The Long View 2002-10-02: Wellstone's Wake

It really is the conventional wisdom even now that lower turnout helps Republicans, but who now remembers that 2002 saw increased turnout in the midterms and a huge Republican victory?

This was an occasion where John praised President George W. Bush for at least having some ideas of how to govern, although he didn't seem to think much of these ideas, except that W. did seem to take national security seriously.

John was on record encouraging the Republicans to adopt some kind of universal health insurance as a party platform. Over time, I came to see that he had a point. John thought healthcare was a public good, not a public right, which makes a major difference. Good health isn't something owed to you by others, which is a right. Good health is good, and we are all better off if the health of our fellow citizens is better, but how you frame it makes a major difference.

John's point-of-view was that offering public healthcare as a "right" was a frequent trick of the despotic regimes of the world in the twentieth century to claim that they offered many "rights" to their subjects that Western democracies could not or did not. The fact that many of their people were in fact in poor health wasn't the point. After all, who could fault them for their poverty.

The point here is that political rights do not truly depend upon wealth, or at least they shouldn't. If you are going to have a trial, the right to not incriminate yourself or the right to confront your accuser can simply be part of the standard procedure. All of the pieces are already in place, you simply have to do it. Healthcare isn't like this. You need an incredible infrastructure of equipment and trained personnel to make it happen, along with a distribution network for the supplies needed. If the truck broke down, do you lose your rights?

The most obvious rejoinder to this argument would be that the rich have greater relative access to their political rights than the poor. This is correct, although one should keep in mind that access to rights in modern societies is also available to the clever and hard-working, and being rich has become very strongly correlated with those things in the modern world.

The affirmative response would be the cultures that have developed political rights in the modern sense also developed the traits that are most effective at producing economic growth. These cultures were not always the richest or the most powerful, it simply happens that the political rights developed in the same place that produced the greatest wealth, over a very long period of time. Compound interest tends to add up, if you have a culture that can avoid the economic crises that destroy savings.

Finally, while the Simpsons remain incredibly popular, the data we have is that the series was at its best in the 1990s, so John's dyspeptic comment has some empirical vindication.

Wellstone's Wake


To tell you the truth, I was not greatly offended by the pre-election memorial service for the late Senator Wellstone of Minnesota. That was the one that turned into a political rally at which Republican dignitaries were booed, including Wellstone's colleagues from the Senate. The family was actually being tactful when they asked that Vice President Dick Cheney not attend. Paul Wellstone had his merits, among which was a fierce-but-fair partisan temper. A wake that consisted of a rally of 20,000 Democratic activists would have been just what he wanted.

The problem was that it was not what the voters in Minnesota wanted. Had the memorial service been held three weeks before the election instead of just one, the odor of rancor would have dissipated, and the candidacy of senator-emeritus Walter Mondale would certainly have benefited from the boost that the event gave to the morale of the faithful. As it was, people voted on the basis of their exposure to real politics, rather than to the smooth marketing of a normal campaign. The irony, as more commentators than I have noted, is that the memorial rally not only won the election for the Republican, Norm Coleman, it also lost the Democrats control of the US Senate.


* * *

Does this really tell us anything about the state of the Democratic Party? Some people made merry at the Democrats' expense, pointing out that both of the emergency replacement candidates for Senate races in 2002 were old, very old, war horses. The short answer may be that, although Mondale lost, Frank Lautenberg won in New Jersey, beating the invincibly obscure Republican, Douglas Forrester. (As we say in New Jersey, Forrester is such a bad campaigner he could not even get indicted in this state.) Personally, I think that it is something of an asset to a party to have a supply of old geezers in the freezer, in case something goes wrong. Real morbidity is when you nominate the geezer in the first instance, as the Republicans did with Bob Dole in 1996.

The problem with the Democratic Party is that it is getting, well, wistful. We see this in the alternative universe to which so many Democrats have retreated, the NBC show The West Wing. In last night's episode, President Josiah Bartlet humiliated his stupid Republican opponent with the Southwestern accent, racking up huge gains in Congress amidst subplots about the difficulties of voter registration. Probably, when the episode was written, the producers expected that it would mark the beginning of a reconvergence of their alternative universe with the real world; hardly anyone expected the Republicans to do as well as they did last Tuesday. As it was, the show was an instance of instant nostalgia

Christian Slater put in his first appearance, by the way, as a naval officer assigned to the White House. He joins Lily Tomlin, who is now President Bartlet's lovable dragon-lady secretary. When Mr. Rogers becomes Secretary of State, we will know that the time has come for NBC to find a replacement.


* * *

A more serious example of the Democratic disconnect was also offered around election day, by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In a strange column entitled "American Idol," Friedman describes the huge, enthusiastic reception that Bill Clinton received on his recent visit to Berlin. Friedman argues that America and Americans are not unpopular in Europe these days. Europeans continue to admire American optimism, as represented by the former president, even as they patronize it. Their dissatisfaction is confined to the grumpy old Republicans who happen to run the United States today. The Republicans, Friedman argues, are practicing just the sort of Realpolitik that the Europeans so recently outgrew, and which they therefore loathe. He implies that the way for America to endear itself to Europe is to wear a Clintonian face.

You don't have to be a Clinton-hater to suspect that there was something a little perverse about presenting Bill Clinton as the model American abroad, just as election returns were showing that the candidates lost for whom he had campaigned heavily. (Peggy Noonan called the effect "The Clinton Thud.") There really is a stratum of the Democratic Party that is best understood as a section of "transnational society" ("tranzies," for short) who will not be happy until there is some authority they can appeal to above the heads of the American voter. Such an attitude cannot be good for any democratic party (note lower case).


* * *

And what of the Republicans? There has long been an assumption (which I sometimes shared) that Republicans do better when turnout is lower. That was not the case with the recent elections, however. Turnout last Tuesday was about 39%, up two points from the admittedly dismal 37% of 1998, the last midterm election. The higher turnout was largely the product of a few, highly contested races. The most important of these was the reelection campaign of the president's brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida. The Republicans won that race, as well as most of the other high-profile races around the country. This makes it hard to argue that the Republican gains were the result of public apathy.

There is no point in getting elected if you have no ideas about governing. The elder President Bush did not understand that, but his son George W. Bush does. One may like or dislike his agenda, but he does have one, and it is far from merely symbolic. The great merit of the current Administration is that it understands that the chief focus in this era must be national security. That said, though, the Administration also needs to be cured of the illusion that the whole of fiscal policy consists of tax relief, and that the whole of tax relief is lowering the capital-gains tax. A demand-side tax cut is in order. They should talk to Senator Corzine of New Jersey; I am sure he would be happy to talk to them.

The Republicans should also reconcile themselves to the fact that some form of universal health insurance is inevitable. It can be done well or badly. If it happens under a Democratic Administration, it will be a perpetual subsidy for the psychiatric industry and for Planned Parenthood. If the Republicans do it, it can be a manageable catastrophic-illness program that will remove much of the pressure on private insurers for higher premiums. The president has only to broach the matter to deprive the Democrats of 60% of their agenda.

Then there is the matter of election reform. Living as I do in a largely Democratic state, I am keenly aware that the Electoral College is a perverse incentive. George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 because, logically enough, he campaigned to win the electoral vote. This meant concentrating on lightly peopled states in the Midwest, while the Republican Party in states such as California and New Jersey were left to their own feeble devices. This neglect is hard to make up for during midterm elections. Even with the recent Republican successes, the campaigns that Republicans mounted in these voter-rich states were disheartening, to say the least.

I fully agree with the arguments against simply abolishing the Electoral College; imagine a very close race, and a national recount like the one in Florida in 2000. The solution, surely, is to tie the electoral votes to individual Congressional districts, and not to states. This preserves the many advantages of a winner-take-all system, while at the same time ensuring that the winner will have at least a plurality of the popular vote. We should fix this as soon as we can.


* * *

There is one venerable institution that deserves to be retired before it disgraces itself further. Did you see The Simpsons last Sunday? That was their eagerly awaited Halloween show, delayed after the holiday itself because the FOX network carried the World Series the Sunday before. It was not worth the wait. The writers repeated old jokes and scenarios, particularly in the middle story, in which do-gooder Lisa once again disarms Springfield just before an armed threat appears. Then there was the last story, a take-off on H.G. Wells's Island of Dr. Moreau. That had nothing to do with Halloween. In fact, none of the stories did; only the wrap-around story even featured a ghost. This is inexcusable, since several very good supernatural thrillers have appeared in the last year or two. The show is choking on film-school sensibility.

Surely the time has come for a final TV movie?

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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Shortcut Book Review

Alexander cuts the Gordian KnotShortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell our Greatest Ideas
by John Pollack
Gotham Books, 2014
$27.00; 256 pages
ISBN 978-1-592-40849-8

I received this book for free as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

This was a fun little book. Pollack is a skilled writer, and since he chose to focus on the use of analogy in persuasion, as a political speechwriter, he also knows the field well.

I could quibble with some of the examples, or the conclusions Pollack reaches from them, but that isn't really as interesting as analogy itself.

Pollack is right, analogy is widely used by almost everyone all the time, not least for decision-making. Stated more simply, analogy is what allows us to learn from experience. Without analogy, you wouldn't be able to apply past experience in novel situations.

Analogy also has a central place in the intellectual life of the West. Aristotle mentioned analogy in passing, but it was really his scholastic followers who developed the concept more fully. Without analogy, Western philosophy would have developed in a very different way.

To analogize is to think, to compare, to weigh, and to judge. Thus, to analogize well is to think well, and to analogize poorly is to think poorly. Understanding analogy is an important intellectual discipline, and this short little book points you to lots of interesting material to help you understand it better.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2002-10-30: Surrender and Taxes

With the trial in Boston of Chechens acting Checheny, this is a good time to review the fact that Chechens have pretty much always been a pain in the ass to everyone who came in contact with them, and the age of air travel is exporting this fun to everyone. The great Russian novelists, like Tolstoy, wrote admiring/admonitory novels about the Chechens. Which also reminds me of Scott Adams' recent blog post against reading fiction. I'm more sympathetic to his argument than I would have thought, but I suspect that a diet of pure non-fiction wouldn't help you accurately understand the Chechens in the way that Tolstoy can.

In the years after 9/11, the Russians suffered immensely from their proximity to the Chechens. They might have deserved it, but if you think of the Chechens like the Apaches or the Comanche in nineteenth-century America, minus smallpox, you might have a better idea of what is going on.

Speaking of crazy, we still suffer from the annoyance of the North Korean zombie state twelve years later, mostly due to their possession of nuclear weapons. It seems plausible to me that something could eventually tip North Korea into union with South Korea, but the two countries aren't quite like East and West Germany. Only the power of the Soviet Union kept the two Germanies apart. China, the relevant regional power in Asia, actually seems to help keep the North Koreans reined in. They really are crazy.

Finally, we turn to the tax code. President Obama recently suffered a defeat at the hands of his own party over the 529 college savings account plans that illustrates how obscure our tax code has become. The last time a major tax reform was passed, it actually caused a minor recession, in part because of the partisan tendencies of the then Republican Congress to favor tax cuts over pruning deductions. However, the President's recent difficulty highlights the powerful pull tax deductions exert in American politics.

In principle, you should be able to craft a tax code change that is revenue neutral, but makes compliance simpler. This ought to be better, but good luck actually implementing it. Another probably necessary reform that will never happen is spreading the tax base more widely among American citizens. The strange thing is that while our tax code is one of the most progressive in the world [defined as taxing the rich the most], our welfare programs seem to be less progressive [defined as making poor people better off]. This isn't actually a paradox once you realize that tax revenues [not rates] would be higher if poorer people paid more taxes. John often made this point, but I didn't understand how it worked until recently. The populist temptation to soak the rich isn't what made America a paradise in the middle of the twentieth century.

