The Long View: Life's Solution

This is a line of argument John often pursued with regard to genetics. I am somewhat sympathetic to a teleological reading of evolution, but I also know that I am wayyyy out of my depth in this subject. Most of my reading in genetics has been of very recent adaptations that only involve one gene, rather than complex adaptions of many genes working together.  Thus, I feel a bit cautious about Conway's argument. Philosophically, I have no objections, but I don't have any idea whether the science actually supports his claims.


 Life's Solution:
Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe
By Simon Conway Morris
Cambridge University Press, 2003
464 Pages, US$21.00
ISBN 0-521-82704-3

 

Maybe you have sometimes suspected that the portrait of evolution as a random process is somewhat overstated. Maybe you have also wondered how scientist-popularizers, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, have been able to draw consistently agnostic metaphysical conclusions from a supposedly meaningless process. This book, by a professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge, calls the decade-long campaign by the neo-Darwinianists what it is: a polemic. In its place, he offers a model of evolution that is less like literary deconstruction and more like real science. The book is likely to restore many a science buff's faith in evolutionary biology. As for faith in other things, Morris is far from Creation Science, or even from Intelligent Design. However, he suggests that the natural world is the preface to the spiritual world that human beings inhabit, and not its antithesis.

This is not the first time that Morris has ventured into the field. His earlier book, “The Crucible of Creation,” used better fossil evidence to refute the main points of Stephen Gould's depressingly influential, “It's a Wonderful Life.” This time around, there are four key points that Morris wants to make about the history of life on Earth:

First, the complex is usually inherent in the simple. That is, structures that appear in advanced organisms are generally based on features that already appear in their simple ancestors. The existence of these “inherences,” or as yet unmanifested potentials, are some evidence that the whole history of evolution was already implied at the beginning.

Second, the number of evolutionary endpoints is limited. Not every imaginable creature actually exists, or has ever existed in the past. In fact, only a small fraction of the imaginary “space” of conceivable living things has ever been occupied. That is even more true of biochemistry. The number of possible proteins is ridiculously huge, but only a tiny bubble in “protein space” has anything in it. In neither case is this economy of forms a matter of mere chance. Again and again, evolution “converges” on a relatively small set of possible solutions to the problems the world poses.

Third, anything that can happen usually happens more than once. History counts for a great deal in evolution, but nevertheless, quite different lineages routinely arrive at the same “solution,” producing organisms with similar structures and behaviors. Stephen Jay Gould was simply wrong to say that, if we started evolutionary history over again, we would get a world completely different from our world. We know this because biological history does in fact often repeat itself, even in the laboratory.

Fourth, evolution takes time. Not everything is possible in every historical period. Evoution is generally progressive over time. That is, it continues certain long-term trends. This is not to say that every lineage becomes more complex over time, much less that every lineage is trying to evolve into mankind. However, when novelty occurs, it prefers some directions to others.

One might distill Morris's model into two principles. One is that there are certain “islands of stability” (like the “strange attractors” familiar from chaos theory) toward which evolution trends. The other is that evolution is as much about the development of “biological properties,” such as sight, endothermy, or body size, as about the development of lineages. The lineages come and go. The biological properties are strangely persistent.

The breadth of Morris's argument is truly universal (in a moment, we'll get to his discussion of the place of Earth in the cosmos). His treatment of “convergences” in the biochemistry of unrelated creatures is perhaps a bit dense. However, one point that stands out is that the origin of life really does present intractable problems for mere natural selection. There are many possible codes that DNA could use to make proteins; the actual number has 18 zeroes in it. Most of these codes probably wouldn't work; those that would, still an immense number, are more or less efficient. The code that DNA actually uses may well be the optimum code; certainly it's one of just a handful of the best.

Pure chance could not have sorted through that huge set of possibilities even in the known age of the universe. However, life arose no later than 200-million years after the crust of the Earth formed; it may have arisen in as little as 10-million years. Obviously, the lottery was rigged in some way to produce life, and to produce it quickly. The question is all the more exasperating because several decades of experiment have proven that no “one-pot” reaction will make life from primordial soup, or even advance the climb toward complexity.

Morris treats us to a fair sample of the many times nature has repeated itself. Indeed, some biologists question whether there are any biological properties that are not convergent. Inevitably, the multiple times that the eye has evolved are not neglected, including a long discussion of the relative merits of the camera eye (which humans and squids have, for instance), and the compound eye, which gives insects that disconcerting steely look.

The eye provides just one of many proofs that the expression “you can't get there from here” has little application to evolution. Some spiders and shrimp, for instance, originally opted for compound eyes, but then evolved camera eyes when the need arose. Similarly, some sharks have developed endothermy (internal control of body temperature). For that matter, even the great divide in the vegetable world, between flowering and non-flowering plants, is a narrower gulf than we supposed. The true flower seems to have evolved just once and then diversified. However, there is a kind of conifer, the Gnetales, which has devolved what in effect is a flower, down to the reinvention of the flower's trick of double pollination. Nature, we see, is no respecter of patent rights.

Some convergences are trivial. It is not, for instance, very interesting that sea horses have heads that look a little like the heads of horses. In contrast, it is very significant that the marsupial wolves of Tasmania, and the big hunting cats of everywhere else, developed saber-teeth that function in a very similar way. Morris is at pains to show that not just anatomy, but also behavior, evolves convergently. We hear a great deal about “eusociality,” which is possessed by those creatures that live in communities where just one or a small number of individuals reproduce, and the rest are divided among castes of workers and warriors. Ants have developed eusociality several times, along with genuine agriculture. So, of course, have bees. It was only relatively recently, though, that biologists have realized that some mammals are eusocial. The prime example is the mole rat, which is completely horrible and lives in Africa.

Properties of life that are more elusive than behavior may also be convergent. On the basis of some cross-species neurological comparisons, Morris suggests that many species share the “qualia,” the experience of sensation as distinct from the knowledge of facts. For instance, it seems that birds as well as humans experience sound “categorically.” That is, both the avian and human nervous systems break up continuous physical events into discrete packets of experience. Stretching a bit, Morris even argues that the consciousness of species that possess weird senses may not be so different from our own. Some fish that enjoy electrical sensitivity, for instance, have brains that treat it in much the way that other animals treat hearing. It is hard to say what the echolocation of bats may correspond to in our experience, but it would be premature to say it corresponds to nothing.

Amidst all these convergences, we are still left with the apparent uniqueness of man. Even biologists who grudgingly concede that terrestrial megafauna were likely to have evolved also say that nothing like us was at all probable. Echoing Schopenhauer, they say that the big human brain is a fluke, and that human intelligence is not the result of any adaptation. To this Morris replies that mankind's big-brained mentality, with its heavy use of vocality and its high social intelligence, is unique in degree rather than kind. Dolphins, for instance, have the second largest brains on the planet, relative to the size of their nervous systems. Like man, they seem to have acquired that brain in a geological instant, in response to environmental stress. They don't seem to actually talk, but they use sound to organize themselves in a way comparable to that of human hunting groups. They even use tools, after a fashion, in that they put coverings on their noses when they root about on the ocean floor. What can be said of dolphins can also be said to a lesser degree of the elephant, that other uncannily intelligent animal. Because of their anatomies, neither dolphins nor elephants were in a position make extensive use of tools. However, they do illustrate that big brains are another point of convergence.

Morris argues that more than one primate was ready to make the leap to intelligence about the time that man's ancestors did. He even nominates a bipedal ape as another candidate: oreopithecus, which lived seven million years ago on some islands that later became Tuscany. It might have beaten the human line to intelligence, had the sea level not fallen and exposed the creature to predators from the mainland. The actual pre-human line in Africa might have perished, but Morris says that some other species would have played the same role sooner rather than later. (He nominates another alternative, the capuchin monkeys of South America, despite their character flaws.) The lineage of homo sapiens was in no way favored. The biological property of “humanness” was favored. Some creature would have embodied it eventually.

You might think that, having demonstrated that something similar to man was very likely to evolve on Earth, Morris would go on to propose that the stars are full of bipedal, camera-eyed, big-brained intelligences almost exactly like us. In fact, he can't quite drop the notion. He makes playful references to the strangely familiar conditions that would obtain on an Earth-like planet that he calls Threga IX. (Morris makes many playful asides, by the way: there is something to be said for any popular-science book that quotes Chesterton and repeatedly alludes to Tolkien.) He seems to be of the opinion that, if there are any other planets like Earth, they would indeed develop in much the way Earth did. The problem is that he entertains doubts about whether there are other such planets. It is possible that mankind is both inevitable and unique.

It is interesting to compare his arguments with those that John Barrow and Frank Tipler made in “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.” They, too, decided that Earth was more or less unique: but not for cosmological reasons, which they knew something about. Rather, they deferred to what they took to be the consensus among evolutionary biologists, which was that the appearance of intelligent life was so improbable that it could not be expect it to happen twice. Morris, who is an evolutionary biologist, simply reverses the deference.

In Morris's defense, we may note that there is more information than there was in 1986, when Barrow and Tipler published their book. Dozens of planetary systems have been discovered since then, few if any like the solar system. On the other hand, Morris seems unduly impressed with studies suggesting that Earth's disproportionately large moon was necessary for the development of a stable biosphere. Without the slowing effect of the tides, it is said, Earth would rotate much more quickly, which we know would create routinely catastrophic weather. To that, one might respond that Mars and Venus rotate more slowly than Earth, Venus dramatically so, and neither has a large moon. Clearly, there are other factors.

Far more interesting is the suggestion that there might be a very narrow window in galactic history during which biospheres could form. Earlier in its history, the galaxy may have been speckled with gamma-ray events, resulting from the collision of neutron stars. These could have sterilized large regions of space. Meanwhile, in each generation of stars, the level of metalicity increases. In other words, there is more detritus of heavy elements that is dispersed by the explosion and outgassing of older stars. Those strange solar systems we have been finding, with their superjovian planets just a few million miles from their suns, are younger systems with high metalicity. Earth's sun, in contrast, formed about 1.8-billion years later than other stars that typically have the same composition. Thus, the prime time for the development of Earth-like solar systems might have coincided with a dangerous radiation environment. This is all very speculative, but it cannot be dismissed.

The final section of the book is called “Towards a theology of evolution.” It is short on actual theology. The author points out that he has not tried to make an Argument from Design. This is just as well, since an earlier generation of science-minded agnostics routinely used the supposed teleology in evolutionary history as an argument that God was an unnecessary hypothesis. He does suggest, though, that the actual content of science can co-exist very easily with a theistic worldview. The mind of the West could put back together the unity of intellect that the modern era tore asunder.

To judge from “Life's Solution,” Morris is not a voice crying in the wilderness. Though his choice of sources is necessarily selective, Morris's wide-ranging survey shows that the biological sciences are full of people who know that evolution is not random or directionless. Nonetheless, he fights shy of discussing the ideas of people who have attempted the philosophical synthesis he calls for. One could understand him not bringing up Teilhard de Chardin, whose teleological model of evolution comes with more metaphysical baggage than Morris might want to deal with. But what about Robert Wright, whose book “Nonzero” argues that even mechanistic Darwinism implies a world that favors the evolution of intelligence? And then there was Kenneth Boulding, whose model of evolution as a growing pyramid of niches is not so different from Morris's suggestion that evolution reaches out to islands of stability.

Such criticisms are churlish, however. “Life's Solution” goes as far toward explaining The Meaning of Life as can be expected of any one book. This is a story that will have many sequels. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-15: Stellar Conservatism

Space, the last refuge of the right

Space, the last refuge of the right

In an interesting libertarian-ish interpretation of James C. Bennett's article in the National Interest, John says this:

Bennett is not wholly averse to technological determinism. He argues that networking technology undermines the sort of states, even the democratic ones, that engage in extensive economic redistribution. This is because the new technologies will make it possible for the revenues from private enterprise to flow through channels the state cannot reach. 

Which I think is pretty much where the libertarian-ish sharing economy typified by Uber and AirBnB has ended up. As Steve Sailer noted:

Frequently, a major competitive advantage of the new High Tech modes is the widespread assumption that laws against overt and disparate impact discrimination don’t apply to them because they are new and high tech and thus can’t be anything like evil old white male ways of making money.

I'm don't think this counts as a prediction, but it does strike me as interesting.

It is also interesting to me that John felt that the drive to space in the twenty-first century was coming from the conservatives in America. JFK famously launched us to the Moon, and LBJ was in charge for most of the Apollo Program, but nearly fifty years later, America has largely lost interest in the idea. Insofar as scientists trend liberal in America, NASA and JPL probably trend left politically, but I would be interested to know where popular support for either manned or unmanned space exploration actually lies in America. I'm not certain that it maps well to the blue state/red state model at all.


Stellar Conservatism

In the current (Winter 2003/04] issue of the The National Interest, there is an article by James C. Bennett that may be the key to understanding President Bush's new Moon-to-Mars space initiative, though it does not mention space policy at all. The piece is entitled Networking Nation-States: The Coming Info-National Order. It begins thus:

The early years 20th century was filled with predictions that the airplane, the automobile or the assembly line had made parliamentary democracy, market economies, jury trials and bills of rights irrelevant, obsolete and harmful. Today's scientific-technological revolutions (epitomized by space shuttles and the Internet) make the technologies of the early 20th century -- its fabric-winged biplanes, Tin Lizzies and "Modern Times" gearwheel factories -- look like quaint relics. Yet all of the "obsolete" institutions derided by the modernists of that day thrive and strengthen. The true surprise of the scientific revolutions ahead is likely to be not the technological wonders and dangers they will bring but the robustness of the civil society institutions that will nurture them."

Bennett is not wholly averse to technological determinism. He argues that networking technology undermines the sort of states, even the democratic ones, that engage in extensive economic redistribution. This is because the new technologies will make it possible for the revenues from private enterprise to flow through channels the state cannot reach. They also make it possible for people to engage in politics far beyond their national borders. The result will be the loosening of the ties that bind the modern nation-state, and the simultaneous cohesion of larger, looser constellations of "civic societies." The constellations will be based on interest and affinity. The most advanced so far is the Anglosphere.

* * *

A curious point: Bennett's Anglosphere Institute seems to have no website, though the notion is webfauna if ever I saw any. However, he does have a book on the subject coming out soon: Anglosphere: The Future of the English-Speaking Nations in the Internet Era. Cecil Rhodes would be so pleased.

* * *

I would state Bennett's observation about the conservative effect of new technology much more strongly. It was, I believe, Marvin Harris who remarked in Cannibals and Kings that the result of his being a full professor at a major university was that he was able to take long vacations at the beach. There he could collect mussels and otherwise do what his hunter-gatherer ancestors had done all their lives. At low levels of technology, civilized people have to live in regimented herds and do uncongenial, repetitive work. They are exposed all the while to uncontrollable epidemic disease. As society becomes more advanced, more and more people can lead a sanitized version of the neolithic life. They enjoy some degree of physical isolation in detached dwellings; they deal regularly with a small "pack" of just 20 family and friends; and they can eat all the meat they want. Yum.

Even the Enchanted World is back, in the form of all these communications devices that chirp and talk and otherwise intrude themselves like vindictive banshees. The wired world is not arbitrary, but recapitulates the participation mystique, in which the borders of consciousness blur between people and things.

* * *

The interesting point about the drive to space is that it is now coming from the conservative part of the spectrum. This was not at all the case when John Kennedy announced the goal of putting men on the moon. In those days, political conservatism still meant a fair degree of skepticism about the possibilities and benefits of technology. It also implied an almost superstitious dread about transgressing traditional limits. Today, at least in America, conservatism increasingly means the determination to continue the modern, liberal democratic project, a key form of which is the ever-expanding physical frontier. It seems to be the libertarians who are keenest to get into space. The Left, in contrast, seems increasingly hostile to the idea that some people, however few, might escape.

