The Long View 2004-01-08: The Martian Frontier

If you needed some proof of my contention that it wasn't only right-wingers that were crazy after 9/11, here is Thomas Friedman, nobody's idea of right-wing nut, calling 9/11 the start of World War III. While not right-wing, he was a nut. There isn't anything in Salafi terrorism that is even remotely close to the impact of the First or Second World War or the Cold War. Fortunately, I think Friedman came to his senses.


The Martian Frontier

As part of its continuing mission to send Tinker Toys where only somewhat smaller Tinker Toys have gone before, NASA's website now features the mission of the rover, Spirit. It's a great site, and I would like it even more if I had high-speed Internet access, which is what it is principally designed for.

I am mesmerized by Spirit's adventures. I, too, have a list of topographical features, revealed by the first panoramic photos, that I want the little critter to go and look at more closely. On the other hand, I cannot help but reflect that I was mesmerized in 1976 by the landing of the two Viking probes, which were in some ways more capable than Spirit and whose results are still disputed. Frankly, I will not be much impressed unless Spirit finds the wreck of a Martian gunboat on the floor of that dried-up lake, if the region is a dried-up lake.

We can only hope,

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Speaking of Mars and gunboats, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has begun to favor his readers with a seven-part series about how to win the war of ideas against Islamic terrorism. In Part I, published today, he distinguishes this geopolitical contest from prior ones:

What you are witnessing is why Sept. 11 amounts to World War III, the third great totalitarian challenge to open societies in the last 100 years. As the longtime Middle East analyst Abdullah Schleiffer once put it to me: World War II was the Nazis, using the engine of Germany to try to impose the reign of the perfect race, the Aryan race. The cold war was the Marxists, using the engine of the Soviet Union to try to impose the reign of the perfect class, the working class. And 9/11 was about religious totalitarians, Islamists, using suicide bombing to try to impose the reign of the perfect faith, political Islam.......

As my friend Dov Seidman, whose company, LRN, teaches ethics to global corporations, put it: The cold war ended the way it did because at some bedrock level we and the Soviets "agreed on what is shameful." And shame, more than any laws or police, is how a village, a society or a culture expresses approval and disapproval and applies restraints.

But today, alas, there is no bedrock agreement on what is shameful, what is outside the boundary of a civilized world.

I would qualify this by suggesting that, though the Islamist vision may be universalistic, that vision does not consider the non-Islamic world as part of civilization. The West, in contrast, has detached the notion of "civilized world" from religion, and even from culture. It has come to mean something close to Teilhard's idea of the "Noosphere," the region of mind.

To put it another way: it used to be said, during the Cold War, that if the Martians attacked, the Russians and Americans would forget their differences and automatically be on the same side. I am not altogether certain that would have been true; Poul Anderson, for instance, wrote several plausible stories about extraterrestrials picking favorites in the Cold War. However, there is some reason to suppose that the West and the Soviet Block would have thought about an alien incursion in much the same terms. At least they would have understood that it was a new situation that might require a novel response. That is likely to be untrue with respect to Islamists.

If H.G. Wells's Martians had reached the Middle East, they would scarcely have noticed a Jihad against them.

* * *

Here's a bit of information on the continuing attack on the use of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

In good Biblicist fashion, the opponents of the words often point out that the US Constitution does not refer to God at all. From this, they infer, the Framers intended to establish a wholly immanent theory of legitimacy, one that in no way relied on transcendent justification. The objection to this reading is that the Declaration of Independence has that bit about men being "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," but then the Constitution was drafted over a decade later by a somewhat different group of people, so one might argue that the intent of the Founders and the Framers should not be too closely identified.

If so, the argument has problems. We should not forget that the Constitution we have today is the second United States constitution. The first, the Articles of Confederation, was drafted just a year after the Declaration of Independence, and it is even sparer with references to religion than the constitution drafted at Philadelphia in 1787. The closest it comes is in the attestation clause, which begins:

And whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union.

This is boilerplate, not theonomy, but it was written and approved by the same people who had made clear in 1776 that they considered government a divine institution. The absence of evidence need not be evidence of absence.

* * *

By the way, regarding updates to my main site, yes, I am still writing book reviews. However, I am being a bit more systematic about submitting them for publication in print journals, so I have to delay putting them online. For instance, First Things says they will publish a review I did of Paul Johnson's Art: A New History, probably in the March 2004 issue. Since they ask for exclusive use of the material for three months, I cannot put it on my site until nearly midyear.

I picked up that book while Christmas shopping, justifying the purchase to myself with the argument that I know several people who would like it as a present. Once I got it home, of course, I bent the spine while reading it and smudged a few pages, so it was no longer in mint condition. Well, I obviously couldn't give that copy as a present, could I?

A surprisingly large fraction of my library has accumulated through just this specious reasoning. So have all my lamps.

* * *

What I find most interesting about the reaction to President Bush's new immigration policy is that anyone in the labor establishment objected at all. On the AFL-CIO site we read:

The proposed changes in the nation’s immigration laws President George W. Bush announced Jan. 6 are "a hollow promise for hardworking, undocumented workers, people seeking to immigrate to the U.S. and U.S. workers alike," says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. The plan "creates a permanent underclass of workers who are unable to fully participate in democracy."

The objection, at least nominally, is not the traditional one that immigration depresses wages. Rather, as my former state senator used to say about the death penalty in New Jersey, the proposal does not go far enough:

While the Bush plan would give some legal status to undocumented immigrants, it does not provide undocumented workers an opportunity to earn citizenship, SEIU Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina says.

Traditionally, labor unions were leery of immigration, because of the well-founded belief that it depressed wages. Now, of course, the same unions that vociferate against competition from foreign workers abroad are eager to bring the same workers to the US. This is sad, really. US labor unions gave up on native-born workers sometime ago. Now the unions believe that importing prospective members is their only chance of survival.

* * *

History suggests that everyone involved in the immigration debate will be proven to have been gravely wrong about the future, by the way. Here's a story to think about from Germany. It seems that people living in the economically depressed eastern region of the country have begun to find work in Poland. That country is less developed than Germany, but it is more friendly to low wage, labor-intensive jobs.

Just after the end of the Cold War, the Germans nicknamed the Elbe River "the Rio Grande," because so many illegal immigrants were crossing it. Now the situation has reversed. But that could never happen in the American Southwest.

Could it? 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly 

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Art: A New History
By Paul Johnson