Ecumenical Twilight Updated

By NASA/JPL/DLR - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA00502 (TIFF image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92698

By NASA/JPL/DLR - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA00502 (TIFF image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92698

I updated John Reilly's short story, Ecumenical Twilight, with a linked table of contents. I love this story. Like so much classic scifi, it is an deep essay on politics wrapped in a shallow speculation about the possibility of life on Europa, the moon of Jupiter.

There are images from this story I just can't get out of my head: the ecumenical empire with five capitals, one in each major part of the world. What a world with a declining population but a high standard of living might look like. How a confessional state might have a light touch on the non-believers in its midst.

In my opinion, this is at least as good as the submissions in the Writers of the Future volume I reviewed recently

The Long View 2005-06-29: The President; The Emperor; The Zombie Dogs

Maximus Decimus Meridius might point out he found one good use for the gladiatorial games.


The President; The Emperor; The Zombie Dogs

 

As is generally the case with George Bush's major foreign policy addresses, there was little to quarrel with in his speech last night at Fort Bragg, however unfortunately named the venue. He reminded the people of something that is obvious to everyone except editorial writers: there is a deep connection of ambition, worldview, and tactics between the 911 attacks and the Islamist kamikaze campaign in Iraq. Something he did not mention, perhaps wisely, is that the connection dates to the 1980s. Truck bombs were then used with complete success against the US in Lebanon, with consequences from which the region has never recovered. Leaving Iraq would by no means allow us to avoid dealing with this constellation again, even in the short run. Defeating it in Iraq would defeat it everywhere.

The speech seems to have been well received. The president's serious political opponents are confining themselves, for the most part, to saying that they want to do what he wants to do, but to do it right. The president's problem is his supporters, which in this context includes people like me. One cannot repeat often enough that George Bush was reelected to win this war. No one cares about his goofy plans for Social Security. Many people do care about who he will appoint to the Supreme Court, but not enough to justify his continuing tenure in the Oval Office. He has no other reason to be where he is than to mobilize domestic political support for the war, and to communicate to the enemies of the United States that they cannot simply outwait American determination.

President Bush has done a very poor job on the first count. Since his second inauguration, his Administration has avoided public discussion of foreign policy. Even his speech last night, fine as it was, had the air of a statement squeezed in among his many other pressing appointments. There are some issues, even important ones, that can be handled this way. However, the president was addressing a roomful of military personnel, who either had already been to Iraq or will go in the near future. His speech included a call for more young people to enlist; in other words, to take the chance of dying for what he had just said. If you are going to say things like that, you have to say them every day.

George Bush makes very good "Why We Fight" speeches. They are the sort of address that is necessary to solidify support for a war. He has yet to deliver a "Blood, Sweat, and Tears" speech, which is necessary for any conflict that goes on for more than a few months. The Administration is correct to dismiss proposals for a return to the draft: conscript armies are unusable in today's world, which is why some people are proposing recreating one. However, the president might usefully explain how we are going to pay for all this.

As for domestic security, the president was right when, initially, he opposed the security "reforms" recommended by the 911 Commission, and also the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. They are both horses designed by a committee, enacted to allow Congress to pretend it was doing something useful. Nonetheless, these monstrosities might be made to work, if the White House gives the heads of the new agencies (who are good appointments, actually) the support they need to fight the existing bureaucracy and its protectors in Congress. Public presidential involvement would have helped a great deal, but it has not been forthcoming. Alas.

* * *

Perhaps the worst miniseries ever to appear on American network television was called A.D. Memory has effaced the harsh details, including just when it was broadcast, but I recall it was a love story involving gladiators (though not between gladiators) set in the early Roman Empire, with a Christian evangelist in attendance. No DVD or VHS version of this epic seems to be available (one suspects that all copies of the screenplay have been burned), so it is hard to track down details. I do seem to recall that it began its shabby life as an adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel, The Kingdom of the Wicked, which is a wry retelling of the The Acts of the Apostles. The novel was very good. So is Acts: the zippiest book in the Bible, if you want narrative.

The new ABC series, Empire, does not quite reach the Plan 9 from Outer Space standard of A.D.. Still, it merits comment.

The high concept is ingenious, if historically indefensible.

Julius Caesar was assassinated by members of the Senate in 44 B.C. after winning a civil war. He was succeeded as leader of the Popular Party by his nephew, Octavian. After a long political struggle and another civil war, Octavian became the first emperor. He received the title Augustus; there is a month named after him.

The series projects the model of The Hero with a Thousand Faces onto this history. Octavian becomes Luke Skywalker, who must learn from a gladiator how to fight before he can avenge his uncle's death and restore justice to the world. Even Cicero, the old windbag, puts in a performance as a sort of Yoda. Still, there are inelidable differences between Roman history and Star Wars history. Caesar and Augustus between them turned the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, though Augustus was arguably sincere when he tried to restore the Republic.

Far be it from me to curtail any screenwriter's creativity, but I must point out that Octavian is an odd candidate for this treatment. Far from being a gladiator-apprentice, he was a hypochondriac and, apparently, a physical coward. This was a heavy liability in Roman politics, where you needed some sort of war record for people to take you seriously. Eventually, he did manage to come back with some minor wounds from a campaign in the northern Adriatic, but after that, he tended to be ill or absent during the major battles that were fought in his name. Also, unlike his suicidally forgiving uncle, he killed his enemies after defeating them in the field. As one historian delicately put it: "He made his party coincident with the state."

And as for Julius Caesar, it is hard to imagine him attending a gladiatorial contest with the enthusiasm we see him displaying in this series. Caesar was a professional populist, so he had to go to these events. However, he could not abide the waste of time; he drove the crowd to distraction by doing his paperwork during the contests.

If we must have high-concept Roman premises for network television, how about a reality series based on a gladiator school? The weapons could be modified to make them nonlethal. A drunken rabble could be collected to attend the climactic contest at the end of each episode. A new celebrity could preside each week, and give the thumbs up or thumbs down.

You read it first here.

* * *

Can anyone tell me whether this is for real or not? Yesterday, I came across the headline Boffins create zombie dogs. As the term "Boffin" indicates, the story is from an Australian source, but the incident it describes is supposed to have occurred in Pennsylvania. We read in part:

Pittsburgh's Safar Centre for Resuscitation Research has developed a technique in which subject's veins are drained of blood and filled with an ice-cold salt solution.

The animals are considered scientifically dead, as they stop breathing and have no heartbeat or brain activity.

But three hours later, their blood is replaced and the zombie dogs are brought back to life with an electric shock.

There is a Safar Center for Resuscitation Research in Pittsburgh. However, that city is better known as the putative locale for George Romero's zombie movies. The most recent, Land of the Dead, will be in a theater near you soon:

Without giving away too much plot, the story introduces us to a team of scavengers, headed by Riley with his second in command, Cholo (Leguizamo) who plays hot headed Mercutio type. We learn that this group's goal is to find supplies for the city in which they live in and work for. I don't recall the city is ever named, but is clearly meant to be Pittsburgh.

So, are the zombie dogs figments of a publicist's imagination? I see that Fox News has pretty much the same story, so I will keep the matter under advisement.

By the way: even if the story is true, the researchers still cannot revive the dogs after more than three hours. This procedure would be very useful for getting people to trauma centers and doing surgery that involves stopping the heart. However, suspended animation for that period would be of no use for traveling to Alpha Centauri, unless you could get there in a few hours, in which case you should probably just take a book to read on the trip.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-06-27: Persian Populist Surprise; Terraforming; the Emerald City

By Unknown - تصاویر تسخیر لانه جاسوسی – 100تصویر با شرح revolution.shirazu.ac.ir, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44763608

By Unknown - تصاویر تسخیر لانه جاسوسی – 100تصویر با شرح revolution.shirazu.ac.ir, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44763608

Spengler [David P. Goldman] and John Reilly had sets of ideas that were mildly adversarial and mildly complementary. I don't know whether they ever corresponded. For example, Spengler was right that democracy in the Middle East would unleash terror and war. John Reilly was right that Iran is a far better country than most in the Middle East, with institutions that work and an economy that isn't purely driven by oil. Americans are still annoyed with Iran following the hostage crisis, but Iran used to be a firm ally in the Middle East, a counterweight to the Sunni majority.

John also looks further into the idea that something about China's role in world politics is a bit off. Here, John makes a distinction between an empire and the Empire, a universal state. The People's Republic is an empire in the first sense at present. Whether it can fill the second role remains to be seen.


Persian Populist Surprise; Terraforming; the Emerald City

 

There are many things that might be said about the overwhelming election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's presidential election. One notes the cosmic coincidences: President Ahmadinejad is just as surprising a victory for populism as the defeat of the EU constitution; or, to some people, the reelection of President Bush. However, the increasingly pessimistic Spengler at Asia Times has his own take in a piece called Iran: The living fossils' vengeance

That is the great gift of Islam, which offers much more to the faithful than the ordering of traditional life. It promises to impose the system of traditional life upon the world. Islam is the vengeance of tribal society upon the cosmopolitan empires, first against the Sassanids and Byzantines, then against the Holy Roman Empire, and now against the West. The Muslim does not cower in his village waiting for the inevitable encroachment of a hostile world, but seeks to impose his will on the world....In their provincial smugness, President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice understand none of this. The more the Middle East opens its political process to the will of the people, the worse things will be for Washington.

By no means: democratic political processes contribute to world order even if the content of the politics being processed is reprehensible. That's what the Kantian Peace is all about. Granted, there is no special virtue in plebiscitary dictatorships. What we have in Iran is quite different: a populist theocrat who works under institutional constraints and who has a constituency to placate. Things could go very wrong with Iran, but not as wrong as when the Ayatollah was in flower.

* * *

On the subject of ways to improve the planet, Acta Astronautica is floating a solution to global warming that is slightly less crazy than it seems:

The power of scattering sunlight has been illustrated naturally, the scientists note. Volcanic eruptions, such as that of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, pumped aerosols into the atmosphere and cooled the global climate by about a degree. Other researchers have suggested such schemes as adding metallic dust to smoke stacks, to flood the atmosphere and reflect more sunlight back into space.

In the newly outlined approach, reflective particles [in orbit in a ring] might come from the mining of Earth, the Moon or asteroids. They'd be put into orbit around the equator. Alternately, tiny micro-spacecraft could be deployed with reflective umbrellas.

And how much would the ring cost?

$6 trillion to $200 trillion for the particle approach. Deploying tiny spacecraft would come at a relative bargain: a mere $500 billion tops.

If that sounds too high a price, the article reminds us:

[T]he Kyoto Protocol, a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is estimated to cost the world economy some $150 billion a year.

On the whole, I think that turning the Earth into a scale model of Saturn would be a bad idea. On the other hand, something like this around Venus might be really useful, if you have any interest in terraforming.

* * *

Usually, I either disagree with Mark Steyn or grind my teeth because I did not think of something he said first. Regarding the continuing embarrassment of the Flag-Burning Amendment, he hit the nail on the head:

The House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment on flag burning last week, in the course of which

Rep. Randy ''Duke'' Cunningham (Republican of California) made the following argument:

''Ask the men and women who stood on top of the Trade Center. Ask them and they will tell you: Pass this amendment."

Unlike Congressman Cunningham, I wouldn't presume to speak for those who died atop the World Trade Center. ...maybe some would think that criminalizing disrespect for national symbols is unworthy of a free society. And maybe others would roll their eyes and say that, granted it's been clear since about October 2001 that the federal legislature has nothing useful to contribute to the war on terror, and its hacks and poseurs prefer to busy themselves with a lot of irrelevant grandstanding with a side order of fries, but they could at least quit dragging us into it.

If you could not burn it, it would not be worth saluting.

* * *

Students of the better newspapers, and indeed of many of the worse ones, will not have failed to notice the flurry of items about the Chinese Threat, which, apparently, grows daily on the economic, military, and diplomatic levels. Whenever you see this many stories and columns on the same subject but without an obvious news-hook, you have to wonder whether they are being orchestrated somehow. In this case, it is hard to imagine any puppet master who could pull the strings of both Mark Steyn and Paul Krugman.

Krugman, we should remember, is actually a pretty good economist during the brief periods when he takes his medication and is able to talk about something other than the malice and folly of President Bush. He notes that expansion of the Chinese economy is different in kind from that of Japan in the 1980s. The Japanese seemed to be buying up every thing in the world in those days, but Japan did not have geostrategic ambitions. China does.

There are ironies here. Donald Rumsfeld was made Secretary of Defense precisely so that the US would be ready for a war with China about Taiwan, if worse came to worst. The campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have been one long distraction to him. He has always been keen to conduct the War on Terror on the cheap. China is the reason.

Citing Hardt & Negri just encourages them, but they do provide an important distinction between the roles of the US and China in today's world.

In their terminology, the US is "imperial," in the sense of working for the preservation of a world system with some claim to embody universal justice. The US actually does what the UN World Police is supposed to have done, had it ever existed. The current situation is institutionally unsatisfactory: it leads to challenges along the lines of, "Who died and made you boss?" The role of the US would be intolerable, if any other solution were on offer. There isn't. Probably, there won't be.

China, in contrast, is "imperialist" in the 19th-century sense. Its geostrategic aims are simply exported nationalism. To some extent, it regards those ambitions and the shaky rules of world governance as incompatible.

In its own way, China is just as much of a jellyfish empire as the EU: if it tries to act as a world power, it will break up. However, the process of break up would be quite compatible with a nuclear exchange.

If ever there is a New Rome, it might not be Washington, but some new capital in Kansas: Emerald City, perhaps.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-06-25: Show me the blueprints. Show me the blueprints

Hughes Glomar Explorer

Hughes Glomar Explorer

Howard Hughes was a remarkable man, especially considering he was also a nutter.


Show me the blueprints. Show me the blueprints

Last night I viewed the film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the clinically obsessive-compulsive billionaire entrepreneur, Howard Hughes. (A supporting role was played by John C. Reilly, that potato-faced imposter whose sterling performances as a character actor ensure that my website will stay the second result from a Google search for "John Reilly" for the foreseeable future.) It's good to see that DiCaprio is not going to turn into Mark Hamill, but I would have been happier with more airplanes and less naked paranoia.

I mention all this not so much because of the film, but because renting the DVD involved a little outburst of paranoia on my part.

I had been going to the same video store for 15 years. When I took out a card there, all they asked for was a name, an address, and a dollar. My occasional attempts to try out Mandarin on the owners were rarely successful, since they spoke Cantonese. Actually, their English did not seem to improve much over the years either, but we got along very well. Earlier this year, however, the store went out of business (they tried to sell it to me). Last week, I finally got around to finding a new store.

It was a film-buff's store: a cult-film section, a classics section, a foreign-film section that did not feature punch-and-kick movies. I addressed the clerk:

Hi, I'd like to take out a membership.

Sure thing. May I see a credit card?

Well, okay.

The payment for the film will be charged to this card. Now may I see a driver's license?

I guess so. Here, give me a pen...

I'll fill out the form, sir. Now, just look into this lense for the retinal scan. And please extent your arm...

Owww!!

That's probably all the blood we'll need. Was there something in particular you were looking for?

What I was looking for was Team America, which of course they had. That evening, though, I found I could not view the DVD for more than a few minutes before my PC froze. I had never before had a problem like this that I could not fix, but it was clearly my fault, not the video store's. Nonetheless, the glitch and the idea of giving all that personal information to a store in a modified garage rankled overnight. The next day I went back. Another clerk was there.

Look, I'll chalk up the $3.50 card charge to experience, but I think this may be more trouble than it's worth. Could you remove all my personal information from your system?

