The Long View 2004-04-05: Mullah John Belushi

Muqtada al-Sadr

Muqtada al-Sadr

I don't know enough about Muqtada al-Sadr to have a real opinion, other than to say he is still influential twelve years later. I do know that Shia clerics like al-Sadr often study Aristotle and Plato, and that gives us something in common.

I also picked the first reasonable looking picture that came up on Google image search. The poor guy isn't always angry.

Mullah John Belushi

Moqtada al-Sadr is the sort of fellow who gives mad mullahs a bad name. He's pudgy; he glares at cameras from under a beetling brow; he reminds everyone of these characteristics by encouraging his followers to carry oversize pictures of him. He also seems to be fatally stupid. He's holed up in a major mosque, surround by an army of fanatics sworn to defend him to the death. Doesn't this guy know that extracting people like him from situations like that is what Special Forces were created to do?

I am sure you can follow the news as well as I can, so I won't clutter this comment with links. No doubt you have seen this note from the Iraqi blogger, Zeyad, which mentions, among other things, that Sunni hardliners are resisting al-Sadr's Army of the Mahdi. One hopes that this incident will concentrate the Sunnis' minds about what would actually happen to then if the US leaves prematurely. Dan Rather just looked earnestly into my eyes from the television screen and repeated unconfirmed reports that the uprising is being aided from Iran. If that's true, and the US makes a fuss about it, it could could backfire on the Persian reactionaries. There is also this bit of encouraging news: Dan Schorr on NPR's "All Things Considered" this evening used the term "quagmire." He has a history with that word, but maybe he has become so venerable that his editors hesitate to remind him of it.

The thing to keep in mind is that the uprising is happening at more or less a time of the Coalition's choosing. Al-Sadr would have done more to prevent a democratic transition than could the Sunni-based insurgency. Despite the fact the Shia establishment wants him gone, it would have been too much to ask of a transitional government to arrest him or to control his cult. It's never good when a situation arises in which hundreds of people could he killed. Still, what is happening now is by no means the worst that could have happened.

* * *

As we see from the Spanish experiment, surrender doesn't help. Despite having just elected a Quisling (or dhimmi?) government, the country is now met with fresh demands from the terrorists. An offensive planned for Holy Week-Easter Week by the terrorists may have been blunted by the explosion of a bomb factory; it's a shame that a Spanish policemen was killed in the incident.

Nonetheless, I see that anti-terrorism demonstrations in Spain still often have a "No Blood for Oil" theme. It still hasn't sunk in: the blood will flow whether the oil does or not.

* * *

Let no one be in any doubt about the superiority of American stupidity, however. Consider these excerpts from an Op Ed in USA Today: U.N. record in Iraq is strong:

There has been much discussion lately about the "scandal" of the U.N.-run oil-for-food program. The Iraqi Governing Council charges that hundreds of Iraqi officials, foreign companies and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein skimmed 10% or so from the humanitarian contracts...But let's be realistic. Iraq's economy plummeted from $60 billion a year in output to $13 billion. That's what brought about the terrible impoverishment...Though the U.N. is not yet involved in rebuilding Iraq, the U.S. is. But is its track record so much better? Have we forgotten that massive no-bid contracts were handed out to U.S. corporations such as Bechtel and Halliburton?...The U.N. is the better choice for nation-building with integrity and competence.

For some people, the UN is becoming what socialism used to be: not an institution, but a desire. Like the desire for ice cream, there is no argument against it. In fact, it's worse than ice cream, since there is no international equivalent of frozen yoghurt.

* * *

Does anyone keep track of the exotic weapons that may be headed for Iraq? There's the laser-armed humvee, for instance. That's for engineers to explode mines from a distance; it's not artillery. It sounds like a good idea, but it seems stuck in development.

Closer to being used is a horrible screaming-banshee machine called the Long Range Acoustic Device. It is supposed to be nonlethal. That's an improvement, I suppose, but I would not want to be in the first crowd on which it is used. I would say the same of the pain-inducing directed energy weapon, which is known to be in the works. I can't find links to it, oddly enough.

* * *

Much nonsense has been written about the role of religion in the current Bush Administration. George W. is more religious than his own father, perhaps, but not more than Bill Clinton, who goes through life with the manipulative, but real, piety of an Elmer Gantry. Be that as it may, some hostile critics say that Bush is motivated by the Armageddon scenario of the Left Behind series; others accuse him of aiming to legislate Biblical law, after the manner of the Reconstructionist movement.

Such gossip has enlivened many a wine-and-cheese party. However, as Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College recently noted, these imaginary horribles are mutually exclusive:

But there are major disagreements between [the Left Behind series and Reconstructionism], especially about eschatology -- that is, what the Bible teaches about the way human history will end. And those differences lead to very different ideas about how politics works and what it is for.

[Premillennialist] eschatology is, generally speaking, the default position for those who occupy the fundamentalist corner of the evangelical world. To be sure, many readers of the "Left Behind" books may enjoy the story without believing that LaHaye and Jenkins have rightly calculated every detail. But they will probably share the premillennialist view that human societies will not exhibit moral progress, but will deteriorate until the only option for redemption is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory, which will usher in the Millennium, the "thousand-year reign" of God. (What happens after that is disputed and complicated. Let's just say that eventually God wins.) contrast, generally don't believe in a Millennium in LaHaye's sense, and are pretty confident that Jesus isn't going to show up any time soon to rescue us. In fact, it is precisely because they don't believe in an imminent Second Coming that Reconstructionists are so determined to use Biblical law as the foundation for civilization. They'd like to build a world that Jesus would want to return to.

These comments are correct, but I would add something. Apocalyptic eschatologies often do describe history as a tale of degeneration, but there is a history of them adding brief periods of hope before the final crisis comes. That happened in the Middle Ages with the evolution of the legend of the Emperor of the Last Days. The Mahdi doctrine, found in some schools of Islam, is remarkably similar. Structurally, the Pretribulation Rapture itself fits in just this place on the timeline.

There is zero evidence of any of this in the Bush Administration. However, some such thought does seem to have occurred to Pat Robertson. The classification of eschatological ideas is necessary, but misleading. The end of the world is a felt necessity, like the the return to the tonic in music; but the music is jazz.   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-04-02: Innoculation

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment trends in newspaper publishing and other media

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment trends in newspaper publishing and other media

The process, predicted by Glenn Reynolds in National Interest in 1994, of altering the nature of journalism is now quite advanced. The prevalence of both still and motion cameras in nearly everyone's hands has certainly altered content production, since nearly every news item is now accompanied by cellphone video. From the BLS data in the chart above, newspapers have experienced a considerable drop in employment since 1994, almost 300,000 jobs. 

Reynolds prediction that the gatekeeper role of television and newspapers would disappear is probably half true. Lots of people get most of their news from the Internet now, but the survivors of the brutal consolidation process seen in the chart still are pretty influential. In the US, this would certainly include The New York Times, and NPR. Each of these organizations still produces a lot of news, and are still seen as authorities. Each one has a liberal flavor in US terms, but on the whole they both maintain their integrity, although at least in NY Times you need to get pretty deep into the article before anything interesting comes out.

A downside to the fracturing of the media market and consolidation among the survivors is you have fewer and fewer people doing the same work. According to John Schindler, foreign bureaus have often been cut, leaving only a few reporters on site to pass news into the system, which is then passed around by the Associated Press or other news sharing organizations.


You have to wonder: if the Madrid bombings had not just happened, would the American public have been so willing to take the desecration of the merceneries' bodies in Falluja so much in stride? Those video images from Iraq were far worse than anything that came from the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. When pictures of the Black Hawk pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu appeared on television, the morale of the media immediately collapsed, along with whatever support remained for the humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Today, some commentators seem eager to collapse again, but most don't, and neither does the general public. This is partly because a consensus has quickly developed that the fall of the Aznar government in Spain was a new Munich. Even public figures who were not very keen on the Iraq War to begin with accepted this view. What happened to those contract guards was just as gruesome as what happened to the Spanish commuters, but few people seem willing to suggest that now America should do what Spain did.

Something else that the public seems to be taking in stride is the 911 Commission testimony of Richard Clarke. Though his memoir, Against All Enemies, has become a must-read (or at least a must-own) among the political class, by most accounts it contains almost no new material. The politically informed public understands this. The politically uninformed public, for their part, recognize a hypocritical campaign tactic when they see one. In fact, one suspects that it is cable-news shenanigans like this that persuades so many people that politics does not merit their full attention.

* * *

But what about the people who watch only entertainment programs, you ask?. The New York Times reports today that the scripts of ordinary television shows increasingly incorporate anti-Bush material:

I have never, ever seen this community more united than right now, never," said Laurie David [wife of Larry David, the star of an HOBO comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm"], who has been active in organizing the creative community against Mr. Bush. "Not a day goes by when I'm not getting a dozen calls from people saying to me, `What can I do?' And it's all with one goal: to change the course of what's going on in this country and get rid of this administration."

I can't confirm this from my own experience; my TV watching is shrinking to programs of the sort that feature Eliza Dushku. Even if it is true, though, this could turn out to be yet another case of the Entertainment Establishment being humiliated in public, as it usually is when it tries to influence politics. The Times article points out that much the same thing happened in 1992, when the entertainment industry gave its product a conspicuous spin in favor of Bill Clinton. That was a close election, and every little bit helped. However, the 1990s saws the explosion of talk radio, the Internet, and politically right-wing outlets on cable. Whatever happened in 1992 will not happen in 2004, at least not in the same way or to the same degree.

* * *

As for politics on the Internet, it has manifested a mischievous tendency to work not at all in the way that was expected. Glenn Reynolds, a.k.a. Instapundit, has this to say on the subject the the Spring 1994 National Interest, in the essay The Blogs of War

But it seems safe to say that prewar predictions that the Internet would be a force against war, and in favor of lefty, EU-style moral equivalency human rights advocates, turn out to have been partly right, but not in the way advocates seem to have thought. The Internet turned out to be a stronger force for human rights properly understood than for peace at any price, and the ability of people to use the Internet to bypass traditional organizations with different priorities has made a significant difference. This effect will probably grow larger over time. With the growing ubiquity of digital cameras (including digital video cameras) and broadband Internet access, the gatekeeper role of traditional news media, and other international organizations, is likely to disappear.

Many analyses of the cultural implications of the Internet, such as Erik Davis's Techgnosis and Michael Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy, have focused on the ability of the Internet to host what are almost parallel universes. Paranoids and conspiracy theorists have never had it so good. On the other hand, it does not seem to be true that the Internet is without a hierarchy of credibility. Every worldview may have started equal on the Internet, but webs of criticism and shared information soon developed. Instapundit in particular is one of the key nodes of a network of analysis and reporting that is, if anything, at least as intelligently critical as the world of major newspapers and public-affairs television.

That seems to be the real axis of evolution on the non-commercial Internet. Those parallel universes of conspiracy theorists increasingly look like isolated ecological niches. Strange creatures flourish in them, and the Internet allows many more people to visit them than would otherwise be the case. Still, those niches show little capacity to grow, or even change. When the creatures in them wander onto the main highways of cyberspace, they quickly become road kill.

* * *

On the subject of things that seem to alter very little, I got a sense of deja vu from this recent report about the Martian atmosphere:

A trio of research teams independently probing the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane have found it, a combined discovery that opens the door for a host of theories as to how the gas got there...Since methane has a relatively short lifetime on Mars for atmospheric gases, about 300 years or so, scientists believe there must be some process at work to keep replenishing its concentration in the atmosphere.

