The Long View 2004-06-14: Cracks in the Wall

Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers is beloved of military men. Many of Jerry Pournelle's books have the same audience. What is really remarkable about Heinlein as an author is that he managed to write three cult classics with non-overlapping audiences: Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Stranger in a Strange Land.

Heinlein is remembered so fondly by so many fans in part because of his personal warmth, but also because just about everyone can find a great book written by him that entertains ideas they find congenial. Even when the books are something of a treatise, they tend to be fun to read. John doesn't mention it here, but Heinlein also liked to drop subtle hints that his protagonists were diverse. Rico, for example, is Filipino, despite Paul Verhoeven's casting choices. But you don't find any hints of this until the end of the book, and it can be easily missed. It was probably a fun game for him.

Most of Heinlein's work comes from before the American culture wars, and the protean nature of his writing makes it difficult for anyone to really claim him for their side. John cites a 2004 op-ed in the New York Times by John Tierney to the effect that the culture wars didn't exist outside of a few political elites. There was something to this, twelve years ago, but it is rapidly becoming less so.

Unfortunately, this is all predictable. The victories of the Cultural Left have produced exactly the kind of opponents they claimed to be fighting against, but stronger and more popular because the Left hasn't been particularly magnanimous in victory. However, the further prediction is that the ultimate victor in the race to Empire will be the Economic Left and the Cultural Right, most likely after some unpleasantness

John didn't go as far as predict Brexit in 2004, but he did intuit that electoral success for the UKIP or similar nationalist parties would slow or halt the unification of Europe.

Cracks in the Wall


Over the weekend, I viewed the DVD (was it ever in theatrical release?) of Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation. This film was produced and directed by Jon Davison. Though it is set in the same imaginary world as the "Starship Troopers" film released in 1997, which was directed by Paul Verhoeven, and uses the same special-effects, there is little other connection. The only actor in the second film who appeared in the first is Brenda Strong. Even she plays another character, since her character in the first film was cut in half by a closing air-tight door.

Film directors and science-fiction writers just are not in the same business, so it is idle to complain that a film adaptation does not follow a novel closely enough. Still, the Verhoeven film seemed to go out of its way to falsify the book by Robert Heinlein, on which it was nominally based. Though essentially a boot-camp story, the novel Starship Troopers served as a platform for speculation about how a libertarian society could maintain the cultural resources necessary for self-preservation. Heinlein's solution was to make voluntary national service (not even necessarily military service) a prerequisite to the franchise and full citizenship. The "voluntary" feature was key. In Heinlein's libertarian Utopia, even soldiers on campaign could resign if they so chose.

Verhoeven flipped that around, turning the world of the film into a place where "the Army runs the government," and soldiers are repeatedly threatened with death if they try to quit. In general, in fact, Verhoeven seemed oddly keen to ensure that no unprogressive ideas should reach the audience. For instance, Heinlein discusses the subject of mixed gender infantry units and suggests that they had been tried but did not work. The different military services in the book are segregated by gender. Verhoeven will have none of that: the film features mixed showers and lots of Amazonian women in form-fitting combat gear.

Paradoxically, "Starship Troopers 2" should be something of a relief for Heinlein fans, since it does not even purport to be a new interpretation of the book. It's just a slasher film, with all the characters but one coming to a sorry end in an abandoned fort on another planet. The bugs here have devised a way to crawl into people's heads, so we get a bit of the premise of another Heinlein story, The Puppet Masters. The one original touch is when the bugs get to explain their motives through their human hosts. It seems that their war aims are essentially compassionate: they have come to understand that human beings are born insane, and they have decided that the suffering inherent in the human condition is intolerable. Hence, the human race must be exterminated. (Some ethicists have had the same idea, by the way.)

I suppose this development of the background story represents progress; the Verhoeven movie implied that the bugs were misunderstood.

* * *

Speaking of conflicts that just go on and on, every so often The New York Times runs a story proving that the Culture War is over, or about to be over, or would be about to be over if everyone would just fall into line behind the Times editorial page. One of their better efforts along these lines appeared in yesterday's (Sunday's) edition, in an article by John Tierney entitled A Nation Divided? Who Says?. He gives us this interesting quote:

"If the two presidential candidates this year were John McCain and Joe Lieberman, you'd see a lot more crossover and less polarization," said Professor Fiorina, mentioning the moderate Republican and Democratic senators. He is the co-author, along with Samuel J. Abrams of Harvard and Jeremy C. Pope of Stanford, of the forthcoming book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.

"The bulk of the American citizenry is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the cross-fire while Maoist guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other," the book concludes. "Reports of a culture war are mostly wishful thinking and useful fund-raising strategies on the part of culture-war guerrillas, abetted by a media driven by the need to make the dull and everyday appear exciting and unprecedented."

The facts here are plausible, but I wonder about the interpretation: Fiorina seems to suggest that there is no Culture War, unless of course you consider the forces that are fighting it. In any case, Tierney's article does not presume to suggest where the Times itself lies on the spectrum of Shining Path to Falangist.

* * *

Actually, at the risk of devoting too much space to the Times, yesterday's issue was notable for two breaks with ideological conformity in the Book Section.

First, there was a review of What's the Matter With Kansas, a book written by one Thomas Frank. It's thesis is that anyone who does not vote Democratic is stupid or deluded. It is scarcely unusual for the Times to review such a book. The notable point is that the reviewer is the ingenious Josh Chafetz of Oxblog. Among other things, he says this:

But what is most odd is Frank's refusal to consider the idea that there might be such a thing as legitimate cultural grievances. The only legitimate interests, he believes, are material ones. ''By all rights,'' he tells us, ''the people in Wichita and Shawnee and Garden City should today be flocking to the party of Roosevelt, not deserting it.'' But instead, the poor fools have been led astray...Frank's book is remarkable as an anthropological artifact. Although not terribly successful at explaining the cultural divide, it manages to exemplify it perfectly in its condescension toward people who don't vote as Frank thinks they should.

Perhaps even more remarkable, the Times let David Frum, the co-author of An End to Evil, write a favorable review of Walter Russell Mead's latest book, Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk. That book is a defense of the conceptual basis of the Bush Administration's foreign policy. Mead is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow in United States foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and so, no doubt, a lonely man in professional circles. But I don't want to get started here, since I plan to review the book.

* * *

One of the pieces of evidence for the Maoist-versus-Death-Squad model of American politics is that, though President Bush's popularity keeps slipping, Senator Kerry's shows little sign of rising. At the moment, there is no way for this disenchantment to express itself. Things seem to be different in England, though, where we see these results from last week's local and EU parliamentary elections:

After results from London, the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber and Wales, the Tory vote is down 7% and Labour has fallen 6%...With turnout at a record high, the main winner seems to be the UK Independence Party, whose vote has doubled to 13%.

From what I can tell, the UKIP is not a crypto-fascist group, like some nationalist parties I could name. They seem to be moderate people who just want out of the European Union. Similar Euroskeptic parties on the continent did well in the EU parliamentary elections. The election results are not so dramatic as to alter the way the parliament will function, but you have to wonder what will happen to the unification project if, someday, Europeans elect the equivalent of the Gingrich Congress. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Starship Troopers
By Robert A. Heinlein

The Long View 2004-06-11: Voting; Reagan's Wake; The Two Swords

Shoup Voting Machine

Shoup Voting Machine

In 2004, the work of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus to try to bring politically minded Catholics and Evangelicals into a partnership for political change was new and fresh. The subsequent implosion of the Bush administration didn't do Neuhaus's memory or his ideals any favors, but I admire what he was trying to do.

Voting; Reagan's Wake; The Two Swords

Last Tuesday, June 8, was the day for primary elections in New Jersey. Although I was voting as a Republican, and none of the Republican candidacies were contested here in Hudson County, I went to vote anyway. I was eager to see the new electronic voting machines, about which there has been much speculation. Few of my fellow citizens allowed their curiosity to get the better of them in this way: turnout in this county was under 18%.

All my life I had voted either by absentee ballot or on one of the old Shoupe machines. Those are the ones where you turn a little black lever by the name of your candidate and an "X" snaps into place, and you open and close the curtains to the voting booth by throwing a big red lever. I think the only thing electrical is the lighting.

The new machines (from the Sequoia company, I believe) present the voter with a somewhat loose plastic sheet, on which the names of the candidates are printed; holes have been punched in the sheet by each name. The sheet fits over a panel with buttons and lights on it. You press on a name, and an "X" lights up through a corresponding hole.

One cannot help but notice how much less sophisticated these machines are than commercial devices, such as ATMs and self-service check-out stations at grocery stores. No doubt simplicity was an end in itself for the designers. On the whole, the new machines were well received. I did not care for them, though.

Whether because of a design feature or because the poll workers had not read all the instructions yet, the curtains to the booth did not open when I was finished. The lighting inside the booth was inadequate.

More important, the electronic machines are minimally interactive. They are silent: they do not make the satisfying "clunks" and "pings" that the Shoupe machines did. Even the panel that lights up to tell you when you are finished is small and hard to find. There is no paper receipt, of course. It's as if you were never there.

* * *

The death of President Reagan is getting an amazing amount of news coverage. Even more surprising, some of it is worth watching. Wednesday (June 9) evening's television broadcast of the cortege moving through Washington to the Capitol really was awesome. Washington was once ironically known as "the city of magnificent distances," because of those long, uselessly broad avenues that connected nothing in particular. For once, they looked as imposing in use as they did in L'Enfant's city plan. The humid, late afternoon haze made the spectacle look like a 19-century Luminist painter's interpretation of a myth. Unfortunately, the cortege eventually arrived at the Capitol, and politicians began to talk, thereby marring the effect.

I had forgotten that, several years ago, I reviewed an Alternative History -- Time Travel story about Ronald Reagan, Peter Delacorte's Time on My Hands: A Novel with Pictures. It's a negligible novel, by a liberal bigot, but provides some perspective that is important today. The book was published in 1997, and it was part of the effort during the Clinton years to rewrite the Reagan presidency to fit the Main Sequence of progressive history. Today, Reagan's Wake is good evidence that the effort has failed.

* * *

I was slow to notice the long piece in Christianity Today entitled Bush Calls for 'Culture Change', which is a transcript of a meeting that President Bush had at the White House with religion writers and editors on May 26. This group was pretty much the embodiment of the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" initiative that Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus launched in the 1990s. That article is the longest on-the-record interview I can remember the president giving in some time.

Actually, the Christianity Today piece came to my attention only because it was the basis for a an article in the Italian magazine, Chiesa, about President Bush's recent meeting with John Paul II. The article's title suggests a perspective different from that of most of the media coverage in the US: Bush Brought a Gift for the Pope: The Alliance Between Catholics and Evangelicals. The piece, by Sandro Magister, has this to say:

The June 4 meeting in the Vatican between George W. Bush and John Paul II brought together noticeably the positions of the two sides: even in the matter of Iraq, over which there was a serious division a year ago. The speech given by the pope is evidence of this...But there is also underway a noticeable drawing together between Bush and Catholics in the United States. In the surveys for the November presidential elections, a majority of Catholics favor the reconfirmation of the incumbent president. And this in spite of the fact that he is a Methodist, while his opponent, the Democrat John Kerry, is a Catholic.

The article perhaps overstates the "six-degrees-of-separation from Fr. Neuhaus" aspect of the matter. Also, when you talk about "Catholic" in this context, the term should be taken to refer to a minority of politically engaged laypeople and some of the younger episcopate. Still, this is some evidence that the Vatican has gotten the memo about who its friends are. At any rate, John Paul II got the memo. What the next pope will do with it remains to be seen.       

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-06-07: Ronald Reagan; Ecumenical Americanism; UN Transnationalism

As I've said before, John wasn't a fan of Ronald Reagan, but John did think Reagan had some success as a chief executive. In fact, John saw him as embodying a bit of the archetype of the king [or the Emperor], the still center around which the world turns,. This is a bit odd for a late-twentieth century American president, because what we usually call the Imperial Presidency is a whirlwind of energy and rapid-fire decision-making, immortalized in Teddy Roosevelt.

The mental space filled by traditional kingship is an old, old idea, one that runs through the West and the East alike. In politics, few take this idea seriously, but artistically it is just as potent as it ever has been. Take this passage from the Return of the King, which I think of everytime the concept of the king comes up:

Standing there for a moment filled with dread Frodo became aware that a light was shining; he saw it glowing on Sam's face beside him. Turning towards it, he saw, beyond an arch of boughs, the road to Osgiliath running almost as straight as a stretched ribbon down, down into the West. There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towards the yet unsullied Sea. The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.
Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king's head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. 'Look Sam!' he cried, startled into speech. 'Look! The king has got a crown again!'
The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
'They cannot conquer forever!' said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.

John mentions David Warren in passing in this blog entry. Warren wrote a column for the Ottowa Citizen until 2012, mostly about the war on terror, but sometimes about his travels around the world, or Catholicism, or whatever struck his fancy. I was a regular reader for years, and then I just dropped off after a while. Like John J. Reilly, Warren was a defender of the Iraq War in the early 2000s, but when I have dipped into his new website on occasion, I get the impression that he is penitent for this, and for anything else he might have done.

The quoted passage from 2004 strikes me as especially relevant today. In part, you can cast the current political turmoil across the United States and Europe as a contest of localism versus globalism. I certainly have. Yet, in a curious way, the localists [or nationalists, as they are usually called by their opponents], have quite a bit in common with each other. John certainly isn't the first to notice that ordinary patriotism and Western identity are starting to converge

Ronald Reagan; Ecumenical Americanism; UN Transnationalism

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, Radio Moscow loved to air commemorative stories. They were essentially documentaries that consisted half of commentary and half of historical revisionism. For whatever reason, National Public Radio in the US has the same predilections. It would be unfair to say that they were delighted with the death of Ronald Reagan last Saturday, but they did rise to the event with singular enthusiasm. They actually cancelled regular programming for a while, so they could offer "continuous coverage." How do you offer continuous coverage of a wake? Hourly bulletins to say the deceased is still dead?

For myself, I cannot say that I was ever a great fan of Ronald Reagan. I actually voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980. I did vote for Reagan in 1984, however; there's no point in arguing with success. Much nonsense has been written about Reagan's alleged divorce from the ordinary operations of government. In fact, he was an effective manager of a familiar type. Still, his chief abilities as a leader where charismatic, mimetic, symbolic. The traditional king, it has been said, is not an executive, but he "subdues opposition through the rumor of his imperturbability." There's the Reagan presidency for you.

* * *

David Warren, that invaluably gloomy Canadian, had this to say on the occasion of President Bush's trip to Europe for the D-Day commemorations:

The extraordinary thing about the West that was exposed, in the lightning of 9/11/01, is that it is one country, in an advanced state of decadence, turned against itself. And for one of the parties to this spiritual and intellectual civil war (not a battle of ideas, but a battle of "ideas against anti-ideas"), it is more important to defeat their internal enemy than to confront any threat from abroad. The loyalties are no longer to nations. Instead, an Italian who votes for Berlusconi has more in common with an American who votes for Bush, than either of them has with his own countrymen who vote the other way.

The idea that the Left is becoming transnational is now commonplace; Michael Moore wins awards in France for propaganda films that are praised from Berlin to Berkeley. However, as I have been arguing for a few years, there has been a corresponding internationalization elsewhere on the political spectrum. This sentiment, nowhere a movement, reconceives patriotism as an aspect of a broader sense of Western identity. The speech that Aragorn gives to the Host of the West in The Return of the King film might stand as an expression of it for the time being, until life starts to imitate art.

* * *

Speaking of art, a professor of political science at the Naval War College, one Thomas P. M. Barnett, is credited with providing the Pentagon with a new geopolitical map of the world. His model uses terms like "core" and "periphery," but this is not your father's World System's Theory. For Barnett, India and Russia and South Africa are as much in the core as Japan or Great Britain. A core state is any state that abides by international trade rules, which permanently demilitarize its relationship with other core states, or so Barnett hopes. That is far from saying that universal peace is about to break out: beyond "the functioning core" is the "nonintegrating gap." Michael Barone summarizes the strategic implications:

Barnett says we need two kinds of military forces. One he calls "leviathan"...a relatively small body of fierce warriors, heavily weighted to special-forces teams -- the kind of forces that achieved such speedy victories in Afghanistan and Iraq...But we need very much larger forces, set apart from the warriors, of what Barnett calls system administrators or sys admins. "The sys admin force will be civil affairs-oriented and network-centric," Barnett writes, "an always-on, always-nearby, always-approachable resource for allies and friends in need." They will be doing most of the things our military forces have been doing or have been trying to do in Iraq since May 1, 2003.

This is precisely what the Pentagon does not want to do. The Clinton Administration, through timidity, let the Pentagon get away with preparing to fight a high-tech version of World War II. The Bush Administration, in its first few months, let the Pentagon carry on the same way, but not through timidity: they had a theory about it.

* * *

One might reasonably suppose that the United Nations is the proper body to organize the "sys admin" forces that Barnett talks about. The problem is that UN peacekeeping is becoming a planetary laughingstock. Consider this recent report from Africa:

June 3 BUKAVU, Congo -- Renegade commanders captured this strategic Congolese town Wednesday, setting off a crisis that threatened the fragile transitional government and a peace process that ended five years of war....U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the capture of the eastern Congo city and called on the region's warring parties to abide by an earlier cease-fire. The United Nations defended its troops' inaction against the factions that took Bukavu, saying the mandate of its 10,800-strong Congo force did not extend to battles... Hundreds of people rioted outside U.N. headquarters in Kinshasa and in the main northeast city of Kisangani, blaming U.N. forces for failing to stop Bukavu's fall. The crowds in Kinshasa threw stones at U.N. headquarters and set vehicles afire, while protesters in Kisangani burned U.N. vehicles and a U.N. office.

