since Late Antiquity, i.e. Christian/Byzantine Greece--the "real" Greece, I would say--interests her not at all. In 2010, she convinced me to visit King Philip's Tomb at Veroia. I'm glad I did, but I have to admit that I did so only because I happened to be in the neighborhood. This Disneyfied version--the Greece of the tour groups--is at the root of the current crisis, which, as Zakardakis points out, goes much deeper than the financial.

He writes:

Sinking deeper into the gravest economic crisis in its postwar history, Greece is no nearer to finding an exit from its woes. A toxic mix of anxiety and fear hangs in the air in Athens. The ordeal shows that living up to lofty idealism is never easy. Modern Greeks know that well for we are, in many ways, the imperfect reflection of an ideal that the West imagined for itself.

When the Greek crisis began two years ago, the cover of a popular German magazine showed an image of Aphrodite of Milo gesturing crudely with the headline: "The fraudster in the euro family." In the article, modern Greeks were described as indolent sloths, cheats and liars, masters of corruption, unworthy descendants of their glorious Hellenic past.

The irony was that modern Greece has little in common with Pericles or Plato. If anything, it is a failed German project.

In 1832, Greece had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The "Big Powers" of the time, Britain, France and Russia, appointed a Bavarian prince, Otto, as Greece's first king. Otto arrived with German architects, engineers, doctors and soldiers and set out to reconfigure the country to the romantic ideal of the times.

The 19th century had seen a resurgence of Europeans' interest in ancient Greece. Goethe, Shelley, Byron, Delacroix and other artists, poets and musicians sought inspiration in classical beauty. They longed for a lost purity in thought, aesthetics and warm-blooded passion.

Revisiting the sensual Greece of Orpheus and Sappho was ballast to the detached coolness of science or the dehumanizing onslaught of the Industrial Revolution.

Otto ensured that modern Greece lived up to that romantic image. Athens, then a small hamlet, was inaugurated as the capital. The architects from Munich designed and built a royal palace, an academy, a library and beautiful neoclassical edifices. Modern Greece was thus invented as a backdrop to contemporary European art and imagination, a historical precursor of many Disneylands to come.

Otto was eventually expelled by a coup. But the foundations of historical misunderstanding had been laid, to haunt Greece and its relations with itself and other European nations forever.

Of course, it is easy enough to blame all your problems on the West. But Zakadarkis maintains that this romanticized Western fantasy of Greece locked in place a real division within Greek national identity, which has yet to be resolved. Unless it is, he believes even worse headlines lie ahead.

No matter what Otto may have imagined, the truth was that my forefathers, the brave people who started fighting for their freedom against the Turks in 1821, had not been in suspended animation for 2,000 years....they were not walking around in white cloaks with laurel wreaths. They were Christian orthodox, conservative and fiercely antagonistic toward their governing institutions. In other words, they were an embarrassment to all those folks in Berlin, Paris and London who expected resurrected philosophers sacrificing to Zeus.

The profound gap between the ancient and the modern had to be bridged, to satisfy Europe's romantic expectations of Greece. So a historical narrative was put together claiming uninterrupted continuity with the ancient past, which became the central dogma of Greek national policy and identity.

[The Greeks] despise the loss of their sovereignty as well as the bitter medicine prescribed by their European brethren for their "rescue." Austerity enforced by unelected officials from the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank is perceived as not remedy but punishment, a distasteful concept to the orthodox Greeks whose core value is mercy.

The Greek financial crisis is a crisis of identity as much as anything else. Unless the people redefine themselves, this could become the perfect catastrophe: a country designed as a romantic theme park two centuries ago, propped up with loans ever since, and unable to adjust to the crude realities of 21st-century globalization.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Harold Bloom on the Mormon Moment

I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one?

This is how Harold Bloom ends one of the best essays I've read in a long time, found here. It seems I've read more about Bloom than by him, though there is a copy of The Western Canon on a bookshelf somewhere in the house. In the November 13th NYTimes, he addresses the significance of our first Mormon presidential nominee. If it were just that, I would not give the article much attention. Bloom, however, uses the issue to speak much-needed truth about American culture, religiosity and money/politics, while putting the invented Mormon faith in the context of all the other faiths we have invented.