As we know, life stinks. The presence of highly reactive gasses, such as methane or oxygen, in a planetary atmosphere is good evidence for biology, if there is no geological explanation for it. There are other possible explanations for Martian methane. Inconspicuous vulcanism is one. Another would be carboniferous meteorites. I suspect, though I don't know, that the isotopic signatures of the carbon from these sources would be distinguishable. However, they can't be distinguished by using orbiters or terrestrial telescopes, which provided the data for these studies. We need a sample of the atmosphere.

The deja vu comes in because NASA announced, during one of the early Mariner missions I believe, that it had discovered methane on Mars, and that there was no explanation for it but organic decomposition. This discovery lasted only a few days; soon someone figured out that the instrument readings could also have been produced by dry ice and CO2, or something of that sort.

Again: are we really much further along than we were in 1970?

* * *

Not all precedents are unhopeful, however. Consider this rather hostile report, from The Washington Times, about the State of Maine's new health care system:

Other states have tried -- and failed -- to create universal health care. Now, Maine intends to show them how it's done. This summer, the state will begin enrolling people in its health care program, called Dirigo -- the state motto and Latin for "I lead." It is aimed at ensuring health care access for all 1.3 million residents.

It occurs to me that this is pretty much what happened with deposit insurance for banks. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states experimented with insuring the savings of depositors, but without much success. The insurance pools were not big enough, and the existence of insured and uninsured banks created a "moral hazard," whereby speculators put their money in insured banks with irresponsibly high returns. When the banking system collapsed nationwide during the Depression in the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration created national deposit insurance reluctantly, and almost as an afterthought. To everyone's surprise, a national system solved the century-old problem of unreliable financial institutions. I would not be at all surprised if something similar happened with health insurance.

* * *

And now for Art:

Easter is almost upon us, so I was asked to do yet another poster for the local Latin Mass group. You can find it here. Anyone is welcome, of course. There's coffee in the church basement afterwards.

Speaking of welcoming, I have made this animation using the picture on my website's top page. That's a 1.2 mb file, so be patient.

That animation will probably stay on my site, but the Easter poster will come down after a while: I need the storage space. Another item I am going to take down in the near future is this animated thank-you note I sent to a friend who sent me a Hellboy comic. No, I'm not interested in comics, but I may well see the movie.    

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: TechGnosis

Cyberspace, as envisioned in the 1990s

Cyberspace, as envisioned in the 1990s

I kind of miss the nineties cyberspace speculations like the book John reviews here. The Internet turned out to be far more tawdry and commercial than anyone thought twenty years ago. 

Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
by Erik Davis
Harmony Books, 1998
$25.00, 368 Pages
ISBN: 0-517-70415-3

Hypertext occasions more than its share of hype. Even this excellent book, by an author who has written for a number of journals (“Wired” inevitably heads the list) on cyberculture and religion, contains this dismaying self-description:

“You may think you are holding a conventional book, a solid and familiar chunk of infotech with chapters and endnotes and a linear argument about the mythical roots of technoculture. But that is really just a clever disguise. Once dissolved in your mindstream, TechGnosis will become a resonating hypertext, one whose links leap between machines and dreams, information and spirit, the dustbin of history and the alembics of the soul.”

Mindstream indeed. However, once you get past occasional passages like this (as well as such subcultural oddities as “hack” for “invent” and “meat-space” for “the real world”), you will find that “TechGnosis” really does provide a fairly cogent account of the cultural effects of information theory. The Internet is only the most conspicuous such effect, and the author notes many other ways in which the “triumph of technique,” so deplored by Jacques Ellul, both antedated the Internet and provides the context in which it now operates. Nevertheless, the book may be most valuable for explaining why the wired world is so permeated by the weird triumvirate of libertarianism, neopaganism and paranoia.

“Gnosticism” has become a cussword, and the author is alive to the need to distinguish the capitalized “Gnosis” of late antiquity from the gnostic-like movements of the spirit that have appeared in more recent times. Still, on the Internet, this is surprisingly hard to do. Researchers into modern occultism have been astonished by the high percentage of their subjects who work in computer-related industries. More significant, though, is the fact that the Internet is a peculiarly apt medium for the expression of the gnostic impulse. Three things that gnostics have always desired is freedom from the constraints of matter, absolute personal autonomy and some species of immortality. Computers and the Internet provide a hope or a simulacrum of all these things.

The relation of the Internet to pure capitalism probably does not need a great deal of explanation. There, and maybe there alone, money really is nothing but pure numbers. However, the Internet also hosts its own peculiar ontology. For instance, extropians and transhumanists, the most enthusiastic supporters of artificial intelligence, are working on ways to upload the structure of their brains into computer networks when they die, thus becoming ghosts in the world machine. More prosaically, fantasy-game players and even casual websurfers often create durable online personalities for themselves. These “avatars,” as they are called, can interact in virtual worlds presided over by demiurge-like systems-operators (sysops). These worlds are normally constructed with an eye to sword-and-sorcery fiction, but they are also “magical” for the simple reason that language there really is performative: typing in a “spell” will invoke some “law” of the virtual world. This is the essence of magic, which the technology merely facilitates. Serious gamers, and the numerous serious ritual magicians (“chaos wizards”) who communicate online, do not strongly differentiate the online worlds from their own carefully-cultivated imaginations.

This degree of freedom from the human condition has its price. When matter and social norms become fetters that can be cast aside for brief periods, the question arises of who forged them in the first place and who maintains them now. This paranoia was characteristic of ancient Gnosticism, and it is typical of much of the Internet today. Rumors of all sorts spread instantly and universally, each depicting some yet more subtle strategy of oppression deployed by the dark controllers. In a purely mental world, after all, all control is thought control, so the conspiracy theories most characteristic of online culture tend to smack of the blackest spiritual wickedness.

Among the archetypical themes to which information culture gives new body, not least is the apocalypse. Teilhard de Chardin has become the patron saint of philosophers of the virtual world, for the excellent reason that his notion of a “noosphere” really does bear a striking resemblance to the Internet. (The fact that he shared Henri Bergson's doubts about the possibility of artificial intelligence is often overlooked.) Teilhard's theology of history has more than a little to do with the widespread belief that the virtual world is moving toward a Singularity in the next century that will absorb the material world and end history as we have known it. There are also many less cheerful apocalypses involving aliens and the traditional international cabals. On the other hand, of course, the online world is host to quite traditional forms of premillennialism. Indeed, though every variety of radical thought can be found on the Internet, I for one have long been struck by how conservative most of its content really is.

Erik Davis may be right in describing his book as “nonlinear”: certainly it does not have much of a thesis beyond the observation that information theory has provided yet another opportunity for perennial myths and ideas to manifest themselves. Still, although he gives reasonable play to postmodern analysis in his discussion, he also suggests, with evident relief, that its “biting half-truths” have about outlived their usefulness. While he anticipates some sort of historical discontinuity in the near future, TechGnosis is hardly a compendium of impending disasters. The theory of alchemy seems to serve the author as a theory of progress. Human souls, human societies, and of course the Internet itself are alembics of the Great Work of spiritual transformation. While not yet post-postmodern enough to predict a happy outcome, the book does end with this engaging if not wholly comforting image: “Prometheus is hell-bent in the cockpit, but Hermes has snuck into Mission Control, and the matrix is ablaze with entangling tongues.” 

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly
This review first appeared in the May, 1999, issue of First Things. 

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The Long View 2004-03-29: Unexpected Storms

Richard Clarke comes in again for more aspersions from John. I'm not Clarke deserved this, but I suppose it doesn't matter much now, even though it would seem that Clarke was probably more in the right.

Of vastly more interest [to me] is John's reference to Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning. John was interested in models of history, as am I, and this work comes up again and again. I find John's review of the book endlessly fascinating, even as subsequent experience demonstrates that Strauss and Howe's generational model is far from perfect. Yet, for all that, it really does seem like they are on to something. [if recent events distress you, Strauss and Howe's model suggests the Crisis will not be fully resolved until 2025, so buckle up. We have another decade of this.]

It is easy to think of this as a really bad week, with racial unrest in the US from the killing first of blacks by police, and then the killing of police by blacks, followed by vehicular terrorism in Nice and a coup in Turkey. Probably it just is the way in which social media has only amplified and exaggerated the process by which rumors and bad news now spread. For example, look at this data collected by Gallup on American blacks' perceptions of police:

I honestly would have expected a bigger difference, with the focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, but this data highlights for me the way in which it is easy to exaggerate trends based on the news. More American blacks feel the police treat them unfairly than American whites, but there hasn't been a huge shift in that feeling in the last year. The linked Gallup article also contains a longer term data set, which does show a recent short term improvement in perceived fairness of police interactions with blacks, but also shows that American blacks are pretty dissatisfied with how the police treat them. If you hadn't already noticed that.

It is always worth looking at the data[and also worth making sure you know enough to interpret the data], which is why I follow an increasing number of quantitative social scientists on Twitter. There are parts of science suffering a replication crisis, and there are also parts that are not. I haven't yet delved into Peter Turchin's more quantitative take on models of history, but I think this is about the perfect time to start looking. 

Unexpected Storms

I have less and less patience with the Richard Clark[e] campaign against the Bush Administration. What we have here is a man who rose to national prominence overnight by accusing the Bush people, and Bush himself, of neglect of duty and even personal intimidation, but who now complains that the White House is trying to deflect attention from policy issues by attempting to assassinate his character. Clarke defines character assassination as comparing statements that he made in different forums. So does the Kerry campaign, which probably isn't a coincidence.

Nonetheless, one can still sympathize with Clarke's stint as a counterterrorism expert in the Clinton and Bush Administrations, both of which came into office with a pledge to think about foreign affairs as little as possible. That does not change the fact there is something terribly wrongheaded about what Clarke now represents. Barbara Amiel, writing in The Daily Telegraph, put it this way in a piece called Those Who Predicted Jihad Run Against the Wind:

If 9/11 can be reduced to being Washington's fault, the irrational hate and destruction becomes almost manageable. Change administrations, and the Islamists will go away. Such a seductive, comforting thought echoes in most political battles and elections today. The wind from the east blows gritty grains of fear and delusion into the West's eyes. One wonders apprehensively, which way the zeitgeist of this new millennium will turn. Worse, one fears the calamity that will really turn it hasn't happened yet.

That last point dovetails nicely with the argument recently made on Angst Dei, that Strauss & Howe's "Fourth Turning" has not even begun yet. That argument is, of course, a heretical departure from the one, true, interpretation of the Two Witnesses, but it is true that the will to self-delusion is no less strong today than it was on September 10, 2001. There really are people, lots of them, who think that the fundamental problem is the existence of criminal terrorist networks, rather than the ideological and political milieu from which they arise. Yes, you have to swat the mosquitoes, but there will be no peace until the swamp is drained.

* * *

That is not to say that the swamp is confined to the Middle East. Far from it, if you believe what Reuel Marc Gerecht had to say in the March 29 issue of The Weekly Standard, in the article "Holy War in Europe":

These young men are part of what the Iranian-French scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar has called the "neo-umma guerriere -- "the new holy-war community of believers" that recognizes neither national nor ethnic identity nor traditional Islamic values. Their Islam is "a new type of Nietzscheanism" where suicide and murder become sacred acts of an elite, a self-made race of believers who want to bring on a purifying Apocalypse.

At the risk of repeating myself yet again, this mix of ideas parallels point for point the ideology that Julius Evola put forward in Men Among the Ruins.

