The Long View: How Abortion Builds Better Families

By Jajhill - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

By Jajhill - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

I was going to say that John missed the big picture on replacing AFDC with TANF in the late 90s:

Chronic, mass illegitimacy is a product of the lifestyle of the population that has become dependent on AFDC. If the program is removed or modified, there might be a temporary uptick in abortions, but the culture of illegitimacy will be eliminated.

because it looks like the long term trend wasn't much affected in the CDC data. But perhaps that is too harsh. Pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad looked at the data, and concluded that it was possible there was an effect of eliminating AFDC. That effect is much smaller than the underlying trend, but that doesn't mean it isn't real.

The second part of what John mentioned here, a fear that pushing women to get married using welfare policy would cause an increase in the abortion rate, didn't materialize either.

Overall, I think this essay from 1995 holds up pretty well 22 years later.

How Abortion Builds Better Families

The word "conservative" has several meanings in American politics. It can mean respect for social tradition and legal precedent, after the fashion of Edmund Burke. It can mean a devotion to free market economics, which is what "liberalism" meant in the 19th century and what it still means in much of Europe. It can mean near-anarchist libertarianism. It can even mean the desire to create a theocracy. Although these possible meanings often logically lead to incompatible public policy, most people who call themselves conservative incorporate some elements of all of these different kinds of "conservatism" into their beliefs. This rarely causes significant problems: since none of us is omniscient, cognitive dissonance is part of the human condition anyway. Still, every so often an issue comes along that threatens to unravel the baling-wire and chewing gum structure the passes for modern American conservatism.

Consider the movement to deny payments to single women receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) for children born while the women are on the program. This restriction is aimed at reducing the number of out-of-wedlock births, which might strike some people as a "conservative" issue if ever there was one, but the opposition to this policy is almost unique in uniting abortion rights advocates and pro-life advocates. The reason for this is the conventional belief that such a measure will increase the rate of abortion among women dependent on these funds. The pro-abortion people assert that restricting AFDC payments infringes on the "right to choose" by pressuring the women concerned to choose abortion. The pro-life people, while presumably opposed to illegitimacy, are more concerned about the possibility of a rise in the abortion rate.

In reality, of course, the premise of this opposition is probably wrong. Chronic, mass illegitimacy is a product of the lifestyle of the population that has become dependent on AFDC. If the program is removed or modified, there might be a temporary uptick in abortions, but the culture of illegitimacy will be eliminated. However, the belief that AFDC reform really does pose an abortion issue has provided an opening for that type of "conservatism" which consists of a mixture of free market economics and personal libertarianism. A particularly lucid expression of this type of argument is provided by the cover article in The New Republic of August 21 & 28, entitled "The Conservative Case for Abortion," written by Jerry Z. Muller. His thesis, in brief, is that bourgeois family values are incompatible with pro-life ideology. Unlike most pro-abortion arguments, which consist primarily of invocations of the fastfood slogan of "choice," this one rises to the level of refutable error.

Muller seeks to make his argument "balanced." He notes the eugenic value of abortion, including late term abortion, but then he also says "the right-to-life movement has done our society a service by insisting upon the humanity and moral worth of the unborn child." His real argument, however, is economic. (Since his most recent book is Adam Smith in His Time and Ours, this is understandable.) The right-to-life movement, he argues, "undermines [the] fundamentally conservative effort to strengthen purposeful families." Now the purposeful family is the middle class family, as defined in the light of Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." Such a family is one which believes that "the bearing and rearing of children is not an inexorable fate but a voluntary vocation, and that, like any other vocation, it is to be pursued methodically using the most effective means available." In purposeful families, the number of children is kept small so that they can be carefully educated and thus given the best chance to succeed in life. Purposeful families allow for the accumulation of capital that need not be spent feeding the kids, and therefore purposeful families have more to invest, either in their own businesses or those of others. It is people like this who make advanced societies advanced. Purposeful families are jewels beyond price, which social policy should do everything possible to encourage.

Unfortunately, in recent decades the purposeful family has been under assault from individualism, hedonism, and the excessive emphasis on career advancement by both sexes. Among its enemies is the pro-life movement, whose values are essentially pre- capitalist. "Just as older patterns of economic traditionalism and fatalism persist within advanced industrial societies, fatalistic conceptions of family life remain as well..." It is therefore no surprise that among the most vigorous opponents of abortion are lower middle and working class Protestant Evangelicals, who "stress redemption through divine grace rather than through a lifetime of purposeful activity." Muller, noting the decline in abortion rates among young women in recent years, credits the right-to-life movement. The result of their efforts has been to increase the number of out-of-wedlock births, he says. He therefore castigates the right-to-life movement with inhibiting the inculcation of middle class family values among the poor, particularly with regard to their opposition to welfare reform measures that would stop subsidizing illegitimate births.

Some factual points in his argument might give one pause. For instance, it is news to me that Protestant Evangelicals, either in this country or Latin America, are not entrepreneurial. It is also not entirely true that declining fertility is a law of nature (or capitalism). Fertility rates rose throughout the West, starting the late 1930s, and in the U.S. did not go into conspicuous decline again for almost 30 years. There are economic explanations for this, but the reality is fundamentally mysterious. For that matter, one may question whether the post-babyboom small families have been particularly "purposeful." Certainly they have been more divorce-prone than their predecessors, and the children they have produced do not measure up particularly well in terms of scholastic performance or social adjustment. Quite aside from the question of whether Muller's theory of social demography actually holds water, however, is his misunderstanding of the essence of the traditional family.

The distinction he makes between the "fatalistic" traditional and the "purposeful" capitalist family is, of course, nonsense. People have planned their families from time immemorial, quite without the aid of modern pharmaceuticals. Demographic studies of Puritan New Englanders, for instance, show that they obviously spaced their children. They planned on large families, of course, because infant mortality was high and resources abundant. The secular trend toward declining fertility began in the middle 18th century, in Catholic France. The institution of the family in itself implies a fair amount of forethought, of care for the future. Certainly the traditional family is in no way related to the improvident reproductive habits of today's underclass.

The real question here is not the social habits of the underclass, but of what it has become fashionable to call the "Overclass." This designation represents the latest version of the never-ending story entitled, "Whatever Happened to the Kids of the 1960s?" In reality, of course, the Kids of the 1960s became today's adults, not so different from other generations of Americans. However, there has always been enough peculiar about them that the temptation to weave them into demographic theories of history is irresistible. Michael Lind, an editor of The New Republic, has made a name for himself by propounding the theory that these baby-boomer professionals are slowly turning the U.S. into Brazil with snow, as they increasingly refuse to use or fund public services and fence themselves off from the growing numbers of marginally poor workers. One the other hand, David Frum, a fellow of the economically conservative Manhattan Institute, says that the Overclass is actually the world's first "mass elite." He says that all of the shrinkage in the middle class over the last 20 years can be attributed, not to people falling down from it into the underclass, but rising above it into the Overclass.

In any event, the Overclass are the people Jerry Muller is really talking about when he posits a group of people for whom abortion is a natural element of personal economics. The problem for his argument is that the behavior of these people really does not support his hypothetical correlation between fertility rates and economic behavior. What is unusual about today's Overclass is its improvidence, at least as compared with the haute bourgeoisie of earlier generations. They save less than well-to-do people have any right to, to the lasting frustration of economists. In the small Overclass families of today, we are not seeing the victory of the lean, mean, Weberian nuclear family unit. If anything, the Overclass represents a victory of genteel bohemianism, of the spirit of the Woodstock Generation, but with money. The Overclass, like the "counter-culture" whose incarnation it is supposed to be, is self-absorbed, antinomian, and fundamentally intolerant. It is also dishonest in a peculiar way, preferring evasive euphemism to argument. What other group of people could insist with a straight face that "choice" is the real issue in abortion and euthanasia?

Muller's argument is really about the need for a eugenic contraceptive policy, one designed not to weed out bad genes, but bad culture. Abortion is regarded simply as another technique to that end. Overclass culture is capable of acknowledging that there may be some special ethical issues involved in the abortion question, but is quite without any mechanism for assessing the importance of one moral principle with respect to another. That its why it calls principles "values," like quantities that can be added up and averaged out. There is therefore nothing "bourgeois" about the Overclass, if by bourgeois you mean the culture of people like the well-to-do Victorians. The Victorians did believe in moral absolutes, as did the Calvinists and the Puritans and all those other penny-pinching Protestants whom Muller is so eager to invoke. This was the reason for their purposefulness. To work was to pray (as that proto-Calvinist, St. Benedict, once put it), and the virtues of thrift and honesty were important, not simply for their utility, but because they conformed to the will of God. To the Overclass, however, every virtue is a construct, subject to no scheme of value but their own will. This is true even of their own children. Muller even tells us that the "activist conception of family formation also suggests that artificial reproductive technology should be used to reverse infertility." Children as artifacts are less intimidating than children as people.

People who think like this are not "conservative," whether they are Overclass lawyers or illegal aliens. They do not and they will not create strong families, because they think that families are arbitrary constructs, defined according to personal convenience and disoluable at their own considered whim. Having rejected traditional moral norms, they have no history to conserve, and they will make nothing worth keeping.



This article originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-06-23

The Stock Market Speaks: How Dr. Alchian Learned to Build the Bomb

Sometimes public information is the best spy you have.

I saw a series of Tweets this week about how the boss-class is sticking it to workers, usually with the active involvement of the political Left. You expect that kind of thing from the Right, but the increasing alignment of wealth and education with Left-wing parties means the boss votes liberal. My favorite story was where the drywall guy complained that no one but illegal immigrants from Mexico wanted to work 90 hour weeks for him. I miss unions with teeth.

How the Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration

A look at the political battles that made center-Left immigration skepticism disappear.

I (Don't) Like You! But Who Cares? Gender Differences in Same Sex and Mixed Sex Teams

Hopefully it replicates.


A fascinating article at First Things makes the argument that technological change is leaving our static political debates behind. For example, the double-edged sword of artificial wombs.

Social Justice and the End of Moral Certainty

A look at the progressive mindset.

8 Figures on Gun Ownership, and Attitudes, in America

There continues to be a partisan gap in America, but it is smaller than the gap in the professional activists who make the most noise on the subject. For example, the vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans are not in favor of concealed carry without a permit. 

The Long View 2005-04-24: Sleepers: Issues & Diets

Merkel's Boner

Merkel's Boner

Under my heading nothing ever changes, we have this prescient post from John Reilly in 2005 where he correctly intuits that immigration will be the largest domestic political problem across the West. He also notes that the character of the problem is quite different in different places, since the typical immigrants vary quite a bit.

This is an excellent summary of the problem:

In the US, things are somewhat different. The take-off in immigration coincided with the Giuliani era, when urban public order tended to increase along with immigrant populations. (That was not due just to better policing: it helped a great deal that neighborhoods, which had been semi-abandoned, once again had people sitting on the stoops in the evening.) Nonetheless, the acute problem of national identity that Mexican immigration has created in the Southwest, coupled with the astounding indifference of the the political class to the downward pressure on wages caused by an endless supply of new workers, has created a level of resentment in some localities that Washington may not appreciate until the situation blows up.

But even John didn't really understand how far things would go.

Sleepers: Issues & Diets


Perhaps the largest single domestic issue throughout the Western world in the next few years will be the movement to staunch immigration from less advanced countries. It will certainly bulk large in the upcoming British elections; where, as Leo McKinstry explained in a recent Spectator piece called The age of unreason, the powers that be seem singularly disinclined to acknowledge there is a problem:

All around I see mounting social anarchy, gross corruption in the democratic process, the destruction of liberty, mass ignorance and brutality, paralysis in the police, the breakdown of the family and the loss of any faith in the justice system. Only last week an Algerian migrant twice refused asylum in this country was sent to prison for 17 years for plotting a terrorist campaign, while a 15-year-old black girl was stabbed to death at a party in east London, allegedly for standing on another teenage reveller’s toes. Yet I am informed that I must celebrate diversity, celebrate the new richness of multi-ethnic Britain. It is all too reminiscent of the old Soviet Union, whose penurious citizens had to queue for food but were told that they were living in a workers' paradise.

In the US, things are somewhat different. The take-off in immigration coincided with the Giuliani era, when urban public order tended to increase along with immigrant populations. (That was not due just to better policing: it helped a great deal that neighborhoods, which had been semi-abandoned, once again had people sitting on the stoops in the evening.) Nonetheless, the acute problem of national identity that Mexican immigration has created in the Southwest, coupled with the astounding indifference of the the political class to the downward pressure on wages caused by an endless supply of new workers, has created a level of resentment in some localities that Washington may not appreciate until the situation blows up. Consider this red meat language from the admittedly somewhat radical group, US Border Control:

President Bush is, literally, ripping this nation apart. There is no question that, unless he and the Congress that he controls, change their views on open borders, mass immigration, exporting jobs and importing "willing workers," our soldiers may soon be fighting a war on a third continent, North America.