Certainly, sir. [Zip Zip Ping! goes the counter monitor] All gone. Have a nice day.

But what about the paper form?

The form?

The one the other guy filled out yesterday, the one with my credit card and driver's license numbers. I want you to rip that up.

Now?

Yes.

This was the first time he had been asked something like this. It made him uncomfortable. He said he could not do it, because the form was the store's property. Could I talk to the manager, please? He gave me a number. Rather than do a further imitation of Christopher Walken, I let the matter rest.

Yesterday, I walked into a less cerebral but better located video store.

Hi, I'd like to take out a membership.

Sure thing. Can I see a credit card?

No, but you can have a name and address.

That will mean a $20 deposit.

Fine.

Welcome to the store. Was there anything in particular you were looking for?

As for the PC glitch, I found that, as in so many other areas of life, most problems can be solved by uninstalling software from RealPlayer.

* * *

Speaking of movies, I see that a new version of The War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise, is going to premiere this week. This has special significance for my native New Jersey, because the famous radio-play version that Orson Welles broadcast in 1938 had the Martians landing at Grovers Mill, a real place in New Jersey, and then striding on to New York City. We remember the radio-play because a fair number of people took it literally, as this promotional piece in The New York Times reminds us:

The Morans tried to make their way back home to Princeton Junction, but the roads were jammed with those trying to locate Grovers Mill for a look at the Martians' spaceship. In Grovers Mill, they found a state trooper trying to direct drivers to go back home, with little luck.

I have heard the radio play. I can see how someone who heard a minute or two of it might mistake it for a news broadcast. My father, who was in his early 20s at the time, heard the broadcast live. He was in a building in a part of Jersey City with a good view of Newark. He had read the H.G. Wells novel, so he knew more or less what was going on. Still, when the story got to the attack on Newark, he looked out the window at the actual city to reassure himself.

If you have not read the novel, you should do so immediately. The text is available here. It can be tedious to read etext, I know. Things like this I often listen to using a text-to-speech program while I am doing exercise or any kind of donkey work.

* * *

On the matter of Jersey City, you must imagine my surprise in discovering that there is not just a Jersey City, New Jersey, but also a Jersey City, Wisconsin, a small town in Lincoln County. I must recommend to my mayor that we establish a sister-city relationship. Or at least charge them for the use of the name.

* * *

Though I have never been much interested in visiting Arctic Canada, I have always been intrigued by those big islands with no place names on them. Something that was marked on maps, however, was the magnetic North Pole. It was usually shown as being on land. I sometimes wondered whether there was anything remarkable at the site of the Pole: high radiation levels, doors into other universes; that sort of thing. Now I find the maps that show the Pole on land are out of date:

"I think the Pole has probably just moved past the 200-nautical-mile limit," said Larry Newitt, head of the Natural Resources Canada geomagnetic laboratory in Ottawa. "It's probably outside of Canada, technically. But we're still the closest country to it."

...In 1904 it was measured just off the northern tip of Nunavut's King William Island by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and since then has moved in a north to northwesterly direction at a stately 10 kilometres per year.

But in 2001, scientists discovered that it was picking up the pace, suddenly charging ahead -- and toward the edge of Canadian territory -- at more than 40 kilometres per year....Scientists have also been intrigued by a weakening in the pole's intensity: It has lost 10 per cent of its force in the past few centuries. That could be a sign that the poles are preparing to reverse

We will have no trouble dealing with the effects of magnetic reversal, provided we all uninstall RealPlayer beforehand.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-06-21: Goodness & Victory

Maybe John lived in the alternative history of S. M. Stirling's Conquistador, where the US fought in the MIddle East and won a durable victory.


Goodness & Victory

 

Even the Spengler at Asia Times reads opinion polls and forms the opinions they are designed to create, or so we must surmise from his latest column, Why is good dumb?:

No Western leader has tried harder to be good, but looked dumber, than America's...President George W Bush, over whom evil is about to triumph. ...[George Bush personally is not stupid, since] every insider account of the Bush White House portrays the president as a crafty operator, very much in control. Besides, now we know that the president earned better grades at Yale than his Democrat challenger, John Kerry...[However, the president has declined to do the smart thing.] A simple punitive expedition against Saddam Hussein, followed by side-deals with the Kurds and Shi'ites to secure oil supplies, would have served Washington's "imperial" requirements, had that been the objective. Bush actually believes he is building democracy in the Muslim world.

...What makes the US uniquely good is that it is uniquely Christian. I do not mean that Christianity is a unique fount of goodness - far from it - but rather that Christianity proposes a universalized form of good. ...As the only nation with no ethnicity, America is the most Christian, and indeed the last Christian nation in the industrial world as a practical matter...Good people cannot as a rule understand wicked people. They do not wish to be wicked, and cannot understand why anyone else would wish to do so....To embrace death is the extreme of evil [which is the essence of Islamism].

But Scripture tells us otherwise:

John 1:5 And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness grasped it not.

And if you don't like the Bible straight, The Lord of the Rings repeatedly makes much the same point: e.g. The Fellowship, Book II, Chapter 6, page 366:

In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive in thought, but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not been discovered. Not yet.

To put the matter less metaphysically: even before 911, there were scholars and public officials in the West who were trying to understand Islamofascism, though they often poorly informed about what actual Islamofascist groups were doing. The Islamofascists themselves, however, even when they had studied in the West, rarely had a clue about the motives and capacities of liberal societies. The ideologies they embraced made the West, the real West, invisible and incomprehensible.

This is an important moment in the course of the war, partly because of what is happening on the ground, but also because of the "lose the war now" campaign among the Bush Administration's political opponents. In the past few weeks we have seen two fraudulent media campaigns, coordinated with increasingly irresponsible statements by members of Congress.

One campaign, involving the so-called "Downing Street Memos," argues that the Bush Administration in early 2002 had made the political decision to go to war and was falsifying intelligence to that end. It makes this argument against the text of the memos. The other campaign, made up out of whole cloth, branded the Administration with "Koran abuse." That hoax re-injected into political discourse the concept of sacrilege, a development which we may be sure will torment the hoax's perpetrators in years to come. There is, of course, public weariness with American and Iraqi casualties, a subjective sentiment that is easily transformed by the magic of modern polling into the statement that the public objectively believes the war to be unjustified.

We might compare the current situation to April of last year, when the Coalition lost control of Falluja and Kufa simultaneously, and there was speculation about planning for a "fighting withdrawal." At the time, I wrote:

George Bush and his Administration have their faults, but lack of resolve is not among them. They have a virtue: they won't try to compromise with people who can't be trusted to keep an agreement. Those are the essentials.

The ability to see who cannot be negotiated with is in fact one of the marks of goodness; the corrupt always believe that those with whom they deal are as malleable as themselves.

Something else that I also wrote at that time does need further comment now:

It will be seen, presently, that the opponents of the Coalition and of the nascent Iraqi government have done their worst, and their worst is no great shakes.

Actually, the worst the enemy can do is pretty bad, though not in the way we might have feared. There is an insurgency in Iraq, but the daily carnage we read of is only peripherally related to it. The Islamofascists aren't really running an insurgency: they are running a campaign to sicken the Iraqis into political catatonia.

We were wrong to dismiss the term, "the War on Terrorism," as a piece of rhetoric that needed to be rephrased in a more sophisticated manner. We are in fact fighting against a tactic. If the Suicide Jihad fails in Iraq, it will fail everywhere. If it succeeds in Iraq, then it will be tried everywhere, and often succeed. It would certainly be used by confident Islamists, now with secure bases in countries the US would be too demoralized to invade, in spectacular 911-style attacks in the West.

Does this mean that, for the indefinite future, there will be reports every morning that another restaurant has been bombed, or another queue of pensioners has been murdered? No: and neither is the new conventional wisdom true that the Coalition is going to have to keep about the same level of troops in Iraq for years to come. When peace comes, it will come suddenly. Consider this story: Marines See Signs Iraq Rebels Are Battling Foreign Fighters

"There is a rift," said [a UN official], who requested anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the talks he had held. "I'm certain that the nationalist Iraqi part of the insurgency is very much fed up with the Jihadists grabbing the headlines and carrying out the sort of violence that they don't want against innocent civilians."

The nationalist insurgent groups, "are giving a lot of signals implying that there should be a settlement with the Americans," while the Jihadists have a purely ideological agenda, he added.

Possibly the only thing that could lose the war at this point would be a date certain for a withdrawal.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-06-15: Conspiracy, China, and the Defenestration of the Clercs

Lots of fun stuff in this blog post from just over twelve years ago. Gordon Chang is still wrong, of course, but why is really the more interesting question. I don't believe Gordon Chang's predictions of doom for China, but I also don't believe china hawks like Steve Hsu. Something is just not quite right with the assertion that China will easily dominate the next century. It seems plausible, given the sheer number of people and the rapid economic growth and modernization of China. However, John Reilly suggested that China was at a point in its civilizational cycle that meant consolidation and retrenchment of past accomplishments rather than a huge burst of creativity.

Greg Cochran seems to be of much the same mind. He recently asked: what are the innovations coming out of China today. Not science, but technological marvels of the type that seemed like they were daily occurrences in the Victorian age. Nothing truly amazing was forthcoming, which seems like a point in favor of John's theory.

Sony Reader with e-ink

Sony Reader with e-ink

The next thing is the Sony Reader. I was sure that the Sony e-ink technology would be a huge win, but then it turned out that people really wanted to play Angry Birds on their tablets instead of read books, and e-ink is no good for that.

Finally, the notion of the West. President Trump's speech in Poland, evoking the concept of the West, appalled everyone with right-on politics. For all that, it isn't a terribly obscure notion in Western politics, and it has been used by many other politicians across the political spectrum. Ross Douthat argues that the mainstream of Western politics right now is neoliberalism, a protean word to be sure, but it aptly describes where the center-left has found itself.

In the American context, Reaganite conservatism is really part of this stream as well. Trump and Sanders represented the first real populist challenge to the dominance of this tradition in the United States. We should only expect more of this.


Conspiracy, China, and the Defenestration of the Clercs

 

Many readers of this page no doubt suppose that the Second Vatican Council was the point where the Roman Catholic Church began to go soft. This was not the case, according to Egyptian historian Professor Zaynab Abd Al-Aziz, in an interview that aired on Saudi Iqra TV [1] on May 26, 2005. According to MEMRI:

Abd Al-Aziz: "The decision to impose one religion over the entire world was made in the Second Vatican Council in 1965."

Host: "Huh?"

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes. A long time ago...."

"When in January 2001, the World Council of Churches delegated this mission to the US - what did the US do? It fabricated the show of -- is it September 9 or 11?"

Host: "11. Please explain this to me."

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes, of course--"

Host: "You mean to say that the World Council of Churches delegated the mission of Christianizing of the world to the US."

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes. And how could the US win legitimacy for this without anyone saying that they are perpetrating massacres and waging a Crusader war? It fabricated the 9/11 show.

If this is how the World Council of Churches behaves, then what must the Bilderbergers be up to?

* * *

Mark Steyn recently asked and answered this question about the future of Asia: Who can stop the rise and rise of China? The communists, of course:

If the People's Republic is now the workshop of the world, the Communist Party is the bull in its own China shop. It's unclear, for example, whether they have the discipline to be able to resist moving against Taiwan in the next couple of years. Unlike the demoralised late-period Soviet nomenklatura, Beijing's leadership does not accept that the cause is lost:...

China won't advance to the First World with its present borders intact. In a billion-strong state with an 80 per cent rural population cut off from the coastal boom and prevented from participating in it, "One country, two systems" will lead to two or three countries, three or four systems. The 21st century will be an Anglosphere century, with America, India and Australia leading the way. Anti-Americans betting on Beijing will find the China shop is in the end mostly a lot of bull.

The prognosis that Gordon Chang made four years ago is not dissimilar. One notes, though, that Steyn's analysis is less driven by economics. Chang said that the current regime could not survive much past the middle of this decade because WTO rules would make China's hilarious financial system implode; Steyn is talking almost pure politics. Both strongly suggest, however, that the regime could attempt to settle the Taiwan issue by force, in order to maintain domestic legitimacy.

* * *

By the way, the eschaton has arrived on little cat feet: Sony's Librié text-display device seems very close to the realization of The Last Book. The reader is light, it's physically flexible, the text is as permanent as ink even when the power is off. Sony's version does have some annoying features, but something very like it could replace the codex.

* * *

Yet more evidence, if any were needed, of the perpetual unity of the West was recently presented in an essay by Frank Furedi, which appeared in Spiked, the most remarkable political ezine I have seen in a very long time. The essay is called From Europe to America: the populist moment has arrived. Its moral is given in the subtitle, On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has become convinced that the people do not know what is best for them. We read in part:

'People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about', notes Thomas Frank in his US bestseller What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Otherwise, Frank argues, how could they possibly vote for the Republicans? The belief that people are too stupid to understand the complexities of public life was also widely expressed during the heated exchanges that surrounded the recent referendums on the EU in France and Germany. Margot Wallstrom, vice president of the EU, commented on her blog that the Constitution is a 'complex issue to vote on', which can lead many citizens to 'use a referendum to answer a question that was not put to them'.

We should note that this populism (a word with a protean definition, but none better suggests itself) is by no means always in support of conservatism (an even slipperier word), or for that matter, that all elites are transnational socialists. In a way, President Bush's privatization plan for Social Security was just as much an elite notion as the EU Constitution ever was. Like the Constitution, electorates liked it less the more they heard about it. The saving garce for Bush and the Republicans is that they did not then claim that the privatization scheme failed because people were too stupid to understand it.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Democracy and Populism

This is the money quote, John Reilly paraphrasing John Lukacs:

If you believe the author, the president of the United States is one of the two monarchs remaining in the world; the other is the pope. The presidency differs from the papacy in that its operation is becoming increasingly medieval. The president no longer administers a government, but is surrounded by an immense crowd of courtiers, whose interest is not so much government but the president's repute.

Don't say you weren't warned.


Democracy and Populism:
Fear & Hatred
By John Lukacs
Yale University Press, 2005
248 Pages, US$25.00
ISBN 0-300-10773-0

 

Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831 to study the penal system. He duly produced a report on that subject, but the chief fruit of that trip was Democracy in America, a book which sought to answer the question, “Is democracy compatible with liberty?” Somewhat surprisingly for his French readership, the answer was “yes,” at least in the American context. However, the book's qualifications and dark intimations, partly about democracy and partly about America, have kept commentators parsing the text ever since.

In Democracy and Populism, John Lukacs continues the tradition, with the emphasis on the dark intimations. The book is really a set of meditations on how terms like “conservative,” “liberal,” “national,” and “popular” have changed meaning over the past 200 years: at times, the book is an exercise in lexicography. However, there is a thesis, which is that liberal democracy in America is finally giving way to nationalist populism, a century and a half after the rise of populist nationalism began in parts of Europe. Lukacs is disenthused with President George W. Bush and such of his works as Lukacs can bring himself to mention, but he does not blame any individual or party. Rather, the devolution of democracy is a feature of the end of the modern age.

The terms Right and Left still have meaning, but we are cautioned to keep in mind that their content and their trajectories change over time. When Tocqueville was alive, there still were people who were of the traditional Right. They opposed electoral democracy and proposed to defend historical forms of society based on status. The Left they opposed was united chiefly by its belief in progress. It included Liberals, who were interested in extending personal freedoms to an ever-widening fraction of the population. It also the proponents of popular sovereignty, who were keen on advancing the economic and cultural integration of the new nation state. The Liberals and the Populists ran in tandem for many years. In the second half of the 19th century, they tended to sort themselves out into Socialists and Nationalists respectively, with the Classical Liberals gradually becoming irrelevant as their institutional reforms succeeded. During the 20th century, the Nationalists defeated the Socialists by absorbing their programs: Hitler was as much a child of the French Revolution as Stalin was.