I predicted the 2012 GOP ticket back in March, and I stand by that prognostication. I do not give a whit about Mitt's Mormonism. I will not be voting for him for other reasons. And for all the blather about it on the right, the last time we elected anyone who acted as though they took this Christian business seriously was back in 1976, and as I recall, that did not work out too well. Besides, I believe we generally get the politicians we deserve.

But on to Bloom. I have copied a number of passages, below. I encourage you to read the entire article linked above. It is quite good. Enjoy.

Mr. Romney…is directly descended from an early follower of the founding prophet Joseph Smith, whose highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is. But then, so in fact are most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God Pentecostalists and even our mainline Protestant denominations.

However, should Mr. Romney be elected president, Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor….The Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed has little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith. The oligarchs of Salt Lake City, who sponsor Mr. Romney, betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage. Though I read Christopher Hitchens with pleasure, his characterization of Joseph Smith as “a fraud and conjuror” is inadequate. A superb trickster and protean personality, Smith was a religious genius, uniquely able to craft a story capable of turning a self-invented faith into a people now as numerous as the Jews, in America and abroad.

Persuasively redefining Christianity has been a pastime through the ages, yet the American difference is brazen. What I call the American Religion, and by that I mean nearly all religions in this country, socially manifests itself as the Emancipation of Selfishness. Our Great Emancipator of Selfishness, President Ronald Reagan, refreshingly evaded the rhetoric of religion, but has been appropriated anyway as the archangel of American spiritualized greed….The American Religion centers upon the denial of death, literalizing an ancient Christian metaphor.

Obsessed by a freedom we identify with money, we tolerate plutocracy as if it could someday be our own ecstatic solitude. A first principle of the American Religion is that each of us rarely feels free unless he or she is entirely alone, particularly when in the company of the American Jesus. Walking and talking with him is akin to receiving his love in a personal and individual relationship.

A dark truth of American politics in what is still the era of Reagan and the Bushes is that so many do not vote their own economic interests. Rather than living in reality they yield to what oddly are termed “cultural” considerations: moral and spiritual, or so their leaders urge them to believe. Under the banners of flag, cross, fetus, exclusive marriage between men and women, they march onward to their own deepening impoverishment. Much of the Tea Party fervor merely repeats this gladsome frolic.

As the author of “The American Religion,” I learned a considerable respect for such original spiritual revelations as 19th-century Mormonism and early 20th-century Southern Baptism, admirably re-founded by the subtle theologian Edgar Young Mullins in his “Axioms of Religion.”

A religion becomes a people, as it has for the Jews and the Mormons, partly out of human tenacity inspired by the promise of the blessing of more life, but also through charismatic leadership. What we now call Judaism was essentially created by Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph to meet the needs of a Jewish people mired under Roman occupation in Palestine and elsewhere in the empire....Joseph Smith, killed by a mob before he turned 39, is hardly comparable to the magnificent Akiva, except that he invented Mormonism even more single-handedly than Akiva gave us Judaism, or Muhammad, Islam.

I recall prophesying in 1992 that by 2020 Mormonism could become the dominant religion of the western United States. But we are not going to see that large a transformation. I went wrong because the last two decades have witnessed the deliberate dwindling of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into just one more Protestant sect. Without the changes, Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a fellow Mormon, would not seem plausible candidates.

The accurate critique of Mormonism is that Smith’s religion is not even monotheistic, let alone democratic. Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer openly describes their innermost beliefs, they clearly hold on to the notion of a plurality of gods. Indeed, they themselves expect to become gods, following the path of Joseph Smith….Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts, hoping to join the plurality of gods, even as they insist they are not polytheists. No Mormon need fall into the fundamentalist denial of evolution, because the Mormon God is not a creator. Imaginatively liberating as this may be, its political implications are troublesome. The Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells. From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney? How would he represent the other 98 percent of his citizens?

Mormonism’s best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectual and semi-literate Southern Baptist Convention. I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one? Either way we are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew.