It’s Not Just the Taliban: We in the West are Embracing Medievalism, Too

Many of us have spent the last week glued to our televisions watching the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. A marauding and medieval religious cult, the Taliban are famous for banning education for women, forcing young girls into marriage and vicious corporal punishment or worse for those who fail to adhere to the strictures of their religious fanaticism.

But while we in the West look at the Taliban with horror, a similar kind of fanaticism is taking hold here at home. And while we don’t use whips and American-appropriated weapons to enforce our new Medievalism, the social costs of allowing it to metastasize are enormous.

For years progressives, neo-conservatives, libertarians and business “visionaries” embraced the notion of inexorable progress leading humanity to more enlightened times. Optimistic notions about an “arc of history” bending toward greater prosperity and social justice were embraced by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. But these days, the arc of progress seems to have done an about face and become something of a circle, bending all the way back to autocracy and intolerance, while the optimism of the Bush or Obama years appears more naïve in retrospect with every passing day.

The Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan is just one illustration of a seventh-century ideology overcoming the power of the neo-liberal world. Autocracies have arisen in countries which once seemed candidates for liberal democracy from Russia and Turkey to Iran. Arguably the most powerful person in the world is now China’s all-but Emperor, Xi Jinping, who has presided over the mass detention and forced sterilization of a Muslim minority, the silencing of Hong Kong’s free press and the arrest and prosecution of protestors and dissidents.

But the West, too, has fallen prey to encroaching illiberalism. America’s intellectual, political, and corporate establishment may not share the ideology of ill-educated Central Asian religious fanatics, but they echo the Taliban by embracing an increasingly medieval dogmatism and—crucial—an ideology that similarly scorns reason and debate. As historian J. B. Bury put it in 1913, the Middle Ages were a time when “a large field was covered by beliefs which authority claimed to impose as true, and reason was warned off the ground.”

Where does our own medieval lurch come from? Developments akin to what followed the fall of classical civilization: growing concentrations of political and economic power, a shrinking middle class, increasing intellectual dogmatism and a global pattern of pessimism about humanity’s prospects. We are also living through a relentless effort to supplant any remaining reverence for the ideals that historically have held our civilization together, and this, too, parallels the experience of the Middle Ages, a period in which, as Belgian historian Henri Pirenne noted, “the very mind of man was going through degeneration.”

Specifically, the West—like Afghanistan—is falling prey to a new form of clericalism. In Middle Ages, the clerical class—what the French called the First Estate— enforced the orthodoxy of the day from the Pope and the Bishops. Today, this discipline is undertaken by university faculties, media outlets, and, most egregiously, social media oligarchs. Once celebrated as forums for debate and open inquiry, our universities function today largely as defenders of orthodoxy.

In this, they are like their medieval and Communist counterparts. In medieval universities, dissenters, like Jews and Muslims, were rare, and barely tolerated. Similar conformity haunts our elite schools, where according to one study the proportion of liberals to conservatives ran as high as 70 to one, and at elite liberal arts schools like Wellesley, Swarthmore, and Williams, the proportion reached 120 to one.

But the similarities don’t end there. In addition to living with droughts, famines, ever-colder weather and political unrest, the masses and even the elites in the Middle Ages lived in terror of eternal damnation. More or less everyone believed that the Final Judgement, brought on by human sin, was not only real but imminent; the period saw a surge of millennialist movements that took it upon themselves to enforce this orthodoxy against dissenters and religious minorities like Jews.

It’s hard not to see that fear mirrored in today’s liberal hysterias, whether over racism, climate change or pestilence. Hysteria has become “the business model of the neoliberal age” as one writer aptly put it. In this environment, even supposed devotees of “science” often adopt attitudes which resemble Inquisitors more than empiricists, marginalizing dissenters and even threatening them with jail, dispossession, humiliation, or just public obliteration.

Read the rest of this piece at Newsweek.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art, via Wikimedia in Public Domain.

Why American Jews Are Looking to Israel

For much of the past century, America has dominated the Jewish world. It has been a semi-sacred ‘safe place’, where anti-Semitism only rarely impinged on the national political culture. Yet today, American Jews face levels of anti-Semitism not seen since the 1930s, with half saying they have observed anti-Semitic incidents over the past year.