In the early democratic period, it was the aggressive Left that hated and the Right that feared. After about 1870, the situation reversed, at least in Europe. Populist nationalism did many good things, but there was always an element in it of hatred: hatred for foreign things, certainly, but also hatred for those members of the national community who were insufficiently national. Patriotism and nationalism always overlap, but patriots had always been more concerned with concrete things they like about their country, and far less with abstractions that distinguished it from other countries. The Left, in contrast, and especially the Left in power, was driven in part by its dread of reactionaries, but chiefly by its terrified sense that it was not really well liked by the populace it claimed to represent. In Lukacs' telling, their fear was well justified. He also allows that fear is the beginning of wisdom.

In today's world, there are few Conservatives in a sense with which Lukacs can identify. In an American context, the term means a free marketeer with some optional suggestions about how other people should conduct their private lives. However, he does propose this use of the term: a Conservative is someone who believes in Truth, while a Liberal is someone who believes in Justice. It is a feature of the world at the end of the modern age, as Lukacs would have it, that quite a bit of justice is available, more than ever before. However, “all over this world hang enormous and depressing clouds of publicly propagated untruths.”

By “the modern era,” Lukacs means for the most part “the European Age,” from about 1500 to 2000. Particularly interesting, though, are his references to the “modernity within modernity,” the self-conscious “modernism” that began after the First World War and enjoyed what Lukacs holds to be a vulgar revival in the 1960s. He points out that the pre-modernist works of James Joyce, such as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, have aged pretty well, while Ulysses has become a period piece. More generally, he says that the modernist era was the last time when artists could claim, in Ezra Pound's phrase, to be the “antennae of society.” By the end of the century, art had become too sodden by commerce to cast shadows of things to come.

In this book, Lukacs continues his polemic against progress, or against what he calls “the myth of progress.” Both Communism and anti-Communism were informed by the premise that history was progressive. I find this particularly notable, since certainly there were anticommunists who believed their cause gained an added measure of nobility from the very fact that history had doomed it to ultimate failure. On the other hand, and this interests Lukacs more, anticommunism became not just a feature, but the key component of the new “Conservatism” in America in the last half of the 20th century. This Conservatism was in fact remarkably “Leftist” in the sense that Tocqville would have understood. Whatever its other concerns, it had no interest in conserving things, natural or human.

One notes how many horrible things over the past two centuries have turned out to be less formidable than was supposed at first. In the midst of a rather damning critique of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, for instance, Lukacs observes that her prediction that totalitarian states would become more extreme with the passage of time was disconfirmed within five years of the publication of the book, when the Khrushchev Thaw began in the Soviet Union.

He proposes counterfactuals that suggest ours is far from the worst of all possible worlds. Suppose that revolutions of Lenin and Kerensky had not occurred, and the Czarist Autocracy had been one of the victors at Versailles. Yalta in 1918 might have been substantially worse than Yalta in 1943, if for no other reason than that the division of Europe might then have been sustainable.

Also, Tocqueville was correct when he astonished his contemporaries by predicting that major political revolutions would become less common in advanced countries. This is because, in a condition of popular sovereignty, there is nowhere to stand against popular sentiment, whose very ubiquity tends to slow the development of ideas. The near disappearance of persons of genuinely independent mind is one of the key features of our present situation, which Lukacs does not consider altogether happy or promising.

If you believe the author, the president of the United States is one of the two monarchs remaining in the world; the other is the pope. The presidency differs from the papacy in that its operation is becoming increasingly medieval. The president no longer administers a government, but is surrounded by an immense crowd of courtiers, whose interest is not so much government but the president's repute.

This brings us to the most recent stage in the devolution of democracy, the one that troubles Lukacs the most. It was bad enough that the conflicts over policy that characterized the 19th century became, by the middle of the 20th century, a politics of popularity. That, at least, had historical precedent. The more disturbing transition was the change from the search for popularity to the generation of celebrity. On a practical level, celebrity has even less connection with a candidate's abilities and intentions than does his popularity. However, Lukacs finds something genuinely uncanny about the phenomenon of celebrity. To him, it smacks of the glamour of Antichrist, an association he says may not, in the long run, turn out to be altogether metaphorical.

As we have noted, Democracy and Populism does not present a connected argument, but a series of meditations on the mutability of the meaning of political language. So, strictly speaking, there is nothing to refute. Still, one cannot help but notice that, in many respects, Lukacs has simply not been paying attention.

His assertion that the Bush Administration decided on war in Iraq “for the main purpose of being popular” is nonsense on stilts. The war was the implementation of the recommendations of a school of policy that goes back to his father's administration. The current president's predecessor tried to implement this course, but could not do so because he could not generate the domestic support. The policy may be right or wrong, but the choice to implement it, far from pandering to public opinion, was the sort of thing one might have expected from a Viennese Habsburg before 1848, in an age when it was still possible to conduct high policy without regard to what the public thought. That would, actually, be more consistent with Lukacs' thesis that premodern conditions will return as the modern age ends.

The author goes on at length about the overwhelming influence of the media and its ability to stifle dissent before it even begins, so much so that the regime can ignore the small independent press. Is it really possible that he does not know that the major news media and the entertainment industry promote a politics quite inconsistent with the views of the Republican Party? About the blogosphere I will not speak: the term “Internet” does not even occur in the Index. Similarly, the author takes many pages to bemoan the rise in criminality as a mark of the decline of the state. And that was true, through the 1970s and 1980s. The situation turned around in the 1990s, at least in most of the United States. The civil peace may not hold, of course, but the notion that lawlessness is an irreversible trend has been as decisively refuted as the unstoppable march of totalitarianism.

Regarding the future, the author asserts at one point: “A new barbarian feudalism is bound to come in the future: but not yet.” If you wait long enough, I suppose anything will happen, including barbarian feudalism, but there is nothing in the current state of the West, or even of the world as a whole, to suggest that Mad Max will appear on the horizon anytime soon: quite the opposite. The trend toward the integration of the human race, which goes under names like “globalization” and “Americanization,” is quite real, and in that sense progress is real, too, even if you don't like where it is going. Lukacs aspires to speak for the universal perspective of the Catholic Church, and even of the Habsburg tradition. Surely such a perspective should see the potential for more in the world of the early 21st century than for mere chaos.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Conquistador Book Review

by S. M. Stirling
Roc Books, 2003
ISBN 0-451-45908-3

This book continues the tradition that Stirling never writes sequels to the books of his I like best. Ah well.

I especially like the acknowledgments to this volume:

To Jerry Pournelle, for help and assistance; Giovanni Spinella and Mario Panzanelli, for help with Sicilian dialect; Steve Brady, for Afrikaans, Greg Saunders, for local knowledge of LA; to the Critical Mass, for continuing massively helpful criticism; and any others on the list.
All faults, errors, infelicities and lapses are my own.
And a special acknowledgement to the author of Niven's Law:
"There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of an author.
"The term is 'idiot.'"

I suspect the last entry was necessary because all of the major players in this book are 'deplorables', to use an anachronistic term for a book written in 2003. Un-reconstructed Southerners. Former Waffen-SS. Pied noirs, white Rhodesians, and Boers. As a high concept, this book seems to be about: what would happen if all of the losers of Western Civilization's great internal conflicts got together and created a new society free from the influence of history's winners, but the losers could take any knowledge [cultural or technological] they wished into extra-dimensional exile?

Stirling's answer turns out to be pretty interesting. For example, the Commonwealth of New Virginia, is an environmentalists paradise: completely sustainable, driven largely by renewable energy, with strict limits on urban sprawl and massive reserves of untouched wilderness. The alternate history California of Conquistador is a prose poem to Nature along the lines of Steve Nichols' Paradise Found. Or perhaps I should say it would be an environmentalist's paradise, if you could separate environmentalism from the political Left. There is plenty of mining and hunting, because the New Virginians are conservationists of the strict observance. They preserve the wilderness because it is pretty, and because animals taste good and look nice as rugs.

The social arrangements of the Commonwealth are similarly perplexing, if you insist on maintaining the alliances of convenience that characterize current American politics. Political power is concentrated in the Thirty Families, the descendants of those who settled the New World. The head of each family sits on a council, and their word is law. Yet, laborers have a great deal of power, due to a short supply of labor due to an extremely strict guest-worker program. The entreaties of beleaguered businessmen are dismissed with contempt.

Fertility is high, as is religious observance. Free-thinkers exist, they just aren't paid much heed. Which isn't to say the state, such as it is, is theocratic. For historical reasons, the settlers largely brought Christianity with them into exile, but it seems to have been shorn of its universalizing tendencies. That may be because we mostly see the Commonwealth through the eyes of its masters, who are hard and unsentimental men.

While there are some references to "missions", there doesn't seem to be anything like the Franciscan order that accompanied our world's conquistadors. Which makes sense, since the ruling elite wouldn't want anyone with real allegiance to a completely autonomous center of power, and largely come from places with strong traditions of political control of religion.  

Stirling's presentation of all this strikes me as bold and interesting, because he gives the impression that the Commonwealth of New Virginia isn't a terrible place to live. In fact, it is rather nice in many ways. It is sometimes unjust, as all states are, but it has more virtues than you might expect. Unlike his Draka series, this state founded by horrible people isn't a living nightmare. It is simply another place in the realm of possibility, that represents a slightly different mix of the features that make up the West.

I want sequels because I would like to explore the future evolution of this society. I suspect that a Western polity that amputated the radical and universalizing features of Christianity would eventually turn into something quite different than what we see today. I doubt the result would be good, but I would say that. I'd like to see what Stirling's answer to that question is, but I suspect I won't get it. Which is a pity.

My other book reviews

Conquistador
By S. M. Stirling

The Long View 2005-06-13: The 34th Annual Conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC)

Hubbert's upper-bound prediction for US crude oil production (1956), and actual lower-48 states production through 2014 – By Plazak - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42670844

Hubbert's upper-bound prediction for US crude oil production (1956), and actual lower-48 states production through 2014 – By Plazak - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42670844

Peak Oil was an interesting idea. I can see how it seemed compelling: it was based on data and experience, and the model fit the data reasonably well. However, the model and it's assumptions always struck me as wrong-headed. It turns out I was right about that, but I can't claim any special prescience about the mechanism that really drove the stake in: fracking

I had forgotten about this reference to Rammstein. For a guy 25 years older than me, he continually surprised me with his cultural references.


The 34th Annual Conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC)

 

I have been a member of the ISCSC for some years, but the only other annual conference I attended was one held at the Newark, New Jersey, campus of Rutgers University, which is just a few minutes away from where I live. This year's meeting was at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 9th, 10, and 11th. The only full day I was there was the 10th. I was importuned to come to this one so I could do a stand-up routine about Oswald Spengler. The conference theme was "Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival," so the obvious thing to talk about was Spengler's notion of the "Second Religiousness." Well, obvious to me.

I had never been to the Twin Cities before (Minneapolis-St. Paul). As big airports go, Lindbergh International (which is not to be confused with Humphrey) is not perhaps exceptionally huge, but it certainly looks that way, because the terminals are integrated into a single structure. I did actually check to see if there was an Amtrak route I could use. There is, I found, and it's cheap, but it would take 20 hours from New Jersey. I don't like to fly, but I don't not like to fly that much.

The University of Saint Thomas is a middle-sized Catholic institution. It dates to the late 19th century, but most of the plant seems to have been built since about 1970. It felt oddly familiar. Finally I recognized that it reminded me of Farleigh Dickenson University in New Jersey: both are "urban universities" located in leafy neighborhoods that are not particularly urban. Saint Thomas, however, is just a few blocks from the Mississippi, which is quite spectacular even so far north.

* * *

The ISCSC is in no way a politically radical group. It was founded by macrohistorians, but my own interest in macrohistory has become rare, except among some of the Japanese, about whose country Toynbee spoke so highly. Most of the papers were on aspects of globalization or on regional issues. Nonetheless, there were times during my stay when I found myself channeling Ayn Rand.

Just after I arrived, I walked in at the end of a presentation by an elderly prelate who was talking, as far as I could tell, about the role of religious groups in negotiating an end to armed conflicts. During the question-and-answer session that followed, he said he thought that the United States destroyed the Baathist government in Iraq in order to eliminate a successful model of socialism. Well, one does not heckle elderly clerics, especially when you walk in at the end of their presentation, but I was under no such inhibition at another presentation on "Peak Oil."

It wasn't a bad presentation. The thesis was that world oil production could be expected to peak in a couple of years, and that there would be economic and social disruption as prices rose thereafter. Unlike the topography of St. Paul, however, I recognized right away what this reminded of: I was hearing a scarcely updated version of one of the Club of Rome Reports from the early 1970s.

I have every confidence that an increasing scarcity of oil will have us scrambling to built new power infrastructure in fairly short order, but there is something terribly past-sell-by-date about all this. The imperative need for population control; the organization of resource use on a transnational level; the decentralization and localization of economic activity: all of this needs to begin now, the story goes, by government subsidy and coercion. When I first read this analysis and prescription in The Limits to Growth in 1972, it also sounded plausible to me. The future in Soylent Green looked plausible to me, too. Since then, the statistics have changed, but the story never does. It does not even change when, as in the case of Europe and Japan and China, something very like the Club of Rome prescription has been instituted and the societies involved are actually starting to die.

When you see that a policy prescription stays the same no matter how the facts change, you realize that the prescription is the point, not the problem it is supposed to remedy. Socialism, as the old saying goes, is the name of their desire. The only novelty is that socialism has realized it cannot create prosperity, so now it insists on mandatory poverty.

Thoughts like this make for awkward interventions in a public forum, especially when, as in this case, I was called on last, after a dozen supportive questions. I started civilly enough, though:

"Excuse me, but why would you expect command economics to work any better in the 21st century than they did in the 20th?"

"Well, you are right: it's a difficult issue. Still, I would offer Cuba as an example of a country that has successfully planned the transition to a more organic, low-energy usage society."

"What happened in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union was not a planned transition; it was a national catastrophe. (Shouting) To made the current state of Cuba a national goal would be lunatic public policy!"

I think I got a little applause at one point. In any case, I went down to the front of the auditorium to apologize afterward. I tried to explain that you don't actually need hot-spots for geothermal climate control.

* * *

One session that might have been of interest to many readers of my blog included a presentation by one Peter O'Brien (of, I believe, San Diego), who argued that America has become sufficiently different from Europe that America must be considered a separate civilization. Among other things, he said that when Europeans said "we," it was a "we" that did not include Americans.

We have blogs so we can offer responses that we did not think of at the time. So, let me mention here that I was recently quoted in a Dutch English-language newspaper, the Amsterdam Weekly, in an article by Paul Burghout about the recent referendum on the European Union Constitution. The title of the article was "They, the People."

And what about that Rammstein song, Amerika? ("We all live in America")?

* * *

After I delivered my own paper, entitled The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century, it seemed at first that I was not going to get any questions. It turned out that the presentation had not produced indifference, but about 10 seconds of stunned silence. Then I got much better questions than I deserved, including one from an old theologian who was familiar with both William Ernest Hocking and Philip Jenkins. I got to quote C.S. Lewis on the potency of religion for good and ill ("Demons are not made from corrupted mice, but from corrupted archangels") and the Talmud on the perils of trying to engineer a religious future ("Do not force the Messiah.") I did wax a little incomprehensible when I tried to explain the relationship of metaphysical immanence to American constitutional jurisprudence, but nobody seemed to mind.

