The Long View 2004-10-14: The Third Debate & the Unmentionable Elephants in the Room

I always found John's stance on immigration pretty reasonable. I think this is a pretty good summary, in John's own words:

...almost every other domestic problem they discussed was a product of continuously high levels of immigration: downward pressure on wages; rising income inequality; the growing percentage of people without health insurance; persistently failing schools: all are products of an open demographic structure in which, no matter how many newly arrived poor people make their way up the economic ladder, there are always more behind them.
...
One can only repeat that the movement to end large-scale immigration for a few decades should not be mistaken for hostility to immigrants. The US can handle any finite number. Once the intake is under control, the status of illegals can be regularized in an orderly and humane fashion. Until then, however, we have a political system in which the Republican Party does not want to control immigration, because of the cheap labor, and the Democrats don't want to control it, because they have given up on the current electorate and hope to replace it with a new one.

The Third Debate & the Unmentionable Elephants in the Room

 

Understand: I am a strong supporter of the president, and I intend to vote for him on November 2.

When the third presidential debate ended last night, I thought: "That's it: Bush lost the election." Kerry had him dead to rights on his nonsensical notion of diverting Social Security payments to private investment accounts. The president had no alternative to Kerry's rather well thought out health-care initiatives. Bush kept changing the subject to education, but without saying anything interesting or relevant. And he repeatedly mentioned "Pell Grants." I have only a foggy notion what a Pell Grant is. Nothing Bush said about them clarified the matter.

Then there was the sickly sweet closing statement. Bush minced for the camera, smiled his saccharine smile, and asked the people to vote for him. He did not look like a presidential candidate; he looked like a poster child for some genetic neurological deficiency.

Well, you must imagine my surprise this morning. No one thinks that Bush walked away with the debate, but there seems general consensus that he was human and lucid. Kerry, in contrast, is criticized for being cold and self-contradictory. It really is true: Bush understands the mechanics of social-welfare programs quite well. Moreover, they visibly engage his enthusiasm. It is not clear that Senator Kerry has any enthusiasms, except perhaps for France, a country he goes out of his way not to mention by name.

I actually predicted that Bush would ace the domestic debates. That more or less happened, but I still don't believe it.

* * *

The candidates discussed immigration, though without greatly differentiating themselves. Both assume the continuation of high immigration levels. The only question they see is how to legally accommodate the large portion of it that now occurs illegally. In fact, of course, almost every other domestic problem they discussed was a product of continuously high levels of immigration: downward pressure on wages; rising income inequality; the growing percentage of people without health insurance; persistently failing schools: all are products of an open demographic structure in which, no matter how many newly arrived poor people make their way up the economic ladder, there are always more behind them.

This thought has occurred to others, as we learn from the kausfiles:

A couple of decades ago I read an article--by Norman Podhoretz, I think--that clued me in to the overriding importance of broken families when it came to explaining poverty statistics. Years later, Podhoretz's thesis became conventional wisdom. Now Robert Samuelson has written a similar column explaining that "the increase in poverty in recent decades stems mainly from immigration."

One can only repeat that the movement to end large-scale immigration for a few decades should not be mistaken for hostility to immigrants. The US can handle any finite number. Once the intake is under control, the status of illegals can be regularized in an orderly and humane fashion. Until then, however, we have a political system in which the Republican Party does not want to control immigration, because of the cheap labor, and the Democrats don't want to control it, because they have given up on the current electorate and hope to replace it with a new one.

This is all for 2008. One should note that Europe will be talking about the same thing at the same time.

* * *

There was little mention of foreign policy in last night's debate. However, in none of the debates, and indeed in none of the recent issues of the foreign-policy magazines, did anyone say something as important as what Mark Steyn wrote just before the last debate occurred:

Until recently we thought of ‘asymmetrical warfare’ as something the natives did with machetes against the colonialist occupier. But in fact the roles have been reversed. These days, your average Western power -- Germany, Canada, Belgium -- is utterly incapable of projecting conventional military might to, say, Saudi Arabia or the Pakistani tribal lands.

If you need a reason to vote against John Kerry, it is that he would make that asymmetry total and permanent.

* * *

Speaking of terrorist threats, readers are no doubt familiar with the new marionette-thriller-trouble-making movie, Team America: World Police. The chief villain, I gather, is the Dear Leader of the People's Democratic Republic of North Korea, Kim Jong-il.

Comrade Kim spent the early phase of the Iraq War hiding in underground bunkers, because he thought he was next. Comrade Kim has nuclear weapons and prototype ICBMs. Comrade Kim is known to be a film buff.

The North Korean news agency website is here. I see no reaction to the film. Not yet.

* * *

Here's a new bit of nastiness, reported by Drudge: DNC ELECTION MANUAL: CHARGE VOTER INTIMIDATION, EVEN IF NONE EXISTS (capitalization in original). This caught my eye, because I happened to hear part of The Brian Lehrer show on WNYC this morning. He was interviewing a representative of an activist law firm that was, in effect, challenging the election returns before the voting starts.

Forgive me for forgetting the name of the attorney and his firm. In any case, he stated without evidence or even plausible conjecture that the Republicans are planning to steal the election. Such assertions are Sorelian myths, not descriptions of the world. To use a less fancy term, they are The Party Line. When that term first came into use, it referred to the Communist Party. Now it refers to the Democratic Party.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914 — 1922 Book Review

The Zimmerman Telegram

The Zimmerman Telegram

The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914 — 1922
by Jamie Bisher
McFarland and Company, 2016
$29.95; 358 pages
ISBN 9780786433506

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

I requested this book because I find the subject of espionage interesting, and because the famous Zimmerman telegram would fall within the scope of this book. I ended up getting something a bit different than I expected.

By different, I do not mean bad. Jamie Bisher compiled an amazing work of history, with tons of photographs and an intricately detailed analysis of events. However, this means at 353 pages of triple-column text, I got more than I bargained for. Unfortunately, what I was looking for is a far more general and high-level history. 

Browsing the text gives me confidence that Bisher did a fine job. If I were an academic in this field, this volume would doubtless be a valuable resource. For the general interest reader, you will probably end up just staring at the book for almost a year like I did.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2004-10-04: Debate 2; Kerry Undermined; Ant-Zionist Email; The Derivative Dead

Alfred_E_Neuman.jpg

In retrospect, Kerry seems to have done fine as Secretary of State. Perhaps John's 2004 assessment of his foreign policy skills was incorrect. I do like the phrase with which John starts his post.


Debate 2; Kerry Undermined; Ant-Zionist Email; The Derivative Dead

 

I have just three points about Friday's townhall-style debate between President Alfred E. Newman and Senator Nyarlathotep:

(1) Bush had it within his power to sew up the foreign-policy element of the campaign once and for all. When Kerry lamented that the Blix inspections of Iraq had not been allowed to continue, Bush came back and said, "But that was Saddam's plan: to deceive the inspectors!" Actually, anyone familiar with the final WMD report from Iraq knew that Saddam's plan was to make sure the UN inspectors found there were no WMD stocks, and then go back into production when the sanctions were lifted as a result of their report. In effect, Kerry's position is that Iraq should have been allowed to resume WMD production, once the international process had been completed.

I am pretty sure that Bush almost said that, but declined at the last moment to stray too far from his prepared points. The mistake was not fatal, but he could have turned a narrow win into a resounding victory.

(2) Bush conceded the pro-science argument about embryonic stem-cell research to Kerry. He did this despite a well-informed question from the audience, which pointed out that somatic stem cells actually are much more promising. Bush should have mentioned the rejection problem associated with unrelated embryonic stem cells, and suggested that singling out embryonic stem cells as a panacea is a cruel hoax.

(3) Bush made a bit of a fool of himself in the first debate by emphasizing how hard his job was. Kerry seems to create much the same impression by saying, "I have a plan."

By the way, I have a new, campaign-related animation online[NB: this page wasn't crawled and I have no copy]. It is no challenge to JibJab, but at least it has no pictures of New Jersey politicians in diapers.

* * *

Has someone hacked into the New York Times and entered anti-Kerry propaganda? I have rarely seen such damning pieces about the senator as the two that appear in today's edition. The lesser of the two is on the frontpage: Wealth of Others Helped to Shape Kerry's Life, by Robert F. Worth. The burden of that article is that, though Kerry's own parents were merely well-to-do, his extended family dwelt in picturesquely situated castles to which he was often invited as a boy. Now that he is married to Theresa Heinz, of course, he lives in unexampled opulence.

At another time, people might view these details and say, "What a lucky guy!" When you are running for president, however, you want people to think of you what tactful Russians said of themselves after the Bolshevik Revolution: "My father was a factory worker, and my mother was two peasants!"

More serious is the article in the Times Sunday magazine, Kerry's Undeclared War, by Matt Bai. It's a about Kerry's foreign policy, but the reporter's account of Kerry as a person are not reassuring, particularly for a candidate who is campaigning in large part for a chance to use his diplomatic skills. For instance:

Those who saw Kerry that morning [of 911] recall mainly that he was furious, an emotion, those close to him say, that comes easily to him in times of trial.

What the reporter himself saw of Kerry was no better:

A row of Evian water bottles had been thoughtfully placed on a nearby table. Kerry frowned.

''Can we get any of my water?'' he asked Stephanie Cutter, his communications director, who dutifully scurried from the room. I asked Kerry, out of sheer curiosity, what he didn't like about Evian.

''I hate that stuff,'' Kerry explained to me. ''They pack it full of minerals.''

''What kind of water do you drink?'' I asked, trying to make conversation.

''Plain old American water,'' he said.

''You mean tap water?''

''No,'' Kerry replied deliberately. He seemed now to sense some kind of trap.

