The Long View 2005-01-18: Murder, Integralism, & Neuroscience

It is prudent to discount anything "proved" with fMRI.

Murder, Integralism, & Neuroscience


I rarely follow crime news, so I paid no particular attention to the headlines I saw at the end of last week about the slaughter of the Armanious family here in Jersey City. Only yesterday was it brought to my attention that the leading rumor, if not quite the leading theory, is that the father of the family (a Coptic immigrant from Egypt, like his wife; they had two young daughters) had angered Islamists by criticizing Islam in a chat room. That could be the case, but the police point out that the house and the bodies were robbed. In any case, there was disorder at the funeral yesterday at the local Coptic church, as the large crowd objected to the presence of Muslim clerics who had come to pay their respects.

I am ashamed to say that I have no local knowledge of any of this. These stories about "convert or die" letters that Copts are supposed to be receiving are things I have heard about only from the Internet. Perhaps I should have been tipped off at the coffee hour after Mass on Sunday, when a priest approached me to ask whether I wanted to help organize a Catholics & Muslims Together alliance. I am not sure whether he knew about the details of the case then, either.

Still, despite my own lack of information, The New York Times is on the case with its accustomed reliability:

The friction started before the funeral yesterday morning as hundreds of people gathered for a procession in Journal Square in downtown Jersey City. One man yelled, "Who is going to be next?" as pallbearers lifted the four bronze coffins out of the hearses.

Journal Square is in Jersey City, but it's not downtown. In fact, as a general matter, all the reporting on this case should be taken with a grain of salt.

I don't think I'll be helping with the Catholic-Muslim project, by the way. Peter Kreeft proposed the same thing some years ago in Ecumenical Jihad, and it's still a bad idea.

* * *

Speaking of bad ideas, you can count on the New Oxford Review to have at least one whopper in every issue. This month's magazine has a new logo on its cover: a filigree phoenix bearing two firey swords. Perhaps in keeping with this militant attitude, the issue has a long commentary ("Would Protecting the Lives of the Unborn be Tyranny?") that takes Republican Senator Rick Santorum to task for opposing Roe v. Wade on the grounds of mere constitutional principle:

Santorum is a judicial "strict constructionist." But stare decisis also constitutes "strict constructionism" [no, but let the question pass]. And stare decisis upholds Roe. So, what hope is there? Santorum's animus against the Supreme Court is against its activist rulings in general. But if legislators allow abortion, he has "no dispute" with that. That's democracy, folks. But abortion is wrong, evil. It doesn't matter whether abortion is authorized by the Supreme Court or the people's representatives. It's a Holocaust either way. So we ask, do we need a Franco-style dictatorship to protect the unborn? Yes, we know, that's un-American. But we're Catholics, not Americanists.

No, we don't need a Franco-style dictatorship, but maybe some of us need to get a pet. Certainly not even a democracy can change the moral law. However, consensual government under law is, in the final analysis, the only morally tolerable state of affairs. As the Catechism puts it (Section 1903):

Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group and if it employs morally licit means to attain it.

A "moral tyranny," then, is an oxymoron. G.K. Chesterton could be an unendurable windbag sometimes, but he was right about democracy: government is one of those things that people should do for themselves, even if they do them badly.

* * *

The good thing about Scholasticism is that, whatever you think of its premises, you can at least use it to talk coherently about important subjects. One may contrast it with this appreciation in today's New York Times of November's presidential election from Joshua Freedman, a brain scientist: This Is Your Brain on Politics:

While viewing their own candidate [during a real-time brain scan], both Democrats and Republicans showed activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with strong instinctive feelings of emotional connection. Viewing the opposing candidate, however, activated the anterior cingulate cortex, which indicates cognitive and emotional conflict. It also lighted up the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area that acts to suppress or shape emotional reactions....This suggests that the passions swirling through elections are not driven by a deep commitment to issues...Will an awareness that we are conning ourselves to feel alienated from each other help to close the political gap? It is unknown, because neuroscience has advanced only recently to the point where humans can begin to watch themselves think and feel.

This isn't a joke; there really are people who believe that neuroscience adds something to political analysis. All I can suggest is that watching the brainscans of people who say these things might contribute more to the total sum of human knowledge than would listening to what they say.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-01-14: Simple Taxes, Simple Spelling, NGOs & Evil Robots

John noted in this blog post that Google's ad policies were inadvertently standardizing spelling. Google search does much the same thing. If you really wanted to change spelling, maybe that would be the way to do it?

Simple Taxes, Simple Spelling, NGOs & Evil Robots


Now that even the Supreme Court of Ohio has agreed that George Bush really did win reelection last November, his more prominent supporters feel increasingly free to point out the inconsistencies in his program. The chief inconsistency is the Administration's attempt to fight a low-grade world war with a peace-time military and a budget to match. However, the same tensions exist in the Administration's domestic plans. In fact, the most important project the Administration plans to undertake, a reform of the tax code, is inconsistent with everything else the Administration hopes to achieve. As Andrew Ferguson points out in the January 17 issue of The Weekly Standard, this was apparent even from George Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in New York last year:

In the excitement generated by so ambitious an agenda (you knew it was ambitious because the commentators kept telling us it was ambitious) a few things were overlooked. For example, one paragraph before he promised to simplify the tax code, the president promised to make our country "less dependent on foreign sources of energy." And two paragraphs later, he promised to attract new businesses to poor communities by creating "American opportunity zones." And two paragraphs after that, he promised to "give workers the security of insurance against major illness." Then he promised to encourage the construction of "seven million more affordable homes in the next 10 years." and then he promised to make it easier for everyone to go to college.

I was and am a supporter of the Bush Administration, but being happily obscure, I could remark on the incoherence of all this even at the time:

His domestic proposals, which were supposed to set out a forward-looking program, were numerous, petty, and, for the most part wrong-headed. They were also incompatible: how can you advocate simplifying the tax code while basing almost the whole of your reform of entitlements on the creation of new tax shelters?

What is the correct principle? If you really believe in a market economy, then the fiscal ideal for you is a system in which no business decision is ever made for tax purposes.

* * *

Speaking of inconsistencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have until recently been spared serious critique because they are regarded as essentially democratic. Where democracy does not exist, it is thought, they at least embody the civil society from which democracy will later spring. In the developed world, of course, the democratic credentials of NGOs are increasingly under question. Now comes Ray Takeyh, in an article entitled Close, but No Democracy that appears in the current issue of The National Interest. He suggests that, in Arab autocracies, NGOs are a substitute for democracy, and not its precursor:

As political parties have been undermined, popular energies are channeled into NGO activity. The Arab world's liberal autocracies have witnessed a proliferation of advocacy organizations promoting a variety of causes ranging from women's rights to environmentalism. Washington, Brussels and the democracy promotion community erroneously see in such activism the nascent signs of a progressive society deserving assistance. However, given these organizations' elite nature, foreign funding and lack of grassroots presence, they are incapable of mounting sustained opposition to the ruling regimes. It is political parties, not NGOs that can sustain a popular movement, which is the reason the rulers have condoned the activities of the NGOs while preventing the emergence of effective political parties.

Some of the finest organizations in the world are scientific and humanitarian NGOs, but good intentions rarely go unpunished.

* * *

Now that Alternative History is approaching literary respectability, we should note that it is not confined to the United States. Giampeitro Stocco recently published a novel, Nero Italiano, that is premised on the idea that Italy remained neutral during World War II, and that Fascism eventually became respectable. An English edition is expected.

* * *

The humiliating failure of Oliver Stone's film, Alexander, led Caryn James of the New York Times to devise a general theory for cinematic misfortunes of this sort: The Making of a Megaflop: Curse of the Pet Project:

Here is a basic rule of moviegoing: when you hear about someone's dream project, run from the box office fast. Those films branded "labors of love" more often turn out to be love's labors lost...When pet projects succeed, they give every director with a half-baked concept some hope. Kirk Douglas struggled to get "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" made for a decade before his son, Michael, succeeded in producing it. But for every "Cuckoo's Nest" or "Passion of the Christ" there are more films like "The Razor's Edge."