Yes, you read that right: the mandate of the UN's army (an overwhelming force in that context) dids not extend to battles. International forces of neutrals and NGOs really should be keeping the peace in places like the Balkans and the Congo. However, it is becoming clear that some constitutional feature of the UN prevents it from doing this effectively.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-06-04: Twists in the Party Line

The article by Greg Crosby, How We Will Lose the Islamo-Fascist War, that John links in this blog post is the kind of thing I found convincing in 2004. I suppose the author is half-right. We really did get tired of the war in Iraq and tried to bring the boys home. And that power vacuum we left behind did indeed prove an opportunity for an even worse kind of terrorist than the ones we set out to vanquish in 2003.

However, Crosby is [was? I have no idea what he thinks now] also half wrong. We weren't fighting World War III, and Islamic terrorists are not a threat greater than the Nazis. Hell, if that comparison were even close, the Islamic state would stretch from Morocco to Iran, instead of of being isolated to border regions of Iraq and Syria. It just isn't true, or even close to true.

Right after the towers came down, that was harder to understand.

On a lighter note, John's interest in English spelling reform shows up here. Some of the groups that John was involved in protested the National Spelling Bee, as a way to get publicity. I have some sympathy with the project of spelling reform, but this is an idea that has just never caught on in the last century, and I find it surprising how hostile of a reception the idea gets. We English speakers seem to take a perverse pride in just how difficult words are to spell.

Twists in the Party Line


Maybe I am just reacting to the spate of relatively positive stories this week that followed the nomination of an interim government in Iraq, but it's hard to shake the impression that the situation has changed dramatically in just a few days. Suddenly we see no more pictures of leash-girls, or read speculations about a "fighting retreat." Most likely what's happening is that the media are reconciling themselves to the prospect of a successful outcome to the war. The effect is as if someone had just turned off some really annoying music.

Some foreign leaders seem to be going even further, and reconciling themselves to the prospect that Bush will be reelected in November. Their determination to improve the public image of their relations with Washington is echoed by the Bush Administration's eagerness to demonstrate that, yes, the US still does have allies. The president's trip to Europe for the anniversary of the D-Day Invasion is an excellent opportunity for all concerned. It is, however, extremely awkward for the Kerry campaign, one of whose themes is the Bush's Administration is alleged disregard of the post World War II alliance system.

* * *

Someone who does not seem to have gotten the memo about all this is John L Allen, Jr., the Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter. The New York Times published a most unfortunate Op Ed by him yesterday, entitled "The Campaign Comes to Rome." It was about the president's visit today with the pope. Allen recalls this bit of history:

In 1983, Gen. Wojcieh Jaruzelski, then prime minister of Poland, received Pope John Paul II at the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw. It was the pope's second trip to his home country, but the first since the general had imposed martial law 18 months earlier, and in a speech before their meeting the general defended his decision. Despite the defiant tone of the speech, many reporters noticed, General Jaruzelski's knees were shaking.

Allen then rehearses the policy differences between the Vatican and Washington about Iraq, and speculates about the Bush Administration's need to court the Catholic vote. (That's increasingly mythical, but this is a Times piece, after all.) Then Allen asks:

Unfortunately, when John Paul II and George Bush appear before the cameras tomorrow, they will almost certainly be seated. So it will be harder to see whether the president's knees are shaking.

You would think that someone who works in Vatican City would know better than to say something like this. The pope has Parkinson's Disease; his meeting with Bush occurred on what was obviously not one of John Paul's better days. It was the pope who was shaking. As for the pope's statement, it was by no means hostile. The pope was keen on UN involvement in "normalizing" the situation in Iraq. However, the message was also clear that the Vatican, or at least John Paul II, think that Bush's heart is in the right place:

Mr. President, as you carry out your lofty mission of service to your nation and to world peace, I assure you of my prayers and cordially invoke upon you God’s blessings of wisdom, strength and peace.

As for electorally useful statements, the pope did offer this:

I also continue to follow with great appreciation your commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and the family.

Frankly, most family-values types are going to vote for Bush anyway, but the choir does like to be preached to.

* * *

Does this mean joint Terror and Culture Wars are going swimmingly? Not if you believe this scenario by Greg Crosby, entitled How We Will Lose the Islamo-Fascist War:

Americans will slowly but surely start to forget why we are fighting in the first place and the general sentiment will be to "bring the troops home...When that happens, watch for John Kerry (who up until the prison abuse story broke had been sounding moderate to almost hawkish in his campaign speeches concerning the war) to take a sudden, yet decidedly anti-war stance. He will proclaim that if elected he will end the war and "bring our young men and women home" and he will win. After he takes office he will make good on his promise and begin the extrication of our forces from the region -- leaving the place to the terrorists in much the same way that South Vietnam was left to the North. When this happens we are done for. It will be exactly at that point in time when we will have lost the war to the Islamic Terrorists.

By no means. Even if this worst scenario happened in Iraq, that would not mean the end of the war. It would just mean that we would be waiting for the nukes to go off in Western cities (along with other things, like oil cut-offs and demands for Sharia zones in Europe and Canada). When those things start to happen, moderate and relatively bloodless experiments, such as turning Iraq into a regional demonstration project, would no longer be possible.

Yes, I did write "relatively bloodless."

* * *

Recently I bought a DVD of the best science-fiction film ever made, Forbidden Planet. This is the 1956 film, with Leslie Nielsen. I noticed something about the exposition that precedes the film: unless I misheard, the narrator says that the first expeditions to the moon happened "in the last decade of the 21st century." For space-flight proponents in the 1950s, that was a somewhat cautious forecast. Then just two days ago I saw this item about the gradual development of space flight:

MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) - A privately developed manned rocket will attempt to reach space this month, its builders said Wednesday. It would be the first non-governmental flight to leave Earth's atmosphere...SpaceShipOne, created by aviation designer Burt Rutan and funded by billionaire Paul Allen, will attempt to reach an altitude of 62 miles on a suborbital flight over the Mojave Desert on June 21.

That story seems more consistent with the timeline of Forbidden Planet than with the timeline I remember. Maybe R.A. Lafferty was right, and the 1960s were a diabolical hallucination.

* * *

Speaking of the devil's pranks, no admirer of Charles Fort could fail to applaud this story in The New York Post:

June 1, 2004 -- A boat party in an exclusive area of Long Island Sunday night was interrupted - when a severed human hand mysteriously dropped out of the sky onto the deck of a boat, police said yesterday. The bizarre incident occurred in the water just off the Lawrence Village Marina, where a group of boats had gathered to have a party. One owner was in the cabin when "he heard a noise, goes out to check and finds the hand on the rear deck of the boat," said Nassau Detective Sgt. John Azzata. "At this point, we don't have a clue where it came from. It's a mystery."

A little more investigation sparked the hypothesis that the hand might have come from a corpse that had recently washed ashore at Atlantic City, minus hands and feet. Then, however, The New York Times put in its two cents:

MINEOLA: FALLEN OBJECT MAY BE PART OF A DEAD BEAR A fallen object on a boat, first thought to be a clamshell and then a decomposed human hand, may actually be part of a dead bear, perhaps a claw awaiting treatment by a taxidermist. On Sunday, a startled deckhand at the Lawrence Village Marina in Nassau County reported the object to the police. It was then taken to the county medical examiner's office for analysis. Yesterday, Detective Lt. Dennis Farrell of the Nassau County Police Department said that a taxidermist working on a bear in his backyard, near the marina, reported that a bird might have flown away with a bear part.Stacy Albin (NYT)

Sounds like the Party Line to me.

* * *

The protests at the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee have gone reasonably well. At least they got some publicity, such as this story from Carl Weiser of the Gannett News Service:

Seven members of the American Literacy Society picketed the 77th annual spelling bee, which is sponsored every year by Cincinnati-based Scripps Howard. The protesters' complaint: English spelling is illogical. And the national spelling bee only reinforces the crazy spellings that lead to dyslexia, high illiteracy, and harder lives for immigrants.

The story gave the forces of obscurantism equal time, however:

Bee spokesman Mark Kroeger said good spelling comes from knowing the story behind a word - what language it comes from, what it means. "For these kids who understand the root words, who understand the etymology, it's totally logical," he said.

That's perfectly true. If you know Latin and Greek and Norman French, English spelling becomes pretty transparent. Certainly it is to me; I've been a language buff since I discovered Tolkien when I was 15, and I can read a couple of languages. Maybe, though, we should have a spelling system geared to people who know only English.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-10-07

James Lovelock: ‘Before the end of this century, robots will have taken over’

I was introduced to the Gaia Hypothesis by SimEarth on a Mac LC. That was a great game, and it is a neat idea. James Lovelock also introduced me to John Brockman's, through Brockman's book The Third Culture. I always find it fun to read things written by eminent scientists after they are too old to care what other people think, and this interview does not disappoint.

Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials


80% of data in Chinese clinical trials have been fabricated

No one in my line of work would be surprised.

Knowledge, Human Capital and Economic Development: Evidence from the British Industrial Revolution, 1750-1930

This goes on the pile of evidence for my cocktail party theory that technological progress [what most people call scientific progress] is harmed when science is more pure.

The camel doesn’t have two humps: Programming “aptitude test” canned for overzealous conclusion

I can't find the link now, but I am pretty sure I referenced this draft paper at some point on this blog. It has one of the funniest retractions I have seen:

Though it’s embarrassing, I feel it’s necessary to explain how and why I came to write “The camel has two humps” and its part-retraction in (Bornat et al., 2008). It’s in part a mental health story. In autumn 2005 I became clinically depressed. My physician put me on the then-standard treatment for depression, an SSRI. But she wasn’t aware that for some people an SSRI doesn’t gently treat depression, it puts them on the ceiling. I took the SSRI for three months, by which time I was grandiose, extremely self-righteous and very combative – myself turned up to one hundred and eleven. I did a number of very silly things whilst on the SSRI and some more in the immediate aftermath, amongst them writing “The camel has two humps”. I’m fairly sure that I believed, at the time, that there were people who couldn’t learn to program and that Dehnadi had proved it. Perhaps I wanted to believe it because it would explain why I’d so often failed to teach them. The paper doesn’t exactly make that claim, but it comes pretty close. It was an absurd claim because I didn’t have the extraordinary evidence needed to support it. I no longer believe it’s true.

I don't follow the Retraction Watch blog, but I am unlikely to since poor Larry Summers and James Watson are unfairly lumped together with a guy who exaggerated his conclusion.

The Forgotten Revolution

Via Logarithmic HIstory: Plutarch attributed to Hipparchus a discovery that would be forgotten for two millennia, Schröder numbers. The Ionian Greeks were truly something special.

The Long View 2004-05-31: The Great Evangel of the Terrorist Leeches

World Bank Crude Birth Rate Data 2014

World Bank Crude Birth Rate Data 2014

Here, John Reilly talks briefly about the aging of China's population due to the slowdown in the birth rate. The line I still remember is:

...China will get old before it gets rich. 

Parts of China have certainly gotten very rich indeed, although the interior remains rural and poor, much like America a century before. It is still not clear how the great demographic shift is going to play out across the world over the next century. The fate of nations will likely hinge on this. However, this kind of forecasting is inherent likely to fail, but I will proceed heedless of the risks. 

As you can see from the map above, almost the entire world has moved into the demographic transition, where birth rates slow as countries modernize. The big outlier here is all of sub-Saharan Africa. Granted, that is the poorest region of the world at present, but even taking that into account, the demographers have been surprised by how high birth rates have remained in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Consider this revised prediction from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division:

Each curve follows the same model, the logistic curve, but the 2015 prediction uses a much slower rate of change than the 2004 prediction. As is the nature of logistic models, a small change in the rate can have a very large change in total population growth. In this case, the expectation is an additional 2 billion Africans will be born over the next hundred years.

What that will mean is just a guess that this point, but you can expect the world to be very different 100 years hence.

The Great Evangel of the Terrorist Leeches

Even today, when Europe seems to be turning into a geriatric version of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and the United States carries on ever fiercer debates about the relationship of God and the citizen, it's still taken as a given that America is the land of soulless materialism. Some very smart people make this mistake:

Fri May 28, 9:52 AM ET Reuters
VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II warned several U.S. bishops Friday that American society is in danger of turning against spirituality in favor of materialistic desires, giving way to a "soulless vision of life." ...To fight this, the pontiff argued, the U.S. church must study contemporary culture to find a way to appeal to youths. He made his remarks to bishops from Indianapolis, Chicago and Milwaukee who were making a periodic visit to the Vatican.

When I was a youth, I lost interest in religion for many years, largely because the people who represented it were so keen to accommodate my interests and outlook. They were in fact pretty clueless about what those interests and outlook were. But even if the leaders of the Church in those days had been as sharp as today's MTV marketers, the mere fact that they tried to make Christianity blend into popular culture made Christianity seem negligible.

No doubt there is a way to evangelize using the music of Linkin Park (which I like). Much the better course, however, is to present a message so powerful and mysterious that Linkin Park will use it as a source.

* * *

Having just referred to Europe as a gerontocracy, let me hasten to add that I realize that reports of The Death of the West are exaggerated. It may well be that the human race as a whole is approaching an age of steady or, more likely, gradually declining population. Certainly it is the case that the West is not alone in facing the difficulties of the demographic transition:

The Most Populous Nation Faces a Population Crisis (Joseph Kahn, New York Times, May 30, 2004)

...Barring a radical shift in social policy, China is on course to age faster than any major country in history, as its median age soars from about 32 today to at least 44 in 2040.

China will mature more in the next generation than Europe has over the past century, according to data compiled by the United Nations. It will have to grapple with the same age-related fiscal, social and productivity challenges of countries with several times its per capita income.

Put another way, China will get old before it gets rich.

I frankly don't know how remediable this problem is. In the case of China, demographic collapse seems to be a product of government fiat, so maybe a change in policy will fix matters. However, much the same started to happen in the old Soviet block, which had no interest in population control. In Europe, and even the US, birthrates are influenced by official policy, but you have to wonder whether those policies are the cause of cultural change or its symptoms.

There is key difference between forecasting the future of the West and the future of China. however. There are, of course, uncertainties in the future of the West, but the general outline of that future is reasonably clear; just ask Spengler. China, however, has completed not just the culturally creative phase of its history, but even the era of the Universal State. The forces that govern China's future are therefore more random, mechanical, unpredictable.

At any rate, it is not predictable through Spengler or Toynbee's models. Maybe Lao Tse could do better.

* * *

Also in the May 30 Sunday New York Times, there was a report by Neil Genzlinger that I cannot find a link to: "This Year, a Dark Cloud Hangs Over the Carefree Season." The cloud hangs particularly dark over New Jersey, whose malls and public transportation make peculiarly target-rich environments for suicide bombers. In order to alleviate the danger, the New Jersey Department of Counterterrorism is about to begin offering instruction to local law-enforcement agencies in how to recognize suicide bombers. The report quotes a suicide bomber (a failed one, in an Israeli jail) about the relative merits of bombs in bags or on belts, and the question of whether the belts should be secured over the stomach or across the back.

All this reminds me of Robert Heinlein's novella, The Puppet Masters, a fine story that became the template for some really bad movies. The story was about the invasion of Earth by large, neural leeches. If they touched any part of a person's skin, they could immediately gain control of his mind. The government discovers what is going on before the whole country is infected, however. People are required to wear clothes in such a way as to make clear they are not carrying a leech. People who appeared in public in something more than beach-wear were shot on sight.

As summer turned to fall and the weather turned cold, this practice became more and more awkward. We could soon have a similar problem.

* * *

Meanwhile, while we go about preoccupied with petty concerns about life and death, the Great Conspiracy is beginning to implement its plans. I have obtained this joint statement from the American Literacy Council (on which I'm a board member, actually) and the Simplified Spelling Society, regarding the action they plan to carry out this week in Washington, D.C.:


Not all spellers heading for Washington, DC, for the National Spelling Bee on June 1-3 think English spelling is a good thing that should be celebrated.

While spectators and judges inside the Regency Hyatt Hotel will be pondering the spellings of obscure words, and admiring the efforts of contestants, outside on the street some members of the American Literacy Council (ALC) and the Simplified Spelling Society (SSS) will be trying to convince passers-by that English spelling is a problem that needs fixing.

Like those inside, they [may] admire the efforts of contestants, but they will have signs and sandwich boards with slogans such as "I'm thru with through" and "Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much". Their aim is to alert parents, educators, politicians, business people, and others concerned about the unacceptable level of illiteracy among English-speakers, to the fact that a prime cause for this is English spelling.

One of the picketers, ALC chair and SSS member, Alan Mole, from Boulder, Colorado, puts it this way: "Our odd spelling retains words like cough, bough, through and though. This increases illiteracy and crime. Fix it and you fix a host of problems. We want to fix it."

And fix it we shall. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-05-28: Credible Force

The first paragraph of this post wasn't really intended to be predictive of anything, but I will riff on it anyway. In 2004, Bush and Kerry were really proposing much the same solutions in foreign relations. Bush was in charge when the Iraq War went down, so he gets the blame in retrospect. This is as it should be. If you are in charge, everything is your fault.