The substance of the piece is not wholly to Kerry's discredit. The reporter points out that, in the 1990s, Kerry was advocating enhancements of the laws against international money laundering that were blocked in the Republican Congress, and which became law only when the USA Patriot Act was passed. Still, the final assessment is damnation by faint praise:

[Kerry's] aversion to Big Think has resulted in one of the campaign's oddities: it is Bush, the man vilified by liberals as intellectually vapid, who has emerged as the de facto visionary in the campaign, trying to impose some long-term thematic order on a dangerous and disorderly world, while Kerry carves the globe into a series of discrete problems with specific solutions...

And he may well be right, despite the ridicule from Cheney and others, when he says that a multinational, law-enforcement-like approach can be more effective in fighting terrorists. But his less lofty vision might have seemed more satisfying -- and would have been easier to talk about in a political campaign -- in a world where the twin towers still stood.

* * *

Readers may have heard of an odd piece of email propaganda aimed at undercutting Evangelical support for President Bush. Some evil server finally sent me a copy. It purports to come from "Charles E. Carlson," which a hasty glance may render as "Chuck Colson," the evangelical activist. The email contains observations like this:

It is also not generally understood by evangelicals that what fires them to think and vote as a bloc is that, like robots, they have been conditioned to accept the state of Israel as a world power by an aggressive movement that was launched almost a hundred years ago--World Zionism-and that this conditioning has diverted them from their true path into one that serves Israel, not Jesus.

The point of origin is given as www.straitgateminstry.org. The URL was not working when I tried it.

* * *

Last night, I viewed Godsend, one of those modest but high-quality horror-flicks that the Canadians do so well now that they have lost the hang of hockey. I suspect the screenplay originally had a simple, original premise: a boy who was killed in an accident is cloned by his grieving parents; the cloned boy begins to be haunted by, in effect, his own ghost when he reaches the age when his prototype died.

Apparently that was too simple. The movie has it that the evil scientist who did the cloning spliced some DNA from his own dead, psychopathic son, into the new boy. For some reason, this nasty streak begins to express itself only when the cloned boy reaches the age when his primary prototype died. Go figure.

We are back with Igor stealing the wrong brain from the medical school. That detail was absent from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Could we not lose it again?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-10-05: Art & Empire

In the years since this was written, the shifting of politics from a left/right axis to a globalist/nationalist axis has continued. 

In the last paragraph, John noted that the attempt of the US to continue to function as a sovereign nation in the Great Power/Treaty of Westphalia sense probably wouldn't work, since only the US was capable of really doing that at the time. In the years since, I think we have seen an increasing attempt by other nations to do just that. Most of these players are still the "Great Powers" of the twentieth century, the parties to the Second World War.

By NuclearVacuum - File:BlankMap-World6.svgi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By NuclearVacuum - File:BlankMap-World6.svgi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was common on the American Right to make fun of the French, but then as now the French continue to project power into it's former colonies and current overseas departments. The United Kingdom does the same.


Art & Empire

I see that the candidates for the American presidency are still up to their tomfoolery. I will, of course, make further remarks on the matter in the future, but the fact is that the Kerry Campaign is impervious to good luck. Is there really much more to say?

* * *

Meanwhile, the New York Times Magazine had an article by Arthur Lubow in its October 3 issue on a really important subject:

Defined for so long as the arbiter and guardian of progressive art, [New York's Museum of Modern Art, a.k.a. "MOMA"] reopens on Nov. 20 -- its 75th birthday -- at a time when even its own curators no longer believe that art progresses like science.

This insight is not new. However, the institutions that have supported modern art for a century were designed with a teleological view of cultural history.

[Alfred H. Barr Jr. was MOMA's director at its founding in 1929.] The who is credited or vilified as the Great Codifier is Barr's successor at managing the collection, William Rubin. Unlike Barr, Rubin -- who was chief curator of P&S for 20 years -- had few scruples about sidelining work that he deemed minor. Along with many art scholars of the time, he had been heavily influenced by the critic Clement Greenberg, a lapsed Marxist who transposed his old political faith (in the inexorable evolution of capitalist society toward socialism) into a formalist canon marked by a similarly inevitable progress (from the Post-Impressionism of Cézanne to the Cubism of Braque and Picasso and onward to the Abstract Expressionism of Pollock, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still). Although Barr also had an evolutionary way of thinking, he conscientiously kept his mind open. Because he was operating at a time when modernism was still fresh, that was easier to do. Under Rubin, the creed became dogma. Cerebral and increasingly abstract art was the mainstream, and the subordinate currents, if shown, were to be displayed off to the side.

The rhetoric of arts funding continues to speak in terms of novelty and exploration. And there is no consensus on a substitute language:

The concept of modernism is famously difficult to define. Unquestionably, though, one of the basic tenets of modernist art is a subordination of the putative subject matter (the person in a portrait or the mountain in a landscape) to the peculiarities of the medium (the application of paint to a flat canvas or the relationship between a sculpture and its pedestal). For MOMA to present its modernist masterpieces thematically was as shocking to some as it would be if the Catholic Church were to classify its relics by blood type.

Perhaps I have read The Glass Bead Game too many times, but I wonder that anyone should find this turn of events surprising. The interesting question is whether anything like the 20th-century art industry will long survive in the 21st. No doubt fashion objects will continue to be produced. They will not command anything like the residual religious deference that art commanded early in the modern era.

* * *

Along with art, the international system is continuing its transition from modernity, as we see in John O'Sullivan's piece in The New Criterion of October 2004, Gulliver's travails: The U.S. in the post-Cold-War world.

One of the pleasures of global political theory is that the subject's colorful nomenclature proliferates almost as fast as nuclear weapons. O'Sullivan gives us a brief vocabulary drill:

Kenneth Minogue calls this structure of governance "Acronymia" after the UNOs and NGOs that constitute it. He credits the present author with giving the name "Olympians," after the gods of Antiquity, to those who administer it. Ancient gods used to "kill us for their sport," but modern Olympians are content to regulate and preach at us. John Fonte has defined the common ideology they preach as "transnational progressivism": national sovereignty and the nation-state are disappearing in favor of a new structure of international organizations and rules that goes by the slippery name of "global governance."

O'Sullivan's premise is not entirely novel. After the Cold War, the United States was like the unconscious Gulliver on the beach of Lilliput. Gulliver was systematically tied down by the Lilliputians as he slept. Similarly, for a decade the US was being entwined in the devices and conventions of the transnationalists. Then, on 911, the US woke up. The purpose of O'Sullivan's article is to assess the situation during the Iraq War, which is not going frictionlessly:

Here was where the Tranzis began to make a comeback from their slide into irrelevance after September 11. The rest of the world wanted to see the sole remaining superpower subject to some other authority when it intervened elsewhere. As a practical matter the United States was unable to confer legitimacy upon its own actions. But the Tranzis are partly in the business of conferring it on international actions from their various legal, charitable, and political perches in Acronymia.

To this I would remark that the tranzi attempt to commandeer the situation has not gone frictionlessly, either. The Olympians can shower all the legitimacy they please upon their favorites: the fact remains that their edicts have no effect in areas without the basic police and administrative machinery that, so far, only states can provide. The tranzis are aware of this, which explains the amount of hope they place in the model tranzi institution, the European Union:

If, however, a giant inhabitant of Brobdingnag were to come to [the Lilliputians'] assistance, Gulliver would be defeated. Can the Tranzis hope for similar assistance?...If the United States is to defeat the terrorists in war or the Tranzis in international politics, it will have to take on the E.U. first. It is likely that this clash will occur most substantially over the war on terror.

This looks like a recipe for a low-intensity civil war within the West:

If, however, Mr. [Mark] Steyn is right in his pessimism -- and that's the way to bet -- then the United States will face a difficult future as a military superpower continually frustrated in middling matters by the resistance of international bodies. Europe and America will divide into two separate civilizations -- the Anglosphere (minus England, plus India) and the Holy Secular Empire -- uncomfortably housing a growing Muslim minority. Even in America, liberal democracy will be gradually transformed into a politically correct judicial oligarchy on Tranzi lines.

That might be a plausible future, if the transnational machinery worked. However, as we see in the UN's reaction to the genocide in Dafur, global governance remains what Kurt Vonnegut called a "granfalloon." And as O'Sullivan points out, "American" attitudes toward security issues are not hard to find in Europe. Similarly, tranzi notions have long been at home in the US. If there is convergence, it may not be to a tranzi Omega Point:

But there is another possibility rooted in the fact that the first reactions of most people to a violent but distant revolution are generally appeasing -- vide the reactions of almost everyone except Burke and Churchill to the French and Nazi revolutions respectively. Only when it becomes clear that the terrorists’ aims are limitless and that nobody is safe does opinion turn harsher and more realistic.

I can only repeat that what has been going on since the end of the Cold War is the search for the focus of legitimacy within the international system. The US insistence on sovereignty in its 19th-century Great Power form is not going to work, since the US is the only power in the world capable of functioning in that fashion. On the other hand, Acronymia unites hypocrisy with incompetence most wonderfully. The synthesis of this dialectic, when it occurs, is going to have to combine legitimacy with capability.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise Book Review

Pelagius, thorn in the side of the Umayyads

Pelagius, thorn in the side of the Umayyads

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise
by Dario Fernandez-Morera
ISI Press 2016
$29.95; 358 pages
ISBN 978161017095

It has been quite a while since I've read a proper work of non-fiction in book form. I tend to get all of my non-fiction reading as journal articles, blogs that usually reference journal articles, or international consensus standards. Thus my book reading tends toward fiction as a palate-cleanser and method of winding down.

However, I saw this one on the shelf at my local public library, and I just had to take a look. One of the most fun things about reading is way one can make connections between all of the different things on my mind. Here, I found a perfect alignment between Stirling's Ice, Iron, and Gold, the Way of St. James, and Islamic millennial movements like the Almohads. I love it when everything comes together.