That's true enough, but I would suggest that one such project, Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It, belongs on the short list of the greatest films of all time.

* * *

Meanwhile, there is reason to suppose that English is becoming a Google artifact:

Google's AdWords division, which is responsible for the contextual ads that appear alongside search results, insists on standard English and punctilious punctuation...Google maintains an in-house style guide, which it says is a living document, expanding over time to include neologisms and pop culture references...AdWords submissions are screened by an automated system that flags flagrant violations like multiple exclamation points. Ads that clear this hurdle are posted on the Web, but eventually reviewed by editors.

This development is particularly annoying to spelling reformers, who look to the flexibility of ad copy as a source of new and simplified spellings. However, there is nothing new about an important social institution being driven by a single large commercial enterprise. American law was transformed in the 20th century when the West Publishing Company, for the first time in history, made all the opinions of the higher courts available everywhere.

* * *

I have in the past spoken high words against the old science-fiction series, Battlestar Galactica, which I would only amplify if given even the least encouragement. The premise is that a human civilization far off in space is nearly exterminated by a conspiracy of robots, but the survivors flee to find a new home. The concept is okay, but the execution in the first series gave space opera a bad name. Nonetheless, I recently saw the made-for-TV movie that was stitched together out of the new BG miniseries. I agree with the New York Times review, Retooling a 70's Sci-Fi Relic for the Age of Terror, that it did have an effective post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The review also noted something that had occurred to me, too:

Perhaps the most significant change was making the Cylons capable of passing as human, a decision that grew out of production constraints. "It was initially a practical problem," Mr. Moore said, explaining that it was too expensive to create convincing robots for regular appearances.

The humanoid Cylons are also much better looking than the extras-in-armor who played them in the first series.

* * *

Suffering from jet lag? Bewildered by time zones? You may find some comfort in a sunlight clock. You will suffer no less, but you will at least be able to conceptualize your misery.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Domination

By Carlo Bossoli - Альбом. «Пейзажи и достопримечательности Крыма» -, Public Domain,

By Carlo Bossoli - Альбом. «Пейзажи и достопримечательности Крыма» -, Public Domain,

I consider Stirling one of my favorite authors, but I could never get into this one. The premise is pretty interesting, it was the execution that put me off. The Draka society is truly horrible, and described in detail, but also this series of novels, like the Island in the Sea of Time series, seems to have been an excuse for writing sex scenes that crossed the line of what I'm willing to see in print. The final nail in the coffin was when Stirling included mixed-sex highly effective infantry units. If you want to write a fantasy about that, go ahead, but since Stirling is known for highly realistic military sci-fi, that broke the suspension of disbelief completely, since it doesn't match up with anything that happens in real world combat. Similarly, for the Island in the Sea of time, it was the bit about the peace-loving matriarchal agrarians who practiced free love [who never have gone through the formality of existing] that broke my willingness to entertain the fantasy.

The Domination
By S.M. Stirling
An Abridgment and Revision of
--Marching Through Georgia
--Under the Yoke
--The Stone Dogs
Baen Publishing Enterprises, 1999
778 Pages, US$24.00
ISBN 0-671-57794-8
For more information on the Draka timeline, go to here.


Slavery & Sustainable Development


In our world, President Lincoln had this to say at the dedication of the new military cemetery at Gettysburg:

"[O]ur fathers brought forth…a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. [W]e…highly resolve that…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

In the world of the Draka series, of which the trilogy in “The Domination” is the core, Lincoln is only vice president during the war, and 140 years later that nation does indeed perish from the earth. So do all other nations so conceived, along with the hope of any more ever arising. I am inclined to take this book as a deliberate parody of Francis Fukuyama's “end of history” thesis. The end of this alternative history also comes just before the end of the 20th century, but the victor is not liberal democracy. Rather, it is the Final Society, a global anti-America with a slave-based economy and an ideology compounded of Nietzsche and Classicism. Alternative history does not get any better than this. Though it would be going too far to call the scenario plausible, nonetheless Draka society is so well thought out that it merits an explanation of why it would not work.

S.M. Stirling is best known as a writer of military science fiction. He chose a notably elegant way to launch his horrible history: it was all the fault of the Dutch. It seems that, during the American Revolution, the Dutch sided with the French as allies of the insurgents. One effect was that the Revolution was so successful that Canada was not a secure haven for Loyalist refugees after the war. However, another effect was that the British acquired the Dutch outposts at the southern tip of Africa. The Loyalists went there; since many of them were southerners, they took along their slaves. The Hessian mercenaries who fought for the British went, too. Land grants in a hostile and inhabited wilderness were the best London could do for them at the time. Other early immigrants included refugees from Iceland, which had been plagued by volcanic eruptions. (I might remark that the Icelanders did indeed consider abandoning their country in the 18th century.) The early Dutch settlers and their language were simply absorbed.

All these people were incorporated into the new Dominion of Drakia, named after Sir Francis Drake. “Draka” was a corruption, but the association with dragons was embraced by the new society's iconography. Their enemies in later years called them Snakes.

The 19th century world of the Draka timeline is not so different from our own, though its geopolitics does somewhat resemble a game of Risk. For instance, the US absorbs not only the whole of British North America, but also Mexico. Technology progresses somewhat faster and in somewhat different directions. Military dirigibles begin to appear in the late 1860s, for instance. Armored steam-cars play a role in the US Civil War, which otherwise occurs at about the same time as in our world and proceeds to the same conclusion. However, the Confederacy does receive aid from the Dominion of Drakia, and large numbers of Confederate refugees flee to the Dominion in the final stage of the war.

In Africa, things are very different indeed. The Draka are nominally a part of the British Empire. They even go through the motions of abolishing slavery, but without appreciable improvement in the status of their subject peoples, who are eventually simply redesignated “serfs.” In any case, London is quite unable to inhibit the expansion of its colony. The process is facilitated by the development of a “Janissary” corps of slave-soldiers on the Turkish model. They normally constitute two-thirds of the Draka military; one conquest provides the manpower to make another. By the end of the 19th century, the Draka have overrun the whole continent, including Egypt and the rest of Islamic northern Africa.

Meanwhile, Draka society developed a sophisticated ideological underpinning. Immigrants from Europe helped. Carlyle was one; Nietzsche was another. So, for that matter, was Oscar Wilde. Stirling is to be congratulated for suggesting a genuinely alien aesthetic. Draka landholders were particularly fond of heroic murals in the long common rooms of their manor houses. Their walls depicted the sort of gory scenes of conquest the Maya might have painted, had the Maya had a bent toward Impressionism.

I gather that Draka political theory has gained the series an audience in some fascist circles. (There is also a lot of gross physical abuse and dominatrix-style sex.) The meaning of the Draka state is not the well-being of the people. Neither is it a divine mandate: the Draka become increasingly agnostic, though there is a faddish pagan revival around 1900. Strictly speaking, it is not even racial chauvinism. Though the Draka are characteristically Nordic and take a keen interest in eugenics, they eventually drop their prejudices and extend the institution of slavery to everyone. For the Draka, the state exists explicitly for the elite. In this case, the elite is the caste of Citizens, less than 10% of the population. Internally, the Citizen caste is an egalitarian “Greek democracy.” A minority can practice the ideal of a landed aristocracy living on self–sufficient plantations. The urban Draka are professionals or civil servants, whose private lives are made luxurious by the attendance of personal serfs. Eventually, the better to distance themselves psychologically from their human property, they stop thinking of themselves as human beings.

