2003-02-21: Imperial Catechism

A good man, and good at being a man

A good man, and good at being a man

While John was a fan of TR, he did admit that the colonies Teddy Roosevelt so enthusiastically helped to acquire were useless, both geostrategically and in domestic politics. However, when John talks about empire, the acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Philippines isn't what he means.

The empire [as opposed to an empire] is the ground state of a political and economic system when the will to maintain a more vigorous state is no longer available. This is what John is referring to when he says: "The basis of the Empire is not dominance, but acquiescence." The extent of an empire may be founded on the conquests of a vigorous leader, but its continued existence cannot be. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, and then went on to create a template of political leadership that would directly continue for 1500 years [and indirectly until today]. Whereas Alexander the Great conquered an even greater extent of territory than Caesar, but it fell into strife and dissolution upon his death. On the gripping hand, the Roman Empire did about as well with Marcus Aurelius as Commodius. The empire does not depend on the charisma or skill of the Emperor to exist. Rather, the fact that the Emperor exists is what sustains the Empire. He is the still center about which everything else revolves.

The formation of universal states is something that seems likely, given human nature. I think it would be too bold to say it is a Law of Nature, but it certain seems to be a stable tendency. Going by past experience, we can expect the formation of a universal state that will encompass most of the world by the end of the Twenty-first century. I will be an old man, if I live at all, before I have the opportunity to see whether this prediction comes true. I am curious to see how it all turns out.

An Imperial Catechism
There is a relationship between American policy toward Iraq and the prospect of empire, but it's not the one you might think. Any American government, at any stage in the history of the United States, would have had to end the sort of threat that the Baathist regime in Iraq poses. In fact, America's first international war was a long, moderately successful campaign to suppress the Barbary Pirates. (You know the bit in the Marine Anthem about the "shores of Tripoli"?) Now, however, the international system is older, more constricted: you have to get a license to use force, even for self-defense. The problem is that the licensing authorities are both incompetent and autonomous. All the empire will mean is that the agencies will be answerable to an executive. There: that's the 21st century for you.
America has a great deal to do with this process, but again, not in the way you might think. America once had an empire, of the same variety as the British and French and Dutch empires. We acquired it late and let it go early. The old colonial empires were just extensions of the nations that controlled them. They were never worth much, frankly, and they had nothing to do with what America was or wanted.
What is happening now is different. We are seeing the beginning, not of an American Empire, but of the Empire. It seems at this point that it will be chiefly organized by the United States, but even that could change. The Empire is the terminal episode in the evolution of an international system. The Roman Empire, Han and Ming China, the Ottoman Empire: all were "universal states" of this class. The basis of the Empire is not dominance, but acquiescence. States may continue under the Empire, but the Empire is the ultimate source of legitimacy. In principle, it is the ultimate earthly guarantor of the minimum of order and justice without which civilization could not function.
Although the universal state of the West is still two or three generations from final formation, we are already seeing debate about it. A useful polemic against the Empire is available on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation, in the form of an essay by Richard Ebeling of Hillsdale College. The essay is entitled An American Empire! If You Want It instead of Freedom. Let me take in turn the points it raises.
* * *
Mr. Ebeling cites the arguments of a book published in 1953, Garet Garret's The People's Pottage. Conveniently, Mr. Ebeling numbers them:
First, the executive power of the government becomes increasingly dominant.
That trend has been exaggerated, and of course it was reversed after the Watergate scandal. Now it is probably being reversed again: not because of presidential hubris, but because Congress is terrified to be seen making a decision in public. For what it's worth, the executives of mature universal-states keep their jobs by doing as little as possible. Roman and Chinese emperors spent most of their time answering their mail.
Second, domestic-policy issues become increasingly subordinate to foreign-policy matters.
Twice in the 20th century, during the 1920s and the 1990s, the United States tried to reverse those priorities. The result in both cases was kaboom.
Third, Empire threatens to result in the ascendancy of the military mind over the civilian mind.
That is what happened, to some extent, under the colonial empires. Under the Empire, the trend is exactly the opposite. The characteristic feature of universal states is debellicization. The whole world becomes the European Union.
Fourth, Empire creates a system of satellite nations.
The Empire makes all politics domestic politics.
Fifth, Empire brings with it both arrogance and fear among the imperial people.
Even the colonial empires moved away from ethnic chauvinism in their last stage. As for the Empire, under it there are no foreigners.
And, finally, Empire creates the illusion that a nation is a prisoner of history..."Destiny" has marked us for duty and greatness.
The way that universal states form is contingent. The fact that they do form probably is not. Get over it.
* * *
America's old colonial empire in the Philippines and the Caribbean really did contradict America's essential nature. The Empire, in contrast, was implicit in the American Founding. The Declaration of Independence famously says: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Rights are imaginary unless a social order exists in which they can be exercised. By declaring the rights universal, the Continental Congress implied the ideal of a universal order. Indeed, the Congress appealed to that order: the Declaration is addressed, not to the American people, or to God, or to specific sovereigns. It is addressed to "the decent opinion of mankind," to the consensus of civilization. The Empire is simply that consensus in institutional form.
Regular visitors to my site will know that I have dozens of items online that deal with these matters in one way or another. As a convenience to readers, I am planning a paperback anthology on the subject: The Perfection of the West. It will not include Spengler's Future, unless I can fix the rights problem with the old publisher in a week or two. However, it should make clear some of the things I have been getting at these many years. Look for it this spring.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2003-02-16: Bottle this Moment

Tomorrow we will return to our regularly scheduled program of Spengler and cyclical theories of history. It has been a little painful to relive John's commentary on the run-up to the Iraq war, knowing what I know now. However, I think it is necessary, because it helps us remember how easy it is to make foolish decisions.

Bottle This Moment
Having seen Dr. Hans Blix's performance before the UN Security Council on Friday, and the international peace demonstrations yesterday, we now know for certain that Hegel was right: the one thing we learn from history is that mankind never learns from history. These quotations about the peace movement of the 1930s, from Paul Johnson's Modern Times, make the parallels crystal clear:
"In this highly emotional atmosphere, with an ostensible concern for humanity forming a thin crust over a morass of funk -- so suggestive of the nuclear scares of the late 1950s and early 1980s -- the real issue of how to organize collective security in Europe was never properly debated. The mood was set by a ridiculous debate in the Oxford Union, immediately after Hitler came to power, which voted 275-153 'That this House refuses an any circumstances to fight for King and Country'...The League of Nations, supposedly the hard-headed, well-informed collective security lobby group, never put the issues clearly before the public because it was unable itself to take a clear stand on when and how force could be legitimately employed in international affairs...The clergy...saturated the discussion in a soggy pool of lachrymose spirituality. Three divines…proposed to go to Manchuria and 'place themselves unarmed between the combatants.'...The pacifist wing of the clergy…founded a Peace Pledge Union to collect the signatures to frighten off Hitler: among these who sponsored it were Aldous Huxley, Rose Macaulay, Storm Jameson, Vera Britain, Siegfried Sassoon, Middleton Murry and other literary luminaries.”
Listening to the Security Council on Friday was like listening to the trial of the operator of a Ponzi scheme. When such frauds are prosecuted, some of the victims will offer themselves as defense witnesses, pleading with the court to let the genius go who promised to make them so much money. Maybe they know that the operation is a hoax, just as the majority of the Security Council know that the inspections are a hoax. Still, it's possible to benefit from a Ponzi scheme, provided you enter early enough and stay in long enough. That seems to be the position of most members of the Council regarding the ruin of the world's nonproliferation machinery.
There are differences from the 1930s, of course. On foreign policy, the Bush Administration is far more foresighted and responsible than FDR's Administration ever was. In Britain, the Blair Government is like an exercise in happy alternative-history: we are seeing what would have happened, had Churchill been prime minister at the time of the Sudetenland crisis. Is this enough, though? Will the governments of Great Britain and the United States really have the courage to defy the rotten international establishment? Or do we wait a year, two years, three years, when that establishment is in ruins, along with a few of the world's great cities?
The applause that greeted the French foreign minister's address to the Council on Friday: remember it. It ranks with the film clip of Prime Minister Chamberlain stepping off the plane on the return from Munich, brandishing a piece of paper that guaranteed peace in our time. A few moments in history are wholly unambiguous.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2003-02-13: Delusions

Unfortunately, delusions is about the best thing I can say about this post of John's.

Delusions
They said I was crazy. For years, they said it was insane to hoard spools and spools of duct tape. Since duct tape appeared on the list of supplies to keep at home in case of biochemical attack, however, it has become almost unobtainable. Who's laughing now, eh?
That's almost true. I find that I do have three spools of duct tape, for some reason. I also for many years have been in the habit of storing a few gallons of water. I can't remember the last time I freshened the supply, so it's probably more dangerous than the nerve gas by now. Still, foresight is foresight.
And lunacy is lunacy. The New York Times is the chief newspaper of a city that everybody says is about to be the object of some singular outrage. Most conspicuous among the people with published thoughts along these lines is Osama bin Laden, or someone pretending to be him, who earlier this week released an appeal for suicide attacks in defense of Iraq. You might think that this would concentrate the minds of the Times editorial writers, but no. Consider this passage from today's edition:
 
"The White House argued that the tape, if it really was Osama bin Laden, simply demonstrated that Iraq and terrorism were indeed somehow linked. But we couldn't help wondering if the expression of solidarity with Iraq might have been a canny way of luring the United States into an attack on Baghdad that would rally the Muslim world against the West, producing new converts to Al Qaeda."
This is beyond folly. It would merit the Darwin Award for willfully frustrating self-preservation, had the French and the Germans not won it already. There is no point in picking on the French on this point, but I might suggest that it is unjust to compare the policy of the current French government to that of the government at the time of the Munich Conference in 1938. In 1938, the French would have had to bear the brunt of a war. They grossly overestimated the extent of German preparedness, but their decision to defer the war for a few years was not irrational. In the event of a war with Iraq today, in contrast, the French would be in no direct danger. The war might occasion further terrorist activity at home, but that was starting to happen anyway. The suppression of Islamicism at its bases, which is what the war is about, at least creates the possibility that the terror might cease.
 
* * *
The UN "inspection regime" has reached the point where the Iraqis routinely renege on their assurances of cooperation within hours of making them. Last week, the inspectors and the Iraqis announced an agreement to allow unconditional U2 overflights of Iraqi territory. Today we learn that the very document in which they were supposed to have made that concession actually specifies that Iraq must have prior notice of the time and route of the flights. Similarly, the Iraqi scientists, whom the inspectors have at last been permitted to interview privately, are known to have been under threat from their government if they say anything embarrassing. Nonetheless, this is the process that the French and Germans still purport to hope will disarm Iraq. There are reports that they fantasize about creating a protectorate over the country. French and German troops would arrive in such numbers as to constitute a light occupation, but one that would leave the Baathist government in place, and the Iraqi military still under arms.
Actually, this notion revives an American proposal; it just would use personnel that the Iraqis might find less threatening. Members of the Iraqi government have condemned the idea in both forms, and the Germans have denied ever considering any such thing.
 