Fernandez-Morera has written a rather polemical book. I don't mean this as a criticism; I rather like polemical books, as long as the author can make a case. Fernandez-Morera can indeed make a case that in popular Western culture, Islamic Spain has been consistently presented as something that it was not. As evidence of this, Fernandez-Morera starts each chapter with a quotation from a well-known person or persons claiming it was a paradise of tolerance between different religions and ethnicities. These quotations are generally pulled from other works of popular history, although in at least two cases, Carly Fiorina and Barack Obama, the setting was a political speech. Whatever specialists might say in their journals, I think this is the popular conception.

The rest of each chapter is devoted to listing counterexamples to this myth of tolerance, focusing on broad topics such as Jihad, women, Jews, or Christians. Here, I am a little less convinced that Fernandez-Morera has made his case. While I do think the broad outlines of what Fernandez-Morera says are broadly true, I can find some examples of analytical overreach. For example, the colonial practice of renaming places in order to assert control comes up in several chapters. Broadly, this is correct, but footnote 119 in Chapter 1 says:

Ironically, the word Istanbul, used to eliminate the memory of the politically and religiously charged Constantinople, arises from the conquerors' mispronounciation of the Greek phrase εις τήν πόλι "eesteen pohlee" or "To the Polis!"—that is, "to the CIty!", or "to Constantinople!"

That is certainly one interpretation. Another is that the invading Turks ended up calling the city the exact same thing the locals had been calling it for 1,000 years: "the City". In a strange twist, this ended up confirming my prior belief that any idea labeling itself as "colonialism" is probably dumb. [although I am open to alternative explanations]

I also suspect some exaggeration by exclusion in the chapter on the Jews. While I appreciate the important context that Jews were used by the invading Muslims as a counter to the initially more numerous Catholics, the Jews themselves seem to have enjoyed the wealth and status that resulted, at least until the more literal-minded Almoravids and Almohads showed up and ruined the party.

On the gripping hand, I wept for the Visigoth culture of Spain that was destroyed by the invading Berber armies. All that remains now is a few ruins, and the Mozarabic rite of the Catholic Church. If you want a flavor for what might have been, then L. Sprague de Camp's classic Lest Darkness Fall imagines a world in which the Visigoths weren't destroyed [albeit helped by a visitor from the future].

I ultimately found this an interesting book, but probably one I remain cautious about. I am not really familiar with the popular historical literature that Fernandez-Morera is reacting against, and I suspect that the book would probably seem far more reasonable in light of the many foolish assertions made on this subject. Considered in isolation, I think many of the things said are narrowly true, and perhaps broadly a bit misleading, but that is very context dependent. I think this book is worth a read as a counterweight to far more seriously flawed popular histories of Islamic Spain.

My other book reviews

 

Linkfest 2017-03-26

Tollense Battle

Last summer I posted an article about a battlefield from the Bronze Age. Here is another article about the same archaeological site, with an alternative explanation of what happened. Archaeology always requires interpretation, so it is wise to keep in mind exactly what you found, and how it could have gotten there.

'London Bridge is down': the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death

The end of an era has been planned in advance.

How Aristotle Created the Computer

This is a pretty survey of the developments in mathematics and philosophy that allowed us to develop digital computers. While the article notes that Boole's algebra was seen as spectacularly useless when he came up with it, it also took WW2 and the Cold War to really develop this technology. Also see James Ross' Revenge of the Analysts: Aristotle's Revenge: Software Everywhere.

More evidence for my cocktail theory of science

A long comment at Greg Cochran's blog gets at the cultural difference between East and West that seems to lie at the heart of why Science is a Western thing, via a comparative study of martial arts.

Do Immigrants Import Their Economic Destiny?

Short answer: Yes.

Johan Egerkrans' Balder

© All rights reserved by Johan Egerkrans

© All rights reserved by Johan Egerkrans

C. S. Lewis once said he "loved Balder before he loved Christ". Seeing an image like this, I can imagine why.

Charles Murray’s SPLC page as edited by Charles Murray

Murray said he had fun writing this.

Germany's grand First World War jihad experiment

This sort of thing has been going on for a very long time. I enjoyed the Talbot Mundy reference in the article, since I'm currently reading King of the Khyber Rifles.

'Fallout: New Vegas' Writer Chris Avellone: "Fantasy is Not My Happy Place"

Chris Avellone has worked on many of my favorite games, from Fallout to FTL.

American Indian Firewater Myths Are No Myths

The Pine Ridge reservation may be one of the saddest places in America.

The Long View: Art: A New History

Paul Johnson is the Howard Zinn of the right. Like Zinn, he is really popular, but also like Zinn Johnson is also willing to bend the facts to tell the story he wants to tell. If you keep that in mind, Johnson's books can be fun and even informative, but he shouldn't be your primary source.

They Didn't Expect Him

They Didn't Expect Him

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose


Art: A New History
By Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 2003
777 Pages, $39.95
ISBN 0-06-053075-8

 

Yes, it is possible to write a single-volume general history of art, if you narrow the definition and focus on your own enthusiasms. Paul Johnson is best known for his large-scale histories, written in the Burkean tradition of moralizing conservatism. He is also, however, a serious painter himself, and the son of a professional. He suggests that he might have made art his career, but his father warned him that the future would belong to charlatans like Picasso. Actually, what's remarkable about this book is that it's mostly about what the author likes. This is a commendable approach that all conservative cultural critics should emulate, especially with regard to 20th-century material.

You can put only so much into a profusely illustrated 777-page over-size book (with still not nearly enough illustrations, alas!). “Art” here means physical art objects: painting, architecture, and sculpture, in about that order of emphasis, but also mosaic, stained glass, landscaping, and even tattooing and body painting. For the most part, it's Western art; the rest of the world enters in as it affects the art of the West.

The author has his theories; or better, his standards. Art, we learn, is part of the essential human search for order and pattern. The highest art, in Johnson's view, tells the truth about life, which generally means that it is figurative. Still, all art is editing, whether the result is highly formalized or photographically realistic. The healthy norm for art throughout history has been a continuous tension between a canon of technique and the need of individual artists to express themselves. The tension takes the form of long waves, in which generations of complication and refinement alternate with generations of simplicity and “classicism.”

Johnson deplores the modern prejudices against drama in figurative art, and even against mere size. What the Renaissance called “terribilitá” is not so different from what Burke meant by “the sublime.” The author also insists on the reality of “fine art.” Such works can be created only with notable skill. They repay a second look, and many looks thereafter. Indeed, one of the characteristics of fine art is a capacity to delight that outlives its period. In this, as in other ways, it differs from “fashion art,” in which the level of novelty exceeds the level of skill. The effect of fashion art is that whatever capacity it has to please is soon exhausted, thus creating the demand for more fashion art, and yet more. When fashion art crowds out fine art, that is a bad thing.

Johnson moves with due caution through the intimidating specialties of Paleolithic art, the art of the ancient Near East, and into the time of the Greeks and Romans. Then the story begins to deal with known artists and acknowledged masterpieces, mostly sculptures of the human figure. Johnson sadly follows the story of Greco-Roman painting. Little has survived, none of much merit, and there is no reason to suppose that the known lost masterpieces were much better. As for the decline of classical art, all we really learn is that something snapped in the second-century AD. A century later, and emperors were reduced to stripping ornaments from earlier monuments to use on their own memorials.

Johnson emphasizes the continuities between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, both chronological and geographical. The north drove the transition, especially in drawing, more than the Italians have ever been willing to admit. Interesting as all this is, Johnson obviously chafes to get to artists who typically did what he does, which is paint in oils, on canvas (or later, with watercolors). Johnson virtually pounds the table in frustration that artists of the skill of Giotto were still restricted to the fresco, an awkward and notoriously fragile medium. On meeting Caravaggio (1573-1610), there is almost a sigh of relief: at last we are talking about oil painting, with chiaroscuro, dramatic subject matter, and a complete grasp of perspective and lighting. The artist even had a long arrest record. Art had achieved the mature form from which it would not begin to decline until the end of the 19th century.

No sooner was the paint dry on Caravaggio's canvases than the first of a series of classical revivals set in to correct what were seen to be his excesses, a dialectic that continued throughout the long climacteric of art in the West. The chief theater of creativity shifted from Italy (whose cultural life never quite recovered after the decline of papal patronage) to the west and north. Johnson has a merry time explaining how French governmental interference spoilt French academic painting, particularly the relative disparagement of landscapes. The best portraiture in history was, of course, done in the Low Countries, in an unexampled tradition that continued until the economic eclipse of the Netherlands by England. The rise of the private market made that tradition possible. The same pattern manifested itself in architecture in England, where Whig grandees built fine country homes to rival the tawdry splendor of Versailles.

Johnson is keen on 19th century landscape painting, chiefly the American Hudson River School (“Illuminist” is the term that later art criticism prefers for this episode), and he also surveys similar work in the rest of the English-speaking world. However, his nominee for best painting of the century is a disturbing interior scene from Russia: Ilya Repin's “They Did Not Expect Him.” The painting brings the viewer into the story of a man obviously just returning from exile in Siberia to a middle-class home. For my money, though, the one jaw-dropping illustration in the book is John Sargent's “Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose.”

The conjuncture of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement and the new treatment of light by Turner marked the great point of flexion in the history of Western art. Turner was trying to implement Goethe's theory of sight as the perception of color rather than of shapes, but he had no intention of moving away from figurative art: quite the opposite. As for the Pre-Raphaelites, they were the first Movement, complete with a manifesto and the will to shock. What surprises now is that they were part of a Christian revival, one that affected all the arts in the 19th century. A string of unintended consequences ensued.