There is a private sector in the Draka economy, but it seems to serve little besides small luxury-markets. There is no mass market; slaves do not touch money. Thus, the Draka economy is not fundamentally dynamic. The anti-America also wholly lacks a sense of Manifest Destiny. However, Draka culture does have dynamic features. Principally, they have a cult of the Will. They embrace the idea that to accept a goal is to accept the means necessary to achieve it, no matter what the means might be. One might say that they equate the desirable, the possible, and the mandatory.

This is not to say that they lack a sense of their own vulnerability. The Draka realize that their society cannot co-exist indefinitely with other social systems. Thus, on the one hand, conquest by the Draka is a more radical event than conquest by even the most predatory empires of history. Communities are not taxed or exploited; they are atomized and the individuals are fed into the slave distribution system. On the other hand, the borders of the Draka state have to be continually expanded in order to prevent foreign corruption. The Draka can never be really safe as long as there is an outside.

This problem is solved in the course of the 20th century. The Draka loyally do their bit in the First World War by attacking Turkey. (Again, the war starts at about the same time as in our world, and seems to follow much the same course.) After the war ends, however, the Draka declare their total independence from Britain. They rename their state the Domination of Draka. They also take advantage of the collapse of Czarist Russia to expand their control far into Central Asia, up to western China. However, history only really runs off the rails with the Second World War.

The need of the Soviet Union to defend against the Domination on its southern border is an adequate explanation for why the forces were not available to stop the Germans from taking Moscow in 1941. Rather more explanation is needed for why the Draka were able to defeat the Germans in the Caucasus and go on to conquer Europe by 1945. (The first novel in the series, “Marching through Georgia,” is about an offensive in the Georgia in the eastern hemisphere.) The near invincibility of the Draka has to do with a tradition of physical training and with careful preparation for a Eurasian War. In comparison, even the SS is not quite good enough.

Hitler is assassinated in 1942, and the Germans become briefly what they had sometimes claimed to be, the leaders of the defense of Europe. It does not help. The war ends when the Draka bring nuclear weapons to bear against the Ruhr. Then the whole of Europe is open to settlement by the Domination.

This is the subject of the second book, “Under the Yoke.” By far the most harrowing of the three, it deals with a new plantation in central France. There we see that the Draka system has its bucolic features. The slave “Quarters” of the new plantation, for instance, is not much different from an old-fashioned village. By design, it uses low-level agricultural technology. The forests are gradually returned to their primitive state, including ecologically appropriate fauna. On the other hand, the Draka have decapitated France. The Draka are willing to tolerate some religion; even a bishop is mentioned. However, all the institutions of the country disappear. What remains of the war-era Resistance is hunted down as “bushmen.” When caught, they die degrading deaths by impalement. The Draka are also content that French should disappear as a written language. Education for serfs is highly restricted, and all of it is in the Drakas' slurred version of English. (The author's attempt to represent their imaginary dialect is not the most attractive feature of the book.)

In the Pacific, the war followed a course that was rather more extreme than in our world, but again with a similar outcome. The Japanese occupied not only the Philippines, but also Hawaii. They made landings in Central America. They conquered northern Australia. Still, their position collapsed when the US surface fleet returned to the Pacific. Japan surrenders after a US nuclear attack, though some historians later argued that the dread of a Draka invasion would have brought surrender anyway.

Then the world settled down to the Protracted Struggle between the Domination and the Democratic Alliance. The course and end of that struggle is the context for “The Stone Dogs.” That book is not without interest; there is something to be said for any alternative-history novel in which the capital of the US is New York City, and the exiled pope regularly attends presidential inaugurations. Still, the scenario's technological acceleration is a little unnerving. There are manned scramjets in the 1940s, and substantial bases on the moon by the end of the '60s. The precocious appearance of biotechnology is perhaps appropriate: it would make sense that the Draka would try to become a new species biologically as well as culturally. Still, I for one found the colonies in the asteroid belt to be a bit much. There is good, hard science-fiction in the third book, but I wonder whether deep space really belongs in this story.

The sad course of the standoff with the Draka need not detain us long. The Domination consisted of two-thirds of the world, both in population and land area. No doubt because of Draka demographic policy, the world's population was just shy of three billion before the end of the standoff. Outside the Domination there was only the Alliance, which consisted of the Americas, Japan and Australasia. At first it also included India. However, in 1975, as in our world, there was a major setback for the cause of democracy.

The Draka did not win a guerilla war. Rather, a US intelligence operation backfired that had been intended to keep India in the Alliance. A new government came to power, and India sought neutrality. The Draka took advantage of the confusion to launch a successful invasion. After that, it was all over, bar the shouting. The final conflict came in 1998. A strategy using computer viruses was set against a strategy using biological viruses. Biology won.

There is more to the Draka series than these three books. A wrap-around story in this volume, set in the near future of a world very like ours, alludes to an incursion from the Draka timeline. That is the premise of a fourth novel. There is also a collection of stories.

* * *

The interesting thing about Draka society is that it is simply an exaggeration of societies that have really existed. The political culture of the Domination was not so different from that of some southern states in the United States before the Civil War. In places like South Carolina, the state was little more than a police force. Militias led by local notables controlled the large servile population. The state was also an engine of war; it was always the southern states that were so eager to invade Canada and Mexico. Otherwise, the state did very little.

This style of government achieved sophisticated expression in the work of people like John C. Calhoun. Some unusually foolish southerners sometimes expressed interest in a monarchy when secession from the Union became a real possibility. (The Romanticism of Walter Scott's historical novels has sometimes been cited as a contributing cause of the Civil War.) However, serious southerners did endorse the idea of a highly restricted “Greek democracy,” and not without effect.

The thing to keep in mind is that the no-tax, no-services state proved to be singularly incompetent. The states of the Confederacy, and the Confederacy itself, had been designed not to function. They had grotesquely inadequate fiscal systems, spotty transportation and a dearth of educated citizens. More important, they also had a large population of non-citizens who could not be trusted. Like the Domination, the Confederacy was a callous, Romantic society. It was quite capable of producing dramatic geniuses. What it could not produce was stable administration. To the extent that the Confederacy worked at all, it worked through extra-legal emergency measures.

Of course, the Domination is also supposed to recall the Union of South Africa during the apartheid era. That regime had a tradition of competent administration and some experience of economic management. As with the Domination, there was a market sector, but a surprisingly large fraction of the South African economy was always state-owned. The large enterprises that were not directly owned by the state were monopolies, which were not much different from the parastatal entities familiar to developing countries. The tight rein on the market may have given the apartheid regime a measure of stability. However, the price of stability was a lack of dynamism.

Planned economies don't work any better in Africa than they do in Asia or Europe. It is hard to see how a formidable modern power could have been built from scratch, by government fiat, without even the head start that the Czars gave the Bolsheviks. Egypt in the 19th century also had a partially servile economy, which underwent notable expansion under the direction of a dirigist monarchy. It showed no sign of turning into a world power, however.

On a more general level, one might note that a strong state is the enemy of aristocracy. Feudal aristocracies arise in situations where there is no effective central government. The lords must therefore rely on a measure of local legitimacy. That is not the case in the Domination. All the Draka we see on their estates are terrified of possible uprisings. By the middle of the 20th century, there is a huge police and military infrastructure across Africa and Eurasia, ready to spring to the assistance of even the most isolated landowner. Worst of all, there is an appalling secret police. It keeps close watch on the serfs, but an even closer watch on the Citizens, lest they show signs of weakened resolve.

A sophisticated slave society is almost a contradiction in terms, which is not to say that they have not existed. Slaves ran the government of the Ottoman Empire, and to a lesser extent of China in some periods. The Janissary slave corps was the backbone of Ottoman power. The problem is that slavery to the state is actually a kind of immunity, at least as far as free subjects are concerned. We are told that serfs in the Domination might be killed by their owners with complete impunity; a Citizen who killed another's serf was civilly liable to the owner. However, the bulk of the military and civil service is staffed by government-owned serfs. In the ordinary course of things, the serfs would have more control over the Citizens than the Citizens over the serfs. The Ottoman sultans notoriously became the prisoners of their slave Janissaries. Finally, in order to give the sultans the freedom to begin modernization, the corps had to be abolished.