* * *
One of the wonders of recent days is that no less a person than Thomas Friedman of the Times has broken free of all this. In his editorial on Sunday, Throw France Off the Island, he divides the planet into the World of Order and the World of Disorder. The US, predictably, "anchors" the first, while France symbolizes what is wrong with the second. This is quite a departure for him.
The problem, of course, is not the French, but an international system whose institutions divide legitimacy from responsibility. In this case, "responsibility" means the capacity to actually do something about lethal threats to civilization. The UN General Assembly is a parliament of rotten boroughs. The UN Security Council preserves in amber the coalition that won the Second World War, even though the old roster of great powers has been meaningless for decades. If the Council were created today, it would have quite a different membership. Friedman suggests replacing France with India. But why not take it further?
Perhaps we should be thinking about a third-generation international body, one that will supersede the UN as the UN superseded the League of Nations. In the new body, the voice of the members would be weighted according to their willingness to contribute to global order. Population, and even the size of a member's economy, would be irrelevant. Such an organization would be a return to the no-nonsense proposal that Theodore Roosevelt promoted almost 100 years ago. It was essentially a posse of states, with some associated machinery for arbitration. What might we call such an organization? I would revive the old term: The Concert of Nations.
 
* * *
One of my problems with paranormal phenomena is that the debunking explanations for them are so often incredible. There are few paranormal reports I am inclined to taker seriously. Still, more than once I have given a dubious claim a second look, simply because what some debunker had to say about it was manifest nonsense. If you have had this problem, too, then you should mourn the recent passing of Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist and magician who had long studied the occult with honest skepticism.
Speaking of skepticism, readers may note that I have had little to say about the Germans in this entry, even though they have been almost as obstructionist as the French. This is because I thought that further comment from me would be superfluous. God has already expressed His own displeasure by sending them evil crows.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2003-02-05: Powell at the UN; Columbia; Impossibilities

In a followup to Sunday's repost of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, here is a newsgroup post detailing why you couldn't have possibly matched the orbit of the shuttle to the ISS, among other things.

John wasn't a physicist or an aerospace engineer, so not knowing this bit of orbital mechanics is excusable. Providing a fast answer on almost any topic is what the internet is best at, after all.

Here is a prediction John did pretty well on:

This is a slim silver lining on a very dark cloud, but manned space flight will probably be accelerated by Columbia. There is more political will to create a serious launch system than there was after the Challenger disaster. There is also much more economic and military incentive; it is intolerable that billion-dollar satellites are still rendered useless by small assembly errors, things which could be fixed by a man with a screwdriver. The key to making space accessible is to keep NASA as far away as possible.

Private space companies like Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, and of course SpaceX have come a long way towards making spaceflight cheaper, faster, and safer. We can only wish them further success.

Powell at the UN; Columbia; Impossibilities
This morning, US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave the detailed presentation of evidence against Iraq that had to be given. President Bush, wisely, did not try to fit this list of details into his State of the Union Address last week. The UN was the proper venue, and Powell gave a solid, factual briefing. In the context of the Security Council, it was gripping. The recordings of Iraqi officers conspiring to hide evidence of weapons programs was particularly effective. The images of material being moved from important sites just ahead of the UN inspectors were a worthy homage to Adlai Stevenson's famous Cuban missile photos. Unlike Stevenson, Powell is not a windbag, so his narrative account of Iraq's links to Al-Qaeda also carried great weight.
Effective though the presentation was, it remained theater. The fact is that the claims the Secretary of State presented can be verified only through occupation. Everybody knows that by now. It is interesting to note that the French representative did not respond to Powell's address by advising that the inspections be allowed to take their "natural course." Rather, he said that the inspections need to be doubled, tripled, augmented in depth and sophistication. Maybe a permanent UN "High Commissioner for Disarmament" should be installed in Baghdad. The German representative, Joschka Fischer, seemed to second these meaningless evasions.
As Daniel Schorr noted after the session, the responses that the Security Council representatives gave had been prepared beforehand. Even though the Council's members were represented for this session by their foreign ministers, the foreign ministers had no power to make policy on the spot. That is the difference between a legislature and a convention of ambassadors; the latter is what the UN remains. In any case, maybe the governments will think better of the matter, after they have had the opportunity to analyze Powell's speech. Those with an open mind may be in a position to verify some of his intelligence reports. To me, it seems unlikely that any of the governments in question really entertain doubts on the matter. The good office of Powell's speech will be its effect on American public opinion.
* * *
The Columbia disaster is the sort of public event that the Internet handles well. As soon as the ship went down, suggestions began to appear online about what NASA should or should not have done. Here is a newsgroup post that addresses some of my own bright ideas from Monday, particularly the widespread proposal that the shuttle astronauts might have gone to the space station. I have yet to see numbers on this, but here is a reasonable answer:
The shuttle might, perhaps, have had enough maneuvering fuel to go as high as the station's orbit. The problem was that the orbits were in different planes. Shifting the plane of the Columbia's orbit to match the space station's would have needed almost as much fuel as it took to launch.
Astronauts on extravehicular activity are supposed to stay within line-of-sight of the shuttle's crew compartment. It was unthinkable that an astronaut might have gone underneath the ship to look for damage. Therefore, it was unthinkable to send a tile-repair kit on the mission. It could still turn out that the disaster was not connected with the tiles. Nonetheless, the disaster has reminded us that NASA engineers still think of humans in space as spam in a can.
This is a slim silver lining on a very dark cloud, but manned space flight will probably be accelerated by Columbia. There is more political will to create a serious launch system than there was after the Challenger disaster. There is also much more economic and military incentive; it is intolerable that billion-dollar satellites are still rendered useless by small assembly errors, things which could be fixed by a man with a screwdriver. The key to making space accessible is to keep NASA as far away as possible.
* * *
Doubtless you have seen the gloating by the Iraqi government over the destruction of the Columbia, and the claims by Islamicists that the incident was the judgment of God. If you are looking for unlucky omens, you could not have found a better collection: on what is probably the eve of a war against the the ancient capital of Islam, a prime symbol of American prowess falls apart over the president's home state, bearing an Israeli fighter pilot who had helped derail Iraq's nuclear program in1981, plus an immigrant from India, that other civilization which annoys the Islamicists so much.
Thinking about omens rarely does any good. Still, anyone requiring reassurance might take a look at G.K. Chesterton's famous poem, Lepanto. It's about the naval battle of 1571, in which the Ottoman fleet was driven from the western Mediterranean, and Italy saved from invasion. The poem contains this odd passage, in which "Mahound" calls on supernatural forces to aid the Moslem cause:
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.
If these entities did attend the battle, they did not do the Turks a lick of good.
* * *
Speaking of things that aren't supposed to exist, I go through life finding that physical effects I had always assumed to be impossible really aren't. There is an example in one of the first books I ever read, Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night. The faster-than-light space ships made sense to me. So did the computer that could manufacture things by thinking about them. What made me gag was a description of moss whose heredity had been modified to make turf luminous. The very term "genetic engineering" had not been coined when I read the book.
A more common science-fiction notion I also recoiled from was invisibility. Well, take a look at (or through) this! A cloak of invisibility! Well, it will be a cloak of pretty good camouflage, once they get the bugs out.
A time machine would be the last straw.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2003-02-03: The Columbia Disaster

It isn't hard to be critical of NASA for the Columbia disaster, no one is going to make a movie about how well the space agency handled the situation. However, the bit about spending lots of money to design a pen that worked in space is half-true. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at NASA before giving up, and then a pen manufacturer developed one that he sold for a modest price, a few dollars. [$4 at the time, about $30 now adjusted for inflation]

The Columbia Disaster
 
Ron Dittemore, the space-shuttle project manager, gave an obviously stressful press conference yesterday. At several points, he addressed the question of why NASA did not determine with certainty the condition of the heat-shield tiles, even though NASA was aware they might have been damaged on lift-off by insulation foam from the fuel tank. He explained that large telescopes on Earth could not have taken satisfactory images of the area in question. He did not make clear whether the crew had the equipment to go outside and look for themselves. He did say the crew could not have fixed damage to the tiles even if they had discovered any. Here is a characteristic passage from the news conference:
"The predominant team will be the engineering teams related to the orbiter vehicle itself. And the types of disciplines are structures and mechanics, integration teams that understand the environment and the transport mechanisms between the external tank and the wing orbiter. You have thermal experts, tile experts and it goes on and on...[W]e also engage the operational functional areas: the astronaut corps, our operations flight control arena, our safety and quality and mission assurance experts...And all these people were engaged. All of them heard the story. All of them reviewed it to their satisfaction.. And the consensus, unanimous consensus was as I represented to you earlier, it was not a significant event."
Now consider this excerpt from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, about Gulliver's visit to the flying island of Laputa:
"Those to whom the king had entrusted me, observing how ill I was clad, ordered a tailor to come next morning, and take measure for a suit of clothes. This operator did his office after a different manner from those of his trade in Europe. He first took my altitude by a quadrant, and then, with a rule and compasses, described the dimensions and outlines of my whole body, all which he entered upon paper; and in six days brought my clothes very ill made, and quite out of shape, by happening to mistake a figure in the calculation. But my comfort was, that I observed such accidents very frequent, and little regarded."
Would that all accidents were so trivial.
* * *
How shall I put this? The point of having human beings in space is that they can handle the unexpected. Sending out a crewman to check the hull for damage is precisely the kind of thing that crewmen are for. It must take years of miseducation to reach a point where the obvious way to examine the skin of a ship is to use a telescope 300 miles away. Even if the crew could not have fixed the tiles, was it really impossible to prolong the flight until relief or resupply could be arranged? If the resources of the shuttle were really so close to exhaustion, then could the shuttle have docked at the International Space Station? Again, isn't that sort of improvisation what human space-flight is supposed to be about?
[After I posted this, a friendly reader, Brett Thomas, emailed to point out that the Columbia did not have suits for extravehicular activity, and it did not have a docking hatch to use with the space station. As he also pointed out, they might have used the suits at the station to ferry the Columbia's crew. The station crew could, of course, have also checked the tiles. Fuel to get to the station would have been the only decisive question.]
NASA is a blocked and damned organization, the kind of institution that Northcote Parkinson used to skewer. These are the people who spent $25 billion to build expendable skyscrapers to fly to the moon so that fighter pilots could "explore" it for a few hours. These are the people who spent tens of thousands of dollars to design a ballpoint pen that could work in space, until someone mentioned that the Russians used pencils.
And then there is the shuttle itself: the horse designed by a committee. It was supposed to be a taxi for quick manned access to space. It was supposed to be simple, modest in size, completely reusable. Most important of all, it was supposed to require only a small ground crew. After years of demands from institutional science and the military, it grew in size and number of functions until it was nearly as unstable as an early version of Windows. A small city is needed to keep the shuttle flying, at long intervals, and at some risk.
* * *
NASA does for manned space travel what the UN does for world order: the result of all the activity is to ensure that there will be less of the desired product.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Spengler's Future

When I did the site upgrade, John's online book, Spengler's Future, got jumbled up because I had it hosted on separate pages. I rolled everything up into one page, and added it to the navigation bar.