However, I don't know that President John Kerry really would have acquitted himself better, given the way the foreign policy of President Obama turned out. Everyone who is anyone is committed to the Invade the World/Invite the World plan, all that changes is the details.

Is is interesting that the unilateral/multilateral debate about the proper response to 9/11 has completely evaporated. At the time, this was an all-consuming political question for partisans. Now, I doubt anyone thinks about it much. Events have moved far past this paper. The US and Russia joust over Syria. The UN set up Ghaddafi for his downfall, but the actual work was done by the US and France. Each state adopts a unilateral or multilateral stance as it sees fit.

Credible Force

The great irony in the presidential election of 2004 is that George Bush's and John Kerry's foreign policies are substantially identical; the question is whether you think people like Donald Rumsfeld are best suited to carry out the policy, or people like Madelaine Albright are. So, I have just two comments about the foreign-policy statement that Kerry made yesterday in Seattle.

The first is an editorial nit I must pick with this statement:

More than a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt defined American leadership in foreign policy. He said America should walk softly and carry a big stick.

Theodore Roosevelt, of course, actually said "speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far." (He said it was a West African proverb.) Kerry seems oddly prone to small slips like this. Readers will recall his allusion to the role of Pope Pius XXIII in the Second Vatican Council. None of these slips is as much fun as the more ingenious Bushisms, like "misunderestimate," but they do suggest a problem with semantics rather than mere rhetoric.

More seriously, we have this critique of the Bush Administration's alleged aversion to multilateralism:

America must always be the world’s paramount military power. But we can magnify our power through alliances. We simply can’t go it alone – or rely on a coalition of the few. The threat of terrorism demands alliances on a global scale -- to find the extremist groups, to guard ports and stadiums, to share intelligence, and to get the terrorists before they get us. In short, we need a coalition of the able -- and in truth, no force on earth is more able than the United States and its allies.

Actually, that is just what the Bush Administration did. When they pulled the levers on the old alliance system, they found that many of them were no longer hooked up to anything. So, they had to do an unsightly job of ripping out the interface panels and rewiring by hand whatever they could. Even countries that opposed the Iraq War have been eager to cooperate in the sort of police measures Kerry mentioned. The exceptions are countries that already do business with the terror networks. In Iraq itself, just about all the "able" are already there.

* * *

Among the commentators trying to re-argue the rationales for the war, there is former Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni, who once was commander of the CENTCOM region, which includes Iraq. The odd thing is that he still insists the region was acceptably "stable" before the war, despite what has since come to light about the Libyan and Iranian WMD programs, and the nuclear wholesale market that operated out of Pakistan.

He also repeats General Shinseki's estimate that Iraq should have been invaded with no fewer that 300k to 500k troops. That sort of commitment would have stripped the US military of just about its whole deployable force; he made the assessment to stop the war. That's why Zinni raised the point again. The problem, of course, is that this philosophy makes almost any war impossible. Zinni is trying to reassert the post-Vietnam consensus that the US military will not fight in any context that does not come up to its exacting specifications. If the national interest requires action in some situation that does not meet those criteria, then addressing that problem is none of the military's affair. In other words, the enemies of the United States can delete the conventional American military from its calculations, except for the sort of cruise missile campaigns that Zinni used to oversee in Iraq.

Zinni is quite right that the US lacked military police, translators, border guards, and civil-administration units for the reconstruction of Iraq. It lacked those things because the Pentagon had never asked to develop those capabilities, and it had not asked for them because it did not want to be asked to do nation-building. Well, now we know better.

* * *

A far more serious assessment of the war comes from Fouad Ajami, in a New York Times Op Ed entitled Iraq May Survive, but the Dream Is Dead:

Back in the time of our triumph -- that of swift movement and of pulling down the dictator's statues -- we had let the victory speak for itself. There was no need to even threaten the Syrians, the Iranians and the Libyans with a fate similar to the one that befell the Iraqi despotism. Some of that deterrent power no doubt still holds. But our enemies have taken our measure; they have taken stock of our national discord over the war. We shall not chase the Syrian dictator to a spider hole, nor will we sack the Iranian theocracy.

That's perfectly true. Still, though Ajami is always worth listening to, I think he is being unduly pessimistic. The Iraq War has changed the sense of the possible in the region, even if it has not left the rulers of Syria and Iran considering their places of exile. We will see this more clearly after the US presidential election.

* * *

I am always happy to see that aspirin has been shown to cure or prevent some dread disease. This time it's breast cancer. What is aspirin believed to help with now? Strokes, heart attacks, several kinds of cancer?

There is an old saying that you don't need good epidemiological studies to spot a miracle drug. That's why they stop double-blind tests of drugs if it seems that all the subjects who are receiving the drug are getting better. I want to know why, if aspirin is such a panacea, we are not living in world like Death Takes a Holiday?

* * *

Of course, they also stop drug tests if all the patients taking the drug seem to be dying, which brings us to the decision earlier this week from a panel of the Ninth Circuit, sustaining Oregon's assisted-suicide law. The case was not about whether anyone has a right to kill himself; it was about whether the US Attorney General could forbid doctors in the state from prescribing drugs for patients to kill themselves with. The New York Times tells us:

Mr. Ashcroft relied on the Controlled Substances Act, which allows the federal government to sanction doctors if they prescribe drugs for anything but legitimate medical purposes.

But the majority ruled that the text, purpose and history of that law did not authorize the Justice Department to use it to override the Oregon law. Congress meant to fight drug abuse, the majority said, not to regulate what is and is not medicine.

Assisted suicide is a bad idea, and the Oregon law in particular shows signs of becoming a way to get rid of the depressed and senile. Still, in this case the Ninth Circuit was correct. In fact, the Attorney General's argument was so obviously going to fail that it undermined whatever claims he may make in the future to be acting on legal principle. The chief argument against Roe v. Wade is that it was decided without regard to principle, but simply with an eye to the result. I have every confidence that Roe will be nullified someday, but its spirit has already permanently infected even its opponents.

* * *

If you need a short explanation for why constitutional jurisprudence has collapsed, read the article that Steven D. Smith of the University of San Diego has in the June/July issue of First Things. It's entitled "Conciliating Hatred."

Smith points out what everyone knows: what the Supreme Court does in its church-and-state cases, and personal autonomy cases, is not legal reasoning in any serious sense. Rather, what the Court imagines it is doing is conciliating the parties, which in these cases represent cultural and religious factions of the American people. This is the sort of thing that trial judges do routinely; that's why most civil cases are settled. It's also not unknown for appellate courts to shape legal principles so as to give least offense to all concerned. The problem is that so many of the issues that the Court decides involve moral principles about which there is no consensus, or at least not among the sort of people who read Supreme Court decisions. So, the Court has fallen into the habit, never articulated as a principle, of striking down laws on the basis of "bad motive."

This leads to odd results. The Court has allowed quite extensive subsidies for charitable religious institutions, which obviously redound to the public credit of the institutions involved, but it strikes down even the most minor law that seems intended to give public endorsement of a theological proposition. There are in fact plausible moral and medical reasons for government disfavor of homosexual activity, but the Court's retreat from principle allows it to see nothing in such disfavor but "hatred" of a minority.

The real irony is that this method actually precludes real reconciliation. The Court's decisions tend to blacken the motives of the losing parties; their actual arguments are increasingly not even considered. The Court is becoming like a shout-show on cable news, where the host hurls character assassination at the guests. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-05-24: Definitions & Extreme Situations

Anything that imitates the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rump of the Holy Roman Empire, probably isn't a bad idea.

Definitions & Extreme Situations

Mark Steyn was recently discussing the possibility of returning self-government to Iraq region by region, when he used a term I had not seen before: "asymmetrical federalism." The term comes from Canada, apparently, where it means that Quebec shakes down Ottawa for powers over immigration and culture that the other provinces don't have. As Steyn points out, asymmetrical federalism is not that unusual. Within the United Kingdom, for instance, Scotland has a parliament with some power to tax, while the assembly for Wales cannot. An odd thought: the only major component of the Union without its own parliament is the Kingdom of England. That was also true of Austria in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by the way. The Imperial Diet met in Vienna, but Hungary had its own legislature, while Austria did not.

Asymmetrical federalism flies in the face of the principle of "one man, one vote," but it often works well enough in practice.

* * *

Larry Abraham's Insider Report recently carried a geostrategic piece entitled The Clash of Civilizations and the Great Caliphate. The analysis alleges that Islamists call the great struggle in the world today "The Third Jihad." (The first was the great expansion of Islam in the first century after the death of Mohammed; the second was the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, particularly into Europe, during the 15th and 16th centuries.) I can't say that I have seen this term being used in Islamist literature in English, but it looks handy enough.

My I suggest that the political situation in the Western world would be clarified if we stopped talking about "The War on Terror" or "The Terror War" and started talking about the "Jihad"? To talk about "fighting terrorism" is a little like talking about "fighting crime." It obscures the fact that the West (and China and India too, for that matter) are trying to beat back a series of offensives by a network of ruthless and clever people. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are defensive campaigns against the Jihad.

* * *

Why does this story about the prospect of creating a blue rose catch the eye?:

"When we moved a liver enzyme into a bacterium, the bacterium turned blue," Dr Guengerich said. "We were aware that there were people in the world who had been interested in making coloured flowers, especially a blue rose, for a number of years."

To put it another way: why have people been trying to create a blue rose? And why (as you can see from running a Google search) are there so many music albums, songs, and coffee shops with that name? No doubt it's because the German Romanticist known to literature as "Novalis" (Friedrich Leopold Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772-1801)) used The Blue Flower as a symbol of esthetic transcendence.

The name Novalis, whether justly or not, later became associated with the sort of morbid mysticism that we associate with the term "decadent." Young people who set out to find the Blue Rose tended to wind up as pretty corpses. For that reason, perhaps we should be disturbed by the creation of the real blue rose. It's not a good sign.

* * *

Speaking of the tragic death of the young, I recently viewed Gus Van Sant's film, Elephant, a lightly fictionalized presentation of the Columbine High School Massacre. The film was made using real high school students, in a recently closed high school. It was shot in cinema verite' style, but with the Rashomon-device of following certain students through the day, so we see how each arrived at some encounters.

This is a fine film, which has been much reviewed. I have just two remarks:

First: why weren't any of those kids carrying books? The students in Elephant don't even carry notebooks, though we do see them taking notes at one point. I went through high school with 20 pounds of stuff in my arms, or in a backpack.

Second: my God, that high school was big. And flat. I've been in airport terminals with less floorspace. Maybe gunfire really is the only way to get the attention of people at the other end of one of those enormous halls; maybe that is what the film is about.

* * *

Some tasty new rights are in the offing. On Sunday, The New York Times ran a long article on the trade of bodily organs for transplant, particularly kidneys. The Times piece dealt with a network based in Israel that linked a Brazilian donor with a recipient from New York; the transplant was done in South Africa. The donor got $6,000 for his trouble, and thought himself lucky. Maybe he was: I believe the price for a kidney in India is $1,000.

All of this is highly illegal, but that could soon change:

On one side, said Alexander M. Capron, the director of the ethics department of the World Health Organization, are "transplant surgeons who believe that a good way to remedy the shortage of organs would be to offer payments," and bioethicists and philosophers who see organ trade as an extension of the principle of autonomy.

But an opposing group, Mr. Capron said, "fears that the line between selling organs and actually selling people is a rather fine one" and that, as in sex trafficking, the marketplace is one in which coercion and exploitation may be unavoidable.

Here's a defense from South Africa of the organ market.

What we have here, of course, is another permutation of the autonomy right that evolved from Griswold to Roe to Lawrence. There are jurisdictional issues in a case like that profiled by the Times that make prosecution of recipients unlikely. So, perhaps, does the certainty that the defendant would raise a constitutional defense that could well succeed.

To paraphrase Dr. Who: what we have here is the prospect of a right to cannibalism, without the need to chew the grisly bits. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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LinkFest 2015-09-30

Wow, it has been a long time since I did a LinkFest, so here is one delayed 7 weeks.

48 Hours on the Dark Side of Vegas

This reminds me of the hidden desperation in Tim Power's Last Call.

Is the U.S. behind Fethullah Gulen?

Not as newsworthy as it used to be, but a very interesting take from a Turk living in the US.

Why Trump Supporters Think He'll Win

Still very newsworthy.

Could Trump Be the 'Man's Man' America Wants?

After the popularity of the above article, David Frum wrote another on the same subject. Part of the appeal of Trump is that he hasn't got even a hint of the Ned Flanders vibe that turns many people away from other Republican candidates.

Surprises of the Faraday Cage

It turns out a famous explanation of the phenomenon may not be correct. Which hasn't stopped the engineers who design them.

Internaut day: The world's first public website went online 25 years ago today

Also out of date. I fondly remember the early days of the internet. Everything was more innocent then. No, really.

No Matter Who Wins The Presidency, The ‘Deep State’ Will Run Things

I'm not sure I believe this, but I think the argument is interesting.

America's birth rate is now a national emergency

PEG says there is no good reason the US, an empty country that grows lots of food and exports oil, should have a birth rate below replacement. I am inclined to agree with him.

Terry v. Ohio. Happy 50th Anniverary, Detective McFadden!

I enjoyed learning the history of the 'frisk'. 

The Tesla Effect: How the cutting edge company became the most powerful engine in Bay Area manufacturing

People forget how much of the money any company pulls in as revenue goes to its suppliers, which go to its suppliers, and so on. 

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists

In my opinion, the current trend of crank amateur physicists is entirely the fault of the direction that physics as a whole has taken. Lots of great progress has been made by applying mathematical theories in elegant ways, but the data that support those theories comes from a messy reality that is often obscured in the tales told about science [usually by science journalists and popularizers]. This is the story of a physicist who tried to bring a little reality to the amateurs.

Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink

The author seems like she lives in world that I've heard about, but never experienced. Getting sloshed sounds like an entirely human response to living that kind of life, but the bigger question is why would you want to? A good companion piece to the Jezebel article about binge drinking and how it contributes to women's dissatisfaction with their sex lives. There is a common thread here, and it isn't alcohol.


Psychologists have been trying to devoodoofy psychology for a long time.

What U. of Chicago Activists Are Complaining About

Trigger warnings are grossly overused, but this is a sympathetic look at the environment in an actual elite school. I still think Neal Stephenson got this all right thirty years ago.

In Defense of Prince Hans

I said the same thing the first time I watched Frozen.

Pondering Miracles, Medical and Religious

A breath of fresh air after all the nastiness from the atheist community before and during the canonization of Mother Theresa.


A brilliant series of Tweets from Ross Douthat on why Trumpism matters, no matter how much you hate Trump.

And of course, the essay that occasioned that Tweetstorm.

The Long View 2004-05-21: Preemptive Explanations

Every American election season, pretty much the same thing plays out among American Catholics that John Reilly describes here: a few bishops and some lay Catholics come out strongly against abortion and the politicians who support, the vast majority say something a bit softer, and a few decry the mixing of religion and politics. Some things never change.

On the other hand, this election season is a bit different in that the ascendance of the Cultural Left, along with Donald Trump, have broken the trend for churchgoing Catholics to either vote Republican for anti-abortion reasons, or not vote at all, since many Catholics are traditionally Democrat, but cannot bring themselves to vote for a pro-abortion candidate or Republican [little yellow dogs lost in the primary].

Perhaps the most interesting development of all is the rise of Tradinistas, young orthodox but Leftist Catholics, who think establishment Catholic Democrats like Tim Kaine are not far enough left on economics or Catholic enough on sex.

Interesting times.

Preemptive Explanations

Now that it seems likely again that substantial WMD stocks will turn up in Iraq, the back and forth is already beginning about just what these discoveries would mean. I discussed the point briefly in the entry for May 14, but just let me clarify.

Any WMDs that the Baathist government had would be important as evidence that the regime was ignoring and subverting the UN's disarmament regime. The chief US justification for the war was that such behavior cannot be tolerated after 911. In point of fact, the Kay inspections showed that Iraq was ignoring and subverting the disarmament regime. However, the evidence was scattered and circumstantial, and the Bush Administration had indeed said that some actual weapons would be found: weapons manufactured and ready to use. It was critics of the war who chose to hold the Administration to its word. Those critics are already trying to backtrack, pointing out that the gas and germs the Baathist government had did not by themselves justify the war. That's true, strictly speaking, but it's too late for them to raise the point.

The critics of the war long ago abandoned the argument that President Bush was imprudent. Now they say, and say again, that he lied. It's their issue, and they are stuck with it.

* * *

I just finished reviewing a memoir of the 1820s and '30s by one Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, an English evangelist whose dearest aim in life was to rid Ireland of popery. One of her arguments against giving Catholics the franchise was that Catholics would simply do whatever their bishops told them. It is thus with a great sense of historical resonance that I view the recent attempts by a small number of American Catholic bishops (four, I believe) to publicly exclude pro-abortion politicians from the eucharist, and even to extend the prohibition (necessarily self-policing) to people who vote for pro-abortion politicians. Even more interesting, though, is the explosive reaction by Catholic politicians who are terrified by the prospect of alienating the cultural-left segment of the Democratic base.

Here is an example of what we are talking about:

John G. Vlazny, archbishop of about 298,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Portland, said in his May 6 column that Catholics who "publicly disagree" with church teaching on abortion or same-sex marriage should refrain from taking Communion. He also addressed Catholic voters faced with endorsing "pro-choice politicians."