It was the noblesse oblige of the elites that made it possible. That took a degree of solidarity we no longer possess.

Surrender & Taxes


Here is the Russians' Chechen problem: they already tried surrender, and it didn't work. They actually withdrew from Chechnia for a while in the 1990s, after attempts to suppress the separatist movement failed. The Russians probably would have reconciled themselves to an independent Chechnia, or at least might have negotiated a new status for the country within the Russian Federation. As it happened, however, they were not given the chance. A working independent government failed to form in Chechnia. The place was taken over by bandits. The bandits were increasingly in league with the Islamicist network, and began to infiltrate the surrounding republics. There really was no alternative to another invasion, though it should have been carried out with less indifference to civilian casualties.

Had there been no invasion, would something like last week's hostage-taking in Moscow have been avoided? Probably not: the Islamicists have ambitions for the other predominantly Muslim areas of the Russian Federation. Certainly Chechen terrorism did not stop when Chechnia was de facto independent. The pacification of Chechnia is an appalling undertaking on all sides, but negotiation is not an option.


* * *

The same is true of the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. The political class in the United States has yet to grasp that the 1994 agreement negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter was one of the great catastrophes of modern times. Even those who understand that something serious has happened are still determined to do nothing about.

Consider, for instance, Nicholas D. Kristof. Although a columnist for the New York Times, he has shown that he is not necessarily inaccessible to the light. Nonetheless, in column entitled "The Greatest Threat" (Oct. 29, 2002), he was capable of writing this:


"Donald Gregg, a former ambassador to Seoul who is president of the Korea Society, says imposing sanction on Korea 'would be crazy.' Likewise, a military strike is not feasible, given that it would probably trigger a new Korean war.

"On the other hand, how can we accept a North Korea with a large nuclear arsenal? How can we continue to ship fuel to the North as if nothing had happened?

"That leaves only one alternative, holding our nose and negotiating a deal with North Korea (without ever calling it negotiating, and possibly using proxies like China). The North would give up its nukes nd missiles, all sides would agree to end the hostilities of the Korean War (there never was a peace treaty), and Western countries would normalize relations with the North."

One does not quite know what to say to this. The one thing we know about the North Koreans is that, when you make a deal with them, they accept payment and they don't make delivery. The dismissal of sanctions is particularly bizarre. Unlike Iraq, for instance, North Korea is so isolated that it is one of the few places in the world where sanctions would be very effective. This is particularly the case because, by most accounts, "North Korea" actually collapsed a few years ago. All that's left is a post-apocalyptic government that survives on the proceeds of foreign extortion.

The "one alternative" is to drive that regime to implosion. The problem is that, thanks to Jimmy Carter, that inevitable course is now much more perilous.


* * *

Let us turn for a moment to a more pleasant subject: taxes. I see that the Treasury is considering yet another general overhaul of the federal income tax. I myself have rather fond memories of the last big reform bill. What was it, the "Thorough and Efficient Reform Act of 1986"? Maybe it was the "Tax Efficiency and Reform Act of 1986." Anyway, TEFRA kept me and several other editors at West Publishing Company innocently engaged for many weeks. West had the contract to edit the United States Code (and the Internal Revenue Service Code, which is actually distinct), so we cut up the 1,500-page bill into little strips and pasted them onto cards. Then we penciled in changes to make the bill's text conform to the style of the IRS Code.

As you might suppose, this could be tedious. Indeed, some of us went mad, and had to be put down. Nonetheless, the work was done, and I at least remain convinced that we made the world a slightly better place.

The TEFRA principle was simple enough. The tax code had evolved in such a way that the rates that individuals and businesses actually paid were much lower than the nominal rates. People avoided paying the nominal rates by investing or spending their money in a way that took advantage of deductions. Some deductions were well intentioned. Some were pure pork. In any case, they had grown like a coral reef, so that it was impossible to tell what effect any given change to the tax laws would have on revenues. More important, everybody was spending more and more time worrying about the tax implications of their activities, and less and less about whether those activities made economic sense. The obvious solution was to lower the nominal rates and remove the deductions, so as to keep revenues at the same level.

That almost happened. The tax rates were lowered and their number diminished. Tax forms became simpler, briefly, because the number of deductions decreased, too. The big failing of TEFRA was that Congress was keener to lower rates than to end deductions, so the result was not revenue neutral. In consequence, Congress created the Alternative Minimum Tax, one of the great practical jokes of modern accounting. It takes back some of the deductions that TEFRA kept. The Alternative Minimum Tax was originally supposed to affect only high-income tax payers with large deductions. However, the increasing incomes of taxpayers since 1986, and the addition of a new coral reef of deductions, mean that more and more people now have to pay the Alternative Minium. This, no doubt, is part of the reason the Treasury believes a total overhaul is in order.

I myself have no particular preference for what a new tax code should look like. I do, however, have one principle to guide reform. Like a machine with no moving parts, this is an ideal that the real world can only approach. Nonetheless, it is the key to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The principle is this:


Never do anything for tax purposes.

There, now you know. Go teach all nations.

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The Long View: Theonomy, Globalism, and Babylon

A brief note by John on Thomas Friedman's imperial policy ambitions, and Antipas Ministries, which still has a website sixteen years later.

Theonomy, Globalism, and Babylon

This note was originally posted to the Talk 2000 Forum, and appeared in the April 1999 issue of Let's Talk 2000.

Those of you who get the Sunday New York Times may have noted the somewhat startling cover art on the magazine of March 28, a picture of a clenched fist with an American flag painted on it . The story it illustrates may mark a significant turning point in liberal thinking about foreign policy issues, and maybe in American politics generally. Its argument might even rate as "millennial" in its own right. I mention it here, though, because of the way it dovetails with some premillennial web material I have come across that treats of questions of world order.

The piece in question was written by Times Columnist Thomas L. Friedman. The title is "What the World Needs Now: For globalism to work, America can't be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is." Friedman makes much the same argument about America's political elites and globalization that I (and others) have made about politically active millenarian Christians and Jews: they really don't have a clue in terms of a general theory of statecraft. The elites, say Friedman, have a variety of ideas about domestic economics, trade issues and military posture, but no one has succeeded in constructing a model for how these things can work together. This is the case despite the fact that America benefits most from globalization, and is simultaneously the prime target for "blowback" from the process. (Readers may be reminded of Salman Rushdie's recent remark that "international" is becoming a euphemism for "American.")

Friedman suggests a synthesis uniting a hegemonic strategic policy with a generous welfare state and a regime of largely unfettered free trade. Nice work, if you can get it. Though he does not mention it, his prescription is much like the mix of the late New Deal. In fact, Friedman's argument is original mostly in that it issues from the liberal part of the spectrum. Culturally conservative internationalists, notably those at the Weekly Standard, have been groping toward some such synthesis since the Bush Administration. (Even I took a poke at it: see the section of Spengler's Future dealing with 1992 -- 2022 at The belief in a need for a Grand Hegemonic Doctrine could easily become a consensus, as containment theory did after the Second World War.

Meanwhile, unremarked by the Times editorial page, there are some new shoots in the garden of eschatology. I have come across a sophisticated website [] maintained by the Antipas Ministries and the Institute for the Study of Religion in Politics. The site includes a readable online book, "The Antipas Papers," by one Steven Ray Shearer, which explains the doctrine of these people. The material is significant because (1) it makes much the same assessment of geopolitics as does Thomas Friedman and (2) it also makes some shifts of emphasis in the familiar premillennial endtime scenario to accommodate the assessment.

The Antipas Ministries is vigorously evangelical, but their eschatology is a minority position. That is, while they are premillennial, they also hold that the church will have to go through the Tribulation. Also, though based in California and apparently staffed in part by former US Army intelligence officers, they place the locus of evil in the final days in the US rather than in the European Union.

Since the premillennial revival began in the US in the 1830s, it has always been something of an anomaly that its projections for world history required an increasingly muted role for America as the endtimes approached. For 150 years, the general expectation has been that Israel would be reestablished and that Europe would be united by the Antichrist, who would make a false peace with Israel. In this scenario, the Roman Church or Europe as a whole is the Scarlet Woman, destined for destruction, while the US is either a bystander or one Antichrist's deluded allies. According to Antipas Ministries, in contrast, America is Babylon, which in the future will be ruled by an Antichrist of wholly Gentile origins. The identification of the US with Babylon is made partly through a conventional critique of economic globalization. "The Antipas Papers" is the first premillennial document I have encountered that quotes extensively from William Greider and Alexander Cockburn.

A remarkable feature of this material is its root and branch rejection of every link between the church and politics. There are predictably harsh remarks about such Theonomy (or Dominion Theology) advocates as Gary North and Rousas Rushdoony, who hope to establish a theocracy in the United States. However, the condemnation also extends to the Christian Coalition and such mainstream figures as Ralph Reed, as well to attempts to coordinate the public policy agendas of Catholics and evangelicals. Real evangelicals, according to Antipas Ministries, don't have public policy agendas. This world is wholly under the dominion of Satan. It is not just futile to attempt to save it, but actually dangerous.

Indeed, the Theonomists and the Christian Coalition are part of the forces of Antichrist in this endtime scenario. The program to create a culturally conservative theocracy will succeed, but its leader will be Antichrist. Antipas even goes so far as to quote Hitler's calls for a return to traditional morality. The argument is not that traditional morality is fascist, of course, but to warn that a politicized moral platform can be trap for an antichristian agenda.

There is a great deal of material on this site, and I have not been over all of it. However, it does not seem to have any nasty features. Though Antipas Ministries anticipates that real evangelicals will be thrown out of their churches during the Tribulation, I saw no survivalist language. The site suggests that believers prepare for the persecution by forming house churches now, and otherwise keeping a low profile.

It is hard to see how there can be much of a future for a style of eschatology that makes ecclesiastical anarchy a virtue, but then evangelicalism has always managed to live with this feature. It is also hard to imagine anyone but the Antichrist himself being much annoyed by the sort of mild, pietist "inner migration" that Antipas Ministries seems to represent. Should the hopes of people like Thomas Friedman be realized, this species of premillennialism could grow in counterpoint to the successes of the Grand Hegemonic Doctrine.


Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-10-21: Culture War and Foreign Policy

The two essays John linked together in his left sidebar for this post are Ecumenical Jihad and Theonomy, Globalism, and Babylon. One of the things John is trying to communicate here is that Christianity is growing rapidly in the Global South, at a pace that still seems to be accelerating. The consequence of this is the historical trajectory of Christianity in the West may be dwindling in importance. What the recent kerfluffle over the Extraordinary Synod on the Family and the breakup of the Anglican Communion have in common is an increasing disconnect between more traditionally minded Christians in Africa and Asia, and the less orthodox believers in the Americas and Europe.

How this links into foreign policy was both sides in the Cold War sought to recruit allies from the Third World to bolster their international reputation and fight in proxy wars. Insofar as the Soviets could tar the West with the Original Sins of slavery and colonialism, the Soviets had a clear advantage. Thus, John claims that desegregation and civil rights in America set the stage for the Helsinki Accords, which the Soviets considered to be a victory at the time, but later were seen as a key factor that weakened the Soviet Union and its satellites from within.