Finally, we should take note of some of the reasons that Francis Fukuyama gave for the success of liberal democracy. Modern, democratic, capitalist societies give people recognition as human beings. Subjectively, people are given the opportunity to act as moral agents, which is a capacity humans want to exercise. Objectively, everyone is acknowledged to be a moral actor. This has nothing to do with equality of talent or achievement. People may behave badly or stupidly, but their choices matter. That is why they can deserve to be punished or rewarded. A society that does not extend this recognition will suffer from tensions that will always threaten to tear it apart.

The Draka deal with the tension by being insane, as some of the Draka themselves are aware. The normal Draka personality requires a degree of sadism. Though the author does not dwell on this, part of the reason they are called “Snakes” is their oddly affectless demeanor. They do not move a muscle unless they intend to do so. People outside the Domination often have a physical revulsion to Draka, probably with good reason.

The economy of the Domination makes it inherently stable, but the Draka understand that their society is also highly artificial. It takes a great deal of energy, continuously applied, to maintain the fundamentally inhuman slave system. By the end of the last book, the Draka have developed a way to segue seamlessly into the inherently stable Final Society. Using viruses to modify the germ cells of human adults, they create two new species, homo drakensis and homo servus. The two species are not interfertile. Homo drakensis really are superior to natural human beings by most objective measures. Homo servus, though healthier and even slightly more intelligent than their ancestors, have a natural predilection to serve. Secret police and attack helicopters are no longer necessary to maintain the system. The system is natural for both species.

This is just the solution that Francis Fukuyama has been worrying about in recent years. In Our Posthuman Future, he observes that the conclusions he reached in “The End of History and the Last Man” apply only to human beings as we have known them historically. Genetic engineering does create at least the possibility of intelligent life, perhaps of human lineage, that would not be human in the way he had previously defined. Liberal democracy might mean nothing to such creatures.

For myself, I am skeptical about the danger. There is much less to genetic engineering than meets the eye. In any case, fans of alternative history may flatter themselves that they were ahead of the curve on this question.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Domination
By S.M. Stirling

The Long View: Snapscript

This is John Reilly's more mature attempt at new English orthography, based on his earlier Altscript.

Everyday Snapscript


No one expects people who have been educated using an established spelling system to switch to a new one all at once. When European languages reform their spellings, adults usually just adopt the new spellings that they find most convenient. This list of 100 Snapscript words illustrates the kind of changes that ordinary people might be expected to adopt in the short term if a general spelling reform were ever instituted for English. These words have been chosen because almost all of them are shorter than their traditional English equivalents. (They also illustrate how the system works, without the need to plow through the rules given below.)

You may have seen many of these forms before, particularly on Usenet. They are usually dismissed as misspellings or mere abbreviations. The reality is that, by any measure, they are better than the standard spellings.









(verb & adjective)




(made from ribbons)


(applies to dogs & nerds)

(money, cities and buildings)


(goes with "effect")




(rhymes with "wood")

(shipside employees)























(group of animals and what you just did with your ears)

(the guy on first)





(comes in the hanging variety)














(found on bikes; to sell stuff)

(guy who sells stuff)




(as in "gift" and "here")

(something that is supposed to happen to your salary)




(the opposite of left; a ceremony; the present of "roat")





(something you put on your feet;
what you do to flies)

(rhymes with "cood")








(covers vision, references and places)




(covers "to" "too" "two")






(a clock)



This reform proposal has few original elements. Most of the forms and devices can also be found in Cut Spelling and Fonetic (see the Spelling Reform page). Snapscript tries to represent the pronunciation of the major forms of English speech consistently, while maintaining the look of the orthography English has been using since the 1750s. Snapscript does this with three mechanisms:

(1) Positional Spelling. Spelling can be consistent, even if letters sometimes have different values. The trick is that the values of the letters must vary predictably according to where the letters appear in words. Thus, for instance, the words "each," "sheet" and "pity" all represent the long "e" in different ways, but these forms are not arbitrary: they depend on whether the sound occurs initially, medially or finally.

(2) Consonant Sounding. The consonants "l" "m" "n" "r" (and sometimes "d" and "s") can often be treated as whole syllables. This is one way to represent the obscure vowel in English, called the "schwa," which is now represented almost at random. Thus, words like "actor," "simple" and "heard" become "actr," "simpl," "hrd." As the last example illustrates, consonant sounding permits traditional spellings to be rationalized by merely omitting letters, rather than changing them.

(3) Broad Transcription. English is less divided into radically different dialects than are most major languages, but there are still notable differences among the ways even educated people speak in different parts of the English-speaking word. Snapscript, like the spelling systems of other languages, tries to do no more than to indicate a pronunciation that should be recognizable anywhere. The fact that the traditional spelling of English fails to do this is why it needs reform.


In this explanation, the abbreviation TO stands for "Traditional Orthography," the conventional spelling of English.

The Rules

The Form Groups are arranged in a hierarchy from most specific to most general. When doing transcriptions, use the first Form that solves the problem.


* * *

GROUP I: Special Forms--------------------------------------------------------------

Syllables: --ABL [TO "palatable" > "palatabl"] || --AJ as in [TO "marriage" > Snapscript "marraj"] || ANTI-- || COM-- || CON-- || EX-- || --IC (oblique ICS) || --IT is as in [TO "definite," "proximate" > Snapscript "definit," "proximit"] || PRE-- is as in "prevent" or "precook" || PRO-- is as in "prom" or "program" || RE-- is as in "retail" or "regain" || --SIAL is as in [TO "partial" > Snapscript "parsial"] || --SIUS is as [TO "cautious" > Snapscript "causius"] || --SION is as in [TO "caption" > Snapscript "capsion"] || --SUER is as in [TO "pressure" > Snapscript "presuer"] || UN-- is as in [TO "unnerve" > Snapscript "unnerv"] || --ZION-- is as in [TO "persuasion" > Snapscript "perswaizion"] || --ZUER-- is as in [TO "pleasure" > Snapscript "plezuer"]

Combinations: AL is as in "pal." || ALL is as in "all." || AR is as in "ark." || ARR is as in "harry." || ERR as in "ferry" || ING is as in both "singer" and "finger." || OL is as in "hold." || OLL is as in "jolly." || OR is as in "or" || ORR is as in "sorry" || UL is as in [TO "hull" > Snapscript "hul"] || ULL is as in "full" || -YZ is terminal for stems. [TO "size" "analyze" > Snapscript "syz" "analyz"].

Oblique Endings: The simple past ending is --D, pronounced /d/ or /t/, depending on whether the preceding sound is voiced or unvoiced. After D or T, oblique --D is a syllable [TO "credited" > Snapscript "creditd"]. The plural, the possessive and third-person singular ending is --S. After CH, J, S, SH, X, Z or ZH, --S is a syllable [TO "boxes" Snapscript "boxs"]. After --SS, --S becomes --ES ["express" > "expresses."]

Endings, Compounds & Stems: Grammatical endings and common added syllables do not affect the stems of words ending in consonants or in A or AY; other stems ending in vowels change to accord with the Forms set out below. Compounding words does not change either final consonants or vowels.

GROUP II: Initial Vowels------------------------------------------------------------

AI is as in "aim." || AO is as in "aorta" || AU is as in "auto" || EA as in "each" || EO is as in "eon" || IA is as in "Ian" || IE is as in [TO "ice" > Snapscript "iess"|| OA is as in "oat" || OI is as in "oil." || OU is as in "our" || UO is as in [TO "oops" > Snapscript "uops"] || UE is as in [TO "use" > Snapscript "ues"] || YIE is as in [TO "yikes" > Snapscript "yieks"].

A, E, I, O, U have their traditional short values when used alone: A as in "ant," E as in "elk," I as in "it," O as in [TO "odd" > Snapscript "od"], U as in "up." U is the schwa in this position [TO "utter," "other" > Snapscript "utr," "uthr"].