Spengler's Future was an interesting exercise, a book written around a very simple BASIC program, one that correlated contemporary events to the history of four civilizations that exhibited Spenglerian cycles by simply adding a fixed number of years to the date on which any given event occurred:

If E$ = "China" then let H = F + 2300
If E$ = "Egypt" then let H = F + 3547
If E$ = "Rome" then let H = F + 2127
If E$ = "Islam" then let H = F + 626

For so simple an attempt, this actually worked pretty well. This approach is a quick and dirty way to see the kind of parallels in history that have inspired the many attempts to make cyclical models of history. Go check it out, it is worth a read.

The Long View 2003-01-29

This topical take on the 2003 State of the Union address is now mostly interesting because we have an opportunity to remember Rahm Emanuel's praise of W before he became Barack Obama's Chief of Staff.

The State of the Union
George W. Bush had already proven that he can give soaring, Churchillian addresses. What he proved last night was that he can give a forceful but normal one. Whether through consultation or because all great minds think alike, he largely followed the advice that Peggy Noonan gave in her recent column, entitled Just the Facts. Noonan is perhaps more sensitive to this matter than are other pundits. She was called in at the last minute to write the last State of the Union Address given by the current president's father. That president planned to run for reelection largely on the basis of his recent victory in the Persian Gulf, with the result that he had almost nothing to say in January of 1992. She did a pretty good job on the speech, but you can do only so much with geniality and a reduction in the capital-gains tax. Bush Senior was defeated later that year because he gave the impression there was nothing he wanted to do with the presidency.
To put it mildly, this was not a problem with last night's address. A former Clinton adviser and now congressman from Illinois, Rahm Emmanuel, put it best with a wonderful mixture of metaphors and propulsion systems:
"This is one of those moments when you get all eight cylinders of the presidency operating, and they're going to use as much octane as they can to get him back into orbit."
Every president after Richard Nixon seemed to become paralyzed whenever a foreign policy issue dominated the national agenda. George W. Bush, in contrast, has somehow recovered the knack of the early Cold War presidents of talking about foreign and domestic policy without making one sound like a distraction from the other. Some of these domestic proposals have merit, but not many, frankly. He still wants to cut taxes drastically while fighting a low-intensity world war. His ideas about partially privatizing the Medicare program would make the lives of seniors more complicated and stressful. On the other hand, he did signal to the people that he is interested in much the same things they are interested in. Actually, the social welfare measure he proposed that will probably do the most good was not domestic but foreign: tripling the amount of money the US spends to combat AIDS in Africa.
* * *
As for the foreign policy half of the speech, the president's job was made immensely easier by the report that UN weapons inspector Hans Blix gave to the Security Council on Monday. I still think that Dr. Blix is Mr. Magoo, but even Mr. Magoo knows when he has been insulted. The last straw seems to have been the Iraqi agreement to let the inspectors talk to scientists privately, followed within hours by evidence that no scientist would actually be interviewed under those circumstances. Contrary to widespread expectations, the president did not divulge much new intelligence information about Iraq last night. Still, it was news to me that some of the "scientists" the UN inspectors did interview were really Iraqi security officers. There comes a time when even the most pacific bureaucrat wants to load for grape.
We should note that the president has made himself a hostage to fortune. "The war against terrorism is being won," he said. This is true. We see this especially in Europe, where poisons and explosives are discovered every other day in the hands of would-be terrorists. Islamist cells have been uncovered in Spain and France, in Britain and Germany. The attacks are being stopped. The problem is that they are still being attempted, and at an accelerating pace.
The groups and individuals involved are increasingly diverse. The hijackers of 911 were mostly from Saudi Arabia. The latest detainees are more likely to be from North Africa. Chechnya is starting to play the role that Afghanistan once did as a training ground. Many sources say that a major terrorist offensive will be launched when the US launches a conventional offensive against Iraq. Some of these terrorist attacks will probably succeed, and the presidents' critics will say that he provoked attacks that caused casualties among Western civilians. This reasoning is very much like the argument that FDR caused the attack on Pearl Harbor by refusing to sell the Japanese more oil. The charge is true, after a fashion, but it rather misses the point.
* * *
The president promised to consult with the UN about further steps against Iraq. He said that Colin Powell would make the case for decisive action to the Security Council next week. However, he also made clear that the US would act whether or not the UN did. This got applause in the House chamber, but one suspects it came chiefly from the Republican side. There were many odd things about the Democrat's response to the speech (which began before the speech was delivered, of course), but by far the oddest was the determination of the party leadership to treat the Security Council as a third house of Congress. Their insistence that the US is always stronger when aligned with the UN is starting to sound like the story of the mythological Simurgh bird, which is omnipotent on the condition that it do nothing.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle spent the day before the speech telling anyone who would listen that "the state of the Union is anxious." This would have been a good line, had the president's address consisted of platitudes and threats. It played poorly against the address that was actually delivered. Afterward, the Congressional Democratic leadership, particularly those with presidential aspirations, fought shy of making a conspicuous response. They took the very unusual step of having the rebuttal made by a governor, one Gary Locke of Washington. He used much of his time paying tribute to his immigrant grandfather from China. It was not a bad talk, but it was delivered by someone who knew no more about foreign policy than George W. Bush did when he was a state governor. Locke's real purpose seemed to be simply to remind voters that the Democrats are the party of abortion and affirmative action.
* * *
Early polls indicate the president's address was well received. It's not that people necessarily agree with President Bush. It's just that now they are reassured he is on the case.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2003-01-23: Why Do They Do It?

John called this post, "Why Do They Do It?", but it really could have been "Why Do I Do It?". Using the occasion of the one-year anniversary of his blog The Long View, John gives us an extended reflection on the idea of blogging, which was still new and exciting at the time, plus something of his view of history.

John mentions the anti-war group ANSWER in passing here. It is worth remembering that while there were a few sane people against the Iraq war at the time, like Greg Cochran, the loudest voices were kooks acting in bad faith like ANSWER. With anti-war groups like this, war can seem like a good idea. The quality of the opposition makes the rush to war more understandable. That won't bring back the dead or replace the missing limbs of the boys we sent over there, but we should understand what actually happened rather than trying to retcon history to match our preferences.

Why Do They Do It?
 
This blog has now been running for a year. (I actually had not noticed the anniversary until the ever-observant Danny Yee reminded me.) This is a good time to examine why I am doing this, or for that matter why anyone keeps a blog.
There have been weblogs for years. The original idea was just a place to showcase links to "interesting stuff I found on the Web." Though there were early general-interest blogs, like the Drudge Report, most probably had niche readerships, like the venerable Rapture Ready. For better or worse, the form became fashionable after 911. Then, suddenly, everyone wanted their own editorial page to comment on the Situation. On the whole, I am glad that I did not have a blog up at the time of the attacks. I live fairly close to the World Trade Center site (in New Jersey, not Manhattan). As is always the case with a major historical event, what I heard at the time was usually misleading, and what I saw I often misinterpreted. All those things I wrote in a journal (with a fountain pen, no less). Maybe someday I will publish it as a warning to numbskulls.
The network of blogs (which Andrew Sullivan calls the "blogosphere") has been overbuilt. I hear that it is now suffering a decline. If so, one suspects it will pick up again, as further landmines go off in this treacherous era. That last phrase sums up why I keep a blog. History has a structure, I believe, which tells us why this era is treacherous, what the best and worst outcomes can be, and why it is very far short of the end of the world. Few of the ideas I express here are original. Essentially, I am merely applying the old idea that modernity is analogous in some ways to Hellenistic antiquity. This notion is again becoming familiar in the public policy journals. However, you find little of it in the daily or weekly press, and even less on the Internet. So, here I am.
There are other reasons for using this format, of course. It allows for short comments on the news, something I recognize that proper bloggers do every day. It also allows for blessedly short notes about books I have read. Readers are sometimes puzzled, not to say numbed, by the length of the reviews on my website. All I can say is that I learned to do reviews while writing for a publication that needed review-essays, and now I cannot help myself. Less than half of the material I do comment on merits the Spengler-Toynbee metahistorical analysis that inspired the blog, and that's fine, too. You have to spend years doing technical writing before you can understand what a relief it is to write about anything that catches your attention, and even have some chance that a few people will read it.
In any case, let me offer my thanks to those who write to comment on what I say. One of the great pleasures of this enterprise is the intelligent feedback. Special thanks are due to those who have donated money through the Amazon Honor System, as well as to the readers who have bought books using the Amazon buttons on this site. You know who you are. (No, Amazon does not tell me.)
 
* * *
The foreign policy of the old Left, meaning the Left before 1989, made a certain amount of sense. They were defending socialism. Usually, though not invariably, this meant defending the Soviet Union and its policies. That was a bad idea, but at least it was rational. There is a real mystery, though, about what the radical organizers of today's anti-war movement hope to accomplish. As one man, the Progressive Left of the Western world has risen to defend Jonestown on the Tigris.
The cranky but sane Christopher Hitchens has tried to reason with these people. He points out, rightly, that the peace movement today is engaged almost exclusively in defending fascists and religious reactionaries. It's not that the movement opposes war; the effect of its activities is often to ensure that fighting continues. To some extent, their goal is simply to stymie whatever the US does in the world; it has been widely remarked that opposition to the United States is the organizing principle of the Left these days. Even this analysis, I suggest, underestimates the irresponsibility of the movement.
Take a look at the website of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), the umbrella group that was chiefly responsible for last weekend's large demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco. What we have here is an example of depraved indifference to human life masquerading as a social conscience. These people don't want the regime in Iraq contained. They don't even want it inspected. They want "self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East," even if they determine to have a regional nuclear war and shut off the world's oil supplies. After a while, you begin to suspect that they want self-determination, especially if it means those things.
There is a poem by Constantine Cavafy called Waiting for the Barbarians, written in 1904. It's about a city of late antiquity, which has resigned itself to submission to primitive invaders. The government and people are all prepared to greet the barbarians when they arrive, and to turn over responsibility for their lives to them. Then something happens:
Why all of a sudden this unrest and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become). Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly, and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come. And some people arrived from the borders, and said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians? Those people were some kind of solution.
This disillusion is the future of the Left.
 
* * *
Of course, not everyone who opposes war with Iraq is a nihilist, though what exactly they are is not always immediately clear. Just two days ago, I got the oddest thing in the mail: a newspaper called Current Concerns. This is the English-language version of the German-language publication, Zeit-Fragen. It is filled with rambling, anti-American propaganda, most of in connection with Iraq. Those items that are not simply Internet downloads seem to be machine translations.
The publication is edited and apparently printed in Zurich, though I can't imagine that it was posted from there. In fact, the articles are often pitched toward a Swiss audience; the editors are not at all keen on the relaxation of the militia principle, for instance. The matter is less interesting for the content of Current Concerns, frankly, than for how I got on the mailing list. International political junkmail is almost as scary as international telemarketing calls (except from Ireland, where they have cool voices).
 