It was in Paris (wouldn't you know?) that things started to go off the rails. The Impressionists were actually a pretty conservative bunch, fine draftsmen for the most part. Like Turner, they thought that the most important aspect of painting was color. They experimented with abstraction as a type of foregrounding. Manet introduced some technical innovations that made painting “faster.” All this was to better represent immediate experience. The real trend, however, was to represent what the artist knew was there, even if that meant abandoning perspective and accurate figure-drawing. So the Cubists increasingly did. Soon, surrealists learned to treat the artwork simply as an object. Both tendencies moved away from representational art. Novelty became easier to produce, and found a ready market. The ignition of the fashion-art engine was lit, and the jumbo jet of imposture took to the sky.

Johnson finds much to commend in the 20th century's fine arts, including all the major representational artists he can find (not an enormous number, really). He is tolerant of abstractionists like Kandinsky, whose work you can enjoy without knowing the theory. Even the theory-minded Mondrian had integrity. For the most part, though, he finds the fine art of the 20th century cynical, ephemeral, and repetitive. The last point is important: the installations and performance art of the last third of the 20th century simply repeated the Dada of the early decades, but without the original humor. Too much 20th-century art was perpetrated by great imposters. The model is Picasso, a manufacturer of fashion objects on an industrial scale. The fine arts at the beginning of the 21st century still suffer from systemic distortions. A cartel of fashion artists, gallery directors, and art dealers contrive to bid up the price of new fashion art and unload it on the galleries. People who sell stock in this way are liable to arrest.

The fashion artists had entertainment value, and even a kind of skill: people who tried to reproduce Jackson Pollock's effects, for instance, generally found that they couldn't. Still, the measure of the century is perhaps this faint damn of Andy Warhol: “He was not so much an artist, for his chief talent was for publicity, as a comment on twentieth-century art, and as such a valuable person, in a way.”

In product design and in architecture, the original impulse of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement had good effects until almost the middle of the 20th century. The Movement itself lasted only a few years, of course, but it begat the Arts & Crafts Movement, which begat Art Nouveau, which was really just an early form of Art Deco. Johnson loves Art Nouveau down to the last futon, and grieves that so much was scrapped by 1950. (The White House was extensively decorated by Tiffany, incidentally, but Theodore Roosevelt got rid of it all: Louis Tiffany, Roosevelt said, had “laid his hands on other men's wives.”) Louis Sullivan's skyscrapers were in this tradition. Sullivan actually laid down the principle that “form follows function,” by which he meant that decoration should relate to the purpose of the building, not that buildings should not be decorated. This philosophy produced several decades of fine buildings, from cathedrals to railway stations. (There has yet to be a fine airport, in Johnson's estimation.)

Unfortunately, by mid-century, Germany had done for architecture what France had done for painting. Walter Gropius, we are told, suffered from a physical handicap that made it impossible for him to manipulate a pencil. He was, however, a master of ideology, most of it wrongheaded. Gropius's Bauhaus sought “a new architecture for the machine age.” This ignored more than a century of experience with industrial design and new materials, much of it as good as building has ever been. Then there was the Bauhaus preference for straight lines over curves, based on the bizarre notion that straight lines were “scientific.” The theories may have been comical (especially when Le Corbusier got hold of them), but the result was the three most dismal decades in architecture since the fall of Rome.

In the age of the “machines for living,” according to Johnson, libraries baked their books, hospitals killed their patients, and the people forced to dwell in the glass-and-concrete boxes showed a marked tendency toward homicide. This assessment is a cartoon, to put it mildly, but certainly the official architecture of the third quarter of the 20th century was often both banal and uncomfortable. Happily, the ice broke in the 1970s. Major buildings were again free to be ugly in an interesting way. Public works, particularly bridges, were often stunning. Johnson looks benignly on the “Lower Frivolity,” the riotous mixture of styles that Las Vegas has come to represent. Such structures are temporary, and they are fun. The problem is the “Higher Frivolity” represented by buildings like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao: they are fun, too, but the joke gets old.

Painting and sculpture are reviving, after decades in which art schools made a point of not teaching their students how to draw. Johnson is sanguine: “Human life is short but the life of art is long and the best is yet to come.” Still, the advances in the art of restoration on which Johnson dwells are not the stuff from which Renaissances are made. Perhaps we are looking toward a period whose work will be chiefly the recovery of the great tradition. If so, this book shows that task will be no small glory.

This review originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of First Things 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Organelle Transplant

Yesterday on Twitter, Razib Khan remarked that he hadn't realized pro-life Christians relate genetics to souls.

Since I wasn't party to the conversation, I have no idea what was said. I have heard things like this however, and it made me go hmmm....

I decided to respond in a blog post, since Twitter sucks for anything moderately complicated.

The bigger context for this is a proposal to treat mitochondrial disease that was approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in the United Kingdom. In what seems like an attempt to annoy the maximum number of people possible, this procedure is usually described as a 'three-parent baby'. While there is a germ of truth in this description, you could also call it an organelle transplant, since the intent is to replace defective mitochondria with working ones.

The germ of truth is this: the replacement mitochondria should breed true, because the technique referenced in the article, pronuclear transfer, removes the male and female pronuclei from one fertilized egg [the one with defective mitochondria in the cytoplasm] and moves them to another fertilized egg [whose pronuclei have been removed] with different mitochondria. These new mitochondria are in fact from a third person, and are genetically distinct from the other woman's.

I use organ transplant as a reference point, because a donated organ also contains DNA different from the recipient's. The key difference here is that your donor liver's DNA cannot be passed down to future descendants.

So why does anyone care? People care because 1) pro-life Christians are generally essentialists, meaning that essences or forms [in the Platonic or Aristotelian sense] define what things are, and 2) popular science accounts of genes or DNA usually describe these things as our 'essence' [in the loose popular sense of the word]. Thus our genes probably seem real important to some folks, and tampering with them is tantamount to playing God. I think this is a misunderstanding, albeit a predictable one.

In my opinion, I don't think the fact of getting DNA from a different source matters at all in its own right. One reason is much the same one Razib talks about in his tweet:

Some of our genes are indeed from viruses and stuff. There is a theory that mitochondria were once separate organisms that have become symbiotes. A lot of genes are common to all life on Earth. Strictly considered, a gene is just a way of encoding information about proteins. Any gene that works in some fashion is a real gene, although some clearly work better than others.

The second reason is that I think a lot of pro-life Christians have made a philosophical mistake in conflating the terms we use to talk about people. John Reilly said it, and I just stole it:

A human is an essence (if you don't believe in essences you don't believe in human beings); a homo sapiens is a kind of monkey; and a person is a phenomenon. Perhaps I read too much science fiction, but it is not at all clear to me that every human must necessarily be a homo sapiens. As for person, which is an entity, conscious or otherwise, that you can regard as a "thou," is conflated with the notion of person, as an entity able to respond in law, either directly or through an agent.

Human ≠ homo sapiens. It just ain't. Popular science accounts are correct insofar as homo sapiens is a biological concept, it can be usefully defined using genes. Human is a philosophical concept, moreover one that is dependent on a specific context to really be cogent. I think that at the very least Neanderthals were humans too, and possibly other hominins. Hell, if we were consistent, pygmies might be considered a separate species from homo sapiens, because they split off from other humans 300,000 years ago, which is before the currently defined date of the origin of anatomically modern humans

I have my doubts about the current theories, but that doesn't matter. Human is a status that is in principle independent of lineage. In practice, it isn't, but that is different from saying that they are identical.

Now, what about this mitochondrial replacement therapy? I'm still opposed. The reason has nothing to do with genes. In my philosophical tradition, there are three criteria an act must meet to be considered good:

  1. Right act
  2. Right end
  3. Right circumstances

The techniques in the Wikipedia article all involve IVF, which means creating embryos using harvested eggs and sperm, which has a pretty horrible success rate [10-20%]. That in itself isn't damning, but the way in which unused embryos are discarded [that essentialism again], and the way in which sperm and eggs are collected are objectionable in their own right. Only criterion 2) is met: preventing disease is a very good thing, especially if you can help reduce future occurrences. Anyone who doesn't share my premises about human embryos [if you don't believe in essences, you don't believe in humans], will likely not agree with my objections to IVF, although I do note that even people who are in theory in favor of it tend to find it icky and horrible when they see it.

The Long View 2004-10-04: The First Presidential Debate; The Vatican; EU Accounting

A very pure version of the Red vs. Blue electoral map.

A very pure version of the Red vs. Blue electoral map.

The George W. Bush versus John Kerry election in 2004, as described by John here, is a very interesting foretaste of things to come. Bush is described, accurately in my opinion, as a cheerleader for the war in Iraq launched in 2003, while Kerry was interested in the details but less obviously committed to do whatever it was that needed doing. In retrospect, our subsequent Presidents fit that mold as well; President Obama's Hope and Change, and President Trump's Make America Great Again! themes are both more about allowing people to project their hopes and desires onto a charismatic figure, than a detailed policy brief.

President Obama didn't manage to live up to everyone's expectations, but he remained popular nevertheless. We might expect that Trump's campaign promises will follow a similar path, and perhaps his approval rating as well.


The First Presidential Debate; The Vatican; EU Accounting

Last night, John Kerry and George Bush were trying to do different things. Kerry was trying to start an argument about factual and policy questions related to Iraq. Bush was questioning Kerry's consistency. The theme of Bush's remarks was that nothing is so important in winning a war as the obvious determination of the leadership to win it. He repeated the point so often that he sometimes sounded monomaniacal. Kerry did very well, but he signally failed to sound as determined to win the Iraq War as Bush did. The failure is lethal, I think. Kerry did not dispute that the war should be won; he was less clear about why or how. A tie is not enough when you are 10 points behind.