Group III: Medial Vowels------------------------------------------------------------

Sounded Consonants: L, M, N, R can be unstressed syllables that begin with the schwa [TO "bottle" >Snapscript "botl"]. These consonants are "sounded" whenever they are not initial, doubled, or preceded or followed by another vowel. When M or N follows R or L, only the R or L can be sounded. [TO "firm" > Snapscript "frm"]. When L follows R, only the R can be sounded [TO "girl" > Snapscript "grl"]. When M follows N or vice versa, only the second letter can be sounded [TO "commandment" > Snapscript "comandmnt"].

A, E, O, U, AI, AO, AU, EO, OA, OU, UE, UO are the same as when used initially || EA is as in "reality" || EE is as in "meeting" || EI is as in "being" || I by itself is as in "bit." It is otherwise a glide, as in [TO "canyon" > Snapscript "canien" || OE is as in "poet" || OI is as in both "join" and "going." || OO is as in "good" || UA is as in "actual" || UI is as in "ruin" and "genuine" || UOE is as in [TO "influential" > Snapscript "influoensial"] || UU is as in [TO "ambiguous" > Snapscript "ambiguuss"] || Y is as in [TO "style" > Snapscript "styl"]

In all other medial situations, the schwa is E.

Group IV : Final Vowels-------------------------------------------------------------

A is the schwa as in "rumba" || AW is as in "jaw" || AY is as in "display" || O is as in "so." || OW is as in "endow." || OY is as in "enjoy." || U is as in "flu" || UE is as in "continue."

Final AW, AY, OW and OY are not altered by grammatical endings, the addition of syllables or by compounding ["enjoys," "enjoyment"].

---------Monosyllables Only: Y is as in "fly" || E is as in "be." .
-------- Polysyllables Only: Y is as in "shifty." || YE is as in [TO "signify" > Snapscript "signifye"].

Group V: General Consonants--------------------------------------------------------

Clusters: CH is as in "chug" || SH is as in "she" || SS is used only finally, to indicate an unambiguous /s/ || TH is as in "the." || TTH is as in "thin" || WH is as in "when" || ZH is as in [TO "beige" > Snapscript "baizh"].

Single Consonants: bdfghjlmnpqrtvwxz have their familiar values, as in the Snapscript sentence. "The quik, broun foxs jump oavr the laizy cats and yelping dogs."

Note that: 
--C is hard, as in "cat." It is used for that sound initially and medially. K is used (1) at the end of words and (2) before I, E, or Y.
--Single S when final is pronounced /z/ or /s/, depending on whether the preceding sound is voiced or unvoiced. (This simply generalizes the TO rule for plurals and possessives.)
--Y is a consonant when used initially.

The author, John J. Reilly, relinquishes all rights to the material on this page. Originally posted July 10, 1999.

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The Long View 2005-01-05: Apocalypse; Asteroids; Demographics; Super Vixens

I remember emailing John Reilly regarding his speculation that the cityscapes in the Japanese zombie videogames/movies known as Resident Evil always look Canadian. He immediately confused me with someone else.

Apocalypse; Asteroids; Demographics; Super Vixens


What long-term political impact will the recent tsunami have on the eastern Indian Ocean area? God knows, but I am already seeing fractured references to the thesis of Michael Barkun's book, Disaster and the Millennium (1974). As the title suggests, the book argued that there is a correlation between disasters, particularly natural disasters, and millenarian movements, which sometimes take the form of revolutionary movements. The proposal probably has merit, but one should note how qualified the correlation is supposed to be:

Disaster is the cause of millennial movements as a last resort when the known order has failed. Disaster is a necessary but not sufficient cause. There must be: 1) several disasters; 2) traditional millenarian ideas; 3) a charismatic leader adapting these ideas to present circumstances; 4) an isolated and homogenous population in which the disasters occur. Cities are unlikely loci; these are all country movements. The ecstatic behavior common to these movements is "resocialization," not psychosis, and a means to continue "disaster utopia," since disasters are good for some, and frequently lead to a rebuilding of community: disaster "prefigures the millennium."

One should also note the delay: the movements that book discusses tend to appear ten or fifteen years after disaster undermines the existing order of things.

* * *

Speaking of the sociology of religion, I am giving some thought to attending the annual meeting in St. Paul this summer of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations. The topic is Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival, which dovetails nicely with both millenarianism and the Clash of Civilizations. I was actually invited to come do a stand-up Spengler routine. I can manage that, provided it's not a morning session.

My problem is that I don't really have an academic affiliation, so it is hard for me to justify the time and expense. (By the way, if any of you need an adjunct teacher in the New York area, please let me know.)

* * *

Probably all those disaster movies in the 1990s permanently linked tsunamis and asteroids in the public mind. Be that as it may, there is some evidence that they have actually been linked on several occasions well within historical time:

That’s the theory of this Australian geologist Ted Bryant. And his evidence is that tsunamis have hit this coastline every few centuries, he says. One washed over the Wollongong area in 1500 AD. It wasn't big enough to destroy civilisation like in the movies, but the film Deep Impact does give a feel for what happened 500 years ago... Ted’s certain all this happened in 1500 because he’s carbon-dated the tiny pieces of shell washed up by the big waves. But the next step his proof needs is evidence that 300-metre-wide chunks of that comet do fall down every few hundred years...And judging from Doug Revelle’s signals, meteors the size Ted needs arrive once every 120 years or so...And surprisingly, it's not that initial big splash that creates the tsunami. Rather, the impact shoots a jet of water kilometres into the air and as that jet falls down it gives birth to the deadly tsunami.

Every 120 years? 300 meters? Maybe an asteroid defense-system would not be a useless Chicken Little Machine after all.

* * *

For the most part, I tend to think that culture shapes technological development rather than vice versa. Cultures do what they do, and the important trends are rarely predicted and never controlled. So, I was not altogether surprised to see this story about the decline of artificial birth-control

At a time when the medical community has been heartened by a decline in risky sexual behavior by teenagers, a different problem has crept up: More adult women are forgoing birth control, a trend that has experts puzzled -- and alarmed about a potential rise in unintended pregnancies...the finding that the number of women who had sex in the previous three months but did not use birth control rose from 5.2 percent in 1995 to 7.4 percent in 2002.

John S. Santelli [is] a professor of population and family health at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Even as he cheered the news that a growing number of teenagers are using contraception, Santelli wondered whether doctors are neglecting women.

"Maybe we're failing with women over 21," Santelli said.

Robert Heinlein once remarked that he had collected demographic projections for 40 years, and all of them turned out wrong.

* * *

Speaking of disasters, over the weekend I viewed the film Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The concept here was Night of the Living Dead meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the super vixen augmented by the same immortalizing virus that makes the dead so restless.

I am hooked on these Canadian horror films. The Stars-and-Stripes may flap from every flagpole, but the cityscapes still look like edited versions of Toronto (for some bizarre reason, the necropolis in this film was called "Raccoon City"). And no matter how much human flesh the extras consume, no one is ever very rude.

There is little point in criticizing the science in these films, but may I remark that it would take more than a five-kiloton bomb to blow up Toronto, no matter what animal the city is named after?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-01-01: Things to Keep in Mind in 2005



Why does nothing ever change? I'm half-kidding, but in the beginning of 2005, the Democratic Party was going through major soul-searching from an electoral loss, and the biggest issues were terrorism, how expensive healthcare is, and immigration.

Also, here is a prediction that didn't turn out well. At best, I could give John half-credit:

I leave the Terror War to last, not because it is last in my thoughts, but because everything has already been said: now it is just a matter of winning or losing. The phase of the war involving the Iraqi insurgency is self-limiting: within the next few months, the Sunni establishment will either opt for electoral politics, or the Shia will eat them alive.

The Sunni establishment did badly lose the insurgency. Then they became the core of ISIS ten years later.