* * *
Speaking of strange things from the German-speaking world, Germany itself may be on the verge of real witchhunts. A notorious case of cannibalism came to light in Germany last year. It was gay, consensual cannibalism, apparently with some occult element. More recently, though, the German police have been collecting testimony about a network of baby-eating Satanists.
I suppose it's possible that these stories are true, but I would not bet on it. We had literal witchhunts in the US in the 1980s: remember "Satanic ritual abuse"? The phenomenon was interesting from a folkloric perspective. The rumors that circulated about the Satanic underground were not like the rumors from the medieval witchhunts; they were the same rumors. There were estimates that 40,000 or 50,000 people were being sacrificed every year. When the police investigated, however, they could never prove that any one devil worshiper had ever eaten any particular baby.
Not that some people did not go to jail: Janet Reno made her reputation by devising the "Miami Method," which was a way of coaching kids to say what the experts on cults suspected was happening. Janet Reno later became the longest serving US Attorney General in the 20th century. Give me John Ashcroft any day.
 
* * *
Here is a paranormal event to strain the credulity even of those most greedy of wonders: this winter, it is whispered, a tiny piece of Minnesota remains unfrozen.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2003-01-16: Plan B

It might seem that I am giving John a hard time about being wrong about the Iraq War with the benefit of hindsight, and after he is dead and cannot defend himself. In reality, I completely agreed with John at the time [and Jerry Pournelle], so I am trying to understand why I was wrong too.  We have ended up with an interesting natural experiment here. At the time, in early 2003, John thought that failing to invade Iraq would led to a state of affairs much like North Korea at the time, an obnoxious state that had to be placated because of its possession of nuclear weapons.

Twelve years later, North Korea is still obnoxious, and is attempting to increase their ability to threaten their neighbors with submarine launched missiles. Fortunately, the North Koreans don't actually have submarines capable of carrying missiles, so this threat is pretty useless at present.

Iraq is a huge mess, and now it is clear that Iraq never had the means to develop nuclear weapons, so that is a failure on two counts. There has been a great deal of concern that Iran might try to develop a nuclear weapon, but I can't really see the problem. India and Pakistan have managed not to nuke each other, and they hate each other at least as much as the Israelis and the Iranians do. Iran and Israel don't even share a border, which makes problems far more likely.

A nuclear Iran might be a bigger problem for the Sunni US client states in the Persian Gulf, but then I also see that bit of inter-religious rivalry as none of our business. All in all, maybe an unmolested Iraq [and Libya, and Syria], even if the nuclear thing had been real, would have been better than what we ended up with. Stronger states, even if unjust, at least kept a lid on the chaos we see now. If a decadent state is one that wills the ends but not the means, what is a state that keeps doing the same thing over and over even when it isn't working?

Plan B
 
Let us assume that the Bush Administration is reined in by the international community. The UN weapons inspectors in Iraq are permitted to pursue their inquiries until the end of the summer, perhaps until next winter. The US is prevailed upon to negotiate with North Korea. Maybe the US even resumes oil shipments to keep the lines of communication open. What happens then?
First, any hope of a non-nuclear Islamist front disappears. The US would be unable to keep an invasion force in the Middle East until the end of 2003, much less to redeploy one if the current forces are withdrawn. This would be partly because of the cost of logistics and partly because of the upcoming presidential election, but chiefly because such regional support as there is for an invasion would have evaporated. The bluff of the US would have been called. The states of the region would be scurrying to accommodate themselves to Iraqi hegemony. Iraq would have a deliverable bomb by the end of 2004. The UN arms inspectors will express surprise.
Meanwhile, in East Asia, just as the US is withdrawing from the Middle East, North Korean nuclear capacity would have developed from two experimental devices to a usable arsenal, including missiles that can certainly hit Japan and probably parts of the United States.
There will then be a brief period of alarms and crises: perhaps an oil embargo, perhaps an artillery bombardment of Seoul. Before very long, though, a nuke will go off in a European or American city. Then several things will happen.
On a theoretical level, the hypothesis on which the great international institutions are based will have been refuted. The UN was founded on the idea that a system of consultative, collective security makes the world a safer place. Within a few years of a retreat from Iraq, however, it will be clear to all that the collective security system actually made the situation far worse. The wars of retaliation and preemption to follow would, nominally, be undertaken by an alliance rather than by the US alone, but the alliance would work outside the UN system. Like the alliances that won the First and Second World Wars, this one would function as an emergency executive, with little regard for existing institutions or international law as it appeared at the beginning of the 21st century.
 
* * *
What I have outlined here is not an optimal scenario. However, even if the current balancing act between Iraq and North Korea can be brought to a successful conclusion, we have to face the fact that the international system is decadent. I use this term in the sense proposed by Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence: a decadent society is one that wills the ends, but not the means. One way or another, we will get to the ends for which collective security was supposed to be the means. The problem is that there is a great deal of sentiment for taking the worst way possible.
 
* * *
Speaking of blocked societies, I just finished Jonathan D. Spence's Treason by the Book, which deals with a hapless conspiracy against the Qing government of China in the early 18th century. The scope of the book is smaller than Spence's God's Chinese Son, but then not many historical events were as big as the Taiping Rebellion.
Treason by the Book recounts an incident in which the emperor decided to deal with rumors about his government by a policy of "transparency." Government printers published an anthology of all the documents relating to the investigation of some rather naive conspirators, and the emperor made a great show of clemency. Meanwhile, he took the opportunity to suppress a whole literary tradition based on the writings of a Ming loyalist. (The loyalist's works, awkwardly enough, were standard texts for students preparing to take the civil service exams.)
We learn quite a bit about Manchu China from all this, down to the distribution list of the Capital Gazette, the imperial version of the Federal Register. However, Spence has managed to turn a bureaucratic case-study into a gripping mystery story. It is not giving away the ending to mention that one of the things we learn is how a legal system works that lacks the concept of double jeopardy.
 
* * *
We have more Fortean phenomena: this time it's a ghost ship, an abandoned commercial fishing boat off the west coast of Australia. In point of fact, since the vessel in question sailed through pirate-ridden waters and the crew was quite capable of deserting in any case, it would take a certain skill to make the incident into a great mystery. Arthur Canon Doyle himself had a hand in making the legend of the Marie Celeste, but where is his equal today?

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: God's Chinese Son

If you have ever wondered why the Chinese Communist Party was so harsh on Falun Gong, it was probably the memory of the Taiping Rebellion. That war is one of the deadliest in recorded history. Taking the low estimate, 20 million people were killed in China during the Taiping Rebellion. To put that in proportion, the low estimate for World War II is 40 million, in a world with about double the population. Except that was spread out over half the world instead of focused just in Southern China. Depending on the estimates, somewhere between 10-35% of the Chinese population was killed by famine, pestilence, or war.

I have often said that the twentieth century was a particularly horrible century, but there were hints of what was to come much earlier if only we had known what to look for. The Taiping Rebellion, like the American Civil War, was part of the dress rehearsal for the First and Second World Wars.

One significant difference with the wars of the twentieth century was the way in which the Taiping Rebellion was religiously motivated. Much like the contemporaneous Second Great Awakening in America, the Taiping Rebellion affected so many people because the religious movement underlying it was deeply popular. In a way, I think we no longer really know what a popular religious revival really looks like, and how drastically it can change society. Popularity in early twenty-first century America is something ephemeral: all the rage this week, and next week we all move on to something else. There are revolutionary movements, but they lack popular support. Imagine if the Occupy Wall Street movement had actually had the support of a broad swath of middle America, instead of mere toleration?

God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan
by Jonathan D. Spence
W.W. Norton & Company, 1996
400 pages, $27.50
ISBN 0-393-03844-0
 
The Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 was a millenarian war in the literal sense of the term. Inspired and led by the visionary Hong Xiuquan, it was a campaign with the ultimate goal of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven everywhere on earth. It very nearly succeeded in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, which had ruled China since 1644. It was the most devastating conflict of the nineteenth century. The figure usually given for the number of deaths is twenty million. Most of these were civilians who died of famine or pestilence caused by the back-and-forth struggle of Taiping and Imperial Chinese forces. A large percentage, however, were casualties of battles comparable in size to those of the contemporary Civil War in America. Millenarian insurrections have not been rare in human history, and the nineteenth century was particularly rich with them. Few if any, however, have matched the Taiping in size, sophistication and degree of success.
This account of the Taiping movement by Jonathan D. Spence, a Sterling Professor of History at Yale, is a rare delight. Spence is a veteran sinologist, notable for maintaining his critical integrity in a field traditionally marred by political kowtowing. The literature on the Taiping is understandably considerable, and a book on the subject could easily become distended into a general study of Chinese culture or of millenarian movements. Spence keeps close to the narrative history, giving just enough background information on Chinese (particularly southern Chinese) folk customs and religious beliefs to make the story comprehensible. The result is an account that is objective but sympathetic to the principal figures. The book is short on analysis and uses speculation only to cover inevitable gaps in the sources. All in all, this is a very good way to cover a large subject.
In outline, at least, the history of the Taiping resembles the history of the Third Reich in its melodramatic simplicity. A prophet of humble birth had a vision. After a time of confusion and war, he formed a little cult. At first obscure, the cult suddenly became a crusading army, the Kingdom of Heaven on the march. In a few years they seized the second city of the empire and continued to expand militarily even as they established the divine order on earth. The millennium turned out to be a nightmare, however, a totalitarian state racked by bloody purges. As his competent ministers died or fled, the prophet increasingly lost touch with reality. When he died, isolated in his palace during the final siege of his capital by the resurgent forces of the old order, the Kingdom of Heaven collapsed. In China and in Europe, the drama took just over half a generation to enact.
That is the outline. This is what actually happened.
In 1836, a twenty-two year old village school teacher, then named Hong Houxiu, came to Canton from his home about fifty miles to the northwest to take the provincial civil service examination. While there, he picked up some literature being distributed by an American missionary, including translations of some of the apocalyptic texts of the Bible. By his own account, he was not much interested at the time and did not give the material more than a glance until the summer of 1843. He took his exam and failed it, something not at all unusual the first time out. [David Nivison’s fascinating biography, “The Life and Thought of Chang Hsueh-ch’eng (1738-1801)” (1966) is in large measure the tale of a very intelligent man who spent half his life failing standardizd tests.] He came back next year for a second try and failed again. He took this failure rather harder. Indeed, he became so gravely ill that his death was expected. That was when he had his first visions.
The extent to which the Taiping movement can be considered a form of Christianity has vexed the study of the subject since rumor of the movement first emerged from Guangdong Province. The content of these first visions, at least as originally reported, is more consistent with the popular Chinese supernatural than with Christianity. Hong ascends to heaven, which is ruled by a venerable old man with a golden beard. The old man has a wife and eldest son. The King of Heaven seems little different from the Jade Emperor of traditional belief, who is actually a human being who had attained immortality thousands of years before. Hong is told that he himself is this figure’s second son, and that he must return to earth to fight the unspecified “demons.”
After his visions, Hong made a slow, somewhat alarming recovery. He spoke much of his place in the cosmic hierarchy and his mission on earth. He called himself, among other things, “Son of Heaven in the Age of Great Peace.” This age is the “Taiping,” literally “High Peace.” In Chinese historiography, it could be used to characterize either notable dynasties of the past or hoped-for periods in the future. [For a general study of the pursuit of paradise in Chinese history, see Wolfgang Bauer’s “China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese History” (1976)] Hong changed his given names to Xiuquan, to emphasize the syllable “quan,” meaning “fullness.” The change also removed the syllable “huo,” meaning “fire,” which contradicted his surname, Hong, meaning “deluge.” This latter term is familiar from popular Taoism as a metaphor for revolutionary transformation. [Note, for instance, the title of Han Suyin’s fawning biography, “The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954” (1972).] Eventually Hong calmed down, however, returning to his duties as a teacher and householder. He even began studying to take the provincial examinations again.
The history of China in that era did not conduce to these peaceful pursuits. The Opium War between Great Britain and the Qing government began in 1839. When it ended in 1842, western access to Chinese ports was greatly expanded and the Chinese government was humiliated. The cities of the central Chinese coast were more affected by the war than was the more southerly Canton, whose magistrate contrived to maintain an uneasy truce with the British. Nevertheless, even in Hong Xiuquan’s backcountry village, people were aware that cities had been shelled and the armies of the central government defeated. The Qing Dynasty lost face not only because it lost the war, but because the Manchu rulers, suspicious of their Chinese subjects, undertook pacification campaigns to terrorize them into continued loyalty. Complicating things for Hong was the fact that he was a Hakka, a member of an ethnic group that had migrated from north-central China about 150 years before. While considered Chinese, they were still looked at askance by the people who had been in Guangdong before them, and tended to take the brunt of ethnic and economic hostility in difficult times.
The Taiping movement is perhaps evidence for Michael Barkun’s famous thesis in “Disaster and the Millennium” that millenarian movements tend to follow catastrophes, in part because the catastrophes make the end of the existing order of things more plausible. In any event, it was in this time of persecution, of wars and rumors of wars, that Hong got around to reading the tract he had brought back from Canton in 1836.
The tract in question consisted of translations by a Chinese convert named Liang Afa, a printer by trade, of selections from Genesis, Isaiah, Matthew’s Gospel and parts of the Book of Revelation. They were accompanied with commentaries by the author, not all of them distinguishable from the biblical text. Nevertheless, the tract gave Hong the key to understanding his vision. He understood that the King of Heaven in his vision was in reality God the Father, and that his eldest son was Jesus. Further, he understood that he was Jesus’s younger brother, with a mission of his own. He was to establish the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which had been translated by the term “Taiping.” (Literally, the “Heavenly Kingdom” is “tianguo,” a term Hong also used and which eventually eclipsed Taiping as the term for his regime.) He was to do as Jesus had done: preach and teach, and drive out demons. In the beginning, at least, Hong seems to have had no notion that his path would lead to civil insurrection.
Thus, Hong’s career as a prophet really began in 1843. He preached to the people of his own village, not without success, though it cost him his teaching job for a while. He went on a journey of evangelization into neighboring Guangxi province, where he gained adherents more well-to-do than his neighbors. He returned home as his disciples spread his word into the more remote parts of Guangxi while he devoted himself to writing. In 1847 he traveled to Canton and studied for a while under the irascible American missionary Issachar Roberts, who introduced him to more of the scriptures in translation. Returning home yet again to more unsettled conditions, he headed north and east to the Thistle Mountain region of Guangxi, a poor area with a large presence of Hakkas. Between 1847 and the year 1850, when the Taiping rebellion can be properly said to have begun, something remarkable happened.
Hong’s original society of “God-worshippers” was not a very alarming organization, either doctrinally or behaviorally. It had an original liturgy, including weekly “baptisms,” and scriptures consisting of Hong’s writings and excerpts from the Bible. It enjoined a rather Confucian morality with certain Christian additions. Its theology was monotheistic, but not platonically monotheistic. Hong always insisted on the literal corporeality of God, since his visions had been of a corporeal being. He also never accepted anything like the orthodox account of the Incarnation. In terms of Chinese metaphysics, in which form and substance were a familiar antimony, it would have been perfectly possible to sinicize the Christology of the Nicene Creed by saying that Jesus was the divine substance (qi) in human form (li). Hong’s Christian sources, however, either did not think to make this distinction or did not understand it themselves. Essentially, Hong replicated the Christology of the fourth century heresiarch Arius, who held that Jesus was simply the highest of created beings. Hong’s only innovation was in designating himself as the second highest created being. Only later, when Hong had installed himself as an alternative emperor, did he come into contact with theologically sophisticated missionaries. By then his ideas and his regime had hardened, and so he called on the missionaries to conform their theology to his. This attitude did not help his relationship with the European powers based on the coast, who would eventually cooperate with the Qing regime in bringing down the Heavenly Kingdom.
In some ways, Taiping history was like the development of a normally harmless bacterium that unexpectedly rages out of control in a weakened body. Law and order were breaking down in the already remote and loosely governed regions of Guangxi in which the group flourished. This was partly an effect of the Opium Wars. The British had made great progress toward driving the powerful pirate organizations from the South China Sea, with the unanticipated result that the pirates moved up the rivers and began to terrorize the interior. Also increasingly active were the Triad Societies. These had been formed in the eighteenth century by various malcontents. In part they were a native resistance to the Qing that hoped to reestablish the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which had preceded the Qing invaders. On a more practical level, they constituted a formidable system of protection rackets. In times of disorder, they tended to descend into mere banditry. In such a situation, Hong’s new converts were not the only group organizing itself for self defense. The decisive factor in turning the Taiping from a religious group to a rebellion may have been the fact they were among the targets when the forces of law and order attempted to reassert control.
The Taiping God-worshippers had originally obeyed the injunction to “fight the demons” by instituting a campaign to stamp out pagan cults. This began modestly enough by vandalizing small Buddhist and Taoist shrines. It was this sort of activity that first brought the Taiping to the unfavorable notice of local magistrates and gentry, who began to take limited measures to control the new cult. These progressed from admonitions and appearances in court to executions and coordinated attacks against Taiping villages. As Qing armies, present in the region primarily to fight the river pirates and the Triads, increasing played a role in attempting to suppress the Taiping, the Qing Dynasty soon became the chief manifestation of the demons who had to be fought. By the end of 1850, the Guangxi bases of the Taiping were surrounded and untenable, but the movement was growing and dynamic.
Persecution of this sort was just what they expected. The process of alienation, perhaps, was not altogether different from what happened when the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms laid siege to the compound of the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, Texas, in 1993-94. The very fact of the enemy assault was proof that the time had come to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. Moving north along the rivers, not just an army set out to establish it, but a new millenarian nation.
To some extent, this new stage in Taiping development resembled the Long March of the Chinese Communists 90 years later. Both involved the movement of whole communities. Both were in part inspired by ideologies imported from the West and adapted to local conditions. The crucial difference is that, whereas the Long March was a strategic retreat in search of a wilderness base, the Taiping were moving from relative wilderness toward the centers of civilization. Also, the organization of the Taiping fighting forces, in contrast to those of the Communists, was based on armies described in the Chinese classics, as was the ministerial system of the government the Taiping later formed.
Less generically Chinese but more peculiarly Hakka was the role of women in Taiping society. The Hakka did not bind the feet of their women, for instance, and generally Hakka women had more autonomy than had been usual in China since the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Taiping expanded the role of women further. Women served in the army and civil service, always in their own units. Indeed, in the final stage of the Taiping state, Hong’s palace bureaucracy consisted almost entirely of women. This partial suspension of gender roles is often a feature of millenarian groups worldwide.
A related feature of Taiping discipline was the strict separation of the sexes. Except for Hong and his subordinate “kings,” strict celibacy, even between husband and wife, was supposed to be the rule until the Kingdom of Heaven was finally established. (In practice, the rule was relaxed as soon as the Taiping became more secure.) Much has been written about whether the endorsements of celibacy in the New Testament should be understood only as a provisional morality adopted by endtime communities. In the case of the Taiping, that is just what it was.
The Taiping gained in numbers and skill as they moved, becoming a formidable amphibious force. Some cities they bypassed and some they sacked. The decisive point in their strategic fortunes was their entry into the littoral of the Yangzi River. The forces of the Qing were bewildered and overwhelmed, and in the spring of 1853 Hong’s people took the great city of Nanjing. This became their capital, where they began to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Heaven on earth, as it would be so often in the 20th century, was a kind of “war socialism.” Essentially, the organization of the army was transferred to civil life, so that land was distributed and communities organized pretty much the way the army was. Traditional Chinese models of the perfect society are almost wholly agrarian; other trades are regarded as essentially parasitic. Though not ignorant of the new economic institutions being established in the coastal cities, Taiping economic measures encouraged land reform and discouraged almost everything else. In Nanjing itself and the other cities that would be firmly under Taiping control for some years, normal market activity was more or less prohibited. Nevertheless, the initial entry of the Taiping into a new area was often welcomed by the peasants, since the local gentry would flee and their humbler neighbors could divide up the refugees’ goods and land.
Although the Taiping government was in principle structured according to the ancient “Rites of Zhou,” Hong’s real ministers were five “kings” he had appointed. Although his rule was based on visions, he did not have them regularly himself. For many years, he was willing to defer to those of his associates who did. Two of his kings issued frequent shamanistic pronouncements as “the Voice of Jesus” and “the Voice of God..” On the march north, the Voice of Jesus fell silent from a sniper’s bullet, an incident that inspired the Taiping to sack their first city. The Voice of God, however, Yang Xiuqing, continued to relay rather sound divine guidance until his murder in 1856. The problem was that, as a source of continuing revelation, his position was gradually eclipsing that of the Heavenly King Hong himself. The silencing of the Voice of God instituted a period of extremely bloody internal fighting among the Taiping, by the end of which Hong had managed to rid himself not just of Yang’s supporters but also of his assassins. The problem for the Taiping movement was that, in large measure, he had also succeeded in ridding himself of any key official who was not an idiot.
After taking Nanjing, the Taiping for several years made thrusts to the south and north, but without a clear strategy. Their attempt to take Peking, for instance, actually reached the suburbs of the city. It then petered out for lack of reinforcement, and their army was annihilated. Perhaps the strangest thing about this strange period was the survival of the Qing Dynasty. The Taiping Rebellion was the largest of their problems, but not the only one. There was another popular revolt, of the Nian, going on in eastern China at the same time. Moreover, in the late 1850s the Qing government somehow contrived to fall into hostilities with the Western powers again. In 1860, an Anglo-French force actually took Peking.
The dynasty survived because of the resilience of local institutions, particularly in central and southern China. Where imperial armies were not available, local gentry would raise their own. Local initaitive of this type prevented the Taiping from making any permanent gains when they again turned their attention to their own southern homeland, and helped to raise the forces that would ultimately destroy them.
The Qing government was corrupt, cruel and obviously doomed. [As John King Fairbanks notes in his “China: A New History” (1992), the morphology of the Chinese dynastic cycle is quite real, an effect he was inclined to attribute to autohypnosis.] Such dynasties in the past had often been overturned by insurgents intent on reestablishing Confucian virtue. These insurgencies might be led by men of little education. It was normal for such movements to contain some millenarian elements. [See, for instance, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s remarks in his “Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years,” on the role of that Chinese perennial, the White Lotus Society, in the popular movement that established the Ming Dynasty.] Popular insurgents could end an incumbent dynasty and establish their own if they won over the educated gentry by manifesting the intent to reform government along traditional lines. This was precisely what the Taiping could not promise to do.
Hong had originally been merely critical of Confucian ideas in certain details. By the time the Taiping were on the march, however, he had denounced the whole Confucian canon as demonic, despite the fact his system of government was informed by his own classical education in that canon. For the local people who made traditional China work to accept the legitimacy of Hong’s dynasty, they would have had needed to jettison everything they had ever thought of as good and true. Indeed, they would have had to reject the theory of government on which their notion of legitimacy rested. A more traditional Taiping movement might have rallied all of China against the alien Manchu government. As it was, their influence extended no further than their armies, and their armies increasingly lived by pillage.
One of the ways in which the Taiping were thoroughly traditional was also one of the things that doomed them. The principle leaders of the Taiping movement, including Hong himself, had actually had a fair amount to do with European missionaries and merchants. They could distinguish one kind of foreigner from another, for instance, which was sometimes more than the Qing government could do. The foreigners in Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangzi were anxious to learn more about this new movement as soon as it established itself in Nanjing. The notion of a Christian empire in the heart of Asia was, after all, redolent of the legendary Kingdom of Prester John. Hopes were raised for the rapid evangelization of China. As it was, the French and British and Americans who made the trip up the Yangzi found a government anxious for their aid but willing to treat with them only as vassals. The notion of diplomatic equality has been a rare one in Chinese history, something resorted to only by regimes in extremis. The Taiping did not regard themselves as weak. Indeed, they may have regarded themselves as the end of history.
Negotiations did not go well. They were not aided by the campaign of one of Hong’s more enterprising generals to strike east and achieve direct communication with Shanghai. When the Taiping actually attempted to take the Chinese portions of the city in 1860, the Europeans began to fight them. Having achieved a new round of concessions from the Qing, the Europeans became their open allies. The most famous manifestation of this alliance was the “Ever Victorious Army” led by the British commander Charles Stuart Gordon. [It is interesting to note that this strange man was destined to die twenty years later at the hands of another and more successful millenarian revolt, the Mahdi’s jihad in the Sudan. For an account of the Mahdi and Gordon’s unhappy end, see Thomas Packenham’s “The Scramble for Africa” (1991).] The French, not to be outdone, supplied their own “Ever Triumphant Army,” which unlike Gordon’s force was still in the war when the Heavenly Kingdom was finally put down in 1864.
Nanjing in the final years of the regime was becoming a deserted city. Ordinary economic life had never been permitted by the Taiping within its walls, though small markets had flourished outside. However, as Qing armies and local militias moved through its hinterland, the provision of the city became more and more precarious. When the city was finally besieged, Hong was asked what the people should do in the emergency. On the basis of the Book of Exodus, he advised them to eat manna. This he interpreted to mean stray weeds that grew in the streets and waste places of the city. He began to eat this diet himself. Whether for that reason or for some another, he died on June 1, 1864. Although large Taiping forces still fought in the south, they had been unable to beak the siege. On July 19, Qing forces blasted a breach in the wall of the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom and began unsystematically putting the population to the sword. A few weeks later, Hong’s son and heir apparent, who had contrived to escape the sack of the city and make his way back to Guangxi, was captured, tried and executed.
The Taiping movement thus did not end the Qing Dynasty. Indeed, the regime entered a period of macabre “reform” that did not end until its final overthrow in 1911. However, perhaps the matter is not so simple. In all of Chinese history, the Taiping movement most closely resembles the Yellow Turban rebellion, which began in 184. Another millenarian outbreak but of purely Taoist inspiration, it aimed at overthrowing the Latter Han Dynasty, the political regime that capped Chinese antiquity in much the way that the later Roman Empire capped the antiquity of the ancient Mediterranean. Like the Taiping, the Yellow Turbans were put down. However, as was also the case with the Taiping, the regime they attacked came to an end a few decades later with the abdication of the last Han emperor in 220. A Dark Age followed. So, if you will, whereas the Yellow Turbans were a harbinger of the end of the ancient phase of Chinese history, the Taiping were a warning that the “modern” phase of the same civilization did not have long to run. What has been happening in China since then is, no doubt, part of another story.
No historically-informed American can read about the Taiping episode without a sense of the uncanny way it resonated with developments in America during the same period. The missionaries who gave tracts to Hong in the 1830s and taught him in Canton in the 1840s were moved by the fires of the contemporary Second Great Awakening in America. This strange movement of the spirit, comparable in some ways to the 1960s, would spawn the women’s suffrage and antislavery movements. It featured the Millerite Movement that so powerfully convulsed western New York State in the 1840s with the expectation of the imminent Second Coming. It sent the persecuted Mormons on a migration to found their own divinely-ordered country in the western desert of North America at roughly the same time that the Taiping were fighting to establish theirs on a crusade through central China. (Salt Lake City was founded in 1847). In the opinion of many historians, it was one of the underlying predispositions to the American Civil War itself, a conflict that from first to last had apocalyptic overtones for its participants.
Naturally, this is not to suggest that the Second Great Awakening caused the Taiping Rebellion. It is hard to think of more peculiarly American phenomena than the Awakenings, phenomena dependent for their gestation on local culture and history. [For an assessment of the role of the Awakenings in American history, see William Strauss and Neil Howe’s “Generations” (1991).] Still, we are presentd here with the sort of cross-cultural parallel that makes it hard to explain history as the determinsitic outcome of concrete conditions. Rather, as in cases of “parallel evolution” in biology, we seem to be dealing with a kind of accident that actively seeks for places to happen.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: From Dawn to Decadence