* * *

The ISCSC is meeting next year in Paris, to talk about intercivilizational bridges. I think I will give that one a miss.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

 

The Long View: The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century

This is a seminal essay that John wrote for a presentation at the annual conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in Minnesota, USA in 2005. He synthesizes many of his ideas into a broader prediction of the 21st century.


The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century

 

By John J. Reilly
aesir@prodigy.net
For the 34th Annual Conference of the
International Society for the
Comparative Study of Civilizations
:
Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
June 9-11, 2005

 

The term "Second Religiousness" was used by Oswald Spengler in his great metahistorical study, The Decline of the West, to mean the final phase in the spiritual development of a civilization. (1) This phase arrives "after history," when all internal development is over, and the only change possible is accident or syncretism. To put it briefly, this refers to a time when the primordial religion comes back: holy people, holy law, holy places overshadow the theological systems that the civilization creates earlier in its history, as well as the skepticism that briefly replaces religion among the educated. With the coming of the Second Religiousness, there is no longer any great divide between popular and elite opinion on these matters.

It is easy to multiply examples of what Spengler was talking about: popular Sufism, and later Wahhabism, in Islam; millenarian Taoism in China; emperor-worship and Stoic piety in the Roman world. All comparative studies of civilizations are a footnote to Spengler: this paper is a footnote to a footnote, the one on page 311 of the second volume of The Decline of the West. There, Spengler says the Second Religiousness still lies many generations in the future of the West, but he speculates briefly about what the Western Second Religiousness would look like when it finally arrives:

"It is perhaps possible for us to make some guess as to these forms, which (it is self-evident) must lead back to certain elements of Gothic Christianity. But be this as it may, what is quite certain is that they will not be the product of any literary taste for Late-Indian or Late-Chinese speculation, but something of the type, for example, of Adventism and suchlike sects." (2)

Well, here we are, at least three generations after that was published in 1922, so let us take another look.

Here is the gist of Spengler's model of history. The notion is that at least some societies develop in roughly the same way over a period of between 1,000 and 1,500 years. They begin as feudal societies organized by common metaphysical insights; they become increasingly urban and develop those insights into characteristic art and philosophy and politics; they enter a period corresponding to Western modernity, which Spengler dates to the French Revolution, that is intellectually skeptical and politically chaotic; finally, they enter the age of Caesarism and full civilization. By then, as a rule, the international system has collapsed into what Spengler called the Imperium Mundi, and which Arnold Toynbee would later call a "universal state." The Second Religiousness is the spiritual complement of Caesarism.

We should note two things about this outline. One is that, considered just as a narrative structure, it is very close to Northrop Frye's definition of a "comedy," meaning a form of drama in which what was hidden and implicit in the first act is revealed and explicit in the last. (3) The other is that it is actually not a bad description of the ancient Mediterranean world through the end of the Western Roman Empire and of China through the Latter Han. It works after a fashion for the second round of Chinese history and, maybe, for the Middle East. It also seems to work well for the West in the second millennium. Why should the model work? That is a good question. (4) All that concerns us here, however, is that the model suggests that modernity in the West will end in something like the way the Hellenistic Period and the Era of Contending States ended in antiquity.

Spengler and Toynbee both assert that the world of late civilization becomes resacralized, not because the critical intelligence is repressed or underfunded, but because it refutes itself. We can empathize with this: postmodernism, someone said, is not a philosophy, but a "bag of tricks." (5) To the metahistorians, that is the fate of every great philosophical tradition. It becomes a canon, an armory of techniques, which no longer makes strong claims to truth. According to Toynbee, this is what happens then:

"If we pass to our examination of the complementary movements in which the philosophers of the dominant minority make their approach towards the religions of the internal proletariat, we shall find that on this side the processes begins earlier, besides going farther. It begins in the first generation after the breakdown; and it passes from curiosity through devoutness into superstition." (6)

Toynbee, at least in his later period, did not regard this transition as much of a loss, because he became convinced that the meaning of history is the development of the higher religions. Civilizations, and particularly the universal states into which they collapse in their final stage, can be justified only because they act as chrysalises for Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam: add your own examples. Notice that Toynbee was no longer thinking just about the religious future of the West, but of the whole world, which he held was moving toward an ecumenical society.

In the middle of the 20th century, Toynbee was not the only person having thoughts along these lines. In 1956, William Ernest Hocking, the theology-friendly Harvard Pragmatist, published what I think is a remarkable little book called The Coming World Civilization. (7) It scarcely speculates about what that civilization will be like. Rather, the book argues that any society must have some transcendent basis, and goes on to discern what the transcendent basis for a universal society must be.

Little of what Hocking says is original, but is nonetheless important. For instance:

"[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art — the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command...

"We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We have taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

"We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things." (8)

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. (9) Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the inner disposition of the individual is essential. Political rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Hocking was keen to link the basis of science with the basis of religion. He tells us that the experience of the Thou, of a rational Other, is the foundation of science, and is identical to the intuition of the existence of God. Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. For instance, the will to futurity is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer.

As an aside here, we may note that, in Spengler's system, the era of the Second Religiousness is also the period in physical science becomes another finished canon. Spengler's favorite example is Classical mathematics, which culminated in Euclidian geometry and then just stopped, though there were plenty of teachers of mathematics for centuries afterward. If you need a parallel example today, it might be the search for a Theory of Everything. Curiously, Stephen Jay Gould's last book on popular science, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox (10), outlined a model for integrating science and humane learning, including religion, by using the concept of "non-overlapping magisteria," which is very similar to Hocking's model. What Gould wants to avoid is the sociobiological reductionism that his colleague, E. O. Wilson, advocated in his book Consilience.

In any case, what Hocking was trying to do was to end inter-religious controversy, and for that he employs a form of existentialism. Start with this premise: the sense of sin is not an artificial guilt created by an external command, but a direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand. When Hocking talks about religious unity in the world civilization, he was not predicting a new revelation. He advocated that the existing great religious traditions accept that they are united at their summits, where creed becomes wordless experience. (Again, if you are familiar with René Guénon or Frithjof Schuon, none of this will sound new. (11)) Hocking did argue that Christianity would play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era, because the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

One might note that the necessity for a transcendent basis of world order has not been lost on the Bush Administration. In his Second Inaugural Address, President Bush identified the transcendent basis of the United States as the principle that legitimizes America's role in the world:

"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth." (12)

This aspect of 21st-century geopolitics is one of the key themes of Walter Russell Mead's essential book, Power, Terror, Peace, and War. (13) Mead accepts the Bush Administration's assessment that nothing less than the Kantian Peace of a world of liberal republics can ensure the security of the United States. Unlike Kant, though, Mead recognizes that any world consensus for world order must have some basis less self-referential than the Categorical Imperative. Meade argues that there are two reasons to applaud the appearance of conservative ecumenism in the United States among Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox Jews. The first is that, by deploying Realpolitik for moral ends, American governments can hope for a level of domestic political support that, frankly, Cold War internationalism never enjoyed. The second is that a conspicuously religious America can actually make the United States a more attractive partner to much of the world. It is not Christianity that offends Muslims, Mead argues, but atheism. American hegemony is in competition with secular transnationalism, and it is not at all clear that the secular transnationalists have a long-term advantage.

This raises the question of just what kind of transcendent the world wants. Hocking said that Christianity should deal with modernity by divesting itself of its own mythological and cultural baggage, so that it can become less Western and more Christian. Well, now we know better. "Exculturation" refers to the process by which a religious denomination becomes disassociated from the surrounding culture. (14) It may reject its own traditions to meet the believer afresh, the way a missionary would. Many denominations and religious institutions actually tried this in the last half of the 20th century; they lost their old audience and gained no new one. The prospects for a worldwide religious revival have not dimmed with the passing decades, however. The irony is that the religion of an ecumenical society cannot be Hocking's Christian existentialism, but it might be Pentecostalism.

This, at any rate is what one might gather from Philip Jenkins's book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. (15) Anyone who foresees a Muslim future is going to be gravely disappointed, he says, if for no other reason than that Christianity is well represented in the countries with the fastest-growing populations. In fact, that has been the case for centuries, even though the areas of growth have changed. Demographics are the least of it, however.

In general, he characterizes the Christianity of the South (which, oddly, includes the East, except for Japan) as visionary, charismatic, apocalyptic. At the same time, it is also theologically and culturally conservative. Jenkins points out that, when the Vatican reasserts dogmas that seem to Europeans and Americans to run against the tide of history, it is in fact simply responding to the Church's key demographics.

Jenkins cites repeatedly Harvey Cox's noted study of the worldwide spread of Pentecostal worship, Fire from Heaven. (16) By Pentecostalism, Jenkins does not mean principally the self-identified Pentecostal denominations, important though those are. More important is the spread of a pluripotent spirituality through the older denominations. If present trends continue, there will be a billion Pentecostals, variously defined, by 2050.

Jenkins says that, in much of the South in which this spirituality is spreading, we are back in the world of the New Testament. Much of the world is becoming urbanized in chaotic megalopolises The displaced people there need communities, and services that the government cannot provide, which in part explains the growth of the new churches. In the long run, Jenkins suggests, the greater threat to secular McWorld may not be the Jihad, but the Crusade. The North could eventually define itself against Christianity.

Reasonable people might quarrel with Jenkins' conclusions, and for that matter with his facts. He himself points out that there is a long tradition on both the Right and Left in developed countries of using the South for rhetorical purposes. A generation ago, the radical Left said that political battles that were lost in the West would be won in the South and East. Now conservatives are saying the same thing. One suspects that the Right will be just as surprised by what actually happens as the Left ever was.

So far we have been eliding the difference between the future spiritual state of the West and that of the rest of the world. That actually makes more sense in Toynbee's model, which, as we have seen, tries to understand world history in terms of spiritual evolution. But let us take a look at the final form of the West, or at least of the Western tradition.

When both Spengler and Toynbee wrote about the future, they had a preference for images of blood and iron, which was perfectly reasonable, considering the era in which they lived. It would be rash to assume that we have all the blood and iron behind us. However, these models of history that foresee the end of modernity also see the beginning of an era of peace, when all the great questions are answered. Francis Fukuyama wrote a book about this 15 years ago; the thesis of The End of History (17) can still be defended, even if its application to current events seems in retrospect premature. Fukuyama is not a Spenglerian, but Hermann Hesse was, for some purposes. If you want an image of the world of the Second Religiousness, you could do much worse than to read The Glass Bead Game. (18)

We get no dates, but the novel seems to be set around the beginning of the early 24th century. The age of wars has ended. We learn that major historical events no longer happen in the Occident. The Catholic Church seems to be as influential again as it was in the High Middle Ages. There is a lively intellectual life, but it is directed toward competition in a sort of game show, the "Glass Bead Game" of the title. Scholars in that period have to struggle to understand what the past meant by terms like "Bohemian" and "avant-garde," or even "revolutionary." Modernity is called "the Age of Wars" or the "Age of the Feuilleton," thus suggesting a connection between universal disorder and a culture that lacked intellectual seriousness. The Introduction puts it like this:

"The world had changed. The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to the pruning back of the plant to its roots...[It had] become common knowledge, or at least a universal sense, that the continuance of civilization depends on this strict schooling. People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer's slide rule and the computations of banks and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization -- technology, industry, commerce, and so on -- also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality." (19)

This is oddly reminiscent of the account of the Roman Empire that Peter Brown gave in The Making of Late Antiquity. (20) The more common view has it that the glittering culture of the empire in the second century masked a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. The civil wars and economic immiseration of the third century simply revealed the real state of things. Many historians who say this also characterize the rise of Christianity as a "loss of nerve," as men fled from reason in a world that no longer seemed to make sense. Brown, however, says that the fusion of piety, culture, and society under the high empire was adaptive, because it served to prevent the recurrence of the excesses of the late Republic.

Brown keeps the conventional structure, but changes the plus and minus signs. Maybe the culture of the Antonine period was more interested in the performance of classical styles than in creation; that is where Hesse's Glass Bead Game comes in. However, the formalities of Antonine culture did serve to channel private ambition. At the local level, the empire ran on the competition between notables to garner popularity through providing public amenities. Roman politics during the Republic had degenerated into a potlatch of vote-buying; the control of the state was at stake. Two centuries later, competition took the more seemly form of privately financed infrastructure and religious festivals; generally, the only thing at stake was good repute, which was quite enough.

What was true politically was also true spiritually. The empire in the second century did not lack for cults and proselytizers. For the most part, however, such wizards kept their claims limited. Toward their colleagues, they were tactful. Ordinary people believed that they had direct access to the supernatural through oracles (the gods spoke notoriously good Greek in this period) and through dreams. Brown repeatedly mentions the dream-compendium of Artemidorus, composed around AD 140, which reports dreams from all around the Mediterranean, along with their interpretations. Some of these dreams were quite dramatic. In other cultures, at other times, they might have launched the careers of prophets and conquerors. In the Antonine empire, in contrast, their use was diagnostic. Indeed, Freud cited Artemidorus as a sort of forerunner.

This condition did not last after Marcus Aurelius, but Brown emphasizes that the empire of the third century was not seized by superstitious hysteria. (21) Quite the opposite: people saw the supernatural as just another of life's problems. As in the second century, people in the later empire believed they encountered the supernatural daily. The difference was that they tried to limit their contact with it.

In the third century, the mechanisms that had dampened ambition no longer worked. This development was overdetermined: civil war, barbarian invasion, monetary inflation; the list is well known. The traditional life of the towns and smaller cities did not break down, but exploded upward, seeking powerful protectors. Society everywhere became more pyramidal. The powerful mined civic life, sometimes even diverting public buildings to private use. One is reminded of privatization in some post-Communist countries, particularly in the former Soviet Union and once-upon-a-time Yugoslavia.

Something similar happened spiritually. In the third century, the "debate about the holy" became a matter of life and death, of salvation and damnation. The great anxiety of the age, in Brown's telling, was to sort out saints from sorcerers. Just as in public life people sought reliable connections to the center of power, so in spiritual practice people sought out "friends of God," who could be relied on not to exploit the connection. The early Christian desert fathers gained credibility precisely because they did not promise magical effects.

Is this the future? I don't know. One thing is certain, though: Oswald Spengler inspired some really great science fiction, of which perhaps the best-known example is Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. (22) In those books, a scholar named Hari Seldon develops a model for predicting the future, and he tries to ensure the best of all possible outcomes for crises that will occur long after his death. During one of those crises, a group of politicians meet, and ask what Seldon meant them to do. They finally realize that, if Seldon long ago could see the answer to their problems, then they should be able to see it now that Seldon's future had arrived.

That will always be sound advice.


Notes

(1) The Decline of the West, Volume I, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1926; German original 1918), p. 424.

(2) The Decline of the West, Volume II, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1928; German original 1922), p. 311note

(3) Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrop Frye (Princeton University Press, 1957; Paperback 1990). Comedy is defined on pages 43, 44, but see Frye's own views on Spengler at 160, 343. Note also that Spengler himself said that Western civilization is uniquely tragic, because it insists on a historical goal even after history is over: see Spengler, Decline, Volume I, p. 365.

(4) The use of the "generation" as a fixed quantum of historical change has, perhaps, rendered parallels in the pace of historical change in different societies a little less mysterious. For a popular treatment, see Generations: History of America's Future, 1584—2029, by William Strauss & Neil Howe (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991).

(5) See, for instance, "A Bag of Tired Tricks," by B. R. Meyers: Atlantic Monthly, May 2005 (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200505/myers)

(6) A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement (Oxford University Press, 1947), Volume I, p. 478

(7) The Coming World Civilization, by William Ernest Hocking (Harper & Brothers, 1956)

(8) Hocking, pp. 6, 7

(9) Ibid.

