LinkFest 2016-06-24

The War on Stupid People

This has been clear [to me] for a very long time: most Americans confuse intelligence, a biological fact like height, with human importance. This is why being called stupid is an insult, and part of the reason why IQ research is so contentious.

Barry Latzer on Why Crime Rises and Falls

Time series analysis is really tricky, and this is a good article on crime that gets into why. 

Did Japan actually lose any decades?

Short answer: no. Eamonn Fingleton sometimes comes across as a crank, so I appreciate finding others who corroborate his views. Japan's economy is doing exactly what you would expect from a First World country with a static population. However, a lot of models at present assume a continuously growing population, so you get a mismatch between modeled expectations and reality.

Paul Allen's space company nears debut of world's biggest plane

I'm glad Internet billionaires put their money where their mouth is. I assume most of them take the common complaint, "where's my flying car?", and do something about it.

Hacker's Toolbox: The Handheld Screwdriver

When I was a locksmith in college, we all used the 4-in-1 combination screw driver much like the one shown here.

There are now more bureaucrats with guns than there are US Marines

Once I considered working for the fraud investigative division of HHS. These are the "bureaucrats with guns", really more like FBI Special Agents who only work on certain crimes. I do have a bit of misgiving about the trend of each Federal agency feeling the need to train and equip their agents like SWAT teams, and about the militarization of the police in general. However, this is precisely the appeal of these forces as jobs; they are relatively safe, quite well-paid, and you get good equipment and training. A dream job, for a cop.

The Middle Class is Shrinking Because Many People Are Getting Richer

The decline of the middle is actually the rise of the upper middle class. 

The Long View 2004-03-26: Other Paths to Power

When it comes to energy, I am as interested as the next guy in new technologies, but I have boundless skepticism, nay cynicism, about them all. As it turns out, the oil market predictions John copied here from the National Interest seemed pretty plausible for most of the last 15 years, and then fracking finally dropped the bottom out of the market. However, it sure didn't look that way for a long time.

Other Paths to Power

Once again, I want to thank those readers who are buying books through this site. I maintain the blog, and the rest of the site, in large part for the intelligent feedback. Nonetheless, the commission fees from Amazon are also good evidence that someone is listening.

* * *

Speaking of gratuities, The National Interest recently sent its readers a "Special Energy Supplement." The National Interest are the folks who gave us Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, which many people disagreed with, but which no one concerned with foreign affairs escaped talking about. It could quickly be the same with the issues raised by the four articles in this supplementary pamphlet. There are three points you should keep in mind:

(1) For the first time, the demand for oil soon really will exceed supply;

(2) The chief sources of new oil that we know about are in Russia;

(3) The chief market for new oil, and the reason for point (1), is the explosive economic growth of China.

The rise of the Chinese economy means that the US and associated developed countries will lose leverage over the suppliers. The US and Saudi Arabia, for instance, traditionally had each other over a barrel. The US and Europe needed the Kingdom as a supplier, but then the Saudis needed the US and Europe as customers. The same has been true of Russia since the mid-1980s: the supplier-consumer relationship ensured a measure of cooperation on all issues. However, China (and soon India) are enormous alternative consumers. This will give the suppliers much more room to maneuver on other issues.

* * *

Perhaps you think that fossil fuels are just too tacky for words. Well, somewhat to my surprise, I recently had occasion to link to a legitimate story about cold fusion. At the time, I did not know the half of the continuing research in this area. Now The New York Times reports that the US Department of Energy is giving the question a second look:

Despite being pushed to the fringes of physics, cold fusion has continued to be worked on by a small group of scientists, and they say their figures unambiguously verify the original report, that energy can be generated simply by running an electrical current through a jar of water.

Last fall, cold fusion scientists asked the Energy Department to take a second look at the process, and last week, the department agreed...

Some cold fusion scientists now say they can produce as much as two to three times more energy than in the electric current. The results are also more reproducible, they say. They add that they have definitely seen fusion byproducts, particularly helium in quantities proportional to the heat generated.

Things have reached the point where there is even a language issue. Some people prefer the term "low-energy fusion," since these table-top reactions are not really cold. If you ask me, though, "cold fusion" should be used if we can get away with it. Cold fusion sounds like it has something to do with wrap-around sunglasses. Low-energy fusion smacks of malingering.

The place to start if you want to familiarize yourself with all this is Infinite Energy magazine. I would be more reassured, however, if the top page on that site did not also mention anti-gravity.

* * *

There is an old theory on the reactionary right (the real reactionary right, not to be confused with conservatives or libertarians). It holds that liberal democracies are doomed, because, in international affairs, they necessarily lacked the persistence and focus of autocracies. Sometimes, when I listen to John Kerry or Howard Dean, I start to think this too, but it's nonsense: the historical record is clear that liberal societies beat every other kind of society hollow. A clue to why this should be may be found in Peggy Noonan's March 25 column on the recent 911 hearings:

One summer day in the late 1990s I had a long talk with an elected official who was a friend and longtime political supporter of President Clinton. I asked him why, if Bill Clinton cared so much about his legacy, he didn't take steps to make America safer from terrorism. Why didn't he make it one of his big issues? We were at lunch in a New York restaurant, and I gestured toward the tables of happy people drinking golden-colored wine in gleaming glasses. They're all going to get sick when we get nuked, I said; they'd honor your guy for having warned and prepared. Yes, the official said, but you have to understand that Clinton is purely a poll driven politician, and if the numbers aren't there he won't move.

Too bad, I thought, because the numbers will someday be there.

The strength of democracy is that sometimes the numbers are there. That is more than even the most fearsome totalitarian state can say. The Soviet Union collapsed because its rulers never really thought of themselves as legitimate, and so never dared asked their people for anything more than submission. Nazi Germany lost the Second World War because the leadership feared to risk unpopularity by putting the economy on a war footing. Britain, in contrast, was the most thoroughly mobilized of all the combatants; even more so than Stalin's USSR. The very qualities that enabled Britain to do that, however, also made it possible for the country to entertain the self-delusion and evasion that prevailed in the 1930s. Sometimes, what looks like a fatal weakness is really a latent strength.

* * *

Through the miracle of quantum tunneling, I have obtained the following excerpt from a parallel-universe edition of The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, March 24--President Bush's former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, testified on Wednesday to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that the Bush administration systematically discounted long-standing evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda in order to pursue a fast, politically popular war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. "It was a case of the drunk looking for his lost wallet under the street lamp," Mr. Clarke told the commission. "The drunk has no reason to believe what he seeks is there. He looks there because that's the only place he can see."

The accusations come in the wake of Monday's suicide bombing against the US Air Force base at Al Hila, Saudi Arabia, in which the bomber and 20 Air Force personnel were killed. The number of deaths of US military personnel from terrorist acts in the Middle East since the invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 have now reached 150.

Mr. Clarke's dramatic testimony overshadowed the earlier appearance of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, who emphasized the continuity of the Clinton and Bush administrations' policy. "Both the presidents I have served recognize the greatest danger threatening the American homeland today to be the confluence of the development of weapons of mass destruction by hostile states and the existence of terrorist groups willing to deliver them," Mr. Tenet remarked. "However, we can do only so much at once."

Mr. Tenet could not confirm reports that Iran and Libya had secretly developed a nuclear capability, but rejected the assertion that those countries' nuclear programs might have been encouraged by the failure of the US to take decisive action against Iraq.

The hearings are being held in at atmosphere dominated by Democratic complaints that the Bush administration has taken the path of least resistence against the terrorist threat. Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry told the annual meeting of the National Psycho-Social Service Workers Union yesterday, "When I am president, you can be sure, I will not allow dangers to gather until they pose an imminent threat."

At the hearings, Mr. Clarke had this to say about whether the Bush team had enough new information about Iraq after the September 11 attacks to justify an attempt to remove the government by force:

"We haven't known what has been happening in Iraq since the UN inspectors left in 1998. All we know for sure is that it's worse."   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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LinkFest 2016-06-18

The All-American iPhone

The amount of money you save by going overseas is smaller than you might think. More than enough to make it worth it, but small enough that different circumstances could alter the pattern of trade.

Zootopia review

This is pretty much the review I wanted to write. On the surface, Zootopia seems like a straightforward diversity-related morality tale, but this movie has many more levels than that.

The Mercenary book review

A nice review of one of Jerry Pournelle's older books. My review of the omnibus edition containing this work is here.

Terrorism is not Hate

You know something is up when Jerry Coyne, noted atheist, and R. R. Reno, editor of a prominent religious magazine, are making the same argument.

Mongolian Post Office adopts what3words as national addressing system

This seems clever, I hope it works out.

Britain will never have a Mediterranean drinking culture

Ed West points out that the English, as well as other northern Europeans, like to go on benders when they drink, and this is likely related to alcohol laws. Compare with this

Secrets and lies: Faked data and lack of transparency plague global drug manufacturing

Some parts of the global supply chain for pharmaceuticals are murky and suspicious.

Bill Gates: The Rolling Stone Interview

This is a couple of years old, but a fascinating look at Bill Gates. I didn't know his family attended a Catholic Church, but I find the careful phrasing of his participation very intriguing.

The Long View 2004-03-23: Clarke; Pledge; Theocracy

Richard A. Clarke has long fallen off the national public radar, or at least mine. In retrospect, it seems he may have had a point about the Iraq War, but no one now is interested in keeping score about that, except perhaps me.

Then Senator Joe Biden also gets bonus points for making sense in 2004. John, regrettably, thought the spectacular 9/11 attacks meant terrorists would just keep getting better and better. In 2016, it looks like that was a mistake. 9/11 was the high point of al-Qaeda's operations, and everything since has been far more limited in scope.

To be fair, al-Qaeda has probably been trying to mastermind more 9/11s, but in reality they just got lucky. Better intelligence and better security are probably why terrorists now bomb and shoot civilians in businesses and public places; those are easier targets at this point. We are fortunate only so far as our enemies lack the capacity to pursue this more vigorously. We are protected not only by rough men ready in the night, but by the incompetence of those who mean us harm.

Persons more low-minded than I have begun to cast aspersions on the motives and consistency of Richard A. Clarke, the Clinton-era White House anti-terror advisor who was retained by the Bush II Administration, and who has now published a tell-all book, Against All Enemies. The effective launch for the book was a long report that aired on CBS's 60 Minutes on March 21. I did not see that show, but Drudge reports that there was no mention that CBS's parent, Viacom, also owns Simon & Shuster, which owns the book's publisher, The Free Press.

I am not particularly impressed by such a link. Media conglomerates rarely have common editorial policies. More damaging to Clarke, if it turns out to be true, is the report that the US government thought there was a WMD terrorist link between Al Qaeda and Iraq because Clarke said so. This was in connection with the Clinton Administration's cruise missile attack in 1998 against the factory at El Shifa in the Sudan. His opinion on the matter is supposed to have appeared in the press: "Embassy Attacks Thwarted, U.S. Says; Official Cites Gains Against Bin Laden; Clinton Seeks $10 Billion to Fight Terrorism," Vernon Loeb, Washington Post, A02, January 23, 1999. If that story says what summaries of it say, then Clarke's surprise that the Bush Administration would immediately suspect an Iraqi link to 911 becomes mysterious.