Jacques Barzun's masterwork is an intellectual roadmap to the Western mind, although its structure is not systematic. Rather, Barzun simply writes about the people and things he found interesting. Since he had a very broad and capacious mind, this amounts to just about everything of importance, but from sometimes unusual points of view. Barzun is famous for saying that Western Civilization has entered a period of decadence, but he used this as a technical term. He meant that the great burst of energy that started the Renaissance has dissipated, and now our civilization wants the same things we have wanted for the past 500 years, but are no longer willing to do the things that are necessary to achieve those things. Decadence means willing the ends but not the means, and in and of itself is not a moral judgment. Barzun's own thesis has now become one of the intellectual superstitions he worked to demolish.

Barzun's massive intellectual history is one of the great syntheses to appear in English the late twentieth century, this despite the fact that Barzun was born in France. A similar work of lesser scope is Paul Johnson's Modern Times. Earlier examples include Willem Van Loon's The Story of Mankind and Fletcher Pratt's Battles that Changed History. These are the works that you should read if you want to understand the grand sweep of history in the West over the last 500 years.

Another similar work that I cannot recommend is  Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This book was recommended to me by my high school American history teacher. I started to read the book, and near the beginning, Zinn claimed that during the Revolutionary War, the rate of illegitimate childbirth was similar to what you saw after the failure of The War on Poverty in the 1960s. This seemed deeply wrong to me, but I didn't know the reason why until fifteen years later. Until the Civil War freed them, the children of slaves were counted as illegitimate, no matter what the actual status or intentions of their parents were. Every single birth to a black slave woman could be considered a bastard in law. Thus, Zinn's statement was accurate, in a legally defensible way, and also completely misleading. At the time, I was suspicious, but I had no proper basis for criticism. It just seemed wrong somehow. Zinn's book has long been popular, but other historians seem not to have respected his work. Now that I know the truth, I find that I am far more sympathetic to those who claim they have been wronged, without the ability to articulate the wrong. History is not written by the winners, it is written by the articulate.

In total honesty, I tried to pick up From Dawn to Decadence once, and failed, but I intend to attempt this book again. There have been eight years since my last attempt, so I think I may be more prepared this time. I suspect this book is worth the effort because both John and Jerry Pournelle have recommended it. In general, I have found their recommendations trustworthy.



From Dawn to Decadence:
500 Years of Western Cultural Life
(1500 to the Present)
by Jacques Barzun
HarperCollins, 2000
877 Pages, US$36.00
ISBN 0-06-017586-9