According to every poll taken in the past few years, more than 80% of the American people are very much opposed to all of the above. And this figure includes all races, colors and nationalities. Yet, the President has chosen to ignore the wishes, hopes and aspirations of this huge majority of Americans. ...Meanwhile, the American people, from both major parties, are more than just furious; they are ready to take to the streets. They feel a total sense of helplessness because both major political parties have simply decided to ignore them and, as a consequence, they have no place to turn.

Actually, the places where people are most exercised by this sort of thing don't have "streets" in the classic revolutionary sense; it would take a long time to rouse a rabble along the broad roadways of a typical low-density suburb. However, the issue will tell at the polls, for whichever party has the wit to make use of it first.

* * *

This is the sort of story you find on the Internet, and I am pretty sure it's a joke:

Email users suffered a 10 per cent drop in IQ scores, more than twice the fall recorded by marijuana users, in a clinical trial of over a thousand participants. Doziness, lethargy and an inability to focus are classic characteristics of a spliffhead, but email users exhibited these particular symptoms to a "startling" degree, according to Dr Glenn Wilson.

In comparison, we may note Steven Johnson's article in today's New York Times MagazineWatching TV Makes You Smarter, which I am pretty sure is not intended as a joke:

For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as [the series "24"] suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all.

Also in the New York Times today was a column by David Brooks, in which he informs us:

The release of a report in The Journal of the American Medical Association indicating that overweight people actually live longer than normal-weight people represents an important moment in the history of world civilization.

This is, of course, precisely one of the gags in the Woody Allen film, Sleeper, in which a man awakes after several centuries in suspended animation. He finds himself in a world in which science has determined that nothing is more healthy than cigarettes and fudge sundaes. Yum.

* * *

This is not to say that people have given up on blackening the reputation of everything you like, as a recent study by one Susan Darker-Smith illustrates:

Young girls who enjoy classic romantic fairy tales like "Cinderella" and "Beauty and the Beast" are at greater risk of becoming victims of violent relationships in later life, a British researcher says...The research, conducted in Leicester in the east of England, is to be presented to the International Congress of Cognitive Therapy in Gothenburg, Sweden, next month...Her study, entitled "The Tales We Tell Our Children: Overconditioning of Girls to Expect Partners to Change", will be discussed by many of the world's most influential therapists.

I have strong doubts about the benefits of fudge sundaes (yum) and I also have strong doubts about this. The women I know with a keen interest in fairy tales also tend to be strapping specimens who know at least one deadly martial art. Tolkien leads to camping, remember.

* * *

They pay you to say these things, but still Jeffrey Bell must have winced when he turned in his copy for the article in The Weekly Standard of April 25, "Tom DeLay, Red Statesman." He regales us with accounts of Republican House Majority Leader DeLay's recent statesmanship, such as eliminating the estate tax in the midst of a runaway budget deficit, and DeLay's promise to investigate why the judges in the Terri Schiavo case followed the letter of the law.

I have no opinion about the charges against the Majority Leader regarding jobs for his family and sumptuous trips abroad paid for by foreign interests. The measure of his statesmanship is that, after 11Sept01, his idea of a response was to lower the capital gains tax (something which the Bush Administration, to its credit, did not include among the emergency measures it requested from Congress).

The term "statesman" in the the Bell article is not unqualified: DeLay is a "Red State Statesman," which is why, according to Bell, the Democrats and the Mainstream Media are after him. What an insult to the people of the Red States! Anywhere else in the country, DeLay would be considered a bagman for business interests, a man with no concern for public policy as such; but in a "Red State," apparently, such a short-sighted person counts as a "statesman."

The Republican Party is going to have enough problems in 2006 and 2008, but DeLay, as Mark Shields remarked, has the singular distinction of having stripped his party of the status of "the reform party."

* * *

Finally, may I note that it was only when I read the issue of The Weekly Standard mentioned above that I learned Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was, in effect, blogging the recent papal conclave from the First Things website.

Did anyone else know about this? And if any of you did, why didn't you tell me?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View 2005-04-20: Wir haben einen Papst

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

It is interesting to look back at the partisan reactions to the elections of Pope Benedict the XVIth. Catholic conservatives, myself included, were overjoyed. Catholic liberals were despondent, having hoped for a great liberal reformer. Then, just a few short years later, the roles were reversed when the long awaited liberal Pope finally came. 

For the vast majority of Catholics, nothing changed all that much. Individual bishops continue to be the shepherds of their flocks, setting policy and making decisions. The center of gravity of Catholicism continues to shift toward Africa, for simple demographic reasons. Relations with our Orthodox brethren slowly improve. 

The general trajectory of Catholicism wasn't altered much by the election of either Benedict or Francis. Which is probably what you should expect from a diffuse, locally governed organization with billions of adherents.

Wir haben einen Papst


So why have I been so keen that Joseph Ratzinger should be elected pope? The chief reason is a series of sermons he gave in 1996, In the Presence of the Angels I Will Sing Your Praise, when his brother Georg retired as choirmaster of the Regensburg Cathedral. This passage tells you more about the man and his real concerns than anything you are likely to see in the press:

As they gazed upon these frescoes, the monks of Mt. St. Mary surely thought of the 19th chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which treats the discipline of Psalm singing and the manner of saying the Divine Office. There, the father of western monasticism reminds them, among other things, of the verse of Psalm 147 (Vulgate): In conspectu angelorum psallam tibi [In the sight of the angels I will sing to Thee]. And Benedict goes on: "Let us then consider how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and His angels, and so sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony" [ut mens nostra concordet voci nostræ].

It is, therefore, not at all the case that man contrives something and then sings it, but rather the song comes to him from the angelic choirs, and he must raise his heart on high so that it can harmonize with the tone which comes to him.

But one fact is of fundamental importance: the sacred liturgy is not something which the monks manufacture or produce. It exists before they were there; it is an entering into heavenly liturgy which was already taking place. Only in and through this fact is earthly liturgy a liturgy at all -- in that it be -- takes itself into that greater and grander liturgy which is already being celebrated.

I can (and do) defend this metaphysics on its merits, but I cannot deny how much it appeals to me simply as intellectual esthetics. This is how I think; or at any rate, it is how I feel. Ich kann kein ander.

Ratzinger's life work has come to be defined by the fact that not everyone finds this neoplatonic vision so intuitive. When he was a young adviser at the Second Vatican Council, and accounted a liberal, he promoted chipping away the gingerbread of historical accretions on Catholic liturgy and theology. He did this for no other reason than that these things had grown so thick that they partially obscured the divine presence they were intended to frame. He sought clarity through austerity. In later years, to his growing horror, he realized that the license for experimentation issued by Vatican II was being used by people who did not see the transcendent at all, or who confused it with human intersubjectivity. At the worst, "the spirit of Vatican II" came to mean the community worshiping itself. Even when there was no heresy, there was a great deal of stupidity: new Catholic church-buildings almost invariably looked like Darth Vader's helmet, and the ancient tradition of Latin chant, which fascinates even people with no immediate interest in Catholicism, was replaced by a repertoire that was so accessible that parishioners did not find it worth singing.

We will be hearing a great deal more on Benedict XVI's views about local control of the church, and homosexuality, and war and peace, and capital punishment. What we must remember is that none of these are basic issues, even when the Church's position on them is not negotiable. All that matters is keeping unobstructed the vision of that liturgy that never ends. Ever feature of the structure of the Church, and of human society, must be ordered to that end. Keep that in mind, and this papacy will make perfect sense.

* * *

Meanwhile, there is the gloating issue. I had this problem when George Bush was reelected. Many friends and family members were stunned and horrified when that happened. I tried not to rub it in. I really did. The election of the new pope presents a somewhat different problem, however. Most people I know who had heard of Joseph Ratzinger also wanted him to be pope, so I have fewer temptations to be vindictive on a personal level. Well, that's what the Internet is for.

You do have to feel sorry for these people. Poor Fr. Richard McBrien, S.J., of Notre Dame was offering commentary on ABC (the American network) when the results of the election were announced at St. Peter's Square. Fr. McBrien has signed on to every flaky theological idea for the last 35 years, and he has been audibly waiting since 1978 for John Paul II to die. His face was not visible when the announcement was made, but he spoke in the sort of voice we normally hear on televison only from the victims of natural disaster. He must have felt like what Michael Moore would feel like if George Bush resigned and was replaced by Karl Rove. Alas.

And then there is Andrew Sullivan. Alackaday.

All I can suggest to such people is that they are not living in the worst of all possible worlds.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-04-18: Omens: Libertarian & Papal

This seems like a good opportunity to link to this week's most striking graph. The libertarian corner is almost wholly unoccupied by actual voters, but it figures heavily among the intelligensia and the ruling class.

Omens: Libertarian & Papal


People looking for bad omens were no doubt pleased by Jeffrey Rosen's piece in yesterday's New York Times MagazineThe Unregulated Offensive. The piece dealt with the well-funded libertarian movement, sometimes called "The Constitution in Exile," aimed at reviving all the "substantive due-process" jurisprudence that the Supreme Court was forced to abandon in the 1930s under pressure from the Roosevelt Administration. When I was in law school, the general consensus was that substantive due process was perhaps the stupidest thing the Supreme Court ever did. Based on little more than its own imagination, the Court used the power of judicial review to strike down laws governing wages and work hours, the protection of endangered species, and pretty much everything else that 20th-century states did in peacetime. Oliver Wendell Holmes was not keen on much of that social-welfare legislation himself, but he forcefully reminded his colleagues on the Court, in a long line of ringing dissents, that their economic and social theories were not in the constitution, and that there would be no end of trouble if the Court pretended they were.

What we have here is yet another instance in which the Right has become as unprincipled as the Left. We should note that the current libertarian project is beyond even the widest definition of conservative. Justice Scalia, whose views on the welfare state are not so different from Holmes's, has said that the libertarians are asking the courts to embrace the sort of judicial overreaching that he has been arguing against for his whole career. Rosen is of similar mind:

But a political transformation in [the libertarians'] favor remains, for the moment, remote, and they appear content, even eager, to turn to the courts to win the victories that are eluding them in the political arena. Advocates of the movement are entirely sincere in their belief that the regulatory state is unconstitutional as well as immoral and that a principled reading of the Constitution requires vigorous enforcement of fundamental limits on state power. Nevertheless, it is a troubling paradox that conservatives, who continue to denounce liberals for using courts to thwart the will of the people in cases involving abortion and gay marriage, now appear to be succumbing to precisely the same temptation. If the lessons of the past 60 years teach us anything, when judges try to short-circuit intensely contested democratic debates, from the New Deal cases to Roe v. Wade, they may provoke a fierce political backlash that sets back the movement they are trying to advance. In this sense, even if the Constitution in Exile movement manages to transform the courts before it has transformed the country, it may find that it has won less than it hoped.

Let me make the last point explicit: The power of constitutional judicial review may or may not survive the morbid insistence of the cultural Left on maintaining the autonomy right of the Griswald-Roe-Casey decisions. Should the Supreme Court begin to strike down economic legislation as it did before 1937, the Court's jurisdiction will be quickly and radically reduced.

* * *

On the subject of bad omens, rarely have we seen such a motley collection of them as in the NBC miniseries, Revelations. The Bible does give signs of the apocalypse, but the writers for the series seem to have found theirs in The National Inquirer. Actually, if you are interested in some popular apocalyptic sign-spotting, and don't mind anti-Catholic polemics, you might take a look at Endtime Insights. Better still, go to Carolin Esser's Apocalyptic Ideas in Old English Literature. The gallery will be of interest to those readers looking for graphics to incorporate into really alarming greeting cards.

* * *

I have read quite a bit of John Paul II's writings. The content was important, even dramatic, but there was something about the "voice" of this prose I could never quite put my finger on. Had the text been part of a novel, it would have been more like an explanation by an omniscient narrator rather than the thoughts of a character. Now Joseph Bottom, who has lately risen to the dizzy eminence of editor at First Things, has also noticed something of the sort. Writing in The Weekly Standard (April 18), he says:

"We have millions of words from the man: the 14 major encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, and 45 apostolic letters; the popular books like Crossing the Threshold of Hope, scribbled on yellow pads during long plane flights; the scholarly works he wrote as a young theologian; the thousands of prayers and exhortations he delivered during the innumerable audiences he tirelessly gave as pope. And in all those words, there is hardly a hint of what a psychologist would demand: a persona that somehow stands apart from the history through which he lived and the intellectual growth he experienced.