As a speaker, Kerry was significantly but not embarrassingly better than Bush. (Kerry was, perhaps, aided by a debate format that prevented him from bloviating to his heart's content.) However, Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention was very good, too. The convention helped him not at all, and Gallup suggests that the same pattern is repeating itself:

Prior to the debate, viewers chose Bush over Kerry in handling the Iraq war by 54% to 40%. After the debate, the comparable figures were essentially unchanged, 54% to 43%.
As I have noted before, Kerry's tepid pro-war stance actually discourages a large part of his base. Provided the incumbent seems acceptably competent, it also does nothing to attract people who think that war and security are the most important issues.

I predict that Bush will ace the domestic policy debates, much though I disagree with most of his program. There are no global solutions to the questions involved, and Bush is actually pretty good at MBA stuff.

* * *
On the matter of polls, I was astonished by a result in a parody poll that appeared in The Weekly Standard of October 4, nominally from the Pew Research Center. In an answer to the question "What are you thinking right now?" we learn that 8% of the people were thinking:

If you could have really small elephants as pets, I would totally have one.

How did they know?

* * *
Despite John Paul II's opposition to the Iraq War, the Vatican's current policy is becoming indistinguishable from Washington's. At least, that is one way to take a recent round up in Chiesa of signs and portents of a shift of policy:

The first indication came on September 20. Cardinal Camillo Ruini [president of the Italian bishops' conference] spoke to the permanent council of the Italian bishops' conference, and repeated the duty of the Christian West to "oppose organized terror with the greatest energy and determination, without giving the slightest impression of considering their blackmail and their impositions," and at the same time, to transform into "our principal allies" the elements of the Muslim world that desire liberty and democracy.

The Holy See has become very keen on getting NATO to support Ilad Alawyi's government in Iraq, and specifically to help secure democratic elections in that country. Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, put it like this:

The child has been born. It may be illegitimate, but it's here, and it must be reared and educated.

Such assistance would be consistent with either Bush or Kerry's plans for Iraq. The Kerry people might find it embarrassing if it were offered without his intervention.

* * *
On a completely different note, readers are aware that members of the euro-zone now work under fiscal constraints comparable to those of the states of the United States. Most states are forbidden by their own constitutions from running deficits in their operating budgets; euro countries are supposed to keep their deficits under 3% of GDP. However, creative state legislatures in the US have long since learned how to shift their debt off-budget. Europe is now following suit, as Floyd Norris explains in today's New York Times piece, European Budget Games: Why Paris Can Seem to Act Like Albany:

In France, [for instance,] the determination to spend is similar, but the tactics being used would be quite familiar in many a state capital. The government owns the major electric and gas utilities, which face huge pension bills. You might think that would harm the budget, but France has a better idea.
The two utilities will transfer part of their pension obligations to the government, thus making them more attractive to investors. They will pay the government at least 7 billion euros to take on the obligations - and that money will count as revenue for measuring the budget deficit. It is a neat trick to balance a national budget by taking on additional obligations.

This is almost as much fun to think about as the tiny elephants.

An important difference (between America and Europe, not the elephants) is that the balanced-budget requirements are self-imposed by the states. As far as the federal system goes, states can issue all the debt they like, on or off-budget. States without these caps have defaulted in the past, to the surprised consternation of their foreign creditors. The euro restrictions, in contrast, are imposed from the outside.

Once again, we see that the European Union is becoming a system of post-democratic tyranny, mitigated by unenforceability.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-03-17: St. Patrick's Feast Day Edition

No evidence to back idea of learning styles

Steven Pinker [among others] writes a letter to the Guardian against currently fashionable learning styles fads in education. In the post pointing to this, Steve Sailer offers a mild counterpoint based on his position that a lot of "neuroscience" findings are better thought of as something like marketing, a real benefit, but nothing lasting like science should be.

Why so many conservative Christians feel like a persecuted minority

Damon Linker pens a sympathetic and critical take on Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option.

Geoarchaeologist Proposes There Was a “World War Zero”

I first came across this idea on Jerry Pournelle's website as the first dark age. This was a period of steep decline that makes the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire seem minor in comparison. In the first dark age, even the memory of writing was lost. When the Greeks began to rebuild, the fortifications of their predecessors were seen as the work of monsters, rather than men, because no one could conceive of building anything as massive. I had not heard the term 'Luwians' to describe the people of the Anatolian peninsula who may perhaps be the 'Sea People' who overran much of the civilized Eastern Mediterranean in that time.

The Fall of Rome and "The Benedict Option"

I'm not really sympathetic to Rod Dreher's Benedict Option, and a big part of the reason is that his metaphor is a really bad description of what actually happened in the fifth century.

When Public Policy meets Elementary Biology

To go along with Ross Douthat's plan to create a series of immodest proposals to try and shift public policy debates into more useful channels, here is Henry Harpending's take on how we should shift welfare policies to take into account human biology. Henry implied at the end of the post that his suggestion needed amendment to prevent bad consequences, but to my knowledge, Henry never published a followup to this before he died, which is a damn shame.

An Oxford comma changed this court case completely

I've always been a fan of the Oxford comma.

Immigrations and Public Finances in Finland Part I: Realized Fiscal Revenues and Expenditures

Emil Kirkegaard posted this on Twitter. The graph in the source report is astonishing.

Net current transfers without indirect taxes by country of birth in 2011.

Net current transfers without indirect taxes by country of birth in 2011.

Net fiscal effects by country of birth in 2011. Averages for populations aged 20-62 years old.

Net fiscal effects by country of birth in 2011. Averages for populations aged 20-62 years old.

The originating organization is a Finnish anti-immigration group, but the results astonished just about everyone. The methodology is an attempt to account for all taxes, direct and indirect, as well as government spending of all kinds. I'm not sure I would hang my hat on it, but I'm not sure it's wrong either.

Lean In’s Biggest Hurdle: What Most Moms Want

Any attempt at statistical parity in childcare is doomed to failure, because many women actually like having kids and raising them. This isn't to say that every woman wants kids, or that every woman must stay home, but given the option, many women do choose to either work part-time, or leave work entirely for a period of time.

BOOK REVIEW: SEEING LIKE A STATE

I can't improve on SSC's opening paragraph:

Seeing Like A State is the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature. Since he didn’t, James Scott had to write it a century later. The wait was worth it.

Right or wrong direction: The nation generally

This Reuters poll on whether the nation is generally going in the right direction is pretty striking. Especially if you compare it to this Gallup poll on President Trump's approval ratings.

I naively expected these results would roughly track [keep in mind the timeframes are very different]. They don't at all, which is pretty interesting. 

Consistent Vegetarianism and the Suffering of Wild Animals

I also have a hard time taking complaints about modern animal husbandry seriously.

Reading Log update

I found that my reading log had grown a bit wild and woolly over the last eight years, so I went through and spiffed everything up, adding links to book reviews, and titles and authors on the journal articles that were missing them. It was fun to relive some of my favorite books and articles over the lifetime of this blog. 

Maybe someday I'll add in all of the pre-2008 journal articles I have saved....

The Long View 2004-09-28: How Bush's grandfather helped Hitler's rise to power

Most of the attention has been focused on how the Clintons were frustrated in their political ambitions by the election of Donald Trump, but he also easily bested the Bush family. I wouldn't count either family out, especially the Bushes, who have been in this game for a very long time.


How Bush's grandfather helped Hitler's rise to power

 

You really can't improve on headlines like the one above. It's the title of a recent piece in The Guardian, which tells its readers this:

George Bush's grandfather, the late US senator Prescott Bush, was a director and shareholder of companies that profited from their involvement with the financial backers of Nazi Germany....The debate over Prescott Bush's behaviour has been bubbling under the surface for some time.

Actually, it must have been bubbling so far under the surface that the reporters who researched it for this article may have discovered that the Earth has a nugget center. But some specifics:

In 1924, [Prescott's] father-in-law, a well-known St Louis investment banker, helped set him up in business in New York with Averill Harriman, the wealthy son of railroad magnate E H Harriman in New York, who had gone into banking...One of the first jobs Walker gave Bush was to manage UBC. Bush was a founding member of the bank and the incorporation documents, which list him as one of seven directors, show he owned one share in UBC worth $125. ...The bank was set up by Harriman and Bush's father-in-law to provide a US bank for the Thyssens, Germany's most powerful industrial family.

The argument that Hitler's rise to power was financed chiefly by German industrialists has been pretty thoroughly refuted. Still, the steel magnate Fritz Thyssen is an example to the contrary. He supported Hitler in the second half of the 1920s, when the Weimar economy was doing fine and the Nazi Party was down on its luck. This had nothing to do with his business relations in the US, which were in any case managed through a Dutch subsidiary.

During the 1920s, it was the policy of the US government to encourage American investment in Germany, in order to keep the various war-reparations schemes afloat. Nonetheless, those unremarkable contacts, and their equally unremarkable continuance into the 1930s, have been God's gift to conspiracy theorists ever since. There is progress, however. Now, there are lawyers:

The two Holocaust survivors suing the US government and the Bush family for a total of $40bn in compensation claim both materially benefited from Auschwitz slave labour during the second world war...The petition to The Hague states: "From April 1944 on, the American Air Force could have destroyed the camp with air raids, as well as the railway bridges and railway lines from Hungary to Auschwitz. The murder of about 400,000 Hungarian Holocaust victims could have been prevented."...The case is built around a January 22 1944 executive order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt calling on the government to take all measures to rescue the European Jews. The lawyers claim the order was ignored because of pressure brought by a group of big American companies, including BBH, where Prescott Bush was a director.

The wonder thing about "stories" like this one in The Guardian is that it lets you mention "Bush's Nazi colleagues" in paragraph after paragraph, provided you mention the in first one that you mean Prescott, or possibly people who served on the same boards as Prescott.