Something I did see for myself was Clarke's appearance last night on PBS's News Hour. When asked whether the publication of his book was timed to affect the presidential election, he said that publication had been delayed by three months, because the White House held the manuscript for review that long. If that's true, then the book was supposed to appear at the beginning of the year, which would have been an even better time to influence the election, because that was the beginning of primary season.

More substantively, he complains that the Bush Administration did not follow the Clinton Administration's practice of holding frequent meetings of the heads of the principal agencies concerned with national security. Considering the scale of successful terrorist attacks, foreign and domestic, that the US suffered during the Clinton Administration, it's not obvious why that Administration's procedures should be taken as a model. (The Clinton people notoriously held meetings all day long about everything.) Nonetheless, Clarke attributes the foiling of the Millennium bomb plot directly to a regimen of really full meeting schedules.

A White House flack appeared on The New Hour immediately after Clarke said these things. The flack asserted that the bomb plot was discovered by a conscientious customs agent on the Canadian border, before there was a state of heightened alert. Again, damaging if true. 

 The fact that the Clarke book is a transparent election-year ploy should not distract us from the fact that there is a real policy dispute at issue. The usually responsible Senator Joe Biden (D. Del.) put it like this:

"I am much more concerned about the safety of my granddaughter in school here in Washington because of Al Qaeda than I am with 10 Saddam Husseins," Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said on ABC. "And we took our eye off the ball because of a preoccupation with Iraq."

There are two things wrong with this. The first is that the resources of the terror networks are limited; Iraq as great a distraction for them as it is for the United States. The other is that terrorism is about to change its nature. The fact is that traditional terrorism was tolerable. The US, frankly, could have suffered the loss of the World Trade Center. If attacks of that magnitude were all that was at stake, then the US could have simply strengthened ordinary law enforcement and endured any attacks that slipped through the net in the future. Future successful attacks, however, could mean the loss of whole cities. The key to preventing that is to prevent the establishment of sovereign-host suppliers of WMDs. If anything, playing cops-and-robbers with Al Qaeda is the distraction. Maybe that's what the Islamists intended all along.

* * *

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will add a bit more spice to the electoral season by hearing arguments in the Newdow case, the one about whether the words "one nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional, at least when used in the public schools.

As I have remarked previously, the inclusion of those words in the Pledge was a bit of bad drafting. The passage sounds like it says, "one nation, under God's protection." In fact, when Abraham Lincoln or George Washington used that phrase, they meant "God willing," or "with the understanding that God is more important." An example of the latter use might be, "I love my country, under God." Far from theocratizing the citizen's loyalty to the United States, the phrase in the Pledge might be taken as a reminder that citizenship is not the ultimate loyalty. However, man or boy, I have never heard the Pledge so interpreted.

* * *

Those of you who are really keen for a theocracy will be interested in this passage by my favorite New Ager, William Irwin Thompson, from his essay, From Nation to Emanation (1982):

[R]edemption through the part of our political heritage as far back as the Old Testament. When Saul inflates, and the war lord tries to become a king and kill the servant of the Lord, Samuel, then Samuel goes to the lowest of the tribes, the tribe of Benjamin, and anoints David. The humble shepherd becomes the future king. When society is not attuned to divinity, then divinity works outside society. Moses was an outlaw.

For centuries in America we have been accustomed to the pattern that Empire is evil and that virtue resides with the humble, the primitive, the outlaw. Through the principle of redemption through the primitive, we have tried to redeem all decaying theocracies. But that is only half the truth. Moral tribe against decadent Empire is one profound truth, but another profound truth is the act of creation of a new sacred civilisation, when in the words of the ancient Sumerians, 'Kingship descends from heaven.' For the last two hundred years we have become habituated to the pattern of fighting against Empire, but now as we enter a new age we may be called upon to work at the other end of history, to create a civilisation suffused with divinity. Will it become simply another decadent empire, following the familiar Weberian pattern of the routinisation of charisma? Of course it will...

Readers may amuse themselves by ascertaining just how garbled that first paragraph is (a reader emailed me to point out that the tribal affiliations of David and Saul are switched, for instance). Still, I find myself meditating on this passage when I think about Frank Herbert's Dune, or I hear that Mel Gibson is considering making a film about the Maccabees. The model of history it implies is structurally similar to the one in Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics, but the sentiment is the polar opposite. Kaplan says that world order is possible only if we prescind from religious questions. Thompson says that order is a religious question.

Another difference is that Thompson, at the time he wrote this, thought that the way to the holy empire was through the strengthening of international institutions. Kaplan, of course, thinks the UN is a Kantian chaos-machine, and that the power of the United States is the predicate for a livable world. For a slightly different take on the matter, you might consider this assessment from Cutting Edge Ministries:

AMERICA DETERMINES THE REAL FLOW OF HISTORY The major focus of [this] study is the reality that the Illuminati created the United States as a New Atlantis, an occult nation that would lead the rest of the world into the New World Order, defined as the Kingdom of the Christ [Biblical Antichrist]. The United States was planned to secretly work behind the scenes for about two centuries to quietly and surreptitiously guide unfolding history in such a way that the world would gradually coalesce into the One World Government, Economy, and Religion of the New Age Christ...

Symbolically, our Masonic Founding Fathers intended to communicate that part of the New World Order Plan which stipulates that, at the right moment in our history, the America that has faithfully led the rest of the world for so long into the new global system of Antichrist, will suddenly burst into flames and be totally consumed by fire. However, out of the ashes of the old America will rise the new global system of Antichrist. We cover how we think this scenario will play out, and will fulfill the Biblical prophecies of Daniel 2 and 7, and Revelation 18.

Probably no one will submit any of this analysis to the Supreme Court. It would just make them nervous and unhappy. 

* * *

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View 2004-03-18: Terror-War Spin; Good Faith & Credit

In retrospect, al-Qaeda's [only] accomplishment was convincing us they mattered.

Terror-War Spin; Good Faith & Credit

Since we are coming up on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, many attempts are being made to convince the public that the war has been lost or won, that it has achieved essential objectives or that it was a doomed enterprise from the first. The worst of these efforts are coming from Al Qaeda: Islamofascists like anniversaries almost as much as National Public Radio does, but commemorate them with carnage rather than retrospectives.

Scary enough in its own way was an Op Ed by Ian Buruma that appeared in the New York Times on March 17, entitled: Killing Iraq With Kindness. It is evidence, if any more were needed, of the foreign policy establishment's refusal to understand what the war is about:

One year later, most of the stated reasons for invading Iraq have been discredited. But advocates of the war still have one compelling argument: our troops are not there to impose American values or even Western values, but "universal" ones. The underlying assumption is that the United States itself represents these universal values, and that freedom to pursue happiness, to elect our own leaders and to trade in open markets, should be shared by all, regardless of creed, history, race or culture.

Some might question whether America is as shining an example of these good things as is often claimed. Nonetheless, spreading them around is certainly a more appealing policy than propping up "our" dictators in the name of realpolitik. Still, history shows that the forceful imposition of even decent ideas in the claim of universalism tends to backfire: creating not converts but enemies who will do anything to defend their blood and soil.

The reason for the Terror War is that there a is network of Islamist terrorist organizations and sovereign hosts that plans to stage mass-effect attacks against civilian populations in the West. The Iraq campaign in the Terror War was launched because Iraq, the only part of the network that international institutions had tried to contain, was still not in compliance with the disarmament regime, even after ten years. The mere fact that Iraq might have WMDs would not have justified an invasion. The irresponsible nature of the regime, and its hostility to the US and its allies, made even the possibility that Iraq had such weapons intolerable. This possibility had always been intolerable; after 911, it was obviously so.

The chief discovery of the war was not that the Iraqi regime had apparently mothballed its WMD programs: the fact that regime had decided to wait until sanctions were lifted did not make the war less necessary. The big surprise was the rottenness of the international security system. Important persons associated with the French and Russian presidents were on the take from Iraqi oil contracts; the same seems to be true of the family of the Secretary General of the UN, the organization that was administering the contracts. France and Germany are still reluctant to remonstrate with Iran, much less sanction it, despite the fact it has clearly flouted the non-proliferation system.

No doubt it is true that the invasion of Iraq was a blow to Iraqi national pride. However, the armed opposition to the occupation comes from a minority of the Sunni minority, which is irate at losing its privileged status with the downfall of the regime. The actual attacks seem to be coordinated with Al Qaeda foreigners. To describe this campaign as a national liberation movement is a wilful misreading of the situation.

The transformation of sovereign hosts of terrorism is not a question of indolent goodwill: "certainly a more appealing policy than propping up 'our' dictators." People like Ian Buruma have to take on board the fact that very ruthless people are trying to kill them. If the transformation of places like Iraq fails, for whatever reason, then those ruthless people are quite likely to succeed.

* * *

The situation in the Terror War is by no means desperate. However, you might be forgiven for thinking so. This editorial from the March 15 issue of The Weekly Standard suggests why:

A senior White House official spoke privately the other day about dramatic progress in the Middle East. Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds have broken an impasse and are on the verge of a historic compromise on a new Iraqi constitution. It mandates a pluralistic, democratic Iraq when the United States hands over sovereignty on June 30. Meanwhile, as a consequence of American intervention in Iraq, reformers have been strengthened in other countries throughout the region. In Pakistan and elsewhere, official support for Islamic radicalism - and official tolerance for terrorism - are on the wane. Israel is going to withdraw from settlements for the first time in a generation - and the threat of terror there, too, seems much reduced. There are even signs that the Europeans may actually help in efforts to reform the Middle East.

The White House official also had a lament: How come these breakthroughs have gotten so little serious attention?...The truth is, the White House isn't trying very hard.

The Administration's policy in the Terror War is both coherent and reasonably successful (perhaps because, if you believe The Onion, it has been devised by an evil genius). The problem is that the policy is on a fairly high order of abstraction, but the Bush Dynasty's campaign machine runs on soundbites.

In set speeches, when he is arguing for policy, George Bush has done a good job of connecting the dots in public. Now that the campaign is on, however, the White House is back to his father's "Flag Factory" campaign of 1988. It's as if campaign rhetoric were the only kind of discourse that must not, under any circumstances, contain a thought. It's a shame, really. The dumbing down of politics that the Bushes did so much to promote may make it impossible to defend the current Bush's record.

* * *

Speaking of promoting universal values, The New York Times ran an analysis yesterday of how the Constitution's Good Faith and Credit Clause (that's the one that requires each state to recognize the legal acts of each other state) might work in a situation in which gay marriage's were possible in one state but not in another. The article is, as you might expect, a tendentious argument that a federal Marriage Amendment is unnecessary:

[U]ntil the Supreme Court struck down all laws banning interracial marriage in 1967, the nation lived with a patchwork of laws on the question. Those states that found interracial marriages offensive to their public policies were not required to recognize such marriages performed elsewhere, though sometimes they did, but as a matter of choice rather than constitutional compulsion...