The twist is that the political movements that allowed the United States to claim the mantle of justice in the mid-twentieth century now seem increasingly bizarre to an international audience, let alone to their domestic political opponents. Thus we have an odd collusion of interests both at home and abroad that increasingly see the continuing dominance of America as something at odds with both political order and domestic harmony. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, this shades off into outright identification of the United States with the Whore of Babylon. So far, this remains a minority opinion.

Culture War and Foreign Policy

[I wrote this essay in April 2000. Even I thought it was a little speculative, and it seemed to communicate nothing to the opinion journals to which I sent it, so I let the matter rest. However, an interesting exchange that has begun on FrontPageMag suggests that we may be almost ready to confront this issue. The essay appears here without updating.]

* * *

There are several reasons why the United States began to move during the 1950s to finish the work of Reconstruction. One was the growth of a substantial black middle class that saw no reason why it should continue to put up with apartheid. Another was that the mass media and easy travel make it harder for white people to ignore how other people lived. Not the smallest consideration behind Establishment acceptance of the movement to make civil rights at last universal, however, was the handicap imposed by segregation in the prosecution of the Cold War.

The world has never been predominantly white, of course, but the only governments that mattered in the early modern era had been those of a small number of European states. Even with the end of the Second World War and the beginning of decolonization, the US remained chiefly concerned with how Europeans on both sides of the Iron Curtain acted. Still, in order for the US to present itself as a model for the future to both Eastern Europe and the developing world, it was necessary for Americans to be able to argue that their own society was not merely successful, but also fundamentally just.

The extent to which the US has ever achieved justice or convinced the rest of the world of its own essential goodness is open to debate. Nonetheless, simply putting such questions on the domestic agenda in the 1950s made it possible to raise them as international human rights issues in the 1970s. Though often dismissed at the time as irrelevant to serious statecraft, the "basket of rights" in the Helsinki Accords contributed signally to the successful conclusion of the Cold War. A predicate for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the decision by the Eisenhower Administration to use federal troops to desegregate the schools in Little Rock in 1954.

Today the US faces a quite different international environment, but one in which the "soft power" of moral credibility is even more important. The US is often characterized nowadays as a "hegemon," though perhaps more in the better American magazines than in the wider world. In any case, to the extent that this characterization is true, it is true by default. The only military capable of global force projection may be American, for instance, but that is less a measure of the power of the US military than an indicator of the sense of strategic security that prevails over most of the globe. (To use a favorite expression of one security analyst of my acquaintance, having the most powerful military in the world in AD 2000 "is like being the smart kid in the dumb room.") The US continues to have the largest national economy, but the composite economy of the European Union is larger. Even the "American culture" that is now found so universally becomes more and more syncretic as it spreads, as phenomena like "world music" attest.

The US has the position it does in the world today because it is tolerated. For this situation to continue, one precondition is that the rest of the world must remain convinced that American society is not repulsive or evil. The fact is that the US is not doing a particularly good job of preventing just such a negative image of the US from crystallizing.

There is no need to be excessively worried by such indicators as the front-page story in The New York Times of April 9, "Europe's Dim View of U.S. Evolving into Frank Hostility." If you read the article, you will see that "Europe" means mostly "France," and I will leave it to P.J. O'Rourke to comment on what the French think. (In any case, the fact there was space for such an item on the Times front page of a Sunday is evidence enough that the Pax Americana is not altogether chimerical.) There may be greater cause for concern in the anecdotal evidence for the coalescence of a version of the "Ecumenical Jihad."

This term was coined by Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College. In a book of that name which he published in 1996, Kreeft proposed a universal alliance of all persons who continue to believe in natural law. While not a call for a shooting war, the book alleged that the chief opponents of natural law are the American elites, who seek to spread their own perverse system internationally. In this view of the post-Cold War world, the forces of historical darkness are largely coincident with Fukuyama's victorious "liberal democracy." The notion that America is what is wrong with the world is scarcely new, on either the Left or the Right. (Kreeft himself is an orthodox Catholic.) What is different now is that the kind of wrongness of which America is suspected is acquiring an ever more cosmic character.

The most conspicuous example of this, perhaps, is the Green-politics opposition to genetically engineered food. The US has had problems with Europeans regarding food exports for over a century. Those disputes were about manageable, empirical things, like price. The new objection seems to be that America is exporting metaphysical poison, food in which "life itself" has somehow been tampered with. The fact that this poison has no observable bad effects just makes it all the more insidious.

Less well-known, outside of the relevant subcultures, is that the United States is becoming the evil empire of popular apocalyptic. This role is quite different from the part America has played in endtime scenarios since the middle of the nineteenth century, and even as recently as the burst of apocalyptic thinking that accompanied the Gulf War. Judging by some Internet sources based both in the US and in Eastern Europe (not necessarily representative of anything but themselves, of course), America has now become Babylon the Great, the future seat of Antichrist's empire. It used to be that, when the Iranians called the US "the Great Satan," editorialists could safely make light of that sort of invective. Relations with Iran itself may be improving, but the early Islamic Republic's view of the US is arguably gaining a wider audience.

How did this happen? Envy has a lot to do with it, of course. So does the sincere belief (and this is the chief explanation for the attitude of the French) that you can't run an international system without a balance of power. One severe irritant is the tendency of the US Congress to act like the "Parliament of Man" in the service of domestic politics. This is pretty much how Congress acted when it passed the Helms-Burton Amendment, which single-handedly abrogated international law regarding compensation for the expropriation of property. Considerations like this, however, explain antipathy toward America only on the level of strategic policy. Popular anti-Americanism is less likely to spring from specific acts of the American government than from the long-term effects of the image America projects abroad. To the extent the image is negative, it is often not accidental. There is no lack of Americans with the power to make a difference who just do not care how their country appears internationally. There is also no lack of Americans who use their country's position to spread their own fixed ideas. Another way to put it is that America has, to some extent, succeeded in exporting its own culture war.

The problem America has with maintaining moral credibility is not simply the fault of mischievous liberal elites. There are features of popular conservative politics that can be quite as disconcerting as anything that comes out of the universities. For instance, though there is a good argument to be made for the permissibility of capital punishment, the enthusiasm with which notorious criminals are executed in some states is, frankly, an international embarrassment. No ethicist has ever, to my knowledge, argued that there can be situations where the death penalty would be morally mandatory. Capital punishment is the paradigm case of the sort of question about which Americans should consider costless reforms in their own society, made in part with a view to enhancing their moral credibility abroad.

Other examples can easily be adduced of conservative enthusiasms that make America appear to be an unattractive hegemon. On the whole, however, it is probably the case that it is the currently ascendant cultural Left that does the most to make the US look like an occupation force of Martians.

Abortion law in the US is not actually much more permissive than in most of the rest of the developed world. Still, the American constitutional ideology of "personal autonomy" in which the abortion license is embedded is actually quite parochial. Even people who support abortion for demographic reasons are nervous about the ideology's larger implications for questions like euthanasia, human cloning and, more speculatively, recreational drug use. Nonetheless, this ideology is the face of America in most international forums that deal with family life. Similarly, American elites seem determined to promote the interpretation of homosexuality as a universal civil rights issue. This approach is distinctly non-obvious for a phenomenon that clearly has medical, psychological, and moral dimensions, particularly one that seems to be chiefly a feature of the modern Anglo-German culture areas.

Part of the reason we do not usually perceive the American cultural Left as a strategic liability is that so much of international civil society is made in its image. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, international civil society is not coincident with "the Davos people." Most members of this "society" cannot afford to vacation in Switzerland. Rather, they tend to be the folks who belong to the NGOs that have spread through every developed nation, and even to some of the underdeveloped ones for which they so often claim to speak. A large fraction of international civil society, in fact, are members of the really radical Left who have lost out in the politics of their own countries, but who hope to recoup their position by appealing from national governments to international forums.

Until the end of the Cold War, appealing to the UN or other international bodies was usually a bootless tactic, since the major international institutions had little freedom of movement during the superpower standoff. Arguably, international institutions still don't have that much real power, even now that the standoff is over. In recent years, however, there has been a concerted effort to enhance their independence, an effort motivated in part by fear of American hegemony. Thus, we have a situation where institutions that are starting to think of themselves as quasi-governmental bodies are interacting with a new class that thinks of itself as "the people of the world."

No good will come of these mutually reinforcing delusions. Even now, they support a crust of activists and bureaucrats that tends to obscure the real world from responsible statesmen. Paradoxically, in fact, it will often be necessary for the US to oppose what purports to be "world opinion" in order to avoid appearing alien and tyrannical to most of the world's people. These days, the spokesmen for "the world" are usually the real aliens.

The security of the United States is a function of the state of the world. An international system which is only lightly militarized and where goods and people can move freely is the safest imaginable for the US. It is also the cheapest to maintain: all we would normally be called on to do is to act as an arbitrator. For such a system to work, however, it is necessary for the arbitrator to be trusted, and to be trustworthy. One prerequisite is some minimum of military and economic heft. Another, however, is that the arbitrator cannot be the proponent of aggressive ideologies that cut across the human grain. Were that to occur, the rest of the world would surely unite in self-defense, and security could not then be purchased at any price.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: If Jesus Had Never Been Born

Another early bit of alternative history from John, written nineteen years ago. This one seems appropriate for Lent, when the Aliens and Hitler Channel invariably runs a documentary on how aliens wrote the Bible, or some such nonsense.

This is another one of my favorite pieces by John, where he uses bits of pieces of actual history to illustrate what an alternate world without Christianity might look like.






If Jesus Had Never Been Born.....

Parallel universes may be becoming fashionable. Robert Harris's 1992 novel, "Fatherland," set in Europe after a Nazi victory in World War II, was made into a well-received cable television movie last year. On March 22,1996, the FOX network premiered a new series, "Sliders," in which a school science project permits the protagonists to move between worlds like our own, but with different histories. My own interest in all this is that I am a regular on an Internet Newsgroup called "alt.history.what-if." If you are one of those sensible people whose eyes now glaze over at the mention of the Internet, rest assured that your are not in for more cyber-hype here. The "what-if" group is just a forum for people to exchange speculation on what the world would be like if the Carthagenians had won the Punic Wars, or if the Spanish Armada had landed in England, or if the South had won the Civil War (there is always lots of discussion of the last one). In any event, many of these discussions allude to the role of religion in Western history, mostly in a disparaging fashion. I wrote this submission for Christmas, 1994, to make the other regulars think through the implications of this attitude. The piece caused enough of a commotion that it seemed like a good idea to take it out of cyberspace and put it into the light common day.


* * *

There are two preliminary matters I must dispose of before I can address this question in earnest. The first is the school of thought which holds that in fact there never was any such person as Jesus. One of the more elaborate versions of this theory, I gather, is that Jesus was a fictional creation of Josephus, the historian most famous for his eyewitness account of the of the losing side of the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 70 A.D. The short answer to this idea is that Jesus is about as well attested in ancient history as anyone gets. The long answer is that the Classical world did not have much realistic prose fiction. The stories about the mythic figures often compared to Jesus, such as Bacchus and Osiris and Mithras, all happened "once upon a time," outside secular history. The closest approach to an ancient historical novel I can think of, the Aeneid, is a poem about a royal exile who lived in the misty past. The Gospels, on the other hand, are rather flat prose accounts about the life of a carpenter who was born in the reign of Augustus Caesar and executed about 30 years later by a Roman official named Pontius Pilate. When people in the Classical world made stuff up, they did not make up stuff like this.