* * *

Speaking of the purifying apocalypse, fans of the Y2K bug will remember Gary North, a proponent of what is variously called Theonomy, Dominion Theology, or Reconstructionism. These models of history hold that the the world will be converted and reformed during the Millennium, at the end of which the Second Coming will occur. As with other forms of postmillennialism, North held that the millennial age will be more continuous than not with the current age. There may be disruptive events, but not necessarily "apocalypse" in the colloquial sense. North argued that there would be massive, but survivable, social disruption around the world because of the Y2K bug, which would be just the ticket to get the Millennium proper under way.

After the beginning of the new century, we heard rather less of Gary North. Now he's back, however, with a quickie ebook about the reception and social implications of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion. If you hurry, you can download The War Against Mel Gibson for yourself. Here's a bit of the Preface:

The Passion of the Christ is the most important recent event in the history of the American culture war. The Left went after Gibson and the movie early, but their efforts have backfired. The extent of that backfire is huge. It is possible – I believe highly probable – that this movie will mark a turning point in the culture war...Is The Passion the first step in a systematic, comprehensive counter-attack by Christians in a cultural war that Christians have been losing for almost a century? I think this is the case. So does Hollywood and Hollywood's cheerleaders in the media. This is why they are horrified.

I suspect that The Passion could be an important film, too, both culturally and religiously. It is, however, not the beginning of the Millennium. Trust me on this; I know these things.

* * *

As another example of misplaced enthusiasm, consider another article that appeared in the March 29 Weekly Standard, Maggie Gallagher's "Latter Day Federalists (Why we need a national definition of marriage)." In that piece, she argues that the definition of marriage was federalized long ago, particularly in connection with the campaign against polygamy in the Utah Territory, which was settled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Utah began petitioning for statehood as early as 1859, but Congress would have none of it until the Territory put its family law in order. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which criminalized bigamy in Utah. Harsher federal acts continued until 1890, when the Church relented on the polygamy question. The Utah Territory was admitted as a state six years later.

Readers of this site will know that I support a federal, constitutional definition of marriage. Nonetheless, I must point out that this particular argument won't fly. Congress has almost plenary power over the territories in the US that have not been admitted to the Union. The same is true of Congress's power over the District of Columbia. Congress generally does not exercise that power, once a local government has been established, but there is no constitutional novelty in Congress doing so.

There really will be some novelty in a federal definition of marriage. The question is whether there will be a novel judicial extension of Griswald (yes, that is where all this comes from) to create gay marriage, or a bit of honest new text to exclude it.

* * *

Did you know that hurricanes were supposed to occur only in the northern half of the Atlantic? Well, if you did, you are due for an update. It seems that Something Strange Is Happening:

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Florida estimated the storm was a full-fledged, Category I hurricane with central winds of between 75 and 80 mph, making it the first hurricane ever spotted in the South Atlantic. AccuWeather, Inc., a private forecasting company, said it also considered the storm a hurricane.

Brazilian scientists disagreed, saying the storm had top winds of 50 to 56 mph, far below the 75 mph threshold of a hurricane...

All sides said they were basing their estimates on satellite data, since the United States has no hurricane hunter airplanes in the area and Brazil doesn't own any.

When the storm struck land in Brazil over the weekend, it did considerable property damage. Last I heard, though, the Brazilian weather-people were sticking to their guns about the nature of the storm. This could be embarrassing. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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LinkFest 2016-07-15

The death cult of environmentalism

I remember once an ardent environmentalist told me he would rather see my city burn to the ground rather than allow thinning of the forest. I've never forgotten that.

Slaughter at the bridge: Uncovering a colossal Bronze age battle

I can't imagine why anyone thought the Bronze age was peaceful, but people tell me this is world-shattering for some.

It's time to talk about alcohol and sex

This article mostly makes me sad, both for what American sexual culture has become, and the unwillingness to see it for what it is.

Undead: The Rabies Virus Remains a Medical Mystery

Greg Cochran often says physicians are terrible scientists. After reading this, I tend agree with him.

Economic History Reading List

I'm chronically behind on reading, and this doesn't help.

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I'm not sure I believe this, Dreher has been predicting doom for a long time now. 

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Willful blindness, it turns out. A nice shout-out to Steve Sailer's shadow influence on pretty much everyone.

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An idea I've seen from writers across the political and ideological spectrum is that England developed a distinctive culture and position in the world due to *just enough* isolation. This book review delves into the latest exploration of that idea.

Can we survive technology?

A 1955 essay from John von Neumann, the most remarkable intellect of the twentieth century. This is an exploration of the first episode of globalization, and its relation to the development of science and technology. Regrettably, this article on the Fortune website appears to be incomplete.

Why Brexit voters are the world's financial losers

When libertarian economists like Tyler Cowen say that open borders and free trade are worth it, this graph is the best evidence I can find for their position:

Clearly the modern world is doing something right for the world's poorest. I'm not certain that it had to involve the relative pain of the working classes in the developed world, but it did, and I am definitely certain that it is a bad idea to just write them off.

What kind of driverless cars do people want?

Apparently, not the kind that will drive you into a brick wall to avoid a jaywalker.

Looking behind the Brexit anger

One story about Brexit was the relative immiseration of the working classes in the developed world. Another story is the degree to which Labor voters in England [and white Democrats in America] remain socially conservative, and are increasingly ill-served by their parties.


An aside in the previous article led me to this investigation of the economic effects of better management and more effective-theft prevention measures: mostly more profits for business owners and improved economic statistics as underground economic activities were re-directed into official channels. I find this idea plausible, although I would want to look into it a lot more before investing too much in it. 

How Brexit shattered progressives' dearest illusions

And finally, a political look at how Brexit is intertwined with various global political projects, including what John J. Reilly used to call "transnationalism".

Zootopia deleted scene would have made the racial allegory a lot more disturbing

Steve Sailer helpfully points to more evidence that Zootopia is far more than the straightforward diversity tale it appears on the surface. I'll admit to a bit of schadenfreude at the linked article's annoyance that Zootopia doesn't map cleanly to current American racial problems.


LinkFest 2016-06-24

The War on Stupid People

This has been clear [to me] for a very long time: most Americans confuse intelligence, a biological fact like height, with human importance. This is why being called stupid is an insult, and part of the reason why IQ research is so contentious.

Barry Latzer on Why Crime Rises and Falls

Time series analysis is really tricky, and this is a good article on crime that gets into why. 

Did Japan actually lose any decades?

Short answer: no. Eamonn Fingleton sometimes comes across as a crank, so I appreciate finding others who corroborate his views. Japan's economy is doing exactly what you would expect from a First World country with a static population. However, a lot of models at present assume a continuously growing population, so you get a mismatch between modeled expectations and reality.

Paul Allen's space company nears debut of world's biggest plane

I'm glad Internet billionaires put their money where their mouth is. I assume most of them take the common complaint, "where's my flying car?", and do something about it.

Hacker's Toolbox: The Handheld Screwdriver

When I was a locksmith in college, we all used the 4-in-1 combination screw driver much like the one shown here.

There are now more bureaucrats with guns than there are US Marines

Once I considered working for the fraud investigative division of HHS. These are the "bureaucrats with guns", really more like FBI Special Agents who only work on certain crimes. I do have a bit of misgiving about the trend of each Federal agency feeling the need to train and equip their agents like SWAT teams, and about the militarization of the police in general. However, this is precisely the appeal of these forces as jobs; they are relatively safe, quite well-paid, and you get good equipment and training. A dream job, for a cop.

The Middle Class is Shrinking Because Many People Are Getting Richer

The decline of the middle is actually the rise of the upper middle class. 

The Long View 2004-03-26: Other Paths to Power

When it comes to energy, I am as interested as the next guy in new technologies, but I have boundless skepticism, nay cynicism, about them all. As it turns out, the oil market predictions John copied here from the National Interest seemed pretty plausible for most of the last 15 years, and then fracking finally dropped the bottom out of the market. However, it sure didn't look that way for a long time.

Other Paths to Power

Once again, I want to thank those readers who are buying books through this site. I maintain the blog, and the rest of the site, in large part for the intelligent feedback. Nonetheless, the commission fees from Amazon are also good evidence that someone is listening.

* * *

Speaking of gratuities, The National Interest recently sent its readers a "Special Energy Supplement." The National Interest are the folks who gave us Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, which many people disagreed with, but which no one concerned with foreign affairs escaped talking about. It could quickly be the same with the issues raised by the four articles in this supplementary pamphlet. There are three points you should keep in mind:

(1) For the first time, the demand for oil soon really will exceed supply;

(2) The chief sources of new oil that we know about are in Russia;

(3) The chief market for new oil, and the reason for point (1), is the explosive economic growth of China.

The rise of the Chinese economy means that the US and associated developed countries will lose leverage over the suppliers. The US and Saudi Arabia, for instance, traditionally had each other over a barrel. The US and Europe needed the Kingdom as a supplier, but then the Saudis needed the US and Europe as customers. The same has been true of Russia since the mid-1980s: the supplier-consumer relationship ensured a measure of cooperation on all issues. However, China (and soon India) are enormous alternative consumers. This will give the suppliers much more room to maneuver on other issues.

* * *

Perhaps you think that fossil fuels are just too tacky for words. Well, somewhat to my surprise, I recently had occasion to link to a legitimate story about cold fusion. At the time, I did not know the half of the continuing research in this area. Now The New York Times reports that the US Department of Energy is giving the question a second look:

Despite being pushed to the fringes of physics, cold fusion has continued to be worked on by a small group of scientists, and they say their figures unambiguously verify the original report, that energy can be generated simply by running an electrical current through a jar of water.

Last fall, cold fusion scientists asked the Energy Department to take a second look at the process, and last week, the department agreed...

Some cold fusion scientists now say they can produce as much as two to three times more energy than in the electric current. The results are also more reproducible, they say. They add that they have definitely seen fusion byproducts, particularly helium in quantities proportional to the heat generated.

Things have reached the point where there is even a language issue. Some people prefer the term "low-energy fusion," since these table-top reactions are not really cold. If you ask me, though, "cold fusion" should be used if we can get away with it. Cold fusion sounds like it has something to do with wrap-around sunglasses. Low-energy fusion smacks of malingering.

The place to start if you want to familiarize yourself with all this is Infinite Energy magazine. I would be more reassured, however, if the top page on that site did not also mention anti-gravity.

* * *

There is an old theory on the reactionary right (the real reactionary right, not to be confused with conservatives or libertarians). It holds that liberal democracies are doomed, because, in international affairs, they necessarily lacked the persistence and focus of autocracies. Sometimes, when I listen to John Kerry or Howard Dean, I start to think this too, but it's nonsense: the historical record is clear that liberal societies beat every other kind of society hollow. A clue to why this should be may be found in Peggy Noonan's March 25 column on the recent 911 hearings:

One summer day in the late 1990s I had a long talk with an elected official who was a friend and longtime political supporter of President Clinton. I asked him why, if Bill Clinton cared so much about his legacy, he didn't take steps to make America safer from terrorism. Why didn't he make it one of his big issues? We were at lunch in a New York restaurant, and I gestured toward the tables of happy people drinking golden-colored wine in gleaming glasses. They're all going to get sick when we get nuked, I said; they'd honor your guy for having warned and prepared. Yes, the official said, but you have to understand that Clinton is purely a poll driven politician, and if the numbers aren't there he won't move.

Too bad, I thought, because the numbers will someday be there.

The strength of democracy is that sometimes the numbers are there. That is more than even the most fearsome totalitarian state can say. The Soviet Union collapsed because its rulers never really thought of themselves as legitimate, and so never dared asked their people for anything more than submission. Nazi Germany lost the Second World War because the leadership feared to risk unpopularity by putting the economy on a war footing. Britain, in contrast, was the most thoroughly mobilized of all the combatants; even more so than Stalin's USSR. The very qualities that enabled Britain to do that, however, also made it possible for the country to entertain the self-delusion and evasion that prevailed in the 1930s. Sometimes, what looks like a fatal weakness is really a latent strength.