* * *

All these people overlook the most important 20th-century Bush, by the way: Vannevar Bush, the physicist who is credited with inventing the idea of hypertext, as well as with organizing scientific research for the federal government during and after World War II. I was crushed to discover recently that he was not GWB's uncle, or any other near relation. (Anyone who knows of a relationship, please tell me.)

I also learn that the physicist's name is not as cool as might appear. "Vannevar" looks as if it should be spoken with a fine Viking ring, but in fact it rhymes with "receiver."

* * *

Meanwhile, that Other Spengler who writes for Asia Times has contrived to bring the Culture and the Terror Wars into harmony:

Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, reduced his city's crime rate by applying pressure on petty criminals, such as the "squeegee men", derelicts who cleaned windshields for a tip. The police bore down on marijuana dealers, vandals and other minor offenders they previously ignored, in the correct supposition that they would have information leading to more dangerous criminals. That is the anti-terror strategy of the Department of Homeland Security, which has criminalized not only the terrorists, but also ideological sympathizers of the terrorists as well. That is, the American definition of "terrorist sympathizer" includes not only the local mosque official who took donations for charities associated with Hamas, but also otherwise peaceful men who offer mere ideological justification for jihad, including Islamic scholars of global reputation and job offers at leading universities. It is an unpleasant but efficient policy.

It is sometimes said that Islamicism has no realistic hope of success because, unlike Soviet Communism, it has no native allies in the West. However, as Christopher Hitchens remarked today, that just isn't true:

A few [Kerry supporters] pin a vague hope on the so-called "debates"—which are actually joint press conferences allowing no direct exchange between the candidates—but most are much more cynical. Some really bad news from Iraq, or perhaps Afghanistan, and/or a sudden collapse or crisis in the stock market, and Kerry might yet "turn things around." You have heard it, all right, and perhaps even said it. But you may not have appreciated how depraved are its implications. If you calculate that only a disaster of some kind can save your candidate, then you are in danger of harboring a subliminal need for bad news. And it will show. What else explains the amazingly crude and philistine remarks of that campaign genius Joe Lockhart, commenting on the visit of the new Iraqi prime minister and calling him a "puppet"? Here is the only regional leader who is even trying to hold an election, and he is greeted with an ungenerous sneer.

The roots of treason go deeper than mere electoral politics. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the defense against Islamicism will require the end of the multicultural ideology that made the threat invisible and unmentionable for so long. Elements of the academy and the media are willing to trade the increase in physical danger, which a Kerry victory would obviously bring, for the preservation of their social and cultural status.

The assessment is quite rational, even compelling. Don't expect it to change, no matter what happens on the battlefield.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Starcraft: Evolution Book Review

Starcraft: Evolution
By Timothy Zahn
Del Rey Books, 2016
$28.00; 354 pages
ISBN 9780425284735

In general, I don't read videogame books for the same reason I don't watch videogame movies. With a few exceptions, they all suck. I picked this volume up because Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite authors, and I wanted to see if he could pull off a novel about the real-time strategy (RTS) game Starcraft.

To my pleasant and mild surprise, he did. I say mild, because I figured if anyone could do it, Zahn could. When I saw the book on the shelf, I imagined a pitch:

He could do for Starcraft now what he did for Star Wars in the early 1990s.

I don't have any reason to think anything remotely like this actually occurred, but it was a funny thought. I say pleasant, because I found that I was actually having a hard time putting this book down. 

Even though I am a fan of Starcraft the game, I always found the story a bit confusing and hard to remember. Since most of the dialogue in-game happens in briefing sessions introducing the next mission, this isn't really surprising. Zahn managed to tie everything together into a satisfying narrative, and there was even a handy timeline in the endpapers that cleared some events up for me.

I would be surprised if anyone who wasn't already a fan of either Zahn or Starcraft would pick up this volume. Especially if you hadn't played Starcraft, a lot of context would likely be missing, although I feel that Zahn did a good job salting in backstory. But to miss this book would be a shame, since it was fun to read. This is a solid military sci-fi novel by a good author. Anyone who likes those things should have a decent chance at enjoying this book, even if you don't know what a Firebat is.

My other book reviews

Linkfest 2017-03-10

Why the campus protests at Middlebury matter

C. C. Pecknold argues the position I took last week: the existing political coalitions in the US are breaking up.

The four fallacies of warfare, according to Donald Trump’s new national security advisor

John J. Reilly used to argue for #4 on a regular basis. 

We need more useless knowledge

I don't buy this argument. Most of the examples cited were wartime research projects.

A Different Bargain on Race

Ross Douthat channels Steve Sailer to argue that we should alter the deal.

What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Had Swapped Genders?

The actors for this nailed the delivery, gestures, and body language of the candidates.

Letter from Secretary Ryan Zinke

I'm glad to see he says he is opposed to the sale of public lands.

American Carnage

This is a harrowing read about the rise of opioid deaths in the US.

Peter Thiel talks fracking and globalization

Thiel credits fracking with a bigger impact than Silicon Valley, which seems about right.

The Ancient Ghost City of Ani

The ruins of an medieval Armenian capital.

F.D.A. Official Under Bush Is Trump’s Choice to Lead Agency

The FDA drug approval process is actually pretty prompt, given what needs to be done. The hard part is getting the necessary evidence to prove your therapy works.

The plot against the Pope

Damian Thompson points out that even some of Pope Francis' supporters seem to hope he will resign.

The Long View 2004-09-24: Jurisdiction, Under God; Niall's Little England; Kerry Defended

I still think John is right that it wouldn't be possible at present for Congress to use it's theoretical authority to define the jurisdiction of the federal courts. In another generation, who knows?


Jurisdiction, Under God; Niall's Little England; Kerry Defended

 

I see that more legislation is in the works to limit judicial review by restricting the jurisdiction of the federal courts. The latest effort along these lines was the passage by the House yesterday of the Pledge Protection Act of 2004, which says in relevant part:

'No court created by Act of Congress shall have any jurisdiction, and the Supreme Court shall have no appellate jurisdiction, to hear or decide any question pertaining to the interpretation of, or the validity under the Constitution of, the Pledge of Allegiance, as defined in section 4 of title 4, or its recitation.'. The limitation in this section shall not apply to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia or the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Why that exclusion of the District of Columbia courts? Probably because Congress is the supreme legislature for the District, and the drafters of the bill want to be able to handle the matter locally.

Bills like this are introduced so that legislators will have something to put on their campaign literature. In this case, the bill lets congressmen say that they have done their bit to control run-away courts. Actually, as readers to this blog know, I fully agree that the practice of judicial review has become untethered, but not in this context. The courts really are authorized by the Constitution to hear cases like this, and a Supreme Court decision that found the Pledge unconstitutional could at least be plausible. In any case, we need not consider the matter again here: the Senate is very unlikely to take up the bill.

By far the more interesting point is this business about limiting review by the courts. The Constitution gives Congress the power to define the jurisdiction of the Courts, but the scope of that power is one of those things that mankind was not meant to know. It's like the Commerce Clause: sane people don't ask the Supreme Court what its limits are. Nonetheless, non-sane people often draft legislation and then vote for it. Many persons of the same sort sit on the federal bench. So, what happens when legislation like this is put to the test in a culture-war context?

Assume, as is likely, that the courts find that the limitation of jurisdiction falls short of some constitutionally mandated minimum. It makes no difference whether that minimum is visible only to the judges; their decision would then be the last word on the books. The legislative and the executive branches would then have to acquiesce, or ignore the most recent interpretation of the law. The latter would be politically impossible.

Some proposed legislation of this sort have bite-back clauses: any judge who tries to pass judgment on a matter that the legislature says is beyond his jurisdiction would be considered to have committed an impeachable offense. That's not good enough, frankly. It is nearly impossible to impeach a federal judge even for ordinary crimes; there is small likelihood of impeaching one on a policy dispute.

No: something must happen automatically if a judge tries to exceed this sort of jurisdictional limitation, and it must not happen to the judge. The law limiting jurisdiction must contain a provision that would require Congress and the president to decide whether a court has exceeded its authority. The sequence might run like this:

A court finds the definition of jurisdiction unconstitutional;

The president is automatically notified;

He has 30 days in which he may decide whether to issue the an executive order declaring the decision a nullity. If he does, it cannot then be published in the official compilations of federal court decisions that can be cited as precedents;

Congress has a further 60 days to overturn the executive order by a simple majority vote;

Any further judicial decisions in derogation of the executive order would be subject to the same review process.

As I said, only non-sane people think about this sort of thing.

* * *

Meanwhile, I see that Niall Ferguson has grown too grand for NYU to be his American connection; he is now a professor of history at Harvard, though still quite a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. I learn these things from the byline to his recent piece in The SpectatorBritain First, in which he advises Great Britain to throw off the special relationship with the United States, and take up with the Scarlet Woman of Brussels:

Whatever else has gone wrong in Iraq, then, the decision these two men took to overthrow Saddam Hussein has not fatally weakened them at home. It may even have strengthened Mr Bush. Yet the question that continues to trouble me, 18 months after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, remains: What was in it for us? To put it more precisely: in what respect, if any, was and is Britain's support for American policy in our national interest?....

The interests of the United States and the United Kingdom have in fact been divergent for many decades. They were perhaps most perfectly complementary a century ago, when Joseph Chamberlain and others discerned the impossibility of maintaining Britain's Far Eastern empire without American support, and the United States still considered itself a hemispheric power. There was another good reason for Anglo-American partnership by 1917, when it seemed that Britain could not defeat Germany without American financial and military support.....

Mr Blair's fervid Atlanticism therefore marks a discontinuity — a break in the longer-term deterioration of Anglo-American relations....