The other impediment to understanding the results of Jesus' life is the theory which arose in the late nineteenth century that Jesus is not responsible for Christianity. The idea was that the Gospels were "very late and very Greek," that is, written at least sixty years after the events they purport to describe by people of Greek culture who did not understand the Jewish Jesus and his environment. This approach to the New Testament seems to be ineradicable from seminaries, though in fact scholars in the classical languages no longer take it seriously. (Neither has it held up very well to archeology, but that's another story.) The Oxford scholar in Classics, Robin Lane Fox, author of "Pagans and Christians" and "The Unauthorized Version," is at best agnostic about Christianity, but he has no patience with the notion that Jesus was just a typical Palestinian hill-preacher who paid a rather severe penalty for preaching without a permit. As Paul Johnson remarked in his "History of Christianity," a Jesus who did not say and do extraordinary things does not explain Christianity. If you want a real lip-smacking anti-Christian diatribe, you should read "Jesus the Magician" by the Columbia University classicist, Morton Smith. He argues that of course Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and to be a god and that his immediate followers believed within days of his execution that he had literally risen from the dead. Thus, Dr. Smith triumphantly concludes, all these people were crackers. Well, maybe they were. But if so, it was their lunacy that gave all later history a unique twist, one that would never have happened without Jesus and his idiosyncratic ways.

So let us imagine an alternative Christmas night about 2000 years ago. Rumors of the end of the age, of a miracle child, spread among shepherds of Judea. They gather on a cold, clear night to watch the stars, expectant of wonders. One by one, they all fall asleep, and the night passes without incident. A few weeks later, some Persian astrologers pass through the area and pay a courtesy call on King Herod. They assure him, inaccurately, that his reign will be long and glorious. They continue on to Egypt, to the Library of Alexandria, where they host several well-attended colloquia on Indian mathematics. History continues undeflected.

For most of the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity was an underground religion. It was sufficiently obscure that you have to hunt through Classical sources even to find criticisms of it. Its absence during this period would have made a difference, I suspect, chiefly to Judaism. The process of canonical and doctrinal synthesis that occurred in Jewish culture after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. was driven, at least to some degree, by the desire to sort Judaism out from Christianity. While the Torah would probably have been preserved much as we know it today, it is not at all clear that anything like the Talmud would have been compiled. Rather than rabbinical Judaism, the result would have been a Judaism of local "temples" and syncretizing theology, not unlike Zoroastrianism. This sort of thing was always threatening to happen in pre- Talmudic Judaism, as the still-surviving Samaritans illustrate. Without the Temple and with no aggressive ideological threat from a proselytizing competitor, Judaism could well have faded into the general background of Middle Eastern religion.

In the later stages of Roman imperial history, the implications of the absence of Christianity become more dramatic. The late Classical world was moving toward monotheism as surely as physics today is moving toward a united field theory (many people think that both ideas are delusional). Science and systematic philosophy were not forgotten, but they had ceased to be persuasive to the educated. People at all levels of society were ready for revelation, for the coincidence of this world and the next. Oswald Spengler calls this cultural mode "the Second Religiousness." It is a lifeless but fervent return to the naive religiousness that colors the early life of a civilized culture. Arnold Toynbee says that the victory of a "mystery religion" is a necessary feature of the late history of every civilization. The problem with late Roman history has always been that Christianity should not have been the victor in this contest. It should not even have been a contestant. "Pagans and Christians," cited above, is in fact an attempt to show that the Christianization of the Roman Empire was an accident resulting from the victory of Constantine in the civil wars of the early fourth century.

The victor should have been something called "astral piety." The theoretical basis of this is the Neoplatonism that became fashionable in the third century. Plato had held that there was an intelligible world, a world of ideas, behind the world of experience. This world could be approached, even to the One Absolute Idea which gave meaning to the whole, by philosophical reflection. The Neoplatonists in the decadent final centuries of Plato's civilization were interested in the steps, the levels of being that stood between the everyday world and Plato's One. These levels were associated with the Classical gods, with the stars of astrology, with the crystal sphere within crystal sphere described by Ptolemy's astronomy and supported by Aristotle's physics. The Neoplatonists were also interested in direct, ecstatic experience of the One. Thus this somewhat academic system came into contact with popular Gnosticism. Gnosticism, the belief that ultimate reality is accessible to an elite holding secret knowledge, appeared about the same time as Christianity and was the chief danger to Christian orthodoxy in the murky religious underground of the first and second centuries. It practice, it was a faith of magicians and wonder-workers and private revelations, a sort of shamanism for city-folk. It gave life to the old gods again. This was the vital force that made the astral piety of Diocletian a mass phenomenon. Even after Constantine ended the persecution of Christianity, it made a vigorous reappearance as the state cult supported by the emperor Julian the Apostate. To this day, it has been the chief constituent of the "hermetic underground" which peeps into the light of day from time to time in Western history. A history without Christianity is one in which this underground becomes the surface.

The Roman Empire itself, one suspects, would have trundled to its doom in much the way it did no matter which mystery religion had government support. (One can imagine the man who would have been Saint Augustine, for instance, playing very much the same role for the state's Neoplatonic Church as he did for the Church of Christ. He was always temperamentally better suited to Manichaeanism than he was to Christianity.) The end of Roman history was the beginning of Byzantine history. This development was occasioned partly by the division of the empire into eastern and western halves for administrative convenience, but it also reflected real differences between the spirit of the weary and depopulated West, in contrast to that of the vibrant and creative East.

Surprisingly, it is easy to imagine a Byzantine Empire without Christianity. The divisions we make in late antique history between East and West are really somewhat artificial. Byzantium and the Sassanid Persian Empire were in many ways part of the same culture. This has long been recognized in their politics. Byzantium adopted Persian court ceremonial, eastern liturgical practices, even much of their eastern enemy's military technique. Both were theocracies supported by feudal magnates. Both professed intricate versions of monotheism. The only real difference was that the western half of this culture area had been ruled by the alien Roman Empire for several centuries. Without Christianity, much of the friction between Byzantium and Persia would have been eased. Intermarriage between important families in each empire would have been greatly facilitated, for instance. They might, conceivably, have evolved toward the same cult. Indeed, without the centralizing effect of continuous warfare, one can imagine the both of them disarticulating into a single "family of nations" like Europe or (for most of its history) India.

The really interesting question is what would have happened to Islam. In medieval Europe, Islam was considered simply a Christian heresy, and in fact Islam did absorb a quite remarkable amount of slightly-garbled christology, just as it did much of Judaism. Spengler suggests that the best way to look on Islam is as a Reformation, as a movement to simplify and reinvigorate the common religious life of the Middle East. My own reading of the Koran suggests that "Islam," of a sort, would have been possible even if Christianity were non-existent and Judaism were fading into a folk religion. The energizing principle found in the Koran is that every people has its hour, its book and its prophet. In the seventh century, Mohammed said that the hour of the Arab people had come. Their hour would have come, one suspects, even if the religion he was simplifying had nothing to say about the Persons of the Hypostatic Union, but was quite eloquent about the energies of the Neoplatonic Archons. The big difference would have been in the international environment. In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, Byzantium and Persia had gone through the equivalent of a world war. Persia had finally disintegrated, but the whole region was exhausted. More important, the provinces of the Byzantine Empire bordering Arabia hated Byzantium, because the central government kept imposing ever finer definitions of Christian doctrine to which all local Churches had to submit. When the Muslims came, much of the Middle East considered them to be liberators.

It is probably true that Christianity is more likely than most religions to generate the "odium theologicum." Christian theology is historical; it is simply drawing the implications from history. Neoplatonic theology, on the other hand, is more like mathematics; facts are irrelevant. On the whole, history starts more fistfights than arguments about pure abstractions. In the politically more pluralistic Middle East which would have obtained without Christianity, the Muslims might have had to deal only with small kingdoms, but the inhabitants of these places would not have been so disaffected by the doctrinal preoccupations of their rulers. The Muslim advance would been slower, its victories more ambiguous. It is unlikely that it would have reached Spain and Sicily by the eighth century, if at all. The unchristian West would have been left to develop in peace.

Every culture in its youth is intensely religious. The organizational proclivities of the West would have ensured that something like the hierarchical church we know from history, with its penchants for rarified definitions of doctrine and precocious bureaucratization, would probably have happened no matter what the content of the religion of the Springtime had been. Again surprisingly, we do not have to imagine what a Neoplatonic Church would have looked like, since one existed in the twelfth and thirteenth century. The Albigensian Church, centered in the Provencal region of France, was just such a church. It was not even Christian in any serious sense, since it denied (with the Muslims) that Jesus had ever been crucified. Their religion was one of sophisticated myth, not of stubborn history. They believed in reincarnation. They had their own hierarchy, a set of their own sacraments, their own sacred books. (If you believe some people, they also had the Holy Grail, but that is another story.) With the Gnostics, they held that the God of the Old Testament was the devil. With the Manicheans, they held that matter was evil. Reproduction was an indulgence granted to those members of their community who, through social circumstance, simply had to have children. They promoted birth control and nonreproductive varieties of sex. (If you are interested in a remarkable speculation about what would have happened if they had not been totally destroyed in the Albigensian Crusade of the thirteen century, read Theodore Roszak's insufficiently appreciated novel, "Flicker.")

What they did not have, anymore than did Julian the Apostate's Neoplatonic cult, was any notion of "standing guard" on the state. Why should they? In St. Augustine's theology, progress is both possible and desirable in history. God loves the world, and calls men to repair the damage they have done to it. In the Gnostic view of things, on the other hand, the world is the devil's kingdom. The true God had nothing to do with creating it. The only improvement this world can look forward to is destruction. The idea of "the two swords," that church and state are different social powers even when they support each other, is one of the persistent themes in Western history. It is a necessary corollary to the fact that the Church is pursuing its own vision of the good. The state is necessary, the state is even a good thing in itself. However, it has its natural limits. Without Christianity, one suspects, the state would have been as omnipotent in political theory as it is in China and Islam.

What the spirit of the Neoplatonic Church would have been like at the emotional level, we can only speculate. There is only one day in the calendar that has never been Christianized, that preserves the pre-Christian spirit of Old Europe. That day is Halloween. There would have been nothing in the heritage from late antiquity to change this. In the Neoplatonic scheme of things, individual human beings are only flickering hints of a transcendent One. In some forms of Gnosticism, I gather, the mass of mankind are considered soulless cattle. Whatever else a non-Christian West might have produced, it would not have produced anything like a theory of human rights. Slavery might have become rare in Europe for economic reasons, but it would have been less likely to die out.

Arguably, Neoplatonic Europe would not have produced anything like science, either. Whatever else you may say about Christianity, it is certainly a very anthropocentric religion. Its theory of history is wholly man-centered. It adherents are predisposed to find the universe friendly, understandable, the product of a great Mind not wholly unlike their own minds. It is a religion of Incarnation, one which respects matter. (The art of a Neoplatonic West would almost certainly have been overwhelmingly nonrepresentational, like that of Islam.) It is also a religion of history, which means that it respects particular facts even when there is no theory for them. The Benedictine physicist Stanley Jaki has argued throughout a long career (see, for instance, his "Savior of Science") that science could not have occurred if Western culture did not implicitly assume, even when it explicitly denied, a metaphysics something like that of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was what is known as a "moderate Realist." That is, he thought that abstract ideas were real and could be investigated, but that they could be investigated only through the senses. Both in politics and natural philosophy, he espoused the principle of subsidiarity. In politics, this means that a higher level of government should not interfere with a lower one if the lower one is capable of handling a given question. In natural philosophy, it means that you don't have to understand everything before you can understand something. There is a passage in the "Summa Theologica" in which the Angelic Doctor explains that Scripture and the world are separate spheres, each of which must be understood in its own terms. This passage has been called the "declaration of independence" of science. If Christianity had never existed, that declaration might never have been issued.

