The Long View: God or Goddess?

Burning graves

Burning graves

Another book review written more than twenty years ago that couldn't be improved upon much by subsequent events.

However, it does bring to mind Pope Francis' suggestion in May of 2016 that he would setup a commission to study women deacons in the early Church. Then, in June he joked 'We had a president of Argentina who used to say, and he would give this advice to presidents of other countries, “When you want something to remain unresolved, set up a commission!”'

God or Goddess?
Feminist Theology: What Is It? Where Does It Lead?
by Manfred Hauke
343 pp., $17.95
Ignatius Press, 1995
ISBN: 0-87870-559-2

Let my initial reluctance to review this book be a lesson to you. The author is a German priest who teaches theology at the University of Augsburg. (Back in the '80s, he wrote a definitive treatment of the Catholic position on women's ordination.) Physically the book is thick, with an austere cloth cover done in black and deep green. It looked like the kind of book a German professor would write, the kind that have titles like The Ontology of the Elephant (9 Volumes). This one seemed even less inviting, since at least the elephant book would have pictures of elephants in it, whereas the only amusement Fr. Hauke's book promised was a 47 page bibliography. Since a quick look showed that I probably agreed with its thesis already (the subtitle in the original German is "Feminist Theology in the Dock"), I really did not see why I needed to read yet another exposition of the question.

I was wrong. The book is lucid and tersely persuasive, not least because its tone is fair and nonpolemical throughout. Better than any other source I know, the author shows through logic, scripture and tradition just how the fashionable systems of feminist theology undermine the basic dogmas of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. The book makes a good companion volume to Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage, also published by Ignatius Press. The Steichen book is an excellent source of documentation; it damns Catholic feminism by letting it speak for itself. Fr. Hauke's book provides more complete analysis for this material. Among other things, he shows how feminist theology fits into the larger trends in 20th century philosophy, from Whitehead's "process" metaphysics to Sartre's existentialism. (He also makes clear the often overlooked point that feminist analysis is simply Marxist class analysis applied to gender.) Between them, the two books show pretty conclusively that feminist theologians (who are as likely to be men as women) do not want the Church reformed. They want her dead.

The debate over feminism in theology has become clarified to the point where it is hard to see how any informed person can be innocently deceived on the matter any longer. As Hauke makes clear, feminist theology is pantheistic in its essence. It rejects a transcendent God, because such a God would be in a position of hierarchical domination over this world. (Feminists depict this as a metaphysical projection of the system of "patriarchy," whereby men tyrannize over women.) It rejects Jesus as the incarnation of God, partly because feminists hold God to be already incarnate in the world, but mostly because the idea that history could turn on the life of a historical male human being is intolerable to them. Similarly, they reject the principles of the apostolic succession and of ordination as a sacrament because these things seek to extend this intolerable incarnation to the present day. The proposal to ordain women, in the minds of the people who have been most active in making the case for it, is a device for undermining the incarnational model of the priesthood. It is as simple as that.

Of course, there is a great deal else to be said about the specific schools of feminist theology and their tenets. Having rejected the teaching authority of the Church, feminist theology is fracturing in typical sectarian fashion, a process that feminists dignify with the formula of a "quarrel among sisters." Still, there are some nearly universal elements in the feminist critique of Christianity, such as the claim that the Church teaches the inferiority of women and the sinfulness of the body. Fr. Hauke explains the Church's true position on these matters with great clarity and freshness. However, the most important question, as he also makes clear, is more fundamental than the often spurious "justice" issues on which feminists prefer to dwell. If you believe what the feminist theologians say, then you no longer believe in a God worth praying to. Feminist liturgies seek to make it impossible to believe in such a God. That is what the arguments about things like "inclusive language" are really all about.

Among the interesting features of "God or Goddess" is the international perspective it provides on feminist theology. Even from Europe, it is clear that the phenomenon is predominantly American. Much of the book recounts the ideas of the "weird sisters" of American theology: Mary Daly, the post-Christian ex-nun, Rosemary Radford Ruether, the "moderate" who would retain the Church as a front for social liberation of various kinds, and Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, who edifies her readers by rewriting Gospel passages to say what they should have said. These people seem to be almost as well- known in academic circles in Germany as they are in the United States, but their effect there has not been the same as here. Perhaps the most striking difference is that orders of female religious in Europe seem to have little use for feminist theology, in striking contrast to their American sisters. Indeed, feminist theology is less influential generally in the Catholic Church in Europe. Feminist theology is probably even more important than in America, on the other hand, in Protestant churches. In Germany, this means mostly the state Lutheran churches. Judging from this account, the effect is rather like that to be found in some of the more demented corners of the American Episcopal Church. (Doubtless the celebration of Walpurgis Night in a real Gothic cathedral has more historical resonance than when such things happen at St. John the Divine in New York. Plus there are better acoustics for the witches' choir.) However, German Protestantism is not without resilience: some of feminist theology's most committed critics are to be found in the evangelical churches.

Fr. Hauke provides a rare, cross-lingual discussion of "inclusive" language, its forms and rationales. While I have several philosophical objections to inclusive language, my primary problem with it is practical, since I work as an editor. Language that seeks to be gender- neutral clutters up sentences with unnecessary syllables. They break up the normal rhythm of English, so that the sentences become hard to say out loud. (Inclusive language is also an Overclass dialect marker, like saying "between you and I," but that's another story.) However, after learning what inclusive language does to the intricate clockwork of German grammar, I can no longer feel so sorry for myself. German is a highly inflected language, one in which "grammatical gender" plays an important role. If you start making arbitrary changes in the gender of German nouns, you will soon lose track of where the nouns fit in the sentence. Perhaps this is yet another consequence of the basically American provenance of feminism. At least among Western nations, the notion that language could dispense with gender entirely could not have occurred to anyone but an English-speaker, whose language almost does so already.

Feminist theology continues to enjoy many institutional successes. In the Catholic Church in the United States, it has the effect of driving the people in the pews to the evangelical churches, while politicizing the archdiocesan and national bureaucracies. However, no matter how depressing we may find these things at times, we should remember that the fundamental tenet of feminism is wrong: it simply is not true that ideas are no more than constructs that express social power relationships. Ideas are either true or false, and if you act on the assumption that false ones are true, then your projects will miscarry. Feminist theology is false, and it lost the intellectual debate some time ago. It can still corrupt people and institutions, but it cannot really remake them in its own image. As the truth reasserts itself, even its power to corrupt will gradually diminish. Fr. Hauke's book should prove instrumental in the long process of repair.


This article originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Fidelity magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1996 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: New Spelling

New Spelling

This is the first paragraph of the short story, "The Star," by H. G. Wells. It was first issued in New Spelling in 1942, with the author's permission. This slightly modified version is taken from the Simplified Spelling Society's pamphlet No. 12, "New Spelling 90," published in 1991. All rights reserved.


"It woz in the ferst dae ov the nue yeer that the anounsment woz maed, aulmoest simultaeneusli from three obzervatoris, that the moeshen ov the planet Neptune, the outermoest ov aul the planets that w(h)eel about the sun, had bekum very eratik. A retardaeshen in its velositi had been suspekted in Desember. Then a faent, remoet spek ov lyt woz diskuverd in the reejen ov the perterbd planet. At ferst this did not cauz eni veri graet eksytment. Syentifik peepl, houever, found the intelijens remarkabl enuf, eeven befor it becaem noen that the nue bodi woz rapidli groeing larjer and bryter, and that the moeshen woz kwyt diferent from the orderli proegres ov the planets..."

Copyright © 1998 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 2004-12-28: Disasters, Natural and Otherwise

The final death toll of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami came in somewhere around 250,000. Requiescat in pace.

This finishes up the year 2004 of the Long View, John J. Reilly's blog. I have been at this since February of 2014, and I intend to keep on with my project to re-post everything John hosted on his now defunct website,

Disasters, Natural and Otherwise


So how big was the recent Java Disaster in the Indian ocean? At this writing, the reported number of fatalities is just under 50,000. If that figure holds, loss of life would be less than in the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, when at least 100,000 people were killed. However, it is very unlikely that the current figure will hold. We are talking about a quarter of the world's coastlines. Society was so disrupted in many places that estimates cannot be made yet.

A surprising point: the spectacular Krakatoa eruption of 1883 created a tsunami that killed just 37,000 people on the first day. Why such a relatively low figure? Partly because the reports were from Java; collating reports from the rest of the Indian Ocean could not be done in a 24-hour news cycle in those days. More important, though, there were far fewer people in those days. That's part of the reason each year's fresh disasters seems to elicit superlative casualty payouts from the insurance industry: there is more and more stuff to break.

* * *

The Belmont Club made a connection that had separately occurred to me:

Although the geological record shows that large asteroids occasionally strike the earth and that tsunamis sometimes ravage coastal areas, the rarity of their occurrence often precludes the formation of a political consensus to sustain preparations against them.

And why am I thinking of asteroids? Because of this helpful Don't Panic advisory from the Near Earth Object folks at NASA:

A recently rediscovered 400-meter Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) is predicted to pass near the Earth on 13 April 2029. The flyby distance is uncertain and an Earth impact cannot yet be ruled out. The odds of impact, presently around 1 in 300, are unusual enough to merit special monitoring by astronomers, but should not be of public concern. These odds are likely to change on a day-to-day basis as new data are received. In all likelihood, the possibility of impact will eventually be eliminated as the asteroid continues to be tracked by astronomers around the world.

Should there be an impact, this object would not end the world, or even fatally disrupt civilization. It would, however certainly ruin everyone's day, and many days thereafter. As NASA points out, these alerts are generally just products of imprecise estimates: the danger evaporates as more information becomes available. Still, there are always new asteroids to worry about. You can track the latest reports here. Note, however, that should a notable impact occur in your lifetime, it will probably be some smaller body for which there will be just a few hours warning, if any.

* * *

Should the news media broadcast the videos of attacks made by enemy units when the videos originate with the enemy, or with reporters working with them? Should the media broadcast public statements from the enemy? The Belmont Club, again, has citations-within-citations on the matter:

Little Green Footballs links to a Poynter Online press release here reproduced verbatim.

From JACK STOKES, director of media relations, Associated Press: [This is a solicited letter regarding Salon's "The Associated Press 'insurgency.'"] Several brave Iraqi photographers work for The Associated Press in places that only Iraqis can cover. Many are covering the communities they live in where family and tribal relations give them access that would not be available to Western photographers, or even Iraqi photographers who are not from the area.

Insurgents want their stories told as much as other people and some are willing to let Iraqi photographers take their pictures. It's important to note, though, that the photographers are not "embedded" with the insurgents. They do not have to swear allegiance or otherwise join up philosophically with them just to take their pictures.

There is a distinction between the reporting of military actions, including guerilla military actions, and the sort of bloody public displays that the Islamist-Baathist network in Iraq has been mounting. Public statements by enemy leaders, and the successes of enemy military units, should certainly be reported, with due disclaimers. Without that information, there is no way for the public to judge how the war is going. What the enemy has been doing in Iraq, however, is not a military campaign, and not even an insurgency. It is the Propaganda of the Deed. The beheadings and the bombings of civilians have no military objective; their essence is to cause terror and despair. To broadcast videos of these things has nothing to do with allowing the enemy "to tell their story." They are psychological conditioning, not information.

Having said that there is no journalist reason for showing images from the enemy to the domestic public, I would note that there could be a tactical one. The enemy is producing atrocity propaganda about itself.

* * *

Finally, on another part of the Islamist Front, we note this bit of wishful thinking from the New York Times:

Europe's Muslims May Be Headed Where the Marxists Went Before: Azzedine Belthoub was growing up in the shantytowns outside of Nanterre, France, 40 years ago, the people who came to take the young North African kids to swim in the community pool, to register them for school and give them candy and comic books, were Marxists. The French Communist Party offered a political voice for the working classes, including the growing number of North African immigrants imported to fill labor shortages after the war...Today, Islam plays that role, especially in France,...The question is whether Islam in Europe will follow the same path that Communism did here, shedding its revolutionary extremism, electing mayors and legislators and assimilating itself into normal democratic political life.

No, no: what's happening in Europe is the importation of the memet system. That is a kind of society in which one's confessional group is, for most purposes, one's nation. The law you live under depends on which group you belong to. Under that system, cities are divided into neighborhoods that might as well be different countries. The state becomes an instrument of hegemony by one of the confessional groups, a hegemony made tolerable by incompetence and corruption.

I am sure that Europe will recoil from this future before it is much farther advanced. The question is whether the Europeans will turn to nationalism or a more masculine form of Europeanism.

Copyright © 2004 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: Cut Speling

Cut Spelng


This poem is taken from my recollection of the entry under Weather in Ambrose Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary":


Once I lookd into th futur, far as anyone cud se,
And I saw th chief forcastr, ded as anyone cud be.
Ded and damd and shut in hades as a liar from his birth
with a record of unreasn seldm paraleld on erth. As I wachd, he rased him solmenly, that incandesnt yuth
from th coals that he preferd to th advantajs of truth.
Then he cast his ys about him, then abov him, and he rote
on a slab of thin asbestos wat I ventur here to quote
for I read/red it in th rose-lyt of that evrlastng glo:
"Cloudy, varibl winds; showrs, coolr; sno."


Cut Spelng Leaflet Click here for more information.

Copyright © 1998 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: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science

The kind of thing that John Reilly laments in this book review is alive and well. If you want a taste of it, check out New Real Peer Review on Twitter, which simply reprints abstracts of actual, peer-reviewed articles. A favorite genre is the autoethnography. Go look for yourself, no summary can do it justice.