(10) The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities, by Stephen Jay Gould (Harmony Books, 2003)

(11) The modern doctrine of the transcendental unity of religions is called "traditionalism" or "Tradition." The leading study is Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, by Mark Sedgwick (Oxford University Press, 2004).

(12) See: http://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural/index.html

(13) Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, by Walter Russell Mead (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

(14) The term "exculturation" was coined by the French sociologist, Danièle Hervieu-Léger. My use of it here, as a self-destructive modernizing tendency in religions, follows that of Gianni Ambrosio in his article, "On the Future of Catholicism in France" (English title from the Italian original), in La Rivista del Clero Italiano (No. 12, 2004), which was excerpted for the English-language version of Chiesa (May 9, 2005) by Sandro Magister (http://www.chiesa.espressonline.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=30332&eng=y).

(15) The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2002)

(16) Fire from Heaven, by Harvey Cox (Reading, MA; Addison-Wesley, 1995)

(17) The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama (The Free Press, 1992)

(18) Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse: German Original Das Glasperlenspiel (1943); English Translation by Richard and Clara Winston (Bantam Books, 1986)

(19) Hesse, pp. 24-26

(20) The Making of Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown (Harvard University Press Paperback, 1993). The book contains the Carl Newell Jackson lectures of 1976.

(21) An issue that lies beyond the scope of this paper is Spengler's interpretation of Christianity as a development of the Springtime of what he calls the Magian Culture of the Near East, a Culture part of whose territory happened to be controlled by Greco-Roman Civilization during the latter's Winter. One result of this accidental overlap was "pseudomorphosis," the cloaking of Magian spirit in Classical form. An example might be the cult of Apollonius Tyana, a Sophist contemporary of Jesus with a reputation as a wonderworker. Scholars of the New Testament often point out the formal similarity between the canonical Gospels and the early third-century biography of Apollonius by Philostratus. (See, e.g., What is a Gospel? by Charles H. Talbert (Fortress Press, 1977).) The difference is that we must imagine that the Sermon on the Mount dealt with the benefits of a high-fiber diet.

(22) Foundation (1951); Foundation and Empire (1952); Second Foundation (1953), by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday & Company)

Linkfest 2017-07-14

The Last Barfighter: An Arcade Game That Pours You A Beer If You Win.

Genius.

Utilities fighting against rooftop solar are only hastening their own doom

This is an interesting article. I have two primary questions: do all utilities make money the same way? This article claims they only make a profit by building infrastructure. I can imagine other models are possible, and it is a big country. Second, here in the southwest, you can't store energy when the sun is shining and then sell it later when the price is high, because those is the same time here.

Battery storage: The next disruptive technology in the power sector

A citation from the above article.

Most Scientific Research Data From the 1990s Is Lost Forever

I've done a bit of digital archaeology myself, and I know that keeping data current is an on-going job. Access to current data is easier digitally, but archiving is worse. The most durable storage medium we have is fired clay.

Ancient Humans Liked Getting Tipsy, Too

As well they should.

The Strange Afterlife of Pontius Pilate

I don't find the idea that Pilate was not culpable for the death of Christ terribly obscure, but this is nonetheless an interesting article.

Apple’s Third Co-Founder Has Never Used an iPhone and Has No Regrets

Wayne sounds as weird as the other guys, just in his own unique way.

DARE to Look at the Evidence!

This isn't the first time I have heard the DARE program doesn't produce any good results.

Radical Book Club: the Decentralized Left

David Hines continues his look at the radical Left through the books they write about themselves. The ways in which protests are made to look spontaneous is particularly interesting to me.

Go Ahead, Put Salt on Your Food

The health risks of salt have been greatly exaggerated, mostly because existing summaries fail to make distinctions between people with much greater risks and the general population.

PIN analysis

An oldie but a goodie.

The Long View 2005-06-07: The New Jersey Primary, and Worse

Rofecoxib

Rofecoxib

This is a great quote:

When I was young, I was quite a prig about not using drugs, and I have not mellowed over time. On the other hand, I often shock people who know me with the argument that most drugs should be legalized, even for recreational purposes, simply because prohibition causes more trouble than it is worth. I have no opinion about the efficacy of medical marijuana, but I think it could never do as much harm as prescription blood-pressure medicine.

The problems with rofecoxib [trade name Vioxx] had hit shortly before John wrote this. I'm not sure that legalizing recreational drugs is a good idea, but I am at least willing to consider it, given the way in which prescription drugs overseen by otherwise responsible doctors have harmed the public too. With the ever increasing opioid overdoses in the US, we enjoy the worst of both worlds: legal and illegal drugs working together to really mess people up. 


The New Jersey Primary, and Worse

 

The party primary elections in New Jersey are today. Registered Republicans who have listed telephone numbers have been bombarded day and night, and sometimes in our dreams, by political telemarketing calls for one or another of the gaggle of people who are seeking the Party's nomination for the gubernatorial election in November. Many of the calls are from a roster of Formerly Famous People, such as Jack Kemp, Tom Keane, and Steve Forbes. Actually, I soon developed the habit of hanging up before I was told whom these people were endorsing, but most of them seem to be partial to Bret Schundler. Doug Forrester's ads tend to feature Ordinary Citizens and doting family members. The other five often endorse themselves. I am not sure that all their calls are recordings.

Walking to the polling place to vote this morning, I was interviewed by WPIX, the local television affiliate of UPN. Taken by surprise, I was quite unable make an apt allusion to Julius Evola, or even James Madison. I did mention property taxes, which seemed to be what the news lady wanted to hear.

When I voted, the polls had already been open for two hours, on as fine a late-spring day as you could ask for. I was voter number 6. The people are disenthused, I fear.

* * *

Meanwhile, I see that the United States Supreme Court, in Gonzales v. Raich, has held that the federal Controlled Substances Act does allow the federal government to prosecute the users of medical marijuana, even if the users have a valid prescription issued under state law.

The chief curiosity here is that the Controlled Substances Act is based largely on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which allows the federal government to control the distribution of goods in interstate commerce. The Court held that power also justified the application of the Act to this situation, where the marijuana was homegrown and had not moved in commerce at all. This reasoning is not a novelty: the courts have long held that the federal government could regulate what farmers grow on their own land for their own use, on the theory that local production displaces goods from outside the state. That principle is probably necessary, but it still looks like an instance of coaxing a camel through the eye of a needle.

When I was young, I was quite a prig about not using drugs, and I have not mellowed over time. On the other hand, I often shock people who know me with the argument that most drugs should be legalized, even for recreational purposes, simply because prohibition causes more trouble than it is worth. I have no opinion about the efficacy of medical marijuana, but I think it could never do as much harm as prescription blood-pressure medicine.

Still, I have to say the Supreme Court majority was right: both the Controlled Substances Act and its application here are necessarily valid. Whatever doubts I might have had about the matter were dispelled by this bit of incoherence from Justice O'Connor's dissent from Justice Steven's majority opinion:

There is simply no evidence that homegrown medicinal marijuana users constitute, in the aggregate, a sizable enough class to have a discernable, let alone substantial, impact on the national illicit drug market --or otherwise to threaten the CSA regime.

If Congress has to present "evidence" to Justice O'Connor's satisfaction every time it passes a law, the Republic is doomed.

* * *

Speaking of formerly famous people, Mark Steyn has taken to prophesying that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton may well win the presidential election in 2008. In a column entitled Last Man Standing, he issues these oracles:

If the Democrats ever want to take back the White House, 2008 is their best shot. After the 2010 census, the electoral college apportionment for the 2012 Presidential campaign will reflect the population shifts to the south and west ...

Frankly, that sounds a little like the belief in the British Labour Party in the 1920s that the rise of the Party to the status of permanent governing party could be calculated with arithmetical certainty. After all, the electorate could grow only more working class over time, couldn't it? But let the point pass.

Bill Clinton was about as good a Democrat as you could get: he liked to tell friends he governed as an "Eisenhower Republican"...

Wasn't that how John Kerry during last year's election promised to govern? The leading sentiment within the Democratic Party now might be: "Let's give the real Left a chance."

As a rule, Governors make the best Presidential candidates...The Republicans do have a popular governor of a large state, but his name's Jeb Bush, and even loyal Baathists might have drawn the line at Saddam being succeeded by both Uday and Qusay. On the other hand, if Jeb wants to avoid being penalised by American distaste for dynastic succession, the 43rd President's brother running against the 42nd President's wife may be the most favourable conditions he'll ever get.

Jeb has said he will not run in 2008, and I see no reason to doubt him. Still, that is a good point: a Hillary candidacy would shortcircuit the nepotism issue.

You see that were are already well into the next election cycle? The presidency is becoming Ixion's Wheel.

* * *

Once again, let me repeat that I am attending the annual conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations later this week, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in Minnesota, USA. The conference topic is Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival. I will post comments when I get back about the conference. My paper, "The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century," will appear online eventually, but the ISCSC might want first-publication rights for their journal, the Comparative Civilizations Review.

Finally, you are again invited to send money here to support this study of metahistory. That, and the Heineken Brewing Company, green jewel of the Dutch Empire.

Thanks!

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-06-03: Revivals, Counterfactuals, & Subsidies

This is a counterfactual, rather than a prediction, so I can't assess its accuracy as such. However, I find it interesting to ponder:

We should also remember that there would have been no conservative revival in the United States if NIxon had remained in office. Nixon brought the liberal wing of his party down with him; only the eclipse of the Rockefeller Republicans made room for the Reagan Revolution. If Richard Nixon had not resigned, in fact, the political landscape in America would look much more like that of Europe.

It seems likely to me that the parties would have continued down much the same path as they did without the resignation of Nixon, but it does seem likely that the peculiar phenomenon of Reaganism might not have happened.


Revivals, Counterfactuals, & Subsidies

 

Before the announcement this week that Mark Felt, former Deputy Director of the FBI, was actually the secret source who inspired the Washington Post to pursue the Watergate matter, I had almost made my mind up that Deep Throat was a "composite," essentially a bundle of rumors that was personified as a single, anonymous person. I had supposed that, when the truth came out, the bodies of Woodward & Bernstein would be torn from their graves, condemned for conduct unbecoming a journalist, and then thrown into the Potomac. Alas.

Despite having lived through it, I still don't know what to think of the Nixon Administration, except that, as a native of New Jersey, I was little impressed by its level of corruption. (After leaving office, Richard Nixon settled in New Jersey.) Peggy Noonan, who is also from New Jersey, has some firm opinions about the consequences of the failure of the Watergate affair to die:

What Mr. Felt helped produce was a weakened president who was a serious president at a serious time. Nixon's ruin led to a cascade of catastrophic events--the crude and humiliating abandonment of Vietnam and the Vietnamese, the rise of a monster named Pol Pot, and millions--millions--killed in his genocide. America lost confidence; the Soviet Union gained brazenness. What a terrible time. Is it terrible when an American president lies and surrounds himself by dirty tricksters? Yes, it is. How about the butchering of children in the South China Sea. Is that worse? Yes. Infinitely, unforgettably and forever.

Actually, the true awfulness of those years was perhaps better expressed in prophecy than in the histories that have been written about it: dig out a file of Jefferson Starship's Ride the Tiger if you are interested. (Again, I suspect the tile of that song is derived from Julius Evola's book of similar name, but I have never investigated.)

Would the Republic of South Vietnam have survived if Richard Nixon had remained in office? Maybe, but I would not bet on Cambodia. And the Nixon Administration would have been perfectly capable of trying to prop up the Portuguese empire in Africa, which collapsed the year South Vietnam did. We should also remember that there would have been no conservative revival in the United States if NIxon had remained in office. Nixon brought the liberal wing of his party down with him; only the eclipse of the Rockefeller Republicans made room for the Reagan Revolution. If Richard Nixon had not resigned, in fact, the political landscape in America would look much more like that of Europe.

* * *

On the subject of Europe, Mortimer Sellers, writing in The International Herald Tribune, has the first intelligent suggestion I have seen about how America should react to the miscarriage of the European Constitution:

I spent the two weeks leading up to the referendums speaking about the probable results with lawyers and professors of constitutional law in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. Their nearly universal consensus was that although the no vote would be bad for Europe, it would be worse for trans-Atlantic relations. Unless the United States acts quickly to strengthen its ties with Europe, the Western alliance will begin to break down, recreating the conditions that led to the two world wars last century.

That perhaps is an exaggeration. Nonetheless, the US should do something to stabilize the situation; with regard to the euro, maybe something quite drastic, quite soon. In any case, Sellers argues that we need a new round of institution building:

The first step toward greater European and American unity should be a North Atlantic Trade Organization, to supplement the North Atlantic Treaty that has prospered as a military alliance for almost a lifetime.

Broadening NATO into fields such as commerce and education would remind Europeans and Americans of their long-shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The North Atlantic alliance has brought peace and justice to three generations of Europeans and Americans, despite our occasional differences. My conversations with European colleagues over the past two weeks remind me how many fundamental values we still share, even as we sometimes fear each other's motives.

These are hardly new suggestions, but their time may be about to come.

* * *

Part of the problem with getting the Iraqi military up and running again has also been a question of overcoming the stultifying political culture of the former regime. According to James Corum, writing in the New York Times, the difficulties with trying to use elements of the old Iraqi military were oddly familiar:

The character of these men should not have been a surprise: the NATO militaries spent most of the 1990's rebuilding the old Warsaw Pact armies. Retraining the officers from Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic into Western-style forces was a long, expensive and difficult task. For example, the German Army had to set up a three-year program to re-educate 14,000 officers and noncommissioned officers from the East German Army; even now, according to people I know in the German Army, you can still pick out those who had been trained under the Communist system by their lack of initiative and unwillingness to assume responsibility.

There are still people who say that Paul Bremer made a mistake by disbanding the Iraqi Army.

* * *

Getting back to Europe for a moment, how are leaders there reacting to the constitutional crisis? One notes headlines like this: After a Fall in Popularity, Chirac Shifts Cabinet Posts. I cite that, however, chiefly so I can quote this from Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary:

Cabbage, n. A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head.

The cabbage is so called from Cabagius, a prince who on ascending the throne issued a decree appointing a High Council of Empire consisting of the members of his predecessor's Ministry and the cabbages in the royal garden. When one of His Majesty's measures of state miscarried conspicuously it was gravely announced that several members of the High Council had been beheaded, and his murmuring subjects were appeased.

Scripture has wisdom for every occasion.

* * *

Reform is difficult in every arena, not least with regard to spelling. The Simplified Spelling Society and the American Literacy Council, to both of which I am proud to belong, once again sent protesters to the National Spelling Bee in Washington DC, to educate the public about the need for an orthographic upgrade. (There is something odd about a spelling system that is erratic enough to provide the basis for a competitive sport, but don't get me started.) In prior years, these protests have been well reported. This is the only press comment I have been able to find so far about this year's effort:

Three Kiwis will be active at the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals in Washington, DC, from May 31 to June 2 – two on stage, one on the footpath/sidewalk.

Charlotte Roose, from Hillcrest High School, Hamilton, will be the New Zealand representative in the competition. Another New Zealand-born competitor, Sam Lawson, will represent the Florida county where he now lives. There are 273 finalists from about 10 million entrants.

Outside the hotel that is hosting the event, Allan Campbell from Christchurch, convener of Spell 4 Literacy, will be one of about a dozen spelling-change advocates picketing the event.

Again: alas.