Perhaps Fr. Jaki overstates the case. A Neoplatonic West would in some ways have been even more fitted to pursue science than a Christian one. The real difference between Western science and that of China is not Francis Bacon, but Pythagoras. Modern science began in the late Renaissance along with the Neoplatonic revival of that era. The roll of great scientists who have been inspired chiefly by pure number, by the elegance of order, would include people from Kepler to Heisenberg and beyond. On the other hand, one suspects that something would have been lost if the historical cast to Western thought were missing, an almost sure loss if Christianity had never existed. There would have been no Darwinism, for instance. Quite possibly astronomy would suffered, since that science is so much connected with calendrical concerns. Let us cut the baby in half, and say that something like science would have appeared, but that it would have developed less evenly, and would have been harder to adapt to engineering purposes.

Although the missionary impulse has played an important part in all the dealings the West has had with the world up to the present day, quite likely the West's unique desire to explore the whole world would still have been operative even if the West had not been Christian. (Other societies, notably those of Polynesia, seem to have the same impulse to travel and settle as far as their technology allows. Others, such as Hindu India, positively forbade oceanic travel.) A non-Christian West would have felt less impulse to remake societies in its own image. One can easily imagine prolonged relations of trade and border wars between the first European outposts in the Caribbean and the Aztec hegemony, since the Europeans would not have felt any special horror at Aztec religious practices. But if the West met the rest of the world with less presumption, it would also have met it with less charity.

There is little ground for this speculation, but I think that we should be pleased if we never know just what the West would have become had it never become Christian. A shadow of it may have been manifest in Carthage, or at least in Carthage as described in G.K. Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man." It would have been altogether a darker, more rigid, more ruthless civilization. The real choice in ethics, it has long seemed to me, is not between Christianity and liberalism, but between Jesus and Nietzsche. Had the shepherds slept soundly that night, we would be living in Nietzsche's world.

 Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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Live, Die, Repeat Movie and Book Review

Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterwork, and Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, and Bill Paxton

All You Need is Kill
by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Haikasoru 2009
$7.99; 203 pages
ISBN 978-421560878

Continue?This is one story with three titles. The original Japanese light novel is All You Need is Kill. The theatrical release starring Tom Cruise was called Edge of Tomorrow, and the version released on DVD, Blue-ray, and streaming was Live, Die, Repeat.

My interest in the movie was initially piqued because of the D-Day inspired trailer, and because I had greatly enjoyed Tom Cruise's competent performance in his previous sci-fi movie, Oblivion. I didn't get a chance to see the movie in theatres, so I picked it up on Blu-ray when it came out.

By that time, the title of the movie had changed. The re-branding of the movie with the tagline from the theatrical release did not dampen my enjoyment of what turned out to be a war movie blended with the essence of almost all videogames: infinite lives. It is really the combination that makes this movie interesting. Matching up with the trailer, this is a grunt's eye view of war. Confusion, regret, and death barely kept in check with black humor. The idea that war is hell has been done better elsewhere; what is really horrifying is the idea that you have to live out that last, awful day of your life, over, and over, and over.

At least, until you figure out that death is never final [although it is inevitable], and you can do whatever you want with no repercussions. Much like Bill Murray's cynical weatherman in Groundhog Day, Cruise's dilettantish REMF Major Cage travels through disbelief to despair to acceptance to something like grace. Dying seems to have been the best thing that ever happened to Major Cage. Cruise does a good everyman performance, saying and doing the things most of us fear we would do if trapped in a horrible situation, but ultimately turning into something like the best version of himself after getting unlimited chances to rectify all his mistakes.

The movie was well-done, the central conceit turned out to be thought-provoking [at least for me], and I found the characterization plausible. Not bad for a movie that seemed to be inspired by videogames. It has long been true that all movies based on videogames are bad. It is also true that most videogames based on movies are bad. The kinds of stories you tell in the two forms of entertainment differ markedly, particularly in that videogames are supposed to be repetitive. If the hero fails in his quest, you just respawn and try again. Finding a way to turn this into an interesting narrative was quite an achievement. Even more so, when I discovered the movie was based on a light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

Thus, it is even more remarkable that this game mechanic turned story mechanism survived the transition to the screen, because novels and movies also are forced to tell their stories in different ways. To successfully blend the novel and the videogame, and to then successfully adapt that to the kind of story that Hollywood does best, deserves praise.

Despite pulling in as much money as blockbuster movies do, videogames have almost no effect on the wider society. This has been changing, slowly. Wreck-It Ralph is the best videogame movie ever made, but to say that risks damning the movie with faint praise. I'm starting to see more videogame references in other kinds of media, but perhaps this is just a Kuhnian revolution where all the old guard are dying off, and the new content producers just find videogames a natural part of their life.

Perhaps another reason for all this is popular entertainment is converging in on a common point. Many big movies now have a novelization [sometimes a new one is created even when it was based on a novel!], and if it is an action or sci-fi movie, also a videogame tie-in. If you can market some toys and other merchandise too, all the better. From a production point of view, it makes sense to tell stories in a way that makes it easier to generate all that valuable ancillary content.

Sakurazaka's novel fits into that paradigm in a very Japanese way. Light novels, as the name implies, are disposable popular entertainment marketed to young adults. Popular light novels are illustrated or animated, serving as the farm team for content generation in the Japanese market. This one was popular enough to be optioned by Hollywood, and it gives us a good case study for how different media and different markets produce subtle differences.

The basic story in the novel is much the same as the movie. Unstoppable alien monsters. A hopeless war. Mechanized infantry are the last hope for humanity. A soldier trapped endlessly in a fight against unstoppable hordes. Sakurazaka's book was very traditional military sci-fi. Lots of salt of the earth soldiering, and no visibility to the grand schemes of the brass. Unlike Cruise's Major Cage, Sakurazaka'a protagonist was a plain old grunt, Private Kiriya, fresh out of boot. Even in translation, the book is very Japanese. The idioms, the expectations of the soldiers, even the kinds of women they dream about, different from an American, or even a western novel of the same type.

Also, the ending is different. My editorial policy is to discuss the ending of any story without warning, but here is your spoiler warning regardless. While I think the ending has much of the same spirit in the American movie as in the Japanese book, the critical difference is that the book goes for the tragic ending while the movie goes for the happy one. What they have in common is that each ending upends the idea of infinite lives in a videogame, where the enemies keep doing the same thing over and over while you learn more and more, and posits an enemy that has exactly the same experience you do, and learns with every iteration.

The whole thing almost ends up where it began, with everything coming down to one climactic battle, much like it would in a world were you couldn't rewind time back to before you died. The crucial difference between book and movie is how this all plays out for the protagonist and his friends. Up until the very end, I liked the book better than the movie. It was harder sci-fi, with better military know-how and better science. But at the end, Hollywood demonstrated why it makes so much money worldwide. They know the human heart better, and that made all the difference.

Tragedy has its place, but it takes greater strength of character to insist that it really will turn out well in the end.

My other book reviews

My other movie reviews


The Long View 2002-10-17: Expressions of Sympathy

Topical commentary from John in 2002 about the glee with which the North Koreans flouted the nuclear anti-proliferation treaty, the faux inspections leading up to the Iraq War, and the D. C. snipers, Lee Boyd Malvo, and John Allen Muhammad. In this case, John turned out to have a pretty good guesses about Malvo and Muhammad.

John was far too innocent to find things like this funny, but Somebody Blew Up America reminds me of Who Bitch this is?

Expressions of Sympathy

Let us pity Mohammed Aldouri, the Iraqi ambassador to the UN. This morning The New York Times finally ran his Op Ed piece, in which he gives his readers the assurances of unconditional weapons inspection that his government can never quite bring itself to give to the actual weapons inspectors. On the same day, the Times reports that North Korea says it is "nullifying" the 1994 arms control agreement designed to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons. They also say that, yes, they have been running a clandestine fissile materials program, which they strongly hint has already produced usable weapons. Few events, short of nuking Osaka, could have more plainly illustrated the complete bankruptcy of the international arms-control regime. Perhaps the ambassador's only consolation is that some opinion-makers will surely argue that we cannot possibly deal with Iraq now, because of the new crisis in East Asia.

No such consolation is available to former US president, Jimmy Carter, who just a few days ago received the Nobel Peace Prize for doing things like helping to negotiate the 1994 agreement. At the time, it was obvious to all serious observers that the agreement was a US capitulation, and that it simply meant the North Koreans would acquire nuclear-armed missiles a bit more slowly. It may or may not have prevented a conventional war at the time. By allowing North Korea time to acquire a nuclear deterrent, it has certainly made a war appreciably more likely now. So much for containment, I think.


* * *

Predictably, speculation about the identity of the DC Shooter has turned to the possibility of an al Qaeda link. This theory makes as much sense as any other. The shooter has obviously had considerable training as a marksman, and his ability to avoid capture to date suggests special-operations training. On the other hand, these shootings no more resemble what Islamicist terrorists normally do than they resemble what home-grown rightwing terrorists normally do, or for that matter what serial killers normally do. If there really were a connection to al Qaeda, one would expect several shooters to be operating simultaneously around the country. However, the terrorist connection was recently given some support by descriptions of the shooter, which say he is a swarthy fellow, possibly "Middle Eastern or Hispanic."

This is slender evidence. Swarthiness is an unreliable indicator of nationality, even assuming the descriptions are correct. The police have been handling the situation well so far, perhaps because, unlike the FBI in connection with the anthrax cases, the police don't seem to have become ideologically committed to any one theory. One trusts that the police, at least, will cut the swarthy of the world some slack, even if the swarthy are driving white vans.


* * *

Most in need of sympathy of all may be Amiri Baraka, the Poet Laureate of New Jersey. That title was enough to open any late-night talkshow monologue with a laugh, even before the incumbent laureate gifted the world with his poem, Somebody Blew Up America. As we all know by now, that work is largely a list of rhetorical questions, such as "who murdered the Rosenbergs" and, most famously, "Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day." Media reports do not fully convey the scope of the questions. The poem goes on and on with such queries as:

Who own them buildings
Who got the money
Who think you funny
Who locked you up
Who own the papers

Mr. Baraka's poem has excited so much hostile comment that the governor of New Jersey is seeking to strip the laureate of his laurels. A point that no one seems to have noticed is that the poem in question may be derivative. Both in style and content, Somebody Blew Up America mirrors the The Stone Cutters' Song from an episode of The Simpsons:

Who controls the British crown?
Who keeps the metric system down?
We do! We do!

While this scarcely amounts to plagiarism, surely New Jersey deserves a poet laureate of greater originality? Or perhaps, instead of a state poet, a state animation?

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Irish Empire

One of John's original compositions, an imaginative bit of alternative history that puts Ireland in the place of Britain as the exporter of European civilization. This story features one of John's stranger ideas, homo sapiens who are not human, and also one of his funnier ones, the samurai Jesuit.




The Irish Empire

by Paul O'Johnson


(This is a summary of the book. The original is 1,546 pages long.)


Among the many dismaying events of the twentieth century, few would have surprised and appalled the optimistic mind of the nineteenth more than the complete disintegration of the Irish Empire by 1960. For centuries the chief bulwark of Christendom against the Quetzal League of the Mississippi, its swift decline from the largest unified political unit in the history of the world to a squabbling "Commonwealth of Nations" seemed to put the whole of civilization at risk. As is often the case in history, our worst fears were as unfounded as our fondest hopes, and the terrible North American tyranny collapsed at the very moment it seemed poised to gather the empire of the world to itself. The process by which we were saved was almost as disconcerting as the one we thought would damn us.