I will disagree with John about one thing: race and sex matter a lot for many medical treatments. For example, the drug marketed under the trade name Ambien, generically called zolpidem, has much worse side effects in women than in men, and it takes women longer to metabolize it.

This effect was memorably referred to as Ambien Walrus. I find this pretty funny, but I delight in the sufferings of others.

You can't ignore this stuff if you want to do medicine right. The reasons for doing so vary, but you'll get a better result if you don't.

Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science
by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994
314 pp, $25.95
ISBN 0-8018-4766-4


The Enemies You Deserve


If you are looking for an expose' of how political correctness in recent years has undermined medical research, corrupted the teaching of mathematics and generally blackened the name of science in America, this book will give you all the horror stories you might possibly want. There have been rather a lot of indictments of the academic left, of course, but this is one of the better ones. However, the book is most interesting for reasons other than those its co-authors intended. To use the same degree of bluntness that they use against the "science studies" being carried on by today's literary critics, what we have here is an expression of bewilderment by a pair of secular fundamentalists who find themselves faced with an intellectual crisis for which their philosophy provides no solution.

Paul Gross is a biologist, now at the University of Virginia but formerly director of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. They repeatedly insist, no doubt truthfully, that they have no particular interest in politics and that they are not programmatic conservatives. What does worry them is the increasing number of faculty colleagues in the liberal arts who take it as an article of faith that the results of empirical scientific research are biased in favor of patriarchy or capitalism or white people. The people who have this sort of opinion they call "the academic left," a catchall category that includes deconstructionists, feminists, multiculturalists and radical environmentalists.

The authors have a good ear for invective, such as this happy formula: "...academic left refers to a stratum of the residual intelligentsia surviving the recession of its demotic base." There has always been something rather futile about the radicalization of the academy, and in some ways the movement is already in retreat. The ideas of the academic left are based in large part on Marxist notions that were originally designed for purposes of revolutionary agitation. Revolutionary socialist politics has not proven to have the popular appeal one might have hoped, however. Marxism has therefore been largely replaced among intellectuals by that protean phenomenon, postmodernism. Although postmodernism incorporates large helpings of Freudianism and the more credulous kind of cultural anthropology, it remains a fundamentally "left" phenomenon, in the sense of maintaining an implacable hostility to market economics and traditional social structures. However, postmodernists have perforce lowered their goal from storming the Winter Palace to inculcating the "hermeneutics of suspicion" in undergraduates. The results of these efforts were sufficiently annoying to incite Gross and Levitt to write this book.

Postmodernists presume that reality is inaccessible, or at least incommunicable, because of the inherent unreliability of language. Science to postmodernists is only one of any number of possible "discourses," no one of which is fundamentally truer than any other. This is because there are no foundations to thought, which is everywhere radically determined by the interests and history of the thinker. Those who claim to establish truth by experiment are either lying or self-deluded. The slogan "scientific truth is a matter of social authority" has become dogma to many academic interest groups, who have been exerting themselves to substitute their authority for that of the practicing scientists.

The French philosophical school known as deconstructionism provided the first taste of postmodern skepticism in the American academy during the 1970s. It still provides much of its vocabulary. However, self-described deconstructionists are getting rare. Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger, two of the school's progenitors, were shown in recent years to have been fascists without qualification at certain points in their careers, thus tainting the whole school. On the other hand, while deconstruction has perhaps seen better days, feminism is as strong as ever. Thus, undergraduates in women's studies courses are routinely introduced to the notion that, for instance, Newton's "Principia" is a rape manual. Even odder is the movement to create a feminist mathematics. The authors discuss at length an article along these lines entitled "Towards a Feminist Algebra." The authors of that piece don't seem much concerned with algebra per se; what exercises them is the use of sexist word problems in algebra texts, particularly those that seem to promote heterosexuality. The single greatest practical damage done by feminists so far, however, is in medical research, where human test groups for new treatments must now often be "inclusive" of men and women (and also for certain racial minorities). To get statistically significant results for a test group, you can't just mirror the population in the sample, you have to have a sample above a mathematically determined size for each group that interests you. In reality, experience has shown that race and gender rarely make a difference in tests of new medical treatments, but politically correct regulations threaten to increase the size of medical studies by a factor of five or ten.

Environmentalism has become a species of apocalyptic for people on the academic left. It is not really clear what environmentalism is doing in the postmodern stew at all, since environmentalists tend to look on nature as the source of the kind of fundamental values which postmodernism says do not exist. The answer, perhaps, is that the vision of ecological catastrophe provides a way for the mighty to be cast down from their thrones in a historical situation where social revolution appears to be vastly improbable. Environmentalists seem to be actually disappointed if some preliminary research results suggesting an environmental danger turn out to be wrong. This happens often enough, notably in cancer research, where suspected carcinogens routinely turn out to be innocuous. However, on the environmental circuit, good news is unreportable. The current world is damned, the environmentalists claim, and nothing but the overthrow of capitalism, or patriarchy, or humanism (meaning in this case the invidious bias in favor of humans over other animals) can bring relief. Only catastrophe can bring about this overthrow, and environmentalists who are not scientists look for it eagerly.

The basic notion behind the postmodern treatment of science is social constructivism, the notion that our knowledge of the world is just as much a social product as our music or our myths, and is similarly open to criticism. The authors have no problem with the fact that cultural conditions can affect what kind of questions scientists will seek to address or what kind of explanation will seem plausible to a researcher. What they object to is the "strong form" of social constructivism, which holds that our knowledge is simply a representation of nature. The "truth" of this representation cannot be ascertained by reference to the natural world, since any experimental result will also be a representation. Constructivists therefore say that we can understand the elements of a scientific theory only by reference to the social condition and personal histories of the scientists involved. This, as the authors correctly note, is batty.

The lengths to which the principle of constructivism has been extended are nearly unbelievable. Take AIDS, for instance, which has itself almost become a postmodernist subspecialty. The tone in the postmodernist literature dealing with the disease echoes the dictum of AIDS activist Larry Kramer: "...I think a good case can also be made that the AIDS pandemic is the fault of the heterosexual white majority." Some people, particularly in black studies departments, take "constructed" quite literally, in the sense that the AIDS virus was created in a laboratory as an instrument of genocide. Kramer's notion is more modest: he suggests that the extreme homosexual promiscuity which did so much to spread the disease in the New York and San Francisco of the late 1960s and early 1970s was forced upon the gay community by its ghettoization. This is an odd argument, but not so odd as the assumption that you can talk about the origins of an epidemic without discussing the infectious agent that causes it. The upshot is that AIDS is considered to be a product of "semiological discourse," a system of social conventions. It can be defeated, not through standard medical research, but through the creation of a new language, one that does not stigmatize certain groups and behaviors. (Dr. Peter Duesberg's purely behavioral explanation of AIDS, though it has the attractions of scientific heresy, gets only a cautious reception because of its implied criticism of homosexual sex.) The postmodern academy actually seems to have a certain investment in a cure for AIDS not being found, since the apparent helplessness of science in this area is taken as a license to give equal authority to "other ways of knowing" and other ways of healing, particularly of the New Age variety.

The postmodernist critics of science usually ply their trade by studiously ignoring what scientists themselves actually think about. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, for instance, has made a name for himself by subjecting scientists to the kind of observation usually reserved for members of primitive tribes. Once he was commissioned by the French government to do a post-mortem on their Aramis project. This was to be a radically new, computerized subway system in which small trams would travel on a vastly complicated track-and-switch system along routes improvised for the passengers of each car. The idea was that passengers would type their proposed destination into a computer terminal when they entered a subway station. They would then be assigned a car with other people going to compatible destinations. The project turned into a ten year boondoggle and was eventually cancelled. The French government hired Latour to find out what went wrong. Now, the basic conceptual problem with the system is obvious: the French engineers had to come up with a way to handle the "traveling salesman" problem, the classic problem of finding the shortest way to connect a set of points. This seemingly simple question has no neat solution, and the search for approximate answers keeps the designers of telephone switching systems and railroad traffic managers awake nights. Latour did not even mention it. He did, however, do a subtle semiological analysis of the aesthetic design of the tram cars.

Postmodernists regard themselves as omniscient and omnicompetent, fully qualified to put any intellectual discipline in the world in its place. They have this confidence because of the mistaken belief that science has refuted itself, thus leaving the field clear for other ways of understanding the world. They love chaos theory, for instance, having absorbed the hazy notion that it makes the universe unpredictable. Chaos theory in fact is simply a partial solution to the problem of describing turbulence. Indeed, chaos theory is something of a victory for mathematical platonism, since it shows that some very exotic mathematical objects have great descriptive power. The implications of chaos theory are rather the opposite of chaos in the popular sense, but this idea shows little sign of penetrating the nation's literature departments. The same goes for features of quantum mechanics, notably the uncertainty principle. Quantum mechanics actually makes the world a far more manageable place. Among other things, it is the basis of electronics. To read the postmodernists, however, you would think that it makes physicists flutter about their laboratories in an agony of ontological confusion because quantum theory phrases the answers to some questions probabilistically.

On a more esoteric level, we have the strange cult of Kurt Goedel's incompleteness theorem, first propounded in the 1930s. Now Goedel's Theorem is one of the great treasures of 20th century mathematics. There are several ways to put it, one of which is that logical systems beyond a certain level of complexity can generate correctly expressed statements whose truth value cannot be determined. Some versions of the "Liar Paradox" illustrate this quality of undecidability. It is easy to get the point slightly wrong. (Even the authors' statement of it is a tad misleading. According to them, the theorem "says that no finite system of axioms can completely characterize even a seemingly 'natural' mathematical object..." It should be made clear that some logical systems, notably Euclid's geometry, are quite complete, so that every properly expressed Euclidean theorem is either true or false.) Simply false, however, is the postmodernist conviction that Goedel's Theorem proved that all language is fundamentally self-contradictory and inconsistent. Postmodernists find the idea attractive, however, because they believe that it frees them from the chains of logic, and undermines the claims of scientists to have reached conclusions dictated by logic.

Postmodernism, say the authors, is the deliberate negation of the Enlightenment project, which they hold to be the construction of a sound body of knowledge about the world. The academic left generally believes that the reality of the Enlightenment has been the construction of a thought-world designed to oppress women and people of color in the interests of white patriarchal capitalism. Or possibly capitalist patriarchy. Anyhow, fashion has it that the Enlightenment was a bad idea. Now that modernity is about to end, say the postmodernists, the idea is being refuted on every hand. Actually, it seems to many people of various ideological persuasions that the end of modernity is indeed probably not too far off: no era lasts forever, after all. However, it is also reasonably clear that postmodernism is not on the far side of the modern era. Postmodernism is simply late modernity. Whatever follows modernity is very unlikely to have much to do with the sentiments of today's academic left.

Granted that the radical academy does not have much of a future, still the authors cannot find a really satisfying explanation for why the natural sciences have been subject to special reprobation and outrage in recent years. In the charmingly titled penultimate chapter, "Why Do the People Imagine a Vain Thing?", they run through the obvious explanations. It does not take much imagination to see that today's academic leftist is often a refugee from the 1960s. Political correctness is in large part the whimsical antinomianism of the Counterculture translated into humorourless middle age. Then, of course, there is the revenge factor. In the heyday of Logical Positivism from the end of World War II to the middle 1960s, physical scientists tended to look down on the liberal arts. In the eyes of that austere philosophy, any statement which was not based either on observation or induction was literally "nonsense," a category that therefore covered every non-science department from theology to accounting. The patronizing attitude of scientists was not made more bearable by the unquestioning generosity of the subsidies provided by government to science in those years. The resentment caused by this state of affairs still rankled when the current crop of academic leftists were graduates and undergraduates. Now they see the chance to cut science down to size.

While there is something to this assessment, the fact is that the academic left has a point. Logical Positivism and postmodernism are both essentially forms of linguistic skepticism. Both alike are products of the rejection of metaphysics, the key theme in Western philosophy since Kant. The hope of the logical positivist philosophers of the 1920s and 30s was to save just enough of the machinery of abstract thought so that scientists could work. Science is not skeptical in the sense that Nietzsche was skeptical, or the later Sophists. It takes quite a lot of faith in the world and the power of the mind to do science. And in fact, the authors note that Logical Positivism, with a little help from the philosophy of Karl Popper, remains the philosophical framework of working scientists to this day. The problem, however, is that Logical Positivism leaves science as a little bubble of coherence in a sea of "nonsense," of thoughts and ideas that cannot be directly related to measurable physical events.

Logical Positivism has many inherent problems as a philosophy (the chief of which being that its propositions cannot themselves be derived from sense experience), but one ability that even its strongest adherents cannot claim for it is the capacity to answer a consistent skepticism. In their defense of science, the authors are reduced to pounding the table (or, after the fashion of Dr. Johnson's refutation of Berkeley's Idealist philosophy, kicking the stone.) Thus, it is a "brutal" fact that science makes reliable predictions about physical events, that antibiotics cure infections while New Age crystals will not, that the advisability of nuclear power is a question of engineering and not of moral rectitude. Well, sure. But why? "Because" is not an answer. Without some way to relate the reliability of science to the rest of reality, the scientific community will be living in an acid bath skepticism and superstition.

The authors tell us that the scientific methodology of the 17th century "almost unwittingly set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries...[that] Newton or Leibnitz affirm some version of this divine almost beside the point...Open-endedness is the vital principle at stake here...Unless we are unlucky, this will always be the case." In reality, of course, it surpasses the wit of any thinker to set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries, or even entirely of his own generation. The scientists of the early Enlightenment did indeed scrap a great deal of Aristotle's physics. Metaphysically, however, they were fundamentally conservative: they settled on one strand of the philosophical heritage of the West and resisted discussing the matter further.