Something else: JPII was often conciliatory, but never defensive. Perhaps only John XXIII had as little use as John Paul II for the Church's post-revolutionary defensive crouch of the last two centuries.

* * *

There will probably be a new pope by the time you read this. Here are a few quickly falsifiable predictions:

---Although a new pope often takes the name of his immediate predecessor, there does not seem to be a single case in which the same name was used by three popes in a row. So, the odds are that there will be a revival of an earlier name. "Pius" is a possibility, but a pope who declared himself Pius XIII would begin his reign with a lot of unnecessary baggage. I suggest that another Gregory might be in order; the last one was in the 19th century. Such a name would recall Gregory the Great, who founded Christendom, and Gregory XIII, who sponsored the reform of the calendar.

---The last two papal conclaves were very quick, just a day or two. Within the confines of orthodox thought, as distinguished from what the newspaper editorialists are saying, there is actually rather less to discuss this time around. It would be surprising if this conclave lasted past midweek.

----Again, the chief argument against Cardinal Ratzinger becoming Pope Gregory XVII by noon on Wednesday is that so many people are on record as predicting just that (well, not the Gregory part). Neither the College of Cardinals nor the Holy Spirit like to be told what to do.

Whatever does happen, we may be sure that we will never see the like of Pope Hilarius (461-468) again. Well, relatively sure.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-04-13: Artificial Languages; Social Security Will Be Cheap; Roman Decapitation; Desperate Islamists

The Origin of the Finnish Peoples

The Origin of the Finnish Peoples

Speaking of Tolkien's languages, Razib Khan recently had this to say:

...the Finns and Estonians speak language is rather peculiar in a Europe dominated by Indo-European tongues (I suspect one reason that Tolkien based Quenya, the high elvish language, on Finnish is that it is so otherworldy to the Germanic ear. The Sindarin language, which was the common tongue of elves in Middle Earth, was based on Welsh). Rather, the distribution to the Uralic languages extends to the east, as far as Siberia. Even the closest affinities to Finnish and Estonian extend eastward, as there are Karelians who live deep in northwest Russia.

John's comment on his made-up languages 

Artificial Languages; Social Security Will Be Cheap; Roman Decapitation; Desperate Islamists


All you language-buffs in cyberspace: drop whatever you are doing and go immediately to Lang Maker, a site that archives artificial languages. You will find complete descriptions of the familiar ones there, such as Esperanto and Tolkien's languages. You will also find more obscure ones. Some of these have considerable cults, and even their own literatures.

I used to make up languages when I was in high school. The earlier ones were very Latinate (which makes sense, because I was studying Latin at the time). The later ones were less about language than about logic. What I chiefly remember is that the more logical a system, the more uselessly long its utterances became. There is a lesson in that.

* * *

All discussions about Social Security start with the premise that we will soon be entering a world in which an unprecedentedly small proportion of workers will be supporting an unprecedentedly large dependent population. In last Sunday's New York Times, however, Eduardo Porter argued Maybe We're Not Robbing the Cradle:

But some economists are sanguine about the country's ability to support the elderly and at the same time provide for the young. Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that the decline in fertility rates since the 1960's means that the burden of caring for the young has decreased dramatically - freeing resources to channel to the old.

The overall burden on the employed will grow, but not to unprecedented levels. The ratio of people of working age to those either under 20 or over 65 will decrease to 1.2 in 2050 from about 1.5 today. But this is still an easier load than in 1965, when the country was awash with children, and the ratio of the working-age population to each dependent was only 1.1.

True, the young are cheaper to maintain than the old. In 1990, economists at Harvard and M.I.T., including David M. Cutler and Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard, estimated that people over 64 consume 76 percent more than children.

Still, Mr. Burtless estimated that in 2050 a worker will have to sacrifice 49.6 percent of his or her wages - through taxes or other means - to maintain society's dependents. That is nearly 6 percentage points more than in 2000, but it is merely 0.8 percentage points more than 1965. And the percentage could well be smaller if people work later in life to pay for more of their keep.

This argument is comforting, but there is something fundamentally wrongheaded about it. Supporting old people is a good thing in itself, but it is a pure expense; support for children is an investment, which pays for itself many times over during the course of their lives.

* * *

Speaking of Tolkien and the logic of sentences, here's a dispeptic remark from Mark Steyn, about the upcoming British election, which may rank with Bilbo's Farewell Address at his 144th birthday party

That's also the problem those three party leaders face. I've no reason to disbelieve the crop of polls showing Labour and Conservatives neck and neck, but, unlike American polling, where distinctions between "registered" and "likely" voters are carefully studied, none of us has any clear idea which unloved party will do the least effective job at further depressing the turnout of whatever unenthusiastic faction of its dwindling base is most unresistant to being cajoled to the polls.

And did Bilbo's remarks amount to a compliment? I've never been sure.

* * *

The Vatican's website has done a good job of posting material relevant to the current papal interregnum. Among other things, there is the Apostolic Constitution that John Paul II issued a few years ago, Universi Dominici Gregis, which updated the rules for the next papal conclave, and gave instructions about the government of the Holy See while there is no pope:

A careful historical examination confirms both the appropriateness of [the institution of the Conclave], given the circumstances in which it originated and gradually took definitive shape, and its continued usefulness for the orderly, expeditious and proper functioning of the election itself, especially in times of tension and upheaval.

Precisely for this reason, while recognizing that theologians and canonists of all times agree that this institution is not of its nature necessary for the valid election of the Roman Pontiff, I confirm by this Constitution that the Conclave is to continue in its essential structure; at the same time, I have made some modifications in order to adapt its procedures to present-day circumstances.

The modifications are not dramatic. The chief novelty is that the cardinal-electors will be housed in hotel-like accommodations within the Vatican, rather than in a spartan temporary dormitory in the Sistine Chapel. What struck me, however, is that JPII's Constitution did not address the issue of decapitation: what happens if all the electors are killed or disabled? Before he committed The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown wrote a novel called Angels & Demons that dealt with just that kind of threat. It's a silly book, but a serious issue.

It is possible that I missed something, but the Code of Canon Law does not specify what would happen if a regular election were impossible. Some general provisions say, in effect, that the necessary executive power resides "in the Church" to deal with any situation in which there is factual or legal uncertainty.

We should remember that the pope is the bishop of Rome, and the cardinals are, nominally, members of the clergy of that diocese: each has a titular appointment to some church in the city. Might the actual clergy of the city act if the College of Cardinals cannot?

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the New York Times, Thomas Friedman is writing columns with titles like: The Calm Before the Storm?

[W]hy have there been no terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11? I've got my own pet theory about what's produced this period of calm - and, more important, why it may be coming to an end...It is not only that the Bush administration has taken the fight to the enemy, but that the enemy has welcomed that fight...The Jihadists have always understood that Iraq is the ballgame. Iraq is the big one. Winning there is what really advances their agendas.

The reason things may be getting more dangerous now is that the formation of a freely elected government in Iraq may signal that the Baathist-Jihadist insurgency is being gradually defeated...In short, the more the Jihadists lose in Iraq, the more likely they are to use their rump forces to try something really crazy in America to make up for it.

There is something about spring that incites columnists to dark meditation.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-04-05: Spengler, Ratzinger, Bret Schundler

David P. Goldman, who in 2005 was writing under the pseudonym Spengler for the Asia Times, ended up writing for First Things, among other publications. Goldman was right about Ratzinger.

Spengler, Ratzinger, Bret Schundler


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who spent most of John Paul II's pontificate annoying uppity theologians, has received a nomination to the Throne of Saint Peter from no less a person than the Spengler at Asia Times. According to that Other Spengler, ten years ago, the cardinal shocked the Catholic world with this warning:

We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.

The notion that Christianity might become less important in the future sounds increasingly odd from an American perspective, but the cardinal was thinking chiefly of Europe. In any case, Spengler argues that what John Paul II and Ratzinger have been trying to do is of universal relevance:

John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger belonged to the "Augustinian" minority of senior clergy who tried to steer the Church back to its fundamental mission, namely repentance and salvation...John Paul II's Augustinian leaning made him more of a unifying figure in the Christian world, in particular among US evangelicals. The scriptural rather than philosophical emphasis of the Augustinian current, moreover, deepened the late pope's instinctive sympathy for Judaism, the scriptural religion par excellence....Ratzinger places his hopes on the purely spiritual weapons that made Christianity a force to begin with. He has said, in effect, "I have a mustard seed, and I'm not afraid to use it." I do not know, of course, whether he will have the opportunity, but were he to ascend to the throne of St Peter, the next papacy might be more interesting than the last one.

No doubt. But again, the argument against Ratzinger being elected is that so many people have mentioned him as a candidate.

* * *

Glancing for a moment at religion in popular culture, I am continually struck by the theological illiteracy of television writers, who nevertheless insist on taking up religious themes.

For instance, in last week's episode of Lost, there is a flashback in which a woman claiming to be John Locke's mother tells him that he had no father, but that he was "immaculately conceived." For the 10,000th time: "immaculate conception" does not mean "conceived without sexual intercourse." It means "conceived without Original Sin." In Catholic theology, Mary the mother of Jesus was immaculately conceived, by two ordinary parents.

Rather less seriously, we have the FOX show, Arrested Development, where the teenage son of the surreal sitcom family is dating a minister's daughter. In describing the minister's activities, the characters refer to all the early-morning Masses the pastor has to say, though he is obviously some kind of generic protestant who preaches in a chapel like a well-appointed lecture room. This may be a joke on the sitcom family's clueless secularism, but if so, why doesn't the narrator remark on the error, as he does on all the family's other gaffes?

* * *

On the subject of religion in politics, readers may be aware that Bret Schundler, once the Republican mayor of Jersey City who was often mentioned in the same breath as Rudolph Giuliani across the Hudson in New York, is running again for governor of New Jersey. (I live in Jersey City, so please indulge me.) Giuliani is usually described as a reformer who is scarcely on speaking terms with the cultural-issues wing of the Republican Party. Schundler was just as successful in running Jersey City as Giuliani was in running New York, but Schundler was and remains the apple of the eye of the cultural traditionalists

In 2001, he won the Republican nomination for governor, against the concerted effort of the Republican establishment to defeat him. That hostility lost him the general election (along with the fact that 911 dominated the news media during the campaign, which on his part was singularly incompetent in any case). Should he get the nomination again, he will probably find himself running against the popular Senator John Corzine. Like Schundler, Corzine is an immensely wealthy man who retired from Wall Street to Do Good. In addition to having even more money than Schundler, however, Corzine is also very well known, which Schundler never succeeded in becoming.

People ask, "What makes Schundler think he can beat Corzine?" Well, Schundler is on a mission from God. More important, as we see from this excerpt from Schundler's Third Inaugural Address as mayor, he is on a mission from God as revealed by His prophet, Immanuel Kant:

Value questions can never be proven, because they have nothing to do with physical reality, but with determinations of the human will. A fundamental fact of the human condition is that human beings are born with free will. God may have called the world good, but we still must decide for ourselves what we will call the world. All of the intimations of our hearts, all of the experiences of our senses, and all of the rationalizations of our minds will never be able to make us value the world if we choose not to do so. Only we can determine what we will value and what we will not. Hence, because value questions have to do with will, not fact, they can only be answered by faith, not empirical test.

This was the subject of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Instinct might tell you that you want to do this or that, but it is by faith that one exalts some instincts and represses others. Reason might tell you that instituting a penalty for murder is a good way to improve your chances of not being murdered. But it is by faith, once again, that you assign value to the preservation of your life and to the lives of others, and that you do not murder people even when no one else is looking or could possibly find out. Fundamental values are not the product of empirical research and reason, Kant demonstrated, they are statements of faith: commitments to that which is believed, but can never be proven.

When the news media cover "The Religious Right," they persist in quoting a small number of television preachers and advocacy groups, with perhaps a few words from a church lady who attends a clapboard chapel at a crossroads in Iowa. Schundler's level of sophistication is not representative of cultural traditionalists in the United States, but it is not unusual, either.

* * *

Finally, for my readers in the College of Cardinals, here are three: points to keep in mind during the coming conclave:

---John Paul II outlived the liberal opposition. Many individual critics actually died before he did, but the important point is that the once vibrant institutional infrastructure of the liberal Catholic Church is largely derelict. It survives in a few dwindling publications, and in parts of the academy.