* * *

The president's proposals seem little more than an attempt to begin turning the lumbering oil tanker that is NASA in a new direction; colonization has in fact never been high on NASA's list of things to do. I am not altogether reassured by the most important aspect of the proposal, the call for a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). Though that project would have the good effect of scrapping NASA's plans to build the useless Spaceplane, the CEV seems to be nothing more than an updated version of the Apollo series.

If private initiative does not do something to supplement these efforts in the near future, we could see a reenactment of the less desirable of the two major continental railroad-building strategies of the 19th-century. In America, the early continental rail-network was heavily subsidized by the federal government, but the actual work was done by entrepreneurs who were risking their own capital. Private markets soon gave the network a life of its own. In Russia, in contrast, the government built a railroad straight from Europe to the Pacific, for reasons of prestige and military convenience. The transportation system artificially created satellite settlements, but the Russian Far East never really paid its own way, and now the whole region is in danger of abandonment. The same could happen to space.

As for Bennett's post-national future, I think that his faith in the novelty of modernity is misplaced. Government always expands to enclose the economy. That is very close to being a law of history. If the networked world is, in some ways, a return to the fairy-tale world that human beings find so congenial, we should remember that more fairy tales allude to the Holy Roman Empire than to the Hanseatic League. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-13: GWB and Kaiser Bill

I suppose there is nothing other to say here than in a different set of circumstances, we wouldn't have blown up Iraq.


GWB and Kaiser Bill

I always had a soft spot in my heart for former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. After all those years of Robert Rubin, who thought the chief function of the Treasury Department was to puff up the financial markets, there was a lot to be said for O'Neill's practice of tracking the state of the economy by taking a daily look at the prices of raw materials. That long tour of Africa that O'Neill took with Bono was also heart warming, though even then it was clear that a Treasury Secretary who could spend that much time away from his office probably wasn't long for the cabinet.

Now, however, he has participated in the composition of a strange polemical book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill, which was actually written by Ron Suskind. Its critique of Bush's management style is a gold mine for Bush critics, of course, but then there was also what O'Neill has been saying about Bush's Iraq policy:

"From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein is a bad person and that he needed to go," O'Neill told 60 Minutes. "From the very first instance, it was about Iraq. It was about what we can do to change this regime."

Statements like that have elicited responses from the Democratic candidates like this one from John Kerry:

"It would mean they were dead-set on going to war alone since almost the day they took office and deliberately lied to the American people, Congress and the world."

That's not what O'Neill said. What he did say was that the Bush Administration came into office with a policy of regime change; war was just one option. The Clinton Administration had exactly the same policy. Since the policy had been repeatedly endorsed by Congress, it would have been difficult to abandon, even if the new Administration had been so inclined. Nonetheless, it is true that, once 911 made the invasion of Iraq politically possible, the Administration seized the occasion to pursue an option it could not otherwise have implemented.

The reasons for the war were overdetermined. The country is the key to a region where governments either cannot control the distribution of WMDs, or are eager to manufacture and import them. Iraq itself was in the latter category; we know from post-invasion inspections that it was in gross violation of the disarmament accord that had ended the 1990-1991Gulf War. The war was justified legally and ethically. It was also perhaps the only way of addressing the real root cause of 911: the political pathology of the Middle East.

Despite all that, one cannot deny that the war was a war of choice, one made possible by American hegemony in conventional military power. There is now a substantial fraction of the foreign policy establishment, including the fraction most influential in the White House and the Pentagon, that no longer looks on this hegemony as a post-Cold War anomaly, but as the natural state of the world. When you see the words "American" and "empire" together in a title these days, you cannot assume that the author means to be critical.

This smacks more than a little of what Hohenzollern Germany used to say before 1918 about Germany's place in Europe and the world. One can draw parallels between the origins of the First World War and that of the Iraq War. In the January 12 issue of The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes quotes David Fromkin's new book, Europe's Last Summer : Who Started the Great War in 1914?:

Vienna did not merely want to get its way with Serbia. It wanted to provoke a war with Serbia. Berlin did not want to get its way with Russia. It wanted to provoke a war with Russia. In each case, it was war itself the the government wanted -- or, put more precisely, it wanted to crush its adversary to an extent that only a successful war makes possible.

Exactly the same might be said about the Bush Administration's policy toward Iraq. Can the two situations really be distinguished, or did the US simply overthrow the Kaiser in order to take his place four generations later?

To answer that question, let's go to the horse's mouth, Fritz Fischer himself:

The Mitteleuropa concept makes it clear that Germany's striving for world power, which by 1912-1913 seemed no longer to have any realistic objectives in the world - unless very restricted ones in a working association with England and Turkey and possibly in a partition of the Portuguese colonies - was moving demonstrably toward a European hegemony which, according to Ratenau, had been Germany's for a short time under Bismarck, but which had not been sufficiently strengthened and which had been taken from her. For Germany the question of strengthening her position in Europe had become a question of existence. According to him the power of civilized states (Kulturstaaten) depended on their economic power, and Germany's raw-material basis was too narrow. Germany was dependent on "the charity of the world market," as long as it did not control sufficient sources of raw materials and safe markets. To ensure Germany's basis for life in the present and future, they needed Mitteleuropa and its complementary, Central Africa...

"World Policy, World Power, and German War Aims"
From The Origins of the First World War
Edited by H. W. Koch

The Hohenzollern Reich started the First World War in order to create hegemony. To do that, it was willing to wage a general war against all of its equals. The Iraq War, and the Terror War of which it is a campaign, are in sharp contrast. It presupposes American hegemony; the status of other powers really is not at issue. Also, America's status as a hegemon is what makes America the chief target of the Jihad. The Iraq War was not launched to upset the international order, despite the hurt feelings of the UN. Quite opposite: if the Terror War is successful, the effect will be to conserve much of the late 20th-century international system. Certainly more would be saved than under the alternative, the era of mass-effect terrorism that would have been the result of inaction.

There is no way to avoid the fact that West's "Era of Contending States" became a contest for hegemony, despite the protestations of the contestants that they were doing no such thing. There was more than one possible outcome. If Niall Ferguson had his way, the Imperial German government would have settled the issue in 1914; then the rest of the 20th century would have been about working through the implications. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Germany, but the terms on which its governments were willing to seek hegemony would have poisoned the outcome. Our own world has its faults, God knows, but one suspects that we live in one of the better possible histories.

* * *

Once again, I would like to thank all those readers who have been buying my books. Fan mail is appreciated. If any of you have the opportunity, please post some reviews with Amazon.com. They don't have to be true, so you can be creatively laudatory.   

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-08: The Martian Frontier

If you needed some proof of my contention that it wasn't only right-wingers that were crazy after 9/11, here is Thomas Friedman, nobody's idea of right-wing nut, calling 9/11 the start of World War III. While not right-wing, he was a nut. There isn't anything in Salafi terrorism that is even remotely close to the impact of the First or Second World War or the Cold War. Fortunately, I think Friedman came to his senses.


The Martian Frontier

As part of its continuing mission to send Tinker Toys where only somewhat smaller Tinker Toys have gone before, NASA's website now features the mission of the rover, Spirit. It's a great site, and I would like it even more if I had high-speed Internet access, which is what it is principally designed for.

I am mesmerized by Spirit's adventures. I, too, have a list of topographical features, revealed by the first panoramic photos, that I want the little critter to go and look at more closely. On the other hand, I cannot help but reflect that I was mesmerized in 1976 by the landing of the two Viking probes, which were in some ways more capable than Spirit and whose results are still disputed. Frankly, I will not be much impressed unless Spirit finds the wreck of a Martian gunboat on the floor of that dried-up lake, if the region is a dried-up lake.

We can only hope,

* * *

Speaking of Mars and gunboats, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has begun to favor his readers with a seven-part series about how to win the war of ideas against Islamic terrorism. In Part I, published today, he distinguishes this geopolitical contest from prior ones:

What you are witnessing is why Sept. 11 amounts to World War III, the third great totalitarian challenge to open societies in the last 100 years. As the longtime Middle East analyst Abdullah Schleiffer once put it to me: World War II was the Nazis, using the engine of Germany to try to impose the reign of the perfect race, the Aryan race. The cold war was the Marxists, using the engine of the Soviet Union to try to impose the reign of the perfect class, the working class. And 9/11 was about religious totalitarians, Islamists, using suicide bombing to try to impose the reign of the perfect faith, political Islam.......

As my friend Dov Seidman, whose company, LRN, teaches ethics to global corporations, put it: The cold war ended the way it did because at some bedrock level we and the Soviets "agreed on what is shameful." And shame, more than any laws or police, is how a village, a society or a culture expresses approval and disapproval and applies restraints.

But today, alas, there is no bedrock agreement on what is shameful, what is outside the boundary of a civilized world.

I would qualify this by suggesting that, though the Islamist vision may be universalistic, that vision does not consider the non-Islamic world as part of civilization. The West, in contrast, has detached the notion of "civilized world" from religion, and even from culture. It has come to mean something close to Teilhard's idea of the "Noosphere," the region of mind.

To put it another way: it used to be said, during the Cold War, that if the Martians attacked, the Russians and Americans would forget their differences and automatically be on the same side. I am not altogether certain that would have been true; Poul Anderson, for instance, wrote several plausible stories about extraterrestrials picking favorites in the Cold War. However, there is some reason to suppose that the West and the Soviet Block would have thought about an alien incursion in much the same terms. At least they would have understood that it was a new situation that might require a novel response. That is likely to be untrue with respect to Islamists.

If H.G. Wells's Martians had reached the Middle East, they would scarcely have noticed a Jihad against them.

* * *

Here's a bit of information on the continuing attack on the use of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

In good Biblicist fashion, the opponents of the words often point out that the US Constitution does not refer to God at all. From this, they infer, the Framers intended to establish a wholly immanent theory of legitimacy, one that in no way relied on transcendent justification. The objection to this reading is that the Declaration of Independence has that bit about men being "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," but then the Constitution was drafted over a decade later by a somewhat different group of people, so one might argue that the intent of the Founders and the Framers should not be too closely identified.

If so, the argument has problems. We should not forget that the Constitution we have today is the second United States constitution. The first, the Articles of Confederation, was drafted just a year after the Declaration of Independence, and it is even sparer with references to religion than the constitution drafted at Philadelphia in 1787. The closest it comes is in the attestation clause, which begins:

And whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union.

This is boilerplate, not theonomy, but it was written and approved by the same people who had made clear in 1776 that they considered government a divine institution. The absence of evidence need not be evidence of absence.

* * *

By the way, regarding updates to my main site, yes, I am still writing book reviews. However, I am being a bit more systematic about submitting them for publication in print journals, so I have to delay putting them online. For instance, First Things says they will publish a review I did of Paul Johnson's Art: A New History, probably in the March 2004 issue. Since they ask for exclusive use of the material for three months, I cannot put it on my site until nearly midyear.

I picked up that book while Christmas shopping, justifying the purchase to myself with the argument that I know several people who would like it as a present. Once I got it home, of course, I bent the spine while reading it and smudged a few pages, so it was no longer in mint condition. Well, I obviously couldn't give that copy as a present, could I?

A surprisingly large fraction of my library has accumulated through just this specious reasoning. So have all my lamps.

* * *

What I find most interesting about the reaction to President Bush's new immigration policy is that anyone in the labor establishment objected at all. On the AFL-CIO site we read:

The proposed changes in the nation’s immigration laws President George W. Bush announced Jan. 6 are "a hollow promise for hardworking, undocumented workers, people seeking to immigrate to the U.S. and U.S. workers alike," says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. The plan "creates a permanent underclass of workers who are unable to fully participate in democracy."

The objection, at least nominally, is not the traditional one that immigration depresses wages. Rather, as my former state senator used to say about the death penalty in New Jersey, the proposal does not go far enough:

While the Bush plan would give some legal status to undocumented immigrants, it does not provide undocumented workers an opportunity to earn citizenship, SEIU Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina says.

Traditionally, labor unions were leery of immigration, because of the well-founded belief that it depressed wages. Now, of course, the same unions that vociferate against competition from foreign workers abroad are eager to bring the same workers to the US. This is sad, really. US labor unions gave up on native-born workers sometime ago. Now the unions believe that importing prospective members is their only chance of survival.

* * *

History suggests that everyone involved in the immigration debate will be proven to have been gravely wrong about the future, by the way. Here's a story to think about from Germany. It seems that people living in the economically depressed eastern region of the country have begun to find work in Poland. That country is less developed than Germany, but it is more friendly to low wage, labor-intensive jobs.

Just after the end of the Cold War, the Germans nicknamed the Elbe River "the Rio Grande," because so many illegal immigrants were crossing it. Now the situation has reversed. But that could never happen in the American Southwest.

Could it? 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly 

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All of John's posts here

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Art: A New History
By Paul Johnson

LinkFest 2016-04-15

Between traveling to my brother-in-law's wedding and getting sick after said wedding, posting has been light of late. So here is an extra huge linkfest for your reading pleasure.

Tom Wolfe's View of Trump

Tom Wolfe applies his keen eye to Trump's campaign.

Wisconsin's New Politics of Resentment

I always enjoy fine-grained electoral analysis like this. Red state-blue state is a useful model, but you can miss a lot of interesting details if you don't look deeper at the patterns within each state.

Race and Suicide: Shifting Trends

Robert VerBruggen is a fine data analyst, and here is a great piece on how the odds of suicide varies dramatically by race.

The Global Vote of No Confidence in the Pax Americana

America *not* being the global security utility is probably a bad thing, on balance.

There is no Secret Notebook

This is the kind of piece I enjoy reading precisely because it is to unfamiliar to me. I have never once felt that there was some kind of secret notebook compiled by people smarter than me. Probably because I am an asshole who thinks he is smarter than everyone. This is a flaw in my character, but it has its uses. 

Ed West: London's Housing Issues are Really Driven by Taste

Modern architecture really is a conspiracy, perhaps the most expensive field where the taste of the masses means nothing.

The Anomaly of Barbarism

Many of us really don't believe people can be awful because they like it.

What Women Really Want is the Patriarchy

A provocatively titled look at sexual attraction and masculinity. This is an area where I think common experience, and your lying eyes, are likely to be a far better guide than *any* published research, which is a morass of shoddy study design, small sample sizes, and ideological axe-grinding. 

The Role of Intelligence in Modern Society

A really good survey article from 1995 on the state of the art in intelligence research. Unlike many critics of Murray and Hernstein's Bell Curve, Earl Hunt knew what he was talking about, and I think he made some good points worth discussing here. 

A Revolutionary Discovery in China

I don't find it surprising that more diversity of opinion existed in Chinese thought before it was codified, but this is a valuable and interesting collection of texts.

Court Stops FCCs Latest Attempt to Lower Prison Phone Rates

Scott Alexander says this is one of the clearest and most black-and-white political issues around, and I agree with him.

The End of 'The Sopranos': How David Chase Played Us for Suckers

Ross Douthat suggests this is a good analysis of 'Girls' too.

 

Difficult Women: "How Sex and the City" Lost its Good Name

It had a good name? I kid, but I've never been a huge fan of the anti-hero in any genre. 

The New Religion of the Silicon Valley elite

Another from Ed West, who trolled me on Twitter once about behavioral genetics, and I fell for it. Short version, Mark Zuckerberg can't be trusted.

The Long View 2004-01-05: Duk Soop

Babylon 5

Babylon 5

I greatly enjoyed Babylon 5 when it was on television, and I appreciated John's allusion to it here.


Duk Soop

 

At this point in the Democratic primary campaign, I suppose that Howard Dean must be feeling a little like Ambassador Londo in the first season of the Babylon 5 space opera:

Londo: You know what this job is like, Pir?

