During the too-brief run of the Asia Times print edition in the 1990s, the newspaper asked me to write a humor column, and I chose the name “Spengler” as a joke – a columnist for an Asian daily using the name of the author of The Decline of the West.
Barely a dozen “Spengler” items appeared before the print edition went down in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. A malicious thought crossed my mind in 1999, though, as the Internet euphoria engulfed world markets: was it really possible for a medium whose premise was the rise of a homogeneous global youth culture to drive world economic growth?
Youth culture, I argued, was an oxymoron, for culture itself was a bridge across generations, a means of cheating mortality. The old and angry cultures of the world, fighting for room to breath against the onset of globalization, would not go quietly into the homogenizer. Many of them would fight to survive, but fight in vain, for the tide of modernity could not be rolled back.
As in the great extinction of the tribes in late antiquity, individuals might save themselves from the incurable necrosis of their own ethnicity through adoption into the eternal people, that is, Israel. The great German-Jewish theologian and student of the existential angst of dying nations, Franz Rosenzweig, had commanded undivided attention during the 1990s, and I had a pair of essays about him for the Jewish-Christian Relations website. Rosenzweig’s theology, it occurred to me, had broader applications.
The end of the old ethnicities, I believed, would dominate the cultural and strategic agenda of the next several decades. Great countries were failing of their will to live, and it was easy to imagine a world in which Japanese, German, Italian and Russian would turn into dying languages only a century hence. Modernity taxed the Muslim world even more severely, although the results sometimes were less obvious.
The 300 or so essays that I have published in this space since 1999 all proceeded from the theme formulated by Rosenzweig: the mortality of nations and its causes, Western secularism, Asian anomie, and unadaptable Islam.
Why raise these issues under a pseudonym? There is a simple answer, and a less simple one. To inform a culture that it is going to die does not necessarily win friends, and what I needed to say would be hurtful to many readers. I needed to tell the Europeans that their post-national, secular dystopia was a death-trap whence no-one would get out alive.
I needed to tell the Muslims that nothing would alleviate the unbearable sense of humiliation and loss that globalization inflicted on a civilization that once had pretensions to world dominance. I needed to tell Asians that materialism leads only to despair. And I needed to tell the Americans that their smugness would be their undoing.
In this world of accelerated mortality, in which the prospect of national extinction hung visibly over most of the peoples of the world, Jew-hatred was stripped of its mask, and revealed as the jealousy of the merely undead toward living Israel. And it was not hard to show that the remnants of the tribal world lurking under the cover of Islam were not living, but only undead, incapable of withstanding the onslaught of modernity, throwing a tantrum against their inevitable end.
I have been an equal-opportunity offender, with no natural constituency. My academic training, strewn over two doctoral programs, was in music theory and German, as well as economics. I have have published a number of peer-reviewed papers on philosophy, music and mathematics in the Renaissance. But I came to believe that there are things even more important than the high art of the West and its most characteristic endeavor, classical music, the passion and consolation of my youth. Western classical music expresses goal-oriented motion, a teleology, as it were – but where did humankind learn of teleology? I no longer quite belonged with my friends and colleagues, the artists.
G K Chesterton said that if you don’t believe in God, you’ll believe in anything, and I was living proof of that as a young man, wandering in the fever-swamps of left-wing politics. I found my way thanks to the first Ronald Reagan administration. The righting of America after it nearly capsized during the dark years of Jimmy Carter was a defining experience for me. I owe much to several mentors, starting with Dr. Norman A. Bailey, special assistant to President Reagan and director of plans at the National Security Council from 1981-1984. My political education began in his lair at the old Executive Office Building in 1981, when he explained to me that the US would destroy the Soviet Empire by the end of the 1980s. I thought him a dangerous lunatic, and immediately signed on.
I worked for Bailey’s consulting firm after he left government, simultaneously pursuing a doctorate (never quite finished) in music theory. I owe most of all to the music theorists in the school of Heinrich Schenker with whom I studied in the doctoral program at City University.
Another mentor was Professor Robert Mundell, the creator of supply-side economics, among his other contributions. As an economist for the supply-side consulting firm Polyconomics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had dozens of conversations with Mundell, who won the Nobel Prize in 1999. I can’t claim to be a Mundell student, but he graciously allowed me to acknowledge his help in a 1994 article I published in Journal of Applied Corporate Finance. What I gleaned from Mundell allowed me to begin a successful career on Wall Street at an age when most of its denizens already are over the hill.
By the late 1990s, I no longer believed that solving problems of economic stability and growth was sufficient to resolve problems that manifested themselves in economic form. Working in the inside of the financial world, ultimately as a member of the executive committee for fixed income of America’s largest bank, I saw how easy it was to prejudice the efficiency of markets and to introduce distortions that eventually would have awful consequences.