---The chief gender issue facing the Church day is convincing men to attend Mass. It used to be that Catholicism was unusual in having roughly equal levels of men and women in the pews on a Sunday. This is no longer the case, and it's a bad sign for any denomination. Studies show that the chief predictor of whether children will continue religious practice in later life is whether their fathers are regular church-goers

---Decentralization leads to scandal. Bishops who are keen to be independent of Rome are also quite autocratic about ignoring genuine popular criticism in their own dioceses. The clergy-abuse scandals occurred because the Vatican exercised insufficient oversight, while the bishops covered up the problem locally.

Also: try not to drag out the election. The news channels will cover the event 24/7, and one dreads to think what nonsense they will be saying after 72 hours.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity

The basic demographics of religion across the world remain unchanged from twelve years ago. 

The Next Christendom:
The Coming of Global Christianity
By Philip Jenkins
Oxford University Press, 2002
270 Pages, US$14.95
ISBN 0-19-516891-7


Often enough, books on important topics are published almost simultaneously with historical events that discredit them. This book, on the future of world Christianity, and not least on the likelihood of conflict with Islam, is a rare exception. It went to press in September of 2001, so it did not mention the attacks of that month on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The author, Philip Jenkins, is a professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He did not add references to those events in subsequent editions. He did not need to. Though one might quarrel with many parts of his analysis, the intervening years have seen nothing to undermine his basic thesis that the position of Christianity as the world's largest religion will only improve in the 21st century. The fascinating question is how different world Christianity will be from the Christianity of the era of European predominance.

Christianity began as a Near Eastern religion. The bulk of the world's Christians may have been European no earlier than the 11th or 12th century. The latest configuration, in which most Christians live in Latin America and Africa and East Asia, is sometimes called “The Third Church,” though one hopes that Jenkins's “Next Christendom” sticks. If demographics are destiny, then people who foresee a Muslim future are simply mistaken. Christianity is well represented in the countries with the fastest-growing populations. Indeed, it always has been. In 1900, at the height of the European empires, perhaps a third of the world was Christian, just as a third of the world's population was European or of European extraction. Today, when a majority of the world's Christians already live outside of Europe and of America north of the Rio Grande, the Christian percentage of the world is still about a third. Projections have it that the percentage should also be at least a third in 2050, despite the high growth rates in Muslim countries, and despite the demographic declines, sometimes in absolute terms, of the developed countries.

The author gives a great deal of attention to Africa in particular. We get lots of tasty statistics. Apparently, just 10% of Africans were Christian in 1900. The portion grew to 25% by 1965, about the time that Christians began to outnumber Muslims. By 2001, it was perhaps 46%. “In American terms,” he explains, “much of the continent has served as one vast burnt over district.” (He refers, of course, to the region of western New York State that produced so many new religious movements in the first half of the 19th century.) He does not neglect the AICs (“African Independent Churches,” though that acronym has more than one interpretation.). He points out that, however interesting the AICs may be, the big story is the continuing vitality of the mainstream denominations, particularly those that have become little more than museum curiosities in Europe.

In general, one might characterize the Christianity of the South (which, oddly, includes the East) as visionary, charismatic, apocalyptic. At the same time, it is also theologically and culturally conservative. The tension is real: not just in the North, but also in the South, people ask, “What is essentially Christian?” There is an ancient tradition of using the cultural resources of pagan societies for the purposes of evangelization. Europe itself was converted in part by the missionaries' willingness to regard the native mythologies as “preparatio evangelica.” On the other hand, there is no denying that intelligent inculturation of the faith can lead to unacceptable syncretism.

Wherever Christianity expands today, it favors the vernacularization of scripture and liturgy. This can lead to extreme situations, such as the incorporation of animal sacrifices into Christian services. It raises questions about polygamy and the role of the clergy. The latter is particularly an issue for the explosively growing and ludicrously understaffed Catholic Church. Jenkins points out that, when the Vatican reasserts dogmas that seem against the tide of history to Europeans and Americans, it is in fact simply responding to the Church's key demographics: “The hierarchy knows that the liberal issues dear to American or West European Catholics are irrelevant or worse to the socially traditional societies of the South.” Jenkins even makes bold to suggest that dogma itself may be shaped by Southern enthusiasms: “There is now talk that the Virgin might be proclaimed a mediator and co-Savior figure, comparable to Jesus himself, even a fourth member of the Trinity.”

Regarding the last point: I have heard that talk, too, all of it from old-style traditional Catholics. Even if it were theologically possible (and certainly a redefinition of the Trinity would not be), I just don't see the market.

In any case, Jenkins notes, no doubt correctly, that many of the peculiarities of Southern Christianity are simply aspects of its newness. Prophets may prophesy today, but in due course they will be replaced by ecclesiastical bureaucrats who write memos, even in Africa. Indeed, the famous social conservatism of the South may pass away, too. However, this will not happen for generations.

The Spirit moves where It will, but certain factors are present in most places where Christianity has seen recent growth:

---Much of the world is becoming urbanized in chaotic megalopolises The displaced people there need communities, and services that the government cannot provide.

---In the new Christian groups, members of disfavored races and castes can become leaders. Women are somewhat less likely to become leaders, but they become the core members.

---Men learn family responsibility and chastity.

---People can experience the presence of God in everyday life. Among the topics that figure most prominently in contemporary conversion narratives are physical healing and emancipation from various addictions.

Jenkins cites repeatedly Harvey Cox's noted study of the worldwide spread of Pentecostal worship, Fire from Heaven. By Pentecostalism he does not mean principally the self-identified Pentecostal denominations, important though those are. More important may be the spread of this pluripotent spirituality through the older denominations. If present trends continue, there will be a billion Pentecostals, variously defined, by 2050. That number will be comparable to the number of Hindus. Catholics will, the author reminds us, outnumber both, but he suggests that the rise of Pentecostalism may have been the most important event of the 20th century. In Latin America in particular, it is becoming almost a third limb of Christianity. It is also an object of suspicion to many Protestant denominations, who look askance at its reliance on personal revelation and on its destitute audiences.

The author does not cease to remind us of the parallels between our time and that of the period just after the fall of the Roman Empire, when the Greek Christianity of the eastern Mediterranean was transmuted in the forests of northern Europe. 21st century Christianity is becoming the ghost of the European empires, just as medieval Christianity, in Hobbes's famous metaphor, was the ghost of the Roman Empire.

More important is the fact that, in so much of the South, we are back in the world of the New Testament. Christianity is once again the religion of the extremely poor. The Gospels speak of demonic possession, prophecy, healing, and of being brought before tribunals that may exact death as the price of adherence to the faith. These are not metaphors, but daily experiences for an increasing part of today's Christians. As Jenkins puts it: “In the South, Revelation simply makes sense, in its description of a world ruled by monstrous demonic powers.”

It was not so long ago that progressive churchmen placed high hopes in theologies of liberation as the cutting edge of revolutionary reform in the South, and particularly in Latin America. Jenkins makes the important point that the embrace of socialism by sophisticated Southern Catholics dovetailed neatly with the older tradition of integralism. In any case, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Catholic Church often did serve the political interests of the poor. Clerics were martyred, and others became genuine democratic leaders. Popular religious movements did spring up. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, “The Church chose the poor, and the poor chose the evangelicals.” There certainly were cases in Latin America, as in Africa, where oppressive governments turned to charismatic and quietist groups in order to circumvent the traditional churches and their new social radicalism. In general, though, Liberation Theology was seen as a northern artifact, essentially irrelevant to the spiritual and social needs of the people. On the whole, Catholic charismatic groups have been more important than the “base communities” so favored by the religious Left.

Not unreasonably, the author reminds us again and again how surprising this resacralized world must be to Westerners who grew up assuming that secularization was the irreversible direction of history. However, he also reminds us that the reversal is not unprecedented: consider the revival of both orthodoxy and religious enthusiasm in the 19th century, just after the secular Enlightenment seemed to be carrying all before it.

Jenkins makes a few surmises about the future of Christianity in the West. Regarding post-Christian Europe, he notes that, in addition to the Muslims, many of the new immigrants are Christian, particularly from Africa and the Caribbean. This creates at least the opportunity for an immigrant-led revival. In the US, of course, immigration works differently, because American Christianity is by no means moribund. He does take care to refute the notion that the US is becoming more “religiously diverse,” if by that you mean “less Christian.”

Jenkins does not present a single scenario for the future. Rather, he tosses off one and then another, like a screenwriter proposing multiple ideas for disaster movies to a film studio. One can imagine future North-South conflicts, created by maldistribution of wealth, but expressed in literally apocalyptic terms. In the long run, the greater threat to McWorld may not be the Jihad, but the Crusade. The North could eventually define itself against Christianity.

Despite the possibility of conflict with the North, there are more opportunities for trouble between different regions of the South. In modern times, Christian minorities have fared far worse in Muslim countries than Muslims in Christian ones. Wars between Muslim and Christian theocracies might well be a feature of 21st–century Africa. Any “fracture area” between the Muslim and Christian worlds could be the place where a world war begins. “Imagine the world of the 13th century,” he suggests, “armed with nuclear weapons and anthrax.”

Jenkins makes a few points about other religions. Hindu chauvinists have been almost as oppressive toward Christians as Muslims have been, but that is partly because Hinduism is vulnerable: the huge Dalit (Untouchable) caste in India could benefit enormously from conversion to either Christianity or Islam. The eclipse of Buddhism, Jenkins says, is historically anomalous and probably temporary. Regarding Judaism, he notes that the Next Christendom has more freedom than the North to turn against Israel, because the South feels no responsibility for the Holocaust. On the other hand, since Israel has often aided Christian minorities being oppressed by Muslim governments, Israel could be counted among the crusaders. Jenkins constructs even stranger scenarios, such as one in which a still agnostic Chinese government comes to the aid of ethnic Chinese Christians in Malaysia or Indonesia, whose Muslim governments are supported by the United States.

There is a long tradition on both the Right and Left in developed countries of using the South for rhetorical purposes. A generation ago, the radical Left said that political battles that were lost in the West would be won in the South and East. Now Conservatives are saying the same thing. The world's multiculturalists are discovering, to their horror, that they have in fact been fostering a planetary religious revival. Still, Jenkins is clear that Western conservatives no more control the Next Christendom than the Old Left controlled aggressive international communism. The Right will probably be just as surprised at what actually happens as the left ever was.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-04-02: John Paul II

Pope St. John Paul II

Pope St. John Paul II

Joseph Ratzinger was John's second guess for Pope following John Paul II. He was elected, and himself elected not to follow the path of John Paul II into public incapacity.

John Paul II


As recently as Thursday night, I was deploring the way that the Vatican was allowing every detail of John Paul II's last illness to be publicized. Whatever happened to the discretion the Vatican was famous for? I was particularly irked by a small picture of the pope that appeared on the frontpage of Thursday's New York Times, which showed him apparently howling in frustration at his inability to address the crowd. Why was a man in his condition insisting on continuing to appear before a crowd?

Friday, when the Vatican started to make the penultimate announcements, the penny dropped. What we have been seeing in the Vatican's public management of John Paul II's last illness is not a failure of romanitá: quite the opposite, in fact. John Paul II was always of a dramatic turn of mind. In these last weeks, the world has been presented with a production that might be called The Good Death.

John Paul II was not one of those people who could not imagine a world without himself. In fact, few popes have done so much to see that their policies continue to have effect after their pontificates. Rather, by continuing to appear in public and carry on as well as he could, John Paul II showed that death is not a medical procedure. Dying is a stage of life. It should be integrated as much as possible with the rest of our lives. Dying people are still people, who do not wholly leave society until they leave this world (and if you accept the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints, not even then).

There had been calls for the pope to abdicate as soon as the announcement was made that he suffered from Parkinson's Disease. I believe that, without exception, the calls came from people who disagreed with his interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (where he was the youngest bishop to attend), and hoped for better luck in a new papal conclave. The argument that the pope could no longer do his job was misplaced in any case. He does not sleep next to a red phone, with which to order instant retaliation if the Mormons launch a first strike. As a matter of political theory, the papacy is more like the Supreme Court than the presidency, but even that is an imperfect analogy.

The papacy is not a job. A pope generally rules, but the essence of the office is that he reigns. He is a legitimate monarch. Monarchs in general acquired a bad name when, beginning in early modern times, many of them tried to also be tyrants. The novelty of absolute monarchy led to the equally novel age of revolutions. The pope's monarchy is a symbol of the monarchy of Christ, which will be perfectly realized only eschatologically, and which is why political theocracy should always be regarded with suspicion. As Friedrich Heer noted (and Julius Evola deplored), the claim of the medieval popes for religious autonomy from the Holy Roman Emperors was the template for every other claim of civil liberty in the West. The pope reigns by occupying his place in the scheme of things, not by what he does.