Pir: Like what, your excellency?

Londo: It's like being nibbled to death by those little animals they have on Earth...what are they called, the ones with the beaks?"

Pir: Ah...cats!

Londo: That's it! It's like being nibbled to death by cats!

The moral to this story is that the Londo character stole the show. (I suspect he was based on Baron Jacobi in Henry Adams's novel Democracy, but I have not looked into the question.) Though I can understand why Dr. Dean has become the man the other Democratic candidates have to beat, I am at a loss to see what they hope to accomplish by ganging up on him at these nine-sided debates. Their questions do not sway those voters who already support Dean, and they do not incite any new affection for the questioners. Insinuations that Dean is Neville Chamberlain in a leisure suit are better left to one's staff.

* * *

What then should the candidates be talking about? Consider the latest news from Iran:

Bahram Akasheh, professor of geophysics at Tehran university, has said a quake in [Teheran] of similar magnitude of that in Bam would kill over 700,000 people. Government buildings would be destroyed, leaving the state powerless to respond.

Akasheh has written to President Mohammad Khatami to propose moving the capital to the central city of Isfahan, which was the country's capital in the late 16th century under monarch Shah Abbas the Great. The capital was moved to Tehran in 1788.

This is not the way to respond to the danger of earthquakes, by the way. The populations of Tokyo and Yokohama are comparable to that of Teheran, and Japan is at least as quake-prone as Iran, but Japanese building codes allow people to live in high risk areas with some equanimity. In any case, I mention this item not because of the disaster-preparedness angle, but because of the notion of moving the national capital.

Has anyone noticed that the capitals of the UK and US are in the wrong places? London made sense as the capital of England and Normandy after the Norman Conquest; it's off at the far end of nowhere as far as the modern United Kingdom is concerned. Similarly, the middle of the East Coast was a reasonable place to put Washington DC at the end of the 18th century, since the US was then a littoral country. That position has made less sense every year thereafter, as the population spread west.

After the Civil War, there was some serious talk about moving the capital to St. Louis, Missouri, which was already both a rail hub and a major Mississippi port. In science fiction, the capital is routinely moved someplace out West in the aftermath of a nuclear war. If someone did a count, I think that Denver would prove to have been chosen most often for this honor.

It would be a bad idea to move the capital to Denver, or indeed anywhere in Colorado, which is already too trendy and overpriced. However, there is some sense in using relocation to staunch the continuing depopulation of the rectangular states. Wyoming is one possibility. North Dakota, which is losing people at a great rate, would be even better. Aside from regional economic development, one advantage would be that the civil servants relocated from Washington would, finally, be forced to learn how to drive in the snow.

* * *

There are some subjects that should be off limits to a presidential debate: the people would panic, and demand that their leaders DO SOMETHING. Among this class of issues better left unraised, I see that there is yet another report abut declining sperm counts from Europe. Reports like this have been circulating for some time; the last presentation I read of the alleged phenomenon was in a book called Our Stolen Future. That book has a foreword by then Vice President Al Gore, so that puts it back a bit.

I am surprised to be reading about this again, because I thought that the declines turned out to be a sampling error. The reports came from a variety of European and Asian sources, but no such phenomenon was apparent in the US, even when the same ethnic groups were involved. Note, by the way, that even if the reports were true, they don't seem to correlate with fertility rates or sexual dysfunction.

Altogether, this sounds more than a little like the late-19th century reports of a general rise in the level of feeblemindedness. There was absolutely nothing to it, but influential elites were persuaded. This was one of the factors behind the passage of eugenics laws. This time around, the collateral damage would be uselessly vexatious environmental legislation.

* * *

Something that would be perfectly safe for the candidates to talk about is spelling reform. I am on the Advisory Board of the American Literacy Council. We just held our annual meeting, by teleconference. That organization is small, but in surprisingly good shape. That's because the SoundSpel system, which was actually developed as a reformed orthography for English, is also pretty useful as a tool for teaching reading. Especially for people already literate in another language, it lets them work on English vocabulary and pronunciation in a system that looks enough like traditional spelling so that the transition is not difficult.

I have been rather neglecting the Spelling Reform section of my site. There is in fact some news to report, so I hope to do an update in the near future. Hereafter, I will use that space to evangelize for SoundSpel more. Like Wagner's music, it's much better than it sounds.    

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View: Our Stolen Future

17β-estradiol

17β-estradiol

This topic is one I have found it rather difficult to write a post about. I've been sitting on this book review of John's for nearly eight months, but it is referenced in the next The Long View blog post, so I need to get it posted.

Perhaps what makes this so hard to write about is that it doesn't fit really well into the standard categories of early twenty-first century American politics. On the left, concern about endocrine disruption is subsumed into the larger environmental narrative, just one more chemical pollutant. Sometimes perhaps, the subject is even sublimated, such that you wouldn't actually know that it is sex hormones, estrogen primarily, that we are talking about. Or where they come from: hormonal birth control. Things like BPA are a distraction. Who cares about compounds that mimic estrogen when we are putting [relatively] massive amounts of actual estrogen into the environment?

On the right, this topic tends towards the increasing feminization of the Western world. On Twitter, #TooMuchSoy is a good example of the genre. Declining sperm counts are often cited as well, although I am a bit suspicious of the data here. Again, why the fascination with a pseudoestrogen like soy? A serious look at sex hormones in the environment looks at 17β-estradiol, not soy.

Maybe my problem with this subject is it looks so much like a political Rorschach test, everyone just reads their own ideas into it. I am pretty sure that messing with sex hormones is a bad idea, but I don't have any firm opinions on what the line should be here.

While John wasn't a scientist [nor am I], he did have a pretty good grasp on the politics of the Western world and its general intellectual trends. The conclusion to this review points out that the logical end of the rather plausible concerns about environmental contaminants is the complete destruction of the mid-twentieth century liberalism that spawned those concerns. If you add in the recent direction of genetics, this trend is even more pronounced. Fortunately, we humans have an amazing capacity to avoid the logical implications of our ideas, which I maintain is a feature not a bug.


Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?
by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
(With a Foreword by Vice President Al Gore)
Dutton, 1996
$24.95, 306 pp.
ISBN: 0-525-93982-2

 

One Apocalypse Too Many?

 

The authors and publishers of this book suggest more than once that it will be the "Silent Spring" of the 1990s. Vice President Albert Gore also says as much in his Foreword. This is no small claim. "Silent Spring," published in 1965, was the book that is often credited with starting the environmental movement. It warned of the dangers posed by manmade chemicals to wildlife. While this book is based largely on wildlife studies, its chief concern is the danger posed by manmade chemicals to man. There are two extreme ways to look at its thesis. This is the first way:

The Human Race Will Begin to Die Out in The Next Century!!!

To be fair, the authors (Colborn and Myers are zoologists, Dumanoski a science writer) say that they don't think it will come to extinction. However, if what they propose in this book is correct, we could be looking at a near future in which human populations collapse, while such children who are born will often be deformed or mentally unbalanced.

There is evidence. Recent studies from Denmark, France and Scotland found quite dramatic drops in human sperm counts over the past few decades. The declines are directly correlated with when the men in question were born. The Scottish study, published just this February, found sperm counts 24% lower in men born after 1970 compared to men born a dozen years earlier. The Danish study, published in 1992, found a decline of 50% over the last half-century, and it found it worldwide. No one claims to have detected an actual drop in human fertility because of these alleged changes. However, if the trends continue, widespread male infertility could occur by the middle of the next century.

Readers of P.D. James's novel, "The Children of Men" (1992), may find their skin crawling as they read this, since that book sets out a scenario reminiscent of the one suggested by "Our Stolen Future." The James book, of course, does not purport to be science. The cause of the fictional worldwide epidemic of sterility remains unexplained. The story is an allegory of the Last Days, in which a contraceptive-minded world gets more birth control than it bargained for. Perhaps James, most intelligent of mystery writers, had been aware of the research reported in "Our Stolen Future" and dramatized its possible implications in her book. At least, I hope that is the explanation.

"Our Stolen Future" does purport to be science. The culprits to which the authors point are hormonally-active, highly persistent chemicals. Most of them are artificial and have been released into the environment since the 1930s. These substances tend to have long names that are shortened to acronyms, such as DDT, PCB, DDE and DES. Some, like dioxin, are at least pronounceable, while others, such as lindane and the furans, are positively mellifluous. Few of these chemicals are poisonous in the conventional sense of the word. Most of them do not seem to be carcinogenic, at least in adult organisms. They have served as insulators and fire-retardants precisely because they are relatively inert. Others, just as chemically stable, were marketed for their useful biological properties.

The problem was that some of these chemicals turned out to have rather more biological properties than had at first been supposed.. The insecticide DDT has been banned in most developed countries because of its more subtle effects, particularly those that have shown up in wildlife. (Among other things, it weakens eggshells, an effect that almost extinguished the bald eagle, as well as a number of other egg-laying creatures.) DES was regularly prescribed for many years to prevent miscarriages. This was because the body reacted to the chemical as if it were the natural hormone, estrogen. Later, it was discovered that the daughters of women who had taken DES were prone to certain cancers and deformations of the reproductive system.

The problem with this whole group of chemicals is that, although they do not resemble anything in the natural world, some accident of structural chemistry permits them to act like hormones, or hormone inhibitors. They can thus affect the body's endocrine system, which regulates the growth, metabolism and reproduction of animals. Nature has been very conservative in this branch of biology: the estrogen found in turtles, for instance, is pretty much the same as that found in human beings. Thus, if abnormalities develop in animals because of these substances, the odds are very good they will also show up in people.

The authors provide a great deal of evidence that abnormalities are showing up in animals. The book presents us an appalling spectacle of hermaphroditic alligators, droves of dolphins with defective immune systems and sea gulls whose general sexual development is not all it might be. It is not hard to show in the laboratory that the chemicals in question can feminize males and masculinize females, often in response to concentrations of parts per billion or even trillion. Small exposures like this have no effect on adult organisms, and the authors are at pains to emphasize that no genetic damage is done. However, the effects of infinitesimal quantities of these chemicals on embryonic development can be dramatic.

When these abnormalities occur in the wild, it is often in connection with a history of local pollution, such as in Lake Erie. (Wildlife is coming back there, but some of it is a tad odd.) However, the most alarming thing about these substances is their ability to move up the food chain and across great distances. Since these chemicals are persistent, they are concentrated each time one creature eats another, so that the food chain acts as a natural distillery. Parts per trillion in algae, say, thus eventually become far more alarming parts per million in polar bears (and, for that matter, in the mother's milk of Eskimos). Thus, for instance, an echo of the deadly effects of DDT that appeared in Great Lakes birds in the 1970s are now appearing in the birds of the mid-Pacific.

The authors show, particularly with mammalian studies, how exposure to these substances can affect not just embryonic development but behavior in life. We are treated to quite alarming accounts of very aggressive female mice and of males that exhibit "playboy" behavior, such as the abuse and neglect of the young. They coyly mention some studies suggesting a correlation between these exposures and an increase in homosexual behavior in animals. More seriously, they cite studies that show a decline in the ability to solve problems in some creatures that had experienced prenatal exposure.

The authors characterize their own work as a "detective story." Though the book does not quite come up to the level of Agatha Christie (or P.D. James), nevertheless you will rarely find a more readable account of comparative endocrinology. The problem is that this is a detective story in which the murderer is not positively identified. In fact, it is never made altogether certain that there has been a crime. This brings us to the second extreme way in which this book might be viewed:

This Book Is the Last Gasp of Environmental Hysteria.

The environmental movement has been in a growing theoretical crisis for the last decade. The assumption on which most environmental activism is based, that ecologies can be "preserved" like rocks in a geology museum, has proven to be simply false. Animal populations and even forest cover fluctuate as chaotically as the weather, no matter what people do. Specifically regarding human health, it is now pretty clear the hysteria about "cancer causing substances" which began in the 1960s has little experimental support. Cigarette smoke and excessive sunlight really can cause cancer. However, almost all the other things we have been told to be afraid of during the last two decades cause cancer only in lab mice unfortunate enough to be fed several times their body weight of them. Some environmental concerns, notably the Greenhouse Effect, probably do have a basis in fact. However, the Greenhouse Effect is not ecology, it is physics. Ecology, in fact, is in danger of being reclassified to the "snake oil" section of the intellectual market, perhaps to sit on the same shelf as Freudian psychology and literary deconstruction.

"Our Stolen Future" is the perfect last redoubt of a "science" no longer on speaking terms with the facts. It is a universal causal model that cannot be disconfirmed by experiment. The universality of the problem is assumed. Early in the book, we are given accounts of working scientists puzzling over boxes of wildlife studies from all over the world. Some studies describe gulls with clubbed bills, some inexplicable die-offs of marine mammals, some a vast and inexplicable dearth of tadpoles. What could be causing all these strange events, the scientists wonder? Actually, it is not at all clear that any one thing is causing them, or even that they are unusual. The studies behind this book started to collect in the 1970s, when money and attention began to be directed to ecological research. Sure enough, anomalies began to be reported almost immediately. That does not prove the anomalies were new, however. It only shows that people had begun to look for them.

The problem with blaming everything on disruptions of the endocrine system is that it becomes impossible to blame anything in particular on such disruptions. Tiny changes in the amount of estrogen in the wombs of pregnant mice, we learn, can make the off-spring very aggressive. Or very passive. Or good parents. Or bad parents. In fact, we are given to suspect that the least tinkering with the endocrine system can cause just about any psychological effect in animals you can thing of, as well as a gamut of physical effects. The studies in question can only very rarely pin a specific effect to a specific chemical at a specific concentration. Further complicating the picture is a study showing that estrogen-like chemicals can work in tandem, so that even if no particular chemical is present at a dangerous level, the collection of them might still disrupt embryonic development. Well, I suppose it might. It is certainly impossible to prove otherwise.

There is no evidence, none at all, that the alarming reports about declines in human male sperm counts are due to the subtle effects of estrogen-like chemicals in the environment. (For that matter, it is not at all clear that the studies are describing a real phenomenon, since they use historical data collected from unrepresentative populations.) The closest the book comes to demonstrating any human health effects from these substances is a single study reporting excessive irritability in the infants of women who ate Great Lakes fish while pregnant. Descriptions of these hypothetical effects on human populations (or for that matter, animal populations) are scattered among results from studies saying what we already knew. Sure residual DDT can have a devastating effect on bird populations, and alligators who live in lakes where there have been chemical spills may turn out to be very strange alligators indeed. Still, one comes away from "Our Stolen Future" with the suspicion that not all the fishy things in the book come from Lake Erie.

"Our Stolen Future" could turn out to be as important as "Silent Spring," but not, I think, for the same reasons. This is not a particularly political book, though its recommendations do have a certain breadth, ranging from washing your hands frequently to essentially closing down the synthetic chemicals industry. However, it does quite innocently address most of the things that ordinary, sensible liberal people tend to be interested in. The results could be explosive.

Having sought to set out a theory that explains the whole known world in terms of environmental effects on endocrinology, the authors have accidently dissolved the liberal world, which is the world they know about, in a broth of PCBs and dioxin. Liberals are interested in "social questions," such as education, the role of women, the causes of crime, population control. The authors make suggestions about the causes of recent trends in all these areas. What they suggest is that the distinctive features of the world of the past thirty years have their origin in chemically induced pathology.

Of course you cannot prove that the decline in standardized test scores that began in the 1960s is due to DDT exposure in the womb. But then, there are those troubling studies about the decline in the intelligence of rats exposed in utero. Of course feminism has deep social and historical roots. But then, there are those reports of single-sex cormorant nests and the killer female mice. Of course crime levels are related to economic opportunity. But then, maybe they are also related to the hyperactivity reported in animals exposed to estrogen-like chemicals. Of course population control is the most important environmental task facing the world today. Of course it is.