As Alfred Whitehead realized early in this century, science is based on a stripped-down version of scholasticism, the kind that says (a) truth can be reached using reason but (b) only through reasoning about experience provided by the senses. This should not be surprising. Cultures have their insistences. Analogous ideas keep popping up in different forms throughout a civilization's history. When the Senate debates funding for parochial schools, it is carrying on the traditional conflict between church and state that has run through Western history since the Investiture Controversy in medieval Germany. In the same way, certain assumptions about the knowability and rationality of the world run right through Western history. The Enlightenment was not unique in remembering these things. Its uniqueness lay in what it was willing to forget.

It would be folly to dismiss so great a pulse of human history as the Enlightenment with a single characterization, either for good or ill. Everything good and everything bad that we know about either appeared in that wave or was transformed by it. Its force is not yet wholly spent. However, one important thing about the Enlightenment is that it has always been a movement of critique. It is an opposition to the powers that be, whether the crown, or the ancient intellectual authorities, or God. The authors of "Higher Superstition" tell us that the academic left hopes to overthrow the Enlightenment, while the authors cast themselves as the Enlightenment's defenders. The authors are correct in seeing the academic left as silly people, who do not know what they are about. The authors are mistaken too, however. The fact is that the academic left are as truly the children of the Enlightenment as ever the scientists are. Science was once an indispensable ally in the leveling of ancient hierarchies of thought and society, but today it presents itself to postmodern academics simply as the only target left standing. Is it any wonder that these heirs of the Enlightenment should hope to bring down the last Bastille?

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

Copyright © 1996 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 2004-12-20: Iraq Counterfactuals; Hero & Empire; Iceland

By Source, Fair use,

By Source, Fair use,

The First Emperor of China was assumed to be mythical for a long time. Then the archeological finds started piling up. The remarkable unity of the Chinese state over the millennia is in part due to this man.

Iraq Counterfactuals; Hero & Empire; Iceland


You have to wonder why the literary world treated Philip Roth's book, The Plot against America, as a conceptual novelty. The most-broadcast Christmastime movie in the United States is It's a Wonderful Life, which is an alternative-history story on the scale of a single life. (When Stephen Jay Gould's book of that name appeared in German, by the way, the publisher had to use a less resonant title that meant "Man the Accident.") After Dickens's Christmas CarolIt's a Wonderful Life is also the most parodied Christmas story in the United States. Maureen Dowd added to the canon in yesterday's New York Times, in a column entitled A Not So Wonderful Life. In this version, George Bailey becomes Donald Rumsfeld, and the angel explains how much better the world would be if he had never been born:

[Former George Senator Sam Nunn is] the defense secretary. Sam consults with Congress. Never acts arrogant or misleads them. He didn't banish the generals who challenged him - he promoted 'em. And, of course, he caught Osama back in '01. He threw 100,000 troops into Afghanistan on 9/11 and sealed the borders. Our Special Forces trapped the evildoer and his top lieutenants at Tora Bora. You weren't at that cabinet meeting the day after 9/11, so nobody suggested going after Saddam. No American troops died or were maimed in Iraq. No American soldiers tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. No Iraqi explosives fell into the hands of terrorists. There's no office of disinformation to twist perception abroad. We're not on the cusp of an Iraq run by Muslim clerics tied to Iran.

Considering the current state of Afghanistan, it's not at all clear what those 100,000 troops would have been needed for. It's also vastly unlikely that no one at a cabinet meeting after 911 would have suggested going after the Baathist regime in Iraq; surely they would have been familiar with Richard Clarke's memos that mentioned the links between Al-Qaeda and Iraq? The final improbability is this quote from an Alternative Colin Powell:

Merry Christmas, Mr. President. With the help of our allies around the world, we have won the war on terror. And Saddam has been overthrown. Once Hans Blix exposed the fact that Saddam had no weapons, the tyrant was a goner. No Arab dictator can afford to be humiliated by a Swedish disarmament lawyer.

Blix and his elves were allowed in Iraq when the regime realized, belatedly, that the United States had a gun pointed at its head. In any case, Blix's audit would have proven indecisive no matter how long it continued.

* * *

Happily, The New York Times has saved me the trouble of correcting Dowd. Today's edition has another Alternative History scenario, this time by William Safire, entitled Roth Plot II:

Opening scene in the Oval Office in winter 2001, after U.S. and allied forces crushed the Taliban in retaliation for their part in 9/11, with bin Laden not yet found in Afghanistan...State's Powell counsels relaxing U.N. pressure on Iraq by calling them "smart sanctions," hoping this will persuade Saddam to permit inspections. Bush glumly agrees... Having gloriously faced down the U.S. - and gaining greater financial and weaponry strength every day - Saddam becomes an iconic, heroic figure in the Arab and Muslim world. Through massive kickbacks and smuggling operations involving France, Russia and China, the murderous despot ensures U.N. protection from inspections. Free from fear of retaliation, Saddam offers safe haven in Iraq to bin Laden and followers seeking a center of operations...Cut to Libya, where Qaddafi has purchased nuclear know-how and fissionable material from corrupt Pakistani scientists...In early 2004, a Wilsonian Democrat bursts upon the political scene.

You see why "Alternative History" is better than "Alternate History"? There are more than two possibilities.

* * *

Over the weekend, I viewed Hero, starring Jet Li. My interest in martial arts is no greater than my interest in square dancing, but I rented this film because of the historical setting. That is, I did not expect to learn more about the end of the Warring States Period (475 BC -- 221 BC), but because I wanted to see how the film treated the era. The scenario runs like this:

Before he became the First Emperor of China, Ying Zheng (played by Cheng Daoming), King of the state of Qin, brutal and ruthless, was the target of many assassins. Among them, Broken Sword, (played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Flying Snow, (played by Maggie Cheung) and Sky (played by Donnie Yen) are the best. However, their plan was challenged by No-name (played by Jet Li). He rarely spoke and no one knew what he was up to, but something was hidden behind this eyes. No-name told the king that his enemies had been wiped out by him, but the king did not trust him.

The gimmick is that No-name, nominally one of the king's officials, enlists the help of the three assassins to get close enough to the king to kill him, even to the extent of letting themselves be killed (only one actually dies by No-name's hand; it's complicated). However, before No-name's audience with the king, Broken Sword dissuades him from his purpose. Broken Sword is a master calligrapher as well as a master swordsman; the two arts have the same foundation. However, Broken Sword also explains that his study of calligraphy had given him insight into historical necessity, and that he sees that Ying Zheng should unite China.

There is an interesting bit of mistranslation in the English subtitles. When the characters discuss what the king is supposed to unite, the English is given as "Our Land." My Mandarin does not rise to the level of negligible, but even I could make out that the term they were using for China was "tien xia," which means "Under Heaven," or "All Under Heaven": roughly the equivalent of the Greek "oikoumene." This mistranslation undermines Broken Sword's argument.

When Broken Sword said that he understood from his study of calligraphy that the world needed to be united, he was saying that his study of form and flow in the arts allowed him to intuit historical necessity. This was exactly the point that Kant made when he said that his model of history had the plot of a novel, which in his case ends in the formation of a liberal world republic. Dante's argument for a universal monarchy is of the same class: an esthetic intuition, not mechanical determinism.

The Empire, Cosmopolis, All Under Heaven: whether or not you would want to live in a universal state, the fact remains that the idea really is archetypical. It has exerted moral force in many times and places, even on people who ultimately reject it. "Our Land," however, cannot be intuited in this way. Patriotism is a fine thing, but one of the things that makes a homeland lovable is that it is mortal: it does not have to exist. The empire does.

Finally, as many reviewers have pointed out, this film does the First Emperor too much honor. Like Napoleon, the First Emperor is generally credited with making reforms and creating institutions that long outlasted his regime. On the other hand, the First Emperor was not a military genius, or any other kind of genius. He was just a conscientious, hardworking monster.

* * *

Winter starts tomorrow here, and I find the days plenty dark enough. However, I note from a piece in yesterday's New York TimesIn a Cold Country, the Nights Are Hot, that partygoers from the northeastern United States and from northwestern Europe have been making wild weekends in Rekjavik. The idea, apparently, is that "drinking all night" really means something if night does not end until 9:00 AM.

This sounds like a bad idea. In any case, anyone interested in what Iceland looks like sober should see Danny Yee's travelogue.

Copyright © 2004 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: Napoleon: A Political Life

Napoleon crossing the Alps

Napoleon crossing the Alps

Napoleon was one of the great figures of European history. This is a fine summary of his life.

Napoleon: A Political Life
By Steven Englund
Scribner, 2004
592 Pages, $35.00
ISBN 0-684-87142-4


Several biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) have been published over the years. This one, by an American historian who has taught at the University of Paris, merits special attention. Napoleon did the damnedest things. When he was around, history did not work as it usually did. At his best, Napoleon practiced political architecture in a way that one sometimes encounters in American jurisprudence, but almost never in practicing politicians. This biography by an outsider helps us distinguish what was French (and durable) in Napoleon's achievements from what was merely Napoleonic.

There is a tradition of aphoristic writing about Napoleon, and the book does not disappoint on that score, either. Englund remarks of Napoleon's choice as Second Consul, after the coup that made Napoleon head of state: “The gesture to Sieyès was essentially an expensive floral arrangement sent to the man's political funeral.” Englund also favors indictable puns, such as “the unbearable tightness of Napoleon's being” with regard to the autocrat's fiscal habits, and “Paris was worth a mess.” If you try to take notes on this book, you will take too many.

“Napoleon: A Political Life” is a biography, not a big block of political theory. We get some insight into Napoleon the man, but Napoleon remains histrionically inscrutable. According to Englund, we probably would not have liked Napoleon if we had known him personally: “Napoleon was a self-made man, and he worshipped his creator.” Still, there was nothing much wrong with him. He had no dark traumas in his past, and no debilitating pathologies. He did not arrest people arbitrarily or condemn categories of people to death. His paranoia, such as it was, expressed itself as exasperating bureaucratic oversight.

Some points about Napoleon's background do help us understand, however.

Napoleon came from the lowest level of the provincial aristocracy. That meant that he was just aristocratic enough to attend respectable military schools, but not so grand as to be a class enemy when the Revolution came. How did Napoleon get promoted to brigadier general at age 24? Well, he besieged and captured Toulon, for one thing. However, he was able to do that only because France's senior officers, who belonged to the higher aristocracy, had deserted.

Most famously, Napoleon was Corsican. He was born “Napoleone Buonaparte,” a form he used even after he had become a national figure in revolutionary France. In the 18th century, Corsica had been a possession of the crumbling Republic of Genoa, which traded it to France. Force had to be used to make the Corsicans accept the deal, but in the meantime the island was briefly an independent commonwealth under the enlightened leadership of Pasquale Paoli. Paolisti republicanism was moderately patriotic, economically progressive, keen on education, and not in the least anti-clerical: its spirit was that of Montesquieu, not that of Rousseau. This was what “republic” meant in the Buonaparte household. Sometimes, it seemed to be what Citizen First Consul Bonaparte meant by “Republic,” and, more rarely, what Emperor Napoleon I meant by “Empire.”

Englund characterizes Napoleon as a “realist.” If that's true, he was a realist in the way that some untrained autistic people can draw photographically realistic images; they record exactly what the eye sees. Napoleon's gift as a military commander was of this nature. His constant criticism of his commanders was that they “made a picture” of what the enemy ought to do, rather than seeing the possibilities offered by the terrain and what the enemy was actually doing. Napoleon's ability to grasp the situation long bewildered his enemies, who thought in terms of the refined tactics of the Baroque. As a political leader, Napoleon similarly bewilders with the barrage of titles and constitutional forms he deployed throughout his career: Director; First Consul (Provisional, Decennial, and Life Tenure); not to mention his occasional status as King, President, or Mediator of various vassal states. Finally, he was Emperor, an office that also underwent constitutional mutation, even during the final Hundred Days. In the 20th century, change like this usually meant chaos and collapse for the state in which it occurred. In Napoleonic France, things were quite otherwise: the foundation was laid on which France rests to this day.

The key to understanding the political Napoleon is the distinction the French make between “le politique,” meaning important matters of public policy, and “la politique,” which is retail politics, particularly the politics of electoral democracy. In American terms, “le politique” would most definitely include federal, but not state, constitutional law. American high politics is also rather impersonal: the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence are discovered; they are not the gift of a Rousseauean Law Giver. The French, at least since the Revolution, categorize things differently. They clearly distinguish between the state, the maintenance of which is the purpose of high politics, and the constitutional forms of the state that might be convenient from time to time. They are also willing to allow a DeGaulle (or, dare one say it, a Petain) exercise leadership on fundamental issues. The result is generally more conservative than not.

Englund, like Napoleon, is less interested in the various French constitutions than in the “granite blocks” that Napoleon laid, particularly during the Consulate (1799-1804), when post-revolutionary France was still a republic and Napoleon was a sort of president. The civil code that was drawn up under his auspices, and which bears his name, still governs the law of everyday life in France. In fact, its clarity and logical structure helped ensure that it would become the model code for much of the world. He gave France a sound currency and the beginnings of a workable financial system. His administrative and educational establishments survived into the 20th century. He also created the Legion of Honor, a distinction that grated on revolutionary scruples against titles of nobility, but which few have ever refused. These creations were of such lasting benefit to France that, despite more than a decade of ruinous war, one can still argue that Napoleon did more good than harm.