"If they vote for them precisely because they are pro-choice, I believe they too should refrain from the reception of Holy Communion because they are not in communion with the Church on a serious matter," Vlazny wrote.

"But if they are voting for that particular politician because, in their judgment, other candidates fail significantly in some matters of great importance, for example, war and peace, human rights and economic justice, then there is no evident stance of opposition to Church teaching and reception of Holy Communion seems both appropriate and beneficial," he added.

This is much less radical than has been made out. For one thing, no one is being excommunicated, or even "disfellowshiped," to use a Protestant term. For another, the statement takes care to avoid the "Arlen Specter Problem," which is whether one may support a candidate for parliamentary purposes even if his public positions are contrary to Catholic moral doctrine. The archbishop's policy is aimed narrowly at avoiding "scandal," which in this case means a situation in which politicians campaign in part on their Catholic identities, while at the same time voting against Catholic doctrine on issues about which they have discretion.

I am not entirely happy about bishops entering politics in this fashion (which is what they are doing, though they may deny it). It would be wholly intolerable if, like the Supreme Court, they claimed the prerogative to create and nullify doctrine at will. The fact is, though, they are not saying anything new, and their method of enforcement is just inside the ballpark. One could imagine a situation in which bishops issued anathemas for partisan reasons, or to promote policies that are prudentially debatable. In that case, they would be acting ultra vires, and could be ignored. That is not what is happening in this case, however.

* * *

This brings us to the reaction from some Catholics in Congress:

Forty-eight Roman Catholic members of Congress have warned in a letter to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington that U.S. bishops will revive anti-Catholic bigotry and severely harm the church if they deny Communion to politicians who support abortion rights...

The letter questioned how the bishops could limit the denial of Communion to abortion, noting that Pope John Paul II and many U.S. bishops have condemned the death penalty and the war in Iraq.

As for the war in Iraq, that is a classic prudential question. Catholic politicians cannot be required to conform their foreign policy to the foreign policy of the Holy See, which for most purposes is just another state. The death penalty is more difficult: Catholic moral theologians, including the one-time Karol Wojtla, have been hostile to it for some time. However, the fact is that the Magisterium does allow for the death penalty in principle; even the new Catechism, which makes rather a muddle of the issue, does not condemn it outright. Again, this is one of the strengths of Catholicism: you just can't make this stuff up.

* * *

Dedicated readers of this site will have noticed that I have more than once alluded to those Underwood-keyboard computers in the Terry Gilliam movie, Brazil. Imagine my surprise on learning that there really are such things. Remember the old saying: be careful what you wish for because someone might send you a URL to it.

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The Long View: Irish Recollections

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna

I do not remember reading this particular book review before, which is an unusual thing for me to admit. The Rockite movement is also a bit of history that I had missed out on until now.

Irish Recollections
By Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna
Edited by Patrick Maume
University College Dublin Press, 2004
(First Published 1841)
208 Pages; €18.00
ISBN 1-904558-10-0


This abridged edition of the memoirs of an early Victorian evangelist and novelist gives us an example of something that is not rare in history: a situation in which one group's millennialism is soon reflected in comparable expectations in a hostile group. In the early 1820s, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (1790-1846) encountered a form of millenarianism in the sporadically violent “Rockite” movement of rural and Catholic southwestern Ireland. That encounter may help explain her own turn to apocalyptic millenarianism, though we should note that a similar doctrinal development was then taking place among influential Protestant Evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic. In any case, that revival of millenarian eschatology remains influential to this day.

“Irish Recollections” is useful social history for non-apocalyptic reasons, too. Charlotte Tonna (nee Brown) was an Englishwoman who lived in Ireland only from 1818 to 1824, while married to an abusive Army-officer husband. His sole merit seems to have been that he spent much of the time posted to North America. The author describes her domestic life only elliptically, but we do learn that she had to flee to England to protect her earnings from her nascent writing career from him. Charlotte Tonna also suffered from a physical disability. As a small child, she went temporarily blind. Medicated with mercury, she became permanently deaf. From this text, it is hard to tell how deaf: she portrays herself as functioning normally in society, and even teaching Bible school to hearing children. In any case, she became very interested in the instruction of the deaf. The person she mentions most often is a deaf-mute Irish boy named Jack, whom she more or less adopts from his parents, and who accompanies her to England. He dies at age 19, but his life provides much of the narrative's structure. The author invests his syntaxless hand-signing as preternatural expressions of a saved soul's spontaneous antipathy to the Church of Rome.

That anti-Catholicism is what the memoirs are about. Perhaps better: the author thought that the revival of the Western Antichrist in the form of the Roman Church was what the historical period in which she lived was about. Her career as an evangelist was therefore directed in large part toward combating Romanism among the Irish, at home and abroad. Much of this work was commendably practical. She backed, and worked in, missionary charities among Irish immigrants to England; she even spearheaded the founding of an evangelical Irish-language church in London. However, in this book her anti-Catholic polemic rarely abates for more than a few paragraphs. She advises the reader not to send for a Catholic priest if a Catholic servant or guest is dying, lest the reader give aid to idolatry. Her already limited patience with Christian denominations with which she disagrees does not apply to Rome, since she does not consider Catholicism a form of Christianity at all. She will not even call places of Catholic worship “churches”; she calls them “mass houses.”

The author describes an attempt by an educated nun to convert her, but in this book she does not engage Catholic doctrine. In fact, readers may be left wondering whether the author ever really knew enough about the object of her ire to critique it usefully. Here's her account of an exchange with an Irish Catholic about the sacrament of penance:

“And how do you know that God has really pardoned you?” “He doesn't pardon me directly: only the priest does. He (the priest) confesses my sins to the bishop, and the bishop confesses them to the pope, and the pope sees the Virgin Mary every Saturday night, and tells her to speak to God about it.”

This looks very much like someone is pulling someone else's leg. Maybe the author is pulling ours, but more likely her informant was pulling hers.

Actually, the wonder is that Charlotte Tonna maintained her obvious affection for the Irish through a period when part of the Catholic Irish population really was a menace to human life, particularly to people like her. Her stay in Ireland coincided with an eruption of rural violence, which is referred to as the “Rockite Movement.” The name refers to a metaphorical “Captain Rock.” Like the nearly contemporary “Captain Ludd” and “Captain Swing” in England, the name “Captain Rock” lent itself to intimidating graffiti. In Ireland during the Rockite period, rent collectors were killed or threatened. Armed bands fought pitched battles with police. The houses of landlords were attacked. The vastly outnumbered Protestant gentry were systematically terrorized. Sometimes they were frightened off the land. The clergy of the Church of Ireland, the established Protestant church that was part of the Anglican communion, were supposed to be supported by tithes paid by the Catholic majority. They were given to understand that no more tithes would be forthcoming.

The author's description of this campaign of intimidation sometimes sounds very much like some accounts of slave uprisings in Jamaica; or for that matter, like the Spartacus revolt of the first century BC. The author is at pains to point out that the insurgents did not act indiscriminately, and were often scrupulously polite to people whose houses they searched for weapons. The author goes beyond the claim that the insurgents were rational, however. She insists that they were the unknowing pawns of a centralized conspiracy, one no doubt under the ultimate control of the office of the Propaganda in Rome.

The degree of centralization of the Rockite Movement continues to be in dispute, as does the content of its ideology. Rockism sought the redress of grievances about rents and tithes, matters that could be adjusted without the total overthrow of the social order, much less the end of the age. However, the movement clearly had a strong millenarian component.

Some elements of that component were traditional. One major source was a fund of prophecies attributed to the saints, particularly to St. Columbkille. The prophecies often involved a military campaign in which the Irish would lose two battles but win the third. There was also a note of messianic expectation. Daniel O'Connell, perhaps, benefited in later years from that, as specifically millenarian hope faded and secular political enthusiasm took its place.

The best-known source of Rockite eschatology was a member of the Royal Academy, Charles Walmesley (1722-1797). Walmesley was a respected astronomer and onetime Catholic Bishop of York, but he seems to have maintained the Newtonian tradition of eschatological speculation. Writing under the pseudonym “Signor Pastorini,” around 1790 he published an often-reprinted “General History of the Christian Church,” based on the Book of Revelation. Among other points, he suggests that the locusts of Revelation, Chapter 9, represent the Protestant sects, and that the period during which they would torment the world would last just 300 years.

Sources vary about which date for the end of Protestantism the Pastorini system actually implies. One literal reading would have arrived at 1821, but popular opinion in Ireland focused on 1825. Aside from the rural violence, another effect of the anticipation of that year was an upsurge of attempts by Catholics to convert their Protestant neighbors. The author notes a new willingness on the part of the ordinary Irish to engage in religious disputation, which she says actually redounded to the Protestant cause. In any case, this apocalyptic proselytism somewhat resembles those instances in the Middle Ages when a wave of millenarian enthusiasm would move the Christians of a locality to try to convert the Jews in the neighborhood. When that failed, the Christians had a tendency to try to kill them. Nothing like that happened in Ireland; though as we have noted, enthusiasm that commenced in mysticism ended in politics.

Catholic Emancipation occurred in 1829. In this story, that reform appears as a looming catastrophe whose dire consequences manifested themselves in the following decade. Ireland in the first 30 years of the 19th century was scarcely the Ireland of the Penal Laws. There were substantial Catholic landowners and thriving Catholic institutions. Still, Irish Catholics did suffer from some civil disabilities, notably the lack of the parliamentary franchise. Correcting these anomalies had been on most reformers' “to do” list for two generations, not least because of the expectation that final emancipation would dampen Irish political unrest. However, though Charlotte Tonna and her Evangelical friends were themselves Victorian reformers for most purposes, on this issue they sided with the darkest reactionaries. The author explains that it makes no sense to give Catholics the vote, since Catholics are wholly under the control of the hierarchy; emancipation would be like putting Catholic bishops in the House of Commons. She was also aware that the Church of Ireland would not long remain established if the Irish had more control over their own affairs.

Emancipation for the author did not mean simply that some of her clerical gentry friends would lose their livings. For her, the matter was of world-historical importance. The injection of papist poison into the British political system was a blow against Protestantism everywhere. In fact, the author concluded that the Pastorini prophecy had been, in a sense, verified. She says this about the legislative history of the emancipation bill:

To these strangely concurrent circumstances was added one yet more striking; namely, the fact that the noted Pastorini had predicted many years before, that the great effectual blow against Protestantism would be struck on the 14th of April: -- the 13th of April, 1829, was the day on which the royal assent crowned the notorious bill.

In the 1830s, the author saw the advance of Antichrist at every hand. Parliament was downsizing the established church in Ireland, and Catholic schools were receiving government support. Giving Catholics the vote had not diminished the intensity of Irish politics. In England, the Anglican Church itself was falling to the crypto-papists of the Oxford Movement. Although Charlotte Tonna was in contact with the groups that were even then developing the doctrine of the pretribulation rapture, she nowhere suggests that the true church will escape the time of troubles that precede the Second Advent. She warns that true Christians could expect persecution in the near future. In such times, even a walk in the park becomes filled with dramatic meaning:

After [giving a parcel of anti-Catholic tracts to a departing Catholic chaplain], which indeed proved a great relief to my oppressed feelings, I took my little nephew and sallied forth for a walk. It was a glorious day; the sun shone with surpassing brilliancy from a cloudless sky; and the fresh breeze had all the softness of advanced spring. I strolled through a grove of oaks, pondering on the naval greatness of my country, on the vaunted “Hearts of oak” that both formed her fleets and manned them, and bewailing the infatuation that had now planted a deadly Upas [a poisonous tree] in the midst of her fair national garden. Every object around me seemed to speak reproach, from the peaceful beauty of that fearless repose in which for so many centuries our happy isle had lain beneath the shadow of the Lord's hand. “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me,” was the purport of the voice that seemed to breathe rebuke.

The endtime is a time of hope. The author associated the Battle of Navarino with the opening of the 6th Seal in the Book of Revelation. In that naval engagement in 1827, combined action by the British, French, and Russians broke the power of the Ottoman Empire over Greece. The author looked for the eventual collapse of Turkish power over the eastern Mediterranean, leaving the way open for the return of the Jews to Palestine, and to their eventual conversion.

In the later years of her relatively short life, Charlotte Tonna's personal condition improved, too. She married again, and more successfully. To her great glee, her works were put on Rome's Index of Forbidden Books. Indeed, she became well-enough known as a writer to justify this edition of her memoirs so many years later. To paraphrase an old saying: “All this, and doomsday too.” 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-05-17: Sloppy Justice; Crystal Chapel; Reenchantment

I always enjoy John's articles on law. He was a lawyer by education and trade, he mostly worked as a legal editor, helping to compile the vast tomes in which our laws are codified. I enjoy them, but I try not to have too firm of an opinion about them; I have learned at least some of my limits.

In principle, legal reasoning makes sense to me, I simply lack the appropriate subject matter knowledge. Given that common law is a development of the Scholastic tradition, I don't find this too surprising: the methodology shows. But, this is a field where amateurs are punished, so I mind my business.

While I am also an amateur regarding sacred architecture, I feel more free to voice my opinions. Much of the current inventory of Catholic chapels in the United States is probably has harmful to the soul as it is offensive to the eyes, but I do note that the Diocese of Orange bought the much maligned Crystal Cathedral, and is in the process of turning it into an actual cathedral.

Los Angeles Cathedral

Los Angeles Cathedral

The current trend is toward far-more traditional styles, although modern materials and engineering make the spaces in chapels far more vast than anything you can find in any older style. This is a trend to encourage.

Sloppy Justice; Crystal Chapel; Reenchantment


Today is the 50th anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which forbade the states from operating racially segregated school systems. That case was well within the Court's power to decide, and the decision was correct on the merits. However, as Stephen Carter noted in The Dissent of the Governed (I have a discussion of the book here, but you have to scroll down), Brown began the long deformation of constitutional jurisprudence. After that decision, the Supreme Court began to believe that, quite literally, it could do no wrong. This belief has had many bad consequences. The Court today is not just arrogant; it's sloppy.

Consider, for instance, the Op Ed piece by Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, which appeared in today's New York Times, under the title Brown v. Board of Education A Decision That Changed America Also Changed the Court. The piece is quite short, but dense with error.

Maybe I am picking a historical nit, but it is dismaying to see a member of the Court write this for publication:

As a member of the Supreme Court, I am going to Topeka today to represent that court; not nine individual justices, but the institution itself -- an institution as old as the Republic, charged with the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution of the United States.

The republic began in 1776. The Supreme Court is a feature of the Constitution drafted in 1787; it started functioning several years after that. More important is the justice's misstatement of constitutional theory:

Before May 17, the court read the 14th Amendment's words "equal protection of the laws," as if they protected only the members of the majority race.

The Brown decision was about whether the interests of minorities could be secured through maintaining parallel institutions for them. The 14th Amendment was drafted to protect minorities. The suggestion that the Court ever read it not to apply to minorities is breathtaking. The Court never said any such thing; it often said the opposite.

Then we get to the part where faulty syntax dovetails with faulty thought:

[Brown] forced Americans to ask themselves whether they believed in a rule of law -- a rule of law that President Dwight D. Eisenhower enforced in 1957 when he sent federal paratroopers to Arkansas to take black schoolchildren by the hand and walk them safely through that schoolhouse door. We now accept that rule of law...

The justice was probably trying to say "the rule of law," which in this case means the duty of citizens to obey the decisions of courts acting under color of law. That is quite different from whether citizens may disagree with a judicial decision and seek to change it. As I remarked, the Supreme Court's decision in Brown is almost certainly correct, but good-faith arguments can be made on the other side; in fact, in recent years the Court has moved away from the principle of strict racial neutrality that Brown was once thought to represent. The disturbing thing about these few sentences in the editorial is that the justice seems to conflate the duty to follow peaceful legal procedures with a duty to accept whatever the Supreme Court says. That's not just un-American. That's stupid.

I hesitated to make these harsh points about a mere anniversary editorial, especially since many members of the Court are elderly and should have retired years ago. However, when I checked, I found that Breyer was born in 1938. He's young enough to know better.

* * *

People familiar with Catholic traditionalism will have run across the name "Michael Rose." He is the author, among other books, of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again. I have not read that one, but I'm in sympathy with its thesis. "Gutted" is not too strong a word for the condition of old Catholic church buildings after the liturgists get a hold of them; the new layouts seem designed by people who are terrified of the thought that someome who enters the buildings might be tempted to pray. As for the newer buildings, I would say that too many of them look like Darth Vader's helmet, except I liked Star Wars.

Despite my sympathy for the principle, I have to take issue with critique Rose published in the April-May issue of Adoremus Bulletin about the chapel that the new Ave Maria University plans to build at its Florida campus. Cannon Design of New York is doing the chapel along with the rest of the campus. The chapel will be huge, laid out like a traditional basilica. It will be 150 feet tall, 60k square feet, with seating for 3,300; that will make it the largest Roman Catholic church building in the United States.

One can argue that this is substantially more than Ave Maria needs at this point, but Rose's objections go chiefly to the materials. The chapel will be glass and steel, like the Crystal Cathedral, but laid out with the orthodox Catholic liturgy in mind. The experiment may turn out badly, but I say "go for it." Just such a structure, built all of glass and light, was the ideal toward which the Gothic and some forms of Romanesque strove. That trajectory was abandoned, however, in part because stone and leaded glass were just not up to the demands of the vision. The 20th century provided the materials; now let us get on with it.

This is what I mean by "The Perfection of the West." I also mean this, of course.