When all the results are in, I strongly suspect, not much will remain of the thesis of this book. A corollary of Murphy's Law applies to most scientific warnings of universal disaster. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, as we all know. However, for any large system that has been in operation for a good long while, the fact that something has not gone wrong yet is evidence that it cannot go wrong at all. If, as the authors tell us repeatedly, the endocrine system is one of the most archaic things about the world's animals, then it cannot be very disaster-prone. After all, estrogen-like chemicals also occur in plants, including most of the world's staple crops. Dioxin is produced by volcanos and forest fires. If a hormonal catastrophe for the whole biosphere were really possible, one suspects that nature would have contrived one by now already.

Of course, as the authors are themselves aware, many of their claims can be neither proved nor disproved, so strictly speaking all the results will never be in. The concerns raised in this book could thus be influential long after knowledgeable people have decided to dismiss them. Like DDT, they could be persistent long after they have no practical use. They thus can easily have significant effects, whether that are true or false. No one who believes this book can continue to think like a social liberal, but social liberals are the core audience for environmentalist anxiety. We may be in for some very odd chemical reactions indeed

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-04

The Long View

The Long View

Another year of John's blog down. In many ways, this is a journey of self-discovery, as well as remembrance. It is painful to read the things John wrote about Iraq in 2003, but if we are honest with ourselves, many of us said or thought the same things at the time. Forgetfulness does us no favors here. It is best to acknowledge our sins and move on.

Since this post in particular is all about predictions, let us see how John did in hindsight.

  • Shooting Wars — All wrong. We got in more wars in the Middle East, failed in our occupation of Iraq, and North Korea is still sticking it to everyone with abandon.
  • Culture War — Much better. The big swing of American politics over the next ten years was indeed a return to the Culture Wars. John guessed in July of 2002 that Newdow would be overturned at the Supreme Court. Then he modified his guess in October of 2002. He ended up being right, insofar as the Court punted on this one, to my non-legal eye. John also correctly noted that the Republican Party mostly pays lip service to Culture War ideas. He guessed wrong on how gay marriage would end though.
  • Election 2004 — John guessed that Howard Dean would face off against W, and lose. This was fairly close to what happened, until Dean self-destructed and Kerry was nominated. Fairly good.
  • The Economy — John guessed that the Euro would strain the EU considerably, and that turned out to be very right. However, Gordon Chang is still wrong.

Surmises for 2004

 

The perfect prediction was made many years ago by a fellow who called himself "The Great Kreskin." He said that, in the future, people would remember that he had once made a prediction. That forecast works a little like how the Ontological Proof of the existence of God is supposed to work; simply to state it is to verify it. Unfortunately, such perfection is far beyond my feeble powers. I will confine myself, therefore, to timid speculation:

Shooting Wars: We are universally assured that the Iraq War is going to be the last of the wars against the Axis of Evil, at least for some time to come. The argument is that the US military is already fully deployed, and its stocks of munitions are depleted. This is less true than is often asserted. If General Shinseki had had his way, of course, an army of half-a-million would have gone to Iraq, which was roughly what happened in the Gulf War. However, Donald Rumsfeld has used Afghanistan and Iraq to demonstrate that such huge deployments are unnecessary to win a conventional war.

They are not necessary for a successful occupation, either, as should be apparent by spring.

That said, of course, no other engagements on the scale of Iraq are in the hopper politically. (Iraq itself had been in the "sooner or later" category since at least 1998.) A type of maneuver for the next few years that seems obvious to me, if not to the Pentagon, might be called "Osiraq Plus." The name refers to the destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osiraq by the Israelis over 20 years ago. What the world needs now is a way to not just blow up, but briefly seize suspected WMD sites. Locations in Syria are candidates. So are some in Iran, though the partially democratic nature of the political system there makes intervention more problematical. The big issue, however, is nuclear-armed Pakistan. The nominally pro-Western government lives in hourly peril of assassination and overthrow. The next time that happens, it would be irresponsible to simply hope that the nukes are safe and secure.

As for the People's Looney Bin of North Korea, I begin to suspect that it may be closed soon for lack of interest. Would this happen in 2004? I have no idea.

* * *

Culture War The big deal in American history for at least the next ten years will be the segue from the Terror War to the Cultural Reconquista. This is not to say that Americans will simply lose interest in foreign affairs and turn toward domestic ones: quite the opposite, in fact. Transnational progressives have, in recent years, opened many international channels to address what had traditionally been domestic questions. Eventually, they will receive blowback in the form of answers they will not welcome.

All well and good, but what about 2004 in particular?

Over the summer, I said that Newdow, the decision holding that the words "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional, would be overturned when it comes before the Supreme Court. By the fall I had begun to hedge, however, and now it seems likely to me that the Supreme Court will in fact agree that the words are unconstitutional, at least in a public-school context. Such a decision would be defensible, though hardly inevitable. It would be a blow to the Supreme Court's legitimacy, but the Court has withstood worse embarrassments in the past. The problem this time around will be the presence of the various incarnations of the gay issue. Polygamy; gays in the military; statutory rape: the list is quite extensive. Even when these questions are not on the Court's docket, there is a lively popular awareness that many of them are of the Court's manufacture. History shows that the political system routinely grants constitutional judicial review a great deal of deference. Still, there are limits, as the Court's collapse under the pressure from the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s illustrates. "Under God" could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

The Republican political establishment does not seem to have taken on board just how strongly its social-conservative base feels about these things. Of course they want a constitutional amendment to circumvent the courts on gay marriage, for instance. They want it today rather than tomorrow. The party leadership's dithering is alienating. They forget that theirs is the God & Mammon Party. God is quite capable of staying home on Election Day.

As for the gay thing in general: if it were a stock, you should sell it. Look for the beginning of a move to re-medicalize the whole subject. (I have no information about such a project, but it seems inevitable.)

* * *

The Election of 2004 William Safire has just gone on record to predict an October Surprise, in the form of a terror attack in the US just before the election. I suspect his prediction is just a surmise, so what you read here is a surmise about a surmise.

Would such an attack at that time discredit the Bush Administration? I rather doubt it. People are surprised that there has been no follow-up to 911. With what justice I cannot say, the Administration has received some popular credit for domestic security. Actually, since some people have begun to doubt that the danger persists, another attack might serve simply to persuade them of its reality. The greater danger of discredit, in my opinion, would be posed by an attack early in the year. That would allow time for any mistakes and gaps in the security system to come to light, thus creating an issue that could be used against the Administration in November.

Actually, the danger to the Administration might not be merely political. Suppose the president is assassinated, or gravely injured? Republicans who take delight in highlighting the many follies of the Democratic leadership don't notice how small their national team is. Too many people are running for the Democratic nomination, but five of them (Lieberman, Gephardt, Kerry, Dean, and Clark) are serious candidates. Aside from George W. Bush, the only plausible Republican alternative is John McCain, but the party establishment is quite capable of backing George's brother, Jeb. (Dick Cheney would make a comforting stand-in for the remainder of Bush's term, but he is old, he has a bad heart, and he has been tainted, unjustly in my estimation, by his stint as CEO of Haliburton.)

Barring these grotesque hypothetical disasters, however, I fully expect that race will be Bush versus Dean, and that Bush will win. George Bush often says things badly. Howard Dean says too much he has to unsay.

* * *

The Economy Northcote Parkinson once remarked that economists are equally at ease thinking about a thousand and a million dollars, because they have no personal experience of either sum. That does not quite apply to me, but then I am not an economist, either. I have just two points, mostly about exchange rates.

Regarding the euro, it is contrary to nature for a currency to maintain value indefinitely without a state attached to it. The European Constitutional process has adjourned in confusion. That might be just a temporary setback, were it not that the confusion showed that eastern and southern Europe have no intention of letting the French and Germans run the Union. Particularly the French. Paul Johnson has prophesied that France will break the EU as soon as the Union makes a decision that France regards as contrary to France's interests. He's probably right; if so, the money will fall apart first.

Gordon Chang has suggested that the Chinese economy will collapse around 2006, when its banking system implodes on contact with WTO rules. That's a bit of a stretch. Still, one can't help but notice that the value of the People's Republic's currency is politically distorted, just as the currencies of Japan and the East Asian tigers were before reality set in. Whether or not there is a general collapse, the time for making adjustments grows short.

* * *

Enough predictions have already collected on this site to make it possible to assess their quality. Oh my.

I merely note the piece about the prospects for 2001. The bit in it about "The Big Terrible Thing" happening in Lower Manhattan actually comes from Peggy Noonan. The item for 2003 has at least one plausible line:

The hard part in the Middle East would come after the occupation of Iraq.

However, that is in the context of a discussion of possible follow-on wars. They may occur yet occur, despite what I said above, but they showed no sign of happening last year. The rest of the item was too general to allow of disconfirmation. I did do a single-column column for 2002, by the way, but it appeared only in print, in the January 2002 issue of Business Travel Executive. It contains one of the very few references anywhere to the possibility of a baby-boom starting in that year.

Then there's Reilly's Folly. The section of Spengler's Future that covers the period 1992-2022 is called Imperial Populism. The book itself was written in 1992 and published in 1993. I find some of the prose really cringe-making at this point. I am not bothered that some sentences say things that are clearly wrong; that is only to be expected. The problem is that some don't say anything at all. Others do appear to say something significant, at least at first sight:

Note that this [decay of political institutions] occurs precisely at what seems to be the moment of maximum international security, because internal business need no longer be deferred in the face of a hostile world. In the next period, policies based on this misplaced confidence in the safety of the international system have predictable results.

If 911 is taken to be the Predictable Result, then that was a lucky shot-in-the-dark. However, the text can be read to imply that the Predictable Result would occur no earlier than the second decade of the 21st century. And what did I actually mean when I wrote it? Nothing in particular, or at least nothing more particular than what it says. The text is a medley of comparative historical possibilities.

Events interpret the text. John Cardinal Newman said that, and it's good enough for me.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-12-26: Boxing Day

The 10,000 Year Explosion

The 10,000 Year Explosion

Contra John here, I think the neo-Darwinian synthesis can predict. It is just that many of its practitioners are too vested in ignoring its implications. Or perhaps just don't know they are talking about. Unfortunately, the latter is depressingly common.

It is also really depressing to reflect that Gaddafi submitted to us back in 2003, and was then foolishly deposed on the advice of Hillary Clinton. I think President Obama deserves some credit for being initially unwilling to pursue that war, if only he had resisted a little harder.

The Nones

The Nones

John was an early noticer of The Nones.  He even guessed the correct magnitude of the movement. In 2003, no one else was really paying attention to the unchurching of America, or how strongly that movement was tied in with the Democratic party, but John did.


Boxing Day

 

Readers in need of a little bile this holiday season may enjoy this list of 50 Reasons Why the Lord of the Rings Sucks. Some of these reasons have merit, sadly: the editing in the theatrical versions of all the films is a little sloppy. Some of the reasons are a little beside the point, such as the observation that the biology of the inhabitants of Middle Earth is contrary to Darwinian theory. (That's not really true, you know: one of the objections to Darwinism is that it does not predict; it merely explains.) There are a few, however, that are easily disposed of by reading the text. For instance:

17 Invisible Implausibility.

Every time Frodo or Bilbo went invisible with the ring they should have also gone BLIND. Your eyes cannot function unless light is reflected off the cornea. If light passes through it (as must be the case with invisibility) sight is no longer possible. Also, rings do not turn you invisible.

Actually, ringbearers do go blind, to some degree. The physical world becomes shadowy to them. Also, the ringbearers do not become completely transparent. They cast shadows in daylight. It is true that it is hard to see how a ring could make you invisible. However, certain experimental camouflage coverings very nearly can. So, we see once again, Science and Scripture are in perfect accord. Almost.

* * *

Speaking of the word from on high, one of the most interesting aspects of the recent agreement by Libya to dismantle it's WMD program was the immediate campaign by the prestige media to diminish the significance of the development. Within, I think, four hours of the announcements in London and Washington on December 19, the "working reporters" on PBS's Washington Week in Review were explaining that the White House was "already trying to spin" the agreement as an outcome of the Iraq War, with the implication that the two events were merely coincidental. Indeed, there was one poor soul from one of the foreign policy foundations (I will not embarrass him by recalling his name) who was explaining the next morning that the Iraq War had actually made the troublesome states of the region "more comfortable," because now they knew the US was tied up in Iraq.

This casuistry was obvious nonsense. Still, nonsense from the mouths of certified experts can still give one pause, even though the Middle Eastern policy establishment has not been right about anything for 15 years. It was therefore a relief to find that one of the few scholars worth trusting about these things, David Pryce-Jones, is willing to state the obvious. Pryce-Jones is the author of The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, which is almost all you need to know about the dysfunction of modern Arab politics. Here is what he has to say (somewhat edited) about the state of the Terror War in general:

Uncle Sam Has Dictators Reeling (December 24)

The knock-on effects of the US response to September 11 have been quickening. Turkey has an Islamist government, but it nonetheless condemned the attack and has subsequently been the target of al-Qa'ida bombs. Pakistan also condemned it. Most astonishingly, here comes Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan President, offering to voluntarily surrender his weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear bomb still in development. Gaddafi seized power in a coup in 1969, and has treated Libya as his fiefdom ever since. His heir apparent is his son Seif, a chip off the old block. Gaddafi has sponsored terrorism internationally, as a result of which sanctions were imposed on Libya. Internally, he has made sure that any opponents, including a popular Shia cleric, disappear without trace.

When the campaign in Iraq opened in March, Gaddafi tellingly admitted he felt afraid. No doubt he would like sanctions to be lifted, but he also wants to make quite sure his weapons of mass destruction will not lead him to end up in a hole in the ground, like his fellow dictator Hussein.

Hemmed in by US forces across their frontiers with Iraq and Afghanistan, the ayatollahs of Iran similarly seem to be deciding to permit international supervision of their nuclear program, generally suspected to have military purposes that threaten not just the Middle East but also Russia and Europe. Syria, Iran's ally, is also under pressure on account of its chemical and biological weapons. A classic Arab dictatorship, Syria has a President, Bashar Assad, who inherited absolute power without the least legitimacy from his father. He, too, sponsors terrorism on a wide scale and eliminates all critics.

George W. Bush's recent move to legislate against Syria is causing panic there. Baghdad and Damascus are historic rivals, and the freedom of the former is already humiliatingly exposing the backwardness of the latter.

It's the same in Cairo, where popular opinion is turning against President Husni Mubarak, who has ruled by emergency decree for more than two decades and hopes to put his son in as his successor. In Saudi Arabia, the huge royal family exercises the most complicated and complete of dictatorships, and even there civil rights groups are springing up and the first tentative protests have hit the streets. Municipal elections are to be held in that country for the first time

 

I quote this upbeat assessment with a lively sense that Uncle Sam himself may be sent reeling in a few days, if some of those security threats we have been hearing about for the last week materialize. Nonetheless, the effect would not be to deflect the Bush Administration from the current strategy. Quite the opposite, I think.

* * *

Howard Dean, whatever else he may represent, certainly represents the new anti-religious minority that has found a home in the Democratic Party. These militant secularists are not a trivial group: I suspect they make up between 15% to 20% of the electorate. Membership in this group is not inconsistent with membership in the old Mainline Protestant denominations. It is also not inconsistent with membership in the Catholic Church, whatever the episcopacy may say.