I no longer quite belonged with my old friends the economists. I had left economics for music, and left music for finance, eventually working in senior research positions at Bear Stearns, Credit Suisse and Bank of America. At Bank of America, I created from scratch a highly rated fixed income research department between 2002 to 2005, with 120 professionals and mid-nine-figure compensation budget. By 2005, it was no longer clear how the financial industry would play a helpful role in fostering prosperity, and philosophical differences prompted me to take my leave.
Exile among the fleshpots of Wall Street had its benefits, but I had other ambitions. My commitment to Judaism came relatively late in life, in my mid-thirties, but was all the more passionate for its tardiness. The things I had been raised to love were disappearing from the world, or changing beyond recognition. The language of Goethe and Heine would die out, along with the languages of Dante and Pushkin.
Europe’s high culture and its capacity to train universal minds had deteriorated beyond repair; one of the last truly universal European minds belongs to the octogenarian Pope Benedict XVI. In 1996, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had said in an interview published as Das Salz der Erde, “Perhaps we have to abandon the idea of the popular Church. Possibly, we stand before a new epoch of Church history with quite different conditions, in which Christianity will stand under the sign of the mustard seed, in small and apparently insignificant groups, which nonetheless oppose evil intensively and bring the Good into the world.” The best mind in the Catholic Church squarely considered the possibility that Christianity itself might shrink into seeming insignificance.
Renewal could not come from music, nor literature, nor the social sciences. The wells of culture had run dry, because they derived from faith to begin with. I was raised in the Enlightenment pseudo-religion of art and beauty. Initially I looked at faith instrumentally, as a means of regenerating the high culture of the West. Art doesn’t exist for art’s sake.
The high culture of the West had its own Achilles’ heel. Even its greatest cultivators often suffered from the sin of pride, and worshiped their own powers rather than the source of their powers. Painfully and slowly, I began to learn the classic Jewish sources. My guide back to Judaism was the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, and my first essay on these subjects was published by the Jewish-Christian Relations website in 1999 under the title, “Has Franz Rosenzweig’s Time Come?”
The intersection point in the Venn diagram of my background had shrunk to the point of vanishing. As a returning religious Jew, I had less and less to discuss with the secular Zionists who shared my passion and partisanship for Israel, but could not see a divine dimension in Jewish nationhood. So-called cultural Judaism repelled me; most of what passes for Jewish culture comes down to the mud that stuck to our boots as we fled one country after another. The Hebrew Bible and its commentaries over the centuries are the core of Jewish culture, with a handful of odd adjuncts, such as the novels of S. Y. Agnon or the last, devotional poems of Heine.
Both as classical musician and as a Germanist, I had better insight than most Jews into the lofty character of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. His writings on the spiritual riches of Western classical music were an inspiration to me almost thirty years ago, when it seemed possible that this most sublime of Western arts would die out for lack of interest. Ratzinger was kind enough to review and comment on the draft of one of my articles on music theory in the 1980s. There is a connection between Ratzinger’s insider’s grasp of music and his Fingerspitzengefuhl for Jewish theology – something I tried to express in an essay entitled “The Pope, the Musicians and the Jews.”
I was in, but not of, the world of rabbinical Judaism, of classical music, of cultural history, of conservative economics, of practical finance – I belonged everywhere and nowhere. I could address each of these spheres only ironically and aphoristically, in a voice that only could be anonymous – for anonymity allowed me to be in but not of all of them. As First Things editor Joseph Bottum observed to me, “Spengler’s” voice freed my style. Why not openly identify myself? Because my readers then would have jammed my thinking into the Procrustean bed of their prejudice.
In 2000, there was nothing to do but to cast my thoughts upon the waters. When the first of these essays appeared I had no expectation that they might interest a wide public. To my astonishment, they were read, and read extensively. Then came 9/11, and my tale of the existential angst of nations was borne up by the Zeitgeist. The Spengler forum at Asia Times Online grew to nearly five thousand registered members. The essays often reached a million readers a month.
As I wrote pseudonymously for Asia Times Online, new friends announced themselves – journalists, academics, clergy, and people of faith from many walks of life, not least the indefatigable group of good friends that manages the Spengler Forum. The editors of First Things asked me for an essay on Franz Rosenzweig and Islam, which I published in 2007, and later a piece entitled “Zionism for Christians,” which appeared in 2008 under the pseudonym “David Shushon.” That was a milestone for me.
I had subscribed to the journal not long after its inception in 1990, the year I finished my PhD coursework in music. To write for First Things was an unanticipated honor. I came to know the magazine’s editor Joseph Bottum, as well as such regular contributors as George Weigel, Russell Hittinger and R. R. Reno.
On January 8, 2009, the magazine’s founder Richard John Neuhaus died. A few weeks later Jody Bottum asked me to join the staff of First Things as an editor and writer. It seems only heartbeats ago that I was in dark seas, looking up at this beacon; now it is my turn to help keep the lighthouse.
As for Asia Times Online – this scrappy, virtual expat bar – I was there at the founding, and will contribute to it as long it continues to upload, if somewhat less frequently than before.