Friday, April 14, 2006


The inevitable villains of thriller movies are unregenerate Nazis in nice suits who scheme to bring back the Reich. This cartoon has its uses. Since it would be simply eccentric to want to reprise an obsolete variety of mischief, the impression is created that radical political evil is now safely in the realm of fantasy as if a new, improved system of malevolence with its own peculiarities and stylistics were not a distinct possibility or actuality. The traditional figure of the Southern bigot has analogous functionality. Since modern right wingers don’t go around calling people niggers, they can tell themselves and others that what they are retailing isn’t a racist ideology. Which is rather like a contemporary girl-gone-wild who assures her father she’s not a floozy because, after all, she doesn’t dress like Betty Boop.

The question that these thoughts are leading to is this: circa 2006, has the figure of the anti-Semite also become for the most part an imaginary bugbear? I’m sure there are some people around who harbor a traditional hatred for Jews just as there really are American Nazis who wear retro uniforms and go around Heil Hitlering each other. In the America I grew up in, however, these coelacanths were already both scarce and old and bore very little resemblance to the international relations professors and leftist agitators who are routinely denounced as anti-Semitic by Alan Dershowitz. Exactly why are Jews supposed to be hated as Jews in a country where one is free to pick and choose one’s religion like a hobby and Jewish ethnicity is utterly unremarkable? Even in the early 60s, when I was in high school in L.A., being Jewish was about as exciting as being Scottish or Slovenian. It was a mere subdivision in a racial taxonomy whose only significant categories were white, black, Mexican, and oriental.

I freely admit that I may be utterly wrong about this. Maybe the population of the nation harbors mysterious reservoirs of paranoid rage towards the People of Moses—if we’re really anti-Semitic, I guess we’ll have to start talking like that again. Or maybe my indifference to Catskill shtick is a symptom of a hidden spiritual canker. On the other hand, it could be that anti-Semitism really is obsolete and that criticism of Israel has a range of other motivations, some good, some bad.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Political Theology

Marxism was supposed to be a synthesis of German philosophy, French politics, and English economics. The list of ingredients for mainstream Christianity is the Jewish prophetic tradition, Greek philosophy, and Roman politics, but mostly Roman politics. The crucial moment in the evolution of the religion was not the crucifixion, but Constantine’s religio-political coup. Before Constantine, the various Christian groups represented a challenge to the unity of an Empire that had come to insist on an ideological conformity alien to the traditional tolerance of pagan societies. Adopting—and adapting—Christianity as the state religion resolved this conflict. But what triumphed was quite distinct from the Christianity of the sects. It was a chimera that combined some of the elements of the old faith with the persecuting machinery of the Roman state. Many people have pointed out that the theological mysteries defined as orthodoxy at Nicaea and other early councils were simply frozen political compromises; but the true mysterium was not that Christ was all man and all god, but that the faith would henceforth be simultaneously all spirituality and all politics.

Christianity was merely a large minority before the emperors began to patronize it. The emperors made Europe Christian, not only by directly imposing the religion on the Romans but by providing an example to the princes that created the new states in barbarian lands. While individuals were certainly susceptible to the appeal of the new faith, the wholesale conversion of the pagans was accomplished from above by ambitious kings when it wasn’t simply enforced at the point of Frankish swords. The one exception I’m aware of is Medieval Iceland, where there were no kings; but even there the decision to convert to Christianity was made for overtly political reasons at a memorable meeting of the Althing in the year 1000.