At least from an Anglo-Saxon point of view, there was something terribly wrong-headed about even the good that Napoleon accomplished. Napoleon wanted as little unregulated politics as possible, just as he wanted a financial system that did not generate much independent finance. (He got his wish: there was no French counterpart of the British financial market for Napoleon's government to borrow from.) Important matters were for the bureaucracy to decide, not parliament. When Napoleon acted in what he considered everyday politics, however, he was often irresponsible.

The general tendency of Napoleon's rule was away from the Republic, a mere constitutional form, and toward the Nation. Increasingly as First Consul, and then as Emperor, Napoleon claimed to speak for the nation. This gave him a status far beyond mere divine right, at least in his own estimation. In fact, “Bonapartism” came to mean a claim to represent the nation in a way more profound than that of the representatives who were merely elected. Napoleon once snarled at one of his legislatures:

“Do these phrase-makers and ideologues imagine they can attack me like I was Louis XVI? I won't stand for it. I am a child of the revolution, sprung from the loins of the people, and I won't suffer being insulted like I was a king.”

One should note, though, that Napoleon's legislatures were not merely decorative. The upper house was often a serious consultative body, and anyone in the national government was there because Napoleon had a use for him. Even the imperial court, when Napoleon created one, was peopled by officials with ridiculous titles (what's an Arch-Chancellor?) who also had real jobs. They scarcely had time for the complicated ceremonial.

Neither did Napoleon object to elections. Far from it: whenever he did anything important, he held a plebiscite. He always won. There was no secret ballot, so people tended to express opposition by not voting rather than by voting “no.” However, the plebiscites drained legitimacy away from the organs of ordinary politics.

Before 1804, Napoleon was the Father of Nations, though the new states he created from the old multinational empires found French exactions burdensome. He had both domesticated and made peace with the Church, though he never quite lived up to his side of the Concordat. The French economy flourished, though it did so with the aid of subsidies, and the Napoleonic Code did not allow for joint-stock companies. Most important: he had saved the Revolution by suppressing the extremists, though the list of his powers grew ever longer. Then, after five years as First Consul, he decided he should be emperor, and he turned into a pure nuisance.

The problem with the Empire was that its operatic invocations of tradition, including the presence of the pope at the coronation, had nothing to do with its sources of legitimacy. Like the Consulate, it was a plebiscitary regime. It was dependent on Napoleon's personal charisma. Until the name of the state was tactfully changed to “Empire,” Napoleon was sometimes styled “Emperor of the French Republic.” That was a confused thing to be.

Englund sides against those historians who say that aggression was a systemic feature of the Empire. Napoleon's advisors were almost all doves. The Peace of Amiens (1802-1803) between France and Britain might have had a long run. It was Napoleon himself, with his opportunistic conversion of Holland and Switzerland to vassal states, who renewed the war with Britain. Domestically, Napoleon was a conciliator. At the international level, however, he was without patience or tolerance:

“In short, the French emperor's distaste for politics now embraced the foreign as well as the domestic arena; he looked on other rulers as if they were heads of factions and parties who bridled and schemed against 'rightful' government, vexing its plans and troubling the peace of its head, the emperor of the French.”

Napoleon never tried to create a peace that Europe could live with. Even his “Continental System,” which might have reconciled Europe to French hegemony, was used shortsightedly. “Le politique” did not extend to the structure of the international system. Indeed, if you look at French behavior in the European Union and the United Nations, it still doesn't.

Meanwhile, Napoleon's enemies learned his tricks: Napoleonic military tactics, national conscription, even appeals to nationalism, though Englund thinks that later German historians overestimated the effectiveness of those appeals. The enemies of Napoleon, quite against their will, were compelled by him to become his peers. He was quite capable of defeating his peers, but not all the time.

History is full of revolutionary and chaotic eras, when a genius can rise into world-history on pure ability. Few generations were quite as revolutionary as the gateway between Old Europe and modernity. Nationalism, secularism, in a sense politics itself, all first materialized in that gateway where we meet Napoleon. He did not create these things. They did not create him, either.

Copyright © 2004 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

Napoleon: A Political Life
By Steven Englund

The Long View: Fonetic



This poem is taken from my recollection of the entry under Weather in Ambrose Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary":


Wuns I luukt into the fuecher, far as enywun cuud see,
And I saw the cheef forcaster, ded as enywun cuud be. 
Ded and damd and shut in hades as a lieer frum his berth
with a record of unreezon seldom parraleld on erth.
As I wocht, he raezd him solmenly, that incandesent yooth
frum the coels that he preferd to the advantejes of trooth. 
Then he cast his ies about him, then abuv him, and he roet
on a slab of thin asbestus whut I vencher heer to qoet
for I red it in the roez-liet of that everlasting glo:
"Cloudy, vairiabl winds; showers, cooler; sno."

Copyright © 1998 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: Truespel



This poem is taken from my recollection of the entry under Weather in Ambrose Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary":


Wunts ie lookd intue thu fyuecher, faar az eneewun kood see,
And ie sau thu cheef forkaster ded az eneewun kood bee.
Ded and damd and shut in haedeez az u lieyer frum hiz berthh
Withh u rekerd uv unreezin seldim pairuleld aan erthh.
Az ie waachd, hee raezd him saalimlee, that inkanddesint yuethh
Frum thu koelz that hee preefferd tue thee advvantijiz uv truethh.
Then hee kast hiz iez ubbout him, then ubbuv him, and hee roet
Aan u slab uv thhin azbbestis wut ie vencher heer tue kwoet.
For ie reed it in thu roez-liet uv that everlasteeng gloe:
"Kloudee, vaireeyubool windz; shaawerz, kueler; snoe."


[Corrected and appoved by Truespel's creator, Thomas Zurinskas.]

Copyright © 1998 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: A History of Europe

In the twenty years since this was written, a common European identity has still failed to materialize. However, across the West we do see a common identity forming, a citizen of the world. A French voter, Rachid Berdouzi, memorably described himself as such, and this identity motivated him to vote for Macron and against Le Pen in the recent French election. John Reilly called this identity transnationalism, but I think globalism is the term most often used. This is usually contrasted to a variety of localisms, at a variety of scales.

Citizens of the world would likely reflexively oppose the idea that they are characteristically Western, but globalism is only strong in the European diaspora. Even in the West, it has ideological rivals. Other parts of the world are much more particularistic.

A History of Europe
by J. M. Roberts
Allen Lane (The Penguin Press), 1997
628 Pages, $34.95
ISBN: 0-713-99204-2


One of the greatest books never written is "Europe: An Autopsy," mentioned in Aldous Huxley's post-apocalyptic novel "Ape and Essence." In Huxley's story, it was possible for a scholar in New Zealand to write a definitive history of Europe because Europe had recently been depopulated by a nuclear war. It would be difficult to write an equally complete history today, since hundreds of millions of people continue to live in Europe and persist in doing things of historical note. Nevertheless, J. M. Roberts, formerly of Oxford and author of the recent "History of the World," suggests in "A History of Europe" that it is possible to look back on European history as a completed whole. According to Roberts, Europe has drawn the whole world into a single history over the past 500 years. Thus, while universal history has not ended, history in Europe is now so strongly affected by what goes on in the rest of the world that it is no longer peculiarly European.

Like most broad historical surveys, this one displays an asymptotic expansion in the number of pages devoted to each increment of time. The thirty thousand years before Periclean Athens, for instance, gets the same amount of coverage as the eight years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the author's interest does not seem to be fully engaged until he gets to A.D.1800 halfway through the book. Still, long before that point, he introduces us to a number of questions about the nature of European civilization that still concern us today.

The greatest of these, of course, is whether "Europe" is really an intelligible unit for historical study. Using the conventional geographical definition of Europe as everything from the Urals to Ireland, it is plain there have usually been several highly distinct societies existing simultaneously in this area for most of the time since the glaciers melted. Even in the "European Age" of world history since 1800, the ancient distinction between the Latin West and the Orthodox East has persisted, though the eastern half of the continent has been steadily acquiring more and more "western" characteristics. Roberts deals with this question, reasonably enough, by acknowledging it and then ignoring it. The book mentions Eastern Europe in general and Russia in particular whenever possible, but Russia really does not seem to be part of the same story until the nineteenth century. Thus, try as he might, European history for most purposes is Western European history. The way that Roberts tells it, readers may also sometimes get the impression that Western European history is largely that of Britain and her relations with the Continent, but he obviously tries to keep a broader perspective.

Allowing that the term "European civilization" refers primarily to the Germano-Roman mix that gelled around the year 1000, this still leaves us with the issue of the degree to which its history can be regarded as culturally autonomous. Europeans had no particular sense of cultural chauvinism until late in the eighteenth century. Medieval Europeans even put Jerusalem at the center of their world maps. Nonetheless, while Europe had hardly been reclusive before the age of oceanic exploration began in the fifteenth century, few of its contacts with other civilizations were really essential to its development. Roberts tries to mention all the major avenues for the exchange of goods and ideas between Europe and other civilizations. Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that by far the most important contact initiated by outsiders during the last thousand years was the purely military confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. It was this large degree of autonomy that makes it possible to speak of a separate European history.

Since 1500, Europe has been overwhelmingly a transmitter rather than a receiver of influence. The most striking feature of this process of transmission, indeed the most striking feature in world history during the period, was European imperialism. It has gone through two major phases of expansion, one in the sixteenth century and the other in the nineteenth. The first phase had modest impact on societies around the rim of Eurasia and Africa, catastrophic ones in the Americas. In the second phase, when almost the entire planet was controlled by European powers, the record is more mixed. Pretty much the same people abolished slavery worldwide as started the Opium Wars, which may be what you would expect considering human nature and the circumstances. In any case, as those 500 years of European imperial expansion progressed, contact with other societies increasingly changed from something that chartered trading monopolies did to something that governments and private persons did. (The big exception was the Spanish empire, which was state-dominated from first to last.) As European societies became more and more engaged with the rest of the world, the question that interests Roberts is when substantial influence began to flow the other way.

It is an axiom in some history departments that imperialism is the main theme of European history in the nineteenth century. Certainly it was economically important, particularly for small countries like the Netherlands whose colonial empires were the largest thing about them. Nevertheless, until the twentieth century there is little indication that extra-European factors were driving domestic politics; rather the opposite, in fact. Particularly in the scramble for Africa (to coin a phrase) in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many conquests and annexations made zero economic sense to the European states involved. Though economic rationales were usually provided for expansion, the Dutch and the English preferred to invest their money in the U.S., the French in Russia, the Germans in Turkey. At least in the final phase of imperialism, the empires were built for prestige, or to outflank rival powers. It is probably an exaggeration to say that some colonial wars were fought to sell newspapers, but not much of one. The chief reason why European states were able to shed their huge empires in the twentieth century with relatively little trouble is that the empires by that time were of little practical value.

Roberts credits Adolf Hitler with ending the European phase of world history. By invading Russia in June 1941 and declaring war on the United States a few months later, he ensured that Europe would be overrun. For a while, and for the first time since the Arab invasions of southern Europe 1200 years before, the continent as a whole became an object of history rather than a subject. Now, this definition of the end of European history may involve a bit of slight of hand. The U.S., he acknowledges, is part of a larger cultural unit called "the West," which may be a better unit for historical study than is the European continent by itself. As for Russia, Roberts can never make up his mind whether that country is really "European" or not. Be this as it may, though, it was certainly the case that the empires disappeared with remarkable swiftness after 1945.

The collapse of the Soviet regime in the last decade of the century held out the prospect that Europe could at least entertain the prospect of becoming an independent historical actor again. Roberts also notes, however, that even those Europeans who are citizens of the European Union are very far from adopting a common European identity. If such an identity does arise, it will be something new, like the national identities that began to appeared among the subjects of some European states in the eighteenth century.

In a way, this book may be too long for its subject. Since it is impossible to provide a detailed history of a topic like this in anything shorter than an encyclopedia, general surveys of this type are sometimes better served by very brief volumes that simply sketch trends and themes. We get plenty of trends and themes here; under the apparent influence of the Annales school, much of the book is composed of little essays that deal with things like comparative demographics and the status of women in medieval society. Still, this book is for the most part an old-fashioned political and military history, which means that very many people and events are mentioned but none of them at length. There are helpful charts scattered throughout the text that sum up the major dates and incidents of a given period. There are maybe a dozen footnotes, and no bibliography.

All things considered, "A History of Europe" is useful as a historical refresher of manageable proportions. There are many people who used to know things like the difference between the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession who will be happy to have a single source to remind them. The book is lucidly written and, especially in the second half, does come close to tying together European history as an intelligible whole. While doubtless there will be more "history of Europe" to be written about in the future, Roberts is probably correct in surmising that a coda has been set to the last 500 years. Despite all the terrible features of the twentieth century, European history has come to a reasonably happy end. At least general surveys of it do not use the word "autopsy" in the title.

Copyright © 1998 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

A History of Europe
By J. M. Roberts

The Long View: The Plot Against America

A good apocalyptic novel never gets old.

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004
391 Pages, US$26.00
ISBN 0-618-50928-3


It's always interesting when a major novelist turns his hand to genre fiction, and especially when he does it well. Philip Roth has done just that: with The Plot Against America, he has made a significant contribution to the canon of the apocalyptic novel. Since they first began to appear about 70 years ago, novels of this type have usually been painfully didactic (and often, as in the case the Left Behind series, just painful). Roth's book is almost unique in the genre in combining a believable human story with the creeping menace of a disguised dystopia. He succeeds while following the conventions of the genre almost step by step.