* * *

That said, of course, the great popes are not otiose, John Paul II least of all. Different things about the man seem most important to different people, but in his heart of hearts he was always a philosopher. When I reviewed his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, I noted how far beyond the ken of his critics the pope's keenest concerns really were. Actually, much the same could be said about his admirers. In that encyclical, the pope did not condemn postmodernism, as some of his more dunderheaded predecessors might have done. Rather, he explained why the skepticism it represented was untenable, and ultimately lethal. John Paul II became the most prominent defender in the world of the power of reason and the possibility of real knowledge. Outside of a few journals, I have yet to see any commentator appreciate that his effort to maintain the intellectual integrity of the West was among the most important things that John Paul II did.

* * *

There is an item on my website that has been getting a great deal of attention of recent days, a review of John Hogue's The Last Pope: The Decline and Fall of the Church of Rome (The Prophecies of St. Malachy for the New Millennium). (Thanks for all the email, by the way.) We are, of course, going to be hearing quite a bit more about the (perfectly historical) St. Malachy and the (almost certainly forged) prophecies attributed to him. The interesting question is how long John Paul II's body will be cold before we hear further expresssions of the desire to destroy the Church that Hogue's book expresses.

Not long, I expect. In fact, I discovered that there is a also a novel called The Last Pope, and a movie in the works:

In Advance of Publication, Veteran Film Producer Martin Poll Snags Fiercely Competitive Motion Picture Rights to Sourcebooks' Vatican Drama The Last Pope...In this profoundly moving novel from [David Osborn], all the secret voting intricacies of a papal conclave are revealed for the first time as well as the cutthroat politics between the various factions among the Cardinals, each vying to promote its favorite and pitting the forces of reaction and humanity once again in moral battle.

Actually, since were are about to be told about the intricacies of the papal conclave again and again for the next month, I wonder how much public appetite there will be to see them on the big screen. Besides, there will be some modest dramatic production on cable television first. Watch. (Or don't watch, as you prefer.)

* * *

Do I have any thoughts who the next pope will be? Not really, but that has never stopped a blogger yet. On the merits, I would vote for Cardinal George of Chicago, who is a theologian of parts, but he is also an American, which means he is a non-starter. I would like to see Cardinal Ratzinger elected, but then, many people think he will be chosen, because he is old and his reign likely to be short. Papal conclaves have a history of not electing the most likely candidates.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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John Reilly's Pilgrimage

Since I happened to be in New Jersey, I thought I would visit John Reilly's home, Jersey City, and attend Mass at Holy Rosary Church. John used to attend a Latin Mass there, but today I attended an Italian Mass. I thought perhaps having heard a Latin Mass and a Spanish Mass, I could keep up with the Italian. As it was, I was pretty lost. The acoustics were bad, and the volume was low, but even with a printed missal I couldn't easily follow the Italian. It was so fast and smooth that it was hard to keep place.

Jersey City near Holy Rosary is a pretty place, full of 2 to 3 story brick buildings, with a fine view of the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The price of real estate is accordingly high, and going higher. 

After Mass, I headed to Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington.  John had been buried there i 2012. I've never been to such a busy cemetery. A line of cars was pulling in and out the whole time I was there, which ended up being a couple of hours, since I was lost. There are 289,000 graves there, according to Wikipedia. I spent a bit of time wandering around the capacious mausoleum, before I figured out another John J. Reilly had been buried there in 2012.

Once I figured out I was in the wrong place, I headed back outside. I never did find a map, but I did have a grave location, so I drove until I found the correct section, and paid my respects, and offered up a prayer for him. 

In John's honor, I then headed for the shore to enjoy a beer. John was a Heineken man, but microbrews are my style, so hopefully he will forgive me when next we meet.

The Long View: Is Mathematics Constitutional?

A recent popular [well, as popular as a massive book full of equations can be] exposition of mathematical Platonism is Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality. It even has practice problems in it with devoted communities of amateurs trading tips on how to solve them. Mathematical Platonism, or something much like it, really is something like the default position of many mathematicians and physicists.

Since I ended up an engineer, perhaps it isn't really surprising that I always found the moderate realism of Aristotle and Aquinas more appealing. 

There is a good quote in this short essay that I've used to good effect:

"Because the whole point of science is to explain the universe without invoking the supernatural, the failure to explain rationally the 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,' as the physicist Eugene Wigner once put it, is something of a scandal, an enormous gap in human understanding."
I, for one, was a little taken aback by the proposition that science had any "point" other than to describe the physical world as it actually is, but let that pass.

Philosophy of science is a field in fine shape, but many fans of science try to use it as a cudgel upon religious believers. Insofar as that attempt is mostly ignorant of both science and philosophy, it isn't particularly illuminating.

Is Mathematics Constitutional?


The New York Times remains our paper of record, even in matters of metaphysics. For proof, you need only consult the article by George Johnson that appeared in the Science Section on February 16, 1998, entitled: "Useful Invention or Absolute Truth: What Is Math?" The piece was occasioned by a flurry of recent books challenging mathematical Platonism. This is the belief, shared by most mathematicians and many physicists, that mathematical ideas are "discovered" rather than constructed by the mathematicians who articulate them. Consider the following sentence:

"Because the whole point of science is to explain the universe without invoking the supernatural, the failure to explain rationally the 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,' as the physicist Eugene Wigner once put it, is something of a scandal, an enormous gap in human understanding."

I, for one, was a little taken aback by the proposition that science had any "point" other than to describe the physical world as it actually is, but let that pass. The immediate philosophical peril to the world of the Times is more narrow. That is, it is hard to be a thoroughgoing secular materialist if you have to acknowledge that there are aspects of reality that cannot be explained as either products of blind chance or of human invention. Supreme Court Justice William Kennedy has even suggested that systems of ethics claiming an extra-human origin are per se unconstitutional. Judging by some of the arguments against mathematical Platonism presented by the Times piece, however, we may soon see Establishment Clause challenges to federal aid for mathematical education.

The best-known of the books that try to de-Platonize mathematics is "The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics," by the cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene. His argument is that the rudiments of mathematics are hardwired into the human brain, and so that mathematics is foundationally a product of neurology. The evidence is various. There are studies of accident victims suggesting there may be a specific area of the brain concerned with counting, as well as stimulus-response studies showing that some animals can be trained to distinguish small-number sequences. (Remember the rabbits in "Watership Down," who had the same name for all numbers from five to infinity?) Relying on even more subtle arguments is a recent article by George Lakoff and Rafael E. Núñez, "Mathematical Reasoning: Analogies, Metaphors and Images." [BE: the actual article is titled The Metaphorical Structure of Mathematics: Sketching Out Cognitive Foundations for a Mind-Based Mathematics] The authors suggest that numbers are simply extrapolated from the structure of the body and mathematical operations from movement. (The article is part of an upcoming book to be called "The Mathematical Body.")

I have not read these works, so it is entirely possible I am missing something. Still, it seems to me that there are two major problems with analyses of this sort. First, if the proposition is that mathematical entities are metaphysical universals that are reflected in the physical world, it is no argument against this proposition to point to specific physical instances of them. In other words, if numbers are everywhere, then it stands to reason that they would be inherent in the structure of the brain and body, too.

If Dr. Dehaene has really found a "math-box" in the head, has he found a fantasy-gland or an organ of perception? The Times article paraphrases him as saying that numbers are "artifacts of the way the brain parses the colors. Red apples are not inherently red. They reflect light at wavelengths that the brain...interprets as red." The distinction between things that are "really red" and those that "just look like red" has always escaped me, even in languages with different verbs for adjectival predicates and the copula. Doesn't a perfectly objective spectral signature identify any red object? In order to avoid writing the Monty Python skit that arguments about perception usually become, let me just note here that the experience of qualia (such as "redness") has nothing to do with the cognitive understanding of number. Like the numbers distinguishing the wavelengths of colors, for instance.

There is a more basic objection to the physicalistic reductionism at work here, however. Consider what it would mean if it worked. Suppose that proofs were presented so compelling as to convince any honest person that mathematics was indeed nothing more than an extrapolation of the structure of the nervous system, or of the fingers on the hand, or of the spacing of heartbeats. We would then have a situation where we would have to explain the "unreasonable effectiveness" of the human neocortex, or even the universal explanatory power of the human anatomy. This would be anthropocentrism come home to roost. You could, I suppose, argue that we only imagine that the human neurological activity called mathematics lets us explain everything; the reality is that we only know about the things that our brains let us explain. Well, maybe, but then that suggests that there are other things that we don't know about because our brains are not hardwired to explain them. Maybe those are the things that are really red?

There are indeed problems with mathematical Platonism, the chief of which is that it is hard to see how the physical world could interact with the non-sensuous ideal forms. (John Barrow's delightful "Pi in the Sky" will take interested readers on a fair-minded tour of the philosophy and intellectual history of this perennial question.) The most workable solution is probably the "moderate Realism" of Aquinas. He held that, yes, there are universals, but that we can know about them only through the senses. This seems reasonable enough. In fact, this epistemological optimism is probably the reason science developed in the West in the first place. There may even be a place for Dr. Dehaene's math-box in all this, if its function is regarded as perceiving numbers rather than making them up. What there can be no place for is the bigotry of those who believe that science exists only to support certain metaphysical prejudices.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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Linkfest 2017-06-16

Is Islam the rock on which the liberal order broke?

Razib Khan's Brown Pundits post on whether liberalism broadly construed can stand against the intransigence of Islam.

Think wine connoisseurship is nonsense? Blind-tasting data suggest otherwise

It is easy to make fun of the expensive culture of wine tasting, but I'm always willing to follow the data.

John Betjeman on Greece (but really on England)

A beautiful poem about the Church.

We Could Have Had Cellphones Four Decades Earlier

I like to poke fun at libertarianism, but this seems like an example where a libertarian critique is warranted. A variety of vested interests created by law defended their prerogatives to the detriment of the public interest. In this case, rather than anti-competitive practices by AT&T, we seem to have a case of neglect.

The Best Movies of the 21st Century

Ross Douthat ponders what movies deserve attention since 2001. Also see Steve Sailer's response.

How Pasteur’s Artistic Insight Changed Chemistry

Arguing that Louis Pasteur's abortive art career helped him discover chirality.

Status in the Iliad

Gabriel Rossman does a network analysis of battles in the Iliad.

That Time an Algorithm Whisperer Took Me to the Heart of Darkness

Joel Stein is a funny, funny guy.


The Long View: Forever Peace

This book review contains a remarkable prediction, one so bold that even I find it hard to believe. John Reilly claims that work has nearly no elasticity.

Would it really make such a difference if all manufacturing jobs were automated? The proportion of people in advanced countries who have such jobs is what, 25%? For most of history, 90% or more of people worked in agriculture. That is why, in political philosophy from Confucius to the physiocrats, only peasants were held to do any real work. Today, in the US, only 1% of the people are actually farmers. By historical measures, everybody else is out of a job.
One way to put it is that economics need not be about things. It can be about access to certain people or places, or about time, or about anything you please. The human capacity to make work is probably more inexhaustible than the universe's ability to provide power for the physical aspects of the activities in question.

I would venture to say that pretty much everyone disagrees with this contention. And for good reason. Sober economists have researched the subject and concluded that automation is a factor in explaining why the US still makes a lot of stuff, and has decreased the number of people employed making all that stuff. Hell, even coal-mining, much in the public mind of late, employs about 50,000 miners in the US, but produces as much coal as ever.

Yet, I'll defend it, at least in part, because it is an interesting idea. Many, many jobs are already very automated, to a degree that is surprising when you stop and think about it. And not just manufacturing or extraction work either. Word processors and email clients have made typists and secretaries nearly obsolete, yet the proportion of women in office jobs has only gone up as the positions they used to be limited to have evaporated. 

This week on Twitter I saw a reference to Moravec's paradox, which claims that it is easier to have a computer do something difficult for a human, like play chess very well, but hard to do something like control a robot walking or recognize a face easily. As stated, I think this has some truth in it, but the subsequent claim that this means white-collar jobs are in more danger from automation and AI than service industry jobs seems a little off. 

I think this because white-collar jobs are already automated heavily. If anything, all the tools and data themselves just make more work to be done. Another way of putting it is that work expands to fill the time available to do it. This truism of project management may have another meaning in the context of automation. Work really is never ending.

It would be interesting to look at employment data from the twentieth century and see if the models predict subsequent employment data we also have. Lots of men, especially, have dropped out of the workforce, but is this actually congruent with automation, or are other things in play? My bet is on something else. 