Mr Bush's tacit imperialism -- so much more resolute than that of his predecessor -- has found its staunchest support in Mr Blair's private faith. On they march, these two Christian soldiers, each with a Bible in one hand and a bazooka in the other...The trouble is that while a majority of Americans are receptive to what might be called a faith-based foreign policy, very few Britons are.

I am a great fan of Niall Ferguson, but sometimes I think that he writes things on a bet. ("You don't believe I'd really go on the BBC and advocate cannibalism for overpopulated countries? A case of Guinness Stout says your wrong!") Quite aside from the fact that the "special relationship" is one of those things that seem to take forever to die, the premise of his argument is wrong.

If it were actually the case that Bush's foreign policy is just an example of forthright imperialism, then it would be true that Britain would have no special reason to support it. Imperialism is just exported nationalism; no country has an interest in supporting another's nationalism. However, the point does not apply here. The world has evolved in such a way that the United States has become a cosmopolitan utility, like the UN, except that the US works. What the US has been doing since 911 is a little like a man manually working the pump on a small boat with a hull breach. Strictly speaking, he is working in his own interests, but he can't save himself without saving the other passengers. Some of the brighter passengers will realize that the relationship is mutual.

Britain could freeload off of this service, as Canada and Germany are content to do. The price of that, of course, is that such countries will be less and less consulted on matters of the first moment.

* * *

Speaking of French delusions, let me first make a defense of John Kerry. Swiftvet John O'Neill recently said about antiwar activist John Kerry's meeting over 30 years ago with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong delegates to the Paris Peace Talks:

"It would be like an American today meeting with the heads of al Qaeda," said O'Neill.

By no means. Talking with al Qaeda would be like doing a face-to-face interview with the Unabomber when he was still at large. Some people should not be talked to, but shot on sight. (Well, arrested.) If you do not try to help bring them to justice, you are an accomplice. In contrast, the US government found the Communist delegations to the Paris talks fit to treat with. If Kerry was trying to some negotiating on his own, he was arguably committing a felony, but that's another matter.

That said, though, the way that Kerry continues to follow the Vietnam script is becoming eerie. Consider this headline, about the recent visit of the Iraqi prime minister, which I will not trouble to link to:

Kerry: Allawi Abets Bush in Putting on 'Best Face'

Allawi "abets" Bush in making an argument for his own government, does he? It's exactly like the antiwar movement in 1971: nothing but defeat will do.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-09-21: You Can't Make This Stuff Up

I was never able to take Pat Buchanan's critique of the Iraq War seriously because of statements like the one quoted in John's post here. While Buchanan was pretty right about the war overall, I still think the reason Iraq is unstable is that it is full of people who hate each other, for tribal, ethnic, and religious reasons.


You Can't Make This Stuff Up

 

Viewers of the CBS cartoon show, The Evening News with Dan Rather, are aware that the title character is based on the anchorman, Kent Brockman, in the Fox reality show, The Simpsons. Last night's Evening News segment about the National Guard memos was apparently a take-off on an incident in the Deep Space Homer documentary on Fox. An accident with an ant farm on the Space Shuttle caused the misapprehension at Mission Control that the shuttle had been commandeered by giant alien insects. Mr. Brockman promptly surrendered to the insects, and offered his services for the pacification of Earth. When it became apparent that the insects had merely been walking across the lens of the shuttle's cabin camera, the anchorman offered this measured retraction: 

Well, this reporter was... possibly a little hasty earlier and would like to reaffirm his allegiance to this country and its human president. It may not be perfect, but it's the best government we have. For now.

What more could a reasonable man ask for?

* * *

Meanwhile, here in the Third Dimension, or at any rate at New York University, Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, tried to put some distance between his position on Iraq and that of President Bush:

Yet today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way. How can he possibly be serious?" Bush's presidential rival said at New York University..."Is he really saying to Americans that if we had known there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaida, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is resoundingly no because a commander in chief's first responsibility is to make a wise and responsible decision to keep America safe."

It is perhaps unfair to take Senator Kerry literally on this, since we now know the intent of the Baathist regime before the invasion, something that one government scarcely ever knows certainly about another. Still, one must remark that we know that Iraq did not have stocks of WMDs (I still think some arsenals will come to light, but let that pass), and that the regime intended to resume its WMD programs as soon as the sanctions were lifted. So, we must imagine a situation in which we knew that Iraq was in substantial compliance with the disarmament directive, so that the sanctions would have to be lifted. We must also suppose that we knew that Iraq would then go into WMD production again. Post-911, would that not be sufficient cause for war?

* * *

Has the political system taken on the prospect that the Terror War could last a generation? One suspects the public understands the matter better by this point:

With fighting in Afghanistan (news - web sites) and Iraq (news - web sites) far from over, a Pew Research Center Poll found that 51 percent of voters surveyed said they do worry that Bush, if re-elected, would lead the country into another war..."The Bush administration is on a crusade to make the world safe for democracy and part of that ... is eliminating countries of anti-Western aggression," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank in Washington.

Do they "worry that Bush, if re-elected, would lead the country into another war," or have they grasped that we are involved in a war on many fronts, and are prepared to vote for Bush in the belief that he will wage it more effectively?

Then there is this further signal from Planet Think Tank:

"It's this process of bluster and threat and escalation that could lead to war," said Michael O'Hanlon of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institute. "I don't want to say that the chance of war is particularly high, but I think it would be higher under Bush than under Kerry."

Actually, a little bluster seemed to work very well with the Libyans, and even the Iranians, until the latter realized that the Europeans would be taking the diplomatic lead on nuclear non-proliferation issues.

* * *

Robert Novak had this impish piece in yesterday's Sun-TimesQuick exit from Iraq is likely:

Inside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there is strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year. This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials are saying: Ready or not, here we go...In the Aug. 29 New York Times Magazine, columnist David Brooks wrote an article (''How to Reinvent the GOP'') that is regarded as a neo-con manifesto and not popular with other conservatives...''We need to strengthen nation states,'' Brooks wrote, calling for ''a multilateral nation-building apparatus.'' To chastened Bush officials, that sounds like an invitation to repeat Iraq instead of making sure it never happens again.

Troop levels may well decline next year, but I doubt that this column evinces much insight into the state of debate in the Bush Administration. What we have here is a restatement of the Buchananite view that the nature of foreign regimes, or chaos in foreign countries, cannot be a security question for the United States, so any attempts at regime change or nation-building are mere Wilsonian mettlesomeness.

The reality is much more serious. Regime change now, in Iraq and elsewhere, is the alternative to precautionary nuclear strikes in the future, when we are not sure where a WMD attack in the West came from.

Speaking of Buchananism, I watched The McLaughlin Group last Sunday, for the first time in a long while. I came across it by accident; it was news to me it was still being broadcast. Anyway, there was Pat Buchanan himself, repeating his new slogan, "The cause of instability in Iraq is the presence of American troops."

I suppose you could say that about any war when you are on enemy territory: just withdraw and the fighting will stop. In this case, of course, it is the insurgency that is keeping US forces in Iraqi soil, as the insurgents know very well. The only question that interests them is who will be running the country when the US leaves.

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

Linkfest 2017-03-03

A Cold War era power plant could save us from ourselves

Thorium reactors are an idea that has been around for a long time. We'd try it if we got desperate.

Top professional performance through psychopathy

Being resistant to the feelings of others can be a good thing, or a bad thing. It depends on what end you put yourself towards.

Socialism is bad

When tradinistas say they want socialism, I have a hard time taking them seriously. Mostly, I just don't know what they really mean. Here, Adam Ozimek points to an essay by Matt Bruenig that helps me figure out what they are talking about. I still can't take them seriously.

USA Today has an excerpt of Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

I'm very excited about this. Thrawn is one of my favorite characters, and it looks like Timothy Zahn has been able to transfer the core of the character into the new Star Wars storyline.

The Islamic world did liberalize — but then came the First World War

Ed West reminds us the Middle East was having quite a bit of success integrating into the wider world during the first episode of globalization in the 19th century. Then we blew it all up. Makes you sympathetic to Edward Said.

The Amazon Rainforest Was Profoundly Changed by Ancient Humans

When I was a kid, the environmentalist narrative was very much about preserving and restoring pristine habitats unsullied by the hand of man. I'm glad to see this starting to change. I was first introduced to the Terra Preta of the Amazon by the now defunct Anthopogene blog. That blog had a number of fantastic articles on archaeological finds that helped to illustrate just how much the world has changed during human history. 

10 things about human evolution (genetics) you should know

Razib's listicle about genetics.

Danish Companies Seek to Hire, but Everyone’s Already Working

The horrors of actual full employment.

The Politics of Retelling Norse Mythology

The claim to being a modern 'pagan' is probably worse cultural appropriation than an author retelling old stories. I've never met a pagan who wasn't just a Christian heretic.

White self-interest is not the same thing as racism

A look at what counts as racist for whom.

Fascism in the White House?

A splash of cold water in the face of the minor panic that ensued when someone noticed that Steve Bannon knew who Julius Evola was.

What We Know About the 92 Million Americans Who Aren’t in the Labor Force

I love a great graph.

The US Special Forces Major who fought in the SS

Larry Thorne aka Lauri Allan Törni is the kind of guy who couldn't sit out a good war. So he fought in Finland against the Soviets, twice, against the Soviets again in Germany, and then in Vietnam against the Communists.

How Uber used secret Greyball tool to deceive authorities worldwide

I'm impressed. This is how big data works in the movies. And apparently in real life sometimes too.

Is there really a war on cops?

Short answer is no. More complicated answer is that the same advances in medical technology that keep the murder rate down in general keep cops alive too [I'm not saying this adjustment would make the trend line go up BTW], and that hostility to the cops certainly seems like it is on the rise. It would be interesting to make a third graph using cops per capita to adjust for changing employment. I have a hunch the long upward trend in the late nineteenth century was due to increasing use of police forces instead of citizen volunteers. However, that data seems to be hard to find.