Altogether, these people are the antithesis of the evangelical conservatives in the Republican camp. After a late start, they are growing faster than their Republican counterparts. However, though both groups are necessary parts of the base for their respective parties, neither is enough to win a national election. That seems to be why Dean has begun to morph into Elmer Gantry for audiences that might be interested. The Boston Globe reports the gruesome details:

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Presidential contender Howard B. Dean, who has said little about religion while campaigning except to emphasize the separation of church and state, described himself in an interview with the Globe as a committed believer in Jesus Christ and said he expects to increasingly include references to Jesus and God in his speeches as he stumps in the South....

''Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind,'' Dean said. ''He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything . . . He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2000 years, which is pretty inspiring when you think about it.''

[An appearance at an African-American church in Columbia, S.C., is an example of what voters might hear in the future]:

There, before nearly 100 parishioners, Dean said in a rhythmic tone notably different from his usual stampede through policy points, ''In this house of the Lord, we know that the power rests in God's hands and in Jesus's hands for helping us. But the power also is on this, God's earth -- Remember Jesus said, 'Render unto God those things that are God's but unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's,' '' a reference to Jesus's admonition that the secular and religious remain separate.

Speaking in a "rhythmic tone notably different from his usual"? Remember when Al Gore started to honk, like Jesse Jackson with a cold? This bodes ill.

* * *

On the topic of rendering unto Caesar, some people have been wondering when the Vatican was going to get the memo explaining that the US is far more hospitable to the orthodox Catholic view of things than is the nascent EU. Certainly Fr. Richard John Neuhaus expressed thoughts along these lines in the January 2004 issue of First Things:

European anti-Americanism has come in for a great deal of deserved attention this past year. It must be admitted that also some of the statements issuing from the Vatican in the period leading to regime change in Iraq, and since, smack of vulgar anti-Americanism.

Nonetheless, he assures us, we should not believe everything we read:

That does not include the statements of the Pope. I say that not only because I do not wish to criticize the Pope, which is also true, but because his purpose is so manifestly clear: to avoid war, to be sure, but also to avoid any suggestion that the papacy is the leader of those whom Osama bin Laden calls "the Crusaders"...In fact, not since Columbus set sail has a pope had such a hopeful view of America as does John Paul II...

Fr. Neuhaus fleshes out this hopeful view with sentiments he attributes to Fr. Luigi Giussani of Communion and Liberation, the youth movement that is the apple of the Vatican's eye: "America [is] 'providentially chosen for a time such as this. World predominance and Christian vitality combine to make America the heir to Europe as Europe was once heir to Jerusalem and Athens. The vision is not unlike that proposed in historian Christopher Dawson's schema of 'ages of the Church,' And it is not unlike the view of many evangelical Protestants that America is the base for the relaunching of world evangelization.."

Well, that is a future for which I am on record as expressing sympathy. Still, if it were up to me, I would be very reluctant to push the button that would turn it on. The Islamists may yet do that for us. There's Providence for you.  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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April Fool's Edition

The CDC is trying to make 86 million Americans sick

I've long thought the pre-diabetes thing was a bit foolish. While it is a good thing to be able to quantitate, if you don't understand what you are doing it can make you far too certain. Pre-diabetes is a lot like a risk-factor; something that is correlated with diabetes, but is in totality a poor predictor.

It's all Geek to Me

Neal Stephenson's review of the movie 300 is now nine years old, but I still enjoyed reading it. I liked 300 when it came out, and mostly for the same reasons Stephenson did.

My journey through Molenbeek

A nice synopsis of the way in which not particularly devout partially assimilated children of immigrants get radicalized.

These unlucky people have names that break computers

Parsing text is hazardous.

A researcher explains the sad truth: we do know how to stop gun violence. But we don't do it.

Unfortunately for this well-meaning researcher, his suggestions involve pattern recognition, which is currently disfavored.

Peak Water: United States water use drops to lowest level in 40 years

The story is similar for gasoline. Technological progress means we do more with less.

HVAC Techs — Hackers who make house calls

The kind of unglamorous but well-paid job Mike Rowe likes to talk about.

America may DUMP algebra as new study finds it is the main cause of high school drop-outs - and only 5% of jobs need it

This is a fantastic idea. We have raised the bar to graduate high school so far that we are penalizing people of normal intellectual ability.

Immigration and the Political Explosion of 2016

This is a recurring pattern in United States history.

Philosophical Reflections on Genetic Interest

Frank Salter's concept of genetic interest is a philosophical concept that is muddled up with a scientific one. Unfortunately, his philosophy isn't too sharp.

How much of the placebo 'effect' is really statistical regression?

Courtesy of the ever contrary Greg Cochran, a reason to doubt the placebo effect. Here is a recent blog post expanding on this idea, with further reading suggestions.

The Long View 2003-12-22: Some Readings from Revelation

Doré Bible

Doré Bible

The DHS scrapped the color code warning system in 2011. Which is a good thing, I never really gave it much heed.


Some Readings from Revelation

Here is one way to look at the uptick of the security level to Orange:

Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.

---Revelation 12:12

Yes. Rejoice. Whoopee. I have great respect for Tom Ridge, but his press conferences remind me of the scene in Airplane! when the stewardess says: "Ladies and gentlemen, everything is under control. By the way, does anyone here know how to fly a plane?" Nonetheless, it is possible to distill a drop of comfort out of the latest miasma of all-enveloping dread. The Belmont Club of Sunday, December 21, does this very well:

Stepping back, is reasonable to suppose that with the capture of Saddam, the gathering collapse of the Ba'athist insurgency and the Libyan capitulation the AQ leadership feels it must risk all in a counterattack. If it does not stem the American tide now its funding sources will dry up, it supporters may defect and the resulting weaknesses will be exploited ruthlessly.

The Coalition command in Iraq seems to be of much the same mind: it speaks of "last ditch" strikes against Coalition forces in the next few days. Any terrorist actions in the US or Britain must have been in the pipeline for some time, but one suspects another round of major assaults in Iraq at this time would have to be hurriedly improvised. The Ramadan Offensive did manage to replicate the Tet Offensive of 1968 in that it was an operational defeat for the insurgents; unlike Tet, it was also seen to be a defeat. If the Ba'athists don't do something, they are in danger of becoming just a police problem.

There is more than a little danger of wishful thinking in this kind of analysis. When the prospect of burning buildings and dead bodies becomes good news, you could be on your way to a state of mind in which no event in the objective world can puncture your optimism. Nonetheless, though the Terror War will continue for several years, I cannot stop my attention from straying to what the world and America will be like when it is over.

* * *

The current security warnings are too broad to provide much information: bridges, tunnels, nuclear power plants, chemical factories; and don't forget hijacking passenger planes and using them as cruise missiles again. This is misdirection by inclusion, and I suppose it is the correct thing to do now. We should recall that there are just three terrorists tactics that don't depend on luck or exotic technology: shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles, truck bombs, and suicide bombers. We should also recall that Al Qaeda favors simultaneity. So.

* * *

By the way, far stranger things can fall out of a clear blue sky than are known to Al Qaeda's philosophy. You can find some of them in Rev. 16:21.

* * *

Here are some figures on the box-office success of The Return of the King, which opened everywhere in the world last Wednesday, except for Australia and Japan. US domestic receipts have reached to $125.1 million, with $73.6 million coming in over the weekend. Believe or not, that's not a record, but the film did set a record worldwide: $246.1 million in total. According to The New York Times today, you pretty much have to do global premiers for a film like this, since pirated versions will appear around the world within a day or two in any case.

The Fellowship of the Ring grossed $861 million; The Two Towers $921 million. The Return of the King should reach a billion. Still, the record of $1.8 billion for Titanic seems safe for a while.

In any case, since I saw the Return, I have been boring everyone I know with a prediction of "every rec-room a Bayreuth Festival." Once the DVDs are available, watching them back-to-back will become an annual ritual for groups of true believers. I know this because I have every intention of doing so myself.

* * *

Speaking of liturgies, here's a poster [no longer online] for Christmas Eve. It's for a Tridentine Mass, but the organizers asked me to remove the word "Latin" from the text. Some things you just don't argue about.      

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The Long View 2003-12-17: The Return of the King

John didn't do movie reviews often, so this is a treat.


  The Return of the King

 

"Wake up, Mr. Frodo!"

"Oh, what time is it, Sam?"

"It's time to finish the last of these here Peter Jackson movies, begging your pardon."

"No, no. Sam, I can't stand it anymore! All I see before me is a huge cycle of product endorsements!"

"You know, Mr. Frodo, for a character who eats all the food and never has to carry the heavy bundles you seem to expect a lot of sympathy."

"Give me a break, Sam; I'm a Christ figure."

"That you're not, Mr. Frodo. Aragorn is a Christ figure: savior of the world; makes the Night Journey to free the unworthy Dead; presides at an apocalyptic battle: two of them, in this flick. The title of the book is The Return of the King. It's his Second Coming, not yours."

"Thanks, Sam. Every character loves to hear himself belittled when he wakes up on cold granite under a pre-eruption volcanic canopy. Is this film going to be as long as the other ones, Sam?"

"It's just as long, Mr. Frodo, but this is the only one of the three where the audience won't notice their ass going to sleep."

"It better be, if they want to sell any DVDs. The first two films were worthy efforts, but they were like sitting through three-hour operas to hear a few minutes of memorable music. The Fellowship of the Ring made hash of the exposition. The Two Towers tinkered with the book's plot without making the story much clearer. They even managed to leave out one of the Towers of the title."

"Ah, but this film is the payoff, Mr. Frodo. All the heavy lifting has been done. This film focuses on the Battle of Minas Tirith (the Pelennor was lost by the screenwriters, seemingly), and you've never seen such a thing. They have oilephaunts as big as those walker-carriers in Star Wars, and the trolls are as ornery as The Incredible Hulk, except they are interesting to watch because they don't jump around so much. The catapults on both sides throw small hills. It's a wonder, sir, if you don't mind my saying so."

"The wonder of our relationship, Sam, is that I can try to kill you in a homicidal rage, but I can't shut you up."

"Ain't it marvelous, Mr. Frodo? Anyway, this film doesn't do just the obvious things right. In the book, if you recall, the way that Mr. Aragorn recruits the army of the Dead is a great little story in itself, but it is not developed much. In this film, the producer plays it for all it's worth."

"Well, that's a comfort, Sam, but something is always lost, isn't it?

"Truer words were never spoken, Mr. Frodo. For instance, there's neither hide nor hair of Saruman in this film."

"Really, Sam? But that's wonderful news! That means, when we go home, we don't have to clear out a gang of ruffianly socialists!"

"Yes, Mr. Frodo, but it also means that they have to stick in Saruman's Palantir like a nose on Mr. Potato Head. But they don't mention Denethor's Palantir at all!"

"I'm sorry to hear that. Denethor is my favorite contemporary statesman."

"Then I'm afraid you'll have cause to be sorrier yet, sir. They make Denethor nothing more than a repulsive obstacle. Gandalf does not debate with him; he beats him up: twice. The film does the worst thing you can do to a character: it shows him eating while other people are suffering."

"We live in dark times, Sam, dark times. The sooner we're through the scenario, the sooner we'll be done with them. And just what are we supposed to do for the rest of the film?"

"Oh, pretty much what you'd expect, sir. You're still the suffering Everyman doing his duty in a historical context that seems to exclude hope. I'm still the world's most faithful sidekick, who won't desert even in the face of the worst abuse; which you'll give me in a few minutes, if I recollect properly."

"And speaking of abuse, Sam, where is Smeagol, our obviously untrustworthy guide?"

"Here I am, nice masters. Smeagol always comes when called."

"You seem very cheerful for a ruined creature of the darkness in an existential crisis, Stinker."

"Smeagol is surprised that the cross rude fat hobbit knows the word 'existential.' But Smeagol does not mind. In this film, Smeagol gets to appear as he was before he found the Ring. Just for a little, for a little bit of the old days. Gollum."

"Really? What do you do, Smeagol?"

"I strangle my best friend, dear sweet kind master."

(Softly to Sam) "Did we keep the giant lava pit?"

(Sam softly back) "Righto, Mr. Frodo."

"So, let's get on with it, Smeagol."

"Wise master: yes, let's get on with it....hobbits don't have cans of insect repellent in their nasty pocketses, do they?"   

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The Long View 2003-12-11: McCain-Feingold; Iraq Contracts: The Human Gaia Effect; Nixon the Nazgul

The Tripartite Iraq that never was

The Tripartite Iraq that never was

I am not an expert in elections law, but I do find it remarkable that John felt that the long term impact of the McCain – Feingold Act would be to ultimately weaken American political parties to the point where a celebrity could run for President without really needing to heed a traditional political party. We got that good and hard.

This prediction is even more remarkable, since the Citizens United decision partially overturned McCain – Feingold, but it did so in way that exacerbated the trend John saw in 2003 rather than altered it. Since John was a lawyer, it isn't really surprising his track record on law is better than his track record on foreign policy.


McCain-Feingold; Iraq Contracts: The Human Gaia Effect; Nixon the Nazgul

The US Supreme Court has, in its wisdom, upheld almost all of the McCain-Feingold law, which regulates the way that money for political campaigns can be collected and spent. As I understand the law (and I invite correction from anyone who has studied it), McCain-Feingold does two important things. It pretty much eliminates the political action committees, or at least their rationale. Those were entities under the control of political parties to which unrestricted contributions could be made; now the contributions are restricted. The law also limits the ability of entities not in the business of politics, such as commercial corporations and labor unions, to pay for broadcast political ads in the final months before election. McCain-Feingold allows higher limits for private and business contributions made directly to political campaigns, but limits of this sort are not a novelty.

This question was squarely within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to decide. The decision is also probably correct: regulations of this sort are within the power of Congress. The mechanisms that Congress created may or may not work, but that's not for the Court to say. The only interesting question, really, is the long-term effect of McCain-Feingold.

What Congress seems to have done is to criminalize serious politics within the political parties. There will be no less money in politics because of McCain-Feingold; it just won't flow through the official campaigns, or indeed through entities controlled by the party establishments. As one commentator put it: special interest groups will no longer work through the parties; they will become the parties.

The evolution of politics increasingly resembles the evolution of the film industry. The parties were like the studios of Hollywood's "Golden Age." They were essentially manufacturers that controlled everything. With the rise of independent producers and independent production companies, those that survived became utilities for entrepreneurs. One imagines that this is the future of political parties in America.

The extreme development of this would be a situation in which national campaigns are put together in much the way of independent motion pictures. Party nominations might be helpful, but inessential. We are almost there now: there is a lot in common between the way that Peter Jackson managed to make his Lord of the Rings films and how Howard Dean got to be a major contender for the presidency.

* * *

Now that the Pentagon has decided to limit bids for the reconstruction of Iraq to countries that were politically helpful, everyone is off the hook. The last thing the Administration wants is to internationalize the reconstruction effort beyond the Coalition. The French and Russians in particular would use their presence to reestablish contact with the old establishment. (If the UN had any significant role, by the way, it would probably be to create Baathist, Shiite, and Kurdish zones, which it would then try to treat equally as part of a ceasefire.) The Pentagon's simple patronage policy spares us the embarrassment of rigged bids.

The Russian government, for domestic reasons, probably could not have forgiven Iraq's debts. The Pentagon has given them an excuse not to. They will, of course, agree to a restructuring when the time comes. The French and Germans had no intention of donating much money for reconstruction, at least not without being allowed to exercise their malign influence on the political process. The contractor policy allows them to portray parsimony as principle. The French and the EU have said they intend to investigate whether the policy is a violation of the international law of competition. This should be interesting, because there is no such thing.