There is no doubt that the Full Faith and Credit Clause applies to marriages; a marriage that is valid in one state is, almost always, valid in another. However, the federal courts carved out an exception for the "fundamental" public policies of the several states in connection with marriage. This was most important, not with regard to interracial marriages, but whether one state would recognize a divorce in another. (Divorces were once very difficult to obtain in most states.) It was easy to tell what public policy was with regard to interracial marriage and quickie divorces; the same is not true of gay marriage:

Opposition to interracial marriage in the last century was in many ways more vehement than opposition to gay marriage today. It was, for instance, a criminal offense in many states. None of the 38 states that expressly forbid gay marriage by statute today go that far.

Considering the current legal climate, it is inconceivable that many courts would find a fundamental public policy against gay marriage if they can avoid it; even a definition of marriage in heterosexual terms might not be enough. Moreover, some people have already argued that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. That's the statute that tries to preserve the exception to the Good Faith and Credit Clause that we have been discussing here. Without that exception, the recognition of gay marriage could unquestionably be coerced.

The key piece of misdirection in the Times article is this whopper:

In 1967, when the United States Supreme Court struck down all bans on interracial marriage, it acted on the most fundamental constitutional grounds, saying that the laws violated both due process and equal protection.

No one believes that the court is likely to say anything like that about gay unions anytime soon.

After last year's Lawrence v. Texas decision, this is exactly what everyone expects, and at no distant date.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-03-16: Spain & Antichrist

Gibson never did film a Jewish action movie, I for one, am disappointed.

Spain & Antichrist


Mark Steyn was excessive in titling his recent Daily Telegraph column The Spanish dishonoured their dead. Nonetheless, there is little to quarrel with in his analysis:

To be sure, there are all kinds of John Kerry-esque footnoted nuances to Sunday's [victory of the Socialists after March 11's terror bombing in Madrid]. One sympathises with those electors reported to be angry at the government's pathetic insistence, in the face of the emerging evidence, that Thursday's attack was the work of Eta, when it was obviously the jihad boys. One's sympathy, however, disappears with their decision to vote for a party committed to disengaging from the war against the jihadi. As Margaret Thatcher would have said: "This is no time to go wobbly, Manuel." But they did. And no one will remember the footnotes, the qualifications, the background - just the final score: terrorists toppled a European government.

The point to keep in mind is that what the Spanish voting public thought they were doing is irrelevant. The Jihadis made a hypothesis about how the electorate would behave. They ran an experiment involving the deaths of 200 people. The hypothesis was confirmed. The result is a tested campaign strategy that could have more effect on the US elections of 2004 than the new campaign finance law, and even George Bush's really mean ads. AP White House correspondent Terence Hunt has these early surmises on the matter:

Now, with the Socialists' surprise election victory in Spain, analysts believe the ballot box rebuke of one of President Bush's closest allies in the war in Iraq could embolden terrorists to try the same tactics in the United States to create fear and chaos.

"That's an amazing impact of a terrorist event, to change the party in power," said Jerrold Post, a former CIA profiler who directs the political psychology program at George Washington University.

"The implications of this are fairly staggering," agreed political psychologist Stanley Renshon of City University of New York. "This is the first time that a terrorist act has influenced a democratic election. This is a gigantic, loud wakeup call. There's no one they'd like to have out of office more than George W. Bush."

Would a Jihadi October Surprise work in America? Certainly the Democratic claims that the Iraq War has been a diversion from the real Terror War lays the groundwork for a March 11 response in America. The Bush Administration has probably done as much as any government could to prevent further terrorist attacks. The steps it has taken have, frankly, been more effective than I or most other Americans expected. Nonetheless, another major incident in the US would certainly be used to argue that the Administration's whole 911 policy has been irrelevant to defending America.

The argument might not have the intended effect. The US did not have a choice about being the target of the Jihad. The Jihadis themselves make the connection between Iraq and the Jihad. If the connection is close enough for Al Qaeda, then it is likely to be close enough for the US electorate. One could debate the connection analytically, but it will hold politically.

Another possibility: if a Bush victory seemed certain late in the campaign, the Jihadis might disrupt the voting to call the legitimacy of the results into question. One can imagine scenarios with biological agents that might require public gatherings to be prohibited. That is another nightmare, however.

* * *

Since Mel Gibson's film The Passion premiered, there has been a lot of speculation about follow-on projects. Here's one that had actually occurred to me, though I did not mention it to anyone but my brother-in-law:

If the rumors are true, Gibson's next move could be a stroke of genius, at once disarming Jewish critics of The Passion and providing an ideal dramatic vehicle. Both stories are the stuff of screenplays. One parallels Gibson's earlier hit, The Patriot, set during the American Revolution, and the second echoes Braveheart, the story of a medieval Scottish insurrection.

The first rumor is that the filmmaker intends to make a movie about the central characters of the holiday of Hanukkah, fighters called the Maccabees. Nearly 200 years before Jesus' birth, they rose against Israel's pagan occupiers and their Jewish allies. The rebels triumphed in a guerilla war, and the temple in Jerusalem was cleansed.

Recently, Israeli educator Yossi Katz suggested that Gibson's next film should be a dramatization of the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135. At first, the rebellion was a success, but after 3 1/2 years, its forces were crushed. Ten leading rabbis were executed, and one was tortured and flayed to death, much like the scourging of Jesus in The Passion and the execution of William Wallace in Braveheart.

Of course, not just Gibson, but all of Hollywood is talking about new projects with religious themes. The result was inevitable:

Peacock [NBC] is partnering with scribe David Seltzer ("The Omen") and producer Gavin Polone to develop a six-to-eight hour limited series focusing on the final smackdown between God and Satan as foretold in the Bible's Book of Revelations. Just as intriguing as the storyline: Assuming the project gets a final greenlight, NBC hopes to roll out the series right after its broadcast of the Athens Olympics ends in late August, airing an hour a week as an event designed to create momentum for the fall season..."What the Book of Revelation predicted is at hand," Seltzer said. "Nuclear brinkmanship, worldwide terrorism, collapsing economies and environmental atrocities make it clear that the critical mass of injury to this planet is sufficient to bring down the wrath of God and put the biblical prophecies into play. What is not written in the Bible is whether man can do anything about it. This is where our story begins."

Polone has lofty ambitions for the still untitled project, which will be overseen by Pariah TV execs Vivian Cannon and Jessika Borsiczky.

One of the leading experts on medieval millenarianism, Bernard McGinn, made this observation in Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination With Evil:

With a cast and subject matter embracing the whole world and its destiny, the [12th century] Tegernsee Play of Antichrist cries out for large-scale Hollywood production.

That play, like other medieval drama, is liturgically stylized, and in verse. A more realistic form would be a mistake, especially for a text like Revelation. Producers should not be thinking about The X-Files. They should be thinking about Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, the old progressive-rock group Genesis did a music drama on the subject, called Supper's Ready. An animated version is available here.

Why don't these people hire consultants? 

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The Long View 2004-03-12: Winds of Black Death

This post from twelve years ago reminds us that horrible things continue to happen.

Requiescat in pace.

Winds of Black Death


Debate continues about who committed yesterday's commuter-train massacre in Madrid. The most dramatic "evidence" so far is this claim:

An email to the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper said the Brigade of Abu Hafs al-Masri was responsible for the worst terrorist attack on a European city since the second world war...

"The death squad (of the Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades) succeeded in penetrating the crusader European depths and striking one of the pillars of the crusader alliance - Spain - with a painful blow," the email said.

Some physical evidence found in a van near the point of departure for the trains also indicates an Islamic connection. Although the explosives used, and the choice of a train as a target, point to Basque separatists as the culprits, the simultaneity of the attacks and the scale of the carnage are the marks of Al Qaeda. The Basque ETA does targeted assassinations; the Islamofascists stage spectacles.

The ETA and Al Qaeda hypotheses are not necessarily exclusive, as we see from this report in October of 2001:

The Basque terrorist organization ETA and bin Laden's al-Qaeda cells have joined forces. Their shared goal: to organize and carry out an attack on the EU meeting scheduled for March 2002 in Barcelona, according to two Spanish publications, Tiempo and El Mundo.

If such a link was really made, it has not been conspicuous during the Spanish government's largely successful anti-terrorist campaign against the ETA. In any case, the main piece of evidence about yesterday's bombing comes from an unreliable source. The Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades have a history of taking credit for things they clearly didn't do, such as last year's blackout in the northeastern United States. Also, the email to the London newspaper was melodramatically apt to a degree that makes it less credible:

"We bring the good news to Muslims of the world that the expected 'Winds of Black Death' strike against America is now in its final stage...90 percent (ready) and God willing near."

That sounds like an allusion to a radiological bomb. Such an attack is perfectly plausible, but I know of no particular reason why Abu Hafs would have anything to do with it. The Madrid bombing could have been done by an Al Qaeda affiliate that has yet to be publicly named.

* * *

The Times of India tried to place the incident in the context of the wider Terror War:

As four powerful bombs [actually 10 bombs on four trains] bloodied the Spanish capital Madrid killing 173, in Europe’s deadliest act of terror after the Lockerbie bombings, major European capitals have begun to wonder if 3/11 - the 11th day of the third month is meant to be the Old World’s 9/11?

The [ETA's] denial of responsibility, said ETA expert Professor Paul Heywood, was unusual. ETA has nearly always claimed responsibility in 35 years of attacks, which claimed 800 lives altogether. If ETA were proved to have pulled off the Madrid spectacular, it would be assured undreamt-of publicity.

The Basque blame for "Arabs" blew a chill wind threw European chancelleries. But, some leading British security analysts said there was a risk of terrorist groups using al-Qaeda and Islamist resistance as a fig leaf for their actions.

Whoever planted the bombs was obviously trying to influence the upcoming Spanish elections. The conventional wisdom is that, if the public believes the ETA was responsible, then the current center-right Popular Party will be favored. On the other hand:

If, however, some indications al Qaeda could have been behind the attacks gain credence, many Spaniards might point a finger at the PP for stirring Muslim wrath by backing Washington and London in Iraq.

I suppose that's possible. On the other hand, I have trouble imagining how an electorate could react to this perceived retaliation by immediately surrendering to those whom they believe to be the perpetrators. You can follow local reaction on Iberia Notes.

* * *

President Bush should be visibly focusing on the Madrid attacks. He is supposed to be conducting a world war. A special meeting of the leaders of the NATO countries might be in order; a meeting of the G8 would be even better. By the same token, his campaign should not be the least shy about invoking 911. As David Broder noted in yesterday's Washington Post, the precedents favor him:

But is it, as supporters of John Kerry and other critics suggest, wrong for Republicans to convert the emotions of [911] into grist for a political campaign?

To answer that question, I went back, with help from Washington Post researcher Brian Faler, to 1944, when Franklin D. Roosevelt, almost three years after Pearl Harbor, was running for reelection. What you learn from such an exercise is that Bush is a piker compared with FDR when it comes to wrapping himself in the mantle of commander in chief....

Item: Roosevelt delivered his acceptance speech to the convention by radio from where? From the San Diego Naval Station, because, he said, "The war waits for no elections. Decisions must be made, plans must be laid, strategy must be carried out."

There is something deeply perverse about the Democrats' attempt to put 911 off limits as a national symbol. The Republicans don't own it, but then neither do the families of the 911 victims.