* * *

Speaking of my enthusiasms, you may have heard that the great hope of Broadway this season is the musical Spamalot, which is essentially a stage adaptation of the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I cannot say that I have ever actually attended a musical, but I am interested in this one, because of the amount of my brain matter that was dedicated to memorizing Python material in my youth, and which I am helpless to rededicate to better purposes. Thus, I took note of Mark Steyn's grudgingly unfavorable review of the play, entitled Dead Parody Sketch

There have always been unmusical musicals. In that sense, Spamalot has less in common with A Connecticut Yankee than with Hellzapoppin’, the Olsen and Johnson smash that opened in 1938, became the longest-running musical in Broadway history to date, and didn’t have one memorable song. It was, as nobody said at the time, very “cutting edge”: it opened with Hitler giving a rave review of the show in a Yiddish accent; it had workmen with ladders clambering through the auditorium forcing theatergoers to get out of their way; in the middle of the show a woman would scream she’d left her baby at the automat and run fleeing from the theatre. Zany, relentless, hugely profitable – and utterly forgotten.

Perhaps the time has come to forget, indeed suppress, Monty Python. The Python canon promotes flippancy and cynicism, and so corrupts the young. I further think that we should tax all people standing in water, but again, don't get me started.

* * *

Everything is set for me to attend the annual conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations next week, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in Minnesota, USA. The conference topic is Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival. I will deliver a paper entitled "The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century," which deals with Oswald Spengler's views about the future of religion.

At the risk of being tactless, let me point out that I was not able to get a grant for this, despite the fact I was invited. The cost of the whole expedition, including two nights in the university's palatial dorms, is only about $500. This comes straight out of my beer money. Anyone wishing to subsidize the disinterested pursuit of scholarship is invited to make a donation here. Any excess funds will be spent on Heineken.

Thanks!

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-06-01: Reinventing The Wheel

By Alexander Blecher, blecher.info, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44929395

By Alexander Blecher, blecher.info, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44929395

I seriously doubt the proto-clickbait article cited here about mutated super-intelligent children in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and surrounding areas, but I do find the unintentional wildlife reserve created in Ukraine fascinating.


Reinventing The Wheel

 

The fact that Stanley Fish, formerly the prince of postmodern criticism, is now teaching elementary courses in composition is alarming. More alarming still is his opinion piece in The New York Times of May 31, Devoid of Content, in which he explains how he teaches.

His thesis is that elementary writing courses should concentrate on the formal elements of language rather than on the content of what the students write about. That is reasonable enough; but see how he does this:

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students.

That is what they used to teach Latin for. Students who would never be able to read a classical author with profit would nevertheless remember for the rest of their lives what the subjunctive mood is, and what the dative case is for. The very fact that some features of Latin have no analogue in modern English made the exercise all the more valuable.

I like artificial languages, too, but the students would be better served by a serious requirement to study a suitable natural language.

* * *

Here is good news, after a fashion: The Chernobyl nuclear disaster has spawned a generation of ‘mutant’ super-brainy children:

Kids growing up in areas damaged by radiation from the plant have a higher IQ and faster reaction times, say Russian doctors...They are also growing faster and have stronger immune systems.

This could be true. From what I hear, the Ukrainian government has made a serious effort to rehabilitate the areas affected by the nuclear disaster. The social investment has even created a small babyboom. It would be no wonder if the kids produced better vital statistics.

* * *

The Shameless Spengler at Asia Times explains why Benedict XVI is seeking to reverse the medievalizing wrong turn that the Church allegedly made in the 19th century, and why it is vital to the future of the West that he succeed. The column is called The Laach Maria monster. Here are some of the good bits:

The Church did not create Hitler, but the means by which it concocted a fake medieval past made it easier for the race theorists of Nazism to create their own medieval past as well. If it was convenient to concoct an Age of Faith, then why not also concoct a golden age of Aryan supremacy?

I see what he is talking about. In Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor mentions two German medievalists, Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, whom he calls "the Nazi Twins," and who were responsible for giving the Füherprinzip faux-medieval fairytale glow. However, I need a lot of convincing to be persuaded that the 19th-century Medieval Revival was chiefly Catholic in inspiration. Rather the opposite, if you look at the history of the Holy Grail. Was Wagner Catholic?

In any case, Spengler also has this interesting aside about the geneology of the liberal wing of the 20th-century liturgical reform:

James Carroll's 2001 bestseller, The Sword of Constantine, makes its villain the miserable Herwegen [the abbot of the Nazi-leaning monastery at Loch Maria], but Carroll discovers to his confusion that he has more in common with the pro-Hitler Benedictines of 1933 than with the present leadership of the Church. As Carroll reports, the "liturgical movement" of the 1920s introduced congregational participation in the Mass, that is, making the "people of God" (whoever might have wandered in) into the actor. Carroll approves, explaining, "No longer do we attend Mass as a collection of isolatos, each on his or her knees, face buried in hands from which dangle rosary beads. We do not approach God alone but as members of a praying community, members of a folk." Benedict XVI rejects the "folk" Mass on the simple grounds that God, rather than the "folk", is the actor in the Mass.

It is a little more complicated than that, but certainly one should look askance at any clergyman who says "community" where "God" would fit better.

* * *

Readers of my site will know that I am a great fan of C.S. Lewis. I was particularly impressed by his description of "joy," a term he uses in a way that is roughly equivalent to "Sehnsucht," or the Welsh "hireath." I knew what he meant, but I thought his treatment of the subject was wholly original. Recently, however, I have been reading Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo, where I found some material related to this topic.

Augustine, like Lewis, was one of that not inconsiderable class of people who are converted in their early 30s, only to discover that their spiritual lives do not then progress to a state of unshakeable bliss:

Briefly, Augustine had analyzed the psychology of "delight." "Delight" is the only possible source of action, nothing else can move the will...But "delight" itself is no longer a simple matter. It is not a spontaneous reaction, the natural thrill of the refined soul when confronted with beauty...the processes that prepare a man's heart to take 'delight' in his God are not only hidden, but actually unconscious and beyond his control...Delight is discontinuous, startlingly erratic: Augustine now moves in a world of 'love at first sight,' of chance encounters, and, just as important, of sudden, equally inexplicable patches of deadness. (pp 148-9)

I am starting to wonder: has anyone, ever, had an original idea?

* * *

My amazement at the shoddy draftsmanship of the proposed Constitution of the European Union only grows with time. On policy grounds, I object to the International Criminal Court. However, as I have noted, its charter is clear, even inspiring in places, and it is of reasonable length. Again: what is wrong with Brussels?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Holy Grail

The chalice in question

The chalice in question

A nice overview of the grail stories, and how they fit into European history. This was part of my background reading for Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark and Last Call.


The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief
By Richard Barber
Harvard University Press, 2004
463 Pages, US$17.61
ISBN 0-674-01390-5

 

At the climax of the French prose romance, The Quest of the Holy Grail, Sir Galahad looks into the dish that was the object of the long and perilous search by himself and his companions, Sir Perceval and Sir Bors. This is his report:

“For now I see openly what tongue cannot describe nor heart conceive. Here I see the beginning of great daring and the prime cause of prowess; here I see the marvel of all other marvels.”

That is as good a description of the Grail as we have. This survey of the subject defends the sensible thesis that the original Grail stories, which were written between 1180 and 1250, were closely connected with the development of Eucharistic adoration and of the concept of the Beatific Vision. The audience for these stories was a class of increasingly sophisticated knights, who wanted a transcendent ground for their careers of adventuring and their ethic of duty and loyalty. Now that's simple enough, isn't it?

The great merit of this excellent study is that its author, Richard Barber, realizes there is no single key to understanding the Grail. He has written many academically serious accounts of medieval subjects for a general audience. In this work, he does the service of lucidly summarizing the major versions of the Grail story. We get accounts, sometimes necessarily speculative, of the Grail authors, and of the history of the texts that have come down to us. Just as important, Barber describes the revival of interest in the Grail in the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular emphasis on its new role in conspiracy theories of history.

None of this is a debunking exercise: Barber is willing to give Jungians and comparative mythographers a respectful hearing, and he at least entertains the possibility that the “secrets of the Grail,” so often alluded to in the Grail poems and romances, may have included some spiritual exercises that bordered on “white magic.” He does, however, let us know where evidence ends and speculation begins.

The chief source for all streams of Grail lore begins about 1180, with The Story of the Holy Grail by Chretien de Troyes. Little about him is known. His Story is an unfinished poem, not obviously of cosmic significance. Young Sir Perceval, who had been knighted at King Arthur's court, comes a across a mysterious castle. There resides a wounded lord. He invites Perceval to a feast, during which a procession occurs. It includes a lance, which drips blood, and a beautiful dish. (“Grail,” “graal,” “greal”: they are all variations on the word used for “dish” here: it is not a new coinage.) These objects are borne through the hall and into another chamber. Perceval had been taught not to ask questions, so he does not ask, “Whom does the Grail serve?” Had he done so, the lord would have been healed, and order would have been restored to that land. As it was, he awoke to a deserted castle. Then he began a career of aggression and cruelty, in the course of which he forgets about God. At the end of the poem, he meets a hermit, who turns out to be his uncle. The hermit explains that the wounded lord (the Fisher King) is yet another uncle. The Grail, which the hermit describes as “such a holy thing,” carries a consecrated host to the Fisher King's father, on which the old man subsists. Perceval repents. He promises to find the Grail castle again and ask the question. Meanwhile, the hermit teaches him a regimen of penitence, including some secret names of Christ that are not disclosed to the reader.

Bits of this tale might be traced, but not the ensemble: the basic Grail story is as original as Tolkien's Ring story. It is barely conceivable that the motif of the clueless young knight comes from Wales. It is also possible that the Grail is a refined version of the Welsh “cauldron of plenty.” However, there is no obvious way that those elements could have come to Chretien's notice, and it is not clear how our understanding of the story would be enhanced if they had.

As it stands, Chretien's account is little different from the sorts of adventures that fictional knights routinely experienced. What we do know is that Chretien's hints and omissions provided hooks for new story elements that snapped into place with lightening speed. New versions of the story said the Grail was not just present at the feast in the Grail castle, but magically provided the food. The Grail's ability to cure the Fisher king expands to the ability to cure all maladies, and eventually to confer immortality on those who remained in its presence. By the time we reach the Quest of the Grail, the chief Grail-quester is Galahad, whose spotless character and ultimate success in his endeavor is contrasted with the failure of his father, the adulterous Lancelot. The disorder of the Grail kingdom occasioned by the wounding of the king becomes the uncanny Wasteland, the suspension of the natural order while the quest is unfulfilled. In some versions, King Arthur himself becomes a Grail hero.

The Grail knights achieve their quest by finding the castle and asking the right question, thereby curing the Fisher King. Then, depending on the version in question, they may take part in a Mass using the Grail, at which Christ himself is seen to be present.

The Grail itself undergoes many modifications and improvements. The most important is that the Grail becomes associated with Joseph of Arimathea, a minor character in the New Testament. In Grail stories, he is said to have come to Britain, bringing various relics with him. Thus, the Grail becomes the dish used at the Last Supper, or the cup that Jesus used then, which is sometimes also the cup in which the blood of Jesus was collected at the Crucifixion.

That lance, by the way, becomes the Spear of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ at the Crucifixion. It, too, is sometimes the object of a quest within the larger Grail framework.

If you want to explore the Grail stories, there are two versions to start with. One is The Quest of the Holy Grail , an anonymous prose work in French from about 1220-1230 (actually part of an extended romance called The Lancelot-Grail). The other is Wolfram von Eschenbach's epic poem, Parzival, from about a decade earlier.

The Quest is the basis, more or less, of later Grail stories in French, and also of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. (Written about 1470, it was one of the first books printed in English.) King Arthur's Round Table in the French and English stories might seem like an Order of the Grail, but if so, the Order is ephemeral: the beginning of the quest is often the beginning of chaos. Their Grail is generally a plate or cup; it might appear in several such guises in the same story.

Parzival established a somewhat different Grail tradition, which we see in Richard Wagner final opera, Parsifal, the work that so infuriated Friedrich Nietzsche. In the German version, the Grail is a mysterious stone, the center of a sort of Grail utopia from which the world is secretly regulated. In Wolfram's version there is even a Grail dynasty. The connection of the Grail with a sacred bloodline has been revived sometimes, rarely to good effect. Some bad etymology helps here: “Holy Grail,” or “Sangraal,” was quickly mistaken for “sangre real,” or “royal blood.”

Some of these ideas are not self-evidently orthodox, and conceivably they came from a theological underground. I for one would suggest that Barber pays too little attention to the Grail tradition that the first bishop was Joseph of Arimathea. That would give England priority over Rome; it would certainly give Joseph's traditional seat at Glastonbury priority over Canterbury. Still, the medieval religious authorities took no official notice of the Grail stories. Several relics were identified as “the Grail,” in the sense of the cup or dish used at the Last Supper, but no one tried very hard to connect them with the Grail romances.

Interest in the Grail waned with the Middle Ages. Because of the strong Eucharistic associations of the stories, the new Protestant establishments condemned the whole Grail tradition, to the extent that they knew of it. Even in Catholic countries, though, literary taste moved on to other things. It was only in the 18th century that systematic interest in the subject revived, largely for antiquarian reasons. With the beginning of the Romantic movement, the Grail reentered popular culture. It also began to acquire an esoteric dimension that, probably, it had not had before.

Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was being reprinted by the early 19th century, and soon became a favorite source for artists. There was a revival, or a reinvention, of the rhetoric of chivalry and quest, quite often in the service of movements for social reform. The immensely influential Pre-Raphaelite Movement embraced the Grail. There was great demand for murals depicting Grail themes, for instance. In France, and especially in Germany, there were parallel developments.

There was a problem, though. The key scenes of Grail imagery were also often Catholic imagery. This was awkward in Protestant England when such works were commissioned for public places. It required tact on the part of the Anglo-Catholic artists to whom the subject most appealed. But it was also a problem in Catholic countries. People who might be attracted to the Grail material esthetically might also be alienated from the Catholic Church, whether theologically or politically. A trend began to separate the Grail from its obvious Christian context; or better, to show that the Grail was actually subversive of that context. Thus, perhaps inevitably, the Grail became part of the furniture of the occult revival.

Already in the 18th century, the suggestion had been made that the Grail knights were really Templars. The Masons had rather favored unsubstantiated theories that linked themselves to the Templars, too. One result was that, when a vast Masonic conspiracy was blamed for the French Revolution, the Grail tradition became an object of suspicion. In Metternich's Vienna, the theory was not unknown that perhaps the plot to overthrow Christianity had been operating as early as the 13th century. The people who identified the Grail with the Templars, and later the Cathars, generally regarded the identification as an indictment. However, even paranoids have enemies. By the end of the 19th century, there were people who were attracted to the Grail precisely because they thought that subverting Christianity was a really keen idea.

Of these perhaps the most flagrant was Otto Rahn, the Nazi researcher who is sometimes credited, on dubious evidence, with actually finding the Grail. What we know he did do was publish several books with titles like The Crusade against the Grail and The Courtiers of Lucifer. His argument was that the Grail legends masked Cathar doctrine. The Cathars worshipped Lucifer, understood as the liberator from the Jewish God, and the true Grail was the lost Cathar treasure.

One can see where these ideas might come from. In later German tradition, the Grail is made from a jewel that fell from Lucifer's crown, and of course Wolfram himself introduced the disturbing idea that the guardians of the Grail had been the Neutral Angels, who neither rebelled against God nor remained obedient to him. On the other hand, there is no way to connect these notions with the Cathars, much less with the Grail. There is also no reason to believe that these issues, or Rahn's researches, were especially interesting to the Nazi government. Still, they are not as idiosyncratic as one might suppose.