* * *

A recent study suggests that human activity prevented a renewed Ice Age 10,000 years ago. It seems that, at the end of the last glaciation, the atmosphere was just chock full of carbon dioxide and methane. In the normal course of things, these levels would have quickly fallen, and the glaciers would have returned. However, just about that time our ancestors were burning grassland and forest (sometimes by accident). Deforestation kept much of that CO2 in the atmosphere. The appearance of agriculture and animal domestication also increased the amount of green house gasses. The effect was to keep the climate more stable than it otherwise would have been.

Conclusions like these generally turn out to be unsupported, but it's an intriguing idea. If there is anything to it, these findings would actually be an illustration of the sensible form of the Gaia Hypothesis, which is that the biosphere interacts with the atmosphere in such a way as to mitigate temperature changes. In this context, not just man, but civilization, appears as an integral part of the biosphere. People and buildings and industry are just as good as trees; indeed better, if the human race does what other entities can't do. Again, this is something I have touched on previously. The continuing moral is that Deep Ecology is not just anti-human, but unnatural.

* * *

In the latest release of the tapes that President Nixon made in his office, we learn what the late president thought of that California up-and-comer, Ronald Reagan:

NIXON: "On a personal basis, Rockefeller is a pretty nice guy (unintelligible) he's kind of a (unintelligible) Reagan on a personal basis is terrible. He just isn't pleasant to be around."

HALDEMAN: "No, he isn't."

NIXON: "I don't know, maybe he's different with others."

HALDEMAN: "No, no, I don't think so."

NIXON: "He's just an uncomfortable man to be around ... strange."

It is possible to defend Richard Nixon as a statesman and as a human being. Nonetheless, we should not forget that dogs barked and geese hissed when he passed by. He never did find Baggins, who leaked to the Imladris Post.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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Holy Saturday Edition

Social_Construction.jpg

Ruby Slippers

Gabriel Rossman makes a persuasive case that social construction is real, but the concept is mostly used by people who don't understand it, and have no sense of proportion.

How Does America "Reshore" Skills that have Disappeared?

The first couple of paragraphs of this article accurately describe what it is like to deal with offshore manufacturing in China, in my experience. The article is mostly about training workers to fill new "reshored" jobs, but the beginning of the article is my favorite.

The Author of the Martian Wrote Ready Player One Fan-Fiction, and now it's Canon

Yeah, this happened.

RIP Andy Grove

In 2010 I linked to an op-ed by Andy Grove on American manufacturing. I still think it is relevant. Requiescat in pace Andy.

Book Review: The Art of the Deal

Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex offers up an absolutely brilliant analysis of Donald Trump's book. Go read it, right now. As something of an odd duck, Alexander sees a certain similarity in Trump also being something an odd duck. 

Trumpism after Trump

Ross Douthat sees dark years ahead for the Republican party after Trump. I'm still curious to see what happens when Bernie loses the nomination to Hillary Clinton. Some Bernie supporters seem to hate HRC only a little less than Trump. In October, I pondered whether Trump and Bernie would both end up doing third-party runs, which would put us in the same kind of four-way race that elected Woodrow Wilson. Now that I think about it, that could actually be the worst possible outcome.

Easter, Early Christians and Cliodynamics

Peter Turchin points to data for the Christianization of the Roman world that fits a logistic model.

The Long View 2003-12-03: The Lullaby of Big Brother

I am sorry to say that John Reilly got me reading Belmont Club in about 2003. What can I say? I was young and naive. Wretchard [Richard Fernandez] was a huge booster of the second Iraq War, and a tireless apologist for President George W. Bush. As commenter Pat Bryan said recently, John was under the influence of right-wingnut propaganda. This is true.

I responded: at the time, so were a lot of other people too. I have to count myself among them. Going back through John's posts in the way that I am really helps make it more clear how different the world seemed immediately after 9/11. Hell, for a little while, almost everyone in America thought we needed to blow the hell out of somebody. There were a few people who genuinely didn't care, or were positively ecstatic that the mighty United States had been humbled. To this day, I don't trust any of them. The War Nerd nailed why. Greg Cochran said something similar once upon a time, but I can't find the link at the moment.


The Lullaby of Big Brother

 

Anyone looking for a sophisticated analysis of the strategic situation in Iraq should be pleased by the Belmont Club's blog, particularly yesterday's entry, Smoke & Mirrors vs. Gunsmoke. Here's a reassuring snippet for you:

The Saddamite insurgency bears all the hallmarks of his previous erratic campaigns, with their reliance on showy military effects to achieve a political result. To Saddam the battlefield is a theatrical prop to support a political gesture.

The Belmont Club points out that the insurgency has very limited personnel and finances. It has been spending these things at an unsustainable rate. I gather that, in this analysis, the degree of popular hostility to the occupation is irrelevant. The attacks on Coalition forces are not being made by spontaneous volunteers. They are being made by a shrinking cadre of fedayeen, or they are paid for, and the money is running out.

This sounds plausible enough. Certainly I have gotten the impression that, though the insurgents have some degree of central coordination, they do not have any particular plan. If the Belmont Club is right, the insurgency will not peter out, but will reach some critical level of men and money below which it cannot function at all.

* * *

Here is yet another example of the complicated ways in which the Terror War intertwines with the Culture War:

Jewish World Review.com has discovered that prominent religious conservatives, Jews, Catholics and Evangelical Christians, are allied with a radical Islamic group to stop gay marriage. Pushing a constitutional amendment that would restrict marriage to heterosexuals, they work with the Islamic Society of North America [ISNA].

The ISNA, in this telling, has a history of hosting conferences at which defenders of terrorism speak, and of providing money for the defense of peopel who belong to terrorist organizations.

The occasion for all this fingerpointing is the membership of the Advisory Board of the Alliance for Marriage, which includes such worthies as Rabbi Barry Freundel (known as "Lieberman's Rabbi") of the Rabbinical Council of America, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, and Mary Anne Glendon of Harvard Law School, as well as Dr. Sayyid M. Sayeed of the ISNA. The Alliance for Marriage supports a federal constitutional amendment that would make it impossible for any jurisdiction in the United States to extend the definition of marriage to include homosexual liaisons.

One of the peculiar features of the Culture War has been that the cultural Left have always been the aggressors, but the defense against them is always described as an aggression. This report will no doubt be used to suggest that the necons are plotting with Al Qaeda to plant remote-detonation bombs. This will be in aid of the campaign to constitutionalize marriage out of existence, which the cultural Left believes to be within its grasp.

I know little about the ISNA. I have so soured on the Ecumenical Jihad proposal that I question whether Muslim groups should be sought out for conservative reform movements at all. Nonetheless, I must point out again that one of the reasons the cultural Left must be defeated is precisely because of the global propaganda victory that the abolition of marriage would hand the Jihadists. What looks progressive and inevitable to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court looks incomprehensible and inhuman to the perennial opinion of mankind. Mankind is right.

As for the amendment the AFM supports, I think it is everything a constitutional amendment should not be. It's specific; it addresses an eccentric and transitory cultural development; it's locally intrusive. Even with all those flaws, however, I have to support it. The courts and the law schools cannot be trusted to formulate the law in this area. If the amendment passes, the interesting question will be whether the courts try to dismiss the text as inconsistent with the other provisions of the constitution.

* * *

By the way, a renegade-Mormon polygamist is already trying to use Lawrence v. Texas to allow plural marriage. Everything is as predicted.

* * *

But if the world is in such sorry shape, then why has the Rapture Index fallen to 148!?!:

The Rapture Index has long been a feature of Rapture Ready. In fact, the index actually predates the site. Before the web version of the internet became popular in the mid '90s, I posted the Rapture Index on bulletin boards and newsgroups.

Since late 1987, the index has been updated every week. The 45 categories are measured and rated on their level of activity from 1 to 5. The record low of 57 occurred in 1993 and the record high [182] took place during the 911 terrorist attack in September of 2001.

I have long been intrigued by this Index, which combines economic indicators and cultural factors. It's generally a good measure of how anxious people feel. Apparently, they feel the end is not yet. Quite.

* * *

Here's another short review for you. I just finished reading Chuck Palahniuk's novel, Lullaby. Palahniuk is best known as the author of Fight Club, and this book, too, is characterized by skin injuries and a profound distrust of marketing. It does have some ingenious notions, though.

Chief of these is the lullaby of the title, which kills anyone to whom it is recited. The lullaby is called a "culling song," a kind of magic that Palahniuk says he made up. (Such devices are not unknown to fiction, however, even to bad fiction.) There is a sort of ivy that quickly overruns and destroys whole cities, vegetation worthy of J.G. Ballard: it's too bad we see it for just a few pages. Then there is the real estate business based on selling viciously haunted houses; the owners resell quickly, thus generating a steady stream of fees. That really wouldn't work, though, since the prospective buyers would learn about the prior sales from the title search.

The plot is a road story about four people who set out to destroy all copies of the book of nursery rhymes in which the culling song is anthologized. They also want to find the grimoire it was taken from, either to destroy the grimoire, or use it to rule the world, or use it to cull the planet (the book showcases Deep Ecology at its most repulsive). The minor miracles are all wrapped up, neat as a bow, in the last few pages; especially the talking cow.

However, this book is supposed to be About Something, and I gather that it's supposed to be about the way that media ecology has replaced nature. The effect, the author suggests, is like demonic possession. We cannot tell whether we want something, or whether our thoughts just echo the media noise around us. Big Brother does not just watch; he dances and sings.

In a way, this is the flipside of Rene Girard's Mimetic Theory. If I understand Girard correctly (and I know him only from tendentious secondary sources), most of the trouble in the world comes from the fact we are slow to admit how much of what we think is borrowed from other people. Palahniuk, in contrast, is aggreived by the fact so much is thrust upon us.       

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Lathspell

This is an appropriate story for Holy Week. Rene Girard is popular in Catholic circles, but I have never really seen his appeal myself. There is a kind of poetic simplicity in the idea of the universal scapegoat, but like many such theories, they pall when you look into the details.

This story also is an early example of John's notion that human and homo sapiens are not quite the same thing, although they are related. Other people at the intersection of philosophy and science have similar ideas 


Lathspell

 

by John J. Reilly

Sometimes I write horror stories. Once I started to write a story of a familiar sort, about how an archeological discovery threatens civilization. The basic notion was that, just prior to the familiar early civilizations of the Near East, there had been a brief flowering of a quite different sort of urban society. It not just been organized differently from the civilizations of known history. The very psychologies of the people who composed it were so different from those of all other cultures that these people could not really be considered human, though they were biologically members of the species homo sapiens. Further, I imagined that modern minds could be involuntarily reconfigured into this alternative form by the study of the texts and way of life of this forgotten society. Extrapolating a story from this premise would not have been difficult, but I abandoned the effort because I was not satisfied with my attempts to describe a mentality that was not inhuman, but unhuman.

My problem has been solved, since I have found such a mentality both described and advocated in the work of a contemporary theologian. James Alison’s “Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination” (1996, A Crossroad Herder Book) purports to be a reinterpretation of New Testament apocalyptic with an eye to restating how Jesus envisioned the Kingdom of God. It’s more than that. The book sets out a theory of history, a model of the dynamics of human personality and a new account of the nature of God. The result is so utterly alien to conventional concepts of good and evil as to constitute a conceptual universe that would have served my hypothetical civilization well.

It is Alison’s contention that this model was the gospel, the “good news,” that Jesus came to reveal, and that in fact has always been implicit in the teaching of the Church. The reality is that we are dealing here with a true “lathspell,” bad news or an anti-gospel. (I am indebted to Tolkien for the Old English coinage.) At the very least, it has the capacity to corrupt the pastoral understanding of the New Testament. Put into practice as a social ethic, it would result in a world out of nightmare. These are far-reaching implications, but perhaps no less should be expected of a book that purports to “recover the eschatological imagination.”

Alison’s ideas are based on the “mimetic” theory of society and personality developed by the philosopher Rene Girard. As the term suggests, Girard holds that the human personality is based on imitation of other people, whom we “mime.” Most important, our desires are not original with us, but are acquired. We see the world through the eyes of others. The individual, however, is defined by not being one of these “others.” We do not acknowledge that our being is borrowed from other people, and so we enter into relationships of envy and greed to secure what we imagine to be our own desires. This causes conflict and violence whose true origin is invisible. The emotions involved are projected onto other people and attributed to their bad behavior. Social cohesion is achieved by picking a victim at random, blaming him for all our troubles and lynching him. All societies, according to Girard, are founded on a lynching, on the creation and the expulsion of an “other.” The lie behind these murders, told from the point of view of the murderers, becomes a society’s founding myth. What we call the sacred is in fact the ritual memory of a murder.

At the risk of sounding provincial, I think that this system could be most economically accounted for by the regrettable rarity among the French of the healthy impulse to shoot mimes on sight. Certainly on the face of it one has difficulty seeing what Girard is talking about. The question of the origin of personality is a dark matter that need not detain us, beyond noting that behaviorism of any sort, “mimetic” or otherwise, has never served psychology well. If by “sacred ritual murder” Girard is talking about the myths of dying-and-rising vegetation gods, his account is contrary to what anthropology I know. The stories are not told from the point of view of the murderers, but of the victim. “John Barley Corn” is a lament. Listeners are supposed to identify with the suffering god, who like us must undergo death. However, I gather that the point of the system is not anthropology, but modern politics. For “founding murder,” read the execution of Louis XVI, or Nicholas II. For the enemy “other,” read the Jews and the kulaks.

Frankly, I don’t think that Girard’s ideas hold much water at that level, either. Even for the Nazis, not being a Jew was not the definition of being a German. Parliamentary coalitions sometimes define themselves in terms of pure opposition, though often not to much purpose. It is simply not true that nations, religions and political parties define themselves by what they are not. Societies are formed by attractive common features, such as a common language. Such things are necessarily limited resources, and so also are the societies that constitute themselves in their name. Still, Girard’s ideas do at least rise to the level of empirically refutable error. “Raising Abel,” as we shall see, is a completely self-contained system, a sort of ideological black hole, which is beyond either refutation or escape.

Alison’s book elaborates on Girard’s attempt to distinguish the story of Jesus from that of the vegetation gods. The tendency in modern apologetics has been to embrace the parallels between the Gospel story and that of the “pagan Christs.” Whatever you may think of the idea of mythical archetypes, it is in fact a very old argument to say that these stories prefigured the reality of the Incarnation. They show that the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus are always and everywhere present in the world and in the human mind, and were not just a historical accidents. Girard taught otherwise, claiming that Jesus, as the victim who came back proclaiming his innocence, exposed the murderous lie on which human society is based. Thus, he did not embody the archetype of the vegetation god, but dispelled it.

Alison takes this notion as far as it can go, indeed rather farther. The fact that Jesus was innocent and ought not to have been executed tells us that God the Father did not require the sacrifice of the Cross, or any sacrifice. The sacrificing of scapegoats is a human invention that serves to maintain social cohesion, thereby poisoning the societies founded on these murders. God does not punish. He is wholly without violence or darkness of any kind. His sort of life is only analogical to ours, since God’s life does not imply death, which therefore has no existence for Him. He has no interest at all in systems of morality, of good people versus bad people, of those meriting inclusion and those meriting exclusion. Again, these are human social inventions. He is not interested in the maintenance of society or of any human institution, even the family, since all are based to one degree or another on the murderous lie.

Jesus therefore was not born to be crucified. Quite the opposite. He was born to live as if death did not exist, knowing that such a person would surely be singled out to be a scapegoat. Because his imagination was wholly fixed on “the things that are above,” on His essentially deathless Father, death did not exist for Jesus, either. His mission on Earth was to show his disciples how to speak and act without reference to death, which meant without reference to the structures of this world.