* * *

Through the miracle of quantum tunneling, I have obtained the following excerpt from a parallel-universe edition of The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, March 24--President Bush's former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, testified on Wednesday to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that the Bush administration systematically discounted long-standing evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda in order to pursue a fast, politically popular war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. "It was a case of the drunk looking for his lost wallet under the street lamp," Mr. Clarke told the commission. "The drunk has no reason to believe what he seeks is there. He looks there because that's the only place he can see."

The accusations come in the wake of Monday's suicide bombing against the US Air Force base at Al Hila, Saudi Arabia, in which the bomber and 20 Air Force personnel were killed. The number of deaths of US military personnel from terrorist acts in the Middle East since the invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 have now reached 150.

Mr. Clarke's dramatic testimony overshadowed the earlier appearance of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, who emphasized the continuity of the Clinton and Bush administrations' policy. "Both the presidents I have served recognize the greatest danger threatening the American homeland today to be the confluence of the development of weapons of mass destruction by hostile states and the existence of terrorist groups willing to deliver them," Mr. Tenet remarked. "However, we can do only so much at once."

Mr. Tenet could not confirm reports that Iran and Libya had secretly developed a nuclear capability, but rejected the assertion that those countries' nuclear programs might have been encouraged by the failure of the US to take decisive action against Iraq.

The hearings are being held in at atmosphere dominated by Democratic complaints that the Bush administration has taken the path of least resistence against the terrorist threat. Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry told the annual meeting of the National Psycho-Social Service Workers Union yesterday, "When I am president, you can be sure, I will not allow dangers to gather until they pose an imminent threat."

At the hearings, Mr. Clarke had this to say about whether the Bush team had enough new information about Iraq after the September 11 attacks to justify an attempt to remove the government by force:

"We haven't known what has been happening in Iraq since the UN inspectors left in 1998. All we know for sure is that it's worse."   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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All of John's posts here

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LinkFest 2016-06-18

The All-American iPhone

The amount of money you save by going overseas is smaller than you might think. More than enough to make it worth it, but small enough that different circumstances could alter the pattern of trade.

Zootopia review

This is pretty much the review I wanted to write. On the surface, Zootopia seems like a straightforward diversity-related morality tale, but this movie has many more levels than that.

The Mercenary book review

A nice review of one of Jerry Pournelle's older books. My review of the omnibus edition containing this work is here.

Terrorism is not Hate

You know something is up when Jerry Coyne, noted atheist, and R. R. Reno, editor of a prominent religious magazine, are making the same argument.

Mongolian Post Office adopts what3words as national addressing system

This seems clever, I hope it works out.

Britain will never have a Mediterranean drinking culture

Ed West points out that the English, as well as other northern Europeans, like to go on benders when they drink, and this is likely related to alcohol laws. Compare with this

Secrets and lies: Faked data and lack of transparency plague global drug manufacturing

Some parts of the global supply chain for pharmaceuticals are murky and suspicious.

Bill Gates: The Rolling Stone Interview

This is a couple of years old, but a fascinating look at Bill Gates. I didn't know his family attended a Catholic Church, but I find the careful phrasing of his participation very intriguing.

The Long View 2004-03-23: Clarke; Pledge; Theocracy

Richard A. Clarke has long fallen off the national public radar, or at least mine. In retrospect, it seems he may have had a point about the Iraq War, but no one now is interested in keeping score about that, except perhaps me.

Then Senator Joe Biden also gets bonus points for making sense in 2004. John, regrettably, thought the spectacular 9/11 attacks meant terrorists would just keep getting better and better. In 2016, it looks like that was a mistake. 9/11 was the high point of al-Qaeda's operations, and everything since has been far more limited in scope.

To be fair, al-Qaeda has probably been trying to mastermind more 9/11s, but in reality they just got lucky. Better intelligence and better security are probably why terrorists now bomb and shoot civilians in businesses and public places; those are easier targets at this point. We are fortunate only so far as our enemies lack the capacity to pursue this more vigorously. We are protected not only by rough men ready in the night, but by the incompetence of those who mean us harm.

Persons more low-minded than I have begun to cast aspersions on the motives and consistency of Richard A. Clarke, the Clinton-era White House anti-terror advisor who was retained by the Bush II Administration, and who has now published a tell-all book, Against All Enemies. The effective launch for the book was a long report that aired on CBS's 60 Minutes on March 21. I did not see that show, but Drudge reports that there was no mention that CBS's parent, Viacom, also owns Simon & Shuster, which owns the book's publisher, The Free Press.

I am not particularly impressed by such a link. Media conglomerates rarely have common editorial policies. More damaging to Clarke, if it turns out to be true, is the report that the US government thought there was a WMD terrorist link between Al Qaeda and Iraq because Clarke said so. This was in connection with the Clinton Administration's cruise missile attack in 1998 against the factory at El Shifa in the Sudan. His opinion on the matter is supposed to have appeared in the press: "Embassy Attacks Thwarted, U.S. Says; Official Cites Gains Against Bin Laden; Clinton Seeks $10 Billion to Fight Terrorism," Vernon Loeb, Washington Post, A02, January 23, 1999. If that story says what summaries of it say, then Clarke's surprise that the Bush Administration would immediately suspect an Iraqi link to 911 becomes mysterious.

Something I did see for myself was Clarke's appearance last night on PBS's News Hour. When asked whether the publication of his book was timed to affect the presidential election, he said that publication had been delayed by three months, because the White House held the manuscript for review that long. If that's true, then the book was supposed to appear at the beginning of the year, which would have been an even better time to influence the election, because that was the beginning of primary season.

More substantively, he complains that the Bush Administration did not follow the Clinton Administration's practice of holding frequent meetings of the heads of the principal agencies concerned with national security. Considering the scale of successful terrorist attacks, foreign and domestic, that the US suffered during the Clinton Administration, it's not obvious why that Administration's procedures should be taken as a model. (The Clinton people notoriously held meetings all day long about everything.) Nonetheless, Clarke attributes the foiling of the Millennium bomb plot directly to a regimen of really full meeting schedules.

A White House flack appeared on The New Hour immediately after Clarke said these things. The flack asserted that the bomb plot was discovered by a conscientious customs agent on the Canadian border, before there was a state of heightened alert. Again, damaging if true. 

 The fact that the Clarke book is a transparent election-year ploy should not distract us from the fact that there is a real policy dispute at issue. The usually responsible Senator Joe Biden (D. Del.) put it like this:

"I am much more concerned about the safety of my granddaughter in school here in Washington because of Al Qaeda than I am with 10 Saddam Husseins," Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said on ABC. "And we took our eye off the ball because of a preoccupation with Iraq."

There are two things wrong with this. The first is that the resources of the terror networks are limited; Iraq as great a distraction for them as it is for the United States. The other is that terrorism is about to change its nature. The fact is that traditional terrorism was tolerable. The US, frankly, could have suffered the loss of the World Trade Center. If attacks of that magnitude were all that was at stake, then the US could have simply strengthened ordinary law enforcement and endured any attacks that slipped through the net in the future. Future successful attacks, however, could mean the loss of whole cities. The key to preventing that is to prevent the establishment of sovereign-host suppliers of WMDs. If anything, playing cops-and-robbers with Al Qaeda is the distraction. Maybe that's what the Islamists intended all along.

* * *

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will add a bit more spice to the electoral season by hearing arguments in the Newdow case, the one about whether the words "one nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional, at least when used in the public schools.

As I have remarked previously, the inclusion of those words in the Pledge was a bit of bad drafting. The passage sounds like it says, "one nation, under God's protection." In fact, when Abraham Lincoln or George Washington used that phrase, they meant "God willing," or "with the understanding that God is more important." An example of the latter use might be, "I love my country, under God." Far from theocratizing the citizen's loyalty to the United States, the phrase in the Pledge might be taken as a reminder that citizenship is not the ultimate loyalty. However, man or boy, I have never heard the Pledge so interpreted.

* * *

Those of you who are really keen for a theocracy will be interested in this passage by my favorite New Ager, William Irwin Thompson, from his essay, From Nation to Emanation (1982):

[R]edemption through the part of our political heritage as far back as the Old Testament. When Saul inflates, and the war lord tries to become a king and kill the servant of the Lord, Samuel, then Samuel goes to the lowest of the tribes, the tribe of Benjamin, and anoints David. The humble shepherd becomes the future king. When society is not attuned to divinity, then divinity works outside society. Moses was an outlaw.

For centuries in America we have been accustomed to the pattern that Empire is evil and that virtue resides with the humble, the primitive, the outlaw. Through the principle of redemption through the primitive, we have tried to redeem all decaying theocracies. But that is only half the truth. Moral tribe against decadent Empire is one profound truth, but another profound truth is the act of creation of a new sacred civilisation, when in the words of the ancient Sumerians, 'Kingship descends from heaven.' For the last two hundred years we have become habituated to the pattern of fighting against Empire, but now as we enter a new age we may be called upon to work at the other end of history, to create a civilisation suffused with divinity. Will it become simply another decadent empire, following the familiar Weberian pattern of the routinisation of charisma? Of course it will...

Readers may amuse themselves by ascertaining just how garbled that first paragraph is (a reader emailed me to point out that the tribal affiliations of David and Saul are switched, for instance). Still, I find myself meditating on this passage when I think about Frank Herbert's Dune, or I hear that Mel Gibson is considering making a film about the Maccabees. The model of history it implies is structurally similar to the one in Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics, but the sentiment is the polar opposite. Kaplan says that world order is possible only if we prescind from religious questions. Thompson says that order is a religious question.

Another difference is that Thompson, at the time he wrote this, thought that the way to the holy empire was through the strengthening of international institutions. Kaplan, of course, thinks the UN is a Kantian chaos-machine, and that the power of the United States is the predicate for a livable world. For a slightly different take on the matter, you might consider this assessment from Cutting Edge Ministries:

AMERICA DETERMINES THE REAL FLOW OF HISTORY The major focus of [this] study is the reality that the Illuminati created the United States as a New Atlantis, an occult nation that would lead the rest of the world into the New World Order, defined as the Kingdom of the Christ [Biblical Antichrist]. The United States was planned to secretly work behind the scenes for about two centuries to quietly and surreptitiously guide unfolding history in such a way that the world would gradually coalesce into the One World Government, Economy, and Religion of the New Age Christ...

Symbolically, our Masonic Founding Fathers intended to communicate that part of the New World Order Plan which stipulates that, at the right moment in our history, the America that has faithfully led the rest of the world for so long into the new global system of Antichrist, will suddenly burst into flames and be totally consumed by fire. However, out of the ashes of the old America will rise the new global system of Antichrist. We cover how we think this scenario will play out, and will fulfill the Biblical prophecies of Daniel 2 and 7, and Revelation 18.

Probably no one will submit any of this analysis to the Supreme Court. It would just make them nervous and unhappy. 

* * *

Copyright © 2004 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 2004-03-18: Terror-War Spin; Good Faith & Credit

In retrospect, al-Qaeda's [only] accomplishment was convincing us they mattered.

Terror-War Spin; Good Faith & Credit

Since we are coming up on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, many attempts are being made to convince the public that the war has been lost or won, that it has achieved essential objectives or that it was a doomed enterprise from the first. The worst of these efforts are coming from Al Qaeda: Islamofascists like anniversaries almost as much as National Public Radio does, but commemorate them with carnage rather than retrospectives.