Before we get to the latter days, however, we must note that The Plot Against America has attracted attention chiefly as an exercise in “counterfactual” or “alternate” history. (I prefer “alternative history”; “alternate” implies just two possibilities.) The divergence from our timeline is made with conceptual economy; Charles Lindbergh accepts the invitations to run for president in 1940 on the Republican ticket that he rejected in our world. He wins. Though he does not then set about establishing a fascist state, he does conclude nonagression pacts with Germany and Japan. His government also launches programs to promote the assimilation of ethnic minorities. The programs are neutral in their terms, but obviously directed at the Jews.

Rather less economically, Walter Winchell, the radio commentator, determines to run for president after his opposition to Lindbergh's policies gets him thrown off the air. He begins his campaign in 1942 with a nationwide speaking tour that sparks antisemitic riots. In some places, the police keep order, but in others hostile local authorities let the disturbances turn into pogroms. After a belated attempt to reassure the nation, President Lindbergh disappears. His vice president, Burton K. Wheeler (an actual figure in Montana politics, by the way) then does attempt to stage a fascist coup. He declares martial law, arrests prominent figures from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Fiorella LaGuardia, and apparently moves toward war with Canada. Thanks to the leadership of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the missing president's presumptive widow, the coup collapses. Congress authorizes a special presidential election for 1942, and Roosevelt becomes president again. Next month, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. History as we know it returns, just one year late.

I know from experience not to argue too strenuously with someone else's counterfactual, so I will raise just two points. It seems unlikely to me that Charles Lindbergh could have translated his celebrity into votes, though Roth's description of Lindbergh's unconventional campaign, consisting of flights in "The Spirit of St. Louis" from city to city, does have a certain dramatic appeal. (Whether by accident or design, Lindbergh's campaign resembles the airborne "Hitler Over Germany" tour that the Nazis conducted in their unsuccessful electoral challenge to President Hindenberg.) Also, if America had withdrawn from the North Atlantic and avoided engagement with Japan in 1941, then Great Britain and the Soviet Union might well have been forced to seek terms. This is the kind of thing that alternative history buffs love to talk about, but it's usually not worth discussing at greater length than I have done here.

What makes it possible to spin this premise to novel length is that Roth has translated these events into the terms of his own childhood. In this book, Roth reconstructs the working-class Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, where he was born and raised. There is too much projection from later experience here to say that he describes these events from the perspective of his eight-year-old self, but he tells us pretty much what a child would see as the darkening of the times affects his own family.

Young Roth's parents are ferociously patriotic, but so culturally timid that Roth's father turns down a promotion that would have required the family to move to a neighboring Gentile town. Not long afterward, these same people have to decide whether to accept a virtual relocation order under the federal "Homestead 42" program, under which the elder Roth's company would transfer him to a small town in Kentucky. A foolish aunt marries a windbag of a collaborationist rabbi and gets to dance with visiting German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the White House, only to see the rabbi arrested during the attempted coup. There is a cousin who goes to Canada to fight in Europe; he comes home with one leg and joins Jewish organized crime, of whose existence the author never ceases to remind us. A brother is a Lindbergh supporter, because he enjoyed a summer on a farm under another federal program. The experience does him little harm, except that the guileless farm family feeds him pig's meat, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This domestication of uncannily trying times is one of the marks of the apocalyptic novel. Such tales usually start with the daily life of a few ordinary families. They live in more or less the world we know, but through their eyes we see how an extra budget of bad news brings society as a whole to crisis. The trouble appears to be resolved through the unexpected intervention of a charismatic public figure. However, some of the ordinary people are suspicious of the new order from the start. Their fears seem groundless, but evidence accumulates that the great mass of people is being deceived. Those who understand the reality of the situation become a spiritual elite (apocalyptic novels take care to reveal ordinary people as heroes). In the final stage of the time of tribulation, the mask comes off the new regime, and those who sought to collaborate with it are destroyed. Very soon, though, the nightmare comes to an end, through events as unexpected as those with which it began.

There are no openly supernatural elements in this story. As for organized religion, the Roths and their neighbors are only minimally observant, while the term “church-going Christian” is merely a term of dread. However, the course of history in the alternative world has the character of a malign providence. Lindbergh's early-morning nomination by the Republican National Convention in 1940, which really starts the story, is experienced by the Roths' neighborhood as a cosmic disaster: "Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake." The Lindbergh Administration is experienced, not as an unfortunate political situation, but like a delusion projected by some dark archon. As the father of the family puts it after a not altogether happy trip to Washington: "They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare."

The author has insisted that his tale of the Lindbergh Administration is not an allegory of the Bush Administration, though one can't help but suspect that Roth's description of the bug-eyed hostility toward Lindbergh is informed, at least in part, by Roth's own observation of so-called "Bush Derangement Syndrome." Be that as it may, The Plot Against America surely reflects its times by recalling another generation when tribulation had begun and further crises loomed.

Copyright © 2004 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: Robertson Davies on Spelling Reform

Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies

From "The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks"
Penguin Books, 1996
Copyright (C) Robertson Davies, 1986
Page 434:

Dear Miss Hawser:

Your suggestion that a few people in Canada try to revive the lost art of letter-writing is a worthy one, and I am flattered that you should include me in your group. I am grateful for the copy of "The Maple Leaf Letter Writer" which you have sent me, and I have read it with great care. But there is one point on which I disagree with the book, and that is its insistence on absolutely conventional spelling. Although I am myself a fair speller, I have thought for some time that a reasonable amount of personal choice should be allowed in this matter. After all, the passion for spelling according to a dictionary is only about a hundred years old; every writer of any importance before that spelled a few words at least in his own way.

Only the other day I was looking at a book of letters from the seventeenth century, in which one writer expressed himself thus: "As for Mr. A--, I esteem him no better than a Pigg." Consider that word "Pigg." The extra "g" is not strictly necessary, but what power it gives to the word! How pig-like it makes poor Mr. A--! How vivid his swinishness becomes! And look at that capital "P." It seems to enrich the sentence by calling special attention to the most important word.

I am not a spelling reformer. I am a laissez-faire liberal in matters of spelling. I do not care that our present system of spelling wastes time and paper. I firmly believe that both time and paper are of less importance than the perfect expression of the writer's meaning. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a Pedantick Booby.

Yours for orthographicall freedom,
Samuel Marchbanks.

And while we are on the subject of Robertson Davies, here is a link to my review of The Cunning Man. Enjoy!

Linkfest 2017-05-05

Steve Sailer is getting more attention. This probably isn't good attention, but what can you do?

I still don't understand macroeconomics, but I am trying.

This is pretty good. 

The shift from male-dominated campus leftism to female-dominated is interesting.

A Thomist ruminating on the way in which we try to explain things we understand well in terms of things we don't understand well.

Rusty Reno argues that globalism/nationalism is the axis upon which the world will turn.

BD Sixsmith's somber memorial to the Bolshevik Revolution.

This makes me feel better that they aren't all dead. There is a counterpoint here challenging this research [which cites the faulty idea that you can alter the ratio male/female births by stopping having kids after you have a boy]

I like apocalyptic fiction. I am glad I never got around to The Road.

The application is a bit disconcerting, but I am amazed at the functionality/price ratio.

I expect that history will fondly remember Benedict XVI.

The Long View: The Last Division: A History of Berlin 1945-1989

While Kennedy did say something that could have been seen as funny in his famous Berlin speech, if you watch video of the speech it is pretty clear the crowd didn't take it that way.

I have a number of personal connections to Berlin that make this review interesting to me. As a child, I met a friend of my father's who had escaped from East Germany. Also my wife's grandmother was a native of Berlin who met her US Army husband because of the garrisons there.

The Last Division: A History of Berlin 1945-1989
by Ann Tusa
Publication Date May 1, 1997
ISBN: 0-201-14399-2


I Am a Doughnut


The problem with the Cold War was not so much that it threatened to go on forever as that it was so godawful boring. Year after year there were indistinguishable stories about unsatisfactory arms control negotiations, proxy guerrilla wars in places you never heard of and speculation about the health of the old hacks who ran the shabby but durable Soviet Empire. The frozen ninth circle of international tedium was, of course, Berlin. There the confrontation between East and West was most direct and the web of explicit agreements and insoluble differences was thickest. In literature, the Berlin espionage industry became a familiar metaphor for the ambiguous nature of the human condition, or something. Metaphorical treatment was necessary, perhaps, since thinking about the status and future of the divided city itself was likely to produce unconsciousness in anyone who did not actually work for the Brookings Institute. Just as the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall was unimaginable even a few months before it happened, so it may seem unimaginable that there could be either pleasure or profit in a history of how the Wall got there and how the city lived with it for 28 years.

Ann Tusa, co-author of two other books on postwar German subjects, has done the unimaginable. “The Last Division” is a serious, detailed and vastly entertaining history of the city of Berlin from its largely ruined state in 1945 to that wonderful street party that erupted on the night of November 9, 1989. The story concentrates on the 1950s and the events that precipitated the building of the Wall in 1961. We get only a cursory glance at West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Oestpolitik” that resulted in 1971 in a Four Power agreement on the status of the city. President Kennedy’s 1963 visit is mentioned primarily to note that his famous line, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” idiomatically means “I am a doughnut.” Still, the book gives us a perceptive look at the key personalities of mid-twentieth century European history and a somewhat disconcerting introduction to the mechanics of diplomacy at the summit.

The story as told here rightfully ignores a lot of revisionist nonsense. It is, for instance, refreshing to read an account of John Kennedy’s administration that assumes the president was preoccupied with matters other than Addison’s Disease and Marilyn Monroe’s panties. (It helps, perhaps, that the author is highly British.) The book concentrates as narrowly as possible on Berlin, but simply by being factual it leaves little doubt about who was responsible for the Cold War. The basic cause of the recurring Berlin crises from the Soviet blockade of 1948 to the closing of the interzonal border in 1961 was that the Western Allies had neglected to get an ironclad agreement from the Soviets at the end of World War II regarding the governance of the city. The wartime leaders had vaguely agreed that the Western allies would share in the occupation of the city with the Soviets. The Western leaders seemed to have assumed that questions of supply for their garrison forces and for the civilian population would look after themselves. They didn’t.

Whenever the Western powers disagreed with the Soviets over any of the growing list of unresolved questions regarding the occupation of Europe, they would find services to their part of the city disrupted and road links to the West either cut or subject to interminable delays. In the blockade of 1948-49, the Soviets seem to have actually intended to make the Western powers choose between maintaining a presence in Berlin and reconstituting a democratic Germany in the West. Since the blockade was answered with an airlift, the scariest moments in the years thereafter were those when the Russians threatened to interfere with air transport, too. For instance, the Russians made a fuss when high-flying jets began to replace low-flying turboprops on the Berlin routes. Ann Tusa crystallizes the atmosphere of these events for us with this memorable footnote:

“Someone in the British embassy in Bonn had the spiffing wheeze of sending Lord Mountbatten to Berlin in a high altitude Comet to see what the Russians would do about it. It was rather reminiscent of the old ‘Beyond the Fringe’ sketch in which a hapless young man is told by his commanding officer ‘The time has come for a meaningless sacrifice. We have chosen you’ -- and not at all the conventional treatment for the Chief of Imperial General Staff.”

Western leaders tried hard to accommodate understandable Russian insecurity. They tried the personal touch. They sometimes tried something akin to bribery. None of it worked. One-on-one summit meetings with Khrushchev by Macmillan, Eisenhower and Kennedy all demonstrated that humoring the Russians did not work. The effort often seemed to make things worse, if the threatening tone of Khrushchev’s rhetoric was any indication. (In a particularly colorful turn of phrase, Khrushchev once remarked to John McCloy that Kennedy would be the last president of the United States. What a character.)

Part of the problem was that the Russians were not motivated simply by insecurity. It was not at all obvious in those days, for one thing, that command economies could not outperform market economies. As long as economic development was a matter of concrete and steel production, the Soviet economy was actually doing pretty well, and the Soviets expected to be deferred to accordingly. A deeper difficulty, perhaps, was that the Russians did not understand how contractual relationships among equals work. There is an old saying that Russians play chess and Americans play poker. What happened in the course of the Cold War was that the Russians eventually forced everyone who dealt with them to play chess, too.

Throughout the 1950s, this meant that the small Western garrisons of indefensible West Berlin enacted a nerve-wracking kabuki play with their Eastern counterparts over interzonal cross-points and rights of inspection. Everyone, including the Russians, had a lively awareness of how the First World War had started, and neither side pressed too far. However, the fact was that the Russians were the ones who wanted the status of the city changed. In fact, what they really wanted was a Germany demilitarized and ruled by a confederal government with a guaranteed Communist component. In that case, the status of Berlin would have been unimportant to them. The least that they would settle for, however, was recognition of their satellite, the German Democratic Republic. In that case, a Berlin in which people could move freely between East and West was a threat. In over ten years of negotiations, no one seems to have put forward a proposal as simple as trading recognition of the East German regime for the security of West Berlin. In the event, however, that is exactly what happened.

The Wall itself went up because of a demographic crisis of the Communists own devising. Emigration from East Germany to the West, largely through Berlin, had been a trickle through most of the 1950s. Towards the end of the decade, however, the East German government pressed a collectivization program against both small industrial firms and small farms. They thus started to lose farmers and skilled workers in large numbers. Peasant opposition caused food shortages, making the East an even less desirable place to live. Additionally, in 1958, Khrushchev began issuing a series of ultimatums, or what sounded like ultimatums, which demanded that the German question be settled in a specified period of time. The deadline kept changing, but increasing numbers of reasonable East Germans concluded that they would much rather be elsewhere if the border were sealed. By the time barbed-wire preliminaries to the Wall were put up on a sleepy weekend in August 1961, the small Communist republic was losing over 2000 people a day.