No single ruler was more responsible for the ultimate rise of Irish civilization that the Roman Emperor Britanicus. After the suspicious death of his adoptive brother Nero in 54 A.D., he presided over a prosperous, uneventful reign which did much to redeem the reputation of the imperial office. Britanicus occupied his time primarily in the pursuit of the pedantic interests that had so largely concerned his father, the Emperor Claudius. It is due to Britanicus's filial diligence in promoting the copying and distribution of his father's historical works that the histories of Claudius are among the most widely-preserved primary sources that have come down to us from ancient times. It was also out of filial piety that Britanicus pursued his father's original conquests in Britain, to a degree that perhaps exceeded the actual value of the province. The invasion of Munster in 60 A.D. by Governor Paulus, made in response to the depredations of Irish pirates on the loosely defended coasts of newly Roman Britain, occasioned the first permanent foothold of the Roman Empire in Ireland. The conquest of the island was not completed, however, until fifty years later under the Emperor Trajan.

Roman Ireland was more isolated and eccentric than its British neighbor to the east, but in some ways its condition was happier. After the initial Roman penetration of the eastern and southern areas of the country, the local kings of the north and west resigned themselves to civilization and submitted to Rome, in exchange for a large degree of local autonomy. Far more peaceful than imperfectly-conquered Britain, Ireland soon developed a lively if peculiar literary culture. The Romance language of Ireland, Ibernacha, has clear roots in the late Latin dialect of the country, which was unique among the colloquial tongues of the west in finding written expression even before the empire collapsed. Also, perforce, the province developed a precocious maritime technology to keep in touch with the rest of civilization. The island was scarcely affected by the civil wars that wracked the Roman world in the third century. When the Roman legions withdrew from the British Isles in the fifth century, both major islands were briefly ruled from the Irish provincial capital at Rodillanegra. When the Anglo-Saxon invasions overran southern and eastern Britain, Wales and north central Britain were organized as Irish marches to keep the Germanic peoples at bay. This basic configuration of the British Isles, a Latino-Celtic west and north surrounding a West Frisian (historically called "English") lowland based in London, continues to this day.

The years from about 450 A.D. to the Norse conquest of 800 A.D. are usually called the first Irish Golden Age. The only part of western Europe to escape barbarian invasion during the collapse of the Roman Empire, the island actually remained a nominal province of Byzantium after the abdication of the last western emperor in 476. The unfortunate attempt by the Emperor Justinian to send an exarch to the island to collect taxes caused the last "Roman governor" of the island (by then, the office was hereditary to the ruler of the Rodillanegran Pale) to declare himself High King in the sixth century. The survival of literary culture in Ireland was vital to the restoration of civilization in western Europe. It was chiefly due to the Irish that Christendom was not confined to western Europe, but spread in a great arc from the steppes of Russia to the Great Plains of North America. Throughout this period, Irish missionaries and teachers moved in great numbers across the continent. It was, of course, the Irish who won the northern and eastern Slavic peoples for Roman Christianity, cutting off the cultural influence of Orthodoxy beyond the Balkans and the Black Sea. Many European cities were founded around the sites of Irish monasteries. The city of Munich, for instance, was originally "the place of the monks." Just as important for later history, Irish missionary and commercial enterprise pushed gradually west into Iceland and Greenland, until finally the first port cities were founded on the North American continent about the year 700 A.D.

The spread of Eurasian civilization to the western hemisphere was to have vast consequences both for good and evil in the distant future, but the near-term effects were almost wholly positive. Metallurgy, literacy and husbandry spread throughout the eastern half of the northern continent, far beyond the political influence of the scattered Irish colonies on the east coast. The disease ecologies of the two hemispheres were gradually brought into harmony. Great Christian states came into existence. The Iroquoian Republic in the area south of the Great Lakes contributed mightily to the soaring architecture of the Age of the Cathedrals, while the Cherokee Kingdom of the Appalachians, which developed paper currency even before the Chinese, became nearly synonymous with medieval financial enterprise. Although the loyalty of the Irish colonies to the High King was rather nominal during this period, still Ireland remained the great, inevitable trading center between the two hemispheres.

It was beyond Christendom, in the dark, dynamic society of the Mississippi Valley, that the terror of the next millennium was being formed. Agricultural societies in the continent's chief river valley long antedated the European stimulus. Left to themselves, however, these societies would have been characterized by middle-sized towns with no particular technological edge over their neighbors. The diffusion of Eurasian technology from the east coast changed that. Armed with metal weapons and armored cavalry, the southern half of the Mississippi Valley had achieved unity by the ninth century, and was already moving to extend its control over the ancient, degenerate civilizations of Mexico and Central America. By the standards of most cultures for most of their histories, the spirit of those southern regions was quite literally diabolical. The Mississippians, a subtle and ingenious people, took took that spirit for their own.

The Quetzal Teaching, as it came to be called, is sometimes classed not as an ideology or religion at all, but as a mind control technique. Abandoning such crudities as government sponsored human sacrifice, its goal was sacrifice of the spirit, to conquer this world for the Otherworld by peopling it with "living victims." (The Quetzal term for "citizen" was "the Eaten.") Under its influence, the whole of Mississippian civilization, and to lesser degrees the societies under its influence, became a network of identical, tomb-like cites. Quetzal cities were laid out in perfect grids of paved streets and white buildings, and their layout was never altered from the day of their foundation. Devoid of art, crime, social classes or places of worship, their inhabitants had no names except for their addresses. It was only in the twentieth century that archeological finds in Indus Valley revealed a society eerily similar to this. Some chaos-historians have pointed out that Earth's weather could be governed by one of two strange attractors, the one we have, and the permanently frozen hypothetical world called "the White Earth." Similarly, they suggest, human civilization may be capable of two basic forms, that known to most of history, and that of the Indus and the Mississippi. In any event, we know that the Indus Valley (or Harappan) Culture, lasting from 2500 B.C. to 1500 B.C., led a death-in-life existence similar to that of the Quetzal League. The big difference, of course, was that while the Indus Valley was unassertive, almost reclusive, the Mississippi evinced a terrible hunger to expand.

Ireland's immediate problems came not from the West but from the North. The conquest of Ireland in 800 was unique among the Norse conquests in that it was done at a single stroke. The country did not have to be repeatedly invaded and absorbed piecemeal as local governments were improvised. Though hardly a model of administrative efficiency, the "Lands of the High King," as the Irish state was known, were still far more unified and rationally governed than any other polity in western Europe. Furthermore, the early commercial economy of the kingdom was something the Norse understood and were eager to promote. Ireland naturally became the center for Norse activity in the British Isles. Rodillanegra was the seat of King Canute's ephemeral empire, which included the British Isles and Denmark. This rather rickety structure passed to native control with the expulsion of the Norse by King Brian Boru in 1011, and then collapsed entirely when the Normans invaded West Frisia in 1066.

Since then, potentially rich West Frisia has been a debatable land, the prize of the governments of Normandy, Ireland, Scotland and, since the seventeenth century, the Netherlands. Despite occasional expressions of nationalist sentiment, West Frisia makes most sense as an integral part of the Low Countries, on both ethnic and linguistic grounds. There are, of course, religious objections. West Frisia was the only part of the British Isles to remain in the Roman communion at the time of the Reformation, despite the fierce persecution by the Calvinist Church of Ireland, which exercised ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the country during the last phase of Irish political control. However, it is hard to believe that this peaceful agricultural country could really contemplate an independent existence.

The Norse period served to strengthen the powers of the Irish central government. It also began the long evolution of representative democracy with the creation of the Seaman's Court. The merchants who made up this assembly provided most of the kingdom's tax revenues. The High Kings increasingly found themselves compelled to negotiate with the Court for funds to support the state. Naval technology improved enormously. The North American colonies were expanded and unified, until they formed a sold chain down the entire east coast. By the time the Spanish began their transatlantic expansion at the end of the fifteenth century, after the successful completion of the Reconquista, there were already considerable Irish colonies in Brazil and the Rio dela Plata. Irish traders were slowly gaining control of the commerce of Peru.

The terrible series of Irish-Spanish conflicts forms one of the darkest chapters of the Wars of Religion. Many factors served to envenom and prolong the conflict, from the rich spoils to be found in the Western Hemisphere to the fact that Spanish and Ibernacha are sufficiently similar to allow of mutual invective. The Irish did better in the earliest stages of the century and a half of conflict because of the technological edge provided by their long maritime tradition. However, the Spanish wove an ultimately successful series of anti-Irish alliances from France to Peru, composed of states long suspicious of Irish ambitions. The Irish were driven from the Pacific entirely by 1600 through the concerted efforts of the Spanish and their ally, the newly Catholic Empire of Japan. To this day, despite nearly two centuries of later alliance between Japan and Ireland, the figure of the Samurai Jesuit is enough to excite the prejudices so deeply rooted in even the most enlightened Irish heart. The final result was that the High King lost all of South America outside Brazil, which itself fought a successful war of independence in the eighteenth century.

In the long view, it may perhaps have been to Ireland's advantage that it was forced for a century to confine its interests more narrowly. Rather than squandering its resources in a premature world empire like Spain, Ireland struggled to develop the legal and social mechanisms necessary to free market capitalism. It forged what seemed to be permanent dynastic links with Scotland and Wales, and began the long, hard work of constructing a barrier of alliances in North America against the Quetzal menace to the coastal colonies. By the late seventeenth century, it is already anachronistic to speak of "The Lands of the High King." The Irish Empire known to history already existed in embryo. With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the Irish Kingdom of Scotland, the Empire was in a position to become the first true world power.

The story has long been told how the Empire expanded its influence in Europe to oppose French attempts at hegemony. As Spain declined, the Irish became first its predator and then its protector. In India, for reasons that seemed like a good idea at the time, the Irish gathered up the fragments of the moribund Mughal Empire into a polity that itself had to be regarded as one of the major political subdivisions of mankind. Allied with the Kingdom of Poland, which in those days extended almost to the Urals, it financed the defeat of Napoleon, itself providing the crucial forces for the final battles in the Low Countries. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Irish Empire was without peers anywhere in the world, and without real enemies. Except, of course, the Quetzal League.

The Great Game, as it came to be called, between the League and the Empire was the defining theme of the next hundred years of world history. Even the three German War between 1870 and 1940, and the expansion of the Empire to include a quarter of the world's land area, seem like distractions in comparison to the great struggle to keep the terrible power of the Mississippi contained. The League tended to absorb technological advances rather unevenly, but from the very beginning of its existence it made the study of the military and industrial technique of the rest of the world one of the chief functions of the state. Neither was it wholly without the power to innovate. Thus, though early ironclad ships gave the combined Nipponese-Irish fleet a decisive advantage in the defense of Honshu in 1854, the combined fleet of the same powers was wholly outclassed by the Quetzal forces in the catastrophic battles for the defense of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1904.

The tale of the Irish Empire in the twentieth century was one of decline, punctuated by dazzling recoveries. The Empire's role in world affairs was first shared with and then largely transferred to the Republic of Brazil, a nation in any event inextricably linked to Ireland by ties of blood and language. Since the turn of the century, that state has been the leading economic power in the world. The century brought a new golden age of Ibernacha literature, coincident with the dominance of the language in world trade and scholarship. Still, even the glories of Yeats and Joyce could not illumine the dusk into which the Empire, indeed all of Christendom, seemed to be falling.