Things to Keep in Mind in 2005


Two months after the presidential election, I am still reading "whither the Democratic Party" pieces. Did John Kerry lose because he failed to get the Democratic message out? Was he a victim of successful character assassination? Were the voters just too stupid? The gist of these ruminations is that there might be something about the American electorate that the Party's leaders and activists don't know. Watching the American Left think through this problem is rather like reading about Gollum's discomfiture during the Riddle Game, when he tried to answer the question, "What does Bilbo Baggins have in his pockets?":

S-s-s-s-s," said Gollum more upset than ever. He thought of all the things he kept in his own pockets: fishbones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing, a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on, and other nasty things. He tried to think what other people keep in their pockets.

The current Democratic Party coalition does keep some foolish, crooked, and even anti-human things in its pockets. It is a source of great merriment to follow the internal debate about whether the better course is to throw away some of the goblins' teeth, or to educate the American public in their utility and beauty. More embarrassments are on the way. The one culture-war victory of the Left in 2004 was persuading the people that embryonic stem cells are the key ingredient to the elixir of eternal life. In point of fact, there is not much difference between those cells and cancer cells. Experimental fetal-tissue therapies in general have a record of killing the patients horribly. We will see this again in due course.

On the other hand, we should remember that the Republicans have some pretty disgusting things in their pockets, too, and have not suffered the sting of electoral defeat to awaken them to just how far out of touch the party's activists are drifting on some issues. Three come to mind:

The Republican Party's relentless pro-immigration, cheap-labor policy. America's assimilation problem is not as intractable as Europe's, but the fact remains that every town has become a border town, and it is beginning to grate.

Ballooning Health Insurance costs. These are now the chief brake on employment in the United States. It would be one thing if the costs paid by employers were merely high. The problem is that they are unpredictable, except they never go down. This pattern is not sustainable.

Foreign Policy versus Fiscal Policy. Again, I think that some version of the Bush Administration's foreign policy is the only possible course for these years. I also think that you can't lower taxes during a world war. So do the world's financial markets.

I might have added the Bush Administration's proposal to partially privatize Social Security to that list, if anyone cared about it but the president and the securities industry. The proposal will fail for the same reason the Clinton Administration's national health care proposal failed: the fiscal premises are so incoherent that a detailed plan cannot even be formulated.

* * *

Moving on to foreign policy, one notes the growing consensus that the world system is becoming a folie a deux between China and the United States. I myself am not much worried by the hypothesis that China might stop buying up United States Treasury bills. The US federal debt is the only investment large enough to absorb the Chinese trade surplus, and the only alternative is to spend the money in the United States. Actually, the latter point is one of the two key things to keep in mind about China: it's an important producer, but it is an even more important customer.

The other notable point is that the country could fall into the hands of a flying-saucer cult, or some such thing. One notes more and more reports like this, from a New York Times story about a major civil disturbance in a Chinese city that was caused by a trivial argument in the street:

Though it is experiencing one of the most spectacular economic expansions in history, China is having more trouble maintaining social order than at any time since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.

"Though"? When are foreign-affairs analysts going to learn that economic growth is not the opiate of the people; rather the opposite in fact. In any case, an interesting feature of this general unrest is that it is not directed against inequality of wealth, but against the Party, which has outlived its usefulness. (This is one of the main themes of the invaluable Gordon Chang.) There is no organized opposition in China that we know of, but there is a lot of social energy to be organized. The usual scenario in this sort of situation is that a well-meaning autocrat conjures up popular support to bring pressure on administrative and social structures that he wants to reform. Louis XVI and Mikhail Gorbachev come to mind.

And the American connection, aside from the market for T-bills? One notes that China and America have sometimes been oddly in sync, as we saw during the simultaneous cultural revolutions in the 1960s. There were similar parallels, though less striking ones, during the Second Great Awakening. Sometimes I think that, once again, things could snap on both sides of the Pacific at the same time.

* * *

I leave the Terror War to last, not because it is last in my thoughts, but because everything has already been said: now it is just a matter of winning or losing. The phase of the war involving the Iraqi insurgency is self-limiting: within the next few months, the Sunni establishment will either opt for electoral politics, or the Shia will eat them alive.

The Terror War from the beginning has been an issue in the larger debate about the locus of legitimacy in the international system. It flickers back and forth among the US government and the UN and the EU, though in fact these institutions share the same classes of academic and economic support. The issues will not be finally decided in 2005, you may be sure. As for the longer term. let me close with an excerpt from Robinson Jeffer's I Shall Laugh Purely:

But this, I steadily assure you, is not the world's end,
Nor even the end of a civilization. It is not so late as you think:
----give nature time.
These wars will end, and I shall lead a troupe of shaky old men through Europe and America,
Old drunkards, worn-out lechers, fallen dictators, cast kings,
----a disgraced president; some cashiered generals
And collapsed millionaires; we shall enact a play, I shall
----announce to the audience:
"All will be worse confounded soon."

But not today. Happy New Year!

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: God or Goddess?

Burning graves

Burning graves

Another book review written more than twenty years ago that couldn't be improved upon much by subsequent events.

However, it does bring to mind Pope Francis' suggestion in May of 2016 that he would setup a commission to study women deacons in the early Church. Then, in June he joked 'We had a president of Argentina who used to say, and he would give this advice to presidents of other countries, “When you want something to remain unresolved, set up a commission!”'

God or Goddess?
Feminist Theology: What Is It? Where Does It Lead?
by Manfred Hauke
343 pp., $17.95
Ignatius Press, 1995
ISBN: 0-87870-559-2

Let my initial reluctance to review this book be a lesson to you. The author is a German priest who teaches theology at the University of Augsburg. (Back in the '80s, he wrote a definitive treatment of the Catholic position on women's ordination.) Physically the book is thick, with an austere cloth cover done in black and deep green. It looked like the kind of book a German professor would write, the kind that have titles like The Ontology of the Elephant (9 Volumes). This one seemed even less inviting, since at least the elephant book would have pictures of elephants in it, whereas the only amusement Fr. Hauke's book promised was a 47 page bibliography. Since a quick look showed that I probably agreed with its thesis already (the subtitle in the original German is "Feminist Theology in the Dock"), I really did not see why I needed to read yet another exposition of the question.

I was wrong. The book is lucid and tersely persuasive, not least because its tone is fair and nonpolemical throughout. Better than any other source I know, the author shows through logic, scripture and tradition just how the fashionable systems of feminist theology undermine the basic dogmas of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. The book makes a good companion volume to Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage, also published by Ignatius Press. The Steichen book is an excellent source of documentation; it damns Catholic feminism by letting it speak for itself. Fr. Hauke's book provides more complete analysis for this material. Among other things, he shows how feminist theology fits into the larger trends in 20th century philosophy, from Whitehead's "process" metaphysics to Sartre's existentialism. (He also makes clear the often overlooked point that feminist analysis is simply Marxist class analysis applied to gender.) Between them, the two books show pretty conclusively that feminist theologians (who are as likely to be men as women) do not want the Church reformed. They want her dead.

The debate over feminism in theology has become clarified to the point where it is hard to see how any informed person can be innocently deceived on the matter any longer. As Hauke makes clear, feminist theology is pantheistic in its essence. It rejects a transcendent God, because such a God would be in a position of hierarchical domination over this world. (Feminists depict this as a metaphysical projection of the system of "patriarchy," whereby men tyrannize over women.) It rejects Jesus as the incarnation of God, partly because feminists hold God to be already incarnate in the world, but mostly because the idea that history could turn on the life of a historical male human being is intolerable to them. Similarly, they reject the principles of the apostolic succession and of ordination as a sacrament because these things seek to extend this intolerable incarnation to the present day. The proposal to ordain women, in the minds of the people who have been most active in making the case for it, is a device for undermining the incarnational model of the priesthood. It is as simple as that.