Scary enough in its own way was an Op Ed by Ian Buruma that appeared in the New York Times on March 17, entitled: Killing Iraq With Kindness. It is evidence, if any more were needed, of the foreign policy establishment's refusal to understand what the war is about:

One year later, most of the stated reasons for invading Iraq have been discredited. But advocates of the war still have one compelling argument: our troops are not there to impose American values or even Western values, but "universal" ones. The underlying assumption is that the United States itself represents these universal values, and that freedom to pursue happiness, to elect our own leaders and to trade in open markets, should be shared by all, regardless of creed, history, race or culture.

Some might question whether America is as shining an example of these good things as is often claimed. Nonetheless, spreading them around is certainly a more appealing policy than propping up "our" dictators in the name of realpolitik. Still, history shows that the forceful imposition of even decent ideas in the claim of universalism tends to backfire: creating not converts but enemies who will do anything to defend their blood and soil.

The reason for the Terror War is that there a is network of Islamist terrorist organizations and sovereign hosts that plans to stage mass-effect attacks against civilian populations in the West. The Iraq campaign in the Terror War was launched because Iraq, the only part of the network that international institutions had tried to contain, was still not in compliance with the disarmament regime, even after ten years. The mere fact that Iraq might have WMDs would not have justified an invasion. The irresponsible nature of the regime, and its hostility to the US and its allies, made even the possibility that Iraq had such weapons intolerable. This possibility had always been intolerable; after 911, it was obviously so.

The chief discovery of the war was not that the Iraqi regime had apparently mothballed its WMD programs: the fact that regime had decided to wait until sanctions were lifted did not make the war less necessary. The big surprise was the rottenness of the international security system. Important persons associated with the French and Russian presidents were on the take from Iraqi oil contracts; the same seems to be true of the family of the Secretary General of the UN, the organization that was administering the contracts. France and Germany are still reluctant to remonstrate with Iran, much less sanction it, despite the fact it has clearly flouted the non-proliferation system.

No doubt it is true that the invasion of Iraq was a blow to Iraqi national pride. However, the armed opposition to the occupation comes from a minority of the Sunni minority, which is irate at losing its privileged status with the downfall of the regime. The actual attacks seem to be coordinated with Al Qaeda foreigners. To describe this campaign as a national liberation movement is a wilful misreading of the situation.

The transformation of sovereign hosts of terrorism is not a question of indolent goodwill: "certainly a more appealing policy than propping up 'our' dictators." People like Ian Buruma have to take on board the fact that very ruthless people are trying to kill them. If the transformation of places like Iraq fails, for whatever reason, then those ruthless people are quite likely to succeed.

* * *

The situation in the Terror War is by no means desperate. However, you might be forgiven for thinking so. This editorial from the March 15 issue of The Weekly Standard suggests why:

A senior White House official spoke privately the other day about dramatic progress in the Middle East. Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds have broken an impasse and are on the verge of a historic compromise on a new Iraqi constitution. It mandates a pluralistic, democratic Iraq when the United States hands over sovereignty on June 30. Meanwhile, as a consequence of American intervention in Iraq, reformers have been strengthened in other countries throughout the region. In Pakistan and elsewhere, official support for Islamic radicalism - and official tolerance for terrorism - are on the wane. Israel is going to withdraw from settlements for the first time in a generation - and the threat of terror there, too, seems much reduced. There are even signs that the Europeans may actually help in efforts to reform the Middle East.

The White House official also had a lament: How come these breakthroughs have gotten so little serious attention?...The truth is, the White House isn't trying very hard.

The Administration's policy in the Terror War is both coherent and reasonably successful (perhaps because, if you believe The Onion, it has been devised by an evil genius). The problem is that the policy is on a fairly high order of abstraction, but the Bush Dynasty's campaign machine runs on soundbites.

In set speeches, when he is arguing for policy, George Bush has done a good job of connecting the dots in public. Now that the campaign is on, however, the White House is back to his father's "Flag Factory" campaign of 1988. It's as if campaign rhetoric were the only kind of discourse that must not, under any circumstances, contain a thought. It's a shame, really. The dumbing down of politics that the Bushes did so much to promote may make it impossible to defend the current Bush's record.

* * *

Speaking of promoting universal values, The New York Times ran an analysis yesterday of how the Constitution's Good Faith and Credit Clause (that's the one that requires each state to recognize the legal acts of each other state) might work in a situation in which gay marriage's were possible in one state but not in another. The article is, as you might expect, a tendentious argument that a federal Marriage Amendment is unnecessary:

[U]ntil the Supreme Court struck down all laws banning interracial marriage in 1967, the nation lived with a patchwork of laws on the question. Those states that found interracial marriages offensive to their public policies were not required to recognize such marriages performed elsewhere, though sometimes they did, but as a matter of choice rather than constitutional compulsion...

There is no doubt that the Full Faith and Credit Clause applies to marriages; a marriage that is valid in one state is, almost always, valid in another. However, the federal courts carved out an exception for the "fundamental" public policies of the several states in connection with marriage. This was most important, not with regard to interracial marriages, but whether one state would recognize a divorce in another. (Divorces were once very difficult to obtain in most states.) It was easy to tell what public policy was with regard to interracial marriage and quickie divorces; the same is not true of gay marriage:

Opposition to interracial marriage in the last century was in many ways more vehement than opposition to gay marriage today. It was, for instance, a criminal offense in many states. None of the 38 states that expressly forbid gay marriage by statute today go that far.

Considering the current legal climate, it is inconceivable that many courts would find a fundamental public policy against gay marriage if they can avoid it; even a definition of marriage in heterosexual terms might not be enough. Moreover, some people have already argued that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. That's the statute that tries to preserve the exception to the Good Faith and Credit Clause that we have been discussing here. Without that exception, the recognition of gay marriage could unquestionably be coerced.

The key piece of misdirection in the Times article is this whopper:

In 1967, when the United States Supreme Court struck down all bans on interracial marriage, it acted on the most fundamental constitutional grounds, saying that the laws violated both due process and equal protection.

No one believes that the court is likely to say anything like that about gay unions anytime soon.

After last year's Lawrence v. Texas decision, this is exactly what everyone expects, and at no distant date.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-03-16: Spain & Antichrist

Gibson never did film a Jewish action movie, I for one, am disappointed.

Spain & Antichrist


Mark Steyn was excessive in titling his recent Daily Telegraph column The Spanish dishonoured their dead. Nonetheless, there is little to quarrel with in his analysis:

To be sure, there are all kinds of John Kerry-esque footnoted nuances to Sunday's [victory of the Socialists after March 11's terror bombing in Madrid]. One sympathises with those electors reported to be angry at the government's pathetic insistence, in the face of the emerging evidence, that Thursday's attack was the work of Eta, when it was obviously the jihad boys. One's sympathy, however, disappears with their decision to vote for a party committed to disengaging from the war against the jihadi. As Margaret Thatcher would have said: "This is no time to go wobbly, Manuel." But they did. And no one will remember the footnotes, the qualifications, the background - just the final score: terrorists toppled a European government.

The point to keep in mind is that what the Spanish voting public thought they were doing is irrelevant. The Jihadis made a hypothesis about how the electorate would behave. They ran an experiment involving the deaths of 200 people. The hypothesis was confirmed. The result is a tested campaign strategy that could have more effect on the US elections of 2004 than the new campaign finance law, and even George Bush's really mean ads. AP White House correspondent Terence Hunt has these early surmises on the matter:

Now, with the Socialists' surprise election victory in Spain, analysts believe the ballot box rebuke of one of President Bush's closest allies in the war in Iraq could embolden terrorists to try the same tactics in the United States to create fear and chaos.

"That's an amazing impact of a terrorist event, to change the party in power," said Jerrold Post, a former CIA profiler who directs the political psychology program at George Washington University.

"The implications of this are fairly staggering," agreed political psychologist Stanley Renshon of City University of New York. "This is the first time that a terrorist act has influenced a democratic election. This is a gigantic, loud wakeup call. There's no one they'd like to have out of office more than George W. Bush."

Would a Jihadi October Surprise work in America? Certainly the Democratic claims that the Iraq War has been a diversion from the real Terror War lays the groundwork for a March 11 response in America. The Bush Administration has probably done as much as any government could to prevent further terrorist attacks. The steps it has taken have, frankly, been more effective than I or most other Americans expected. Nonetheless, another major incident in the US would certainly be used to argue that the Administration's whole 911 policy has been irrelevant to defending America.

The argument might not have the intended effect. The US did not have a choice about being the target of the Jihad. The Jihadis themselves make the connection between Iraq and the Jihad. If the connection is close enough for Al Qaeda, then it is likely to be close enough for the US electorate. One could debate the connection analytically, but it will hold politically.

Another possibility: if a Bush victory seemed certain late in the campaign, the Jihadis might disrupt the voting to call the legitimacy of the results into question. One can imagine scenarios with biological agents that might require public gatherings to be prohibited. That is another nightmare, however.

* * *

Since Mel Gibson's film The Passion premiered, there has been a lot of speculation about follow-on projects. Here's one that had actually occurred to me, though I did not mention it to anyone but my brother-in-law:

If the rumors are true, Gibson's next move could be a stroke of genius, at once disarming Jewish critics of The Passion and providing an ideal dramatic vehicle. Both stories are the stuff of screenplays. One parallels Gibson's earlier hit, The Patriot, set during the American Revolution, and the second echoes Braveheart, the story of a medieval Scottish insurrection.

The first rumor is that the filmmaker intends to make a movie about the central characters of the holiday of Hanukkah, fighters called the Maccabees. Nearly 200 years before Jesus' birth, they rose against Israel's pagan occupiers and their Jewish allies. The rebels triumphed in a guerilla war, and the temple in Jerusalem was cleansed.

Recently, Israeli educator Yossi Katz suggested that Gibson's next film should be a dramatization of the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135. At first, the rebellion was a success, but after 3 1/2 years, its forces were crushed. Ten leading rabbis were executed, and one was tortured and flayed to death, much like the scourging of Jesus in The Passion and the execution of William Wallace in Braveheart.

Of course, not just Gibson, but all of Hollywood is talking about new projects with religious themes. The result was inevitable:

Peacock [NBC] is partnering with scribe David Seltzer ("The Omen") and producer Gavin Polone to develop a six-to-eight hour limited series focusing on the final smackdown between God and Satan as foretold in the Bible's Book of Revelations. Just as intriguing as the storyline: Assuming the project gets a final greenlight, NBC hopes to roll out the series right after its broadcast of the Athens Olympics ends in late August, airing an hour a week as an event designed to create momentum for the fall season..."What the Book of Revelation predicted is at hand," Seltzer said. "Nuclear brinkmanship, worldwide terrorism, collapsing economies and environmental atrocities make it clear that the critical mass of injury to this planet is sufficient to bring down the wrath of God and put the biblical prophecies into play. What is not written in the Bible is whether man can do anything about it. This is where our story begins."

Polone has lofty ambitions for the still untitled project, which will be overseen by Pariah TV execs Vivian Cannon and Jessika Borsiczky.

One of the leading experts on medieval millenarianism, Bernard McGinn, made this observation in Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination With Evil:

With a cast and subject matter embracing the whole world and its destiny, the [12th century] Tegernsee Play of Antichrist cries out for large-scale Hollywood production.

That play, like other medieval drama, is liturgically stylized, and in verse. A more realistic form would be a mistake, especially for a text like Revelation. Producers should not be thinking about The X-Files. They should be thinking about Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, the old progressive-rock group Genesis did a music drama on the subject, called Supper's Ready. An animated version is available here.