* * *

It's still chilly here in New Jersey, but daffodils are beginning to spring quickly out of the soil. Maybe too quickly:

Plants need carbon dioxide in the way that animals need oxygen - but the 30% extra carbon dioxide in the last 200 years has begun to accelerate growth and change the composition of the world's biggest rainforest, according to a study published today in Nature.

The acceleration is quite dramatic in plants that grow fast naturally: up to 50%. I have not heard similar reports from the temperate zones, but that may be just a matter of time.

Of course, it's just the party line that CO2 is to blame, or that the effect is confined to plants. Those of you with kittens, puppies, and small children should keep an eye on them.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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The Long View 2004-03-09: Kerry's Folly; SETI; Culture War & Foreign Policy; Propaganda

This post is more current events commentary by John on events that are no longer current. In retrospect, the only thing really interesting is his mention of a campaign ad by Citizens United. Yes, that Citizens United.

Kerry's Folly; SETI; Culture War & Foreign Policy; Propaganda


In a sidebar on Sunday, March 8, The New York Times published a synopsis of a long interview with Democratic candidate presumptive, John Kerry. These sentences are good evidence that it would be a lethal mistake to put this man in the White House:

North Korea should never doubt the resolve of the United States to be serious about proliferation. But that's one of the reasons where I think this administration has even sent mixed and bad messages. Because if you don't do it in a sort of global and effective way, and if your own policy is to break the ABM treaty, move to rapidness of deployment, research and develop nuclear bunker-busting weapons, move to more tactical nuclear - you're sending a message that contravenes everything else you supposedly were taking seriously. And that has consequences in a dangerous world.

Shall we list what's wrong with this statement?

* The big news of the last few years is that effective non-proliferation and the global institutions to achieve it have proven mutually exclusive.

* The US left the ABM treaty precisely to discourage the North Koreans from developing an ICBM, because even a light shield would mean that any missile they could deploy might not work.

* Rapid deployment is supposed to make a conventional attack on the South less attractive to the North.

* Bunker busters and tactical nukes make clear to the North Korean leadership that they will not live through another Koread War

That list of bulleted items exhausts the list of things to the US could do to show "resolve" to the North Koreans, and Kerry is against all of them. I don't know what he's talking about, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't either.

* * *

Speaking of not knowing what something means, a recent radio signal from space attracted some interest among the SETI people. By the time you read this, the signal will probably have been traced to a satellite or a ground source. Still, a real SETI success might start with a report just like this. You won't see it on CNN right away.

* * *

The problem with arguing against the gay marriage campaign is that it makes you forget just how ridiculous the idea is. The notion is a cultural and historical exotic. Like all exotics, it will not flower long. In the meantime, however, the world outside the West draws its own conclusions about what such episodes demonstrate about the societies in which they occur.

Consider this assessment by Peter Zhang about the implications of the gay marriage issue for Sino-American relations:

In the past I've mentioned that there are those in the regime who believe America is in a state of terminal moral decline, and that this will eventually destroy her will to resist a resurgent China when she tries to exercise hegemony over the Asia-Pacific region. It's obvious that this ambition could only be satisfied by destroying American influence in Asia and driving its navy back to Pearl Harbour.

So it should not come as a surprise to learn that the regime takes a keen interest in American political and social trends. Seen through its eyes, at least those of many of its officials, the assault on marriage by homosexual activists and their allies in the media confirms their optimistic view that America is rapidly descending into a moral morass which will ultimately subvert her political institutions and sap her resistance....

The point is that irrespective of the misgivings of some party officials, there are plenty of others who believe that the Bush presidency is an aberration. In their opinion, even if he defeats Kerry social, moral and political trends are now irreversible and America is heading for political damnation.

I am reasonably sure that the Chinese leadership's assessment is not true. Of course, I am also reasonably sure that the gay marriage offensive will fail. The stakes here are much higher than the political system will admit.

* * *

You must imagine my shock when I learned that innocent commercials are being forced to serve as vehicles of political propaganda:

Citizens United, headed by former Republican congressional aide David Bossie, began airing the ad, a parody of MasterCard's "priceless" commercials — on cable and broadcast channels Sunday in select presidential battleground states.

The ad shows Kerry, boats at a marina and oceanfront property as an announcers says: "Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Hairstyle by Christophe's $75. Designer shirts: $250. Forty-two foot luxury yacht: $1 million. Four lavish mansions and beachfront estate: Over $30 million."

Another shot is of Kerry and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., with the words: "Another rich, liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people. Priceless."

Since, as we know, this presidential campaign is going to go on forever, we must take steps to make it endurable. The best way to do that is to make it less noticeable. This is particularly true for negative ads, which we can expect to proliferate as the centuries roll by. Some way needs to be found to fold them into those gauzy, feel-good political spots. The ideal commercial must plant doubts about the opposition's humanity without disturbing the surface image of oily, vegetable bliss. I suggest something along these lines.   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-06-10

A review on Night Enhancement Eyedrops using Chlorin e6

This is pretty nutty, but really interesting. Self-experimentation involving a photosensitizer compound to enhance night vision.

Heavy Boots

I came across this physics teaching post about the effect of gravity, and how a philosophy grad student misinterpreted it. Possibly apocryphal, but it sounds about right. The author of the post tried to be generous, but I think the philosophy TA wasn't dumb, he just didn't know anything, which is a separate problem.

Who Benefited From North American Slavery?

Not who you think.

What is neo-reaction|?

A damn good question. Tyler gives a decent answer to a question that is inherently hard to answer, because this movement is still inchoate. The comments are pretty interesting too.

The Pro-National Suicide Argument

James Chastek gives a pretty good summary of the bad things nationalism has wrought, and why you might seek to get rid of it.

The Soviet Union Series

Pseudoerasmus retweeted one of the entries in this series, and it caught my eye because the inability of the CIA, or anyone else really, to understand the economy of the Soviet Union played a big part in the Cold War. 

Gattaca: Utopia or Dystopia

An older blog post by Razib Khan. Khan rightly notes that genetic engineering could give us the opportunity to help those who have unfairly lost the genetic lottery. I commend this line of thinking, while at the same time suspecting that it won't actually work out that way.

There is no exception in Islam

A more recent post by Razib. He talks about the role of religion, and views of religion, in shaping the world. Razib is not a believer himself, but he takes religion seriously, and knows a lot about it.

The 2016 election will be horrible for America. But also, endlessly entertaining

My thoughts exactly.

The Three Ages of Pixar

I have strong disagreements with Steven Greydanus' assessments of the relative merits of Pixar movies, but I like this piece anyways.


The Long View 2004-03-05: Power; Decadence; Blackmun & the Terror War

Cold fusion is one of those ideas that just won't die. Sure, I'd love it to be real too, but when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Especially in a field that has failed so spectacularly so many times.

Sonoluminescence, the phenomenon mentioned in John's post here, at least has interesting physics. Other kinds of cold fusion, like LENR, are outright scams. It is possible for hobbyists to build machines capable of nuclear fusion, but this apparently isn't sexy enough for scam artists, who insist on coming up with machines that can't even produce neutrons.

Genetic engineering still isn't real, although CRISPR/cas9 is a more promising technology than anything so far. Much like nuclear fusion, it has been just around the corner for a long time. I suspect genetic engineering is far easier to do, so I think it will eventually get here. I don't believe practical genetic engineering will change the world in a heartbeat, as some of its proponents seem to think, but it will cause real changes in the world. I also think that the impact will largely be limited by cost. Genetic engineering is one thing; all of the ancillary technologies that would make it cheap and ubiquitous are quite another.

Turning to European politics, Niall Ferguson gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in 2004 pointing out that Germany was [and is] the fiscal and political center of the EU, despite a nominal equality of influence of all member nations in the organs of the EU. If you use defacto German dominance as a starting point, and then combine that with the notion that lots of people probably aren't fans of the idea of German dominance, then the politics of the EU make a lot more sense.

For American politics, here is a rather stark prediction. John suggested here that preventing a fascist revolution in the West required the defeat the cultural Left. The cultural Left is at present ascendant, and not particularly generous to the losers in the Culture War. One might argue the that unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump for President of the United States is the form taken by the inevitable backlash against the victors' lack of mercy or compromise.

I do not think Donald Trump is particularly fascist, in any meaningful sense of the word. Authoritarian, yes. Fascist, no. By which I really mean, if think this is bad: just wait, it can get far, far worse.

What far worse looks like

What far worse looks like

Power; Decadence; Blackmun & the Terror War

Cold fusion is back, at least if you believe the Rensselaer Institute. Look:

The research team used a standing ultrasonic wave to help form and then implode the cavitation bubbles of deuterated acetone vapor. The oscillating sound waves caused the bubbles to expand and then violently collapse, creating strong compression shock waves around and inside the bubbles. Moving at about the speed of sound, the internal shock waves impacted at the center of the bubbles causing very high compression and accompanying temperatures of about 100 million Kelvin...Other fusion techniques, such as those that use strong magnetic fields or lasers to contain the plasma, cannot easily achieve the necessary compression....In the approach to be published in Physical Review E, spherical compression of the plasma was achieved due to the inertia of the liquid surrounding the imploding bubbles.

Results this dramatic have a tendency not to be replicated; and even if they can be, the effect in question may have no practical applications. Nonetheless, I was happy to see this story, because cold fusion has long been a running gag for me. I was deeply impressed by the claims for cold fusion made by Fleischman & Pons over a decade ago, though I knew no more about the physics than a pig knows about Sunday. In the aftermath, when people made merry at my expense, I told them, "Just you wait!" In fact, I rubbed it in. When people pointed out other things I was wrong about, I would say, "Yeah, well, I haven't given up on cold fusion yet." Now, at least for a while, I can say, "I told you so!"

Practical cold-fusion is one of the few speculative technologies that would really make everything different. Genetic engineering is starting to look like a real-estate investment scam, and nanotechnology is probably a category mistake. An inexhaustible source of energy that you can use without covering the entire surface of the Earth with windmills and solar panels would be something else again. That really would mean a new industrial revolution. As we say in New Jersey: "Nice work, if you can get it."

* * *

On the downside, we have this talk that Niall Ferguson recently gave at the the American Enterprise Institute:

I want to speak this evening about what may seem a rather dramatic subject--the end of Europe, by which I don't mean its disappearance from the map, but a fundamental transformation in the political and economic institutions of the European Union...

Europe will turn out to be not an empire in the sense that I think the United States is today--that is to say, an expansive geopolitical entity--not a rival or a competitor or even a counterweight to the United States, but almost its antithesis, something that is drawing political energies into it, that is perhaps even being colonized by exogenous forces...

My suggestion is not that the European Union will vanish, but simply that its institutions are in danger of atrophying and that it, too, may one day be no more than a humble data-gathering agency with expensive but impotent offices in the City of Brussels and elsewhere.

Ferguson gives a number of reasons for this. The chief economic reason is that the EU was possible only because the Germans were willing to subsidize it. Today Germany contributes about two-thirds of the Union's budget, even though it has only about 10% of the votes in the Council of Europe. Germany can no longer afford this, especially with the accession of the new states to the Union this year. Germany will be able to afford it less in the future, because its population is actually shrinking. Ferguson is not an economic determinist, however. He attributes these changes to a larger cultural decadence. He says that there is something about Europe's post-Christian condition that is literally morbid:

Increasingly, European politics is dominated by a kind of dance of death as politicians and voters try desperately and vainly to prop up the moribund welfare states of the post-Second World War era, but above all to prop up what little remains of their traditional cultures.