The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild Explained

I can't wait for my copy to arrive!

The Long View 2004-09-17: Millennials; God; Holy Censorship; Rathergate

John was absolutely right here about the relative influence of C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. Lewis is a big deal to British and American Christians, but Freud was a big deal everywhere.

Let's use Google ngrams to illustrate:

Sigmund Freud compared to C. S. Lewis in American English

Sigmund Freud compared to C. S. Lewis in British English

Sigmund Freud compared to C. S. Lewis in French

Sigmund Freud compared to C. S. Lewis in German


Millennials; God; Holy Censorship; Rathergate

 

I know that watching the WB network just encourages them, but I had to see the premier of John & Bobby, the new series about two present-day teenage brothers, one of whom grows up to be president in the 2040s. The premise smacks of Strauss & Howe's model of history, with the currently maturing Millennial Generation set to become a heroic Civic Generation later in the 21st century. (By the way, if you are looking for S&H sites, see TimePage: very lucid.)

I don't really think this series is a keeper. It's wonderful high-concept, and you don't have to be familiar with the Generations model to understand the premise. (I don't know what influence, if any, Strauss & Howe had on the producers.) However, I question whether the intended audience will appreciate the historical resonance that is supposed to set the show apart from other high-school dramas. If kids wanted to watch the History Channel, they wouldn't be watching the WB. For that matter, perhaps only Boomers will automatically recognize the Kennedy reference in the title.

Also, in the introduction to the first episode, when we see a selection of the presidents between now and the 2040s, why didn't they mention Sideshow Bob?

* * *

Meanwhile, PBS is addressing no less a question than The Problem of God. The four-part series dramatizes a Harvard seminar offered by a Dr. Armand Nicholi, which uses the biographies and writings of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis to explore the relationship of faith and reason. We see excerpts from the seminar, which is conducted with a panel of solid, professional types from various walks of life. They are united only by a common interest in metaphysics (a characteristic that most emphatically includes the guy from Skeptic magazine). Most airtime, however, is taken up with tableaux from the lives of Lewis and Freud, with an overlay narration, or with actors playing Lewis and Freud who quote their works directly into the camera.

There are problems here, aside from the fact that Lewis was never that blissfully plumy, and Freud was not that rabbinical. A major objection is that, fan though I am of C. S. Lewis, it does not seem reasonable to me to cast him as the equal of Sigmund Freud in cultural influence. Lewis's ideas have perhaps aged better, but he is a minor figure. Freud was one of the great factors in the first half of the 20th century.

But a bigger objection is that: Freud is miscast as a proponent of science. He did ordinary neurological research in early life, but that is not what he is famous for. Freudian theory just is not science; it's psychologically astute literature. That is how it achieved a mass audience. Lewis's literary studies were not science either, but his standards of textual analysis were much closer to the scientific method than were Freud's meditations.

Freud was, arguably, a good choice as a proponent of "the scientific worldview," but that worldview is not science. No scientific theory, and certainly no observation, could say that all phenomena have a natural explanation, or that the scientific method is the only way to certain knowledge. One could even argue that the scientific worldview is ultimately incompatible with the scientific enterprise in the long run, because it undermines the Pythagorean assumptions that made science possible.

Monty Python managed the question best. In a skit involving a skeptic and a theologian, the contestants did not debate the existence of God; they fought an exhibition-wresting match about it. The result was that God exists, two falls to a submission.

* * *

Speaking of the wrong way to settle a religious dispute, consider this report:

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Deeming its contents insulting to Christianity, Lebanese authorities have banned "The Da Vinci Code," a novel that has drawn harsh criticism -- and millions of readers -- with its depiction of Jesus Christ marrying Mary Magdalene and fathering a child.

This impulse to censor is not unknown in Western countries, but there it usually takes the form of laws whose primary purpose is to prohibit criticism of Islam. Such measures are very ill-advised. Come the Great Revival, all this impediments to proselytism will be swept away.

* * *

The CBS Memos Scandal has reached the point where only one event could save Dan Rather's reputation, and some Republicans are trying to make sure it happens:

Top Republicans on Wednesday tried to tie the Kerry campaign to disputed documents used by CBS News for a story examining President Bush's Vietnam-era service in the Texas National Guard and called for a congressional investigation.

Show-trial congressional investigations have been undermining the legitimacy of the federal government for thirty years. With the exception of Richard Nixon, they have for the most part served to excite sympathy for their victims.

CBS is clearly in the wrong here. However, the Republican Party still has the power to obscure that fact by demonstrating that it, too, is untainted by principle.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View 2004-09-15: They Actually Said That

The Donation of Constantine

The Donation of Constantine

It was only two months after this that Dan Rather announced he would resign from CBS. Unfortunately, no one is likely to paint any frescoes about it.

At the end of this post, John engaged in the then novel practice of publicly shaming a company that he felt hadn't treated him well. Given the rather extreme dimensions this practice has taken on in the last thirteen years, John probably would not have approved. He could have repented of it this Lent if he were still with us.


They Actually Said That

 

The CBS National Guard Documents Scandal has reached the point where we can safely say that Dan Rather has squandered any presidential prospects he may have had. Will he resign tonight? One trusts he will say something colorful.

One of the bright spots in this affair is that The New York Times has acted as if it were a regular newspaper. In fact, if you ignore the koan-like headline in today's edition, Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says, the article itself had the most interesting new information of the day. The typist, of course, was the secretary to George Bush's Air National Guard commander, Jerry Killian; she says the documents that CBS has been promoting contain the kind of thing her boss used to say about George Bush, but that the texts themselves just are not formatted like the documents she used to prepare. Killian's son says that her recollection is faulty on Killian's attitude toward Bush. Be that as it may, though, the Times tells us this:

CBS has refused to say how it obtained the documents. But one person at CBS, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed a report in Newsweek that Bill Burkett, a retired National Guard officer who has charged that senior aides to then-Governor Bush had ordered Guard officials to remove damaging information from Mr. Bush's military personnel files, had been a source of the report. This person did not know the exact role he played.

I don't know either, and I refuse to speculate. I mention the matter so I can quote this bit of rhetoric from Mr. Burkett's attorney:

Asked what role Mr. Burkett had in raising questions about Mr. Bush's military service, Mr. Van Os said: "If, hypothetically, Bill Burkett or anyone else, any other individual, had prepared or had typed on a word processor as some of the journalists are presuming, without much evidence, if someone in the year 2004 had prepared on a word processor replicas of documents that they believed had existed in 1972 or 1973 - which Bill Burkett has absolutely not done'' - then, he continued, "what difference would it make?"

That's the kind of thinking that gave us the Donation of Constantine. It was very embarrassing when someone blew the whistle on that one, too.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the Times editorial page, Nicholas D. Kristof had a column entitled Mr. Bush's Glass House. In that piece he tells us, "First, there's reason to be suspicious of some of those CBS documents," thus proving that editorial writers do sometimes know what is in the rest of the newspaper. Then he says, "Second, we shouldn't be distracted by our doubts about the CBS documents." He goes on to point out that George W. Bush obviously got political help getting into the Guard, and that he slacked off in the last two years of his commitment. Mr. Kristof concludes thus:

More than three decades later, that shouldn't be a big deal. What worries me more is the lack of honesty today about that past - and the way Mr. Bush is hurling stones without the self-awareness to realize that he's living in a glass house.

I think that everyone has been clear for some time that the Guard story is not a big deal. What is a big deal is "the lack of honesty today."

* * *

Speaking of outrages exposed, I see that Canada's premier magazine, Saturday Night, has come out in favor of spelling reform for English. At any rate, the September issue has a piece by Gabrielle Bauer, "The Quirky World of Spelling Reform," which treats the subject favorably, and has many nice things to say about the Simplified Spelling Society, of which I have the honor to be a member.

I mention the matter here, not to argue for reform, but to showcase some of the arguments to the contrary. The article dutifully dug up this gem, for instance:

"Then there's the problem of reprinting old texts with new spelling, I can just hear the traditionalists' screams if they get their hands on a volume of Shakespeare's plays rewritten in reformed spelling," says Robert Savage, a professor of educational psychology (and former Briton) at McGill University.

Shakespeare, of course, did not use modern spelling, though many educated people seem to confuse the paperback editions they used in school with the First Folio. But here is an argument that is new to me:

Linda Siegel, a professor and Dorothy C. Lam chair in special education at the University of British Columbia [says] "English spelling may actually be better for struggling readers, because it requires them to use their visual memory right from the start." Given that "many people with dyslexia have stronger visual memories than normal learners, this may not be such a bad thing."

One of the main points of the Saturday Night piece is that research shows that English spelling causes the symptoms of dyslexia to manifest. It builds character, you see.

A minor point: contrary to the article, Robertson Davies was not, as far as I know, an advocate of spelling reform. Rather, he was an orthographic anarchist.

 


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!


* * *

A final outrage exposed, this one from me.

One of the advantages to having a blog is that you never have to write a letter-to-the-editor again. Another is that you can threaten to embarrass consumer businesses whose performance is not up to your demanding standards. I tried to do the latter today.

I had received an email from Iomega saying that the bar code I had posted to get a rebate on my new backup drive was not the original bar code. I was asked send in that bar code so that Iomega could continue to process the rebate. Instantly, I sent off email, saying that the drive's box had long since been thrown away, and that I would expose online this stratagem so obviously designed to cheat me out of my rebate. I got a message back a few minutes later. If I didn't have the box, all I needed was the serial number on the bottom of the drive.

As we know from Michael Tolkin's The New Age, God will judge us by how we treat customer service personnel.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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