God creates something from nothing, but is not implicated in the order of a world based on the original sin of mimetic envy. To say that Jesus is the Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity means that through him the work of creation is accomplished. On a historical level, the Lamb That Was Slain is the reference point for all of time. The “mime” that Jesus performed is constitutive of what really happens in all times and places, even though the people who live in those times and places think that quite other stories explain what is going on. Thus, Jesus creates the world in which God is interested. This world is called the Kingdom of God. Just as human history was founded on the original murder of Abel by his brother Cain, so Jesus ended it by restoring the time of Abel.

Jesus opened Heaven forever and brought it down to Earth. Those who perform Jesus’s mine are its citizens. This opening of Heaven is the true end of history, an event without reference to any clock.

If you take the words of the New Testament as data, this system is surrealistically counterfactual. The terror of God and the ferocity of his justice, are of course, most insistently apparent precisely in the eschatological texts. Jesus speaks of the Son of Man separating the sheep from the goats, he tells parables of wicked tenants slain by their injured landlord, and of an ill-prepared guest evicted from the eschatological banquet to the outer darkness. There was that incident with the whip and the money changers. There is the Book of Revelation. Obviously, something is going on here other than an explication of the text.

Reading “Raising Abel,” my first thought was that maybe Alison had just been a little blinded by the splendor of his exegesis. Quoting John 11:50, in which Caiphas says “....it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation not perish,” Alison comments, “The murderous lie is exposed in its entirety.” Alison does not mention that the following verse says, “This, however, he said not of himself; but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was to die for the nation; and not only for the nation, but that he might gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” Well, let him who has never quoted out of context cast the first stone, but Alison’s treatment of the text in this way is relentless.

The distortion is not a product of sloppiness, but of theory. Alison’s theory excludes the possibility of substitutionary atonement, that one might save another by dying for him. In John 15: 12, Jesus says, “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: that he should give his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Whatever else one may think about Jesus, one should at least draw from this passage that he was a prosaically brave man who was willing to die so that his friends would not have to. Alison disagrees. He provides a long paraphrase of what Jesus really meant: “I am going to my death to make possible for you a model of creative practice which is not governed by death. From now on this is the only commandment which counts: that you should live your life as a creative overcoming of death, showing that you are prepared to die because you are not moved by death.....”

Jesus himself, of course, was moved by death. He sweat blood.

Further examples of willful distortion could be multiplied, but such an exercise would miss the point. As Alison himself tells us, he believes that reality is a linguistic construct. The stories you tell about the world make it what it is. That is why the mime of the Lamb That Was Slain creates the world. On a more discrete level, what you call a thing makes it what it is. This applies not just to texts, but to people. Alison has a most alarming theory of personality which holds that you can create a whole new person by suggestion. He says that this is exactly what hypnotists do when they create ephemeral multiple personalities, some of these personalities perhaps unaware of the existence of the others. Indeed, he says that Jesus deliberately chose his disciples at random, from unpromising material. Partly this was because to have chosen people who were brave or smart or handsome would have been to buy into the categories of the world’s system of death. Mostly, though, Jesus acted without deliberation because the disciples were in reality created by his calling them. Jesus did not just find Simon and call him Peter. He found Simon, a creature of the world of death, and made Peter out of him. In the light of that example, a little creative textual analysis is no great feat.

Of course, Alison does not pretend that the New Testament is not full of violent imagery from the long apocalyptic tradition of Judaism, or that Jesus did not use this imagery himself. What Jesus did, according to Alison, was to use it in order to subvert it. Thus, the familiar parable in which the Kingdom of God is compared to wheat and tares, the good and the evil, growing up together through history to be harvested at the end of the world, is not really about the end of the world. Neither is it about good and evil, categories in which Alison would have us believe Jesus took no interest but which he used simply as conventions. Rather, the parable is about pushing the Last Judgment, as it had been traditionally understood, off into the indefinite future, while cautioning his listeners not to try to uproot any “evil” people they might know themselves.

Now, this parable obviously suggests a delay before the end of the age. It may even be that Jesus himself used it, and it was not supplied by a later evangelist seeking to explain the delay before the Second Coming. However, after this delay, the weeds are to be carried off by the angels to be burned; a quite traditional image of the Last Judgment. Why the creation of a “habitable” Kingdom of God should subvert the traditional apocalyptic element is unclear. Certainly it has not had that effect historically. On the contrary, it has tended to preserve apocalyptic by making its application always possible. Thus we see that the function of “subversion” in Alison’s analysis is simply to make texts mean the opposite of what they say.

Alison uses a similar approach in treating the manifestly apocalyptic discourses of Jesus on the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world. We are told, predictably, that these are not really about the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world. To some extent, Jesus was cautioning his listeners that they would live in troubled times, since he would refuse to play the part of the silent victim whose murder brings social peace. What he was mostly saying, however, was that they should not attribute any theological significance to the “wars and rumors of wars” that would abound after his death. History was unreal, founded on the murderous lie, and so his followers were not to attribute any theological significance to historical events. It was because his generation saw the lie revealed that they were living at the end of the ages.

Now, all three synoptic gospels have extended apocalyptic discourses just before the beginning of the Passion narrative. All contain verses parallel to Matthew 24:34, which runs, “Amen I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have been accomplished.” This has been called, understandably, “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” It is, of course, possible to say that Jesus simply got it wrong but that his disciples kept repeating this assertion for 20, 40 or 60 years, until it finally became incorporated into one Gospel or another. The traditional hypothesis, on the other hand, is that even his immediate circle understood that in some sense they had seen “all these things accomplished,” but that they continued to look for their accomplishment in a more cosmic form in the future. “Already and not yet” is one way of putting it.

Under either interpretation, the eschatological parables contained in these texts (such as the parable of the virgins in the bridal party, the foolish among whom fail to bring enough oil for a long vigil) are clearly aimed at advising listeners to act as if Judgment Day were imminent. “Clean Up Thine Act,” as a popular bumper sticker has it. It is possible to take this advice even if you don’t expect Judgment Day to ever arrive, and many respectable theologians have taught just that. However, even in this lukewarm interpretation, the judgment of a just God continues to exist as a metaphor. It retains the moral force of literature. Again, the “watchfulness” that Jesus counsels is generated by the idea of judgment. If ever “watchfulness” subverted judgment as a concept, then watchfulness itself would disappear.

Alison thinks otherwise. The goal of Jesus’s subversion, according to him, was to turn apocalyptic into eschatology. By this Alison means the mime of the Lamb That Was Slain, which is to live as if there were no death, to hope in the Alien God who promises no help. Alison is aware of how cold, how strange this theology is. He speaks more than once of the “weirdness” of the Kingdom of God. Indeed he says, “...there is nothing pretty about Christian hope. Whatever Christian hope is, it begins in terror and utter disorientation in the face of the collapse of all that is familiar and well known.” If Alison is right, it begins there, and gets worse.

Theologically informed readers will, of course, be aware that what Alison has constructed here is a garden variety form of gnosticism. The world he presents is wholly the product of violence and delusion. God is did not create it and takes no blame for its failings or responsibility for its future. Our only hope is a new understanding of the depravity of the world, made possible by turning our imaginations to the God who is wholly other than we. Alison acknowledges that this is a somewhat rarefied intellectual exercise, but notes that Jesus himself taught an elite among his own disciples in secret. By this new understanding, this gnosis, we can free ourselves from traditional moral systems, which are only extrapolations of the murderous lie on which the world is based, and call nothing either good or evil. The new understanding permits us to abandon our personalities that were formed in the world of death and so are obsessed with death and dying. Miming the alien God, we will become new creatures, and death will not exist for us.

Now, there were in fact people who thought things like this in the first and second centuries AD. However, Alison is wrong to attribute these ideas to the primitive apostolic witness. We know this, because the Gnostic sects that believed the things that Alison teaches rejected the scriptures derived from that witness. They rejected the scriptures whole hog, quite without subversion, irony and postmodern hermeneutics. Unlike the adherents of orthodox Christianity, they did not do the works of charity and justice which Alison praises. We cannot tell that they did any works at all. They were, however, known to party a lot.

One of the disquieting things about “Raising Abel” is that it seems to follow the strategy of the Jesus it describes and to “subvert” orthodox theology for ulterior motives. Alison is an Oxford-educated theologian, formerly professor of dogmatic theology at the Catholic University of Bolivia. (“Raising Abel” is derived from a course he taught in Chile.) He seems to have taken a lesson from the discipline imposed by the Vatican on the more obstreperous Latin American proponents of liberation theology. He therefore performs a good “mime” himself of touching all the correct conservative bases. He is effusive in his praise of Cardinal Ratzinger, who played so large a part in putting the liberation theologians in their place. He accepts the Council of Trent’s account of the apostolic succession. He rejects the notion that the Church is something other than what Jesus would have wanted. He even makes an argument for reemphasizing the transcendent element in liturgy, the direct praise of God, rather than the fashionable “horizontal” emphasis on fellowship among the congregation. For that matter, he never questions the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus, though that seems to be the end of his interest in the supernatural. The only problem with these tokens of orthodoxy is that they are decorations for a system of thought that has dehumanizing implications.

Imagine a creature that “lived as if death were not.” It would not care about its own life. Logically, it would not care about those of its fellows, either. It could not bear a grudge, because it would have no ego to defend. Neither would it be capable of forgiveness. Social insects live like this, perhaps. They can do so because they are for the most part sterile entities, with no drive to protect an individual genetic heritage. Therefore their own deaths does not interest them. A human being with a psychology structured like this would not see a world of “I and the Other.” What use would the “I” be to a creature unconcerned with death, except perhaps as a question of economics? The conceptual universe of such a creature would be so impersonal that it would not even include itself.

A society of such beings could not have a god. Who would there be to worship him? What such a culture could have would be a role model, something that showed its citizens how to act. The categories of behavior would not be good and evil, but “thus and not otherwise.” The drill, of course, could be extremely flexible. Adding complication to complication, it could create a great diversity of social forms from a few basic instructions, like the “stained glass” patterns generated by simple computer programs. In such a society there would be neither strife nor envy, nor history. No new age would ever dawn, since all would be perfected in its essence on the first day.

Perhaps, in some terrible alternative world, this is what Jesus came to teach. Embodiment of an unhuman god, he trained a few followers in the drill of a-mortality. Though himself destroyed, nevertheless his example proved an unstoppable contagion. Slowly at first, it spread from the inland sea like a sheet of thickening ice. His followers learned and aped the cultures of society after society, subverting in each the ancient mechanisms of love and hate, of life and death. There would be centuries of resistance, of terrible persecution and wars of self-preservation fought by a dwindling humanity. Do what they would, the dominion of life and death would disperse like a mist in the light of the Great Mime. In the last, unending day, the whole world would move as the Lamb That Was Slain had moved, and the frozen surface of the Earth reflect flawlessly the inhuman glory of the alien Heaven.

As I remarked, sometimes I write horror stories. Maybe I should turn to theology instead.

END

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2003-12-01: Short Review: The Making of Late Antiquity

Portonaccio Sarcophagus

Portonaccio Sarcophagus

This post fundamentally informs my view of Rome pre-fall. While I am not deeply versed in the history of the period, fundamentally Brown's presentation makes sense from what else I know of history and human nature. Including the baleful effects of lead in water pipes and cosmetics, and the venomous legacy of silphium.


Short Review: The Making of Late Antiquity

In 1976, the classicist Peter Brown gave the Jackson Lectures at Harvard. They were collected under the title, The Making of Late Antiquity, which is still in print. The collection is quite short, just 135 pages, so I don't think I'll do a full review. Still, it's so interesting that I have to write about it somewhere. This is why blogs were invented.

Brown is concerned with the religious history of the Roman Empire from the second to the fourth centuries AD, and particularly with devising an account of the period that makes the triumph of Christianity plausible. He is scarcely the first or the last to attempt this, so opinions on the matter vary. A few years after these Jackson lectures, for instance, Robin Lane Fox suggested in Pagans and Christians that paganism was doing as well as any other traditional institution in the turbulent third century. The victory of Christianity, in his view, was an accident of politics, in the form of the patronage of Constantine and his dynasty. The more common view, however, finds that the glittering culture of the empire in the second century masked a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. The civil wars and economic immiseration of the third century simply revealed the real state of things. Many historians who say this also characterize the rise of Christianity as a "loss of nerve," as men fled from reason in a world that no longer seemed to make sense.

Brown keeps the conventional structure, but changes the plus and minus signs. While he notes that the culture of the Antonine period was more interested in the performance of classical styles than in creation, he also points out that these styles provided a common culture that masked some of the harsh realities of politics and social relations. To make a connection that Brown did not, the empire on the eve of decline (a term Brown studiously avoids) resembled nothing so much as the world of The Glass Bead Game, as Hesse was aware. If there is to be a similar late afternoon for the West, it lies a long time in the future.

In any case, what particularly interests Brown is that the formalities of Antonine culture served to channel private ambition. At the local level, the empire ran on the competition between notables to garner popularity through providing public amenities. Roman politics during the Republic had degenerated into a potlatch of vote-buying; the control of the state was at stake. Two centuries later, competition took the more seemly form of privately financed infrastructure and religious festivals; generally, the only thing at stake was good repute, which was quite enough.

What was true politically was also true spiritually. The empire in the second century did not lack for cults and proselytizers. For the most part, however, such wizards kept their claims limited. Toward their colleagues, they were tactful. Ordinary people believed that they had direct access to the supernatural through oracles (the oracles spoke notoriously good Greek in this period) and through dreams. Brown repeatedly mentions the dream-compendium of Artemidorus, composed around AD 140, which reports dreams from all around the Mediterranean, along with their interpretations. In other cultures, at other times, some of the dreams were of the dramatic sort that launched the careers of prophets and conquerors. In the Antonine empire, in contrast, their use was diagnostic. Indeed, Freud cited Artemidorus as a sort of forerunner.

In the third century, the mechanisms that had dampened ambition no longer worked. This development was overdetermined: civil war, barbarian invasion, monetary inflation; the list is well-known. Brown, however, does not address economics or public safety. What strikes him is not that the traditional life of the towns and smaller cities broke down, but that it exploded upward. Society everywhere became more pyramidal. On the imperial level, of course, every general commanding a considerable army was a candidate for emperor. Locally, the refined society of independently wealthy notables shrank to small oligarchies, whose members owed their position to their connections with the central government. Rather than supporting local civic life, they mined it, sometimes even diverting public buildings to private use. One is reminded of the course of privatization in some post-Communist countries, particularly in the former Soviet Union and once-upon-a-time Yugoslavia.

Something similar happened spiritually. Religious practice under the high empire, even spiritual adventure, was usually a form of therapy. In the third century, the "debate about the holy" became a matter of life and death, of salvation and damnation. The great anxiety of the age, in Brown's telling, was to sort out saints from sorcerers. Just as in public life people sought reliable connections to the center of power, so in spiritual practice people sought out "friends of God," who could be relied on not to exploit the connection to the faithful.

Brown is keen to emphasize that the empire of the third century was not seized by superstitious hysteria. Quite the opposite: people took a prosaic stance toward the supernatural as just another of life's problems. Given the premises of the time, their behavior was perfectly rational. As in the second century, people in the later empire believed they encountered the supernatural daily. The difference was that they tried to limit their contact with it.

The effect was like when a neighborhood experiences a long-term increase in crime, so that eventually every window has bars and every door has multiple locks. Just as people viewed contact with public life with increased trepidation, so they sought to prevent disruptive influences from the other world impinging on this one. Brown points out that there was a somewhat non-judgmental attitude toward demons, even among Christians. The problem with demons was not that they were evil, but that they were incomplete. Demons tried to possess human beings in order to become whole. To be free of them was not so much virtue as hygiene.