Why don't these people hire consultants? 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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The Long View 2004-03-12: Winds of Black Death

This post from twelve years ago reminds us that horrible things continue to happen.

Requiescat in pace.

Winds of Black Death


Debate continues about who committed yesterday's commuter-train massacre in Madrid. The most dramatic "evidence" so far is this claim:

An email to the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper said the Brigade of Abu Hafs al-Masri was responsible for the worst terrorist attack on a European city since the second world war...

"The death squad (of the Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades) succeeded in penetrating the crusader European depths and striking one of the pillars of the crusader alliance - Spain - with a painful blow," the email said.

Some physical evidence found in a van near the point of departure for the trains also indicates an Islamic connection. Although the explosives used, and the choice of a train as a target, point to Basque separatists as the culprits, the simultaneity of the attacks and the scale of the carnage are the marks of Al Qaeda. The Basque ETA does targeted assassinations; the Islamofascists stage spectacles.

The ETA and Al Qaeda hypotheses are not necessarily exclusive, as we see from this report in October of 2001:

The Basque terrorist organization ETA and bin Laden's al-Qaeda cells have joined forces. Their shared goal: to organize and carry out an attack on the EU meeting scheduled for March 2002 in Barcelona, according to two Spanish publications, Tiempo and El Mundo.

If such a link was really made, it has not been conspicuous during the Spanish government's largely successful anti-terrorist campaign against the ETA. In any case, the main piece of evidence about yesterday's bombing comes from an unreliable source. The Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades have a history of taking credit for things they clearly didn't do, such as last year's blackout in the northeastern United States. Also, the email to the London newspaper was melodramatically apt to a degree that makes it less credible:

"We bring the good news to Muslims of the world that the expected 'Winds of Black Death' strike against America is now in its final stage...90 percent (ready) and God willing near."

That sounds like an allusion to a radiological bomb. Such an attack is perfectly plausible, but I know of no particular reason why Abu Hafs would have anything to do with it. The Madrid bombing could have been done by an Al Qaeda affiliate that has yet to be publicly named.

* * *

The Times of India tried to place the incident in the context of the wider Terror War:

As four powerful bombs [actually 10 bombs on four trains] bloodied the Spanish capital Madrid killing 173, in Europe’s deadliest act of terror after the Lockerbie bombings, major European capitals have begun to wonder if 3/11 - the 11th day of the third month is meant to be the Old World’s 9/11?

The [ETA's] denial of responsibility, said ETA expert Professor Paul Heywood, was unusual. ETA has nearly always claimed responsibility in 35 years of attacks, which claimed 800 lives altogether. If ETA were proved to have pulled off the Madrid spectacular, it would be assured undreamt-of publicity.

The Basque blame for "Arabs" blew a chill wind threw European chancelleries. But, some leading British security analysts said there was a risk of terrorist groups using al-Qaeda and Islamist resistance as a fig leaf for their actions.

Whoever planted the bombs was obviously trying to influence the upcoming Spanish elections. The conventional wisdom is that, if the public believes the ETA was responsible, then the current center-right Popular Party will be favored. On the other hand:

If, however, some indications al Qaeda could have been behind the attacks gain credence, many Spaniards might point a finger at the PP for stirring Muslim wrath by backing Washington and London in Iraq.

I suppose that's possible. On the other hand, I have trouble imagining how an electorate could react to this perceived retaliation by immediately surrendering to those whom they believe to be the perpetrators. You can follow local reaction on Iberia Notes.

* * *

President Bush should be visibly focusing on the Madrid attacks. He is supposed to be conducting a world war. A special meeting of the leaders of the NATO countries might be in order; a meeting of the G8 would be even better. By the same token, his campaign should not be the least shy about invoking 911. As David Broder noted in yesterday's Washington Post, the precedents favor him:

But is it, as supporters of John Kerry and other critics suggest, wrong for Republicans to convert the emotions of [911] into grist for a political campaign?

To answer that question, I went back, with help from Washington Post researcher Brian Faler, to 1944, when Franklin D. Roosevelt, almost three years after Pearl Harbor, was running for reelection. What you learn from such an exercise is that Bush is a piker compared with FDR when it comes to wrapping himself in the mantle of commander in chief....

Item: Roosevelt delivered his acceptance speech to the convention by radio from where? From the San Diego Naval Station, because, he said, "The war waits for no elections. Decisions must be made, plans must be laid, strategy must be carried out."

There is something deeply perverse about the Democrats' attempt to put 911 off limits as a national symbol. The Republicans don't own it, but then neither do the families of the 911 victims.

* * *

It's still chilly here in New Jersey, but daffodils are beginning to spring quickly out of the soil. Maybe too quickly:

Plants need carbon dioxide in the way that animals need oxygen - but the 30% extra carbon dioxide in the last 200 years has begun to accelerate growth and change the composition of the world's biggest rainforest, according to a study published today in Nature.

The acceleration is quite dramatic in plants that grow fast naturally: up to 50%. I have not heard similar reports from the temperate zones, but that may be just a matter of time.

Of course, it's just the party line that CO2 is to blame, or that the effect is confined to plants. Those of you with kittens, puppies, and small children should keep an eye on them.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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The Long View 2004-03-09: Kerry's Folly; SETI; Culture War & Foreign Policy; Propaganda

This post is more current events commentary by John on events that are no longer current. In retrospect, the only thing really interesting is his mention of a campaign ad by Citizens United. Yes, that Citizens United.

Kerry's Folly; SETI; Culture War & Foreign Policy; Propaganda


In a sidebar on Sunday, March 8, The New York Times published a synopsis of a long interview with Democratic candidate presumptive, John Kerry. These sentences are good evidence that it would be a lethal mistake to put this man in the White House:

North Korea should never doubt the resolve of the United States to be serious about proliferation. But that's one of the reasons where I think this administration has even sent mixed and bad messages. Because if you don't do it in a sort of global and effective way, and if your own policy is to break the ABM treaty, move to rapidness of deployment, research and develop nuclear bunker-busting weapons, move to more tactical nuclear - you're sending a message that contravenes everything else you supposedly were taking seriously. And that has consequences in a dangerous world.

Shall we list what's wrong with this statement?

* The big news of the last few years is that effective non-proliferation and the global institutions to achieve it have proven mutually exclusive.

* The US left the ABM treaty precisely to discourage the North Koreans from developing an ICBM, because even a light shield would mean that any missile they could deploy might not work.

* Rapid deployment is supposed to make a conventional attack on the South less attractive to the North.

* Bunker busters and tactical nukes make clear to the North Korean leadership that they will not live through another Koread War

That list of bulleted items exhausts the list of things to the US could do to show "resolve" to the North Koreans, and Kerry is against all of them. I don't know what he's talking about, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't either.

* * *

Speaking of not knowing what something means, a recent radio signal from space attracted some interest among the SETI people. By the time you read this, the signal will probably have been traced to a satellite or a ground source. Still, a real SETI success might start with a report just like this. You won't see it on CNN right away.

* * *

The problem with arguing against the gay marriage campaign is that it makes you forget just how ridiculous the idea is. The notion is a cultural and historical exotic. Like all exotics, it will not flower long. In the meantime, however, the world outside the West draws its own conclusions about what such episodes demonstrate about the societies in which they occur.

Consider this assessment by Peter Zhang about the implications of the gay marriage issue for Sino-American relations:

In the past I've mentioned that there are those in the regime who believe America is in a state of terminal moral decline, and that this will eventually destroy her will to resist a resurgent China when she tries to exercise hegemony over the Asia-Pacific region. It's obvious that this ambition could only be satisfied by destroying American influence in Asia and driving its navy back to Pearl Harbour.

So it should not come as a surprise to learn that the regime takes a keen interest in American political and social trends. Seen through its eyes, at least those of many of its officials, the assault on marriage by homosexual activists and their allies in the media confirms their optimistic view that America is rapidly descending into a moral morass which will ultimately subvert her political institutions and sap her resistance....

The point is that irrespective of the misgivings of some party officials, there are plenty of others who believe that the Bush presidency is an aberration. In their opinion, even if he defeats Kerry social, moral and political trends are now irreversible and America is heading for political damnation.

I am reasonably sure that the Chinese leadership's assessment is not true. Of course, I am also reasonably sure that the gay marriage offensive will fail. The stakes here are much higher than the political system will admit.

* * *

You must imagine my shock when I learned that innocent commercials are being forced to serve as vehicles of political propaganda:

Citizens United, headed by former Republican congressional aide David Bossie, began airing the ad, a parody of MasterCard's "priceless" commercials — on cable and broadcast channels Sunday in select presidential battleground states.

The ad shows Kerry, boats at a marina and oceanfront property as an announcers says: "Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Hairstyle by Christophe's $75. Designer shirts: $250. Forty-two foot luxury yacht: $1 million. Four lavish mansions and beachfront estate: Over $30 million."

Another shot is of Kerry and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., with the words: "Another rich, liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people. Priceless."

Since, as we know, this presidential campaign is going to go on forever, we must take steps to make it endurable. The best way to do that is to make it less noticeable. This is particularly true for negative ads, which we can expect to proliferate as the centuries roll by. Some way needs to be found to fold them into those gauzy, feel-good political spots. The ideal commercial must plant doubts about the opposition's humanity without disturbing the surface image of oily, vegetable bliss. I suggest something along these lines.   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-06-10

A review on Night Enhancement Eyedrops using Chlorin e6

This is pretty nutty, but really interesting. Self-experimentation involving a photosensitizer compound to enhance night vision.

Heavy Boots

I came across this physics teaching post about the effect of gravity, and how a philosophy grad student misinterpreted it. Possibly apocryphal, but it sounds about right. The author of the post tried to be generous, but I think the philosophy TA wasn't dumb, he just didn't know anything, which is a separate problem.

Who Benefited From North American Slavery?

Not who you think.

What is neo-reaction|?

A damn good question. Tyler gives a decent answer to a question that is inherently hard to answer, because this movement is still inchoate. The comments are pretty interesting too.

The Pro-National Suicide Argument

James Chastek gives a pretty good summary of the bad things nationalism has wrought, and why you might seek to get rid of it.

The Soviet Union Series

Pseudoerasmus retweeted one of the entries in this series, and it caught my eye because the inability of the CIA, or anyone else really, to understand the economy of the Soviet Union played a big part in the Cold War. 

Gattaca: Utopia or Dystopia

An older blog post by Razib Khan. Khan rightly notes that genetic engineering could give us the opportunity to help those who have unfairly lost the genetic lottery. I commend this line of thinking, while at the same time suspecting that it won't actually work out that way.

There is no exception in Islam

A more recent post by Razib. He talks about the role of religion, and views of religion, in shaping the world. Razib is not a believer himself, but he takes religion seriously, and knows a lot about it.

The 2016 election will be horrible for America. But also, endlessly entertaining

My thoughts exactly.

The Three Ages of Pixar

I have strong disagreements with Steven Greydanus' assessments of the relative merits of Pixar movies, but I like this piece anyways.


The Long View 2004-03-05: Power; Decadence; Blackmun & the Terror War

Cold fusion is one of those ideas that just won't die. Sure, I'd love it to be real too, but when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Especially in a field that has failed so spectacularly so many times.

Sonoluminescence, the phenomenon mentioned in John's post here, at least has interesting physics. Other kinds of cold fusion, like LENR, are outright scams. It is possible for hobbyists to build machines capable of nuclear fusion, but this apparently isn't sexy enough for scam artists, who insist on coming up with machines that can't even produce neutrons.