The end of the colonial period revealed Ireland for what it was, a mild, North Atlantic island that is a convenient place to stop on the way to North America from continental Europe, if you are going by sail power. Though centuries of relative security and good government have made the island a place where people feel safe doing business and otherwise parking their money, there was no intrinsic strength in the country to support the historical role it had taken on itself. First its dependencies demanded autonomy, and then independence. The harbinger of the coming disintegration was the granting of substantial independence to Scotland and Wales in 1922. For the first time since the end of the Roman Empire, no part of Britain answered directly to Rodillanegra. These events were not lost on the Empire's chief enemy. The Empire's ancient allies in North America began to curry favor with the ascendant Quetzal League. Finally, in 1936, the Irish colonies on the coast were induced to "invite" the League to occupy them for their own protection.

While the burden of defense was exhausting, even the German Wars were not so enervating as the spread of Quetzalist philosophy to the upper and intellectual classes of the Empire. Step by step with the decline of the Empire aboard, progressive people called for the adoption of features of the Quetzal way of life in Ireland itself. The bare, white austerity of Quetzal archetecture became almost manadatory, representative art disappeared from the galleries, the very concept of the integral human person was deconstructed by writers and psychologists alike. Indeed, it is now known that, at the very time that the League was about to disintegrate, the High King's Cabinet was secretly considering application for admission to the League as an associate member.

The Quetzal League came to an end on that memorable day in 1989, when all communication with the Mississippi Valley abruptly ceased. There has never been a satisfactory explanation of what happened. The first tentative relief expeditions found chaos, death, and mass suicide on a scale that can scarcely be imagined. Comparisons with the fate of the Indus Valley Culture were what naturally came to mind. There, it is known, the chief centers of civilization had simply ceased to function in a very short period of time. Bodies lay in the immaculate streets that, for the first time in a millennium, no one came to clean in the morning. Scholars speak learnedly of "non-linear cultural change" and the "loss of social strange attractor," but their speculations simply mask their ignorance.

This turn of events preserved Ireland from external destruction, perhaps, but at the cost of undermining its faith in the fundamental rationality of the world. A fight to the finish, even if lost, at least would have been an explainable end. So would a negotiated surrender. As it is, civilization seems to have been preserved by a suspension of the laws of nature. This is not altogether encouraging.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Big U Book Review

NOT American MegaversityI picked up The Big U while I was organizing my library, and I decided to see if I still liked it ten years [at least] since the last time I had read it.

It turns out, I do! For me, this is the perfect college satire, on the same level as Thank You For Smoking or Office Space. I read it when I was an undergraduate, and it was hilarious, and a devastating send up of the bizarre world that is the American university. Ten years later, it is still hilarious and devastating. Then I flip to the flyleaf, and I find Stephenson wrote it in 1984.

Stephenson nailed the essence of university life in a way that is still relevant thirty years later. The LARPers. The Goddess worshippers. The terrible cafeteria food. The out of control parties. This is the American university, in all of its glory. American universities have long been at the center of the culture war, fostering, even encouraging, a hothouse culture in which the strangest things can flourish. Add to that a culture that has been intellectually static for the last hundred years, a guaranteed fresh supply of naive teenagers, and you will get a system that loops through the same obsessions, over and over and over.

In the introductory chapter, Stephenson's narrator says:

What you are about to read here is not an aberration: it can happen in your local university too. The Big U, simply, was a few years ahead of the rest.

This turns out to have been prophetic. In the Big U, we have all of the current obsessions of trendy politics. Rape culture. Identity politics. Minoritarianism. Endless curricular disputes. Weird religions. There are few things in the book so outrageous that they have not managed to happen in the last thirty years. It is all so ridiculous, and all so pertinent. I liked it the first time because it seemed very much like my alma mater. I like it now because it seems like all the universities in America. If anything, my own university has only grown more like American Megaversity with the passage of time.

It is fortunate this is a book and not a movie, because it prevents you from seeing out of date clothes and assuming everything in the book happened in the past. With a few minor changes, The Big U could easily be set today. The Stalinist Underground Battalion would have to be replaced with Occupy Wall Street, smart phones would have to be added in, and the university mainframe would have to be replaced with the web, but everything else could stay the same. 

The first time I read this book, I was attracted to the commonalities to my own life. The character who was a budding physicist. The genius programmers. The awkward fit of so many of the viewpoint characters to the dominant party scene. Even the bit with the university locksmith [in college, I worked as a student locksmith for the university]. It just seemed to fit.

Ten years later, there are a few things I appreciate more now than I did the first time. The cynical university president is someone I can now identify with. The Big U administration made poor choices, but now that I have actual responsibility, I appreciate the heroic virtue that would be required to resist those temptations. S. S. Krupp is bright, decisive, and capable. His only flaw is putting the university's reputation [and lots of jobs] ahead of doing the right thing. I am glad I don't face the same choices, because it is hard to see how I could realistically do better in the same circumstances.

The sexual dynamic that drives many of the viewpoint characters is far more obvious in retrospect. Especially if you were a nerd [who I presume is Stephenson's target audience]. Teenagers are driven by their hormones in strange ways, nerdy teenagers even more so, and those of us who have survived that phase can only pity them. This too shall pass.

Of all Stephenson's books, this is the one I like best. The first Neal Stephenson book I ever read was Snow Crash. Snow Crash was recommended to me by my freshman year college roommate, and I liked it enough to try more, although I'm not sure its many fans realize it is a dystopia. The Big U was the second. I really liked The Big U, so I tried a number Stephenson's other books, but I never really enjoyed them. Stephenson wrote Zodiac when it seemed like dioxin was the worst thing ever made by humans. By the time I read it, the evidence was a little more mixed. Thus I had trouble taking the plot seriously. I couldn't get through even the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. Maybe this one was a fluke.

I choose to see it as a stroke of genius. Maybe this book couldn't have been written seriously or intentionally, because we are all too identified with sides in the on-going culture war that rages in the universities. Stephenson has a pretty clear side with the left-Libertarians now, but in this book maybe he hadn't quite found his voice, because even characters on the wrong side seem sympathetic, despite some salvos in favor of his clear favorites. As Lincoln and C. S. Lewis argued in their distinctive ways, the sides we are on, and the sides that are really in the right, may not necessarily turn out to be the same.

My other book reviews

The Long View: President H. P. Lovecraft

Since I just watched Amazon's pilot episode of the Man in the High Castle, I'm in an alternative history mood.

Why vote for the lesser evil?

 Don't blame me, I voted for Cthulu.


I would like to thank the many kind people from several continents who have e-mailed me to say that the author of 'The Iron Dream' is Norman Spinrad. The response I have received shows how knowledgeable and helpful Internet users are. (Either that, or you are all a bunch of Neo-Nazis!)

The Life and Times of President H.P. Lovecraft

Some years ago, I read a novel with the title, The Iron Dream, which purported to be science fiction written by Adolf Hitler in an alternative history (who the actual author was I do not remember). In this history, there was a Communist coup in Germany in the early 1920s, and Hitler became just another exile. (His brief involvement in reactionary politics was not worth mentioning.) He settled in the United States, where he became a commercial illustrator for pulp magazines. He took to writing for the pulps as his English improved, eventually attracting a small literary cult. He charming Viennese manners made him the star of science fiction conventions. His major novel, The Iron Dream, dealt with a political movement in a post-apocalyptic world. The movement was dedicated to cleansing the gene-pool of mutations and destroying the great mutant empire in the East. While some people detected anti-Semitic undertones in the book, Hitler's defenders noted that many of his best friends were Jewish. After his death, his stories were frequently reprinted in paperback editions, often using his own illustrations.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) has a biography one might expect of a failed Hitler. Lovecraft has suffered from more than his share of posthumous Freudian analysis, but it is true that his family history (father dying while Lovecraft was young, over- protective mother) is similar to Hitler's. Both their childhoods' were prologues to some some similar life-long characteristics. Lovecraft, like Hitler, was a marginal artist. He was a better writer than Hitler was a painter, though that is not saying much. Both were very briefly married, Hitler for just a few hours, Lovecraft for a few months. Both were interested in the occult to some degree. Certainly both Nazism and Lovecraft's fiction owe a great deal to Theosophy. (Lovecraft claimed to be a sceptic. Hitler was affected by ideas of this type, though he was not a believer to the extent that Himmler and Hess were.) Both were racist Social Darwinists of the sort who viewed history as primarily determined by racial factors. Both were hypochondriacs who repeatedly forecast their early deaths. Lovecraft, whose neurasthenia kept him out of the First World War, turned out to be right. In person, both were rather shy and formal, not hard to like. Hitler loved dogs, Lovecraft loved cats.

Imagine an alternative history in which Lovecraft's ideas did not remain the stuff of pulp fiction. Suppose his father had lived, or he had been orphaned, or his family finances changed so that he had to go to work early in life. He becomes, let us say, a journalist in Boston or New York. He might then have fought in the First World War and returned with a distinguished record. He becomes a nationally syndicated columnist, famous for his warnings against the threat of immigrants, Communists, and unbridled finance capitalism, particularly as associated with the Jews. Like many practical people, life experience could have changed his reading about the occult from entertainment to belief. (It happens. Look at W.B. Yeats. For that matter, look at Hitler.) In the social catastrophe of the Great Depression, he would have had a unique opportunity to implement his ideas for revolutionary reform.

Lovecraft in politics would not have been a "conservative" in any serious sense of the word, though he would certainly have had little use for socialism or democracy. Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 novel "It Can't Happen Here," tried to give some notion of what an American fascism might be like. It would be more puritanical than its European counterparts, he suggested. It would be less a case of a party imposing a political orthodoxy on the whole country than of radical right groups, such as the Klan, being empowered by the government to act at the local level. When Lewis thought of fascism, however, he seems to have been thinking of Italy. There was no particular place in his fascist America, as there was in Germany and would certainly have been in Lovecraft's America, for a national eugenics program. For that matter, Lewis did not understand, at least in 1935, how central anti-Semitism was to Nazism. If, as some writers have suggested, Hitler's Jewish policy was a necessary feature of his model of history (See Paul Wistrich's Hitler's Apocalypse), then one would expect similar notions to occur to Lovecraft, whose intellectual frame of reference was not so different from those of the leading Nazis.

America did not lack for proto-fascists in the 1930s, but they were regional personalities with little hope of forming an important national movement. Huey Long of Louisiana was very smart, of course, but he was, well, too "colorful" to be much appreciated outside his home state. Father Coughlin, the Radio Priest, would not himself have been a serious candidate for political office. His movement was too closely linked with Rome, at least in the public mind, to be anything but a faction in a larger right-wing coalition.

Lovecraft, or someone like him, might have been able to form such a coalition. A Northerner, nominally Protestant, he could have preached economic populism for the South and Midwest and anti-Communism for the Catholic Northeast. His background was such that he would have been more likely to have entered politics as a Republican than as a Democrat. In his native New England, the Democrats were the party of the hated immigrants. Of course, he might have taken the posture of a man above politics before the Depression. Like Perot in 1992 or Powell today, he could have had his pick of the nomination of either party. In terms of party platform, there was not much to choose between Roosevelt and Hoover in 1932. Roosevelt's chief qualification was that he was not Hoover. Lovecraft, who was in real life of a somewhat philosophical cast of mind, would have been not just a new face, but a man with a plan.