* * *

Speaking of old ideas in new guises, I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone again when it appeared on network television last week. I like that movie, though I have not been following the series. I suspect that, had I been of the prime demographic for the book when it appeared, I would have made a point of despising it. My tolerance for pure fantasy was very low when I was a child. Tolkien's books broke through that prejudice only by being impure fantasy, by pretending to be history. Maybe if I had read The Hobbit first I would not have troubled with The Lord of the Rings.

In any case, a few things struck me about Hogwart's School when I saw the film again. The kids have no computers. They did, however, use magic to do what computers do: find information, create illusions, animate non-living things and make them talk. There are no magical computers at Hogwart's, because the term "magical computer" is redundant.

What would a magical computer look like, anyway? Probably like the computers in Brazil (the movie, not the country). Certainly they would run on steam.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-05-14: Panic; Civil War; Gardening Accidents

The beheading of Nick Berg was so shocking at the time. Now this kind of thing seems to happen all the time. Or at least it gets reported on all the time, which for purposes of mental impact is more important.

Unfortunately for John, he made a number of predictions about this time in 2004 that Iraq was going to turn the corner any day now, and victory would ensue. Hah.

Panic; Civil War; Gardening Accidents

When the images from Abu Ghraib first appeared, it was hard to imagine a set of pictures that might have made the media talk about something else for a while. I'm not sure that a video of Godzilla rising from Tokyo Bay would have done the trick. Then the Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq decided to decapitate Nicholas Berg online. That might have turned into just another atrocity story, except that we soon learned that Berg's father and business partner was a vociferous opponent of the war, and that the victim himself had apparently had some contact, however innocent, with 911 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui. All this leads to an inevitable speculation: is this a case in which a family of American progressives was trying to make contact with anti-colonial freedom-fighters, only to discover that the insurgents were not such good comrades after all? We will find out by and by.

* * *

Meanwhile, it is instructive to read the first few sentences of the lead editorial in The Weekly Standard of May 17. The piece was, of course, probably written last week; it shows official Washington in full rout:

We do not know how close the American effort in Iraq may be to irrecoverable failure. We are inclined to believe, however, that the current Washington wisdom -- that the United States has already failed and there is nothing to do now but find a not-too-damaging way to extricate ourselves -- is far too pessimistic, a panicked reaction to the difficulties in Falluja and with Moktada al-Sadr, was well as with the disaster of Abu Ghraib.

I am reminded of nothing so much as the behavior in officials circles in London during the Germans' Spring Offensive in 1918, when it seemed as if the Allies faced defeat in the field. Prime Minister Lloyd George himself was heard to mutter, "We're going to lose this war." A preemptive exchange of recriminations began among the high and mighty. Parliament, which really did have better things to do, started investigating who knew what, and when, about the state of the Army in France in January. That had nothing to do with meeting the crisis, but the debate created a record that might have helped to salvage some careers after a lost war.

As it happened, all this weasel-work proved unnecessary. The Allied command was not nearly as incompetent as its critics made out, then and later. More important, the Germans found that they could make tactical successes, but did not have the resources to exploit them strategically. Much the same seems to be true of the insurgency in Iraq. That's as true politically as it is militarily. The Coalition lost moral credit because of the prison scandal, but the Berg execution ensured that the occupation will remain the lesser of two evils in Iraqi eyes for some time to come.

At the risk of making an easily falsifiable forecast, I believe that Iraq will be so visibly on the road to recovery by the time of the political conventions this summer that the Democrats will fold the issue into a general critique of Bush's fiscal and diplomatic policies. Actually, they are the real hostages to fortune on this issue.

I recently heard Joseph Wilson being interviewed on NPR. He's the former ambassador to Iraq who has just published yet another anti-Bush memoir; the title escapes me. He shocked the interviewer by remarking that, of course the Baathist regime in Iraq had WMDs; he fully expected some caches to be found sooner or later. He went on to observe, not unreasonably, that the stuff that is likely to be found did not pose a grave threat to the well-being of the United States.

If you parse the Administration's explanations for the war, you will see that the justification was always what Baathist government might have in the future, not what they had already. However, the Administration did speak as if the discovery of a modest stock of nerve gas would by itself justify the war. The Democrats unthinkingly bought this interpretation; they were as surprised as anyone when no stocks were found, and the conflation of present capability with long-range strategic threat turned to their advantage.

If Wilson is right, and some unambiguous WMD material is found, the confusion will again favor the Administration.

* * *

There is more to history than electoral politics. Consider, for instance, this Minnesota Daily column by John Troyer, entitled Get ready for a second U.S. civil war.

Troyer talks about a shooting civil war, which seems to me unlikely. However, it is reasonably clear that the Culture War will issue in some such historical disjuncture as Michael Lind forecast in The Next American Nation. The problem with people like Lind and Troyer is that they never appreciate that the aggressor in this matter has always been the cultural Left. For instance: theocrats did not make gay marriage a national issue; the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts did. From the question of prayer in public schools to the constitutionalization of sodomy, the fight has always been started by implacable progressive elites.

This actually bodes ill for their side, if history is any guide. The 19th-century Civil War was not started by Abolitionists; it was started by pro-slavery ideologues on the US Supreme Court, who used the Dred Scot decision to nullify the compromises about slavery that Congress had created over the previous 20 years. The issue would not have come to a head at all if slave-owners had not insisted on expanding the institution of slavery into the new territories.

The cultural Left will fail in the 21st century, too, just as the Jihad will fail. In defeating these threats, the United States will again be transformed

* * *

In the months before 911, few members of the commentariat displayed any interest in the question of a terrorist attack in the United States. One of the great exceptions was Peggy Noonan, one of whose columns I quoted here. Well, she's doing it again, this time in her May 13 column for Opinion Journal, entitled Bada Bing? Bada Boom.

The title comes from the HBO television show, The Sopranos: it's the favorite expression of the show's mobster hero, Tony. (Or so I gather; I know the series only by reputation.) Noonan explains that she shares Tony's anxiety about the security of Port Newark, which is just a few miles east of Manhattan and part of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. She has some provocative observations about how God is about to punish New Jersey for promoting research into human cloning, and for the apostasy from the Catholic Church of several of its leading politicians. She concludes thus:

Here's the point: Bad things are coming, and we all know it. But most of us can't afford to buy a farm in the Hudson River Valley. Most of us can't afford to buy the safety of being far, far away on a lake in the mists. Many of us are stuck living near Port Newark.

What are we to do? This is the great domestic policy question of our time. Why doesn't our government provide us all with the means to survive an expected nuclear, biological or chemical attack? Why doesn't our government provide us with what I think of as a "get out of Dodge" kit--a protective suit, a regulation gas mask, information on which direction to walk in, or rather run in, and how soon, after Port Newark, or Times Square, or the Sears Tower, or the Shrine Auditorium, is hit? Why aren't they doing this?

On 911, here in Jersey City, it was clear that the police and the emergency services had some plans in case of a disaster across the Hudson River in Manhattan, but the implementation was not seamless. Hysterical policemen sometimes made matters worse. Maybe what we need is a system of civil-defense volunteers, like the people who used to patrol the streets in air-raid drills during the Second World War. Certainly this is the sort of thing toward which block associations and gated communities should be turning their attention.

* * *

I note with great interest that archeologists are working on a mysterious artifact in Shugborough, which is in the UK in Staffordshire:

The inscription is rumoured to indicate the location of the Holy Grail, which must rank as one of the world's great mysteries.

The mystery deepens further when we learn that inscription is on an ancient garden ornament. My first thought was: could this ornament have had anything to do with the bizarre gardening accident in which one of Spinal Tapp's drummers perished? Then I found this.

That will teach me not to ask these questions. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Next American Nation

As described, Michael Lind's book seems a little crazy, but it might just be crazy like a fox. As sober historiography, there is little to recommend the conceit that there have been three American Republics, in the French style, much less that the descriptions provided really described the periods all that well. For example, the idea that the animating feature of the Second Republic was the pan-white melting pot would probably have come as a surprise to the Know-Nothings and the Irish and Italian and German Catholics they detested.

Nonetheless, I think I can see what Lind is getting at. Eventually, something like the idea of generic white Americans did take hold, but it was a hotly contested idea for a long time. It probably only really won about the time that Lind set the transition to the next Republic, about the time that statistical ideas about race and ethnicity were enshrined in law by the Office of Management and Budget's Statistical Directive No. 15. This directive has seen subsequent modification, but in outline it is with us still.

Lind's description of the Overclass overlaps considerably with the Deep State, the sober, responsible people who make the trains run on time no matter who might get elected:

This group, which makes up perhaps a fifth of the population, is spread throughout the country in the better suburbs. They are the country's higher managers, academics, professionals and media people. They normally have expensive degrees which they may spend the first thirty years of their lives acquiring. These degrees have been made qualifications for their lucrative jobs and therefore serve to minimize competition.. The Overclass is not simply the rich; they certainly are not the idle rich. The owner of a successful business may make far more money than his lawyer, but the lawyer, particularly if he is a member of one of the big law firms, is much more likely to belong to the Overclass. The Overclass is overwhelmingly white and mainstream Protestant, with the addition of some suitably reformed Jews. Catholics and Evangelicals are rare among them. They are both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. They make the campaign donations on which politicians depend. They watch the news on Public Television. They do not smoke. They drink wine rather than beer. They co-habit early and marry late. They have maids. They jog.

I cannot cast too many stones, because this is very much my class, except that I am too religious and intentionally avoided graduate school and I have too many children. Yet, for all that, this is still my class. Most of my closest friends fit this description well. Our class is still very much in charge, and everything that you see here follows from that.

Nearly twenty years later, this essay/book review strikes me as a pretty good primer on American politics. The current presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can been seen as the electoral contest between the Overclass, which overwhelmingly supports Clinton, and the people who got pushed aside by the decisions of the Overclass, represented by Trump.

John Reilly's enumeration of the cultural insistences that define American culture as such are a useful companion to Lind's class analysis. Our tendency to be Biblicist, anti-hierarchical, and nice goes across the class distinction Lind makes. Also the way in which America is a perennially millennial society, full of spiritual foment and messianic zeal. Americans who hate each other with a fiery passion usually share these things in common.

If you want to understand who we are, and get beyond the question of whether your side in this internecine contest is winning, you could do worse than to read this.

The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Republic
by Michael Lind
The Free Press, 1995
$25.00, 436 pp.
ISBN: 0-02-919103-3


America after the United States


"Multicultural America is a repellant and failed regime, from the point of view of members of the wage-earning American majority. That should not be surprising, because it was not designed with their interests in mind."

So says Michael Lind, once a senior editor at the magazine "The New Republic" and formerly of "Harpers" and "The National Interest." (His current activities defy enumeration.) Doubtless he is right, as he is also right about extending the blame beyond the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. (Mr. Lind is perhaps best known for his expose' in the "The New York Review of Books" of the Reverend Pat Robertson's universal conspiracy theory.) Certainly many Americans who think that the Republicans' "Contract with America" is a pollster's flim-flam also share the conservatives' suspicion that the major institutions of the United States have been taken over by malign extraterrestrials during the past thirty years. Similarly, people of many different persuasions believe that the political and cultural order that grew up after the 1960s will not last much longer. The differences of opinion arise about what kind of America should follow the one we have.

In this book, we get a theory of American history, a class analysis of the current state of American society, and an outline of what the "next America" should be like. All of these are wrong, though they all include arguments and observations that are well worth reading. The class analysis is the best thing of its kind to come along since "The Yuppie Handbook," and Lind's discussion of American patriotism is important. The problem is that his "next America" would be just as alien to its citizens as the regime we have now.

Mr. Lind obviously admires modern French history, with its colorful sequence of Empires, Directorates, numbered Republics and the occasional failed Commune. He therefore spruces up the drab constitutional continuity of American history with a First, Second and Third Republic, each inaugurated by the stress of war and each of them with its own political mythology. (Part of the idea seems to be that a "catastrophic" and discontinuous national history is more in keeping with recently fashionable ideas in paleontology; asteroids killing the dinosaurs and all that.) The First Republic was "Anglo-America," peopled largely by "No Popery" Protestants of British origin who pursued their Manifest Destiny to conquer the continent. It lasted from the Revolution until the Civil War, when it was succeeded by the Second Republic, Euro-America, the great age of heavy immigration and the ideal of the pan-white melting pot. Under the stress of the Cold War in general and Vietnam in particular, the Third Republic arose. Though initially not much different in ethnic composition from its predecessor, it was governed from the start by the ideology of multiculturalism, which held the United States is not a single nation, but a confederation of five permanently diverse nations. These were defined in 1977 by the Office of Management and Budget's Statistical Directive No. 15 (a document to which the author assigns quasi-constitutional status) as "black, white, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific Islander, and Native American." The Third Republic is essentially a scam in which the real rulers of the United States, the white Overclass, are able to avoid paying for needed reforms by playing off these artificial divisions against each other.

If you must construct a model of American history, I suppose you can't go far wrong by running the first dispensation from the Revolution to the Civil War, but little of the rest of this structure is very helpful. As Lind notes himself, the melting-pot ideal can be found even in Revolutionary times (Pennsylvania, after all, was even then heavily German, and New York was a former Dutch colony), while theories of Anglo-Saxon-Protestant supremacy are really creatures of the late nineteenth century, along with the rest of Darwinian racism. Multicult itself was prefigured in the "cultural pluralism" that was devised by socialists in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and carried to the United States in the early twentieth century. The reason why historians have tended to treat American history as a continuous whole is that American history is really pretty continuous. One may be forgiven for suspecting that Mr. Lind finds a discontinuous account of American history congenial because he himself is seeking to encourage a whopping discontinuity in the near future. But of that more later.

The Third Republic, we are told, is the dispensation of the Overclass. This group, which makes up perhaps a fifth of the population, is spread throughout the country in the better suburbs. They are the country's higher managers, academics, professionals and media people. They normally have expensive degrees which they may spend the first thirty years of their lives acquiring. These degrees have been made qualifications for their lucrative jobs and therefore serve to minimize competition.. The Overclass is not simply the rich; they certainly are not the idle rich. The owner of a successful business may make far more money than his lawyer, but the lawyer, particularly if he is a member of one of the big law firms, is much more likely to belong to the Overclass. The Overclass is overwhelmingly white and mainstream Protestant, with the addition of some suitably reformed Jews. Catholics and Evangelicals are rare among them. They are both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. They make the campaign donations on which politicians depend. They watch the news on Public Television. They do not smoke. They drink wine rather than beer. They co-habit early and marry late. They have maids. They jog.

More to the point, they also have peculiar economic interests, which they pursue to the detriment of the rest of the nation. They have little interest in paying taxes for the sort of elaborate social welfare structures taken for granted in Europe, so they console the more obstreperous groups among the lower classes by providing them racial preferences for places in prestigious educational institutions and in certain jobs. (Feminism, of course, lets them take much of this back on the sly, since Overclass women then get a big chunk of the preferences through gender quotas.) The preferences work mostly to the detriment of white salaried workers and their families. They also have the advantage of creating minority "Overclasses." These black and Hispanic Overclasses have little basis in the real economy. They depend on government employment and contract set-asides to maintain their status, and they transform what might become system-threatening discontent in their own racial castes into the quest for more preferences. Meanwhile, the Overclass more and more dispenses with public services for itself. They send their kids to private schools. They send important documents by private express services rather than through the mail. In the extreme case, they live in "gated communities" where they pay for their own police protection.

Lind is particularly exercised about the Overclass's nearly unanimous support of free trade. He notes that family income has been stagnant at best for the last twenty years, and that wages per worker have actually declined. Part of this he blames on the decline of unionization among the workforce, which he attributes almost entirely to government hostility. The rest he blames on foreign competition. The Overclass, in Lind's view, has deliberately and successfully driven down the wages of the average American since the late 1970s. This was achieved not only by permitting the import of foreign goods, but by actually importing foreign workers. The author spends a great deal of space trying to show that America historically has experienced heavy immigration only in spurts, all of which produced bad feeling, and which hindered the process of assimilating people already here. Multicultural America is gradually being transformed into a province of the Third World. The Overclass itself, however, dreams of becoming a post-American global elite.

Reading Lind's account, I could not help but reflect how petty the sins of the upper classes have become over time. If you were a patrician in the late Roman Republic, for instance, you could feed your slaves to your pet lampreys without so much as a by-your-leave to OSHA. In the Middle Ages, nobles had the right of the first night with peasant brides (droit de seigneur was not actually a recognized feudal prerogative, but the perhaps the nobility did not always correct the serfs on the matter). In contrast, all the Overclass rulers of the Third American Republic get for their many malefactions is cheap Salvadoran nannies. For this, they have to drive to work through urban war zones and be hated by all the other white people. You wonder why they would bother.

Lind rejoices in the fact that, with Marxism gone, it now okay again to do class analyses, a type of social commentary which long antedates Marx anyway. And in fact, there is nothing wrong with a class analysis, provided you recognize that a class is part of the landscape of history, it is never one of the protagonists. Lind does make the Overclass a protagonist, and a wily one at that. The author insists that he is not constructing a new conspiracy theory, so we must not imagine that there are secret meetings of the Overclass in which they plot to frustrate democracy and stifle prosperity. (At any rate, Lind never gets invited to these meetings.) Individual members of the Overclass are just well-meaning white people who own recreational vehicles and dogs named "Brandy."