There are people who sense that this trend is not merely tragic, but uncanny. Consider this report from an American in Brussels:

Reverend Alan Baker is an American pastor at [the local] Christian Center. He said, "Something I hear a lot is an "ancient spirit of hopelessness."

Baker added, "I've had people tell me, when they come off the plane getting into Belgium, it's as if there are spiritual hands around their throat. They just can't seem to breathe. It's a very heavy, heavy thing, a hopelessness."

In a way, these assessments are a good sign. When decadence reaches the point of palpable spiritual oppression, people will act to save themselves. The problem is that multicultural postmodernism has so discredited liberal institutions that, when the time comes, people may throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is, I think, the role of the United States to work out a model for post-postmodern society that is both religious and democratic; that maintains traditional family structures without being coercive; that is ethnically tolerant while favoring assimilation and keeping immigration to frictional levels. In other words, it is still possible to avoid the world of Imperium. That, however requires the defeat of the cultural Left in the United States.

* * *

This is what we should keep in mind when we read accounts of the recently released papers of Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1971, and who helped affirm it in the Casey decision in 1992. There had actually been a majority on the court to overturn Roe. The chief factors in defeating that attempt were the folly of Justice Kennedy, who had the bizarre notion that voting to overturn Roe would "tarnish his career," and the characteristic stupidity of Justice O'Connor, who has never taken on board the idea that the decisions of a court of last instance must make some sense.

I can only repeat that Roe is going to go, either through being specifically overturned or by a general rejection of the institution of judicial review. Still, how much simpler it would be if this issue had been disposed of before the Terror War started. Though the United States would not have become a kingdom of virtue from sea to shining sea, we would at least have an unambiguously human political ideology. The transnational class would still have come into being, but its evolution would have been nudged in a less morbid direction.

Again, old-fashioned liberal democracy has intrinsic universal appeal. Antinatalism, perversion, and the right to suicide, all of which are implied by the Roe decision, do not. If these things become part of the American message, then the war will fail.     

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-03-02: Reforms; Diversity; Red-Brown-Green

John has a tongue-in-cheek suggestion here that perennial basket-case countries like Haiti might be better served by a form of government like the city manager model of medium-sized American municipalities. 

I think he is on to something. There is an unfortunate belief in the US that majoritarian democracy is identical to liberalism and human rights. The Arab Spring should have made it abundantly clear that it isn't, in most of the world.

The city [country] manager allows you to keep the polite fiction of a mayor [head of state] and a city council [legislature] that decides policy, while the city manager is a city employee who just runs the bureaucracy. In reality, the city manager tends to be the sober adult in the room while the elected officials bloviate and grandstand.

My own city has a city manager, and I am rather fond of this model of government for American cities at least. I doubt it would actually work in Haiti, or any of the other shitholes of the world, but it probably couldn't fail any worse.

Reforms; Diversity; Red-Brown-Green

There is no way for me to tell whether Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left his capital wistfully but voluntarily when he understood the US would not protect him, or whether he was tied up in a gunny sack and carried bodily to a waiting plane by unsympathetic Marines. I incline to the former view; the fact that he did not make a departing statement suggests that he simply did not want to make a public acknowledgment of defeat. He appears to hope to make yet another comeback in the future.

Might I suggest that the problem with places like Haiti is that the stakes in politics are too high, while the potential rewards are too small? You have to become absolute dictator just to make sure that people don't break into your backyard and steal your bicycle. Obviously, people in such places should rule themselves, but need the price of self-governance for small, fractured societies be a politics of life or death?

There is a solution to this dilemma. The medieval Italian republics were often ruled by foreign magistrates. The local senates, seeing that their factions could never agree on a single chief executive, would hire some learned and experienced person from out-of-town to govern the city. The magistrate got the respect and the authority that his position required, but he was not a head-of-state. He was scarcely even a head-of-government. He was just a respected expert who ran the bureaucracy.

We have this today, of course, in the institution of the city manager. In the city-manager form of government, there may be a nominal mayor, but the city is actually run by an administrator, who is hired by the city council. Any form of government is subject to abuse, but city managers are part of a profession, with recognized standards and qualifications. You can tell a good manager from a bad one objectively. For middle-sized municipalities, the city-manager structure may be the best form of government.

Surely something similar could be arranged for Haiti. Let there be an elected parliament, but let its functions be limited to choosing a foreign manager and approving the budget he prepares. Politics would cease to be interesting to ambitious people. If the experiment works, then other small countries might adopt it, and an international profession might spring up.

* * *

For you enthusiasts for spelling reform (and I know you are out there) here are two recent links on the subject. The first is a disrespectful account of the spelling reform bill that actually passed the British parliament in the middle of the 20th century. Had a reform started then, we would now be enjoying the benefits of higher literacy rates and more substantive education. (It takes about a year for a child to learn to read a typical European language; English takes about three.) The problem is that the proponent of the bill favored a proposal that would have scrapped English spelling rather than regularizing it. The legislative effort was therefore sidetracked into phonics education.

The other item is yet another version of The Chaos, the famous poem that illustrates The Problem.

* * *

Unlike some people, I am relatively sanguine about affirmative action. For the most part, it's really just a patronage racket. It will go away when the political system figures out a way to buy off the affirmative action industry. (Could it be set to promoting spelling reform? Now there's an idea.) However, some versions of affirmative action are nastier than others. Lebanon, for instance, has found that its intractable communal tensions had to be accommodated when the country recently reintroduced capital punishment:

The differences were underscored by the three men executed. Under pressure to punish a Shiite Muslim accused of killing eight people, all but one of whom were Christians, the government of President Emile Lahoud also chose to execute one convict from each of the nation's two other main creeds, a Christian and a Sunni Muslim.

Now that's diversity with teeth.

* * *

Regular readers of my website will know about my continuing interest in the links between Islamism, Neo-Nazism, and the occult. However, my study of these things is largely confined to theory. Now comes William Grim, with some provocative examples of Al-Qaeda's Neo-Nazi Connections.

Some of these assertions are less than compelling. Neo-Nazi leaders may well write supportive fan mail to Islamists, but what of it? It is plausible that Timothy McVeigh had Neo-Nazi encouragement and even material support in blowing up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, but the alleged Islamist components are much more hypothetical. Nonetheless, there are deep historical connections between Islamism and Fascism, and this association is expanding to include elements of Left-Anarchism. I don't find this prospect altogether unimaginable:

The next 9/11-style terrorist attack may not be attempted by a keffiya-wearing Arab terrorist spouting quotations from the Koran, but by an IRA terrorist whose services were purchased by a left-wing European intellectual attending a Middle Eastern Studies caucus of some leftist academic group during an annual conference in Omaha or Chicago or San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the ever-perspicacious Belmont Club had this to say on February 25 about CIA Director George Tenet's recent congressional testimony, which described the threat arising from the collapse of much of the world into barbarism:

It was in many ways a rabble waiting for a leader. In the two generations since the end of the Second World War more than a billion people were abandoned to anarchies and tyrannies euphemistically called "developing nations". Most of them, little more than a stamp and a seat at the United Nations, have already ceased to function -- the 50 "stateless zones" of Tenet's speech. If left to the leadership of men like Osama Bin Laden, these steerless multitudes can snuff out the living nations, as growing entropy blots out a system. The logical response would be to seize control of the movement ourselves, to raise the disaffected masses against their own tyrants. It is a step President Bush has vowed to take but it is so audacious and regarded so cynically by the left that it would be a wonder if the world actually took the only path that can save it.

Finally, cranky old Spengler has this to say about seventy years ago, towards the end of The Hour of Decision:

But the greatest danger has not yet been even named. What if, one day, class war and race war joined forces to make an end of the white world? This lies in the nature of things, and neither of the two Revolutions will disdain the aid of the other simply because it despises its supporters. A common hate extinguishes mutual contempt. And what if some white adventurer - and there have been many such - whose wild soul cannot breathe in the hothouse of civilization and seeks to satiate its love of danger in fantastic colonial ventures, among pirates, in the Foreign Legion - should suddenly see this grand goal staring him in the face? It is through such natures that history springs her great surprises. The loathing of deep and strong men for our conditions and the hatred of profoundly disillusioned men might well grow into a revolt that meant to annihilate. This was not unknown in Caesar's time.

Sometimes I get this falling-elevator feeling. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-02-27: The Passion of the Christ: The Real Issue

I have found the last couple of months of John J. Reilly's writings a slog. There was a hell of a lot of warmongering about Iraq, and ignorant speculation about weapons of mass destruction. I slog through it because I remember it, and I was part of it. Public opinion has decisively turned against the Iraq War, but at the time, it was decisively for it. We should all remember that.

It is with immense relief that I can return to John's reflections on religion and culture.

The Passion of the Christ: The Real Issue

My initial account of the film is here. I am taking up the matter again because I finally figured out why the film is so disturbing.

As a preliminary matter, let me note that I take the point of the February 25 entry of the Easterblog that the account of the scourging of Jesus in The Passion goes far beyond Scripture. As the Easterblog entry remarks, the event may have happened like that, but the Gospel accounts have far more to say about the carrying of the cross to Golgotha and the actual Crucifixion. The odd thing is that I did not notice the additions.

Why have I always pictured these events as blindingly brutal? The short answer is the traditional Catholic devotion, The Stations of the Cross. This little ceremony treats the details of the passion story one by one, blow by blow. However, the Stations of the Cross begin with the condemnation of Jesus by Pilate. So why was I not in the least surprised by that horrible scourging sequence in the film? I have no explanation.

Something I do have an explanation for is why the film disturbs Christians who find it rings true as history (a class into which I fall, though I recognize that the history here is not everything Leopold von Ranke might wish). The level of suffering that Jesus experiences in this film makes it entirely plausible that He is suffering the punishment merited by the whole world. The problem is that actually seeing Him do so confronts us with Dostoevsky's Paradox.

This is the puzzle by which Utilitarianism stands or falls: if the whole world could be saved by murdering a single baby, would it be ethical to murder the baby? Jesus, of course, is not quite in the position of a baby: it's a point of doctrine that the Crucifixion was voluntary. Still, is it right to benefit from a sacrifice like this, even if the sacrifice is voluntary? To put it viscerally: do you really want a piece of this horror show?

This is far from being a new thought. Les Murray grappled with just this question in his novel, Fredy Neptune, which is about Everything Bad That Happened from 1914 to 1945. I have it reviewed here, but this is the relevant part:

Fredy is an ordinary Catholic. He even goes to confession once or twice in the novel; the descriptions are models of how it should be done. What worries him is not the existence, but the sanity of God. Fredy knows from his own experience that the only way to survive a beating is to pretend he is being hurt, since even a very cruel human being will eventually recoil from inflicting pain. God, however, does not. Whatever His purposes may be in allowing suffering in the world, they override every other consideration. Fredy's numbness is a way of dealing, not with his own suffering, but with the suffering of the victims.