"From Dawn to Decadence" is one of those wonderful books that cannot be categorized. Some reviewers have compared it to "The Education of Henry Adams," the great intellectual autobiography that seemed to sum up the last fin-de-siecle. The comparison does no injustice to either work, but it would be entirely apt only if Henry Adams had lived to be 500. Jacques Barzun was born in 1907, and so has lived through a remarkably large slice of the period he covers, but even he did not know Descartes personally. Nonetheless, in some ways "From Dawn to Decadence" reads less like a history than it does like a personal memoir, with people and topics selected chiefly because the author is interested in them. The effect is delightful, though sometimes a little disorienting. Perhaps the one thing you can say for sure about "From Dawn to Decadence" is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you are ever likely to get for why Western culture is ending.
Jacques Barzun really needs no introduction. Anyone interested in William James, the great Romantic composers, the role of race in historical writing or a dozen other subjects has already encountered him somewhere. (A book he co-authored with Henry Graff, "The Modern Researcher," sticks in my mind after 25 years as a philosophy of historiography disguised as a reference guide.) In "From Dawn to Decadence," he manages to touch on just about all his life-long interests, and without turning the book into a mere anthology.
The format is loosely chronological, with the great era of the post-medieval, "modern" West divided into several lesser ages. The whole text is broken up into digestible chunks of commentary and biography. We get assessments, sometimes quite idiosyncratic ones, of almost all the great names of the modern era, but many of the biographies are of persons the author deems worthy-but-obscure. Some of these subjects really are virtually forgotten, such as the ingenious 18th-century polymath, Dr. Georg Lichtenberg. Others are just a bit neglected, such as the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Barzun manages to praise this physician and essayist while barely mentioning the senior Holmes's jurist son.) A particularly entertaining feature of the book is the brief, apt quotations set into the margins. Had it not been for "From Dawn to Decadence," I would never have known that Thursday was bear-baiting day at the court of Elizabeth I.
The format of "From Dawn to Decadence" does have its drawbacks, notably the minimal amount of political and military narrative. In fact, the author routinely makes unexplained allusions to people and events that may no longer be common knowledge. (Do undergraduates today know what Stanley said to Livingston? I'm afraid to ask.) And then there are the fact-checking lapses inevitable in a work of this scope. These will allow readers to entertain themselves by looking for mistakes. More than one reviewer has noted that modern calculus does not use Newton's notation, as Barzun says, but that of Leibniz. However, this review may be the only place you will read that those long-range shells the Germans fired at Paris (and Barzun) during the First World War did not come from Big Berthas, but from Krupp's Pariskanone.
Parlor games aside, the author corrects errors that are far more important than the ones he makes. He points out, for instance, that, no, M. Jourdain did not speak prose, and that Moliere knew this as well as anyone. He reminds us that it is anachronistic to suppose that Galileo was tried because the Inquisition believed the Copernican model threatened man's place in the universe. With a note of exasperation, he observes that Rousseau's works can not be made to say that Rousseau was a revolutionary who wished mankind to return to a state of nature. Intellectual superstitions of this sort are probably immortal, but it is a good idea to try to correct them at least once every 500 years.
While a book as genial as this one can hardly be accused of promoting anything as crudely Germanic as a theory of history, nonetheless it does outline a general shape for the last half-millennium. According to Barzun, the West has been working out a cultural impulse that it received in the Renaissance, an impulse that had become exhausted by the end of the 20th century. This impulse was not an ideology or an agenda, but an expandable list of desires. Particular forms of them can be detected throughout all the cultural and political controversies of the great era. The names of these desires are helpfully capitalized wherever they are mentioned, so that EMANCIPATION is graphically shown to play a role in every major controversy from the Reformation to the woman's suffrage movement. Another example is PRIMITIVISM, the perennial impulse to return to the original text, to the early constitution, to the uncluttered state of the beginning. Other trends of the modern era have been informed by the desires for ABSTRACTION, REDUCTIVISM and SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS. Ideas like these can hardly be said to have been the motor of Western history, but looking for their various incarnations over the centuries does make it much easier to view the era as a whole.
Barzun laconically informs us that late medieval Europe was a "decadent" society. I myself had thought that Richard Gilman had permanently retired that word with his study "Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet," but Barzun may persuade readers that "decadence" is neither a moral category nor a bit of implicit vitalism. Rather, Barzun says, the term "decadent" may properly be used of any social situation that is blocked, where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means. Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people create small accommodations within a larger, admittedly unsatisfactory context. Decadent periods can be sweet, as Talleyrand remarked of pre-Revolutionary France, but partly because they are obviously ephemeral.
Decadence may end in the explosion of a revolution. Barzun narrows the meaning of this over-worked term, by defining it as the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea. Revolutions are great simplifiers that pave over the labyrinths and open up possibilities that were unimaginable just a few years previous. There have been four of these revolutions during the modern era, each more or less defining an age. There was the religious revolution of the Reformation, which first stated themes that would recur through the rest of the era. There was the monarch's revolution of the 17th century, in which the aristocracy was tamed and large, centralized states began to appear. The monarchs, of course, got their comeuppance in the liberal revolution at the end of the 18th century. Most recently, every throne, power and dominion was shaken by the social revolution at the beginning of the 20th.
Barzun seems to believe that the twentieth century was so traumatized by the First World War that it was never able to fully exploit the positive possibilities in what he calls the "Cubist Decade" that preceded the war's outbreak. Rather, the Age of Modernism (not to be confused with the modern era) largely confined itself to analysis and destruction. Thanks to the First World War, the more distant past became unusable: the sense of living in a completely new age left the past nothing to say. No restraints remained on the expression of the desires that had characterized the whole modern era. The result was that, by century's end, the chief remaining impulses in Western culture had developed to a theoretical maximum. So ends an age.
This conclusion would be depressing, if it were not so obviously where we came in. Barzun notes that, at the end of the fifteen century, some people held that the sixth millennium of the world was about to end, and history along with it. As is often the case with this kind of sentiment, the people who shared it were on to something, if the end of history is taken to mean the end of history as they knew it. Barzun ends the book on a note of hopeful speculation. He looks back from a more distant time on our immediate future, which he supposes will be an age when history will wholly disappear even from the minds of the educated. Indeed, so completely will the modern age be forgotten that its rediscovery will have an impact quite as revolutionary as the impact that classical culture had on the late medieval world. The result, Barzun hopes, will be another renaissance, when the young and talented will again exclaim what a joy it is to be alive.
Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly
This review originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of First Things.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2003-01-09: The Imperial Gazette Speaks

While criticism of the Iraq war is now commonplace, still only cranks seriously contest the way the United States conducts its global business in any systematic way. Everyone simply assumes this is the way it has to be, and most of the arguing is about who is going to be in charge and what goals they should be pursuing. I think this speaks to John's vision of the world as being largely correct: we really are approaching the point where some kind of universal state will again emerge, and right now the United States is acting as the executive of that embryonic state.

The Imperial Gazette Speaks
 
No doubt The New York Times thought that it was being very provocative when it ran that cover story, American Empire (Get Used to It), in its Sunday magazine on January 5. Written by Michael Ignatieff of the Kennedy School of Government, the article (which is actually titled "The Burden") makes the argument that the United States is already running a global empire, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are two points about the piece that bear mentioning.
The first is how little fundamental criticism it occasioned. Although some people did take issue stridently with Ignatieff's ideas about the Israeli-Palestinian issue (which are in fact a little flaky), I have yet to see much comment to the effect that the US lacks the capacities Ignatieff claims. There has also, so far, been a dearth of serious moral arguments against global empire. Indeed, such discussion as there has been simply presents shades of opinion in favor of it. The extreme wings of apologetics for empire are represented by Robert Kaplan, a Realpolitiker, and Peter Singer, a liberal the bleeding from whose heart could not be staunched by Senator Frist himself. (Singer might deny that what he is advocating is an empire. Hah.)
The most interesting thing about The New York Times piece, however, was Ignatieff's ignorance of the typology of empires. What is happening to the world now is not like the imperialist rivalries of the 18th and 19th centuries. To the extent there is an American Empire, it is not of the same type as the British Empire. The American Empire (and the tag "American" may not stay with it permanently) is the early stage of what Toynbee called a "Universal State." Put briefly, a Universal State is the final condition of an international system. Universal states are assembled by hegemons, but are made possible by exhaustion. Essentially, sovereignty becomes too much trouble, so the members of the system cede most of it to an imperial center, which soon loses its national character.
Samuel Huntington made use of the concept in The Clash of Civilizations, though he was inclined to think that the Universal State of the West would not be global. I also ran across the use of the concept in a planning paper for the Canadian military. On the whole, though, there seems to be little appreciation, even among the advocates of global empire, for just how different a Universal State is from the empires in the earlier stages of a civilization's history. They are, for instance, much longer lived: generally about 500 years. Why? Because they are legitimate. Alexander's empire rested solely on force, so it shattered at his death. The Roman Empire, in contrast, lasted through crisis after crisis. It lasted because it represented universal justice, however imperfectly. This is the one valuable point in Empire, the otherwise execrable book by Hardt & Negri.
 
* * *
Two minor points:
The comparison between the United States and Rome has always been overdone. In some ways, the West today looks less like the late Hellenistic world than it looks like the late Era of Contending States in Chinese history. The faceoff between the US and the EU bears comparison to the conflict between the states of Qin and Qi: the argument is about legitimacy. Of course, in other ways the present situation is unique, and for the better. The West is actually more adept than other societies at substituting veiled threats and peaceful competition for actual war.
Finally, if the concept of a Universal State does regain the currency it had in the 1950s, this time there will be some confusion with this quite different usuage:
 
Definition: A state in an alternating Turing machine from which the machine accepts only if all possible moves lead to acceptance.
You read it first here.
 
* * *
Unlike some bloggers whose URLs I will not mention, I try not to flack reflexively for the Bush Administration. Nonetheless, I must register a protest against the made-for-television movie, The Crooked E, which appeared on CBS on Sunday. The screenwriters' attempt to identify the Bush Administration with the shady practices of the spectacularly failed Enron Corporation is a new low in media partisanship for the Democrats.
The book on which the program was supposed to be based suggested that Enron had had too much influence over both the Clinton and Bush II Administrations. In the movie, all the references to the Clintons were deleted. In fact, the whole decade of the 1990s was deleted. The movie starts with the founders of Enron at a barbecue in Texas, clacking their mandibles in glee over the deregulation of the energy market by the Reagan Administration. The story then jumps to 2001. A junior executive, who had been present at that barbecue as a boy, is starting work at Enron. We are never actually told just what business Enron was in. The exposition gives the impression that Enron mostly sold insurance to manufacturers of poisoned food. There is a reference to some member of the Bush Administration every five minutes
This is not to say that the producers were incapable of subtlety. The actor who played the junior executive (Christian Kane, I think) is a graduate of the WB network's camp-supernatural industry. In the series Angel, he played a junior attorney at a law firm that catered to the well-to-do damned. He had pretty much the same job at Enron.
 
* * *
Speaking of the damned, reports of uncanny events continue to surface, despite the efforts of well-meaning authorities to suppress them. First it was raining fish. Then it was spider webs. Now it's dragon's breath. Where will it all end?

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Ethics of Globalization by Peter Singer

It is a bit of an understatement to say that Peter Singer isn't one of my favorite philosophers. I do have to give the man credit for rigorous intellectual consistency however. He pursues the implications of his positions with single-minded determination. And since his starting points are largely those of the guiding spirit of the age, events keep catching up with his formerly extreme positions as the inevitable logic of those premises win out over ordinary human hypocrisy and moral squeamishness.

John's interest in reviewing this book stems from his interest in Universal States, polities like the Roman Empire and Han China, that occupy the ground state of the system of nations, a condition the world falls into when the energy to maintain a different system is no longer available.

Since we are nearing the time when this state of affairs is likely to occur again, it is worth looking back into history to see what happened before. There have been at least two bursts of cosmopolitanism in the West in the last two thousand years. People ask the same kinds of question in each such age. It is worth at least looking to see what they came up with.Unfortunately, it seems that is exactly what Singer did not do.

One of the most interesting sections here is John's critique of Singer's attempt to apply Rawlsian fairness in a truly global, universal fashion. It is worth re-quoting the argument in full:

In support of this proposition, Singer deploys some of those fables of utilitarian calculus that have become his trademark. They run like this: You are walking across a park on your way to deliver the prestigious Acme Lecture on Fine Ideas, when you see a small child fall into a well. There is no one else around to help. Do you rescue the child, even though that might make you miss the lecture, or would you continue punctually on your way to further burnish your academic career? (Well, would you? Would you?) Singer insists that people in developed countries are in exactly the same relationship to starving children in developing countries as the Acme lecturer was to the child down the well. Just as he could have turned aside, at real but bearable cost to himself, to save that child, so people in rich countries should sacrifice the luxurious excess of their standard of living in order to end hunger and disease in developing countries.

There is something to be said for this. In the last fifteen years, this argument has if anything gotten more popular. I suspect this argument wouldn't have near as much force in the Western mind if it weren't a retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but dressing it up as modern philosophy allows us moderns to feel good about being moved by this example.

Unfortunately, the analogy to the people who do need help in the world is imperfect. If we were to extend the analogy a bit, what we see in most places of the world that need help is that the park is a sovereign nation, and the people of the park elected a man who turned into a tyrant, and he tossed the child down the well because the child's father was an opposition leader. And when we ship food to the park, the leader gives it to his cronies and lets the rest starve. We can send in a punitive expedition to kill the leader, but if we leave someone similar just takes his place. If we stay and try to impose some kind of good government, some fraction of the locals inevitably hate us and push back violently.

Not as pithy, but closer to the truth. There is something of this lurking in the background of Singer's argument, because he isn't an advocate of national sovereignty when it leads to human rights abuses. The really strange thing is that something like Singer's argument is exactly what led us to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 under W. I don't think anyone would plausibly consider Singer and George W. Bush to be intellectual bedfellows, but on this issue they are.