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Why Jews Are Confused

Assailed from two sides, American Jewry is having an acute crisis of identity.

Es iz schver tzu zein a yid. (It is hard to be a Jew.)

—Sholem Aleichem

From missiles falling on Tel Aviv and the assault on synagogues during last summer’s riots to mob violence on the streets of LA and New York, the sense of well-being among America’s Jews has been shattered. After decades of relentless social and political ascendency, Jews now face rising anti-Semitism in ways not encountered in over half a century. Attacked from the far right, as well as an increasingly vitriolic far left, Jews are pincered and suffering whiplash.

Amidst what Hoover Institution fellow and Somali immigrant Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes as a rampant rise of “tribalism,” anti-Semitism is becoming normalized in America. Yet in the face of this rising risk, Jews themselves are divided and deeply conflicted. The Jewish establishment has generally focused on white nationalists as the prime threat and, to be sure, lone racists have expressed their anti-Semitism lethally from Kansas City and Pittsburgh to Poway. To a people who have experienced centuries of persecution from the Tsarist regime to the Nazis and the Klan, the far right’s elevated profile fueled by the power of social media—if not the actual size of the white nationalist movement—is nevertheless terrifying.

Yet this is not the real measure, or even the bulk, of the threat. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League focus on Islamists and right-wing hate groups, but their statistics have been roundly criticized in such respected magazines as Tablet, and are widely thought to reflect their increasingly progressive bias. The reality, missing from the mainstream narrative, ignores the arguably more potent threat from an aroused, and increasingly radicalized, left.

The roots of leftist anti-Semitism are nurtured in anti-Zionism that has been brewing for a half century on the left. But now, for the first time, even Congress has a band of anti-Zionists who denounce Israel’s strong response to missile attacks as a war crime. The assault on Israel’s right to self-defense—though still backed by President Biden—comes from the ascendant left faction of the Democrats—led by such figures as Rashida Tlaib and the openly anti-Semitic Ilhan Omar. They assign exclusive blame to Israel for their response to the mass missile attacks on their cities from groups like Hamas, whose genocidal urges are well demonstrated and enshrined in the group’s founding documents, and whose Judenrein territorial goal, “from the river to the sea,” is now chanted by street mobs around the world, and tweeted by none other than the labor union at the New Yorker magazine.

Israel appears to have lost support among American Jews, particularly the younger and less affiliated. Having alienated the Obama administration with their West Bank settlement policies and opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement, Israeli policy-makers now worry more about Democratic Administrations. A former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. recently opined that Israel should prioritize the “passionate and unequivocal” support of evangelical Christians over that of American Jews, who he said are “disproportionately among our critics.” Certainly the new administration’s intent to return to the Iran accords are troubling, as are charges that John Kerry, the president climate czar, gave intelligence to the Iranians, who openly promote eradication of the Jewish state.

These divides are particularly dangerous as the community is aging rapidly, faces increasing pressures to assimilate, while major institutions are under pressures not seen in generations. Overall, the American Jewish population—unlike that of demographically robust Israel—is unlikely to grow by 2050. There is no likely replacement for the influx of Persian, North and South African, and Russian Jews who rescued the community from demographic decline over the last half century. It is also a community that is no longer the global center of Jewry, and has been replaced by Israel, a state that acts primarily in its own self-interest, sometimes in ways that upset many American Jews.

Although Trump made some modest gains among Jewish voters in 2020, the bulk of American Jews, nearing 70 percent according to Pew, identify with the Democratic Party. Jews are widely represented in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and progressive icon Bernie Sanders, and are well represented in the media, academic, and corporate communities that have rallied behind President Biden. Democrats account for 36 out of the 38 Jews in Congress, and one-third of them are members of the far-left leaning Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose leading members, during the current hostilities, moved to block a planned $735 million weapons package for Israel.