Fredy's solution to the problem is to forgive the victims. Forgive the trapped Turkish troops being strafed day after day, forgive the Jews in the concentration camps, forgive his own mother in Dresden. Fredy also forgives God, who in Christian theology will never cease to suffer for our sins.

Forgiveness often implies a measure of superiority. When we say that to know all is to forgive all, we often mean that the forgiver manages to expand his perspective to include the more limited perspective of the forgiven. However, that need not be the case. The guilty can be said to forgive those who justly punish them; in that case, forgiveness is a matter of coming up to the forgiven's level. In dealing with God, the latter is more likely to apply.

Ambrose Bierce once defined birth as "the first and greatest of catastrophes." As was so often the case, his dark heart felt a fundamental issue. The fundamental question of theodicy is not, "Why does God allow evil?" but "Why did God create the world at all?" Ethicists have dealt with this question at length, of course, but it has special implications for Christian theology. In the doctrine of the Trinity, Christ the Second Person is the moment of the Godhead through Whom the world is created. This creation is eternal; in the Incarnation, we see it in time. In asking whether we can accept the Atonement, we are asking whether we accept our own existence.

You can say "no," you know. That's the scary part. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Salvage and Demolition Book Review

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

Salvage and Demolition
by Tim Powers
Subterranean Books, 2013
$30.00; 155 pages
ISBN 978-1-59606-515-4

Tim Powers has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade, and this novella is full of the reasons why. 

A good time travel book is hard to write, but I think Powers has nailed it. Again. Powers' most popular book, the Anubis Gates, is the best time-travel story ever written. If you take the premise of time travel seriously, then severe logical constraints are imposed on your storytelling. One way to avoid these constraints is to posit something like the Everett-Wheeler interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is the route Powers selected in Three Days to Never. The other route, the one selected here and in the Anubis Gates, is to embrace the implied determinism of time travel, everything you are going to do already happened and cannot be changed, and just deal with it. Powers does this in a way that follows those logical implications, and yet still produces a satisfying story. Somehow, he makes free will and determinism lie down together.

I think Powers may be even better in short stories and novellas than he is in novels. At the very least, I get a different vibe from his short stories than I do from his novels. I find Powers' short stories bittersweet and poignant, while his novels often find their way to a truly happy ending, although oftentimes though great suffering. Salvage and Demolition is a love story, but a love that can never live happily ever after.

I also have to give Powers recognition for a storyline that borrows elements of eldritch horror, while managing not to be horrific. The premise of Salvage and Demolition is reminiscent of that of one of my favorite videogames, Eternal Darkness. I have never read in an interview that Tim plays videogames, although it is certainly possible that he does. Nevertheless, Salvage and Demolition has elements far more light-hearted and whimsical than Eternal Darkness, or anything like it. I believe the key difference is that Tim believes in Providence, and most authors in the eldritch horror genre don't. 

H. P. Lovecraft's visions are so terrifying because everything he ever wrote was suffused with the idea that the monsters are not only real, they are the ultimate reality, and they will eventually destroy us. Tim Powers is far too Catholic to think anything of the sort, and you can tell. If you take Christianity seriously, then the end of history is already known. In the end, the monsters will be thrown down, and the mourners' tears will be wiped away. What happens in the meanwhile is the stuff from which stories are made.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2004-02-26: The Passion of the Christ

I've never seen Gibson's Passion of the Christ. I probably should, because it is said to be good by people whose judgement I trust, and also because I take my Christianity seriously. However, this review by John J. Reilly makes me think of this recent Twitter exchange:

If Gibson made the Passion today, thanks to George R. R. Martin, perhaps we could have full realism at last.

We are all creatures of our times, and it is good to be reminded that there are taboos all of us are loathe to violate. Even when we set out to violate taboos.

The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson

On Ash Wednesday, February 25, I attended two standing-room-only religious events. The first was a noon Mass, during which ashes were distributed. The homily was given by a priest who is neither stupid nor unspiritual. He commended the season of Lent as a time for healing the damage that the world has done to us, and that we have done to ourselves. The other event was an 8:00 PM showing of Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ,” which is about a man being voluntarily tortured to death during the event toward which Lent looks. Therapy in any conventional sense was beside the point.

I am not the first reviewer to note how much “The Passion” owes to a generation of increasingly graphic horror and action films. Indeed, now may be the first point in several centuries in which a popular presentation of the central events of Christianity could come close to depicting something like what the Biblical texts say. This allows the film to fly under the radar of the whole apparatus of historical criticism and psychological reinterpretation.

Only now do I understand why the Gospels devote so much attention to the passion narratives, and why they do so in a manner so graphic. If our sins are real, and if Jesus took them on Himself in the Crucifixion, then His suffering must have been real. An Atonement that is not bloody is not a credible Atonement; the sins for which it answers could be no great matter. The execution of Jesus was not the worst thing to happen in human history, in degree or in kind. However, in order to bear the burden of that history, it must be as bad as the worst.

In a way, this film for me is an instance of getting what I asked for. Some years ago, I wrote an article for “The New Oxford Review” in which I complained that liturgy and catechesis were being systematically stripped of all sense of mystery. A healthy spiritual life has a place for the uncanny, even the merely spooky. That sense “The Passion” satisfies, with a tact and subtlety of which ordinary supernatural thrillers are rarely capable these days. The devil is a major character in this film, who spreads despair and malice merely by being present. The film hints at a point I discussed recently, that the Romans and Jews lived in different worlds. Pilate was almost a modern man, who read memoranda and worried about how all this disturbance would look to the home office. Jesus and the rest of the Jews, both His enemies and His supporters, lived in a world of spiritual realities that were invisible to Pilate. Jesus' motives were incomprehensible to His judge, even when they were explained.

Having said all that, don't let me give the impression that “The Passion” is a supernatural shocker, or even particularly gory. Despite the appropriation of modern special effects and make-up art, the film is in many ways the opposite of a slasher flick. There is no gratuitous violence. All of it is focused, necessary, and personal. That last is an important point. The scourging of Jesus is less gruesome than many scenes in the recent “Lord of the Rings” movies, for instance, but Jesus is not a nameless Orcs, or even a noble but expendable Rider of Rohan. Despite an almost complete lack of backstory, any viewer will empasize with Jesus. There comes a point in “The Passion” when a stumble while carrying the cross occasions a greater wrench of distress in the audience than a mortar barrage in “Saving Private Ryan.” The depiction of brutality need not be excessive, because the film communicates that the ordeal really hurts.

Not all the mysteries about this film are supernatural. Certainly I have no idea why anyone would assert that the film is antisemitic. The Romans do all the torture and crucifying, and the members of the Sanhedrin do not appear diabolical. There is one point that struck me as odd, however. The Gospels explain that the priests conspired to kill Jesus because the priests feared the Romans might suppress the Temple along with a pretender to be king of the Jews. In “The Passion,” in contrast, Caiaphas is obviously improvising when he tells Pilate that Jesus is a political subversive. His motives are left more obscure than the text suggests.

One objection I share with some critics is that, if the film was going to use the languages of the actual event, one of those languages should have been Greek. It's reasonable that the Romans would use Latin among themselves, and that the Jews would use Aramaic with each other. Maybe Jesus even addressed a few sentences of Latin to Pilate, though that's unlikely. However, it's pretty clear that all the official communication between the Romans and the locals would have been in demotic Greek. The Gospels tell us that the famous placard placed above the head of Jesus on the Cross was trilingual, but that's not the case in this film, unless I missed it.

I would like to make one final point. There have been many effective, even heart-wrenching, dramatic representation of the passion of Christ; one thinks particularly of Bach. Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ” is the only representation of the first order that is not beautiful. The score is fine and the cinematography is good; the acting is unexceptionable. However, this is not a work of art in which the horror of the events it portrays is immediately sublimated into the beauty of the depiction. This film is Christianity without shielding.    

 Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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The Long View 2004-02-25: The Marriage Amendment; Inflation; O'Rourke

As it turns out, Obergefell v. Hodges was decided on equal protection grounds. Again, while the Left decisively won the Culture War, I think the Right will continue to resist for a long time. Roe v. Wade was 43 years ago now, and the Right has very much not given up. That intransigence has paid off: public opinion is arguably trending against abortion [slowly].

Although that bi-modal distribution is a doozy. That data makes it look like there is a centrist position, and a very permissive extremist one that is also very committed to holding the line. I think the bar graph through time might be interesting.

GSS Trends on Legalized Abortion

GSS Trends on Legalized Abortion

The Marriage Amendment; Inflation; O'Rourke


The nice thing about having a blog is that it saves me the futility of shouting at the television, especially when Lawrence Tribe is onscreen. Here is all you need to keep in mind about the proposed amendment to constitutionalize the traditional definition of marriage:

There are no equal-protection issues. Straight and gay people have exactly the same marriage rights. Many gay people do in fact marry persons of the opposite sex, often with happy results. The gay-marriage proponents are asking that behavior other than marriage be treated as marriage. This is like insisting that everyone have equal access to Veterans Administrations Hospitals by arguing that to do otherwise would discriminate against non-veterans.

There are no states-rights issues. It might be better if the states could decide this sort of thing for themselves, but that is no longer an option: the assault on marriage through the federal courts will rely on the string of privacy-liberty decisions by the Supreme Court that runs from Griswald to Roe to Casey to Lawrence. This area of law has long since been nationalized. The objections to the marriage amendment on states-rights grounds are based on the calculation that it would be much harder to pass an amendment to overturn a Supreme Court decision constitutionalizing gay marriage than it would be to pass an amendment to preempt such a decision.

The Amendment would not change the Constitution. The Amendment preserves the law as it has always been assumed to be. The campaign to create gay marriage by judicial fiat has already changed the constitutions of several states. The Amendment would simply defeat that campaign.

Some Good Stuff to Know: The federal Constitution has been repeatedly amended to restrict privileges under federal law. The 11th Amendment restricted the right of citizens to sue the several states in federal court. The 22nd Amendment eliminated the right of citizens to serve more than two terms as president. In an unhappy experiment, the Constitution was amended to ban the sale of alcohol, and then amended again to return the matter to the states. The assertion that the Constitution has changed only to create more rights and privileges is historically false.

Saruman's Dilemma: Readers of The Lord of the Rings will recall that Saruman's power was finally broken only when Gandalf put him in a position where he had to play both the tyrant and the friend before the same audience. The Marriage Amendment would have been dismissed in normal times as unnecessary tinkering with the Constitution, or even as a conservative offensive in the culture war. However, the coordinated assault on marriage through the state courts in recent months make clear who the aggressor is. Moreover, these assaults are happening during a presidential election, thus ensuring that the contradiction will be publicized. It will no longer be possible to argue that opposition to the Amendment means neutrality on the gay-marriage issue.

What were these people thinking of?

* * *

Meanwhile, as the US political system struggles over the question of whether pi is three, the predicate of the Bush Administration's fiscal policy has ended:

The consumer price index in China rose at an annual pace of 3.2 percent in January for a second consecutive month, a sign that, at the very least, the deflation China suffered until late last year seems to have ended. Goldman, Sachs has begun describing China as an exporter of inflation rather than an exporter of deflation.

The two pillars of the world economy in recent years have been the growth of Chinese manufacturing and the willingness of the US federal government to create fiat money fast enough to keep the system aloft. This policy assumed, however, that Chinese growth will be deflationary. If it isn't, then deficit spending will again have the kind of inflationary effect the textbooks say it should. Get ready.