Christianity had some real advantages in this environment, but not the ones that are usually cited. For instance, ancient pagans were not particularly impressed that Christians died bravely in the arena. What did impress them was that the Christians clearly did not have ulterior motives. They were friends of God whose relationship to the supernatural was steady and transparent. This was particularly true of the Egyptian ascetics who began to live as hermits and to form monasteries during this period. According to Brown, who discusses the desert fathers at length, one of the points in the monks' favor was precisely that they did not promise magical effects. They might see visions as they progressed in the spiritual life, but at the end they would be able to turn a human face back toward the laity. They, and Christians in general, made a science of distinguishing the saint from the sorcerer.

Brown's interpretation puts a new light on speculation about alternative histories in which Christianity either never arises or is suppressed. He describes how Julian the Apostate gave money for a traditional pagan festival to an ancient city. What the emperor had in mind was a municipal celebration of the sort that Antonius Pius might have patronized two centuries earlier: choirs singing to Apollo and a mass procession to the sacred place. When he visited for the occasion, however, all he found was an old priest and a goose: the money had been spent on chariot races. The citizens apparently did not see what they had done wrong. To them, spiritual practice was no longer a matter for the general public, or at least not just a matter of appearing in public. The public ritual life that Julian hoped to restore just did not mean anything anymore. Traditional paganism could not have been restored, and the new cults were successful only to the extent that they could make claims, like those of Christianity, to exclusivity and transparency.

* * *

Speaking of pagans and Christians, I see that there is an evangelical revival at Harvard and MIT and places like that. Diocletian knew what to do at a time like this.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-03-18

We've Been Measuring Inequality Wrong

Lots of people forget that US tax and welfare policy is actually pretty progressive, in the fiscal sense. So you need to account for transfer payments to properly assess inequality.

You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

If the United States is to continue to serve as the global security utility, then this would be the kind of Navy we would need. If we aren't going to do that, then something else would be possible.

Putin Got Exactly What he Wanted in Syria

One of the best comments I ever saw on Putin was "he has a weak hand geopolitically, but he plays it well." Nowhere can you see this better than Syria.

The Power of Mental Models: How Flight 32 Avoided Disaster

There was an interesting discussion about driverless cars on Steve Sailer's blog. One of the questions Steve asked was, "Have corporate jets’ autopilots improved to the point where most executives are willing to fly with just one pilot?" My input was that autopilots are already that good, but we elect to have human beings as backups for the machines. For part of the reason why, the linked Lifehacker article is pretty illuminating. The autopilot isn't any better than the scenarios and logic programmed into it. This is why I am unimpressed when a computer beats a human at a game; the game has predictable rules, and it is really just a bunch of people using a computer as their instrument to beat another person at those rules. For anything less constrained than chess or go, we are not yet so good at telling the machine what it will do. An autopilot is probably faster and more consistent than any human pilot in expected conditions, but every once in a while doing what the computer tells you would mean death. For skilled pilots, the crossover point where this occurs is probably pretty different than for the average automobile driver, who is far less capable. 

The Long View 2003-11-20: Snappy Answers

Apollo Astronauts Training at Cinder Lake Near Flagstaff, Arizona

Apollo Astronauts Training at Cinder Lake Near Flagstaff, Arizona

John's 2003 ponderings about Mars in this post and the last are fortuitous, since I just reviewed the Martian by Andy Weir. This is exactly the kind of thing that got me interested in science, and directed me to physics as a field of study. Planetary science has always been close to my heart, possibly since the USGS Astrogeology Science Center is in my hometown.

Life on other planets has deep roots here too, since Percival Lowell's obsession with Mars spurred the construction of the observatory that still peers into the heavens here. A lot of fun science fiction was written before we visited other planets with automated probes, but Weir's book demonstrates that sci fi can still be fun even now that we know more about the other planets.

From the point of view of 2016, I would that we had more seriously considered breaking apart Iraq into three states on sectarian lines. John mocks the idea here, but hindsight improves its prospects. Of course, Iraq could still very well have turned into a shithole if we had tried something different, but at least we could have claimed to have applied the same logic that animated the dissolution of the empires of Europe after WWI. Sometimes W is called Wilsonian, but if we had partitioned Iraq he would have actually deserved that epithet.

My caution on the hypothetical partition of Iraq comes from two sources. First, national self-determination has probably been good on balance in the 100 years or so since it was imposed in Europe by President Wilson, but also at terrible cost. Even now, cases like Putin's adventuring in Ukraine or the sham that is Belgium expose the limits of the idea. Second, it is hard to exaggerate the ways in which the Middle East is a messed up place, and the smart bet is on chaos and disaster.

As for John's musings on economics in the end of this post, I find that I mostly distrust everyone on economics after the 2008 housing bubble. A few smart people noticed something was wrong, but almost everyone, including well-known economists, had no clue whatsoever. Clearly, we don't know what we are doing.


Snappy Answers

Many thanks to Jay Manifold of A Voyage to Arcturus. He did the math (not just once but twice ) in response to my question about how the lack of a Martian magnetic field can explain the planet's tenuous atmosphere, when Venus with its very dense atmosphere also lacks an intrinsic magnetic field. To put it briefly, he points out that the Venerian atmosphere is dense because it consists largely of the sort of material (carbon, mostly) that makes up a big fraction of the crust of the Earth. This means that the atmosphere of Venus is so dense that one would reasonably expect quite a lot of it to be left by now. This would be so even if the solar wind eroded it much faster than it eroded the atmosphere of Mars, which presumably was once denser than today, but never as dense as the atmosphere of Venus.

This is perfectly reasonable, but it does illustrate the limits of the hypothesis that the density of the atmosphere of a terrestrial-type planet can be explained by the strength of the planet's magnetic field. Compared to the atmosphere of Venus, Earth's atmosphere is a pretty good vacuum, yet Earth is a strong magnetic field. Just as there are additional factors to explain the state of the Venerian and terrestrial atmospheres, so there are likely to be other factors to explain the current state of Mars.

* * *

A point of usage: Why do I wrote "Venerian" instead of "Venusian" when referring to Venus? Because philosopher and science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon did. He did it because you are supposed to form an adjective from a Latin noun by using the oblique root. (E.g., "tempus" = "time," but the English adjective is "temporal," from "temporis" (which is "of time"). I know that an editor would not let me get away with an affectation like this, but that's the point of having a blog.

* * *

Speaking of other factors, I for one was greatly surprised when The New York Times took David Brooks as a regular columnist. The Times , frankly, has been leaning toward liberal totalitarianism for many years now, and the editorial page in particular has been kept scrupulously clean of thought crime. Brooks, however, is a serious conservative. It seemed for a moment that the Times was starting to thaw.

Now we know the reason the Times could tolerate him, I'm afraid. Brooks may support the Bush Administration and he has audible doubts about affirmative action, but he is sound on gay marriage. In his editorial of November 22, The Power of Marriage , he adopts a mutual-aid model of the institution that is independent of gender, and indeed of everything except the affections of the people involved.

That is enough. If you accept that human beings are nothing more than senscient rights-holders, then it makes no ultimate difference what else you believe. You will concede the rest of the postmodern agenda in due course.

* * *

David Brooks, I suspect, is merely confused. For some real public policy malice in the pages of the Times, you can't do better than Leslie Gelb's Op Ed piece that ran yesterday, The Three-State Solution. Here is the plan for Iraq from the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations:

The only viable strategy, then, may be to correct the historical defect and move in stages toward a three-state solution: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south.

Almost immediately, this would allow America to put most of its money and troops where they would do the most good quickly: with the Kurds and Shiites. The United States could extricate most of its forces from the so-called Sunni Triangle, north and west of Baghdad, largely freeing American forces from fighting a costly war they might not win. American officials could then wait for the troublesome and domineering Sunnis, without oil or oil revenues, to moderate their ambitions or suffer the consequences.

Leslie Gelb was later interviewed by National Public Radio about this column; he could barely restrain himself from spitting whenever he said "Bush Administration." He obviously thought that the war was a bad idea; the point of his lunatic proposal, I suspect, is to help ensure that the war turns out in such a way that everyone will have to agree with him.

* * *

I see that we have had more than a flurry of good economic news in the last two days. The US GDP was at an annualized rate of 8.2% in the third quarter, and other numbers are nifty, too. Niftiest of all is the fact that inflation shows no sign of picking up, despite low interest rates and the enormous federal deficit.

How is this possible? No doubt because we live in a fundamentally deflationary world. This is due in part to the growing economy of China, and increasingly of India. Also, the millennial talk about the New Economy was not all hype; new technologies really do allow for continuous increases in productivity, which means that wages can rise and unemployment can fall without sparking price increases.

The most interesting aspect of this situation is that governments can get away with printing money. If fact, they have to. Too much fiscal discipline in a deflationary environment is a recipe for disaster. Thus, it may seem that we have arrived at the best of all possible worlds.

To that I say Hah. It is of course true that inflationary environments don't last forever, and that the bills will come due. There is, however, another downside to this situation, one that would apply even if deficit spending could go on forever with impunity. A government that can simply print money is in much the same position as a government that supports itself by selling some lucrative commodity. When a government can support itself through oil sales, for instance, it no longer has to worry about taxes. When that happens, it no longer has to worry about the people, either.

The governments of oil states do in fact make some effort to buy popular acquiescence for the regime. When these efforts succeed, the government can be as corrupt and incompetent as it pleases, so long as the people get their subsidies and their public-works projects. Retail industries may benefit, but the productive economy tends to languish, as people buy their goods from abroad.

This is, pretty much, the tale of what went wrong in much of the Middle East and Latin America. Sometimes I wonder whether a grander version of the same process might be happening to the US.       

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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The Long View 2003-11-20: Incongruous Elements

John guessed correctly in 2003 that the War on Terror postponed culture war issues like gay marriage for the duration of the emergency.


Incongruous Elements

President Bush gave another one of his remarkable set-speeches at White Hall in London yesterday. As he has been doing since 911, he put the war on terror in the context of a strategy to bring democracy and the rule of law to the Middle East, a strategy in which the war in Iraq is only a campaign. As with his other major addresses, the speech was nuanced and historically informed. As is also typical, the style was entirely unlike the way the man normally talks, except for the humor. Nonetheless, the Whitehall address really does represent what George Bush believes and what he is trying to do. Few of his critics, I notice, spend much time analyzing what he actually says.

What struck me on this occasion was the collision of Bush's moral and farsighted foreign policy with the quite different approach to public life being expressed by influential groups in the US at about the same time. Consider this snipet from Bush's speech, regarding what he hopes are shared features of the political cultures of the UK and US:

The deepest beliefs of our nations set the direction of our foreign policy. We value our own civil rights, so we stand for the human rights of others. We affirm the God-given dignity of every person, so we're moved to action by poverty and oppression and famine and disease.

Contrast that with this excerpt from the majority opinion of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in the case which determined that marriage defined in heterosexual terms violates the state constitution:

We are mindful that our decision marks a change in the history of our marriage law. Many people hold deep-seated religious, moral, and ethical convictions that marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman, and that homosexual conduct is immoral. Many hold equally strong religious, moral, and ethical convictions that same-sex couples are entitled to be married, and that homosexual persons should be treated no differently than their heterosexual neighbors. Neither view answers the question before us. Our concern is with the Massachusetts Constitution as a charter of governance for every person properly within its reach.

Note that the Court here does not argue that the content of human rights is different from what we thought formerly, and that we now know human rights must include marriage between purposes of the same sex. Rather, the Court says that all questions of morality and religion are irrelevant to the interpretation of the state constitution. Now try to square that with a national foreign policy framed in moral terms. If you don't like the Iraq War, try to square it with money to control AIDS in Africa, or the promotion of education for Muslim women.

What we have here is not a conflict between religion and the disinterested rule of law, but between two moralities. The reality is that the Massachusetts Court was disingenuous. Of course there is a moral system behind their decision; the cultural Left is an order of magnitude more moralizing than the Right. As with slavery and democracy in the 19th century, these moralities really cannot exist indefinitely in the same body politic. The Terror War has so far had the effect of putting this implicit civil war on hold, but that will not be the case forever.

* * *

The final proposals for the 911 memorial at the World Trade Center site were presented to the public this week. The public was unimpressed, for good reason. Some were too sentimental, marking each victim with a separate little sculpture. Some were too high-concept: Zen gardens with turf. Altogether, as one critic noted, they generally relied too much on elaborate lighting and complicated fountains. Frankly, I thought this was one occasion where the Minimalist Version of Occam's Law should have been applied: "If you don't have anything to say, don't say it."

For that reason, my choice among the proposals would be Toshio Sasaki's Inversion of Light. For one thing, the artist has the sense to commemorate the dead with only their names. These are arranged by where the people lived, thus avoiding the problem of multiple "John Smiths." Inversion of Light would be a quiet, contemplative place in the city, where people can touch a little of the foundations of the great buildings. That's all that anyone can ask.

In contrast, consider Michael Arad's Reflecting Absence. Among other things, it features a vortex of water that disappears into apparent nothingness. The commentary also says:

The names of the deceased appear to be in no discernible order. The apparent randomness reflects the haphazard brutality of the deaths and allows for flexibility in the placement of names of friends and relatives in ways that permit for meaningful adjacencies; for example, siblings who perished together at the site could have their names listed side by side. Family members seeking out the name of a loved one are guided by on-site staff or a printed directory to their specific location. The location of the name marks a spot that is their own.

This reminded me of a proposal for a memorial to the whole of Earth in Joe Haldeman's story, "For White Hill," which appears in the anthology, Far Futures. In that deeply depressing tale, the premise is that Earth had been sterilized by nanobots created by hostile aliens. Some centuries later, surviving human beings decide to hold a contest for a memorial. Here is the description of one entry:

Inspiration is where you find it. We'd played with an orrey in the museum in Rome, a miniature solar system that had been built of clockwork centuries before the Information Age. There was a wistful, humorous kind of comfort in its jerky regularity.

My mental processes always turn things inside out. Find the terror and hopelessness in that comfort. I had in mind a massive but delicately balanced assemblage that would be viewed by small groups; their presence would cause it to teeter and turn ponderously. It would seem both fragile and huge (though of course the fragility would be an illusion), like the ecosystem that the Fwndyrosi abruptly destroyed.

The assemblage would be mounted in such a way that it would seem always in danger of toppling off its base, but hidden weights would make that impossible. The sound of the rolling weights ought to produce a nice anxiety. Whenever a part tapped the floor, the tap would be amplified to a hollow boom.

If the viewers stood absolutely still, it would swing to a halt. As they left, they would disturb it again. I hoped it would disturb them as well.

No: I think that, considering the purpose of the memorial, the visitors would have been disturbed enough already.

* * *

Speaking of sterilizing Earth, PBS recently aired a Nova program that seemed designed to cause public unrest on this score. The program, entitled Magnetic Storm, notes the well-known fact that the Earth's magnetic field occasionally weakens and reverses polarity. As far as I know, these events have never been accompanied by any great disaster, even though background radiation on the Earth's surface would almost certainly increase during such times. The show did say something I had not known: Earth's magnetic field has been weakening dramatically in just the last three centuries. There is some reason to suppose it will fall to zero by the fourth millennium, and then probably reverse. Fair enough.

The mischief is that the show linked the disappearance of the Martian atmosphere with that planet's lack of an intrinsic magnetic field for most of its history. This is not a new idea. At NASA, apparently, the party line is that Mars's atmosphere was eroded away over time by the solar wind, something that did not happen to Earth because Earth's magnetic field deflected the wind.

To give Nova credit, they did say that the coming collapse of Earth's magnetic field is not likely to last long enough to do the atmosphere much harm. However, they did not point out that the whole idea of solar-wind erosion is problematical. Venus is a third of the distance from the sun that Mars is, and its atmosphere is 100 times as dense as Earth's, yet Venus has no intrinsic magnet field.

How can that be, I ask you?  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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