Of course, there is a great deal else to be said about the specific schools of feminist theology and their tenets. Having rejected the teaching authority of the Church, feminist theology is fracturing in typical sectarian fashion, a process that feminists dignify with the formula of a "quarrel among sisters." Still, there are some nearly universal elements in the feminist critique of Christianity, such as the claim that the Church teaches the inferiority of women and the sinfulness of the body. Fr. Hauke explains the Church's true position on these matters with great clarity and freshness. However, the most important question, as he also makes clear, is more fundamental than the often spurious "justice" issues on which feminists prefer to dwell. If you believe what the feminist theologians say, then you no longer believe in a God worth praying to. Feminist liturgies seek to make it impossible to believe in such a God. That is what the arguments about things like "inclusive language" are really all about.

Among the interesting features of "God or Goddess" is the international perspective it provides on feminist theology. Even from Europe, it is clear that the phenomenon is predominantly American. Much of the book recounts the ideas of the "weird sisters" of American theology: Mary Daly, the post-Christian ex-nun, Rosemary Radford Ruether, the "moderate" who would retain the Church as a front for social liberation of various kinds, and Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, who edifies her readers by rewriting Gospel passages to say what they should have said. These people seem to be almost as well- known in academic circles in Germany as they are in the United States, but their effect there has not been the same as here. Perhaps the most striking difference is that orders of female religious in Europe seem to have little use for feminist theology, in striking contrast to their American sisters. Indeed, feminist theology is less influential generally in the Catholic Church in Europe. Feminist theology is probably even more important than in America, on the other hand, in Protestant churches. In Germany, this means mostly the state Lutheran churches. Judging from this account, the effect is rather like that to be found in some of the more demented corners of the American Episcopal Church. (Doubtless the celebration of Walpurgis Night in a real Gothic cathedral has more historical resonance than when such things happen at St. John the Divine in New York. Plus there are better acoustics for the witches' choir.) However, German Protestantism is not without resilience: some of feminist theology's most committed critics are to be found in the evangelical churches.

Fr. Hauke provides a rare, cross-lingual discussion of "inclusive" language, its forms and rationales. While I have several philosophical objections to inclusive language, my primary problem with it is practical, since I work as an editor. Language that seeks to be gender- neutral clutters up sentences with unnecessary syllables. They break up the normal rhythm of English, so that the sentences become hard to say out loud. (Inclusive language is also an Overclass dialect marker, like saying "between you and I," but that's another story.) However, after learning what inclusive language does to the intricate clockwork of German grammar, I can no longer feel so sorry for myself. German is a highly inflected language, one in which "grammatical gender" plays an important role. If you start making arbitrary changes in the gender of German nouns, you will soon lose track of where the nouns fit in the sentence. Perhaps this is yet another consequence of the basically American provenance of feminism. At least among Western nations, the notion that language could dispense with gender entirely could not have occurred to anyone but an English-speaker, whose language almost does so already.

Feminist theology continues to enjoy many institutional successes. In the Catholic Church in the United States, it has the effect of driving the people in the pews to the evangelical churches, while politicizing the archdiocesan and national bureaucracies. However, no matter how depressing we may find these things at times, we should remember that the fundamental tenet of feminism is wrong: it simply is not true that ideas are no more than constructs that express social power relationships. Ideas are either true or false, and if you act on the assumption that false ones are true, then your projects will miscarry. Feminist theology is false, and it lost the intellectual debate some time ago. It can still corrupt people and institutions, but it cannot really remake them in its own image. As the truth reasserts itself, even its power to corrupt will gradually diminish. Fr. Hauke's book should prove instrumental in the long process of repair.


This article originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Fidelity magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: New Spelling

New Spelling

This is the first paragraph of the short story, "The Star," by H. G. Wells. It was first issued in New Spelling in 1942, with the author's permission. This slightly modified version is taken from the Simplified Spelling Society's pamphlet No. 12, "New Spelling 90," published in 1991. All rights reserved.


"It woz in the ferst dae ov the nue yeer that the anounsment woz maed, aulmoest simultaeneusli from three obzervatoris, that the moeshen ov the planet Neptune, the outermoest ov aul the planets that w(h)eel about the sun, had bekum very eratik. A retardaeshen in its velositi had been suspekted in Desember. Then a faent, remoet spek ov lyt woz diskuverd in the reejen ov the perterbd planet. At ferst this did not cauz eni veri graet eksytment. Syentifik peepl, houever, found the intelijens remarkabl enuf, eeven befor it becaem noen that the nue bodi woz rapidli groeing larjer and bryter, and that the moeshen woz kwyt diferent from the orderli proegres ov the planets..."

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-12-28: Disasters, Natural and Otherwise

The final death toll of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami came in somewhere around 250,000. Requiescat in pace.

This finishes up the year 2004 of the Long View, John J. Reilly's blog. I have been at this since February of 2014, and I intend to keep on with my project to re-post everything John hosted on his now defunct website,

Disasters, Natural and Otherwise


So how big was the recent Java Disaster in the Indian ocean? At this writing, the reported number of fatalities is just under 50,000. If that figure holds, loss of life would be less than in the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, when at least 100,000 people were killed. However, it is very unlikely that the current figure will hold. We are talking about a quarter of the world's coastlines. Society was so disrupted in many places that estimates cannot be made yet.

A surprising point: the spectacular Krakatoa eruption of 1883 created a tsunami that killed just 37,000 people on the first day. Why such a relatively low figure? Partly because the reports were from Java; collating reports from the rest of the Indian Ocean could not be done in a 24-hour news cycle in those days. More important, though, there were far fewer people in those days. That's part of the reason each year's fresh disasters seems to elicit superlative casualty payouts from the insurance industry: there is more and more stuff to break.

* * *

The Belmont Club made a connection that had separately occurred to me:

Although the geological record shows that large asteroids occasionally strike the earth and that tsunamis sometimes ravage coastal areas, the rarity of their occurrence often precludes the formation of a political consensus to sustain preparations against them.

And why am I thinking of asteroids? Because of this helpful Don't Panic advisory from the Near Earth Object folks at NASA:

A recently rediscovered 400-meter Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) is predicted to pass near the Earth on 13 April 2029. The flyby distance is uncertain and an Earth impact cannot yet be ruled out. The odds of impact, presently around 1 in 300, are unusual enough to merit special monitoring by astronomers, but should not be of public concern. These odds are likely to change on a day-to-day basis as new data are received. In all likelihood, the possibility of impact will eventually be eliminated as the asteroid continues to be tracked by astronomers around the world.

Should there be an impact, this object would not end the world, or even fatally disrupt civilization. It would, however certainly ruin everyone's day, and many days thereafter. As NASA points out, these alerts are generally just products of imprecise estimates: the danger evaporates as more information becomes available. Still, there are always new asteroids to worry about. You can track the latest reports here. Note, however, that should a notable impact occur in your lifetime, it will probably be some smaller body for which there will be just a few hours warning, if any.

* * *

Should the news media broadcast the videos of attacks made by enemy units when the videos originate with the enemy, or with reporters working with them? Should the media broadcast public statements from the enemy? The Belmont Club, again, has citations-within-citations on the matter:

Little Green Footballs links to a Poynter Online press release here reproduced verbatim.

From JACK STOKES, director of media relations, Associated Press: [This is a solicited letter regarding Salon's "The Associated Press 'insurgency.'"] Several brave Iraqi photographers work for The Associated Press in places that only Iraqis can cover. Many are covering the communities they live in where family and tribal relations give them access that would not be available to Western photographers, or even Iraqi photographers who are not from the area.

Insurgents want their stories told as much as other people and some are willing to let Iraqi photographers take their pictures. It's important to note, though, that the photographers are not "embedded" with the insurgents. They do not have to swear allegiance or otherwise join up philosophically with them just to take their pictures.