People [some people] like work, and gain immense fulfillment from it. What makes work fulfilling is an important subject. There are probably kinds of work that are intrinsically more fascinating to people with minds like ours. It also matters if you believe your work to be important. It also matters if you think you are paid fairly. It is possible that automation will eliminate some kinds of work, but I'm not certain it is actually possible to keep people from coming up with new things to do.

Forever Peace
by Joe Haldeman
Ace Books, 1997
351 pages, $6.50
ISBN: 0-441-00566-7


Reviewed by John J. Reilly


If you were suicidal because you were disgusted with the viciousness of the human race, and you knew that a certain high-energy physics experiment would destroy the world, would you try to stop the experiment? That is what half of this novel is about. The other half is about how to ensure universal peace by linking the world's population together with neural implants. These two themes are less disjointed than they might at first appear. If the human race is worth saving, then the theoretical availability of doomsday technology makes it necessary that some way be found to eliminate the human propensity to use it. Reasonable people may not all find Joe Haldeman's solution entirely plausible, but that is not Haldeman's fault. The problem is intractable.

This book is prefaced with a caveat. The author warns the reader that the book is not a sequel to his famous 1975 novel, "The Forever War," though he does allow that "Forever Peace" treats some of the same issues from new perspectives. One difference between the two books is that the later story does not take place in space, but they are similar in that they both involve an interminable high-tech war. In "Forever Peace," the war is an uneven struggle of the middle-21st century between the First and Third Worlds. The protagonist, Julian Class, is a black American and a junior professor of physics at the University of Texas. He is also an active member of the US Army (he was drafted). This means he spends a large part of every month neurally connected to a warrior-robot in Central America, as well as to the members of the platoon he commands, who all are the brains of robots of their own.

These tank-like robots, called "soldierboys," can and do make short work of merely human opponents. They are not entirely safe to operate; the actual soldiers linked to their sensors and motor controls are subject to stroke and psychological trauma. In any case, these devices have two functions in the novel. They allow for the grisly episodes that drive Class to attempt suicide, and they provide an occasion to introduce the surgically implanted neural links that play a part in the larger story. The good guys discover that very prolonged links between people have the effect of "humanizing" them, turning them into creatures incapable of violence except in self-defense.

The need for such a leap in evolution is based on some scary new physics. Well, it is presented as a new discovery of some of the characters, though you have probably heard of something like it if you follow popular physics. The doomsday discovery relates to the suggestion that a sufficiently energetic event, such as might occur in a particle accelerator, could knock the vacuum in a small region of space to a quantum background state lower than that found in the rest of the universe. This region would then expand, engulfing everything in its path at the speed of light. Physicists have even speculated that this was pretty much what happened in the Big Bang, which might conceivably have destroyed an earlier universe in the process of creating our own.

The usual objection to this hypothesis is that, if we really did live in a universe with a "false vacuum," then some event would have collapsed it already. Haldeman suggests that the expansion of true vacuum space might be limited to particular galaxies, though you can make up your own explanation for why this should be. (In any case, there is a discussion of the ethical implications of the false vacuum hypothesis in John Leslie's The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction.)

Two further conditions make a change in human nature not just necessary but immediately imperative. The first is that the human race is no longer protected by high costs. Thanks to the invention of nano-technology, which is to say machines that operate on the molecular level, the cost of manufacturing has pretty much fallen to that of the necessary raw materials. If coal is put in the top of a properly programmed nanoforge, for instance, perfectly cut diamonds will come out the bottom. This manufacturing technology made it possible to build an immense particle accelerator array in orbit around Jupiter, using an unmanned nanoforge based on Io. The accelerator, needless to say, turns out to be large enough to start the spatial-collapse catastrophe.

Then there is human cussedness. At the time of the story, an apocalyptic sect known as the "Enders" ("ultimadiadores" in Spanish) is much in evidence. Except for occasional acts of mayhem against unbelievers, they are content to wait for the Rapture. More dangerous is a powerful and widespread secret society called "The Hammer of God," which is quite willing to accelerate the end of the world should the possibility present itself, as indeed it does. Having learned of the good guys' discovery about the nature of space, they attempt to suppress it so that the world will end on schedule. (The date when the accelerator is to be tested is September 24, which may be Rosh Hashanah for that year, a favorite date for apocalyptic speculation.)

"Forever Peace," in the honored tradition of stories set in the future, seeks to be reasonably topical. Even its characterization of the American president as "the most feckless since Andrew Johnson" may be intended to provide a little contemporary resonance for people who read the book during the Clinton Administration. Still, I would suggest that this story continues to use some assumptions that may have been more plausible 25 years ago than they are today.

One such assumption is the hypothesis of a gender-neutral military. This has been a staple of science fiction for some time, in no small part because of the plausible treatment Haldeman gave it in "The Forever War." The reality does not seem to be working out all that well in the US armed services. The matter has not gone unreported, though it still remains beyond the acceptable limits of what can be discussed in the mass media. It seems probable to me that, long before the middle of the next century, the percentage of women serving in the US armed forces will shrink to the 5% or so that is normal to the militaries of English-speaking countries, with complete exclusion of women from combat missions. Of course, my prediction could turn out to be just science fiction.

Then there is the economics of abundance. In Haldeman's nanoforge economy, almost nobody works. Except for college professors and waiters, almost everyone in the advanced countries is content to live on a government stipend. For reasons that are not made altogether clear, the nanoforges are a closely guarded government monopoly. Third World client states are kept in line by the amount of nanoforge production allocated to them, though it might seem to be simpler to just give away the damn nanoforges to whoever wants one.

One of the odd things about the book is that nowhere is there an explanation for the interminable war. What are these people fighting about? If manufacturing labor costs are essentially zero, you cannot even make the Marxist argument that the immiseration of the poor countries is somehow enriching the rich ones. There are no ideological differences; the whole world is socialist, because the economy has become a government utility. Something is wrong with this picture.

The world described in "The Forever War" was also one in which most people did little but consume, since the economy was so automated that it ran itself. Nano-technology really adds nothing to the picture, which I think we can now say is probably wrong. Since Haldeman's earlier book was published, much of the manufacturing economy has been automated, and even what had been skilled clerical work is now handled by computers. The result was a labor shortage, at least in the United States, and a vast increase in living standards in the developing countries. There is a lesson here.

It really is true that technology does not cause unemployment. The assumption that more machines mean fewer jobs is based on an error that is not so different from the notion that the state exists just because there are social classes. Just as Marxists had thought that the end of social classes would cause the state to whither away, so technological pessimists thought that everyone would go on welfare as soon as "no one had to work for a living." In both cases, the assumption is that politics and economics are essentially utilitarian institutions.

This is pretty clearly not the case. As anyone who has been to high school can tell you, political activity is not something that people do just to ensure the necessities of life. People do politics for prestige, for fun, even when there is no particular need. The state is just another way that human beings interact. The same is true of economic activity. As Aristotle famously put it, man is a political animal, but he is also an economic one. People will trade and dicker and build better mousetraps even when they are already materially secure for life.

Would it really make such a difference if all manufacturing jobs were automated? The proportion of people in advanced countries who have such jobs is what, 25%? For most of history, 90% or more of people worked in agriculture. That is why, in political philosophy from Confucius to the physiocrats, only peasants were held to do any real work. Today, in the US, only 1% of the people are actually farmers. By historical measures, everybody else is out of a job.

One way to put it is that economics need not be about things. It can be about access to certain people or places, or about time, or about anything you please. The human capacity to make work is probably more inexhaustible than the universe's ability to provide power for the physical aspects of the activities in question.

Haldeman has a few other ideas about the 21st century that may be prescient, but that have not quite gelled. For instance, he suggests that dangerous machines and substances will be either illegal or closely rationed. Thus, guns are outlawed and hardly anybody owns a car. The result is that this may be the only science fiction story I have ever read in which people routinely travel on the Amtrak passenger railroad system. On the other hand, he still depicts cities as dangerous, decaying places, which in fact many American cities became after their citizens decamped in their cars for the suburbs. In the 1970s, it was easy enough to believe that this would be a permanent fact of life. Closer to the end of the century, however, we see that urban decay is not irreversible. If cars were eliminated except for special purposes, then urban sprawl would soon implode to form high-density cities. As in the past, these could easily afford to be safe and tidy, precisely because services are easier to deliver to a compact population. Futures that look like "Blade Runner" or "Mad Max" look less and less plausible.

Finally, let us consider the way in which mankind is saved. One of the great humanizing ideas of the Enlightenment is that conflict is a product of misunderstanding. The theory is that, at bottom, everybody has the same interest. If only people had the education to let them just sit down and talk to each other, they would see that their hostilities were based on errors of fact. Surely linking up everybody's brains would have this effect.

The problem is that the assumption is not quite correct. The conviction that we all have a commonality of interest has greatly enhanced the happiness of mankind, because it is true more than half the time. However, the really intractable conflicts are those in which the interests of the parties are not the same. If one is right, the other is wrong. If one expands, the other contracts. If one lives, the other dies. This is not the whole of human life, but it is enough to put "forever peace" beyond a technological solution.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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Forever Peace
By Joe Haldeman

The Long View 2005-03-30: Death & Taxes

Memento mori.

Death & Taxes


For reasons I find mysterious, the 11th Circuit has agreed to review the Terri Schiavo case once again. No doubt the situation will be resolved by the time you read this.

As some commentators have long forecast, the political Left of the Democratic Party is continuing to put sunlight between itself and the cultural Left, the better to make itself relevant again. Hillary Clinton has been doing that on abortion, and now we have this report:

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (AP) - As Terri Schiavo entered her 12th full day without food or water, the Rev. Jesse Jackson prayed with her parents Tuesday and joined conservatives in calling for state lawmakers to order her feeding tube reinserted.

I regard the liberation of the prolife position from the conservative ghetto as a good thing, but it seems to be associated less with a new refinement of the moral sense than with a general willingness to abandon principle. On that, right and left are at one, as we see in William Kristol's editorial in The Weekly Standard (April 4), "Evolving Standards of Decency." In that piece, he notes that the US Supreme Court recently made a novel interpretation of the Eighth Amendment. Because moral standards had changed since the Amendment was enacted, the Court reasoned, the execution of persons who committed murders as juveniles must now be considered "cruel and unusual punishment," and therefore constitutionally impermissible. That decision was widely condemned in conservative circles, including The Weekly Standard, but Kristol nevertheless says this:

Last week, federal judges chose to dismiss, out of hand, extraordinary legislation passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the president, which asked the federal courts to take a fresh look at the case. The federal judges chose not to explain why "evolving standards of decency" might not allow Terri Schiavo to be kept alive until the case was argued in federal court.

The federal judges did not "choose" to overlook evolving standards of decency. The issue did not come up. All that Congress did was allow Schiavo's parents access to the bottom of the federal judicial system. No special rights were created, and the ordinary rules applied for granting an injunction. Nothing that any of the courts have done was an abuse of discretion, much less a monstrosity like Roe v. Wade.

* * *

If you want to see an example of a court rising above principle in the way that Kristol seems to want, you need look no further than this story about another death-penalty case: Colorado Court Bars Execution Because Jurors Consulted Bible.

That holding was even weirder than you might suppose. The general rule is that the jury room is a black box, in which jurors may apply whatever reason or unreason seems good to them. Juries can and do ignore the judge's instructions; proof that they did so is generally not grounds for overturning a jury decision. The minority on the Colorado court had it right:

In the decision on Monday, the dissenting judges said the majority had confused the internal codes of right and wrong that juries are expected to possess in such weighty moral matters with the outside influences that are always to be avoided, like newspaper articles or television programs about the case. The jurors consulted Bibles, the minority said, not to look for facts or alternative legal interpretations, but for wisdom.

So why did the majority hold as it did? No doubt anti-religious bias was a factor, but any argument would have sufficed. This was a death penalty case, a life issue, which makes it the sort of matter in which the judiciary has proven itself willing to exercise power beyond the limits of the legitimate authority of the courts.

This is an abuse that is gradually poisoning the whole of American constitutional law. It would be no less toxic in the context of the Schiavo case that it was in Griswald v. Connecticut.

* * *

Speaking of cluelessness, one notes the editorial in today's New York Times by former US senator Bill Bradley, A Party Inverted.

The piece begins by characterizing the Republican Party as a stable pyramid that the Democrats would do well to imitate, so I assumed that I was about to read yet another argument for why the Democratic Party should embrace conservative cultural issues in order to broaden its popular base. As I continued reading, however, I discovered that was not at all the sort of pyramid that the author had in mind:

You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid...The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate...then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas...At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president.