Leading progressive Jews often embrace the notion of tikkun olam (“healing the world”) as the mission of the faith. In their mind, Jewish values are intrinsically progressive and point with pride to the community’s support for the African American civil rights movement, and their more recent unrequited backing for the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s March. Yet many of these groups are led in part by enthusiastic backers of the most influential anti-Semite of our time, National of Islam head Louis Farrakhan, who smirks that he is an “anti-termite” and insists that Jews controlled the slave trade, and other leaders who accuse Israel of genocide, and of running an apartheid state. Professedly anti-Zionist, BLM has allied with Islamist groups and disparaged Israel during last year’s DC demonstrations as well as during the recent Gaza conflict. BLM protests have also led to rioters vandalizing synagogues and trashing Jewish owned businesses in Los Angeles, New York, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Moreover, violent, unprovoked attacks on Jews in Los Angeles, New York, Raton, Montreal, LondonArgentina, Chile, Germany, Austria, Poland, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey demonstrate that much of anti-Zionism is in reality anti-Semitism.   

Read the rest of this piece at American Mind.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Edward Heyman is currently active as a volunteer and consultant in the Orange County, California, Jewish community, following a career as a partner in a software development firm serving the defense and intelligence communities.

Photo credit: Gregory Hauenstein via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Feudal Future Podcast — Examining China’s Urban Growth, with Austin Williams

In this episode of the Feudal Future Podcast, hosts Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky talk with Austin Williams about the differences in urban growth between the West and China.

The New American Judaism

Ever since God chased Adam and Eve from Paradise, the Jewish experience has been defined by constant movement. In the past 3,000 years Jews shifted from a small sect escaping exile in Egypt to a national Temple-based model, then to a Talmudic diaspora, hunkered down in European ghettos and shtetls. That was followed by waves of migration at the turn of the 20th century that inaugurated a new promised land in America and over 100 years of Jewish American advancement organized around what became a lavish institutional Judaism.

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The Passing of a Party? The Future of the GOP

In this episode of the Feudal Future Podcast, hosts Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky talk with Charles Blain, Brian Calle, and Cullum Clark about the future of the GOP.

A Test of Strength: Pandemics Through the Eye of Religion with Rev. John L. McCullough

In this episode of the Feudal Future podcast, hosts Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky talk with Rev. John L. McCullough about the impact of COVID on faith-based organizations and how religion will reinvent itself through this pandemic.

God and the Pandemic

If God gives you technology, use it to reach people!
~Rabbi David Eliezrie The Secret of Chabad

During this most miserable of years, religion, like virtually every major social institution, has been profoundly disrupted. There have been church closures and the ranks of outdoor—or socially distanced—worshipers represent a mere fraction of those who engaged before. Yet the pandemic may also mark a critical breaking point, leading to profound changes in how spirituality is experienced and sustained. In some senses, we are witnessing a shift as important as that brought about by Guttenberg’s press and Luther’s vernacular Bible during the Reformation. As sociologist and historian Max Weber suggested, these developments overturned the notion that “magic and the supernatural quest for salvation” belonged to the Latin-speaking priesthood. The pandemic and the flood of new online spiritual offerings have combined to transform religious life in much the same way.

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Urban Blues

On the surface, progressive “Blue America” has never appeared stronger. President Donald Trump’s leadership failures exposed by the pandemic and the recent disorders, is sinking him in the polls. His rival, Joe Biden, seems likely to concede his traditionally moderate stances to placate the Democrats’ youthful activist and identitarian wings. Radical “transformation” of the United States seems to some just months away.

Yet even as their political power waxes, the woke progressives are engaged in a process of blue-icide, undermining their own urban base of disadvantaged citizens and their own credibility. Such self-destructive tendencies existed even before COVID-19 and the George Floyd upheavals, in the form of crushingly high taxes, regulatory burdens, and dysfunctional schools. The failures of Trump may help progressives in 2020, but their emerging policy agenda seems destined to benefit the red states, conservatives, and, sadly, the far right, later in this decade. Read more

How the Virus is Pushing America Toward a Better Future

The peak globalization bubble has finally burst and America has a chance to reinvent itself and realign how things work here with the best parts of our national identity.

Pessimism is the mood of the day, with 80 percent of Americans saying the country is generally out of control. Even before civil unrest and pestilence, most Americans believed our country was in decline, Pew reported, with a shrinking middle class, increased indebtedness and growing polarization.

It’s a dark hour, but the United States has a way of coming back, after struggling with itself, stronger than ever. As it did in World War II and the Cold War, America retains enormous sokojikara, or “reserve power,” as Japan political scientist Fuji Kamiya described it decades ago. Read more