The Western Allies were outraged, after a fashion. They were certainly surprised. All kinds of scenarios had been prepared against forceful measures by the Communist governments. Most of them were variations on the blockade of 1948, with the envisioned remedy a much larger airlift. The one possibility they had not considered was that the East Germans might just isolate West Berlin from East Berlin but leave access to the West more or less alone. While it is clear enough that Western leaders did not collude in the establishment of the Wall, nevertheless they were clearly relieved. The Wall solved the practical problems the Russians and East Germans had been having, though it was another ten years before Willy Brandt’s diplomacy gave the solution an acceptable legal formulation. Western leaders got a standing photo opportunity whenever they visited Germany. “This wall proves the failure of communism!” they could say for three decades as they posed in front of it. West Berliners, in contrast, had trouble believing that a power that could keep a large selection of their friends and relatives permanently locked away was altogether impotent.

If the Cold War was a chess game, the Communist government of East Germany lost it in a way that in fact closely paralleled many games of chess. A doomed player may have considerable freedom of movement and just as many pieces as the other side until quite late in the game. Then, quite suddenly, the player’s position will collapse. The sacrifice of major pieces may buy a little more time. Even then, however, the end can be hastened by a panicky blunder. All the eastern regimes were doomed by Gorbachev’s decision not to support them militarily against internal unrest. East Germany in particular clearly did not have long to last after Hungary opened its borders with Austria in September 1989, providing a route for so many East Germans to leave that basic services began to break down. However, the sudden fall of the Wall was an accident. On November 9, a hapless spokesman for the East German government read a roomful of reporters an incomplete draft of a new regulation that would have let East Berliners get visas to travel to the Western Zones. It sounded, inaccurately, like a declaration of unrestricted passage. Once the guards at one crossing point started letting people through, the interzonal border simply dissolved.

Today, of course, the East Germans are very grumpy about the way things turned out. They think that they did pretty well in the postwar years, given that all the Russians left them after exacting reparations with was “Walter Ulbricht [the first East German leader] and a few potatoes.” They had some accomplishments to their credit, they say, that the West Germans should have respected. Probably they have a point. Still, the division of one of the great cities of Europe was not to anyone’s benefit, least of all theirs. Once upon a time, as this book shows, it seemed that the outcome of world history would turn on what happened in Berlin. As things turned out, however, the division ended without war, without riot, without even a cathartic lynching. This is one history book with a happy ending.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 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 2004-12-15: Good Ideas; Bad Reasons

Sunset Crater with the San Francisco Peaks in the background

Sunset Crater with the San Francisco Peaks in the background

I read State of Fear and I liked it. I also thought it was massively unfair. It was a fun story, given its premises. Taken as a flight of fantasy, it was a blast. If you think it was an unbiased representation of the facts....

Some of the action in the book takes place in Northern Arizona. Many of Crichton's books feature Arizona in some fashion. I remember reading something by him that one of his inspirations for his works was the natural beauty of Sunset Crater. I'm a sucker for books that mention Flagstaff or Northern Arizona in some way.

Good Ideas; Bad Reasons


The scandal of the season seems to be Michael Crichton's new novel, State of Fear. The book is based on the thesis that the hypothesis that global warming is caused by human activities, or even that it is occurring, is politicized pseudo-science. In an address last year, Crichton argued that global-warming belief is just one example of a increasing corruption of science. The paradigm case, he tells us, is the theory behind the search for extra terrestrial life (SETI):

[Consider the] Drake equation:

N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

Where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet's life during which the communicating civilizations live.

This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we're clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be "informed guesses." If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It's simply prejudice.

Most of the policy points that Crichton makes in this essay have merit. The nuclear-winter hypothesis was a propaganda scam. Second-hand smoke has never been shown to do any harm except to the people who are sued for claims that it causes cancer. The Malthusian "Population Bomb" argument is the Thing That Will Not Die, no matter how far it diverges from the facts. Nonetheless, regarding the one example of alleged scientific malpractice that Crichton discusses in detail, SETI, he is plainly talking nonsense.

There may or may not be space aliens, but the question is not undecidable. Certainly it is possible to make observations that would yield a good estimate of the number of Earth-like planets. The values for the final variables in the Drake Equation cannot be known a priori, but even they could be limited by whether signals are detected or not. In fact, to some degree they already have been.

If this is Michael Crichton's idea of science, we should take what he says with a grain of salt.

* * *

Meanwhile, the ingenious argument for Intelligent Design has gained a notable convert:

New York (AsiaNews/CWN) Anthony Flew, the British scholar who has been one of the world's most [eloquent proponents] of atheism, has conceded that scientific evidence points to the existence of God...Early this year, writing in Philosophy Now magazine, Flew had indicated that his commitment to atheism was wavering. He wrote: "It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism..."...Flew--whose 1984 essay, The Presumption of Atheism, fixed his place as the leading proponent of that view--emphasises that he has not accepted Christianity. He said: "I'm thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian, and far and away from the God of Islam." He likened his current position to the deism of Thomas Jefferson, explaining that he is now sympathetic to the researchers who theorise about an 'intelligent design' in the working of creation.

The Argument from Design for the existence of God is the only major proofs, if I am not mistaken, whose critics never claimed to have refuted as matter of logic. Hume himself simply noted that it was an empirical question that was very difficult to answer. The recent Intelligent Design hypothesis claims to have solved by the empirical question by proving that biochemistry could not have evolved by chance within the estimates age of the universe.

Theism as a metaphysical postulate is actually a clarifying agent. If you assume that the universe is personal, or at least rational, you will find out more about it than would a true skeptic. In fact, I would argue that the great deadends in intellectual history have been caused by "fear of religion." In biology and the social sciences, the rejection of teleology in principle has hindered research for decades.

So, I don't think that Anthony Flew will come to much harm for having dropped his guard on the God question. However, with regard to the argument from design, Hume was right.

* * *

Whether or not there are space aliens, we can still look forward to strange things appearing in the sky:

WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Top U.S. Air Force officials are working on a strategy to put surveillance aircraft in "near space," the no man's land above 65,000 feet but below an outer space orbit, Air Force chief of staff Gen. John Jumper said on Tuesday.

Jumper said he would meet next Tuesday with the head of the Air Force Space Command, Gen. Lance Lord, to map out plans to get lighter-than-air vehicles into that region above the earth, where they could play a vital role in surveillance over trouble spots like Iraq...But in near space, such aircraft could carry out radar and imaging missions, carry communications nodes and even potentially relay laser beams from a ground-based source against a wide variety of targets, industry sources said.

That last bit is important. The tactic that will finally put paid to the strategic nuclear era is local defense of the targets. The lasers are more or less ready. One can imagine these relay platforms perpetually on station by the middle of this century, as prominent a feature of major cities as skyscrapers are today. Of course, the loss of nukes would make conventional intercontinental war possible again, but you can't have everything.

* * *

On the subject of strange forms of life, consider this bewildered report from the New York Times's Richard Bernstein on the long-awaited and perfectly predictable European rejection of immigration:

A Continent Watching Anxiously Over the Melting Pot: And so the question: why are Germans - and not just Germans but other Europeans as well - in such a state of anxiety and uncertainty about matters that have been more or less settled in the world's biggest country of immigration, the United States, for years? Why this discomfort with multiculturalism, this belief that assimilation, accepting the leitkultur, is the only way?

What planet does this writer live on? The issues in the United States are different, of course, but can even the Times not know that even most immigrants in America want immigration drastically reduced? And that people look on multiculturalism as a racket the nation can no longer afford? Just wait till 2008.

* * *

A parting threat: my Spelling Reform top page has been updated. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Copyright © 2004 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: Terrible Honesty

In passing, this is a pretty funny comment on my own review of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.

The problem with the academic writers on the subject, he complained, was the same that bedeviled writers on Spanish history: both seemed to be infected by the insanity they were describing. 

I enjoy this review because it is a view of the relatively recent past [from the author's point of view], written in the very recent past [from our point of view]. Thus, we have a feminist scholar of the mid-1990s, who with some justice described the overwhelming power of women and women's interests in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries.

I suspect that last sentence would be incomprehensible for many college-educated Americans today. However, this is simply the truth. Because we have since repealed the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is too easy to dismiss the magnitude of its initial ratification. If you can imagine a United States without the repeal of Prohibition, can you also envision the effort needed today to pass a Constitutional amendment to prohibit the sale of alcohol? It seems strange, right? Even though in some sense Prohibition did exactly what it claimed to do.

Age–adjusted death rates of liver cirrhosis by gender, 1910–1932 in death registration States, and 1933–1997 in entire United States

Age–adjusted death rates of liver cirrhosis by gender, 1910–1932 in death registration States, and 1933–1997 in entire United States


The gap between what is imaginable now and what actually happened then is how much power female-dominated movements like Temperance had at the time. However, it is probably also a mistake to think you can easily map the concerns of a 19th-century feminist like Susan B. Anthony onto current politics.

I also enjoyed Douglas' description of Freud:

Douglas cites James's judgment of him as a monomaniac, a man of "fixed ideas" whom it was best just to humor. She spends many pages describing how Freud refused to follow up implications of his own theories that seemed to lead in uncongenial directions. He did not so much debate with his critics as issue unfavorable diagnoses of them.

Unfortunately, Freud continues to be popular.

Terrible Honesty

Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s
by Ann Douglas
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995
ISBN 0-374-11620-2

Eschropolis on the Hudson

Herbert Butterfield, the renowned historian of science, once lamented the fact there was no good history of alchemy. The problem with the academic writers on the subject, he complained, was the same that bedeviled writers on Spanish history: both seemed to be infected by the insanity they were describing. Something of the sort might also be said of this long, selective history of the Jazz Age (roughly from the end of the First World War to the crash of 1929) as reflected in the cultural life of Manhattan. In the last paragraph of the book, Ann Douglas (an Americanist who has taught at various Ivy League schools) offers the judgment: "The 1920s could be said to have perfected the idea of history as instant is hard to use irony on those who perfected it...The men and women of the urban 1920s remain, as they wished and aimed to be, in some sense culturally invulnerable, impervious to historical hindsight..." This startling assessment begins to make sense in the light of Douglas's more plausible observation that modern civilization (or maybe better, the current phase of modernity) only really jelled in the 1920s. It is understandable, therefore, if the worldview of that decade still seems somehow obvious and unanswerable. The assessment may be understandable, but it is still wrong.

The basic thesis of this book, that the self-consciously masculine 1920s were a reaction to the "matriarchal" late Victorian era, is unexceptionable. The reality was, perhaps, less richly gendered than Douglas's theoretical apparatus requires, but then these are the 1990s, and historians have a perfect right to ride their own era's hobbyhorses. Her previous major work, The Feminization of American Culture (1977), described the overwhelming cultural power which women and women's interests wielded in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The great literary names from the 19th century may be those of such men as Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, but most bestsellers were books like Pollyanna and Little Women. The bulk of the literature of the period was by women for women. Like any period's popular literature, most of it wasn't very good by any standard. It was prolix, sentimental, falsely optimistic. The era exuded moral uplift and positive thinking. The Mark Twains and the Ambrose Bierces might condemn and satirize the treacly literature of their country, but to no avail. It was enough to drive a man to drink, which it did until the female Prohibitionists outlawed alcohol.

What was true of literature was also true of the nation's spiritual life. The turn of the century was the sunset of the age of table-rapping mediums, who promised to take all the nastiness out of death. It was also the golden age of what has been called "the Great American Mind Cure." Mary Baker Eddy and her doctrine of Christian Science perfectly represented the determination of late Victorian Americans that there were no unpleasant facts. The truly pure of heart believed there no facts at all, simply appearances that we create in our own minds and that can be cured through mental effort. All the mainline Protestant churches were infected to some degree by the cult of the non-judgmental Mother-Father God which Eddy preached.

The intellectual life of the era was not a total waste, of course. Douglas's model of sanity and wisdom is the Harvard psychologist, William James. He was a rigorous thinker who yet did not belittle the traditional concerns of the spiritual life. James, however, with his moderation and empiricism, was not suited to preside over the opening decade of modern civilization. He was too accommodating, too optimistic, more like a favorite uncle than the vengeful patriarch the emerging national mood required. Although Sigmund Freud thought of the United States in rather the way that Billy Sunday thought about New Orleans, he nevertheless was elected the national vengeful patriarch by acclamation. The election, of course, was held among the writers and intellectuals of Manhattan.

Douglas makes the interesting observation that the popular Freudianism of the 1920s had a lot in common with the Neo-Orthodoxy which was beginning to spread though the elite seminaries. (It was also related, perhaps, to the popular fundamentalism which became prominent at about the same time.) The bare-bones protestant theology promoted in the early decades of the twentieth century by people like Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr was not "orthodox" in the sense of adhering to a keen belief in the supernatural or in the literal inerrancy of scripture. It was primarily concerned with the reality of evil and the moral necessity of a sense of sin. Neo-Orthodoxy was a kind of Calvinism that made damnation almost inevitable, but without strongly affirming the reality of the afterlife. It was thus closely associated in mood with the grim moral universe implied by Freud's psychology. Freud's metaphysics was reductionist enough to make traditional moral reasoning appear as an evasion of harsh realities or as a mask for disreputable lusts. Freud did, however, rigorously uphold the reality of true and false, reality and illusion, adult and infantile. As in Calvin's Geneva, the percentage of the population who could be judged to fall into the class of the healthy elect was austerely small. But the moderns at least had this advantage, that they lived in the new dispensation when sanity was theoretically possible. The people in the whole of the past, on the other hand, had lived in the darkness of social and religious illusion. The moderns of the 1920s, particularly those of Manhattan, therefore strove to make the best of their sour privilege and to describe the world as it really was.