Much more intellectually serious was the attempt by Rene Guenon, one of the most influential of obscure 20th-century intellectuals, to incorporate the Grail into his theory of the Primordial Tradition. Tradition in this sense is the supposed orientation toward the transcendent that is shared by all the great religions. In their exoteric forms, these religions may be more or less corrupt, but Guenon suggested, along with other occultists, that the Grail stories might have been created by an esoteric Christian elite. Barber does not note this, but Guenon was always looking for means in the great religions of “initiation.” Guenon claimed to be frustrated in his search for a living initiatic tradition in Western Christianity. The vision of the Holy Grail, however defined, would have done quite nicely. Eventually, though, Guenon gave up on Christianity, and became a Muslim Sufi.

One of Guenon's disciples, Julius Evola, undertook to create, or recreate, an anti-Christian elite. Evola argued, along with Dante, that the Holy Roman Empire was a divine institution, and essentially the European expression of the primordial archetype of universal dominion. Unlike Dante, he dismissed Christianity, in both its contemporary and historical forms. Rather, Evola said the Grail represented the spirituality of the empire, and especially of a secret movement of knights and crusaders who were the true Grail knights. As a notable ideologist of fascism both during and after the Mussolini regime, he hoped to create a new Order of initiates around which the empire could form again, but this time without the Christian trappings. His success was mixed at best.

(But speaking of imperial Grail conspiracies, what about Lord Alfred Milner's Round Table Groups, so clearly derived from the Pre-Raphaelite Grail craze? But no: that way madness lies.)

The keynote poem of the 20th century was The Wasteland, a term from Grail mythology. In general, the 20th century tended to treat the Grail as an ominous symbol: Barber's survey of the literature is fascinating. The great exception he finds is the work of Charles Williams, who was a former occultist, a long-time editor at the Oxford University Press, and a friend of C.S. Lewis. He wrote several novels with Grail themes, and a major poem, Taliesin Through Logres. Barber credits Williams with doing what the medieval writers never quite managed: recasting the Arthurian material in a coherent structure around the quest, and giving the search for the Grail a universal significance. Moreover, Williams did this while returning to the idea of the Grail as the Beatific Vision, but with the added notion of the Grail as a mode under which the divine intervenes in history.

My quibbles with this book are very minor. Barber does not attempt a systematic history of the liturgy of the Eucharist, but his offhand remark that the Mass started as community morale-boosting sessions is almost certainly wrong. It might have been well to emphasize that there is more than one theology of the Real Presence, even though Aquinas's theory of Transubstantiation did become the orthodox one in the Catholic West. For that matter, it is a little misleading to define that latter doctrine as saying that the bread and wine at the time of consecration “are transformed into physically different substances.” Actually, they are transformed into different substances, but their physical “accidents” remain the same. (What's the difference? Go ask Aristotle.)

Despite the great length of this review, there is much more in this book than I have been able to cover. Anyone interested in the subject must read it.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Many Dimensions

Charles Williams

Charles Williams

Not for the first time, I feel like Charles Williams was a prototype for Tim Powers.


Many Dimensions
By Charles Williams
First Publication 1931
Reprint by William B. Eerdmans, 1993
Approx. US$10, 269 Pages
ISBN 0-8028-1221-X

 

There is a trinity of noted 20th century British authors who wrote fantasy on Christian themes. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis need no introduction, but the same is not true of Charles Williams (1886-1945). Like his more famous colleagues, he was associated with Oxford (he worked for the university press) and he was a member of the Inklings literary circle. Unlike Tolkien and Lewis, he is remembered less for his own works than for the quality of his admirers. T.S. Eliot was a friend: he wrote an admiring Introduction to Williams' posthumously published novel, All Hallows' Eve (1948). C.S. Lewis got many of the more occult ideas for his fiction from Williams. No less a person than Sheldon Vanauken, author of A Severe Mercy, advised me to read Williams for examples of the edifying use of the supernatural.

I have taken that advice, on and off, which is how I got around to this early novel. It is full of surprising insights and uncanny notions. It also illustrates why Williams has remained no more than a treasured influence.

One way to read Many Dimensions is as a cautionary tale about what would happen if the power of God were too readily to hand. Specifically, what comes to hand is a fragment of the First Matter from which the worlds were made. This Stone (which is never called the Philosopher's Stone, though that's what it is) comes from the crown of Suleiman, whither it came from the crown of Iblis, after Iblis fell from heaven. Why the Islamic names for Solomon and the fallen angel? It seems that some Sufis have had Suleiman's regalia in their keeping these many years (including a magical ring, but that's another story: perhaps the one that Tolkien wrote). The Stone, however, was obtained from a corrupt guardian by a wicked scholar, who brings it home to England for experiments. The Sufis want it back, and the less scrupulous ones are willing to use violence to do get it.

The Stone cures all diseases, and it can be multiplied at will without diminishing its powers. The interesting thing about other qualities ascribed to the Stone is that they now seem less like mysticism and more like exotic physics: String Theory, perhaps. The Stone, and all its copies, are holographic gateways to every point in time and space. The Stone's ability to transport its possessor by a mere wish is what brings it to the attention of an American airline millionaire and his mega-bitch wife, but the depiction of the Stone's temporal powers is more important to the story. Time travel in this book means going forward or backward to your own state at the chosen time. This can generate paradoxes, including loops that take you out of time forever, but at least you can't meet yourself. This is apparently what “going back in time” means in particle physics: particles simply resume a prior state. The author remarks that someone once proposed that two new universes appear every time someone makes a choice, so that every choice becomes real. I would like to know who suggested this, because it sounds very much like the “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.

A medical panacea and instant free transport would be purely good things; the problem is that good things in their pure form can be toxic. The American wants a monopoly of the Stone so his planes are not rendered obsolete. The Transport Workers Union wants the Stone suppressed, so their jobs don't become redundant. Riots break out, as mobs demand that the government heals all diseases immediately. Meanwhile, the wicked scholar who procured the Stone demonstrates just how unsatisfactory the unqualified prolongation of life can be.

Some of the purposes for which people want the stone are prosaic; some are altruistic; some are sadistic. The Stone causes chaos, not because some people want it for bad purposes, but because their individual wills shatter the original unity. This unity can be restored only by Justice, which in this story is embodied in the character of the Lord Chief Justice. The notion of “incarnation” is explicit. One of the dark sentences about the Stone is “the way to the Stone is in the Stone,” which is interpreted to mean that, in learning a subject, we become that subject. In this case, it means that jurisprudence literally makes the judge.

Again, one wonders about Williams' sources for this character. The Chief Justice is an agnostic when we first meet him, a man of “fastidious and ironical goodwill.” This, we are told, is the best that the world has to offer, short of actual holiness. He is working on a treatise about “Organic Law,” which the Chief Justice defines as the community's expression of itself at any given time. This sounds like a sophisticated misunderstanding of Oliver Wendell Holmes' treatment of the Common Law in his famous essay, “The Path of the Law.” Holmes gagged on the notion of a distinction between “real” and “positive” law, of course, but then the book is a fantasy.

The principal character is not the Chief Justice, however, but his secretary. As is apparently also the case with the protagonists in others of Williams' books, she is a young woman who is hypnotized or otherwise psychologically dominated by the forces of evil. In any case, it is her sacrificial execution of the Chief Justice's judgment that reveals why the Stone is called “The End of Desire.”

I could describe the plot, but there would be little point. The book exists to showcase metaphysical ideas and observations on people and things, some of them genuinely witty. Williams is quite capable of effective supernatural storytelling: the damnation of the wicked scholar is particularly effective. In general, though, the prose is often oddly incompetent, even about simple things. On the very first page, we are told that Suleiman's crown “was a circlet of old, tarnished, and twisted gold, in the centre of which was set a cubical stone…” It took a few paragraphs before it was clear the author meant that the stone was set in the rim. And this is the simple stuff: Williams' description of temporal paradox is a miracle of murk.

If someone were to raise a fundamental objection to Williams' novels, it would be that Williams is essentially a prophet of the supernatural, rather than of the spiritual. The magical elements in Williams' books are not to be taken altogether metaphorically. They provide a fairly thick description of a neoplatonic world in which Williams believed. Although this world is the stage for familiar Christian themes of self-sacrifice and salvation, his explanations make them too much of a piece with the operations of ghosts, amulets, and mesmerism. Williams' theosophy is in no way Gnostic. Quite the opposite, in some ways: he does not argue that the everyday world and conventional religion are deceptions, but rather the gates to a deeper reality. There is nothing wrong with that. Still, one of the attractions of Christianity is supposed to be that it frees the spirit from the merely psychic.

Copyright © 2003 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

Many Dimensions
By Charles Williams

The Long View: Inventing the Middle Ages

By Anton Graff - Originally uploaded to de.wikipedia (All user names refer to de.wikipedia):18:53, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte)18:51, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=529840

By Anton Graff - Originally uploaded to de.wikipedia (All user names refer to de.wikipedia):18:53, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte)18:51, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=529840

By Julius Schrader - http://www.britishbattles.com/frederick-the-great-wars/seven-years-war/battle-of-kolin/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757267

By Julius Schrader - http://www.britishbattles.com/frederick-the-great-wars/seven-years-war/battle-of-kolin/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757267

Looking up images for this post, I was taken with portraits of Frederick the Great. The man's gaze pierces you even at the distance of 230 years. He isn't the subject of the book in this post, but I couldn't resist!


Inventing the Middle Ages:
The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century
by Norman F. Cantor
William Morrow and Company, 1991
447 Pages, US14.00
ISBN 0-688-12302-3

 

There is an old joke in literary criticism that is really a serious question: What effect did T.S. Eliot have on Shakespeare? While a time-travel story involving Eliot and Shakespeare would not be without interest, the import of this question is really about the development of critical method. Scholars had to invent new ways of looking at poetry in order to handle Eliot and the other modernist poets. When these methods were turned on Shakespeare, they revealed what almost seems to be a new body of work. In much the same way, scholars in the 20th century can be said to have "invented" the Middle Ages, since their own age has sensitized them to see things in the material that would have meant nothing to prior centuries. By the same token, of course, the study of these scholars will tell you almost as much about the 20th century as it will about the Middle Ages.

It is interesting to read this book in the year 2000, a decade after it was finished. Norman Cantor, a noted medievalist associated with New York University at the time this book was written, is familiar with the major US and British universities. (He was born in Manitoba.) Cantor has a taste for macrohistory and cultural speculation on the grand scale, so "Inventing the Middle Ages" preserves in amber many of the concerns and unconsidered assumptions that were common among thoughtful people just after the end of the Cold War. There is declinism regarding the United States, the off-hand dismissal of historical teleology, and a certain degree of exasperation with the politicization of the academy that occurred in the 1970s and `80s. Also, something that seems increasingly shocking these days, the author is completely credulous of Freudian psychology. Still, this book should never become dated. Cantor knew many of the scholars he discusses, almost all of whom were characters, and his gossipy accounts of their lives and ways will surely remain among the primary sources for these people. Last but not least, his conviction that the Middle Ages are the future will bear repeated examination as various futures arrive.

According to Cantor, the serious study of the Middle Ages really began only around 1900. While he expresses some admiration for the Romantic engagement of the Middle Ages found in the novels of Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, and even in the somewhat imaginative history of Jules Michelet, he says that it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that enough archival research and textual analysis had been done to make serious study possible. This is a bit odd, because certainly there were numerous people in the last half of the 19th century who were working in archives and writing lengthy studies on medieval art and law and politics. However, according to Cantor, even Henry Adams, who by his own account brought the pure Germanic gospel of the documentary method to Harvard, was not a serious medievalist; Adams' "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres" is dismissed as just a good read.

Frederic William Maitland, an English lawyer turned Cambridge don who wrote a landmark study of the origins of common-law procedure, is the first medievalist whom Cantor chooses to take seriously. (He died in 1906.) Maitland's approach was "modern." For Cantor, this means a sharp focus on the "thing in itself," on the concrete details provided to us by the records. Maitland's explanations were "self-referential," in the sense of not invoking larger principles or higher forces. Not all of the modern medievalists whom Cantor discusses were "Modern" in these ways, but they all resembled Maitland in favoring "thick," highly detailed descriptions of the medieval worlds they described. Recreating the context is the point of the exercise; explaining particular events is sometimes a secondary consideration. Histories with thick descriptions, in fact, sometimes forego narrative almost entirely.

The best known variety of historyless history is that associated with the French journal "Annales." One of its co-founders was the medievalist Marc Bloch. His martyrdom in the French Resistance during the Second World War gave both "Annales" and its materialist, soft-Marxist approach to history a degree of credibility that Cantor suggests it might not otherwise have had.

Readers interested in French academic culture will be fascinated by Cantor's somewhat jaundiced account of the French system of academic celebrity. The great French masters ("mandarins" they are called) are a lucky minority who come up through the elite schools. They become the centers of learned cults and end, if all goes well, as the founders of state-supported institutes dedicated to their greater glory. While Cantor is hardly dismissive of "Annales" and its worldwide Diaspora, he does note that this approach works best for subjects like peasant communes, Bloch's own area of study. When we do not know the names of individuals or what they did from day to day, it makes sense to focus minutely on their material and institutional circumstances. In situations where we do know quite a lot about individuals, however, and particularly when they lived in times of dramatic change, it is perverse to concentrate on the "long duration" of historical continuity. Additionally, "Annales" has had the unfortunate effect of discouraging the best historians from writing ordinary narrative history for the intelligent public, thereby leaving the field to popularizers.

Of the medievalists whom Cantor mentions, the names with the most resonance for most readers are certainly those of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Cantor is actually a bit patronizing about Tolkien as a scholar. According to Cantor, Tolkien, whose subject was Anglo-Saxon literature, was considered a burn-out case by the 1930s. He even says that there was some sentiment that Tolkien should have resigned his prestigious chair at Oxford in favor of a younger man. Oxford sentiment was rendered irrelevant by the explosive success of Tolkien's six-hundred-thousand-word work, "The Lord of the Rings." Cantor calls it a novel; Tolkien called it a "romance." Whatever it was, it disseminated a view of history and ethics and the human condition to a public that seems only to grow with time. Cantor suggests that the book is a permanent addition to the great works in English, one that will last after the more consciously propagandistic fiction of Lewis is in eclipse. On the other hand, Cantor finds little to fault in Lewis's work in medieval allegory and Renaissance literature.

Cantor suggests that Tolkien and Lewis are to be credited with making the spirit of the Middle Ages accessible to the general public, but here he is surely wrong. Tolkien and Lewis did popularize many of the themes and images that are found in medieval literature. They also conveyed something of the little epiphanies that the medieval mind found in particular things and people and places. Still, all this was put to the service of 20th century themes by 20th century minds. No medieval epic, and indeed no epic of which I am aware, conveys the sense of the world in motion that the "Lord of the Rings" does. The work is more like "The Winds of War" than "Le Morte d'Arthur." Though Lewis hated psychology (almost as much as I do), nonetheless his characters have an interiority that was not a prominent feature of medieval literature. The 20th century saw grace operating from an angle other than the one understood by the 13th.

Cantor comes close to hitting the nail on the head when he remarks that there is something apocalyptic about Tolkien and Lewis. Reading them, he says, one almost gets the impression that they would have liked to join with other wild people and take over the world to protect it from the Shadow. The remarkable thing about "Inventing the Middle Ages," at least to me, is the number of medievalists it discusses who had explicit thoughts along just those lines.

Take, for instance, the Weimar-era scholars whom Cantor calls "the Nazi Twins," Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz. The appellation is not entirely fair. It is true that they were both right-wing. Schramm spent much of the war as a historian attached to the General Staff; for a while, he was daily in Hitler's presence. Kantorowicz was a friend of Goering, and took care to have a swastika placed on the cover of the book that made his reputation. Still, Schramm was not a party member. His friend Kantorowicz was not eligible: he was a Jew who emigrated, to the United States, quite late in the 1930s. What ties them to the Nazi Party is the historical and even mystical support they gave to the doctrine of the "leader principle."