If this is the case, then "the Overclass" is an entity so disarticulate as to be without explanatory power. The fallacy is the same as that which attended those "Children Against Nuclear Weapons" marches that the old pro-Soviet Left used to organize in the 1980s. If you talked to the children themselves, I suspect, you would have found that they actually did not have any opinions about megaton throw-weight or strategic targeting. If you tried to explain these things to them, they would probably have shown a reprehensible lack of interest. The children were not marching because they themselves were for or against anything. They were props for the march organizers, who had something they were trying to sell. In rather the same way, the author has created a defenseless, paper-mache' monster which he calls "the Overclass," and he uses it as a prop to help him sell a proposal to create a new political regime in America. Though he says so only in hints and winks, he seems to be contemplating nothing less than ending the United States and replacing it with a new constitutional structure.

By far the most valuable sections in the book are those dealing with American patriotism (which he prefers to call "nationalism," a term that many people prefer to restrict to ideologies of national supremacy). He emphasizes the difference between "the nation" and the political regime. The French, with their parade of constitutions over the past two centuries plus, and the Poles who had no state of their own from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, illustrate the fact that a nation continues exist no matter the form under which it is governed. Nations change over time too, of course, but they exhibit certain continuities at every period of their histories. Thus, for instance, Japanese fighter plane design in the Second World War still incorporated the ancient martial bushido principle of all offense, no defense. Russian atheists embalmed Lenin and placed him in a shrine as if he were an incorrupt Orthodox saint. France, it seems, will always be run by Louis XIV's bureaucrats, no matter what titles their political superiors hold. Lind finds similar authenticating signs of the American nation from colonial times to the present.

The nation is not characterized exclusively by ethnicity, which actually changes over time in more countries than you might think. (Remember the old saying, "A Prussian is a Pole who forgot where his grandfather was born"?) The vital elements of nationalism are language and culture. The latter includes folkways, religion, historical memory, political reflexes. For instance, though there is great deal of variety about everything in the United States, still most Americans celebrate a German Christmas with a fir tree. Native-born Americans who try to identify with some "mother country" of their ancestors usually discover when they visit there that the mother country is inhabited by heathen foreigners.

It is just this reality of a widespread and inviting common America culture that multicult denies. This is perhaps nowhere better shown than in the refusal by progressive people to use the word "America" to refer to the United States. "North America" and "North American" are the preferred usages. If they had their way, their country, as distinguished from their government, would have no name. This kind of thinking has alienated most of the American people because its effects are surrealistic. Thanks to Statistical Directive 15, unoffending English-speaking children with Spanish surnames find themselves imprisoned in inferior bilingual education tracks from which escape is almost impossible. Mayors issue proclamations in honor of "Kwanzaa," a 100% synthetic end-of-the-year pseudo-African holiday devised by an American. Hasidic Jews find that their tightly-knit communities merit no special consideration in electoral redistricting, since such people are of Eastern European extraction and thus generically white.

The last example is particularly illuminating, because it illustrates the fact that multicult serves to paper over actual cultural differences. For instance, perhaps no publicly supported entity has as rigorous a race-and-gender personnel selection system as National Public Radio. However, when a Congressman was so rude as to ask, among other things, how many of their reporters were Evangelical Christians, they indignantly refused to provide an answer. In this they were probably right; employers should not keep track of such things. Still, any regular listener can tell you that the mix of opinions to be found among the reporters and editors of this notoriously liberal network is about as "diverse" as unsalted oatmeal. Cold oatmeal at that.

Lind is particularly anxious to explode the notion that American nationalism (or patriotism) is coincident with "Democratic Universalism." In every age, there have been enthusiasts for America (many of them foreigners) who have extoled the proposition that the United States is an "idea country." Its essence, they say, lies in its common political creed of democracy and liberty. Everything else about it, the land, the language, the ethnic makeup of the people, is secondary. (The extreme expression of this school of thought may have been a piece in the British magazine, The Economist, which asserted that America would be essentially the same country even if it came to be inhabited mostly by nationalized Martians.) This idea is particularly comforting to people who think that the United States should have unrestricted immigration. Lind, rightly, will have none of it.

America has a "deep grammar" in its culture which makes it what it is. (These basic assumptions are sometimes called "cultural insistences.") America would cease to exist if its population did not share this grammar, even if the constitutional framework of the United States persisted. America, for instance, is a "Biblicist" country. American reformers and revolutionaries of all descriptions always seek to restore the "pure, original text" of the Constitution, or the Bible, or the Common Law, which has been obscured by corrupt interpretation. It is anti-hierarchical, so that even respected people in places of legitimate authority have to claim to be simply expressing popular opinion. (No person can really have legitimate authority; only the original text can.) Thanks to the Quakers, America is "nice." Only a minority of Americans have ever "thee" and "thou"-ed each other after the fashion of the Society of Friends, but the people who did have influenced American manners enough to make them masterpieces of studied informality. Even executioners in America say "Have a nice day" to the condemned as they pull the blindfold down over the eyes. Well, almost.

These are all good and valid points that Lind makes. However, his analysis is flawed by his absolute refusal to acknowledge some features of the essential America that he does not like, largely because the government of the "next America" would have to incorporate them to achieve popular legitimacy. For instance, American is a millennialist society which thinks that it has special role to play in history. Americans think of themselves as both the "City on a Hill," an example to mankind, and as the Seventh Cavalry coming to the rescue. Lind tries to show that this sort of chauvinism is not peculiarly American. He cites writers of other countries who claimed at various times that their homelands were "redeemer nations." However, the fact is that the only real analogue to American national messianism in the present world is that of Russia. Lind may not like this aspect of America, but it's there, and it is one of the things that keep America together.

Then, of course, there is religion. America is the most religious of developed nations. What evidence there is suggests that, on the whole, the country tends to become more religious with the passage of time. (America in the eighteenth century and for most of the nineteenth was largely "unchurched.") Lind does not like this and cites a number of statistics to show that the influence of religion, or at least of Christianity, is on the wane. This is almost certainly a misapprehension on his part. Certain segments of Lind's Overclass have indeed become thoroughly secular. They have seen to it, largely by use of the courts, that those areas of public life which they must enter have also been secularized. This is a large part of the reason the American nation as a whole finds these people so alien. A society with a "naked public square," in which religious arguments are the only sort that may not be given for public policies, simply is not America.

Having successfully deflated democratic universalism as a rhetorical flourish that should not be taken altogether seriously, Lind goes on to make the graver error of assuming that there is such a thing as generic "democracy." Lind is in favor of a number of political reforms, one of the most dangerous of which is proportional representation. This, of course, is very much what President Clinton's nominee to the Justice Department civil rights division, Lani Guinier, wanted to implement, as a means of increasing the representation of the official minorities in Congress and the state legislatures. Lind, in contrast, argues forcefully for a wholly color-blind politics and legal system. He wants proportional representation as a way to break up the two-party political system. This is a mistake. Americans look on politics as a way of deciding questions, not of multiplying shades of opinion in legislatures. If you want to talk about deep cultural grammar, then American politics is more like American football than it is like Italian soccer. If you change the voting system to produce more ambiguous results, then you are likely to also produce more ambiguous legitimacy.

The author has no firm opinions about just what will spark the "next American revolution," though he notes that previous "revolutions" of this type occurred in the aftermath of wars. He opines that it will more likely take the form of a disorderly transition, like that after the Civil War and in the 1960s, rather than a storming of Washington, D.C. Basically, he wants a government that will carry Roosevelt's New Deal to its logical conclusion. Socialism he regards as conducive tyranny; what he wants is a "social market." The system will feature progressive taxes high enough to pay for extensive social services and to discourage concentrations of hereditary wealth. Immigration would be restricted to humanitarian admissions. Global free trade would be abandoned; he would allow a progressive lowering of tariff barriers only with developed countries. Any company, American or otherwise, that wanted to sell a product in America would generally have to make it here.

At no time does he actually say that he wants to end the United States. However, he does mention repeatedly that the American nation existed before the United States and will exist after it. He strives to evade the centrality of the Constitution of 1787 in American history and culture. He sees little rationale for the states of the union. His political reforms include making the Senate a nationally elected legislature, thus reducing the influence of the underpopulated states of the West and Midwest. He would nationalize most areas of law, from real estate law to the regulation of abortion. It is hard to see, in this system of "liberal nationalism," why we would need a federal system at all. Doubtless we could divide the country into "departments," like the colorful French.

And where would the Overclass be in this millennium? If you take Lind's definition of the Overclass, they would be put to rights. Driven out of their gated communities by high taxes, they will have to send their kinds to public school. When the puppies graduate, they will have to get into prestigious universities on their own ability, rather than through preferences for the children of alumni. For that matter, they might well be drafted first into a citizen army, as happens in sensible countries. Their parents will have to pay for the public transportation they themselves will have to take to their modest jobs, which will pay less because higher degrees will no longer be required for services that any medical technician or paralegal can do. They will be unable control elections, because all election campaigns will be publicly funded. Meanwhile, everyone else will have been made richer by buying goods produced domestically by union labor rather than by exploited foreigners. Since government policies will flatten out income levels, class distinctions will be greatly diminished. There will be no more Overclass, and social mobility will be maximized.

Of course, there are ways to define the Overclass other than that used by Lind. It seems to many Americans that the Overclass consists of people who, for instance, think their countrymen are superstitious bigots. One could also say that the Overclass think all social problems are fundamentally economic. The Overclass think that income redistribution will spin straw into gold. The Overclass think they know exactly to what good purposes other people's money can be put. The Overclass think that ethics can be permanently separated from religion. The Overclass think that their country is in relative decline to the rest of the world, and are heartened by the fact. The Overclass have seen the film "Blade Runner" so many times they mistake it for prophecy. The Overclass look on the prospect of other people's immiseration as an opportunity.

How would this Overclass do in Lind's next America? I think they would do just fine.  

This article originally appeared in the January 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-05-11: Things You Can't Say

Respectable children's literature circa 1913

Respectable children's literature circa 1913

At the end of this blog post, John reminisces about the "Boy Inventor" literature his father used to enjoy. I happen to have a number of examples lying about my house. They are jam-packed full of useful technical information, and are also completely unacquainted with current standards of safety and propriety. John joking wondered whether there were ever articles like "How to Electrocute Your Own Cat!" I just happen to know this volume contained that article, so I took a picture of it.

Things You Can't Say

I am reluctant to jinx the situation by mentioning this, but has anyone except David Brooks noticed how much the situation on the ground in Iraq has improved since the publication of the Abu Graib pictures? Peace seems to have settled on Falluja, indeed a peace that involves some continuing American presence. Meanwhile, Moqtada al-Sadr's insurrection is starting to look like Wesley Clark's presidential campaign, except that Clark did not actually have Democrats demonstrating against him.

Brooks suggests that the prospect that the US might actually lose has concentrated the minds of responsible Iraqis wonderfully; they are now keen to get a working political system up and running while there are still Coalition forces on the ground. Even the insurgents at Falluja, or some of them at least, seem to have decided that honor has been satisfied. Hostility to the US will hereafter be expressed chiefly by political parties, rather than by militias.

In short, the Jihadis' Spring Offensive has failed. Did the Abu Graib pictures actually facilitate this?

* * *

On Sunday, the Boston Globe had an article entitled Chaos Theory. The subtitle explains:

A terrorist attack on presidential candidates could throw the US into unprecedented political turmoil. So why do so few people want to talk about it?

Actually, I myself broached some questions along these lines on New Year's Day, in the same blog entry in which I so presciently forecast the success of the Dean campaign. I do worry about this, often, but I am reluctant to discuss it, particularly online. Snoopy machines might detect my speculations. This could lead to awkward interviews with the Secret Service, particularly if one of my speculations turned out to be correct. You know what happens when American intelligence catches you.

In any case, the The Globe pointed out the procedural problems that would develop if both candidates were assassinated just before or just after the election. I was relieved to read this:

Both Republican and Democratic party bylaws allow their national committee members to fill vacant nominations for president and vice president. But if there is not time enough for party leaders to pick a replacement before the election, they would have to ask supporters to vote for the dead men and trust them later to pick an acceptable replacement.

This would lead us once again into the mysteries of that 18th-century cuckoo clock, the Electoral College. Some delegates are bound by the law of their states to vote for the party of the candidate they were nominally chosen to represent. Those who are not so bound, however, might not feel obligated to do so if that candidate could not serve. Some of the issues The Globe raises are not actually different from the confusion the Electoral College could occasion even with both candidates in perfect health. This system needs an upgrade.

* * *

I am reading a book about engineering and popular culture, entitled Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. It's by John Lienhard, a noted professor of fluid mechanics. He introduces yet another perfectly defensible definition of "Modern," this time as the spirit of the first half of the 20th century, when art nouveau turned into art deco, and technological progress meant "higher and faster."

There are all kinds of interesting things in the book, which is packed with cool illustrations from the period. What caught my attention, however, was his discussion of the old "Boy Inventor" literature. My father used to read this kind of stuff; some faded books and manuals were still around the house when I was growing up.

The wonderful thing about this material is that it antedates the age of small-minded tort litigation. Respectable youth publications told their readers how to build substantial rockets, even how to build gliders: readers were encouraged to jump off a cliff.

How far did the editors go, I wonder? Were there ever articles like: "Boys! Build Your Own Gallows!"; or "How to Electrocute Your Cat!" There is, of course, an old Ray Bradbury story called "Boys! Grow Mushrooms in Your Basement," in which the mushrooms were probably evil aliens, but I'm pretty sure he made that up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-05-07: The Patience of the Saints

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

The point John makes here about the imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is relevant to the condition of Puerto Rico today. Puerto Rico was the first foray of the United States into this kind of nationalist imperialism, but unlike either the Philippines, where were granted independence, and Hawaii, which was made a State of the Union, Puerto Rico languishes in a kind of state-limbo. And this seems to be just the way the Puerto Ricans like it. 

As a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico enjoys the currency, citizenship, and Federal benefits of the United States  Puerto Rico received $6.5 billion USD in Federal aid in 2013. That is about 40% of the revenue for that year.  In contrast, my own state of Arizona had a budget of $8.8 billion USD that same year. I don't know whether the Puerto Rican equivalent of county and city governments are included in the official report, but I do find the relative budgets rather astonishing, since Puerto Rico has half as many people as Arizona does.

What all this means is Puerto Rico is a rather expensive bauble of the US, rather than any kind of productive part of the economy. Which is probably why most Puerto Ricans live on the mainland. However, unlike the African colonies of the European powers, we have never bothered to get rid of Puerto Rico. In large part, this is because the Puerto Ricans seem OK with this arrangement, other than the time some Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate Harry Truman. It is far less clear what the rest of the US gets out of the deal.

John mentions a prediction by Paul Erdman that an oil crisis was coming, similar in scale to the OPEC embargo of 1973. Well, let's just see what that looks like in retrospect:

Yeah, that did actually happen. Paul Erdman died in 2007, but it looks like he was right. I don't know whether he also predicted the subsequent fracking boom. From the quote, it looks like Erdman was an advocate for Peak Oil. Maybe Peak Oil's day will come, it just hasn't yet.

The Patience of the Saints


Consider the differences between the war in Iraq and the last French war in Algeria. The attempt by France to retain Algeria was, for most purposes, the end of European colonialism. Colonialism, however, was simply the nationalism of the metropolitan powers, projected abroad. In hindsight, it was obviously going to end when European nationalism was discredited, as it was after the Second World War. What the peoples of the colonies did or wanted or said was epiphenomenal. The colonies were abandoned, not because they were ruinously expensive to maintain, but because the metropolitan countries lost interest in the national prestige that the empires had been created to express.

The war in Iraq thus could not be a colonial war, a point that even pro-imperialists like Niall Ferguson have trouble taking on board. Neither is it a Twilight Struggle war, like Korea and Vietnam, or like the USSR's war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The wars of classic imperialism were fought as acts of national self-assertion. The wars of the Cold War were fought to advance or defend the interests of one or the other of the two power blocks. The Iraq War, like the Kosovo War that immediately preceded it, was fought in the name of universal right, of the ideal Empire as Dante and Negri conceived it.

This is, of course, why the recent prison scandal is so distressing. As the Catholic Church in America can attest, it is difficult to claim to represent universal justice while explaining how the ministers of justice abused persons under their care. However, just as the Catholic Church did not implode in the face of the scandals, neither will the Coalition project in Iraq. Saying "I'm sorry" again and again really does have some effect. Besides, the Iraqis are still intrigued by a government that does not answer criticism with gunfire.

The Bush Administration does not think of itself as the executive pro-tempore of Dante's Empire; any official of the Administration would no doubt vehemently deny that the Administration was any such thing. Transnationalists do vehemently deny that the Administration is acting as an ecumenical executive, but that is because they believe the legitimate executive is the UN. Nonetheless, the Coalition is in fact acting as an ecumenical agent in Iraq, and from that certain consequences follow.

The demands of Arab nationalists for Wilsonian states lose the revolutionary punch they had in the 20th century. The right to self-determination is still recognized, but now it means something more limited than it did 50 years ago. Progressives in particular cannot demand classical national sovereignty for Iraq when they reject it for their own countries. To put it another way: any claim is illegitimate that would undermine the prerogative of the Empire to maintain the tranquility of order.

Despite all the 1960s nostalgia, Iraq is not going to turn into Vietnam. There is no local analog to North Vietnam, for one thing, so there is no power that could roll up the country. Moreover, the bar for a Coalition victory is not actually very high. The war has demonstrated the paper maché insubstantiality of totalitarian nationalism in the Islamic world. A post-occupation state might bear a grudge against the US, but it could not entertain anything like the ambitions of the former Baathist regime. That is true of the whole region now. That's what the war was for. Yes, it was worth it.