The "terrible honesty" cultivated by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker and Eugene O'Neill and their contemporaries was in fact a much fiercer enterprise than the "irony" which passes for wisdom in the 1990s. Its enduring monument is the muscle-and-bone narrative prose of Hemingway, who ruled literary New York from Paris in those years. Its most conspicuous manifestations at the time, however, were the new social mores and deliberately jarring popular arts of the Jazz era. As with the Neo-Oxthodox theologians, 1920s modernism was a movement of moral condemnation, though what was being condemned was the conventional morality of the nineteenth century. In former ages, writers had been known to drink themselves to death. For writers who were young in the 1920s, in contrast, perpetual inebriation became a matter of principle. It was a protest against the derisory attempt by the Boobus Americanus (to use H. L. Mencken's classification) to impose Susan B. Anthony's morality on the whole country. The same impulse toward reverse evangelism was felt even by those writers who purported to be relativizing all moral systems. In these years, the young Margaret Mead made cultural anthropology a popular literary genre with her somewhat fanciful account of the lives of young people in Samoa. However, it was always clear that the primary goal of her study was not to relativize the cultures of the America and Samoa, but to condemn the Judeo- Christian morality of America. This, of course, is an old procedure: eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophers concocted similarly inaccurate accounts of Chinese civilization with which to shame their own societies. The moderns knew that cultural anthropology was different, however. It was science, just like Freudian psychology. Therefore, it could be relied on to reveal the unvarnished truth.

In retrospect, what is most striking about the leading lights of the 1920s was their willful mendacity. Freud, the great archon of the age, was basically a gifted crank. Douglas cites James's judgment of him as a monomaniac, a man of "fixed ideas" whom it was best just to humor. She spends many pages describing how Freud refused to follow up implications of his own theories that seemed to lead in uncongenial directions. He did not so much debate with his critics as issue unfavorable diagnoses of them. The writers were even worse. Hemingway, as his third wife noted in later years, was "the biggest liar since Munchhausen." His three weeks as an ambulance driver on the Italian front during the First World War became in reminiscence a military career of Alexandrine proportions. During the Spanish Civil War, he became an apologist for the Communist line on the conduct of the war and the nature of the Spanish Republic. H. L. Mencken spent his days writing tendentious editorials and his nights making up the references for The American Language out of whole cloth. (Well, some of them.) The lesser lights in Manhattan followed suit, as their capacities allowed. To be honest, particularly to be "terribly honest," did not mean being as factual and logical as you could. It meant denigrating the right old things, and cultivating the right new things.

The chief right new thing that progressive Manhattanites were supposed to cultivate in the 1920s was black culture. About half the book is given over to the decade's "Harlem Renaissance" and the early years of jazz as a mainstream cultural force. Much of this discussion is more like an adulatory prose-poem than a history. It is disfigured by the sort of factoids found in a bad Black Studies course. Thus, we learn that Aesop was black. In the dialectic of black and white culture, we are told, it is the former that contains the latter, since only black people see America as it truly is. Douglas has rather a lot to say about an entity call "Euro-America," a community that is of the same order as Black America and in many ways inferior to it. Despite Douglas's credulity, however, it is not hard to pick out the threads of what happened during those years in the interface between the avant garde culture of Manhattan and the lively subculture in the island's most famous neighborhood.

The writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, ranging from Langston Hughes to W.E.B. Du Bois to Fats Waller, really did not have the same set of interests as their neighbors in the more southerly reaches of the island. They were not undergraduate nihilists; they thought of themselves as creators, not critics. Middle class status was something to be devoutly wished for rather than denigrated. They were often spiritual to a degree that would have ostracized their white counterparts from intellectual life entirely. The writers, at least, were more likely to be homosexuals and less likely to be drunks. Even the early jazz artists were not bohemian in the sense that white artists aspired to be. They often had some early classical training, and they expanded their art to encompass classical techniques they encountered in later life. All the participants in the Renaissance, of course, were still subject to insult and outrage because of their race. Harlem, however, compared to the deep South where many of them came from, was an oasis of equity and prosperity. The Harelm Renaissance as a whole was conspicuously optimistic in the context of the contemporary West.

Lower Manhattan was part of the international cultural system which included the London of the "Bright Young Things" and the Berlin of the Weimar Republic. Had the people of Harlem been some insular white ethnic group, the Manhattan avant garde would have dismissed them as provincials. This, after all, was what they (and Douglas) did to Yiddish-speaking New York of the time, which was the golden age of Yiddish theatre. As it was, however, lower Manhattan saw to it that one element of the Renaissance, the music, was spread throughout the world. Lower Manhattan did not particularly want to hear what upper Manhattan had to say. In essence, the Renaissance was set upon by fashionable white people in search of the noble savage.

To judge from this account, some of these people may have been vampires. The novelist Langston Hughes's wealthy theosophical patroness, for instance, tyrannized over the black artists she supported like a mad guru over a cult. Douglas tells the sad story of how young heiress Nancy Cunard attached herself in a long-term relationship to a black musician, deliberately ruining her own life and coming close to ruining his, all in a successful effort to alienate her imperturbable mother. On the other hand, jazz and blues permitted some black artists to break the bonds of patronage entirely. The blues-singing divas of the 1920s were the prototypes of rock singers later in the century. They were the first class of poor people with little or no education to rise to wealth and prominence by virtue of their ability to produce entertainment for the mass media. Like the rock stars, many of them came to early ends. However, they were also the first class of black entertainers who were able to perform in a medium that did not, like the old minstrel shows, require them to act at least in part like buffoons.

None of this might have done any harm, had it not been for the transmutation of the black man into a new cultural archetype. Jung and D. H. Lawrence led the way early in the century with their blather about America having a black subconscious. The cult of the cthonic wisdom of the Negro began in earnest in the 1920s. It has persisted to this day, and this book might serve as one of its sacred texts. The process of myth-building must be understood in the context of larger developments within Western civilization as a whole. The end of the First World War marked the beginning of the manufacture of improbable countries out of sometimes wholly imaginary ethnic groups. Each of these countries had to be outfitted with a native language, an ancient history, a national soul rooted in the soil. In the 1920s, black people became America's "peasants." They became, at least for the avant garde, the source of primordial folk-wisdom to which city intellectuals might repair, if they could bear to hear the fundamental truth. Curiously, the truths about sexual liberation and the impulsive side of human nature which white intellectuals thought they were hearing from black culture, particularly from black music, were an awful lot like what Margaret Mead thought the Samoan teenagers had told her. Actually, it also sounded very much like what the New Yorkers' own subconsciouses were saying, at least according to their psychoanalysts. This harmony of inspiration was surely the voice of Being speaking, just as Heidegger would argue that the soul of the German people was being articulated through the Nazi Party. Some realities are so terrible they have to be true.

Can anyone really find creatures who thought things like this to be "impervious to historical hindsight"? Only a few years later, C.S. Lewis neatly skewered the "Bright Young Things" of the same period in his allegory, Pilgrim's Regress (1933). There they appear simply as "the Clevers" of the city of Eschropolis ("Acid City"). They cultivate "savage disillusionment" for the amusement of Mr. Mammon, all the while drinking repulsive drinks and carrying on vicious personal invective. There really isn't very much to them. Perhaps this assessment by a contemporary helps to establish the "invulnerability" of the epoch, since the criticism comes from the epoch itself, but I don't think so. Lewis's satire was based precisely on the perennial principles which the 1920s thought to be permanently discredited. His view of the matter, which was humorous but not ironic, has more resonance for people today than does the Jazz Age's view of itself

The leading lights of Jazz Age Manhattan believed many things very strongly, and they disbelieved other things more strongly still. Still, their beliefs and unbeliefs were both insubstantial, frivolous, a matter of entertainment rather than thought. For all their professed determination to know the truth, they were singularly incurious and therefore gullible. Throughout the 1920s, they chug-a-lugged the Freudian snake oil without pausing for a skeptical breath. In the 1930s, before their outraged livers exploded, they became the most strident and obedient of Stalinists. At least from this reviewer's perspective, the 1920s were barren of deep insight into the human condition or the American soul. The great ones of that age left us serviceable styles of prose and architecture, and a gallery of short, vivid lives. They also left us in a trance of willful self-delusion, from which we have yet to wholly awaken.

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

Copyright © 1996 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 2004-12-13: McCain Ring; Perfect UN; Culture War Overseas; Chinese Bubble

I enjoyed a taste of Hillary Clinton's 2004 efforts to position herself as a future President:

On immigration she has begun talking tough on border security, accusing the administration of not spending enough, employing enough people, using the best technology. She recently called herself "adamantly against illegal immigrants," by which she no doubt meant illegal immigration, and has been inching toward support for a national ID card.

Oh how the times change.

McCain Ring; Perfect UN; Culture War Overseas; Chinese Bubble


Speculation about the presidential election of 2008 was well underway even before November 2. Today, one almost feels that time grows short. In any case, I was thinking of starting a purely exploratory "McCain for President" webring. If anyone is interested, please drop me a note.

Some candidacies are not at all speculative. Peggy Noonan's assessment of the protocampaign of Hillary Clinton is provocative on several levels:

She is taking care of her liberal base while cherry-picking key issues on which she can get to the right of the Republican party. This is most astute and quite effective. For the liberals she produces a steady stream of base-friendly efforts (Special Committee on the Aging, education funding, help for the emotionally disturbed, extended unemployment insurance) and classic pork barrel. To get to the right of the president she talks homeland security and immigration. On homeland security she fights for increased funding, better controls at U.S. ports, tightened security for nuclear power plants and chemical plants. She issues warnings about the use of weapons of mass destruction on American soil. She is a member of the Armed Services Committee and likes to talk about military reform. On immigration she has begun talking tough on border security, accusing the administration of not spending enough, employing enough people, using the best technology. She recently called herself "adamantly against illegal immigrants," by which she no doubt meant illegal immigration, and has been inching toward support for a national ID card.

Why does she want to get to Mr. Bush's right on these issues? [One reason] is that she knows another attack on American soil is inevitable and wants to position herself politically as The Wise One Who Warned Us.

This is why we have elections.

* * *

American foes of the United Nations are engaged in a campaign to prevent the organization from expanding its headquarters in New York, or even repairing its existing crumbly old modernist signature building:

Currently, there are several efforts under way to block the U.N.'s expansion and renovation of its building. Move America Forward has thrown its weight behind lawmakers and other community leaders to prevent the U.N. from growing in New York.

The United Nations' plan calls for a new 35-story building built on a park and the renovation of its current 52-year-old main headquarters.

The United Nations is not without its faults. Even people who approve of it in principle increasingly suspect that, like the pharisees, it neither enters the Kingdom, nor allows others to enter. In any case, those who believe the organization should be put out of its misery are barking up the wrong tree if they try to prevent the United Nations from creating a more palatial headquarters complex. Northcote Parkinson understood the matter perfectly:

One chapter [of Parkinson's Law], titled "Plans and Plants, or The Administrative Block," did deal with architecture. I remember it since it undermined much of what I was being taught in my classes. Parkinson's thesis, briefly put, was that when an organization commissioned an architectural masterpiece for itself, it was almost always done at precisely the moment when that organization was on its last legs. "During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters," he wrote. "The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death."

I know this, but I can't help myself.

* * *

For some time now, I have been waxing tedious about the link between the Culture War and the Terror War. Some anecdotal evidence supports the link, as we see from this report by Tyler Golson, an American academic teaching in Damascus:

One afternoon I was explaining the passive tense of verbs, and I used an example that came to mind from American culture. I asked them if they knew who was nominated by the two main parties to run for president. "John Kerry was nominated by the Democratic Party, and George Bush was nominated by the Republicans," replied one of the brightest in the class, a veiled Muslim engineering student named Rahaf. "Very good," I said. "Now, who do you think will be elected?" "Bush," cried several of the students at once, smiling. Abandoning my lesson plan for the moment, but curious at this sudden display of interest in the election, I ventured: "Who do you want to win?" "Bush," said Rahaf, while a number of others nodded in solid agreement. I pressed them further for a few minutes, asking individual students why they liked Bush. The same ideas came up again and again: he is a strong leader, an honest man, and, most of all, a believer. Like the winning margin of American voters this year, these Middle Easterners related to Bush's sense of religious conviction and his confident steering of a nation and culture they admired.

Supporting Bush may be as close as the students could come to openly opposing the Baathist government of Syria. Still, one wonders what they would have said about America if Kerry had been elected.

* * *

Perhaps I am not the only person whom the recent sale of IBM's PC business to the Chinese firm, Lenovo, reminded of the huge, ill-advised purchases of American assets by Japanese companies in the late 1980s. About the IBM deal, the analogy may not be apposite. The Chinese did not just ship oil freighters full of dollars to IBM, which was pretty much what the Japanese did. As the New York Times pointed out today, I.B.M. Sought a China Partnership, Not Just a Sale, and the deal was structured to give IBM a continuing interest in the future of Lenovo. However, other Chinese firms are doing deals just as appalling as the Japanese purchase of Rockefeller Center. As another New York Times story put it, China's Splurge on Resources May Not Be a Sign of Strength:

In one closely scrutinized deal, China's state-owned Minmetals Corporation is bidding to purchase Noranda of Canada, the third-largest zinc producer and ninth-largest copper producer in the world, for a reported $5.5 billion. The deal is expected to include assumption of a substantial amount of debt not reflected in the cash price, and appears to be based on the assumption that commodity prices will stay high indefinitely, said Jason Kindopp, a China analyst at the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political-risk consulting firm. Mr. Kindopp said that China risked waking up one day to find itself holding vastly inflated contracts in a global recession in commodities, much the way Japan suffered major losses after having overpaid for international assets during its boom in the 1980's.