* * *

As P. J. O'Rourke recently remarked:

History backs away, keeping both hands visible, avoiding sudden movements, and trying not to show fear. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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LinkFest 2016-05-28

Unplugging the Colorado River

Here is something that should give you pause: without Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the biggest city on the west coast of the United States would be either San Francisco [population 864,000] or Seattle [population 608,000]. Even if you include the metro areas of each city, you don't get over 4 million or so. Los Angeles proper is 4 million, with another ten million in the surrounding metropolitan area. LA would be a sleepy little desert town without the water from the Colorado River.

The history behind this is fascinating. And contentious, at least for us locals. The state of Arizona once tried to use the National Guard to prevent the state of California from taking water from the Colorado River.

How Anti-White Rhetoric is Fueling White Nationalism

Much anti-white rhetoric amounts to a back-handed compliment to racists.

Could we see a four-way race for President?

Possibly, and I'm not sure it will turn out well.

A Pentecost on Crete?

I'm always interested to see what my Orthodox brethren think.

At 96, Dr. Heimlich finally uses his life-saving technique

You have to like this story.

TIE Fighter Fan Film

Animated by one man over 4 years.

The Long View 2004-02-23: Popular Gothic

Dan Brown is far from my favorite author, but my hat is off to him for knowing his audience. It sure as hell wasn't me, but my tastes tend to be niche. However, it took a man like John to compare and contrast Tom Clancy's environmental apocalypse with Angels & Demons, and then grant that maybe the book would be better if it were considered alternative history..

Popular Gothic


No, I haven't read Dan Brown's bestselling thriller, The Da Vinci Code, so I cannot comment on the remark in yesterday's Book Review section of The New York Times that "Everyone but the Abominable Snowman is involved in this paranoid story." I am, however, reading Brown's earlier novel, Angels & Demons, which introduces the Robert Langdon character, an expert on religious symbols. In Angels & Demons, he is called on to foil a plot by the Illuminati to blow up the Vatican during a papal conclave, a plot that involves an antimatter bomb stolen from CERN, the great international particle-research institute located in Switzerland.

By no criterion is Angels & Demons a good book, but neither is it your average thriller. The millennialism expert, Tom Doyle, has noted about apocalyptic novels that they often incorporate as much speculative science and engineering as science fiction, but that these elements are not what the books are about. Similarly, Angels & Demons has Tom Clancy-like expositions about hypersonic aircraft, and of course there is the antimatter. The difference is that, on some subjects, Tom Clancy knows what he is talking about.

The count of bloopers in this book is so great that one begins to wonder whether they Mean Something. Mere ignorance could explain why the book translates "Novus Ordo Seclorum" as "New Secular Order." The assertion that Catholic Holy Communion "comes from" Aztec ritual cannibalism might be just badly compressed comparative anthropology. But what are we to make of the assertion that Winston Churchill was a staunch Catholic?

A thriller can be forgiven for failing to give a nuanced account of the prosecution of Galileo. (The observational data, such as they were, did not support Galileo's cosmology particularly well; the scandal was that the Church's own philosophy of science said that such questions are not for theologians to settle.) The problem is that the relentlessly bad history in this book suggests that the Illuminati [who turn out to be not what they seem, by the way] would have had some justification for blowing up the conclave. Maybe I am making a category mistake. Could Angels & Demons be Alternative History?

It may seem disproportionate to aim critical cannons at such slight work, but no: as Michael Barkun has shown, esoteric fiction tends to become cultic fact. Several detailed critiques of Dan Brown's conspiracy backstory have already appeared; whole books on the subject will be published in a few months. The real cure for Illuminatus fever, however, was published some years ago, in the form of Umberto Eco's novel, Foucault's Pendulum, which is a satire on conspiracy history of the Templar-Cathar-Reactionary-French variety. Unlike Angels & Demons, Foucault's Pendulum really is smart.

* * *

Moving along from these romances of misinformation, we come to pure Gothic entertainment. Consider, for instance, the recent film Underworld, starring Kate Beckinsale. The film is a comic strip with actors, and of its kind it's wonderful. The story is about a long-running feud between werewolves and vampires, who fight special-effects battles in the dark cityscapes and Art Nouveau interiors that have become a specialty of Eastern European production companies. (The cast is mostly Anglo-American; the film was made in Hungary.) It all snaps right along to an effective club-music score. Underworld is The Matrix, without the pretensions.

Nonetheless, such films do lack something. Bram Stoker's Dracula appropriated theology familiar to its audience to create story devices. Lovecraft's monsters were not Judeo-Christian, but they were wicked in an orthodox sense. (Lovecraft fans in search of more Ostdaemmerung, by the way, might glance here.) The secular trend, however, has been for science fiction and supernatural horror to merge. In Underworld, the transformations are all done with viruses. Silver kills werewolves, but if vampires are concerned with crosses, it's only as fashion accessories. This is fair enough, but the flipside is that a world without good is also a world without evil. Nobody's going to Hell; the worst these monsters can do is kill you.

* * *

A lack of moral compass probably is not a feature of Mel Gibson's The Passion, which opens on Wednesday. I am planning to see the film, but I am perfectly prepared to dislike it; so much hype makes me suspicious. Still, I can't help but enjoy watching the people who are slamming the film for political or theological reasons. They are driving a nail through their own foot. Look at this gem from Newsweek:

The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see.

You see what is happening here? The opponents of the movie may be on the verge of making The New Testament cool. Talk about Transubstantiation.

* * *

Finally, on the subject of creeping dread, I would like to add this little statement of John Kerry's priorities, which he gave on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer last week:

I'm really talking about the same thing that I started talking about the day I announced on Tim Russert that I was going to run for president...And I said then, the issue for America is security: job security, wage security, income security, retirement security, health security, education, and of course physical, national security. That's exactly what it is today.

Just as I am prepared to criticize The Passion, I would be willing, indeed eager, to praise President Kerry, should he win in November. We can't afford a failed presidency. We especially can't afford a situation like Bill Clinton's second term, when the gathering Jihad was obscured in part by the Republicans playing silly buggers in the impeachment and trial of the president. Nonetheless, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Kerry is far more clueless about national security than Bill Clinton ever was.

By 1998, Clinton at least understood the scale of the peril. Even today, though, John Kerry can still append national security with an "of course." Pray to God he is disingenuous.       

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Da Vinci Code
By Dan Brown

The Long View: A Culture of Conspiracy

The world of conspiracy theories is a strange one. If anything, a lack of proof, or even disproof, only makes them more popular. There are a lot of durable memes that came out of the 1990s, things like the New World Order, or the Men in Black. Hollywood helped, and so did videogames. [in case you forgot, videogames are a bigger industry than movies]

This book is a scholarly investigation of this phenomenon, how mass media propagates, and even encourages ideas that lots of people, especially well-educated journalists, think are stupid and wrong. This was of course written before the rise of clickbait, but perhaps a new edition could be issued.

There is probably a hook here for the alt-right too, but that in itself is clickbait. Conspiracy theories and apocalyptic beliefs are just as common on the left as the right, because they are human nature. Hell, sometimes the specific ideas are the same on both fringes of the American political spectrum. For example, opposition to GMOs and vaccination have homes on both left and right. 

The real story here is that we aren't smart enough to do conspiracy properly. The people in charge don't really know what they are doing much better than anyone else. Sometimes, much worse.

 A Culture of Conspiracy:
Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America
By Michael Barkun
University of California Press, 2003
243 Pages, US$17.47
ISBN 0-520-23805-2


Why did Timothy McVeigh visit Area 51, the alleged flying-saucer test range, and view the film "Contact" on death row? Why did the harmless-looking phrase, "New World Order," take on a sinister connotation as soon as the first President Bush uttered it? Why does the acronym FEMA send chills down the spines of a substantial number of Americans? We cannot dismiss these facts as unrelated coincidences. No: they are all evidences of a strange mutation that occurred in American popular culture in the 1990s, when formerly obscure forms of esotericism and conspiracy theory fused with traditional millennialism and popular pseudo-science. The result was not a movement, but a worldview that threatens to undermine trust in public institutions, and maybe even consensus reality.

Such is the argument of this useful book by political scientist Michael Barkun of Syracuse University, one of the leading authorities on the political implications of contemporary millennialism. The literature of conspiracy theory is vast and rarely a pleasure to read, so there is something to be said for any survey that shrinks the Illuminati, the Men in Black, and the Hollow Earth itself to manageable dimensions. The chief merit of this book, though, is the description of a dynamic in contemporary conspiracy theory, one that turns ordinary popular culture into a venue for the propagation of ideas that the consensus culture has not just dismissed, but condemned. This model may exaggerate certain features of the popular mind, but it clearly does have some applications.

The chief sources of the culture of conspiracy are the tradition of conspiracy theory, conventional millennialism, and what must be called “ufology,” or the belief in the existence and importance of Unidentified Flying Objects and other extraterrestrial influences. The place where these sources meet is the realm of "stigmatized knowledge."

Some stigmatized knowledge is just obsolete knowledge, like alchemy or astrology, that the academic establishment no longer takes seriously on its own terms. Some of it is folklore and urban legends. Some of it is political ideas that have lost their bid for dominance in the wide world, but survive in niches and sects. The stigmatization of knowledge does not necessarily mean it is worthless: acupuncture, for instance, has risen from subcultural disrepute to the status of a recognized treatment. Whatever the merits of stigmatized ideas, people who accept stigmatized knowledge about one subject are likely to be more open to entertaining it in others. This leads to an attitude that views esoteric and unpopular ideas favorably, simply because they are stigmatized. Any official or consensus explanation is viewed with suspicion.

If you think that what most people believe about important aspects of the world is consistently wrong, the most economical hypothesis is that those people are being systematically deceived. This implies a deceiver, who must have confederates. The larger the conspiracy, the more a theory about it can explain: hence the attractiveness of conspiracy theories. "A Culture of Conspiracy" does not address the question of whether there is a perennial Western tradition of conspiracy theories, one that might include the legends about Rosicrucians, witches, Brethren of the Free Spirit, and similar shady characters. Rather, the book focuses on the well-known tradition of secular conspiracy theories, whose best-known originator is the Abbé Barruel. This tradition began in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Barruel's account sought to explain the Revolution as the work of groups of a generally Masonic character, of whom the most famous were the Illuminati of late 18th-century Bavaria.

There were indeed Illuminati, and the revolutionary phase of the Enlightenment was often organized through lodges and secret societies. However, conspiracy theorists tend to view secret and underground societies, not as vehicles for political activity, but as its cause. They see the public acts of statesmen and political groups as a mere smokescreen. For conspiracists, is it not necessary that the puppet-masters be altogether secret. Financial institutions and private associations will do nicely, as they did in conspiratorial accounts of politics that appeared as the 19th century progressed. (Barkun mentions Ignatius Donnelly for his popularization of Atlantis, by the way, but Donnelly also had the Jewish-Corporate Government connection down pat as early as the 1880s.) Around 1900, the Czarist secret police produced the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which ascribed a plot for world domination to the early Zionist movement. By about 1920, there was a standard superconspiracy model. The model linked international bankers, the central banks, the Masons, the Jews, and other groups in a long-running project, always almost complete, to establish a worldwide atheist tyranny.