Genetic engineering still isn't real, although CRISPR/cas9 is a more promising technology than anything so far. Much like nuclear fusion, it has been just around the corner for a long time. I suspect genetic engineering is far easier to do, so I think it will eventually get here. I don't believe practical genetic engineering will change the world in a heartbeat, as some of its proponents seem to think, but it will cause real changes in the world. I also think that the impact will largely be limited by cost. Genetic engineering is one thing; all of the ancillary technologies that would make it cheap and ubiquitous are quite another.

Turning to European politics, Niall Ferguson gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in 2004 pointing out that Germany was [and is] the fiscal and political center of the EU, despite a nominal equality of influence of all member nations in the organs of the EU. If you use defacto German dominance as a starting point, and then combine that with the notion that lots of people probably aren't fans of the idea of German dominance, then the politics of the EU make a lot more sense.

For American politics, here is a rather stark prediction. John suggested here that preventing a fascist revolution in the West required the defeat the cultural Left. The cultural Left is at present ascendant, and not particularly generous to the losers in the Culture War. One might argue the that unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump for President of the United States is the form taken by the inevitable backlash against the victors' lack of mercy or compromise.

I do not think Donald Trump is particularly fascist, in any meaningful sense of the word. Authoritarian, yes. Fascist, no. By which I really mean, if think this is bad: just wait, it can get far, far worse.

What far worse looks like

What far worse looks like

Power; Decadence; Blackmun & the Terror War

Cold fusion is back, at least if you believe the Rensselaer Institute. Look:

The research team used a standing ultrasonic wave to help form and then implode the cavitation bubbles of deuterated acetone vapor. The oscillating sound waves caused the bubbles to expand and then violently collapse, creating strong compression shock waves around and inside the bubbles. Moving at about the speed of sound, the internal shock waves impacted at the center of the bubbles causing very high compression and accompanying temperatures of about 100 million Kelvin...Other fusion techniques, such as those that use strong magnetic fields or lasers to contain the plasma, cannot easily achieve the necessary compression....In the approach to be published in Physical Review E, spherical compression of the plasma was achieved due to the inertia of the liquid surrounding the imploding bubbles.

Results this dramatic have a tendency not to be replicated; and even if they can be, the effect in question may have no practical applications. Nonetheless, I was happy to see this story, because cold fusion has long been a running gag for me. I was deeply impressed by the claims for cold fusion made by Fleischman & Pons over a decade ago, though I knew no more about the physics than a pig knows about Sunday. In the aftermath, when people made merry at my expense, I told them, "Just you wait!" In fact, I rubbed it in. When people pointed out other things I was wrong about, I would say, "Yeah, well, I haven't given up on cold fusion yet." Now, at least for a while, I can say, "I told you so!"

Practical cold-fusion is one of the few speculative technologies that would really make everything different. Genetic engineering is starting to look like a real-estate investment scam, and nanotechnology is probably a category mistake. An inexhaustible source of energy that you can use without covering the entire surface of the Earth with windmills and solar panels would be something else again. That really would mean a new industrial revolution. As we say in New Jersey: "Nice work, if you can get it."

* * *

On the downside, we have this talk that Niall Ferguson recently gave at the the American Enterprise Institute:

I want to speak this evening about what may seem a rather dramatic subject--the end of Europe, by which I don't mean its disappearance from the map, but a fundamental transformation in the political and economic institutions of the European Union...

Europe will turn out to be not an empire in the sense that I think the United States is today--that is to say, an expansive geopolitical entity--not a rival or a competitor or even a counterweight to the United States, but almost its antithesis, something that is drawing political energies into it, that is perhaps even being colonized by exogenous forces...

My suggestion is not that the European Union will vanish, but simply that its institutions are in danger of atrophying and that it, too, may one day be no more than a humble data-gathering agency with expensive but impotent offices in the City of Brussels and elsewhere.

Ferguson gives a number of reasons for this. The chief economic reason is that the EU was possible only because the Germans were willing to subsidize it. Today Germany contributes about two-thirds of the Union's budget, even though it has only about 10% of the votes in the Council of Europe. Germany can no longer afford this, especially with the accession of the new states to the Union this year. Germany will be able to afford it less in the future, because its population is actually shrinking. Ferguson is not an economic determinist, however. He attributes these changes to a larger cultural decadence. He says that there is something about Europe's post-Christian condition that is literally morbid:

Increasingly, European politics is dominated by a kind of dance of death as politicians and voters try desperately and vainly to prop up the moribund welfare states of the post-Second World War era, but above all to prop up what little remains of their traditional cultures.

There are people who sense that this trend is not merely tragic, but uncanny. Consider this report from an American in Brussels:

Reverend Alan Baker is an American pastor at [the local] Christian Center. He said, "Something I hear a lot is an "ancient spirit of hopelessness."

Baker added, "I've had people tell me, when they come off the plane getting into Belgium, it's as if there are spiritual hands around their throat. They just can't seem to breathe. It's a very heavy, heavy thing, a hopelessness."

In a way, these assessments are a good sign. When decadence reaches the point of palpable spiritual oppression, people will act to save themselves. The problem is that multicultural postmodernism has so discredited liberal institutions that, when the time comes, people may throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is, I think, the role of the United States to work out a model for post-postmodern society that is both religious and democratic; that maintains traditional family structures without being coercive; that is ethnically tolerant while favoring assimilation and keeping immigration to frictional levels. In other words, it is still possible to avoid the world of Imperium. That, however requires the defeat of the cultural Left in the United States.

* * *

This is what we should keep in mind when we read accounts of the recently released papers of Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1971, and who helped affirm it in the Casey decision in 1992. There had actually been a majority on the court to overturn Roe. The chief factors in defeating that attempt were the folly of Justice Kennedy, who had the bizarre notion that voting to overturn Roe would "tarnish his career," and the characteristic stupidity of Justice O'Connor, who has never taken on board the idea that the decisions of a court of last instance must make some sense.

I can only repeat that Roe is going to go, either through being specifically overturned or by a general rejection of the institution of judicial review. Still, how much simpler it would be if this issue had been disposed of before the Terror War started. Though the United States would not have become a kingdom of virtue from sea to shining sea, we would at least have an unambiguously human political ideology. The transnational class would still have come into being, but its evolution would have been nudged in a less morbid direction.

Again, old-fashioned liberal democracy has intrinsic universal appeal. Antinatalism, perversion, and the right to suicide, all of which are implied by the Roe decision, do not. If these things become part of the American message, then the war will fail.     

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-03-02: Reforms; Diversity; Red-Brown-Green

John has a tongue-in-cheek suggestion here that perennial basket-case countries like Haiti might be better served by a form of government like the city manager model of medium-sized American municipalities. 

I think he is on to something. There is an unfortunate belief in the US that majoritarian democracy is identical to liberalism and human rights. The Arab Spring should have made it abundantly clear that it isn't, in most of the world.

The city [country] manager allows you to keep the polite fiction of a mayor [head of state] and a city council [legislature] that decides policy, while the city manager is a city employee who just runs the bureaucracy. In reality, the city manager tends to be the sober adult in the room while the elected officials bloviate and grandstand.

My own city has a city manager, and I am rather fond of this model of government for American cities at least. I doubt it would actually work in Haiti, or any of the other shitholes of the world, but it probably couldn't fail any worse.

Reforms; Diversity; Red-Brown-Green

There is no way for me to tell whether Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left his capital wistfully but voluntarily when he understood the US would not protect him, or whether he was tied up in a gunny sack and carried bodily to a waiting plane by unsympathetic Marines. I incline to the former view; the fact that he did not make a departing statement suggests that he simply did not want to make a public acknowledgment of defeat. He appears to hope to make yet another comeback in the future.

Might I suggest that the problem with places like Haiti is that the stakes in politics are too high, while the potential rewards are too small? You have to become absolute dictator just to make sure that people don't break into your backyard and steal your bicycle. Obviously, people in such places should rule themselves, but need the price of self-governance for small, fractured societies be a politics of life or death?

There is a solution to this dilemma. The medieval Italian republics were often ruled by foreign magistrates. The local senates, seeing that their factions could never agree on a single chief executive, would hire some learned and experienced person from out-of-town to govern the city. The magistrate got the respect and the authority that his position required, but he was not a head-of-state. He was scarcely even a head-of-government. He was just a respected expert who ran the bureaucracy.

We have this today, of course, in the institution of the city manager. In the city-manager form of government, there may be a nominal mayor, but the city is actually run by an administrator, who is hired by the city council. Any form of government is subject to abuse, but city managers are part of a profession, with recognized standards and qualifications. You can tell a good manager from a bad one objectively. For middle-sized municipalities, the city-manager structure may be the best form of government.

Surely something similar could be arranged for Haiti. Let there be an elected parliament, but let its functions be limited to choosing a foreign manager and approving the budget he prepares. Politics would cease to be interesting to ambitious people. If the experiment works, then other small countries might adopt it, and an international profession might spring up.

* * *

For you enthusiasts for spelling reform (and I know you are out there) here are two recent links on the subject. The first is a disrespectful account of the spelling reform bill that actually passed the British parliament in the middle of the 20th century. Had a reform started then, we would now be enjoying the benefits of higher literacy rates and more substantive education. (It takes about a year for a child to learn to read a typical European language; English takes about three.) The problem is that the proponent of the bill favored a proposal that would have scrapped English spelling rather than regularizing it. The legislative effort was therefore sidetracked into phonics education.

The other item is yet another version of The Chaos, the famous poem that illustrates The Problem.

* * *

Unlike some people, I am relatively sanguine about affirmative action. For the most part, it's really just a patronage racket. It will go away when the political system figures out a way to buy off the affirmative action industry. (Could it be set to promoting spelling reform? Now there's an idea.) However, some versions of affirmative action are nastier than others. Lebanon, for instance, has found that its intractable communal tensions had to be accommodated when the country recently reintroduced capital punishment:

The differences were underscored by the three men executed. Under pressure to punish a Shiite Muslim accused of killing eight people, all but one of whom were Christians, the government of President Emile Lahoud also chose to execute one convict from each of the nation's two other main creeds, a Christian and a Sunni Muslim.

Now that's diversity with teeth.

* * *

Regular readers of my website will know about my continuing interest in the links between Islamism, Neo-Nazism, and the occult. However, my study of these things is largely confined to theory. Now comes William Grim, with some provocative examples of Al-Qaeda's Neo-Nazi Connections.

Some of these assertions are less than compelling. Neo-Nazi leaders may well write supportive fan mail to Islamists, but what of it? It is plausible that Timothy McVeigh had Neo-Nazi encouragement and even material support in blowing up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, but the alleged Islamist components are much more hypothetical. Nonetheless, there are deep historical connections between Islamism and Fascism, and this association is expanding to include elements of Left-Anarchism. I don't find this prospect altogether unimaginable:

The next 9/11-style terrorist attack may not be attempted by a keffiya-wearing Arab terrorist spouting quotations from the Koran, but by an IRA terrorist whose services were purchased by a left-wing European intellectual attending a Middle Eastern Studies caucus of some leftist academic group during an annual conference in Omaha or Chicago or San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the ever-perspicacious Belmont Club had this to say on February 25 about CIA Director George Tenet's recent congressional testimony, which described the threat arising from the collapse of much of the world into barbarism:

It was in many ways a rabble waiting for a leader. In the two generations since the end of the Second World War more than a billion people were abandoned to anarchies and tyrannies euphemistically called "developing nations". Most of them, little more than a stamp and a seat at the United Nations, have already ceased to function -- the 50 "stateless zones" of Tenet's speech. If left to the leadership of men like Osama Bin Laden, these steerless multitudes can snuff out the living nations, as growing entropy blots out a system. The logical response would be to seize control of the movement ourselves, to raise the disaffected masses against their own tyrants. It is a step President Bush has vowed to take but it is so audacious and regarded so cynically by the left that it would be a wonder if the world actually took the only path that can save it.