Has there ever been a country with a big trade surplus that did not turn out to have more money than sense?

Copyright © 2004 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 2004-12-08: The Breeder Advantage

The Breeder Advantage

The Breeder Advantage

The Breeder Advantage is related to what Steve Sailer calls Affordable Family Formation. He started talking about this in 2004, at about the same time John posted this. It would be easy to just chalk this up to biology, but I think John Reilly's point is well taken: 

Still, there is something to the Red State Breeder argument, if we keep in mind that it is really about culture, not fertility per se.

But don't forget gene-culture co-evolution.

The Breeder Advantage


First we had Angry White Men, as the explanation for the congressional election results of 1994. Then we had Soccer Moms, as the explanation for reelection of Bill Clinton in 1996. Now we have Breeders as the explanation for the election of 2004. The demographic indictment of modernity, or at least of cultural libertarianism, began to be revived a few years ago, notably by Patrick Buchanan . The notion is now all over the media, as we see from David Brooks's column in yesterday's New York TimesThe New Red-Diaper Babies :

In The New Republic Online, Joel Kotkin and William Frey observe, "Democrats swept the largely childless cities - true blue locales like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Boston and Manhattan have the lowest percentages of children in the nation - but generally had poor showings in those places where families are settling down, notably the Sun Belt cities, exurbs and outer suburbs of older metropolitan areas."

As I have repeatedly noted, one should take demographic projections with a grain of salt. If you base electoral forecasts on those projections, then you should swallow all the salt in the salt shaker. Still, there is something to the Red State Breeder argument, if we keep in mind that it is really about culture, not fertility per se.

The term "progressive" has always been used by people who wanted to suggest that their views were on the trajectory to the future, which was presumed to be bohemian, secular, and socialist. What will it do to the Left, then, if they absorb the idea, whether rightly or wrongly, that their current views have morbid effects, and are therefore futureless? They will not take it lying down, not if they want to win elections. They will change in significant ways on reproductive issues, and on the closely related questions about homosexuality. Watch.

* * *

Another persistent advocate of the Breeder Advantage thesis is the Other Spengler at Asia Times . He does it again in a recent column . What I quote here, however, are some further remarks about the prospect that Red State culture could be the future:

Western civilization - the heritage of St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Goethe - may be harder to preserve than America's pension system. Except for Western classical music, which Asians have embraced as their own, the cultural heritage of the West has no natural constituency... American evangelicals have deep roots in the Bible - which is Western only at the margin - and only passing interest in subsequent doings of the West. They are more likely to listen to Christian variants of country and heavy metal than J S Bach. A story (on from US marines outside Fallujah sums it up:
"You are the sovereign. You're name is holy. You are the pure spotless lamb," a female voice cried out on the loudspeakers as the marines clapped their hands and closed their eyes, reflecting on what lay ahead for them..."Thus David prevailed over the Philistines," the marine said, reading from scripture, and the marines shouted back "Hoorah, King David," using their signature grunt of approval.
Clearly the marines grunted "Hooah!", not "Hoorah." Among its meanings in soldiers' patois is "Amen." For an explanation, see The Urban Dictionary. "Hooah, King David!" Not what I anticipated when first I studied the Psalter, but in lean times one has to take what one can get.

The Actual Spengler, the one who wrote The Decline of the West, coined the term, "The Second Religiousness," to describe the final spiritual condition of a civilization-producing culture. Writing over 80 years ago, he said there would still be several generations before this phenomenon appeared in the West, so there was no way to say just what form it would take. He did offer this speculation:

It is perhaps possible for us to make some guess already as to these forms, which (it is self-evident) must led back to certain elements of Gothic Christianity. But be this as it may, what is quite certain is that will not be the product of any literary taste for Late-Indian of Late-Chinese speculation, but something of the type, for example, of Adventism and suchlike sects.
The Decline of the West, Volume II, page 311n

Hermann Hesse's novel, The Glass Bead Game, presents a very positive Spenglerian future. Hesse was more concerned to describe a renaissance of cultural piety than of the spiritual variety, so we hear more about the refined, post-skeptical intellectual life of the 23rd century than of the condition of popular religion. Still, given Hesse's hints about the revival of monasticism and the renewed prestige of the Vatican, it is a good bet he did not imagine that liturgies of the future would feature people going "Hooah!"

I find this troubling, since I just finished a poster to advertise a local Tridentine Mass for this Christmas Eve. Am I barking up the wrong tree?

* * *

Another of my enthusiasms does seem to be materializing: a new spelling-bee television show in England seems to have injected the question of spelling reform into public consciousness, at least if you believe The London Times:

Tonight they compete in the final of Hard Spell, a programme that has struck a remarkable chord among schools and youngsters. Suddenly spelling is hot: so hot that it’s cool to know your coccyx from your humerus....

"A contest comparable to Hard Spell in Italian would be ridiculous," says John Wells, a professor of phonetics at London University. In Italian, words tend to be spelt as they are pronounced. "Hard Spell reflects the fact that our spelling is hard. It's a pity that we have to have this type of contest."

... Does proper, accurate spelling matter in the age of computers? And could English, a language that millions of foreigners have to acquire, be made easier to spell and therefore easier to learn?

The major British authorities on orthographic reform are quoted in that piece, not unsympathetically. Spelling reform will be important to the Second Religiousness: the pious must be able to read "Hooah!" without ambiguity.

Copyright © 2004 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

Restoring a Torco Vise

Not my vise, but a remarkably similar specimen

Not my vise, but a remarkably similar specimen

Restoring an old tool is a project I find incredibly fun, and this bench vise is no exception. If you are willing to put in a little effort, restoring an old bench vise can be a great project. Older American made vises are prized for their quality and durability. You can often find them at garage sales or thrift stores. There are guys who are willing to pay top dollar for a specific make or model of vise, but in this case we are talking about a small, inexpensive vise that will great for using in the shop, rather than a collectible.

I finished this project three years ago, but it seemed worth sharing! Click on the galleries to advance the images.

Torco History

I got this particular vise from my Dad, who had it just sitting around in his garage. It was almost completely covered in rust, but otherwise in great shape. . To get started, I searched for information on this make and model, the Torco 3 1/2". The Torco vise is a home mechanics vise made by the Wilton Company during the 1950s and 1960s. 

Wilton Catalog

Wilton Catalog


The picture at the top isn't my vise, since I forgot to take a picture before I started, but that is very much what it looked like. The original color was some kind of green. Everything seemed square and true, and the jaw inserts were present. A little further research convinced me that this model would be worth restoring, and adequate for anything I might be doing with it.

The plan was to disassemble the vise, de-rust it, prime it, paint it, and put it back together. Easy, right?


Nitrile gloves
Scouring pad
Dish soap
Painter's tape
Self-etching primer


Taking the Torco apart was pretty easy. I just took out any screws I saw and then turned the vise handle until the movable jaw came out.

Removing Rust

Now that I had everything taken apart, I needed to remove all the rust. Since there was rust everywhere, including inside the casting, I decided that either vinegar or electrolysis were the best methods. Using an aqueous method would allow me to get inside everything, and it sounded like fun. Looking into the electrolysis methods, they all seemed to use car battery chargers and 5-gallon buckets, which didn't seem like a good idea with my two-year-old son running around.

The vinegar method was often compared on the forums to Evaporust, a rust-removal product I've used at various jobs. Since I knew Evaporust worked, that gave me some confidence the vinegar soak would too.

Freshly scrubbed hardware

Freshly scrubbed hardware

It turned out pretty well. I put the vise in a plastic container with the vinegar, and let it sit for a couple of days. After it came out, it was completely black. This was expected, so I scrubbed the parts with water and dish soap. This has a side benefit of neutralizing the acetic acid, which will cause your metal parts to rust again if you don't clean them.

Removing Old Paint

I used a sandblaster with aluminum oxide media to get the old paint off, but plain old sand works too. You could get to the same place with sandpaper, but it would take a lot longer. Getting into the raised letters would be a real challenge.

Sandblasted and ready for priming!

Sandblasted and ready for priming!


After all this everything came out looking pretty good. I used painter's tape to mask anything I didn't want to paint, and I brushed on the can of primer I bought. Then I came out the next day and there were rust spiders all over everything. I looked at the can of primer I had bought, and it turns out the first one was water based.

Rookie mistake

Rookie mistake

I'm sure that primer is a fine product, but it wasn't what I really needed. Everything went back in the sandblaster, and I bought self-etching primer for metal.

I gave the primer a chance to cure, and then I laid two coats of paint on top. I picked red, because it was fun.


I pulled the masking off, and then I tried to put the movable jaw back into the static jaw. It wouldn't fit! I had masked the rectangular slide of the movable jaw, but some over-spray had made the opening in the static jaw just a bit too small. If you look close in the picture you can see some red inside the channel. Fortunately nothing more was required than a little touch-up with sandpaper.


Mounting the Vise

I put some graphite on the base, drilled some holes in my work bench, and bolted it down. The only thing I should have done different is wait a bit longer for the paint to cure, since the bolts marred it a bit.

Not too difficult, and pretty rewarding!

The Long View 2004-12-05: Feral Awakenings

Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard

I had forgotten John's idea that the 1960s was another Great Awakening.

Feral Awakenings


The Other Spengler, the one at Asia Times, has these disconcerting thoughts on the nature of the periodic Awakenings in American history, and why America is immune to Europe's morbid agnosticism:

Within the European frame of reference, there is no such thing as American Christendom - no centuries-old schools of theology, no tithes, no livings, no Church taxes, no establishment - there is only Christianity, which revives itself with terrible force in unknowing re-enactment of the past. It does not resemble what Europeans refer to by the word "religion". American Christianity is much closer to what the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in 1944 from his cell in Adolf Hitler's prison, called "religionless Christianity". Soren Kierkegaard, I think, would have been pleased.

To this I would make three responses:

(1) America really does produce first-class theologians. On the other hand, one might argue that America also produces first-class composers in the classical tradition, but their work is not what we mean by American music.

(2) An Awakening is not happening now; the last Awakening happened in the 1960s and 1970s. What we see now is its institutionalization.

(3) Nothing would please Soren Kierkegaard.

* * *

The last Awakening had its Left and Right wings. Environmentalism moved to the Left, where it quickly began to perform a religious function for people who believed they had left religion behind. Indeed, the crusading spirit of environmentalism now threatens to go cosmic: Scientists propose conservation parks on Mars:

The scheme has been proposed by Charles Cockell, a microbiologist for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and Gerda Horneck, an astrobiologist from the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, Germany..."It is the right of every person to stand and stare across the beautiful barrenness and desolation of the Martian surface without having to endure the eyesore of pieces of crashed spacecraft scattered across the landscape," they write in the latest edition of Space Policy.

There are good reasons and bad reasons for going to Mars. One of the best is to get away from the sort of eco-fascists who have prevented human settlement of Antarctica. As for me, I am approaching the point where I oppose the environment in all its forms.

* * *

The December issue of The New Oxford Review has slightly irate letters from Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., and George Weigel in which they try to answer the magazine's most recent distortions of their views. This is wasted effort. It is pretty clear by this point that NOR tries to draw attention to itself by picking fights like this. In any case, we should not forget the old precept: "Do not argue in public with a crazy person, because passersby might not be able to tell you apart."

And what is the crazy man saying these days? Look at this editorial reply to another letter, this one from a National Guardsman who argued that the war against Islamicism is necessary:

Yes, Muslim terrorists from Chechnya killed hundred of innocent school children in Russia, and that's absolutely evil. (No one claims it had anything to do with Israel.) America, on the other hand, has killed far, far more innocent school children in our fire bombing of Dresden, our atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in Vietnam. Innocent civilians were *intentionally* targets. If you can justify our terrorist acts (and many Catholics do), then you cannot object to Muslim terrorism...[Regarding the Islamization of the West] Perhaps a good persecution is what the American and European Church needs. Most Catholic dissenters lack sufficient faith to withstand persecution and would peel away, and the fag priests and bishops would likely renounce their Catholicism in a heartbeat..[But if you fight the Islamicists?]..Ah, but you wouldn't even be killing Muslims for your country; you'd be doing it for another country, Israel...

My misgivings from several years ago about a rapprochement between Islam and orthodox Christianity have been amply borne out.

* * *

On the other hand, there is less to some craziness than meets the eye. Consider this review in today's New York Times by the estimable Bernard-Henri Levy:

I know French anti-Americanism well, because I've fought it a thousand times -- a phobic hatred of America, conceived of as a region not of the world but of Being, almost of the soul, lodged in the heart of my country's culture...What I wasn't aware of is that the same fantastical way of transforming another country into a magnet for all the worst elements of one's own national ideology was at work in America...[Then I read] ''Our Oldest Enemy,'' by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky..[There] are the cliches, uttered with the utmost seriousness as matters of fact, that effectively present the compatriots of Robespierre and Villepin as stereotypes in ''berets'' and ''black turtlenecks'' whose mentality, at once warlike and bloodthirsty, fickle and corrupt, crafty, insidious, lascivious, stingy and cunning, is the root cause of the Treaty of Versailles, hence of Hitler, hence of World War II...France and America deserve better than this opposition of two apparently antithetical but actually perfectly symmetrical lunacies.

Books like this are not examples of American lunacy. They are examples of American humor. French-bashing is a practical joke; it does not really express how Americans feel about France. Trust me on this.

Copyright © 2004 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