* * *

Here is yet another comment, this time from Paul Erdman, about an impending oil crisis:

[I]t has become increasingly clear that the world is heading toward a major oil crisis -- in terms of both price and supply -- that will dwarf that of 1973..[The litany is familiar:]

1. A growing geopolitical crisis in the Middle East...For there can be no doubt whatsoever that the fall of the House of Saud would...thrust the entire Western world into an energy crisis of unprecedented proportions...

2 A surge in global demand for energy and particularly crude oil and its derivatives, fueled by the recovery of both the American and Japanese economies and the unprecedented growth of China...

3. A structural deterioration of the world's oil supply. What is involved here is nothing short of an imminent peaking out of production of crude oil on a global basis -- known by energy industry insiders as "Hubbert's Peak" -- which would turn a cyclical supply/demand crisis into a structural energy crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Had the Iraq War not occurred, the House of Saud might well be in even worse case. There would still be a large American military presence in Saudi Arabia, which was actually Osama bin Laden's chief rationale for starting the Jihad against the West. There would still be badly guarded borders with Iraq and Syria, whose governments would surmise that support for Islamist movements carries only limited risk. When the Saudis did start to crack, there would be little that the US could do about protecting the oil supply, especially with the hostile unknown of Baathist Iraq to the east. Now, in contrast, the detachment of the oil fields from the crumbling Saudi Kingdom has become a policy option favored in some circles.

There is another factor here. The loss of Saudi oil would be a catastrophe for every major power in the world except Russia, which has oil to sell. China, Japan, India, the EU: all would have a life-or-death interest in getting the Saudi fields up and running again. To do that, they would contribute troops and money, but only the US has the logistics to make it possible. The fall of the House of Saud would not mean resource wars among the great powers. Rather, transnational cooperation would break out all over.

* * *

If this sounds a little unrealistic to you, maybe you are right, but it's not as unrealistic as the attitude in continental Europe toward the threat it faces.

I actually missed the following incident, which occurred just after the immolation of the bodies of four contract workers in Falluja. It was reported on the wire services, though. This version is from an article by Christopher Caldwell in the May 10 issue of The Weekly Standard, entitled "Zapatero's Spain":

[O]n April 3 another 7 [suspects in the March 11 train bombing in Madrid], believed to be the ringleaders, killed themselves with a bomb when their apartment in the Madrid suburb of Leganés was surrounded by police. One of the policemen, 41-year-old Francisco Javier Torronteras, the father of two daughters, was killed, too...[J]ust before sunrise on Monday, April 19...
[u]nknown intruders broke into the cemetery where the policeman Torronteras was interred. With a pick-axe, they pried open the crypt where his body lay, smashing the plaque on which memorial verses had been written by his family. They removed the coffin, wheeled it 500 meters away on a hand truck, opened it, chopped off the left hand, doused the corpse with gasoline, and lit it on fire.

The police chose to blame the incident on skinheads.

* * *

As someone who was a child in the 1960s, I developed certain expectations about the future, but I have been stoic about their disappointment. I can live without flying cars (perhaps longer than if they existed, actually). I shrug at the lack of colonies on the moon. The same goes for the submarine cities. Something I will not tolerate, however, is the lack of videophones. By that, I mean videophones that people use to talk to one another, rather than to view pornography or to hold business conferences with colleagues who are not important enough to meet in person.

That's why I look out for products like these Beamer phones. They are cheap enough that ordinary consumers might actually buy them, but you have to wonder about the quality of any image sent over a standard phone line.

* * *

Speaking of facts paling in the light of Higher Truth, here are a few links to some old detective-stories that turn Sherlock Holmes on his dolichocephalic head.

Arthur Conan Doyle's example made it difficult for writers in the early 20th century to avoid trying their hand at detective fiction, but some of his younger contemporaries took the opportunity to create an "anti-Holmes," a class of detective who solves crimes by ignoring the clues. Rather, he focuses on the character of the suspects.

One such anti-Holmes was Simon Iff, created by Aleister Crowley. In the Iff stories, the point is not so much to solve crimes as to show why the guilty so richly deserve their dreadful punishments. G.K. Chesterton, oddly enough, was writing pretty much the same kind of fiction at the same time. His neglected Basil Grant stories are about deducing facts from character. The Father Brown stories are of much the same sort, but they are the only works by Chesterton I really can't stand, so the less said the better. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Dante's World Government

This is an absolutely beautiful exposition of the idea that a universal state is the best for the flourishing of man. I'll let the words speak for themselves.

Dante's World Government:
De Monarchia in the 21st Century


By John J. Reilly

“In writing the introduction to a work of political philosophy there is a temptation to attribute more importance to the work in question than it can properly claim. With Dante's Monarchy this temptation scarcely arises; for many have dismissed the treatise as a dream, the vision of an idealist out of touch with political realities who was yearning for an Empire that had passed away.”

So wrote Donald Nicholl in his introduction to the English translation (Noonday Press, 1954) that I used for this essay. There is a sense in which his assessment remains true 49 years later. It has been a long time since many people had much enthusiasm for the Holy Roman Empire, which was the particular instance of universal polity that Dante was defending. The paucity of translations of De Monarchia into English might also be taken as evidence of lasting irrelevance. (The Latin original is, oddly enough, available online, at no charge.) Some things have changed in the past half-century, however. The prospect of new forms of transnational governance is often discussed these days, either as a promise or a threat. Moreover, the dream-like abstraction of Dante's arguments may allow for modern re-interpretation in a way that would not be possible to a more concrete and historically grounded analysis. It is very unlikely that De Monarchia will someday be hailed as a guide to restructuring the international system. Nonetheless, in intellectual history, there are some issues that never really go away. In this book, Dante gives us an early formulation of some perennial ideas.

Even the most Platonic political theory has some history behind it, of course. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born into Florence's Guelph party, which was the faction that generally supported the papacy against the Holy Roman Empire. (The imperial party was the Ghibellines.) Briefly a member of Florence's governing council, he was exiled in 1301, when the Guelph faction that was backed by France took control of the city. The French were there because Charles of Valois had entered Italy at the pope's invitation to restore order to the peninsula. The next year, Pope Boniface VIII issued the famous bull, Unum Sanctum, which advanced the broadest claims to the supremacy of the church over temporal authority, particularly over the empire. De Monarchia may be considered an answer to those claims; or maybe better, their dialectical opposite.

The date of De Monarchia's composition is disputed, though it was probably finished in the second decade of the 14th century. Its arguments in favor of the autonomy of the empire are not greatly different from the political theory of the Convivio, which Dante abandoned unfinished about 1308, and The Divine Comedy, which he completed shortly before his death. It probably was not finished before the arrival of the new emperor to Italy, Henry VII, in 1310. He, too, came to restore order, this time with the blessing of Clement V, the French pope who initiated the removal the papacy to Avignon that would last until 1377. These events turned Dante into what he described as a “party of one.”

De Monarchia asks three questions: Is the secular monarchy necessary? Did the Roman people receive the monarchy by right? Does the monarch receive his authority directly from God, or through the intermediation of some minister of God? These terms require a little explanation. By “monarchy,” Dante does not mean simply the rule of a single individual, though his argument does tend toward the Aristotelian proposition that legitimate monarchy is the most perfect form of government (in contrast to tyranny, which is monarchy's opposite and the worst form). The later Roman Republic was the “monarch” of the ancient world, in Dante's terminology. De Monarchia is really about the structure of the international system. As for the “Roman” element, Dante does not distinguish between the Republic and the Empire, or between ancient Rome and the medieval empire.

So, then, to take Dante's first question: Is the secular monarchy necessary?

Remarkably, Dante derives the necessity of monarchy from an argument that is almost Hegelian. Universal government is necessary, because it is the way to universal peace; universal peace is necessary, because it is the only way the human race can attain its end, or purpose; this end is actualization of the “possible intellect,” which is possessed by the human species as a whole.

The possible intellect got Dante into a lot of posthumous trouble; it was one of the reasons De Monarchia stayed on the Index of Forbidden Books from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The notion comes from the 12th-century Iberian Islamic philosopher, Averroes (Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd), who deployed it in a way that argued against personal immortality in favor of a collective human soul. Dante himself thought no such thing, of course. His version rests on the scholastic commonplace that human beings are only partly intellectual beings (unlike angels, whose substance is intellect). Because of this defect, no single human being, however intelligent, could fully embody the intellectual capacity common to the species. That could be done only collectively and, since knowledge is cumulative, historically. The human species, if it is to achieve the state of intellectual perfection possible to it, required a peaceful and therefore unified world.

Since the 19th century, we have been more inclined to expect the advancement of intellect to come from competition than from harmonious peace. To that, perhaps, a medieval would have argued that even a market of ideas requires rules to keep the market functioning. Certainly a dynamic world is not quite contrary to the medieval ideal of the tranquility of order.

Be that as it may, Dante insists that the ideal political order is a universal polity. The good inherent in the whole, he explains, exceeds the good inherent in the parts, though these parts may have an internal constitution that resembles the order of the whole. Thus, only a polity that encompasses the whole human species could really be perfect.

The universality of the universal monarch would not be expressed by promulgating the positive law for every district. Rather, the universal law would be a common law, which deals only with those things all men have in common. Neither would it mean that the several nations could not have their own princes and other magistrates. However, those rulers could rule justly only by virtue of their relationship to the universal monarch.

This is essentially the same argument that Julius Evola made in connection with his critique of 19th century imperialism. An empire in competition with other empires for national glory was mere violence, in his estimation. The distinction between “the empire” and “an empire” is also fundamental to the analysis of the postmodern world in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's book, Empire. They point out that the global system of governance has a moral basis that was lacking in the competitive empires of early modernity. The empires were imperialistic; though they might sometimes benefit their subjects, they were founded on ambition and greed. The “empire” of the late modern international order, in contrast, though it may cause endless disaster, is founded on the principle of eternal justice. The former were imperialistic; the latter is imperial.

All things being equal, the universal law would better be made by one agent, rather than by several, according to Dante. Human concord can be attained only by a concord of wills, which needs a human director. One may note that this reasoning would work almost as well as an argument to move beyond a law of nations enforced by nations to a world system with a genuine executive, if not necessarily a “monarch” in the conventional sense.

Dante, who spent the last two decades of his life in exile because of the chaos among the petty states of Italy, saw nothing odd in also asserting that the empire is necessary for human freedom. Freedom is the perfect condition of man, the state he was designed for. However, man is free only when his judgment may operate undeflected by the appetite. The monarch could create the institutional basis for a society in which the most people would be able to approach this condition. This is because only the monarch could himself be entirely free; having the greatest honor in the world, there would be nothing further for him to desire. Thus, being wholly disinterested, his reign would have no object other than the common good.

This reasoning might perhaps seem non-obvious to moderns, who are quick to point out that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Neither would there be general assent today to the proposition that satisfying all a man's desires would necessarily make him a good person. On the other hand, Dante's reasoning does bear a family resemblance to Francis Fukuyama's hypothesis that liberal democracy is the end of history because it satisfies all aspects of human nature. Moreover, there have been several recent arguments to the effect that something very like Dante's empire is necessary to human freedom, or at least to the highest level of human freedom that is possible in much of the world. So said Niall Ferguson, in yet another book named Empire, with respect to the British tradition. On a somewhat higher level of abstraction, that is also what Patrick Kennon says in Tribe and Empire.

The modern apologists for empire use reasoning that is not as different from Dante's as might at first appear. They say that the empire is the institution best suited to mitigate ethnic strife, because the empire is transnational and, like the monarch, disinterested. Further, Dante says that only the perfectly free monarch can impart a measure of freedom to the wider world because only he possesses this quality himself; similarly, only a liberal democratic empire could impart liberal democracy to societies that lack it.

Before proceeding to Dante's second question, this might be a good point to examine Dante's method. Readers will have gathered that, in fine scholastic style, he favors arguments “in the alternative.” Indeed, in this summary I have taken some liberties by integrating arguments that Dante leaves side by side. The internal logic of each argument is formal and partisan; unlike Thomas Aquinas, Dante does not trouble to state possible counterarguments systematically. These two paragraphs are typical of the whole:

“On the basis of this exposition we reason as follows: justice is most powerful in the world when located in a subject with a perfect will and most power; such is the Monarch alone; therefore justice is at its most potent in this world when located in the Monarch alone.

“This preparatory syllogism is of the second figure, with intrinsic negation, and takes the following form: all B is A; only C is A; therefore C only is B. That is: all B is A; nothing except C is B. The first proposition clearly holds, for reasons already given; the other follows by reference to the will and then to power.”

This procedure tries to reach conclusions about the world by arguing from first principles. In effect, Dante formulates archetypes and then hunts for their incarnations. This type of metaphysical reasoning has fallen out of fashion, particularly in the social sciences; but it, too, is always with us. Modern physics is littered with examples of mathematical objects that had first been formulated as merely speculative exercises, but which later turned out to describe things in the real world. This is not so different from what Dante is doing: sifting through the products of history to find incarnations of the ideal forms.

This brings us to the second question: did the Roman people receive the monarchy by right?

Dante tells us that the history of the rise of the Roman Empire had seemed an inexplicable wonder to him. Then he realized that the Roman people did not acquire the monarchy of the world by ferocity, but through right, guided by providence. The progress of the Roman people was at many points attended by miracles, like the history of the Hebrews. Thus we see that God approved of the empire; Christ Himself chose to be born in the “fullness of time,” the peaceful age of Caesar Augustus.

Indeed, Christianity requires that the Roman Empire be legitimate. The central doctrine of Christianity is that Christ was punished for the sin of Adam. If the magistrate who sentenced Jesus was not an “appropriate judge,” then the suffering of Jesus was not a punishment, and we are not saved. Only the representative of the government of the whole world could have had the authority to inflict punishment on He Who suffered for the whole world.

Providence is not always expressed through the clearly miraculous. Sometimes God's hidden judgments are revealed by the outcome of duels, which in effect was what happened when the Romans defeated all others in the contest for world empire. The empire expressed the natural hierarchy among the peoples, of whom the Romans were the noblest. Even regarded simply as a matter of natural right, the citizens of the Roman Republic were working for the public good by creating a structure of universal peace. Nations, like individuals, should resort to force only as a last resort. However, whatever is acquired in a duel is acquired by right.

In the modern era, the idea that the historical process gradually expresses natural right is not rare: we see it from Hegel to Francis Fukuyama to Robert Wright. This is the intuition behind the dedication of transnationalists to the evolution of the network of supranational institutions and non-governmental organizations, which for them is now the seat of legitimacy in the world. Arguments even closer to Dante's have been made by macrohistorians who predict that the modern era will end in a universal state very like the Roman Empire. In any case, though the actors differ from theory to theory, the fundamentally providential structure of history remains.

Something that does change, of course, is the relationship of this providence to religion. One of the few specifics in which Hardt & Negri's empire differs from Dante's is that theirs is equated with the Kingdom of God. Possibly this was a mere rhetorical flourish on their part; they are also keen on the idea that the empire excludes the transcendent. Dante, in contrast, did insist on a transcendent foundation for the empire, but he strongly distinguished the empire from the Church, which is part of the Kingdom of God. This is the burden of his answer to the third question:

Does the monarch receive his authority directly from God, or through the intermediation of some minister of God?

In a rare display of tact, Dante said that those popes who asserted the empire owed its existence to the papacy were merely misguided by zeal. However, he says that the kings and princes who follow the popes' lead in this matter are not sons of the Church, but sons of the devil. He dismisses the claims of the class of ecclesiastical lawyers called the decretalists, because it is irrational to claim authority for the Church from its own legal rulings, when it is precisely the authority to make those rulings that is in question.

Much of the discussion about the relationship between Church and Empire is taken up with distinguishing the implications of a metaphor: the Church is the sun and the Empire is the moon. Dante accepts this then-common equation for the sake of argument. Just because the sun provides the moon with its light, he points out, that does not mean the existence or the operations of the moon are derived from the sun. Both sun and moon were created directly by God. The light the moon receives is more properly likened to divine grace, which makes everything appear different. In no way, however, is this illumination analogous to a grant of authority.

Dante assures us that God is the lord of all things, spiritual and temporal, and that the pope is His vicar. However, it does not follow from this that the pope is the lord of all things. Vicars do not have all the powers of their principals. The pope, for instance, does not have any special power over nature.

Dante also addresses the venerable allegory of the Two Swords. The proof-text is Luke 22:38, in which Peter offers Jesus two swords, and Jesus says they are enough. The lesson usually drawn from this exchange is that church and state are separate. Papalist propaganda, however, noted that the two swords remained in Peter's keeping, and so argued that both the spiritual and temporal power were both ultimately in the pope's keeping. Dante simply denies that the analogy is relevant, dwelling instead on the meaning of the verse in context.

No doubt the doctrine in question is not worth much, but one wonders how a poet could dismiss such an important metaphor. The analogy of the two swords runs right through Western history. When US senators debate whether public funds should be available to faith-based organizations, that is still the pope and the emperor arguing about who has the authority to invest the bishops of Germany. Unlike in other civilizations, church and state in the West are always distinguished, even in those periods when they closely supported each other. Even when the ecclesiastical power seems to have wholly lapsed, it is natural for academics and artists to claim the privileges and influence traditionally granted to priests.