Any government elected in 1932 would have had to do much the same sort of thing on taking office that Roosevelt did. It was necessary to immediately reconstruct the banking system, to distribute disaster relief to the unemployed, and to try to cajole the country's businessmen into maintaining employment and making some investments. The Roosevelt Administration did this minimum, supplemented a little later with "make-work" projects, from new roads to the vaguely Stalinist murals you can still find in some older Post Offices. Some of these initiatives helped. Some, such as the government's price-fixing schemes, were catastrophes. In any event, though the economy improved in the 1930s, punctuated by various declines, the Depression was not finally ended until the United States began to mobilize for the Second World War. In this the US was in sharpest contrast to Nazi Germany. Hitler came to office about the same time Roosevelt did, and the economy was humming again within two years. The reason for this was simple enough: Hitler took office with the intention of fighting several major wars in about five to ten years, so rearmament began immediately. President Lovecraft, one suspects, would have done likewise.

Lovecraft's America would not have lacked for plausible enemies. There were, after all, the ubiquitous Communists, who would probably have favored Lovecraft's candidacy, as the German Communists favored Hitler's. (The idea was that Hitler's regime would soon collapse, thus leading to a red revolution.) Naturally, all the domestic ones would have to be arrested, and a military buildup begun in preparation for a final showdown with the USSR. The more immediate enemy, however, would have been the Yellow Peril, as manifest in Imperial Japan. It has always been difficult to explain to Americans why it was necessary to worry about threats from Europe. Arming against a possible war with Japan, in contrast, has always been an easy idea to sell. Actually, in the context of early Depression America, any kind of remilitarization program would have been easy to sell, since it would have been the one thing the government could have done to decrease unemployment quickly. (Young men not needed for the factories, of course, could have been drafted.)

Indeed, such a policy would have been self-sustaining, since possible enemies would have multiplied. The Roosevelt government was economically nationalist in terms of tariff policy, but it was content to let the international market economy continue to exist. It did not, at least to my knowledge, impose foreign exchange restrictions, or make it nearly impossible for foreigners to own property in America. Fascist governments, however, generally did do things like this. Such measures would have been serious blows to England and the Netherlands, whose people have always invested heavily in America. England would soon have perceived more than a financial threat, since an invasion of Canada would certainly have suggested itself to Lovecraft's government, both for strategic reasons and as an exercise. An Anglo-American naval war might have been the prelude to the western half of the Second World War.

That there would be a Second World War is hard to doubt, but the alliances would have been different. Britain, bereft of its overseas assets and a large part of its fleet (assuming the US won), could have had a revolution in the 1930s. If it was to the right, then the country would have been neutral in the event of a Nazi invasion of France. Fascist Britain might also have maintained its alliance with Japan through the 1930s, which would have meant the US could still have faced a two-ocean war when the fight with Japan started. Indeed, the US might have been faced with a Anglo-German alliance in the west. This would have made attacks on the continental United States plausible, particularly from the air. On the other hand, if Britain's revolution was to the left, then the British Empire would have disintegrated catastrophically. Red Britain might then have supported France in 1940, or whenever the German invasion came, but would probably have lacked the naval and air strength to resist invasion itself. Without Britain as a conduit, it is unlikely America would have become involved in Europe in the 1940s.

In the Pacific, hostilities might have begun as they did in the real world, but would have ended differently. For instance, since the United State would not have been cooperating with Great Britain on secret projects, and since America would not have been an attractive haven for refugee scientists, the atomic bomb would not have been invented. Despite what the revisionists say, an appalling invasion of Japan would almost certainly have been necessary. Lovecraft's government might then have been less interested in reforming the country than in depopulating it. Australia, one suspects, would have been annexed as Canada was annexed. The US might even have joined in the German war against the Soviet Union. (If the Nazis came to power in Germany, such an invasion would been inevitable). US aid would probably have taken the form of strategic bombing. It would also have been possible that the US would have gotten involved in a land war in China to finally defeat the Communists there.

Let us assume that Lovecraft dies about the time Roosevelt did, eight years later than Lovecraft did in fact. The world would then have been divided into two great spheres of influence, much as it was after the Second World War. However, they would have been far more evenly matched, since Europe would not have been laid in ruins by the Anglo- American and Russian invasions that occurred in the real world. The two empires would have had some ideological affinities, since both would have ruled by mystically-minded Aryan chauvinists. Some of their leaders would at least consider a union between the two empires. In contrast, popular opinion would have it, as did Hitler himself, that the great war between the eastern and western hemispheres would occur in the next generation. What a time for President Lovecraft to die! The only consolation would have been that the nation was be led by his brilliant young Vice President, L. Ron Hubbard.

But that's another story.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Why Bill Clinton Should Resign

John wrote this seventeen years ago. When he re-posted it in in the sidebar of his post of October 10th, 2002, he said this:

Here is an old essay recommending President Clinton's resignation. How well has my reasoning aged, I wonder?

I wasn't old enough to vote when Bill Clinton ran for president. At the time, I doubt I would have voted for him. Now, I'm not so sure. Over time, I have started to respect the political acumen of the old reprobate. More interesting perhaps, is that you can see that John started to make much the same criticisms of George W. Bush as you find here about Bill Clinton.

It also worth looking back at all-consuming political controversies twenty years later, and find out how much we really care.

Why Bill Clinton Should Resign


by John J. Reilly

I am writing this on September 18, 1998. (It's a Friday, and a slow afternoon.) To my own considerable surprise, I came to the conclusion today that President Bill Clinton should resign his office. I have no particular reason to believe that this will be a day to live in infamy: certainly I have heard nothing on the news yet that would in itself justify this change of heart on my part. Nevertheless, today something snapped. The arguments which to me had always weighed in favor of Bill Clinton serving his full second term now seem less substantial than the dangers of his remaining.

As a preliminary matter, let me note that I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, and I am still a registered Democrat. I voted for him because it seemed to me that his opponent, incumbent President George Bush, had no particular plans for a second term. It also seemed to me that Bush's gimmicky campaigns of 1988 and 1992 had done a great deal to dumb down American national politics. (Remember the visit to the flag factory?) Clinton, in contrast, had been the subject of mildly approving magazine articles in the prestige press for several years. He was a policy wonk with a sense of humor. He was even a babyboomer, just a few years older than I am. Despite the recession at that time, the world appeared on the whole to be in more satisfactory shape than at any time since before the First World War. History had cut America enough slack that we could afford to allow a somewhat unknown quantity in the White House. The worst he could do was nothing, after all, and it was arguable that nothing was what needed to be done.

It is precisely because there is now unambiguous work for the president to do that he has to go. He never understood the job. The core functions of the presidency concern war, fiscal policy and law enforcement. The first two often require rapid decisions that are both timely and made under conditions of great stress. All three require strategic thinking and the ability to set priorities. Bill Clinton cannot do these things. It is not even clear that he has ever understood that he has to try.

This is a man who continues revising his State of the Union addresses as he walks up the aisle to deliver them. He spends his time making pronouncements about elementary school education, an area in which the federal government has relatively little authority, while his personnel policies drive the cream of the officer corps out of the military. His idea of an "economic program" in an era of labor shortages continues to be antirecessionary job training schemes. The problem is not that all his ideas are bad, it is that they should be secondary or tertiary concerns of his office.

So Bill Clinton is incompetent. Is that reason enough to remove him from the presidency? Of course not. There are countries with constitutions designed to make changes of government very quickly in response to popular opinion, but the United States is not one of them. This on the whole is a good thing. Terms of office set by law rather than by popular enthusiasm allow for a degree of long-term thinking that would otherwise be impossible. The constitutional remedy for incompetence in office is patience. The incompetents can be voted out. In Bill Clinton's case, he cannot even run for a third term. There has to be a very good reason not to let nature take its course in this instance, too.

Sure, Bill Clinton is a liar, he is a philanderer, he is an ignoble person. He is not just self-centered, a quality that sometimes gives people a measure of integrity, but selfish to a degree that staggers belief. He is also notably vindictive. Bill Clinton has always had a tendency to respond to opposition by persons less powerful than himself by blackening their reputations. It may be that the stories his agents are now floating about the personal lives of hostile members of Congress will finally do him in.

Even these qualities do not merit eviction from office. I have never been in sympathy with the campaign of litigation that has been waged against the president these many years. It has always seemed to me to be payback from the Republicans for Watergate, just as Watergate was payback from the Democrats for the conviction of Alger Hiss. The presidency has yet to recover completely from the Watergate era. The one service that Bill Clinton could perform for his country, I thought, was to survive these attacks. This would have provided some evidence that this kind of politics does not work, and so perhaps would have broken the cycle of prosecution and counter prosecution. Well, now maybe we must wait to end the cycle. It is urgent that Bill Clinton be replaced now.

Bill Clinton is not just a failed president, like Herbert Hoover or James Buchanan. Failed presidents are simply people whose policies ceased to be credible long before their terms of office ended. Clinton presents the far more distressing spectacle of a president who is no longer credible as a person. No message to Congress, no speech to the people, no communication to another head of government that this man makes can any longer be taken altogether seriously. He cannot do his job, and this at a time when he has a serious job to do. Most of the threats that should be engaging his attention relate to foreign affairs, precisely the area in which he began his presidency by proclaiming his lack of interest.

Because of this man's negligence, a world financial crisis that would certainly have been serious now shows every sign of causing a collapse as severe as that of the 1930s. His dissimulation and wishful thinking may be about to reverse the outcome of the Gulf War of 1990-1991. His reluctance to focus on Russia early in his administration is as responsible as any other outside act for the failure of that country to develop a real market economy. He has threatened minor countries around the world with military force, and then backed away when his bluff was called. He has persecuted military culture from the first days of his administration, and refused to construct missile defenses against dangers that only his administration fails to see.

Any other president would have seized on threats like these as the means to save himself. FDR's tireless public display of economic management during the Great Depression, Woodrow Wilson's transformation from a marginal social reformer to a hugely popular war chief, these are the roles that could have provided Clinton with ample armor to defend himself against the ever growing number of condemnations of his character. Instead, his reaction has been to continue to emphasize those largely symbolic issues to which he dedicated his presidency after his party lost the congressional elections of 1994. He talks about getting back to "the business of the American people," which apparently consists of minor education reforms, unspecified changes to the Social Security old age pension system, and extraordinarily arcane modifications of the regulations governing HMOs (health maintenance organizations).

Please understand that I am not expressing disappointment that he does not manufacture a crisis in order to rescue himself from his current difficulties. No manufacturing is necessary: there are several in the "In-Box" on his desk as I write this. What I am suggesting is that he either cannot recognize a crisis when he sees one, or that he does not know how to mobilize his government to address the sort of issue for which he is actually paid to deal.

I have come to recommend resignation only with great reluctance and more than a little fear. If President Clinton does resign, that would do no more than help to ensure that certain extreme evils are prevented for the next two years. The loss of a war in the Middle East or East Asia, a prolonged worldwide depression, the reemergence of ideologically aggressive totalitarians states, all these things can still be avoided. A working American presidency would not make this certain, of course, but it is a necessary condition. None of this changes the fact that the resignation itself will be a great evil. It will damage the institution of the presidency and vindicate the conduct of politics by prosecution and slander. It will even serve to undermine that increasingly frail flower, the legitimacy of the federal government of the United States and the Constitution on which it rests. I see no way these things can be avoided.

There are grimmer possibilities. Clinton might be impeached by the House and tried by the Senate. That would be the worst of all possible worlds, since the federal government would be paralyzed during the lengthy proceedings, and the presidency would be diminished no matter their outcome. It is also possible that Clinton will merely continue in office, exercising power incompetently or not at all, gradually reducing all national politics to the contempt in which he is held personally. If that happens, his crepuscular final year and a half in office might resemble the sad end of the Hoover Administration after 1930, but with this difference. The United States is much more central to the world's economy, military balance and cultural life than it was in the 1930s. If the rest of the planet falls into confusion, the United States will not fail to feel it, and this time it will not take ten years.


Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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