Look, far be it from me to dissuade the George Soroses of the world from subsidizing a new class of policy wonks in the splendor to which they aspire, but this analysis is a bad misreading of the past 15 years. The Republican Party got where it is today on issues that its policy infrastructure generally dislike and certainly did not invent, and with the help of new communications technology that the Party did not foresee and does not control. Actually, the big difference between the parties is that the Democrats were too chummy with the big liberal foundations, whose policies had little support outside academic circles. The Republican Party has its own incubus in the form of institutionalized libertarianism, but that's another story.

President Bush's numbers are dropping now precisely because he is returning to the platform on which he was elected, more or less, in 2000, which was constructed by the likes of the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. The Democrats should not try to replicate those institutions.

* * *

Glancing from the Culture War to the Terror War, consider this report from Joel C. Rosenberg

One Arab Christian leader tells me that based on his research with churches and ministries throughout the Islamic world, he now believes more than 1.5 million Muslims worldwide have trusted Christ since 9/11. Such numbers are difficult to verify, but the trend is clear.

Let us amend that statement to say that such numbers are intrinsically impossible to verify, but it is important on many levels that the matter is even being discussed.

* * *

So you want examples of judicial tyranny? Well, here's some tyranny for the freelancers of the world:

Commuters from out of state who take cars, trains and buses to jobs in New York have long grumbled about having to pay New York State income tax. A ruling handed down on Tuesday by the state's highest court found that the growing ranks of telecommuters from out of state must also pay...The programmer, Thomas L. Huckaby, had argued that since he worked only a quarter of the time in Queens, he should pay New York tax on only a quarter of his income. But the court ruled that because the source of Mr. Huckaby's income was in New York - and because he was in Tennessee as a matter of personal convenience, and not because his employer needed him to work there - he must pay tax on his full income...Peter L. Faber, a lawyer for Mr. Huckaby, said that ambiguity would make the rules hard to navigate. "Basically, if you never come to New York, they won't tax you," he said. "But the implication is that if you come to New York for a minimal amount of time, they will."

As the dissent in this opinion points out, this taxation doctrine is novel. Even as I write, someone is thinking of a way to get this theory before a federal court, where it is unlikely to prosper. What concerns me is that, at intervals, I will visit Manhattan to have lunch with editors. Could one cheeseburger too many make me liable for the New York City income tax?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

St. Augustine and Saxons

Ross Douthat posted a trio of links to articles about St. Augustine, in the service of criticizing Stephen Greenblatt's anti-Christian animus.

The articles are pretty interesting, but it was the second one that really caught my eye.

Similarly, it is a gross distortion to describe medieval people as “an anxious populace” scanning “the horizon for barbarian armies.” By “barbarian” Greenblatt presumably means the Goths, Vikings and other non-western-European peoples who migrated out of Asia and the Baltic regions beginning in the first century. Scholars of Late Antiquity know that this process of migration was primarily characterized by gradual colonization and assimilation, not decisive battles fought by bloodthirsty hordes. (The battles get more prominent mention in written sources but archeology tells a different story.) 

Greenblatt may dislike Christians, as the article quotes him at length on the subject, but Greenblatt has a better grasp on the reality of death by the sword than Jim Hinch does. We know from ancient DNA that 25-40% of the ancestry of the British is Anglo-Saxon, with a cline from East to West. Earlier invasions in the same place were far worse, with 93% population replacement during the Bell Beaker expansion.

Hinch cites archaeologists as his source, so he is perhaps only guilty of trusting the wrong people. Robert E. Howard turns out to be a better source than most archaeologists on this subject.

The Long View 2005-03-25: Good Friday

This quote is remarkable, and has colored my view of government and constitutions ever since:

Someday, a prominent person involved in the Social Security debate is going to say, in public, that the only remedy for a demographic problem is a demographic solution. There will be an immediate response from several points of the political compass, to the effect that the birthrate is no concern of government. To that, others will reply that the Griswald-Roe-Casey regime is already a demographic policy. A full response, which may be a while in coming, would be that oversight of demographics is one of the pre-constitutional functions of government. Like the police powers, or the power to acquire national territory, it is one of those things that every sovereign has to be able to do. That is true even if the sovereign's constitution gives no such power, and even if the constitution says the sovereign has no such power.

Pre-constitutional functions of government is a great turn of phrase.

Good Friday


Terri Schiavo does not have long now, unless some official decides to act without color of law. Lots of people are calling on the president, or the governor of Florida, or maybe the local sheriff, to do just that. Readers of this blog will also be aware that I have long been predicting, even advocating, the restriction of judicial review. Let me therefore repeat that this would not be the case to do it. The courts did not manufacture a right to euthanasia for Terri Schiavo, or perhaps for the convenience of her husband. The courts have been applying reasonable statutes in a reasonable manner. If the governor had sent Florida state troopers to take custody, he would not be defying the courts, but the legislature.

Remember the old saying, "A government that can do anything for you can do anything to you"? Do you really want to live in a country where the law can be suspended with respect to popularly designated individuals?

* * *

Meanwhile, at the other end of the sinking Roe v. Wade superliner, we have this uncomfortable truth from Mark Steyn: The strange death of the liberal West:

I am, as Tony Blair might say, deeply passionately personally deeply personally opposed to abortion. But, unlike him, I think it ought to be an election issue...the point about abortion is not that it's a "matter of conscience" for individuals to "wrestle with", but that it's a crucial part of the central political challenge of our time...The 19th-century Shaker communities were forbidden from breeding and could increase their number only by conversion. The Euro-Canadian-Democratic Party welfare secularists seem to have chosen the same predicament voluntarily, and are likely to meet the same fate. The martyrdom culture of radical Islam is a literal dead end. But so is the slyer death culture of post-Christian radical narcissism. This is the political issue that will determine all the others: it's the demography, stupid.

Someday, a prominent person involved in the Social Security debate is going to say, in public, that the only remedy for a demographic problem is a demographic solution. There will be an immediate response from several points of the political compass, to the effect that the birthrate is no concern of government. To that, others will reply that the Griswald-Roe-Casey regime is already a demographic policy. A full response, which may be a while in coming, would be that oversight of demographics is one of the pre-constitutional functions of government. Like the police powers, or the power to acquire national territory, it is one of those things that every sovereign has to be able to do. That is true even if the sovereign's constitution gives no such power, and even if the constitution says the sovereign has no such power.

You see: I am starting to sound like Carl Schmitt. Or perhaps like John Marshall.

* * *

And as if things were not bad enough, that Incorrigible Spengler at Asia Times has taken to writing light opera. To wit: The Jihadis of Penzance: Or, The Slave of Democracy. Just look:

Much of what US President George W Bush and his representatives have said lately might have been extracted from a W S Gilbert libretto. To put the matter in context, I have sketched the sort of libretto that Gilbert might have prepared for Arthur Sullivan were the pair alive today, and embedded in it some of these utterances. Links to MIDI files for the songs are provided in footnotes, and readers are encouraged to sing along with Spengler. Direct quotations from US officials are indicated by italics.

He shall bear a heavier burden in the Latter Day; particularly because he thought of this first.

* * *

About political acrimony, I am pretty thickskinned. It's stories like this that knock the wind out of me:

In a startling discovery, geneticists at Purdue University say they have found plants that possess a corrected version of a defective gene inherited from both their parents, as if some handy backup copy with the right version had been made in the grandparents' generation or earlier...If confirmed, it would represent an unprecedented exception to the laws of inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel in the 19th century. Equally surprising, the cryptic genome appears not to be made of DNA, the standard hereditary material.

Actually, the suspicion has been growing for several years that DNA may be only one factor in heredity. Polymer chemistry, for instance, determines how proteins twist and bend, which has more to do with the structure of living things than does the information in nuclear DNA. And even regarding the nucleus: if information is not being stored in the DNA, then the obvious place to look is the RNA. However, that hypothesis has problems:

Dr. Haig, the evolutionary biologist, said that the finding was fascinating but that it was too early to try to interpret it. He noted that if there was a cryptic template, it ought to be more resistant to mutation than the DNA it helps correct. Yet it is hard to make this case for RNA, which accumulates many more errors than DNA when it is copied by the cell.

And if all else fails, there is always Morphic Resonance.

I jest. Mostly.

* * *

Waxing even more obscure, here is an item that will make sense only to readers of The Weekly Standard:

It is unlikely I will rent the new film, The Upside of Anger, much less that I will go to see it in a theater. Nonetheless, I found a certain fascination in John Podhoretz's review in The Weekly Standard of March 28. The film stars Kevin Costner and Joan Allen, and Podhoretz praises them to the skies (especially Costner, who is due for a little luck). The film is about the relationship between an apparently deserted wife and a gone-to-seed baseball player. It ends with a plot twist that seems plausible enough for a movie. The reviewer, however, goes ballistic, for reasons I find mysterious:

There is one upside to the anger I experienced as the closing credits rolled. It convinced me to blow the surprise ending so that you could leave the theater after about an hour and 50 minutes. When you see Kevin Costner starting to walk into the backyard with a couple of contractors, get your coat and leave. You'll think better of The Upside of Anger and not have the pleasure of seeing it damaged by the well-deserved contempt you'll feel if you stay until the bitter end.

Well, I will not give the ending away. Bad reviews are the most fun to read, whether or not you have the details. I quote it here chiefly because I find Podhoretz's reaction mysterious. Can anyone enlighten me?

* * *

Be that as it may, The Upside of Anger sounds like a chick-flick. If you want to see a real movie, or at least a real trailer, visit the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

The UFA has risen from its moldy grave and shambles amongst us.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-03-21: Eschatology: Personal, Universal, and Musical

In a remarkable coincidence, I happen to be fairly close to Point Pleasant, NJ today. I have noticed a lack of apocalyptic activity.

I also note that anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, can be used to describe the plot of Last Call.

Eschatology: Personal, Universal, and Musical


In the Star Trek movies, there are references to occasions (never shown on screen) in which people who were beamed up by the transporter were seriously garbled in transmission. Something like that could be what will happen in the Terry Schiavo case. If this matter is subsumed into the federal system, there is no way to predict what it will look like when it appears at the district-court level, and on the various levels of appeal. This is not a good test case, if for no other reason than that the facts, even the biology, are unclear. It is particularly not a good case for the right-to-life position: we know from experience that the federal courts do not adopt a position of "first, do no harm" in the face of uncertainty.

I have not yet seen the phrase, "bill of attainder," appear in this debate, but I await it hourly.

* * *

Something else I note with dread is the possibility of a fashion for television series with a biblical-doomsday premise. Doomsday in one form or another is always with us, but the public's long love affair with asteroids and viruses has faded. In these latter days, the strong delusion has gripped the nation's network television executives that there is a huge religion-market that they have been missing, and that they can access it by adapting the Book of Revelation. Yesterday, the New York Times reported on one of these efforts: Apocalypse Now, and for the Next Five Weeks:

With a premiere set for April 13, NBC's "Revelations" follows the efforts of Sister Josepha Montifiore, a globe-trotting nun played by Natascha McElhone, and Dr. Richard Massey, a Harvard astrophysicist (and religious skeptic, of course) played by Bill Pullman, to determine whether the end of the world is indeed near...Most notably, the entire series rests on the premise that the two lead characters can somehow forestall the final clash between God and Satan - an interpretation anathema to most end-times literalists.

Though of course the series has not yet premiered, and NBC has not offered me review disks, it is hard to avoid the prediction that this series will have about as much to do with any recognizable form of Christian eschatology as orange-flavor drink does with orange juice. Even the characters are wrongly constructed. Astrophysicists are often quite metaphysically minded: if the screenwriters wanted a skeptic, they should have used a psychologist, or perhaps an evolutionary biologist.

The really interesting point about the the NBC series is that it is already derivative, of the appalling FOX series, Point Pleasant. This is yet another series with 30-year-old high school students, with the twist that one of them is a potential teenage Antichrist. A bare-midriffed girl Antichrist. Some of the creators of the old Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise were involved in this fiasco, thus providing yet more evidence for the proposition that the worst mistakes can be made only by the smartest people.

Aside from the general cluelessness of the premise, I noted the series chiefly because the title blackens the name of an unoffending town on the Jersey Shore. Just the other day, I heard someone refer to New Jersey as "the Hell State." I thought that excessive, but maybe I have not been paying attention.