In one form or another, this model has been remarkably durable. People with all kinds of perspectives can adapt it to fit any historical circumstance and any set of characters. Theorists with little interest in Jewish conspiracies, for instance, might read "Illuminist" in the “Protocols” wherever the text reads "Jew." So great is the explanatory power of superconspiracies, however, that they threaten to engulf in despair those who believe in them. Conspiracy theorists often think that little stands between them and an intolerable future, brought about by forces that are invisible to the general public and yet nearly omnipotent.

The forces of evil are happily less omnipotent in millennialism, which is the general term that “A Culture of Conspiracy” uses for endtime belief. One of the chief factors in conspiracy thinking in the early 21st century comes from the revival of premillennialism in the first half of the 19th century. Premillennialists generally often believe the advent of the Millennium to be near, but expect it to be preceded by “apocalypse” proper, the period when God's wrath will be poured out on the world. During this time, the world will be ruled by Antichrist. Identifying the Antichrist, and more important, his future collaborators, is an activity very close to what secular conspiracy theorists do. Premillennialists with an interest in current events borrowed the Illuminati and the cabal of international bankers, often adding their own traditional villains, such as the Vatican. Versions of eschatological conspiracy became widespread during the 20th century, but did not begin to join the general popular culture until the 1970s.

The bridge between the land of stigmatized knowledge and the world at large was the UFO phenomenon. UFOs made their way into millennialism as part of the great deception of the endtime; the aliens became demons who pretended to be angels of light. There was also some tendency for premillennialists to reinterpret their eschatology in physicalist terms, so that the pretribulation rapture sometimes becomes a rescue by spaceship. Michael Barkun has coined the term "improvisational millennialism" to describe this syncretism of motifs. Secular superconspiracists, for their part, had no trouble adding UFOs to their list of things that the powers-that-be were covering up. In some versions, the Great Conspiracy is in league with the aliens. In others, there were no aliens, but UFOs were being faked to cow the public.

In the 1980s, some quite new motifs appeared. There were the black helicopters, which served the conspiracy in a way that varied from theorist to theorist. There were the concentration camps that were said to be being prepared for dissident citizens for when the Day came. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was supposed to lead the effort to impose martial law. When disaster struck, either real or staged, FEMA would become the government. Then there was mind control, which government agencies were alleged to have perfected in the 1950s and '60s.

As is often the way with urban legends, there were sometimes thin threads of fact in these Persian carpets of fantasy. Yes, police tactical helicopters sometimes are black. The CIA really did experiment with mind-altering drugs. For that matter, there were even contingency plans around 1970 to create temporary camps if civil disorders got out of hand. However, the structures that placed these fragments in a greater whole could never be verified, or even tested.

There were also fascinating adaptations of older ideas. For instance, the notion that the Earth might be hollow, and the seat of one or more advanced civilizations, has an old pedigree. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, it sometimes figured in fiction. When UFOs entered the popular consciousness, these subterranean realms became alternative or supplementary points of origin for these vessels. Admirers of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith will be interested to learn that many of their story devices reappeared as bald assertions of fact in later conspiracist literature. (I might mention H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," not specifically cited in the book. That novella has as many subterranean aliens as a reasonable man could ask for, as well as an Antarctic locale, which is also important in many conspiracy theories.) The malevolent reptile-people who play such a key role in the conspiracy theories of David Icke seem to have slithered right out of the stories of Robert Howard, the creator of "Conan the Barbarian."

Much of 19th-century theosophy came straight from popular fiction, so the 20th-century adaptations simply continue the tradition. A tongue-in-cheek British documentary broadcast in 1977, "Alternative 3," described a conspiracy of elites to flee Earth before ecological catastrophe struck the planet. As happened in other contexts, some people immediately interpreted the fiction as an encoded account of the facts. And, of course, conspiracy theories form the basis for later fiction, such as the once fashionable "X-Files" television series. I would also note John Carpenter's film from 1988, They Live. In that story, certain people are enabled to see our reptile overlords as they really are, consorting with ordinary upper-class humans who know the aliens' identity. ("They Live" should not be confused with "Them," an older and much better film about giant ants.)

The culture of stigmatized knowledge has facilitated other revivals. The channeling of extraterrestrials by New Agers looks like nothing so much as communication with the Ascended Masters whom Madame Blavatsky used to consult. Similarly, the allegations that the conspiracy sometimes captures people for sexual slavery bear more than a few points of resemblance to the 19th century stories that purported to expose what really goes on in Catholic nunneries.

Historical and technological developments gave a boost to the culture of conspiracy. Conspiracy theory had been an activity conducted through small newsletters and pamphlets before the assassination of John F. Kennedy; within a decade, it was an industry. Just as important was the growth of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, which made even the most obscure materials available to virtually anyone, virtually anywhere. Accessibility was not the only important factor; so was the lack of authoritative criticism. For that matter, "authority" was increasingly in short supply offline, too. The academy, during the postmodernist episode, undermined the assumption that consensus reality was more than a mere construct. The distinction between stigmatized and consensus knowledge did not quite collapse, but it became far more porous.

Michael Barkun is not happy about these developments. He notes that antisemitic motifs had formerly been wholly excluded from popular culture. Now they are reemerging, often in scarcely altered form, as elements of widely disseminated superconspiracies. He also points out that the culture of conspiracy responds badly to emergencies. Conspiracists reacted to 911 by demonstrating how it fit into their preexisting explanation for what is wrong with the world. The same might also be said of other people, perhaps, but the conspiracists' explanations made them suspicious of collective efforts to deal with the situation.

For my part, I think that any discussion of conspiracism should acknowledge those contexts where the conspiracists are onto something. When evangelical Christians perceive a New Age conspiracy to extirpate Christianity, they often are quite right about the biases of some elements of the academy and the media. When opponents of the New World Order say that international organizations are plotting to subvert the sovereignty of the United States, they are sometimes just citing the law journals. About the gay agenda we need not speak. Conspiracists are not delusional when they say that important people often collaborate to bring about appalling results. The Great Conspiracy has two weaknesses, however. First: no cabal small enough to be hidden could have the leverage to control the world, or even to guide the public life of a single nation. Second: no cabal at all could survive with its agenda unchanged for generation after generation. Real conspirators are people just like you and me. They don't have a clue, either.   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Rainbow Six

These were the only two of Tom Clancy's books that John reviewed. I was in a big Tom Clancy phase at the time John wrote these, so I found the reviews interesting. They hold up well.

Rainbow Six
by Tom Clancy
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1998
740 pages, $27.95
ISBN: 0-399-14390-4


Reviewed by John J. Reilly


Damn these books are long. This is only the second Tom Clancy novel I have ever read (there are nine others, plus a lot of nonfiction), so I am not really in a position to say how repetitious they are. Still, there are a number of elements common to this book and "Executive Orders," the other one I am familiar with. You have terrorist attacks involving children as hostages. You have biological warfare, though this time with a genetically engineered super-bug rather than mere off-the-shelf Ebola. You also have some familiar characters: CIA special operations officers John Clark and his son-in-law Domingo Chavez are the principal heroes. Be this as it may, there are novelties, particularly in the scale of the threat to which the heroes react and the motives of the villains. What we have here is a plot by deep ecologists to end the world in the year 2000, elements that very likely are new to Clancy novels. We also have just a whiff of the suggestion that what this planet needs is a planetary police.

No one, I suspect, reads Tom Clancy for the characterization. The men have guns and the women have babies, and the interior monologues of the characters differ only in that foreigners never use foul language while thinking to themselves. What people do read these books for is the action sequences and the descriptions of the latest military hardware. These are extremely lucid and often illuminating. The forces of good here are represented by a secret multinational anti-terrorist organization known as "Rainbow," and the book is largely built around five hostage-taking incidents of ever-greater scale and daring. These incidents are, really, the sort of training scenarios that SWAT teams study, and Clancy has the narrative form for these encounters down to a science.

He covers everything, from training to weaponry to reconnaissance of hostage sites. There is also a great deal about negotiation and psychological manipulation, as explained by Rainbow's resident psychological profiler. I don't know whether there really is a gizmo that will let you track human heartbeats on the other side of a wall, and I rather doubt that even the CIA has wireless computer systems that work quite as smoothly as the ones described here. Still, maybe the only way to study this kind of thing is to begin with what is supposed to happen when everything goes right. As for how execution falls short in practice, you can read about that in the newspapers.

Engrossing though all the descriptions of bad-guys' heads blowing apart like melons may be, perhaps the most interesting feature of the book is the change in the nature of the forces of evil. Ten years ago, the notion of a private group (in this case, an international bio-technology company) seeking to reduce the human race to a tiny fraction of its current numbers was confined to the more tongue-in-cheek "007" movies. Since then we have seen at least one religious cult, the Aum Shinrikyo, attempt just that by trying to start a nuclear war. (That's what all that anthrax and poison gas was for.) Closer to home, we have seen the development of ideologies that would make such a project at least plausible to the secular mind. Curiously, Clancy does not use the term "deep ecology" (though someone apparently told him about "game face"). Still, it is pretty clear that his conspirators live in the mental universe of the deep ecologists, one in which the human race is a parasitic species whose population must be radically reduced in order to save Mother Gaia. Considering the degree of false piety that still surrounds ecological issues, it is somewhat startling to see the fictional president of the Sierra Club portrayed as the unknowing fellow-traveler of the forces of absolute evil.

Just how absolute the evil is we come to realize when it is contrasted with ordinary evil, the sort of evil that Clancy's heroes contended with in earlier novels. I don't know whether Iosef Andreyevich Popov is a regular from Clancy's Cold War stories, but in this book he is a former Soviet agent, downsized from the KGB, who has taken to freelancing for a living. In this capacity, he is hired by the deep ecologists to stir up some seemingly senseless terrorist activity. The idea is to induce the authorities at the Sydney Olympics to hire a certain security consulting firm, which will then work the deep ecologists' wicked will on the unsuspecting international crowds. When the disease breaks out worldwide, the bio-technology company will finish the job by distribution of a live-virus vaccine that is just a little too live.

Now Popov has his faults. He is a murderer. He is a liar. He is a thief. These, however, are merely human failings, which in no way prepare him for the sick horror he experiences when he realizes what all those pleasant Americans at his employer's hermetically sealed base in Kansas are up to. Even with the odd developments of the past decade, it is still hard to credit that any group would seriously try to do what the deep ecologists in this book try to do. Nevertheless, Clancy has put his finger on an element in ecological philosophy to which the famous characterization by G.K. Chesterton might fittingly apply: "that extreme evil that seems innocent to the innocent."

It is not giving much away to reveal that the world does not end in this book. The die-off projections of the villains are sufficiently detailed to form the backbone of a novel, if anyone is inclined to write it. The bad guys come to a poetic bad end, though one with enough uncertainty to allow of a rematch with the chief malefactors. If the story does any harm, it will be to make some people a bit suspicious of vaccines. Clancy has now moved beyond tales of the Cold War and even of interstate conflict. I am curious to see where he takes us next.           


Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly 

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All of John's posts here

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