They did this through biographies that became wildly popular in the 1920s. Schramm's book covered Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1000. He hoped to inaugurate the renovation of the world, aided by his ecclesiastical sidekick and reputed magician, Pope Sylvester II. Kantorowicz's subject was the even more uncanny 13th-century emperor, Frederick II, who was called Emperor of the Last Days by his friends and Antichrist by his enemies. Both Schramm and Kantorowicz hoped to aid the recovery of Germany from defeat in the First World War by reacquainting its people with the full depth and force of the ancient idea of kingship, thus preparing the way for a charismatic leader. Their work probably was not without effect. As Cantor remarks, you don't always get the messiah you asked for.

Less dramatic use of the Middle Ages was made by many scholars who nonetheless felt that the period was urgently relevant to modern times. Among the scholars of the "formalist" school, probably the best known is another German, Ernst Robert Curtius, whose book "European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages" still shows up on reading lists. The point of "formalism," as the name suggests, is to identify and describe the forms and typical ideas that run through medieval literature, indeed through all Western literature back to antiquity. The formalists, as Cantor describes them, seek to disclose and preserve an essential tradition in Western culture, one that can survive the tumults of modernity. As a practical matter, formalism is more than just nostalgia for the past. Indeed, since it emphasizes the degree to which the past is still with us, it is actually a bit anti-historical. One formalist, Erwin Panofsky, expanded the technique of "iconography" that had been developed for medieval studies to the criticism of film. Very few medievalists, in fact, seem to have been tub-thumping reactionaries, perhaps because reactionaries rarely wish to restore a past more than a generation old.

This discussion hardly exhausts the list or even types of medievalist whom Cantor discuses. He gives a great deal of space to his dissertation adviser from Princeton, Joseph Reese Strayer, a Wilsonian liberal who advised the CIA during the Cold War and emphasized the high level of instrumental rationalism that informed some medieval governments. There is the great proponent of neo-Thomism, Etienne Gilson, about whom Cantor seems to admire everything but his Thomism. Readers will also learn that Johan Huizinga's famous book, "The Waning of the Middle Ages," is not actually the beginning and the end of all wisdom about late medieval culture. Readers get a double helping of everything: the Middle Ages were a fascinating time, and during the last 100 years they have been studied by fascinating people.

Fascination is one thing, but is any of this relevant to the 21st century? Writing just at the end of the Cold War, Cantor suggested that it will be. Socialism may not be quite dead, he says, but its loss of prestige is probably irreparable. Capitalism is therefore being asked to underwrite hope and ethics, something that is beyond the capacity of a mere economic system. When the modern era declines from its period of inordinate greatness, then may come an age of "retromedievalism."

In Cantor's telling, retromedievalism sounds an awful lot like a more cheerful form of neoconservatism. For Cantor, the essence of the medieval heritage is two things: civil society protected by the rule of law, and a "sentimental formalism" in private life that leaves room for personal love and feeling. Something else that we may recover is medieval cheerfulness. It was the doctrine of the Incarnation that made the Middle Ages fundamentally optimistic. The good is visible, not just in heaven or in the future, but in the world around us: symbolically, we already live in the City of God. And even when the future looked dark in medieval times, the greater pessimism simply occasioned the greater optimism: Antichrist in the final analysis was just a harbinger of the Second Coming. The memory of the Middle Ages is indelible in the Western mind, Cantor tells us, and what once was can be again.

Well, certainly there was a sunny Middle Ages, the Middle Ages of the Peace of God and the Cluniac reforms. There were moments when, as St. Augustine counseled, Europe did not seem to take history altogether seriously. On the other hand, there was also the Middle Ages of Frederick II and Joachim of Fiore, when the whole West seemed to be carrying the same eschatological tune. Ten years ago it was hard to believe that such a thing could happen again. Those were the days of "the end of history." History looks less dead today, however, and teleology is making a comeback.

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-05-30: The People Have Spoken. The Bastards.

The EU really is a remarkable experiment. Not everything has gone well, but a lot has, and that is worth remembering.


The People Have Spoken. The Bastards.

 

We should not blame the Belgians. It is true that the proposed European Constitution begins with the phrase, "His Majesty the King of the Belgians..." It then lists all the heads of state of the signatories of the constitution-treaty, who say that, in order to advance civilization, et alia etcetera, they designate their plenipotentiaries to negotiate the treaty. The plenipotentiaries are listed, and they in turn propose the text: 1.5 mbs in my version.

This is not one of the world's great preambles. However, it follows the pattern of The Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, whose preamble simply lists the signatory states. If you want an interesting constitutional preamble, glance at The Golden Bull, the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, of which the European Union is a deliberate revival.

Reading the text of the proposed Constitution, I was surprised that I became angry. The problem is not that it is long, or that it is complicated: all those detailed appendices on economic matters are actually the most reassuring thing about it. The problem is that the text displays contempt for the reader. Prolix, flaccid, repetitious, opaque: whoever wrote this did not care whether anyone would read it. And the flaw is not just in the prose. What kind of a nitwit designs a central government with two key officials called "President"? Executive action in many of the core provisions is to be taken by "the European Council and the Council." You will have forgotten which Council is which by the time you get to them. You can go back and refresh your memory, but again, what nitwit failed to coin different names?

There is a more fundamental issue: I don't know what this document is. Consider this, the second paragraph from Article I-41: Specific provisions relating to the common security and defence policy:

The policy of the Union in accordance with this Article shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States, it shall respect the obligations of certain Member States, which see their common defence realised in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, under the North Atlantic Treaty, and be compatible with the common security and defence policy established within that framework.

That phrase, "which see their common defence," is not statutory language. It is not legal language in any sense with which I am familiar. Does it mean, "signatories of the NATO Alliance"? Maybe it means only those signatories who take their signatures seriously. Perhaps the problem is just that I was educated in another legal system, but I find the ambiguity maddening. In any case, this sort of language is a feature of the core provisions of the treaty; those addenda and protocols that cause the opponents of the treaty so much merriment are at least pretty clear. Publicity campaigns in support of the treaty have had the paradoxical effect of increasing popular opposition, maybe because they incite people to try to read it.

The European Union is a necessary institution, and I am sure that eventually its structure will be rationalized. A realistic EU would require two things:

(1) It needs a comprehensible central administration.

(2) It needs to define itself as part of the West, with a relationship toward the United States different in kind from its relationship to China or India.

Also, someone should replace Schiller's sappy lyrics in the chorale movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

* * *

Speaking of paradoxes, on Friday, May 27, I saw a broadcast of the CBS series, Numb3rs, about a mathematician who fights crime. That episode dealt with the hunt for the origin of a deadly strain of flu (two deadly strains, actually). The police nab the guilty biologist as he is entering a church. Imagine their surprise when they discover that he is not carrying more containers of flu, but candles: he intends to light one for each person killed by his experiment, which he continues to justify.

There are several oddities here. For one thing, churches where candles have not been replaced by little electric imitations have enough candles on hand for the needs of even the most diligent mass murderer. You don't even have to buy them: there is an honor system under which people who light a candle make a donation. And to wax a bit paranoid, just why did the killer have to be religious? More specifically, why was he apparently Catholic (judging by the look of the church he was entering)?

Occam's Razor counsels us to presume that the scriptwriters just needed a twist at the end of the story. The killer had to look as if he were about to infect another crowd, and a church is a reasonable place to find a crowd. As a thought experiment, though, let us consider that the facts were otherwise. Suppose that the scriptwriters were indeed trying to undermine Holy Mother Church. Indeed, let us suppose that there is a conspiracy among all scriptwriters to effect that purpose. What would the results be?

The most interesting effect might be on the scriptwriters. Consider: the people who insert these poison pills into the media would soon recognize similar instances of the denigration of Catholicism as the work of others like themselves. In fact, they would eventually interpret all criticism of the Church as the work of their own network, whether it was or not. By and by, they would bracket the truth-claim of any denigration of the Church: they write these things themselves, and they know they are rhetorical devices. Before long, they would reach a state where there was no criticism of religion they would not automatically regard with skepticism.

This is not perhaps what Clifford Geertz had in mind when he defined the Mannheim Paradox, but it is a plausible extrapolation. Only a small percentage of subversives, political and otherwise, become converts to the opposition. A remarkably large percentage do become mere cynics, however. Perhaps that is the short explanation for postmodernism.

And would the same process also occur among crypto-evangelists?

* * *

On the subject of religion, I see that the American Bible Society sponsors a museum in Manhattan, the Museum of Biblical Art, at 1865 Broadway at 61st Street. The Christian Science Monitor takes a somewhat high-concept view of the institution:

NEW YORK: To an art world deeply skeptical of religious sentiment, the paintings displayed at the Museum of Biblical Art here must seem startling. The fact that this newly opened museum exists in New York at all signifies a change in the compass that orients how art is viewed.

"We're witnessing a worldwide religious revival in response to 9/11," says Norman Girardot, a folk-art specialist and professor of religious studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Since the terrorist attacks, "We've all woken up and realized we have to take religion seriously."

One might contrast this with what the museum says about itself:

Unlike many art museums, the Museum of Biblical Art will address the history of art from a perspective--the tenets and stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition---that will be familiar to many Americans.

Not necessarily all that familiar: bible-illteracy is common in the United States, too. On the other hand, it is a good thing that this museum has not adopted cultural subversion as part of its mission statement. A policy of subversion is hard to maintain over the long haul.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-05-26: High-Powered Jobs, Then Mostly British Stuff

Work-life balance is important, particularly insofar as a lack of it contributes to lower fertility in precisely the people who should be having more kids. However, the problem is that you can't make a job with time off for raising kids equal to a job with brutal hours and a lack of interruptions. You might insist that you can pretend, but the reality of it won't change.


High-Powered Jobs, Then Mostly British Stuff

 

Matt Miller wrote a column that appeared in the New York Times earlier this week, entitled, Listen to My Wife, that tries to transcend the affirmative action debates about gender:

In a world where most people are struggling, the search for "balance" in high-powered jobs has to be counted a luxury...

Here's the deal: this isn't a "women's" problem; it's a human problem. Yet for 30 years women have tried to crack this largely on their own, and one thing is clear: if the fight isn't joined by men (like me) who want a life, too, any solutions become "women's" solutions. A broader drive to redesign work will take a union-style consciousness that makes it safe for men who secretly want balance to say so.

The argument is interesting because it reveals a blindspot far more debilitating than any gender ideology. Power, at least in this context, means the ability to do work. High-powered jobs are constituted by the productivity of their incumbents. You can, of course, give someone a corner office and a princely salary even if he does nothing all day, but such a person will not have anything like the influence of someone who makes profitable decisions when they are needed. The real power of all workers, competent or not, diminishes when people are being appointed to jobs for reasons other than merit, because the ability of the workers to affect their own fate is thereby reduced. The same would apply when jobs are artificially designed in the interests of family life. There may be good reasons for doing so, but do not delude yourself that they will be the same jobs.

* * *

For reasons which seemed sufficient at the time, I recently sought to familiarize myself with the philosophy of Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J. There is a description here of his views about epistemology: it seems to be a shotgun wedding of Kant and Aquinas, with John Newman holding the shotgun. I link to it here, however, because that article briefly mentions a mathematical puzzle I had not seen before. Look:

1/3 = 0.333...

3 X 1/3 = 3 X 0.333...

3 X 1/3 = 0.999...

1 = 0.999...

But what happens if you raise both those terms to the power of infinity? I am perplexed.

* * *

I have often mentioned, and will no doubt mention again, that my favorite C.S. Lewis novel is That Hideous Strength. The story deals in large part with the malefactions of the NICE, a very British bureaucracy called the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments. Imagine my surprise to discover that there is a real NICE, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. It even does NICE things, like advise the British government about when to cut off medical care to malingering patients. That characterization may be unfair, but what were these people thinking of when they coined the acronym?

* * *

Speaking of very British things, I have no excuse at all for having seen all the classic Doctor Who episodes. I did not see them "when I was a kid"; I was about 30, when the series aired on some of the less-well-to-do public television stations in New Jersey. (This information apparently leaked back to the scriptwriters: you may recall when Tom Baker remarks of K-9, his robot dog: "Do you like him? They are all the rage in Trenton, New Jersey.") In any case, I was surprised to learn that the series is back in business. The Doctor Who Website has all sorts of information about the Doctor's latest incarnation. Plus there are games, and you can download the Dalek cry, "exterminate!" I also see that each episode is judged by a panel of children to assess the scary bits. You would think the show was made for kids.

* * *

I am working on Chinese again, this time with special attention to the simplified characters. There are many free online study aids. I downloaded a modest-sized Java flashcard program from here. There is no audio, so you can use it at odd moments without attracting attention. Also, it is not embarrassing if you are caught goofing off.

* * *

Finally, I was pleased to see that The Weekly Standard ran a piece by Christopher Hitchens about George Galloway. The latter humiliated the US Senate subcommittee that was investigating corruption in the UN Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, and the US press seemed little inclined to explain who Galloway was. Hitchens explained why Galloway richly deserved to get a better grilling than the one he got, Hitchens also makes this observation:

In a small way--an exceedingly small way--this had the paradoxical effect of making me proud to be British. Parliament trains its sons in a hard school of debate and unscripted exchange, and so does the British Labour movement. You get your retaliation in first, you rise to a point of order, you heckle and you watch out for hecklers. The torpid majesty of a Senate proceeding does nothing to prepare you for a Galloway, who is in addition a man without embarrassment who has stayed just on the right side of many enquiries into his character and his accounting methods.

There is something to this observation, but do you really need to incur the risk of liver damage that a stint in Westminster entails to learn how to deal with a provocateur? Galloway's performance was classic open-meeting agitator: accuse the people on the podium of being criminals, make too many charges to answer, and never give a direct answer other than "no."

What Galloway did happens in public meetings everywhere in the United States at one time or another. School Board chairmen learn in short order how to deal with such people. The senators must have been school-board chairmen, or something similar, at some point on their way to the Senate. Have they forgotten how to answer a con man?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Linkfest 2017-07-07

Sixtus Dominus Boniface Christopher

Sixtus Dominus Boniface Christopher

Jacob Rees-Mogg announces baby Sixtus

Initially, I was sure this was a joke. Then I saw this on BBC.

Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God?

Yes. But he needs to be convinced.

Why a record number of university places might not be a good thing

Ed West cites Peter Turchin on the over-production of elites.

THE “EFFECT IS TOO LARGE” HEURISTIC

I probably would have called this the "obvious BS" heuristic.

Suffering in the land between black and white

The Charlie Gard case is not a straightforward one, and this is a good look at what Catholic teaching says on the matter.

No, research does not say that you produce more when working 40 hours per week

I admire the precision in thought here that distinguishes between peak output rate, and peak output over a given interval of time. Luis links to some empirical research that matches up with my own experiences: after a certain point in hours worked, no additional [or not much] output is produced. It also matches up with something Steve Sailer's father told him, that the peak output came from 52 hours of work in a week.

Average Work-week is Over, a few Thoughts on Productivity

This is an earlier post from Luis Pedro Coelho on productivity and working that was linked in the above post. This one is probably worth me blowing out into a whole blog post of my own.

Why I Write about Race and IQ

Glenn, John, and Philip K. Dick

Robert VerBruggen and pseudonymous blogger Ed Real explain why talking about race and IQ doesn't have to mean incipient fascism.