* * *

One can only repeat that every film with an apocalyptic premise need not be a horror movie. To appreciate the artistic potential of the apocalyptic texts, however, one must first understand what sort of thing they are. Stephen O'Leary addressed the question at length in his book, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric. I summarized his observations in a review:

Arguing the Apocalypse amplifies the long-standing thesis that apocalyptic is essentially a form of drama. (This is particularly the case with the Book of Revelation, which looks for all the world like a classical Greek play; it even has a chorus.) Now drama, according to Aristotle, comes in two flavors. There is tragedy, which features good and evil characters who proceed to an inevitable catastrophe. Dramatic plots tend to be about how sin is met with revenge. Comedy, on the other hand, is about foolish or mistaken characters who stumble into a happy ending. Error is cured by enlightenment, eventuating in reconciliation.

There are, of course, both tragic and comedic elements in Biblical eschatology. The wicked are really and irredeemably wicked. On the other hand, even the best of the good are more than a little confused, so much so that they are not saved by their own efforts. Thus, in Anatomy of Criticism, the great Northrop Frye could go so far as to characterize the literary form of the Bible as comedy. As he explained:

The four mythoi that we are dealing with, comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony, may now be seen as four aspects of a central unifying myth. Agon or conflict is the basis or archetypical theme of romance, the radical of romance being a sequence of marvelous adventures. Pathos or catastrophe, whether in triumph or in defeat, is the archetypal theme of tragedy. Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy.

The matrimonial metaphors of comedy, of course, are among those that characterize the parousia in Revelation.

As I have noted before, and probably will note again whenever the subject comes up, the progressive-rock group Genesis made good use of these insights many years ago in the song-cycle Supper's Ready, which appeared in the album Foxtrot.

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The Long View: Anatomy of Criticism

As a believer that great works of synthesis are the characteristic work of our age, I support this kind of book.

Anatomy of Criticism
By Northrop Frye
Foreword by Harold Bloom
Princeton University Press, 1957
(Paperback 1990)
383 Pages, $17.95
ISBN 0691069999


A review of this book really should not be a text. It should be a diagram of a landscape, like a medieval mappa mundi, or maybe like one of those intricate cosmological charts that brilliant schizophrenics sometimes produce. The subject is the whole of literature, a continent whose shores are the boundary between imagination and experience, and whose countries are marked by the undefended frontiers between comedy, tragedy, masque, romance, the novel, the lyric, and every form and type of recorded use of imaginative language. The book was written just before the rise of postmodernism, at almost the last moment when a serious critical study could aspire to tell readers how the whole world is, rather than how it isn't. The book is dense, therefore, but it is not malicious.

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) needs no introduction, but that consideration has never yet stopped a reviewer. Frye was the Canadian academic magus who was not Marshall McLuhan, who was his colleague at the University of Toronto, but reportedly not his friend. In the 1960s, both achieved worldwide reputations. McLuhan's theme was the emergence of universal consciousness in a world mediated by audio-visual technology. Frye's project was ahistorical, and far more ambitious: to grasp the whole world of story. He seems to have spent the rest of his long career unpacking the details of the vision he synthesized in Anatomy of Criticism.

One should note that Frye's reach exceeded his grasp. Though he sought a universal synthesis, Anatomy of Criticism is chiefly about English literature, beginning with Shakespeare. The literatures of the Classical world are consulted for parallel historical development; the Christian Bible is searched for themes and structures. (Frye himself was an ordained Methodist minister.) European writers are conflated with their anglophone contemporaries. There are a few references to Hindu literature, and fewer to anthropology.

Frye's project is to identify and classify the archetypes of literature. These include the sort of things that Jung and Joseph Campbell have taught us to identify as archetypes. We are suitably instructed in the various incarnations of the hero's Quest, for instance, though Frye points out that Jung's idea of a collective unconscious is an unnecessary hypothesis for literature. Most of Frye's form analysis is technical but illuminating, such as the observation that the clever slaves in the comedies of Plautus and Terence are structurally equivalent to the subversive villains of drama, such as Iago. Other analyses are broad and illuminating: if I understand correctly, for instance, he suggests that the whole Bible is a comedy. In any case, particular observations of this sort culminate in glimpses of the Platonic Forms, Greek vocabulary and all:

The four mythoi that we are dealing with, comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony, may now be seen as four aspects of a central unifying myth. Agon or conflict is the basis or archetypical theme of romance, the radical of romance being a sequence of marvelous adventures. Pathos or catastrophe, whether in triumph or in defeat, is the archetypal theme of tragedy. Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy.

Anatomy of Criticism would not be so notable if it were a static taxonomy. It is more like a phase space, a model that describes every possible state of the system through time. The key to that is Frye's five “modes” of fiction, with each mode defined by the power of the hero. Here they are, in their proper order, which also happens to be a brief outline of the development of literary forms in the modern West since the Dark Ages, and of the ancient West in the previous cycle:

---In the mode of myth, the hero is superior in kind to other men and the environment of other men. These stories in which the hero is a divine being are important for literature, but generally fall outside the normal literary categories.

---In a romance, the hero is superior in degree to other men and to the environment, but is simply an extraordinary human being. The laws of nature in romances are often not those that we meet in the real world, but they are self-consistent once they are established.

---The high mimetic mode obtains when the hero is superior in degree to other men, but not to the environment. This is the kind of hero Aristotle principally had in mind: the leader whom we find in most epic and tragedy.

---The low mimetic mode treats of a hero who is no better than the rest of us, which we find in most comedy and realistic fiction. We respond to the hero's common humanity in this sort of fiction. The story must display the canons of probability that we use in ordinary experience.

---When the hero has less power or intelligence than ourselves, so that the scene is one of bondage, absurdity, or frustration, the mode is ironic.

Frye tells us that irony, pushed to extremes, returns to the mode of myth. Characters who are so constrained by circumstances that they fall below the level of common humanity become hard to distinguish from the superhumans of myth: both kinds of stories enact archetypal patterns that do not turn on ordinary questions of personality or motivation. Frye's chief example of this return to myth is Finnegan's Wake, but we also see it in the low mimetic mode, particularly in science fiction.

This notion of the “recursion” of historical cycles is familiar from Vico. It is even more familiar from Spengler, whose ideas Frye assumed and fought against throughout his career. Since I have a rather similar relationship with Spengler's model of history, I have no trouble understanding what Frye is trying to say in statements like this:

Participation mystique is essentially spasmodic: in primitive communities it may be sustained for hours by dance, and in decadent ones, by oratory, but in a state of culture it falls into the background

"Culture," of course, in Spengler's parlance, means roughly the period from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 19th century. After that, we began to see the return of Mass Man that McLuhan was so keen to tell us about. Frye continued to work for several decades after Anatomy of Criticism, and this is by no means the favorite work of all of Frye's admirers. Still, I cannot help but wonder whether, in this book, he was attempting to create one of the great summa that Spengler predicted would be the glory of the final stage of the Western intellect.

This is not to say that this work is predominantly Spenglerian. A lesser critic could have used Frye's system of modes to tell a tale of decline and fall from the primordial age of faith to the 20th century's kali yuga of irony and nihilism. Frye, in contrast, points out that elements of each mode are present in every age. In fact, at every point he reminds us that his system does not judge the quality of any piece of literature; the system simply assigns a work to its proper place in the structure of literature. He will, in fact, have nothing to do with a theory of criticism that praises or disparages a work because of its consonance with the classics of the past, or because it is supposed to reflect the state of things in a brighter future. Such questions are part of the history of taste. The confusion of criticism with taste detracts from the total sum of human knowledge.

In Frye's model of literature, it is impossible to produce a form of work that is original in the sense of “new.” Even the most self-consciously avant guard artist will employ ancient archetypes and structures, however obscurely. Actually, Frye suggests, those authors whom we treasure for their originality were really original in quite a different sense: they returned to the archetypal origins for their stories, and thus often cut through the accretions and refinements with which their contemporaries were familiar. Frye explains that even the greatest author is not the greatest expert on his own work for the purposes of criticism. The critic discerns the form and phase of the work; the work's author is not necessarily equipped to do that.

Some of Frye's ideas remain stunning. In the next two generations, however, notions very much like his ideas led to the demoralizing relativism in academic life from which we have not yet recovered. As an aside, I must also point out that Frye's notion of “primordial originality” sounds much like the principle of “resourcement” that gained currency in the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council a few years later. This was the idea that the way to reform was to “return to sources,” particularly to the Fathers of the Church and to historical reconstructions of the earliest forms of liturgy. In practice, the attempts to carry out this program often had unfortunate results.

Be that as it may, the final impression I took away from this book was its encyclopedic scope. Actually, it goes beyond encyclopedic. I have never seen an encyclopedia that covered this aspect of rhetoric:

In English we have Burton, who is said to have amused himself by going down to the Isis and listening to the bargemen swear. Perhaps his visits were professional, for the qualities of his style are essentially the qualities of good swearing: a swinging sense of rhythm, a love of invective and catalogue, an unlimited vocabulary, a tendency to think in short and accentual units, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the two subjects relevant to swearing, theology and personal hygiene. All of these except the last are musical characteristics.

The book says quite a lot about music, too.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-03-18: Extinctions: Periodic & Deserved

As far as I know, nothing serious ever came out of Rohde and Muller's 2005 on cyclical extinctions, but I linked the image above to a copy of the original paper. I think is usually a mistake to look for alternative explanations for the Cretaceous extinction.

Extinctions: Periodic & Deserved


Just when you thought it was safe to read the paleontological journals again, this story appears:

BERKELEY, CA -- A detailed and extensive new analysis of the fossil records of marine animals over the past 542 million years has yielded a stunning surprise. Biodiversity appears to rise and fall in mysterious cycles of 62 million years for which science has no satisfactory explanation...For their study, Muller and Rohde defined fossil diversity as the number of distinct genera alive at any given time...Muller suspects there is an astrophysical driving mechanism behind the 62 million year periodicity...[On the other hand] "My hunch, far from proven," Rohde said, "is that every 62 million years the earth is releasing a burst of heat in the form of a plume formation event..."

That asteroid impact on the boundary between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary, the one that is supposed to have exterminated the dinosaurs, is pretty well established. On the other hand, there have always been paleontologists who insist that extinctions were already underway when the asteroid (or asteroids, in some accounts) struck the Earth. Perhaps the impact simply worsened a bad situation. Conversely, maybe a similar impact at another time would not have such serious effects.

Oh, and by the way: if that last big die-off was about 65-million years ago, and the period of diversity collapse is about 62-million years, then...OH MY GOD!!!

* * *

As another example of an aggravating factor, consider the lead opinion piece in the Weekly Standard of March 21, entitled "Let 'er Rip." Written by Fred Barnes, who suffers from the delusion he is doing the Administration a favor, the piece encourages President Bush to ignore all those reports he has been hearing that his privatization plan for Social Security makes the national gorge rise. Rather, Barnes advises, the president should promote his proposal in season and out, until the public awakes to the splendor of the concept. Barnes concludes with this flourish:

The Washington Times checked what would have happened if individual accounts, invested in market index funds, had been established in 1978. The Dow since then has soared from 820 to nearly 11,000, the S&P 500 from 96 to more than 1,220, and Nasdaq from 118 to roughly 2,050. Retirees would be living in high style. So, Mr. President, let 'er rip on individual accounts. You've got nothing to lose and momentous reform and a booming Republican Party to gain.

This is like an incident in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: the captain of the C Ship that crashes on the primitive Earth decides to jumpstart the new colony's economy, so he declares the leaves on all the trees to be currency. That does make everyone on the C Ship a multi-trillionaire, but it means that a single peanut from ship's stores will cost three deciduous forests.

Look, all those corporations listed in the securities exchanges are worth only so much. You can't make them worth more by pouring the savings of tens of millions of people into the markets in which their securities are traded. At best, you would get a much lower return on capital. At worst, and more likely, you would get a bubble bigger than the South Sea, followed by a bust big enough to scare a dinosaur to death. That is in fact what happened to the private-account systems in Britain and Sweden, to the great consternation of all concerned.

Would someone please put this wounded Grendel of an idea out of its misery?

* * *

And speaking of bad ideas, here's the worst idea for a new performance genre since cold-water mud-wrestling:

"Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog From Iraq" is not a very good play, but it's worth your attention for two reasons. It's the only political drama in New York written from the point of view of an Iraqi who lived through the American invasion, and, for better or worse, it inaugurates an entirely new (and seemingly inevitable) theatrical genre - the blog play...

The blog in question is Riverbend, by the way. And what exactly happens on stage?

Instead of building a character, the show includes readings of her words from three women and one man, which adds to the muddled feel...When not speaking, the actors pace in a triangle or perform synchronized gestures that make them look like backup singers to a 1960's pop band.

It might be better to put laptops on the stage, linked to big flat-panel screens, on which the text of the blog and of the reader comments scrolls down. That way, the actors could be absent as well as the audience.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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