Inevitably in any medieval discussion of the temporal power of the papacy, Dante addresses the Donation of Constantine. This legend, aided by some forged documents, had it that, in the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine had given the pope the authority to govern Italy and the western empire. Dante does not dispute the authenticity of the Donation, but he says that nothing more could have been involved than the transfer of a right of guardianship.

Why so? Because, as Dante tells us, whatever is contrary to the nature of a thing is not to be numbered among its powers. Now one of the essential features of the empire is its universality; it has the right of universal jurisdiction, even when it does not have the fact. To divide the empire by ceding sovereignty over a particular region would have been to destroy the empire as such. The powers of the emperor, which derive from the nature of the empire, could not have included such a grant. Moreover, the Church by its nature could not have received such a grant, since the Church cannot own property, but only the fruits of property. (This was, of course, the ideal of the radical Franciscans.)

The tranquility of order that the emperor protects is important for the salvation of all men. The emperor's authority is therefore providential, but the authority belongs to the office itself. The authority of the emperor could not have come from the Church, since the empire antedates the Church. Furthermore, since the emperor's authority comes directly from God, the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire do not really choose the emperor. Rather, they simply declare where the right to the office lies.

* * *

I have occasionally noted that the instrument of abdication and dissolution issued by the last Holy Roman Emperor in 1806 seems to contravene the provisions of the Golden Bull of 1356, which guaranteed the prerogatives of the electors. Thus, it is arguable that emperor did not have the authority to dissolve the empire. However, even if that is a correct reading of the law (which I rather doubt), that is still not the kind of indissolubility that Dante was talking about. Even if the constitutions of the empire had contained explicit provisions for its dissolution, the empire still could not have been dissolved. Its existence is not contingent on politics; it is the one politically necessary being.

The political theory of the modern era was designed specifically to do away with this kind of thinking. There have been schemes for world order in that time. Some, like the Concert of Europe, were reasonably effective. However, even the most idealistic internationalists thought in terms of positive law, of flesh-and-blood legislators creating laws and treaties with visible texts. Only toward the end of the 20th century did we see a return of the insistence that a universal law must already exist in some sense; more important, we have seen a return of the willingness to act as if such a law existed. This is as true of the neoconservative establishment in the United States as it is of proponents of the International Criminal Court. Neither group is likely to get quite the world it expects, but their worldviews are not as far apart as they imagine.

The empire is like the doctrine of the Two Swords: it is among the insistences of the West, which take different forms at different times. Dante's Holy Roman Empire is long gone. So is Charles V's. So, one suspects, will be the United Nations in its current form. Even today, though, we see that men are beginning to repeat in modern form the reproof that Dante wrote to his own obdurate city during an imperial siege:

“Why are you stirred by this will o' the wisp to abandon the Holy Empire and, like builders of a second Babel, to embark on new forms of state so that the Florentine sovereignty should be co-ordinate with the Roman?” 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The De Monarchia
By Dante Alighieri

The Long View 2004-05-04: Crimes & Mistakes

Institutional stupidity

Institutional stupidity

While John was a booster of the Iraq War and George W. Bush, he didn't waste any words condemning Abu Ghraib in 2004.

Crimes & Mistakes

Here is what Victor Davis Hanson had to say yesterday about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Graib Prison:

The guards' alleged crimes are not only repugnant but stupid as well. At a time when it is critical to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a few renegade corrections officers have endangered the lives of thousands of their fellow soldiers in the field...Yet without minimizing the seriousness of these apparent transgressions, we need to take a breath, get a grip, and put the sordid incident in some perspective beyond its initial 24-hour news cycle.

No, let us not put it in perspective. This incident shows that, down in the sightless ooze where military police couple with military intelligence, it is taken for granted that the best way to prepare detainees for questioning is to put them through the hazing rituals of some nightmare fraternity. Maybe that is the best way, but I doubt it. More likely, what we have here is a manifestation of a deeply stupid institutional culture. Is it any wonder that US military intelligence fails and fails and fails?

* * *

Speaking of stupidity, note today's feature article in Opinion Journal condemning Senator John Kerry's anti-war activism. Entitled "Unfit for Office," by another Vietnam veteran, one John O'Neill, who identifies himself thus:

Like John Kerry, I served in Vietnam as a Swift Boat commander. Ironically, John Kerry and I served much of our time, a full 12 months in my case and a controversial four months in his, commanding the exact same six-man boat, PCF-94, which I took over after he requested early departure.

The piece criticizes Kerry's record as an anti-war activist; O'Neill also criticized Kerry 30 years ago, when Kerry was the chief national spokesman for anti-war vets. Whatever merit O'Neill's accusations may have are immediately undermined by the subtitle for the article:

I was on Mr. Kerry's boat in Vietnam. He doesn't deserve to be commander in chief.

That sounds as if O'Neill had served with Kerry, but readers need only glance down to the body of the text to see that is not true. The Opinion Journal editors may be responsible for that. Editors can be even stupider than intelligence officers.

* * *

Here's a tip for real estate speculators who want to get in on the ground floor of an overlooked market:

Antarctica is likely to be the world's only habitable continent by the end of this century if global warming remains unchecked, the Government's chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, said last week...Sir David said that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - the main "green- house gas" causing climate change - were already 50 per cent higher than at any time in the past 420,000 years. The last time they were at this level - 379 parts per million - was 60 million years ago during a rapid period of global warming, he said. Levels soared to 1,000 parts per million, causing a massive reduction of life..."No ice was left on Earth. Antarctica was the best place for mammals to live, and the rest of the world would not sustain human life," he said...Sir David warned that if the world did not curb its burning of fossil fuels "we will reach that level by 2100."

Again, I'm as fascinated by climate change as the next guy: global warming is popular, in the sense that people find it intuitively plausible. Still, projections like this tend to discredit the whole subject.

* * *

As for discrediting things, a correspondent sends this link to a long essay by Lyle Burkhead, entitled squelch:

Mariane Pearl was widowed after terrorists likely linked to Al Qaeda murdered her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, in February 2002...But unlike the thousands of family members of victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Pearl is ineligible for the funds set aside in the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund...Now she is taking her case to Capitol Hill, arguing that a new law should be passed so that she and her son Adam, 2, can receive compensation. Pearl is not alone as some families of victims of other terror attacks also make the case that the fund should be broader...Applications to the fund from families of non-Sept. 11 terrorism victims, including Pearl's, have been rejected. Families of victims in the USS Cole, Khobar Towers and Oklahoma City bombings have all asked about their eligibility.

The Victim Compensation Fund was created to preserve (1) the entire airline industry; (2) everyone who ever had anything to do with building or operating the World Trade Center; [3] the world's re-insurance market; and (4) the high-rise construction industry, which would have closed down if tall buildings could no longer be insured.

Yes, it was about money. The tort system had to be closed down, because the disaster was too big. The question of responsibility for the disaster is irrelevant. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-04-30: Some Protests

I find myself sympathetic to John's advocacy for English spelling reform, but this is one of those ideas that just cannot gain any traction at all.

Some Protests

With suitable adjustment for local topography, every child has been asked some version of my father's oft-repeated question: "And if your friends jumped off the top of the Empire State Building, would you do that too?" And any reasonable child would answer that question with a "yes." What brings this to mind is the publicity for two upcoming disaster films. Film producers seem willing to keep each other company, no matter the genre.

One actually takes the form of a miniseries about a West Coast earthquake, to begin airing on NBC on May 2. It has attracted some unfavorable comment, such as Scientists, Government Decry NBC Miniseries '10.5'. Several major quakes are likely in various parts of the West Coast at no distant future, but not even all together would they do the Godzilla-level damage that this series depicts.

Actually, I have already seen some of the promos for the series. The special effects are good of their kind; the landmarks collapse quite balletically. There are two problems, though. The first is that the destruction will have to be interrupted now and again by acting, which is unlikely to be as interesting. Second, I saw quite enough surreal destruction on 911. I marvel that anyone would make a film built around images of collapsing buildings.

Earthquakes are one thing; floods and blizzards are another. The special effects and premise are far more clever in the climate-disaster film that premiers on May 28, The Day After Tomorrow (which is not to be confused with The Day After, the 1983 TV movie about a nuclear war). The film features a climate flip that goes from explosive global warming to sudden glaciation. The film has been portrayed as a political issue, because the mere mention of global warming is supposed to cast the Bush Administration in a bad light. I suspect, though, that it would be easier to make a political point by portraying a less catastrophic future. People can identify with a weirdly hot summer. In contrast, a picture of snow up to the 20th floor of the Chrysler Building is just art.

I noticed an odd point about the film's website. There are language options in Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, and Portuguese. However, for English, there are two choices: "English" and "English Outside North America." This was, presumably, intended to accommodate the minor spelling differences between American and British English. (Those Canadians who prefer the British conventions must shift for themselves, I suppose.) There are also two options for Spanish. The odd thing is that there is only one option for "Chinese," which really does have two orthographies. The choice between them is a political and cultural signal.

* * *

Speaking of orthographic reform, readers will be pleased to know that this year's Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee will be picketed by the Simplified Spelling Society and the American Literacy Council. (I am actually a member of the board of the latter organization, but I am chickening out on the picketing.)

This has been done before. It's not so much picketing as gentle lobbying for spelling reform. Again, I find the argument for reform unanswerable. There is something deeply flawed with an orthographic system that's whimsical enough to be a competitive sport. The protesters take care not to discourage the kids. The spelling-bee participants have a working knowledge of etymology and phonetics that would be a credit to any philologist. The problem is that kids should not have to know a lot of implicit philology to write their own language.

* * *

Why do we still read The New York Times? Well, you have to read some national paper every day. Major newspapers are important because they tell you things would not have thought to ask. The modern habit of focusing your news intake with agents and filters is stultifying. The Times is still a useful source of general information. However, the fact is that, these days, I read it for much the reason I used to listen to Radio Moscow in the 1960s: to see what the Politburo wants you to think.

In the April 29th issue, for instance, there were two stories, one under the other, on Page E1. One was about a television documentary that dealt, in the tone of revealing a scandal, with the role of religion in President Bush's administration. The caption was "Understanding the President and His God." The other story, the same size and immediately beneath the first one, was captioned "A Flimmaker Inspired by Lobotomy."

That is funny, but I don't think the Times understands who the joke is on.

* * *

This is not to say that religion does not merit a little razzing. Here's a good place to start: a coffee-table book about the the film, The Passion of the Christ, with Mel Gibson himself listed as the author. How long until the action figures are on the market, I wonder?

* * *

Readers have emailed me to ask what I mean by saying that nanotechnology is a category mistake. An example is this recent story about a "chemical computer." Actually, it's an enzyme-DNA ensemble that shows promise as a way to deliver anti-cancer drugs very precisely. This looks like an important development. However, I don't quite see how it makes things clearer to call these molecules "computers." This is chemistry, not mechanical engineering. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-04-27: The Darwin Award Ceremonies

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote just this week that the birth rate in the United States now stands at lowest level ever recorded. It turns out the anti-natalist political program branded as reproductive rights has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its creators. Like many such things, it has also taken on a life of its own, following its inexorable logic to its end. As much as proponents of cognitive bias would like to say that humans are largely irrational, we have an alarming tendency to follow ideas to their logical conclusions, even if said ideas have only been adopted as a measure of political expediency.

The interaction here is particularly interesting. The process by which ideas take hold of us and make us their own isn't often rational, in the sense commonly meant, but the process is rather predictable for all that. Scott Adams has made a name for himself outside of Dilbert in the recent presidential campaign by looking at the ways in which polls turn on matters that turn out to be quite persuasive, despite not necessarily making any sense.

The thing that gets me is that Adams is resolutely uninterested in things like Plato's Republic, which is the textbook for this. 

The Darwin Award Ceremonies

I have yet to find a non-partisan account of Sunday's (April 25) March for Women's Lives in Washington. Estimates of the turnout run from 300K to 750K, depending on whether the source was hostile or favorable. It seems safe to say that, for a march that was supposedly in support of reproductive rights, an awfully large percentage of the marchers were far beyond the age of reproduction. Many accounts, and not just the hostile ones, stress the large gay turnout. Despite the perhaps ancillary nature of reproductive issues to gay organizations, this was not surprising: gay groups in large metropolitan areas are now the Usual Suspects who turn up for every demonstration.

One could go on about the merits of what these people were interested in. However, might I suggest here that the march represents a cultural moment that is becoming simply anachronistic? As a matter of history, the reproductive rights movement began during the late Baby Boom as a strategy to encourage population control. Progressive opinion had it that some degree of coercion would eventually be needed, as we see from the first edition of Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb (1968). The foundations concerned with these questions were as surprised as the public at large when the courts proved amenable to constitutionalizing the issue.

The origins of institutional feminism and of the attempt to normalize homosexuality are complicated, of course. Nonetheless, it is not a complete distortion of the record to say that they are both based on "anti-natalism," which seeks to separate sex as far as possible from reproduction. Gay marriage might, in fact, be considered the final flower of a cultural complex of which abortion is the root.

Frankly, this whole business has become a luxury that the developed world can no longer afford. Readers will know that I am not unduly put out by demographic trends that predict the death of the West. Reversal is the movement of Tao. It's a sure as anything can be that those trends will turn around. It's just as sure that the ideologies that promoted them will evaporate. They will not be refuted. They will be forgotten.

* * *

Speaking of ideologies that will be forgotten, there is an interesting article in the May issue of First Things, entitled "How Richard Rorty Found Religion." I can't say that I have read much by Richard Rorty. In the few items I have read, he seemed to be one of those people who will never, under any circumstances, allow a line of thought to take him someplace unexpected. To me, at least, this misses the point of thinking. The article, by Jason Boffetti of the Catholic University of America, records yet another of Rorty's philosophical conversions.

Rorty was once a Platonist, who turned to analytic philosophy, but then emerged from that cocoon as a postmodernist. In that incarnation, he was a cheerful pragmatist. He spent a lot of effort arguing that the good society and the moral life do not require a metaphysical foundation, and especially not a religious foundation. Rorty is a Red Diaper Baby, and like many such people, the fear of religion has been one of the constants of his career. However, for pragmatic reasons, he has come to realize that it is true that America is a "nation with the soul of a church," and that there is no hope for the progressive left if it does not appropriate America's "civil religion."

He has a very minimal definition of religion: religion is our "final concern." He is willing to look for American civil religion in familiar places, such as the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, or the poetry of Walt Whitman. The one place he is not willing to look is to the doctrines of actual religions. His hostility to the transcendent remains unabated:

Whether or not one agrees with the earlier Rorty that metaphysics can be dispensed with entirely in the political sphere, the later Rorty has clearly brought metaphysics back into public discussion. He insists on a "fact of the matter" about the nature of our universe and our place in it -- that there is no God and that all we have is one another -- and he seeks to establish, in patently religious terms, a public-spiritedness that comports with this "fact."

In short, Rorty proposes to unify the public and private sphere under a metaphysical notion. The clear implications of Rorty's religious turn is that when orthodox theism conflicts with the American civil religion of democracy, traditional religious belief must yield or risk public approval and a range of possible, though as yet unnamed, threats.

Rorty's philosophy sounds a great deal like the air-head metaphysics that suffuses the majority opinions in Supreme Court decisions like Casey (abortion) and Lawrence (sodomy). One suspects it would have found wide acceptance among the gammers who turned out for the March for Women's Lives. The philosophy, like many of the marchers, has claimed to be new for 30 years. In fact, it's long past it's "Best Use" date.

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Far be it from me to suggest that religion per se is a good thing; not when there is Islamicism to destroy. Some helpful hints about how to accomplish this can be found in the writings of a columnist for the Asia Times, who calls himself Spengler:

The West cannot endure without faith that a loving Father dwells beyond the clouds that obscure His throne. Horror - the perception that cruelty has no purpose and no end - is lethal to the West. Europe is dying slowly from the horror of the 20th century's world wars, ending the way T S Eliot foresaw.... "not with a bang but a whimper". Despite its intrinsic optimism, America is vulnerable as well.

The Islamic world cannot endure without confidence in victory, that to "come to prayer" is the same thing as to "come to success". Humiliation - the perception that the Ummah cannot reward those who submit to it - is beyond its capacity to endure

I think that analysis is right on the nose. I would add one qualifier: Islamism will destroy any region it comes to control. It's own victories will destroy it. 

On the subject of post-humanism and death cults, I got around to seeing Kill Bill, Volume 1, over the weekend. It was mesmerizing, but I'm not sure it was a movie.

You know Marshall McLuhan's old distinction, between "hot" media (which impose their messages on the audience) and "cold" media (which require a high level of audience engagement to make sense)? Print is a cold medium in this dichotomy, but then so is television. Movies, in contrast, are supposed to be hot. Well, that's as maybe, but it seems to me that characters in most stories are "cold," in the sense that you have to empathize with them to understand what they are doing.

Kill Bill, Volume I did something I would not have believed possible: the key characters radiate behavior like light bulbs, and so are impenetrable to the light of empathy. They aren't really people.

There are a few exceptions, such as Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba), the sword maker. Actually, the long anime sequence was more like a human story than were the scenes with live actors. Narrative animation consists of humanizing conventions, for the most part. Too much abstraction, and you're just watching a kaleidoscope.

C.S. Lewis sometimes speculated about entities that would be biologically homo sapiens, but that would not be human. Kill Bill, Volume I pulled it off. It was Animal Planet with people.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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