What I find so fascinating about John's support for the Iraq War is that many of his own arguments told against him. The argument John marshals here against Singer is that there is a countervailing principle of moral philosophy to the duty to help another human in distress: one should mind one's own business. To treat another human being as having moral agency is to respect the choices they make for themself, or themselves, even if it is objectively a mistake. This principle is buttressed by ordinary human ignorance. Usually, we lack appropriate knowledge to meddle in other's affairs in a helpful way.

As I keep pointing out, the giant mess the United States has made out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Egypt and Ukraine ought to be sufficient to remind us there really are lesser evils.

One World:
The Ethics of Globalization
By Peter Singer
Yale University Press, 2002
235 Pages, $21.95
ISBN 0-300-09686-0
Readers will be shocked to learn that “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls's immensely influential general theory of ethics, has nothing to say about the rights and duties of individuals outside their own societies. In “One World,” the noted ethicist Peter Singer tries to close this global deficit. According to Singer: “The twentieth century's conquest of space made it possible for a human being to look at our planet from a point not on it, and so to see it, literally, as one world. Now the twenty-first century faces the task of developing a suitable form of government for that single world.”
There are in fact good reasons to believe that the world is moving toward the condition that Toynbee called a “universal state.” This prospect does raise ethical questions, both about whether people of good will should support the process, and about how such a state should be governed if it does arise. Singer's historyless treatment of the subject manages to miss most of the real issues. It does, however, suggest some principles that could turn the later 21st century into a planetary nightmare.
“One World” began as the Dwight Harrington Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, which Singer delivered at Yale in November 2000. The topical justification for the book seems originally to have been the great anti-globalization demonstrations that began with “The Battle in Seattle” in December 1999, when a meeting of the World Trade Organization was met with protest and riot. The book has four themes: One Atmosphere (concerning the environment, especially global warming); One Economy (free trade, especially the operation of the World Trade Organization); One Law (chiefly the duty of humanitarian intervention); and One Community (how foreign aid relates to the general duty to relieve the condition of the poor).
The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon intervened during the lectures' transition to book form. The author's attempts to accommodate the new situation suggest a determination not to be distracted from his pet ideas. The One Atmosphere section begins with a grotesque comparison between the attack on the World Trade Center and the probable effects of emissions from SUVs. Singer asserts that, although the attack was spectacular, the emissions will result in global warming that will kill far more people. Both, he tells us, are examples of areas that require global governance, but global warming is clearly closer to his heart. “One World” is, to a large extent, just another instance of the relentless moralization of environmental issues.
Why should this be? Regarding global warming in particular, I suspect it's because the phenomenon makes such a wonderful unifying principle. Almost all economic activities have some implications for greenhouse-gas emissions. Economic growth, of course, is easily linked to issues like population control, which has a bearing on the global distribution of wealth.
The whole exercise is rather like a game we used to play in college: “What does that have to do with the price of milk?” The idea was to show how anything at all could be shown to have some bearing on that question. Consider, for instance, the surface temperature of Mars. That is obviously related to solar output, which is related to the weather on Earth, which is related to the price of cattle feed, which is obviously related to the price of milk. QED
Similarly, global warming can be used to show that just about anything people do or say has a global ethical dimension. I am inclined to think that global warming is a real phenomenon, and that emissions of greenhouse-gases occasioned by human activity are an important contributing factor. I also know that the projections of how global warming will affect human life in the coming decades are too speculative to take seriously. Global warming is not the key to a master philosophy.
Regarding the world's One Economy, Singer is not much distressed by the prospect that the World Trade Organization might undermine national sovereignty. What disturbs him is that the WTO does not use its position as an international gatekeeper to impose universal environmental and labor standards. The WTO's charter does in fact allow a member state to discriminate against goods that are produced in ways that violate the state's policies in these matters, but the WTO regards such claims skeptically. There is good reason for this. Domestic producers often use environmental and labor arguments to suppress competition, and the same devices are easily deployed against foreign trading partners. Singer, nonetheless, criticizes the World Trade Organization for leaving most environmental and labor standard issues to be settled in other forums.
The WTO was in fact designed to deal strictly with trade issues. The idea was to allay the fears of critics that the WTO would otherwise become too powerful. Good intentions rarely go unpunished.
The section that deals with One Law has the most to say about the mechanisms of global governance (or, to put it bluntly, world government). The occasion for these reflections is the need to ensure that national governments are not allowed to inflict gross and systematic human-rights abuses on their subjects. Singer maintains, plausibly enough, that humanitarian interventions against criminal governments are a duty of the international community, even if that means modifying or dispensing with the principle of state sovereignty.
The idea that sovereignty needs to be limited is scarcely new, and in fact the principle of sovereignty has been in decline since about 1900. A thought that never occurs to Singer is just why the international institutions created to replace it have so often made things worse. It is pretty clear, for example, that the collective security regime of the League of Nations inhibited the ordinary Great Power diplomacy that might have prevented the Second World War. More recently, we know that the spread of weapons of mass destruction has occurred largely under the cover of ineffective international inspection. As for military interventions to prevent massacre, they generally occur when the United States, and more rarely other states, can be shamed into using their own forces to take action. Never one to be deterred by reality, Singer wants the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council to be eliminated. It is hard to see why any power would maintain a usable military establishment if the power lost control of it to an international body. He does suggest that a truly global military should undertake duties of this sort, but he does not explain why an international army would work better than other international institutions.
In this as in other contexts, Singer has nothing but bile for the United States. How dare the US insist that its nationals be excluded from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court? How dare the US insist on the maintenance of the Security Council veto? Such things are simply instances of might rather than right, Singer insists.
Well, no. In the international system as it has actually evolved, the US performs many of the functions of an executive. In many ways, the US at the beginning of the 21st century was less like a sovereign state and more like an international utility. It would be odd if the US did not have special “constitutional” status.
In the section on One Community, Singer attempts to expand Rawls's ethics to fit the globe. Rawls did treat international relations in “The Law of Peoples,” of course, but Singer quarrels even with the title. By Singer's account, it is a violation of Rawls's principles to allow nation states to play any analytical role in our ethical calculations of what we owe to others.
John Rawls famously laid it down that “fairness” for a society would consist of those rules we would choose “in the original condition,” before we knew what position luck would give us. Thus, for instance, we would choose that the handicapped be cared for, since we might belong to that group ourselves. According to Rawls, we would be more interested in preventing possible misery than in ensuring that we could enjoy the maximum possible luxury, so we would want a political and economic system that promoted the redistribution of wealth.
Rawls did not apply these principles between societies. Societies, and particularly states, owe each other duties and should live in a law-governed way. However, in his scheme of things, individuals in one society just do not have the same obligations to people in other societies that they have to people in their own. Singer will have none of this. For him, which society you are going to belong to is one of those things you don't know in the “original condition.” Surely you would want a reasonable standard of living wherever you happened to be born in the world? Thus, fairness requires that we value those near to us and those far from us in the same way. Inequalities of wealth between different parts of the world are therefore intolerable.
In support of this proposition, Singer deploys some of those fables of utilitarian calculus that have become his trademark. They run like this: You are walking across a park on your way to deliver the prestigious Acme Lecture on Fine Ideas, when you see a small child fall into a well. There is no one else around to help. Do you rescue the child, even though that might make you miss the lecture, or would you continue punctually on your way to further burnish your academic career? (Well, would you? Would you?) Singer insists that people in developed countries are in exactly the same relationship to starving children in developing countries as the Acme lecturer was to the child down the well. Just as he could have turned aside, at real but bearable cost to himself, to save that child, so people in rich countries should sacrifice the luxurious excess of their standard of living in order to end hunger and disease in developing countries.
Singer is willing to allow some scope to the principle of “partiality.” It is not irrational or unjust for us to take special care of friends and family, he will allow. Friendship and family rank among the great goods of life. However, these considerations do not affect the general principle that we owe a duty of aid to everybody. Now that technological advance has made it possible to carry out that duty, we are morally obligated to create the global political institutions that can do so.
Let me suggest that there is a fundamental ethical imperative to mind your own business. To some degree, simple respect for the moral agency of others requires that you let them make their own mistakes. Just as important, though, is the fact that other people know more about their affairs than you do. Despite his long list of occasions when humanitarian intervention was justified, Singer never quite comes to grips with the fact that the direst poverty in the world is not caused by a lack of foreign assistance, but by the crooks who run the local government. The simple transfusion of goods and foodstuffs from one society to another can make things worse. There is a literature about how food aid has destroyed local agriculture in some instances.
Singer is willing to allow that his global ethics does not answer the many prudential questions that arise whenever we design a given aid program. His chief concern is to establish the principle that some aid is always owing, and only special circumstances may excuse us from not rendering it in a particular instance. The fact is, though, that equally compelling principles tell us something else: first, do no harm.
“One World” does not purport to describe a full system of global ethics. Nonetheless, it does suggest many ideas that are systemically significant, though not perhaps for the reasons the author imagines.
For instance, the willingness of philosophers to use a speculative rhetorical device like global warming illustrates a characteristic failure of modern philosophy. Writing in “First Things” (February 1994), Paul Zaleski describes a little test he sometimes gives his students. He asks them to rank an odd assortment of things, such as “mouse,” “bag,” “man,” “angel,” “the sun,” “crab,” “the Taj Mahal,” “the Idea of the Good,” and so on. From a traditional metaphysical perspective, the top of such a list might be “the Idea of the Good,” or possibly “man.” His students, however, for the most part head the list with “the sun,” apparently on the principle that solar energy makes all the other items possible. Philosophical treatments of environmentalism often reason the same way. The mere size of the biosphere seems to be a sufficient substitute for metaphysical priority.
Perhaps more seriously, Singer has fits of evolutionary psychology. He tells us that there may well be a human predilection to genocide, inculcated in us by evolution. He also tells us that, just because there is some common human impulse to do something, the predilection cannot be adduced as a "reason” in an ethical argument. Thus, though we may have a natural tendency to favor our blood relatives, that is not a justification for doing so. The only ethics we need take seriously are those based on “reciprocity,” on some version of the principle that we should do to others what would want them to do to us.
This doesn't really work. No doubt, in the hypothetical pre-natal state envisioned by Rawls, we would make rules to assign goods on a reciprocal basis. However, the source for those goods will be intuitions and impulses, which Singer assumes arise from evolutionary history. Some ethical systems have criteria for judging nature, but Singer's does not appear to be one of them. Judging from “One World,” at least, it is not clear why the “findings” of evolutionary psychology could not be used as the desiderata for Rawls's utilitarian calculus. Such a philosophy could become a real global menace.
Singer also has his Marxist moments. He has the odd idea that the issues he raises are entirely new, and are simply the ideological consequences of new technology. He seems quite unaware that the political theory and personal ethics of the Middle Ages was “international” to a degree that the modern world has not yet recovered.
Happily, there are other paths to a global ethics. Reflection about “cosmopolis,” or “All under Heaven,” is as old as philosophy. This is not a subject where we need to start from the “original position.”
 
 
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site