The Long View 2003-09-11: There is Progress

In my re-posting of John Reilly's book review of Robin Wright's Nonzero, I criticized Wright's terminology when talking about causation. If Wright combined his high level final causes with something like the article in Evolution linked below, I would have been happy. It is not that there is nothing to Wright's ideas, it is that you need to understand the details to get it right. 

There is Progress


Perhaps the most interesting take on the significance of 911 on this second anniversary came from Robert Wright. In an Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times, entitled Two Years Later, a Thousand Years Ago, he points out that 911 and subsequent events are entirely consistent with the model of history that he advanced in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny in the year 2000. In that book, he argued that cooperative behavior has a Darwinian advantage, in the broad sense that mutually advantageous relationships will generally last longer than winner-take-all ones.

Though the general trend in history, Wright cautions, is toward larger networks of trade and governance, this trend is necessarily punctuated by crashes. This is because any given network provides opportunities for cheating and looting. That is what happened when the barbarians used the Roman roads to overrun civilization. It is also what happened on 911, when aircraft designed as instruments of global commerce were turned into cruise missiles. However, these crashes are also the occasions of progress. The old networks are eventually improved or replaced by new ones, which are larger and more resilient.

There is more to history than this, of course. Even in the case of the Roman Empire, the collapse had as much to do with the hollowing out of the body politic as with the invasions. Still, there is little I would add to Wright's piece today.

There are, however, some things I would subtract. While not unreservedly critical of the US response to 911, Wright does say this:

"Still, only if we see the growing power of grassroots sentiment will we give due attention to the subject that hawks so disdain: 'root causes.' With hatred becoming Public Emeny No. 1, a successful war on terrorism demands an understanding of how so much of the world has come to dislike America. When people who are born with the same human nature as you and I grow up to commit suicide bombings -- or applaud them -- there must be a reason. And it's at least conceivable that their fanaticism is needlessly encouraged by American policy and rhetoric."

That's perfectly true, and the root cause is suggested by Wright's own theory. Globalization created immense opportunities for plunder, at just the time when US policy and rhetoric showed that the US would retreat when challenged. US rhetoric got softer and softer through the 1990s, as the terrorist attacks got bigger and bigger. There is a lesson here.

* * *

I stayed up way past my bedtime on Monday night to watch Ric Burns' three-hour documentary about the World Trade Center, The Center of the World. This was actually an addendum to his series on the history of New York City: New York: A Documentary Film, which antedates 911. The series has its merits, though it's much too long, maybe because it was grasping for closure and not never quite finding it. The series wanted to end in the 1970s, when whole neighborhoods were burned down or abandoned, and municipal finances collapsed. However, the filmmakers could not quite hide the fact the city survived to the 21st century, and underwent a spectacular revival in the 1990s. What they could do was refuse to acknowledge that the revival was largely the result of no-nonsense policing, lower taxes, and the dismantlement of the welfare state. Instead, they chalked it up to "commerce" and hip-hop music.

That attitude necessitated the extra episode. In the last episode of the original series, the filmmakers could not bring themselves to actually mention the World Trade Center, which was immensely unpopular in artistic circles. Instead, when they got to the late 1960s and early '70s when the Towers were built, they just showed shots of the buildings under construction, while the narrator talked about the disastrous effects of blockbuster urban renewal. The new episode recites all the early criticism the World Trade Center, but it goes on to concede the Towers eventually worked very much as the original planners had hoped.

There was one strange omission, though. The filmmakers talked to the architects. They talked to that French guy who walked between the Towers on a highwire. They talked to the construction workers. What they did not do was talk to people who had worked in the buildings about what it was like to work there. Instead, they talked to one architect who was still cranky about the project, who said "of course everyone hated to work in the Towers." I had always heard the opposite, but maybe I speak to the wrong selection of people.

* * *

Readers will have noted that, while I am not the most partisan writer on the Web, I am a registered Republican, and I am not altogether averse to spouting the party line. Nonetheless, every so often I come across items that make me reconsider whether the Democrats are really unsalvageable. One such piece of information was the news that Congressman Ernest Istook (R-OK) has reintroduced the Balanced Budget Amendment (H.J. Res. 22). The idea seems to be that, after two years of cutting taxes and pushing military spending through the roof, the way to reduce next year's half-billion-dollar deficit will be for Congress to approve a constitutional amendment telling it to do so.

This was crooked when it was part of the Republican platform in the 1990s, and it's crooked today. The proposed amendment served to allow politicians to put themselves on record as favoring fiscal responsibility while absolving them of the need to actually do anything about it. There are good reasons for running big deficits now, and keeping the Democrats out of the White House may be necessary for national security. However, if the Republican Party adopts this bit of nonsense again, we will know that it is a decadent organization.

* * *

The enemy is not decadent, whatever their other failings. A sample of them recently assembled at Assisi to plot against civilization. Old-style Marxists, new style anarchists, and equally new-style Islamists: surely this was an attempt to constitute the transnational multitude that Hardt and Negri talked about in Empire? Even the meeting at Assisi is significant, since Negri has used the Franciscan Order as a metaphor for the new forms of post-political direct-action he hopes to see arise.

It has frequently been argued that the Terror War differs from the Cold War in that the new enemy could have no support in the West, except perhaps in Muslim communities. Guess again.

* * *

Speaking of movements that could damn a world, I see that some new work has been done on the development of the Greenhouse atmosphere on Venus. According to David Greenspoon of the Southwest Research Institute at Boulder, Colorado, Venus may have had habitable surface temperatures for at least 2 billion years, far longer than has usually been thought. This could actually explain why the surface of the planet is relatively new. In this scenario, the drying up of the oceans halted plate tectonics, which deprived the planet of its chief way of venting heat. The result was that vulcanism erupted suddenly and catastrophically about 700 million years ago, creating the surface we see today.

I might note that, though this would have given Venus more than enough time to develop life, it would not have been very interesting life, if the pace of development on the contemporary Earth is any guide. In any case, where was the famous Gaia Effect when the planet needed it? Or did the biosphere decamp to the stratosphere, where it now creates those hydrochloric-acid anomalies that trouble some planetologists?

Some days, I find the thought of flocks of huge acid-breathing airborne stingrays oddly comforting.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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