Finally, cranky old Spengler has this to say about seventy years ago, towards the end of The Hour of Decision:

But the greatest danger has not yet been even named. What if, one day, class war and race war joined forces to make an end of the white world? This lies in the nature of things, and neither of the two Revolutions will disdain the aid of the other simply because it despises its supporters. A common hate extinguishes mutual contempt. And what if some white adventurer - and there have been many such - whose wild soul cannot breathe in the hothouse of civilization and seeks to satiate its love of danger in fantastic colonial ventures, among pirates, in the Foreign Legion - should suddenly see this grand goal staring him in the face? It is through such natures that history springs her great surprises. The loathing of deep and strong men for our conditions and the hatred of profoundly disillusioned men might well grow into a revolt that meant to annihilate. This was not unknown in Caesar's time.

Sometimes I get this falling-elevator feeling. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-02-27: The Passion of the Christ: The Real Issue

I have found the last couple of months of John J. Reilly's writings a slog. There was a hell of a lot of warmongering about Iraq, and ignorant speculation about weapons of mass destruction. I slog through it because I remember it, and I was part of it. Public opinion has decisively turned against the Iraq War, but at the time, it was decisively for it. We should all remember that.

It is with immense relief that I can return to John's reflections on religion and culture.

The Passion of the Christ: The Real Issue

My initial account of the film is here. I am taking up the matter again because I finally figured out why the film is so disturbing.

As a preliminary matter, let me note that I take the point of the February 25 entry of the Easterblog that the account of the scourging of Jesus in The Passion goes far beyond Scripture. As the Easterblog entry remarks, the event may have happened like that, but the Gospel accounts have far more to say about the carrying of the cross to Golgotha and the actual Crucifixion. The odd thing is that I did not notice the additions.

Why have I always pictured these events as blindingly brutal? The short answer is the traditional Catholic devotion, The Stations of the Cross. This little ceremony treats the details of the passion story one by one, blow by blow. However, the Stations of the Cross begin with the condemnation of Jesus by Pilate. So why was I not in the least surprised by that horrible scourging sequence in the film? I have no explanation.

Something I do have an explanation for is why the film disturbs Christians who find it rings true as history (a class into which I fall, though I recognize that the history here is not everything Leopold von Ranke might wish). The level of suffering that Jesus experiences in this film makes it entirely plausible that He is suffering the punishment merited by the whole world. The problem is that actually seeing Him do so confronts us with Dostoevsky's Paradox.

This is the puzzle by which Utilitarianism stands or falls: if the whole world could be saved by murdering a single baby, would it be ethical to murder the baby? Jesus, of course, is not quite in the position of a baby: it's a point of doctrine that the Crucifixion was voluntary. Still, is it right to benefit from a sacrifice like this, even if the sacrifice is voluntary? To put it viscerally: do you really want a piece of this horror show?

This is far from being a new thought. Les Murray grappled with just this question in his novel, Fredy Neptune, which is about Everything Bad That Happened from 1914 to 1945. I have it reviewed here, but this is the relevant part:

Fredy is an ordinary Catholic. He even goes to confession once or twice in the novel; the descriptions are models of how it should be done. What worries him is not the existence, but the sanity of God. Fredy knows from his own experience that the only way to survive a beating is to pretend he is being hurt, since even a very cruel human being will eventually recoil from inflicting pain. God, however, does not. Whatever His purposes may be in allowing suffering in the world, they override every other consideration. Fredy's numbness is a way of dealing, not with his own suffering, but with the suffering of the victims.

Fredy's solution to the problem is to forgive the victims. Forgive the trapped Turkish troops being strafed day after day, forgive the Jews in the concentration camps, forgive his own mother in Dresden. Fredy also forgives God, who in Christian theology will never cease to suffer for our sins.

Forgiveness often implies a measure of superiority. When we say that to know all is to forgive all, we often mean that the forgiver manages to expand his perspective to include the more limited perspective of the forgiven. However, that need not be the case. The guilty can be said to forgive those who justly punish them; in that case, forgiveness is a matter of coming up to the forgiven's level. In dealing with God, the latter is more likely to apply.

Ambrose Bierce once defined birth as "the first and greatest of catastrophes." As was so often the case, his dark heart felt a fundamental issue. The fundamental question of theodicy is not, "Why does God allow evil?" but "Why did God create the world at all?" Ethicists have dealt with this question at length, of course, but it has special implications for Christian theology. In the doctrine of the Trinity, Christ the Second Person is the moment of the Godhead through Whom the world is created. This creation is eternal; in the Incarnation, we see it in time. In asking whether we can accept the Atonement, we are asking whether we accept our own existence.

You can say "no," you know. That's the scary part. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Salvage and Demolition Book Review

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

Salvage and Demolition
by Tim Powers
Subterranean Books, 2013
$30.00; 155 pages
ISBN 978-1-59606-515-4

Tim Powers has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade, and this novella is full of the reasons why. 

A good time travel book is hard to write, but I think Powers has nailed it. Again. Powers' most popular book, the Anubis Gates, is the best time-travel story ever written. If you take the premise of time travel seriously, then severe logical constraints are imposed on your storytelling. One way to avoid these constraints is to posit something like the Everett-Wheeler interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is the route Powers selected in Three Days to Never. The other route, the one selected here and in the Anubis Gates, is to embrace the implied determinism of time travel, everything you are going to do already happened and cannot be changed, and just deal with it. Powers does this in a way that follows those logical implications, and yet still produces a satisfying story. Somehow, he makes free will and determinism lie down together.

I think Powers may be even better in short stories and novellas than he is in novels. At the very least, I get a different vibe from his short stories than I do from his novels. I find Powers' short stories bittersweet and poignant, while his novels often find their way to a truly happy ending, although oftentimes though great suffering. Salvage and Demolition is a love story, but a love that can never live happily ever after.

I also have to give Powers recognition for a storyline that borrows elements of eldritch horror, while managing not to be horrific. The premise of Salvage and Demolition is reminiscent of that of one of my favorite videogames, Eternal Darkness. I have never read in an interview that Tim plays videogames, although it is certainly possible that he does. Nevertheless, Salvage and Demolition has elements far more light-hearted and whimsical than Eternal Darkness, or anything like it. I believe the key difference is that Tim believes in Providence, and most authors in the eldritch horror genre don't. 

H. P. Lovecraft's visions are so terrifying because everything he ever wrote was suffused with the idea that the monsters are not only real, they are the ultimate reality, and they will eventually destroy us. Tim Powers is far too Catholic to think anything of the sort, and you can tell. If you take Christianity seriously, then the end of history is already known. In the end, the monsters will be thrown down, and the mourners' tears will be wiped away. What happens in the meanwhile is the stuff from which stories are made.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2004-02-26: The Passion of the Christ

I've never seen Gibson's Passion of the Christ. I probably should, because it is said to be good by people whose judgement I trust, and also because I take my Christianity seriously. However, this review by John J. Reilly makes me think of this recent Twitter exchange:

If Gibson made the Passion today, thanks to George R. R. Martin, perhaps we could have full realism at last.

We are all creatures of our times, and it is good to be reminded that there are taboos all of us are loathe to violate. Even when we set out to violate taboos.

The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson

On Ash Wednesday, February 25, I attended two standing-room-only religious events. The first was a noon Mass, during which ashes were distributed. The homily was given by a priest who is neither stupid nor unspiritual. He commended the season of Lent as a time for healing the damage that the world has done to us, and that we have done to ourselves. The other event was an 8:00 PM showing of Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ,” which is about a man being voluntarily tortured to death during the event toward which Lent looks. Therapy in any conventional sense was beside the point.

I am not the first reviewer to note how much “The Passion” owes to a generation of increasingly graphic horror and action films. Indeed, now may be the first point in several centuries in which a popular presentation of the central events of Christianity could come close to depicting something like what the Biblical texts say. This allows the film to fly under the radar of the whole apparatus of historical criticism and psychological reinterpretation.

Only now do I understand why the Gospels devote so much attention to the passion narratives, and why they do so in a manner so graphic. If our sins are real, and if Jesus took them on Himself in the Crucifixion, then His suffering must have been real. An Atonement that is not bloody is not a credible Atonement; the sins for which it answers could be no great matter. The execution of Jesus was not the worst thing to happen in human history, in degree or in kind. However, in order to bear the burden of that history, it must be as bad as the worst.

In a way, this film for me is an instance of getting what I asked for. Some years ago, I wrote an article for “The New Oxford Review” in which I complained that liturgy and catechesis were being systematically stripped of all sense of mystery. A healthy spiritual life has a place for the uncanny, even the merely spooky. That sense “The Passion” satisfies, with a tact and subtlety of which ordinary supernatural thrillers are rarely capable these days. The devil is a major character in this film, who spreads despair and malice merely by being present. The film hints at a point I discussed recently, that the Romans and Jews lived in different worlds. Pilate was almost a modern man, who read memoranda and worried about how all this disturbance would look to the home office. Jesus and the rest of the Jews, both His enemies and His supporters, lived in a world of spiritual realities that were invisible to Pilate. Jesus' motives were incomprehensible to His judge, even when they were explained.

Having said all that, don't let me give the impression that “The Passion” is a supernatural shocker, or even particularly gory. Despite the appropriation of modern special effects and make-up art, the film is in many ways the opposite of a slasher flick. There is no gratuitous violence. All of it is focused, necessary, and personal. That last is an important point. The scourging of Jesus is less gruesome than many scenes in the recent “Lord of the Rings” movies, for instance, but Jesus is not a nameless Orcs, or even a noble but expendable Rider of Rohan. Despite an almost complete lack of backstory, any viewer will empasize with Jesus. There comes a point in “The Passion” when a stumble while carrying the cross occasions a greater wrench of distress in the audience than a mortar barrage in “Saving Private Ryan.” The depiction of brutality need not be excessive, because the film communicates that the ordeal really hurts.

Not all the mysteries about this film are supernatural. Certainly I have no idea why anyone would assert that the film is antisemitic. The Romans do all the torture and crucifying, and the members of the Sanhedrin do not appear diabolical. There is one point that struck me as odd, however. The Gospels explain that the priests conspired to kill Jesus because the priests feared the Romans might suppress the Temple along with a pretender to be king of the Jews. In “The Passion,” in contrast, Caiaphas is obviously improvising when he tells Pilate that Jesus is a political subversive. His motives are left more obscure than the text suggests.

One objection I share with some critics is that, if the film was going to use the languages of the actual event, one of those languages should have been Greek. It's reasonable that the Romans would use Latin among themselves, and that the Jews would use Aramaic with each other. Maybe Jesus even addressed a few sentences of Latin to Pilate, though that's unlikely. However, it's pretty clear that all the official communication between the Romans and the locals would have been in demotic Greek. The Gospels tell us that the famous placard placed above the head of Jesus on the Cross was trilingual, but that's not the case in this film, unless I missed it.

I would like to make one final point. There have been many effective, even heart-wrenching, dramatic representation of the passion of Christ; one thinks particularly of Bach. Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ” is the only representation of the first order that is not beautiful. The score is fine and the cinematography is good; the acting is unexceptionable. However, this is not a work of art in which the horror of the events it portrays is immediately sublimated into the beauty of the depiction. This film is Christianity without shielding.    

 Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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