There is a distinction between the reporting of military actions, including guerilla military actions, and the sort of bloody public displays that the Islamist-Baathist network in Iraq has been mounting. Public statements by enemy leaders, and the successes of enemy military units, should certainly be reported, with due disclaimers. Without that information, there is no way for the public to judge how the war is going. What the enemy has been doing in Iraq, however, is not a military campaign, and not even an insurgency. It is the Propaganda of the Deed. The beheadings and the bombings of civilians have no military objective; their essence is to cause terror and despair. To broadcast videos of these things has nothing to do with allowing the enemy "to tell their story." They are psychological conditioning, not information.

Having said that there is no journalist reason for showing images from the enemy to the domestic public, I would note that there could be a tactical one. The enemy is producing atrocity propaganda about itself.

* * *

Finally, on another part of the Islamist Front, we note this bit of wishful thinking from the New York Times:

Europe's Muslims May Be Headed Where the Marxists Went Before: Azzedine Belthoub was growing up in the shantytowns outside of Nanterre, France, 40 years ago, the people who came to take the young North African kids to swim in the community pool, to register them for school and give them candy and comic books, were Marxists. The French Communist Party offered a political voice for the working classes, including the growing number of North African immigrants imported to fill labor shortages after the war...Today, Islam plays that role, especially in France,...The question is whether Islam in Europe will follow the same path that Communism did here, shedding its revolutionary extremism, electing mayors and legislators and assimilating itself into normal democratic political life.

No, no: what's happening in Europe is the importation of the memet system. That is a kind of society in which one's confessional group is, for most purposes, one's nation. The law you live under depends on which group you belong to. Under that system, cities are divided into neighborhoods that might as well be different countries. The state becomes an instrument of hegemony by one of the confessional groups, a hegemony made tolerable by incompetence and corruption.

I am sure that Europe will recoil from this future before it is much farther advanced. The question is whether the Europeans will turn to nationalism or a more masculine form of Europeanism.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Cut Speling

Cut Spelng


This poem is taken from my recollection of the entry under Weather in Ambrose Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary":


Once I lookd into th futur, far as anyone cud se,
And I saw th chief forcastr, ded as anyone cud be.
Ded and damd and shut in hades as a liar from his birth
with a record of unreasn seldm paraleld on erth. As I wachd, he rased him solmenly, that incandesnt yuth
from th coals that he preferd to th advantajs of truth.
Then he cast his ys about him, then abov him, and he rote
on a slab of thin asbestos wat I ventur here to quote
for I read/red it in th rose-lyt of that evrlastng glo:
"Cloudy, varibl winds; showrs, coolr; sno."


Cut Spelng Leaflet Click here for more information.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science

The kind of thing that John Reilly laments in this book review is alive and well. If you want a taste of it, check out New Real Peer Review on Twitter, which simply reprints abstracts of actual, peer-reviewed articles. A favorite genre is the autoethnography. Go look for yourself, no summary can do it justice.

I will disagree with John about one thing: race and sex matter a lot for many medical treatments. For example, the drug marketed under the trade name Ambien, generically called zolpidem, has much worse side effects in women than in men, and it takes women longer to metabolize it.

This effect was memorably referred to as Ambien Walrus. I find this pretty funny, but I delight in the sufferings of others.

You can't ignore this stuff if you want to do medicine right. The reasons for doing so vary, but you'll get a better result if you don't.

Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science
by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994
314 pp, $25.95
ISBN 0-8018-4766-4


The Enemies You Deserve


If you are looking for an expose' of how political correctness in recent years has undermined medical research, corrupted the teaching of mathematics and generally blackened the name of science in America, this book will give you all the horror stories you might possibly want. There have been rather a lot of indictments of the academic left, of course, but this is one of the better ones. However, the book is most interesting for reasons other than those its co-authors intended. To use the same degree of bluntness that they use against the "science studies" being carried on by today's literary critics, what we have here is an expression of bewilderment by a pair of secular fundamentalists who find themselves faced with an intellectual crisis for which their philosophy provides no solution.

Paul Gross is a biologist, now at the University of Virginia but formerly director of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. They repeatedly insist, no doubt truthfully, that they have no particular interest in politics and that they are not programmatic conservatives. What does worry them is the increasing number of faculty colleagues in the liberal arts who take it as an article of faith that the results of empirical scientific research are biased in favor of patriarchy or capitalism or white people. The people who have this sort of opinion they call "the academic left," a catchall category that includes deconstructionists, feminists, multiculturalists and radical environmentalists.

The authors have a good ear for invective, such as this happy formula: "...academic left refers to a stratum of the residual intelligentsia surviving the recession of its demotic base." There has always been something rather futile about the radicalization of the academy, and in some ways the movement is already in retreat. The ideas of the academic left are based in large part on Marxist notions that were originally designed for purposes of revolutionary agitation. Revolutionary socialist politics has not proven to have the popular appeal one might have hoped, however. Marxism has therefore been largely replaced among intellectuals by that protean phenomenon, postmodernism. Although postmodernism incorporates large helpings of Freudianism and the more credulous kind of cultural anthropology, it remains a fundamentally "left" phenomenon, in the sense of maintaining an implacable hostility to market economics and traditional social structures. However, postmodernists have perforce lowered their goal from storming the Winter Palace to inculcating the "hermeneutics of suspicion" in undergraduates. The results of these efforts were sufficiently annoying to incite Gross and Levitt to write this book.

Postmodernists presume that reality is inaccessible, or at least incommunicable, because of the inherent unreliability of language. Science to postmodernists is only one of any number of possible "discourses," no one of which is fundamentally truer than any other. This is because there are no foundations to thought, which is everywhere radically determined by the interests and history of the thinker. Those who claim to establish truth by experiment are either lying or self-deluded. The slogan "scientific truth is a matter of social authority" has become dogma to many academic interest groups, who have been exerting themselves to substitute their authority for that of the practicing scientists.

The French philosophical school known as deconstructionism provided the first taste of postmodern skepticism in the American academy during the 1970s. It still provides much of its vocabulary. However, self-described deconstructionists are getting rare. Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger, two of the school's progenitors, were shown in recent years to have been fascists without qualification at certain points in their careers, thus tainting the whole school. On the other hand, while deconstruction has perhaps seen better days, feminism is as strong as ever. Thus, undergraduates in women's studies courses are routinely introduced to the notion that, for instance, Newton's "Principia" is a rape manual. Even odder is the movement to create a feminist mathematics. The authors discuss at length an article along these lines entitled "Towards a Feminist Algebra." The authors of that piece don't seem much concerned with algebra per se; what exercises them is the use of sexist word problems in algebra texts, particularly those that seem to promote heterosexuality. The single greatest practical damage done by feminists so far, however, is in medical research, where human test groups for new treatments must now often be "inclusive" of men and women (and also for certain racial minorities). To get statistically significant results for a test group, you can't just mirror the population in the sample, you have to have a sample above a mathematically determined size for each group that interests you. In reality, experience has shown that race and gender rarely make a difference in tests of new medical treatments, but politically correct regulations threaten to increase the size of medical studies by a factor of five or ten.

Environmentalism has become a species of apocalyptic for people on the academic left. It is not really clear what environmentalism is doing in the postmodern stew at all, since environmentalists tend to look on nature as the source of the kind of fundamental values which postmodernism says do not exist. The answer, perhaps, is that the vision of ecological catastrophe provides a way for the mighty to be cast down from their thrones in a historical situation where social revolution appears to be vastly improbable. Environmentalists seem to be actually disappointed if some preliminary research results suggesting an environmental danger turn out to be wrong. This happens often enough, notably in cancer research, where suspected carcinogens routinely turn out to be innocuous. However, on the environmental circuit, good news is unreportable. The current world is damned, the environmentalists claim, and nothing but the overthrow of capitalism, or patriarchy, or humanism (meaning in this case the invidious bias in favor of humans over other animals) can bring relief. Only catastrophe can bring about this overthrow, and environmentalists who are not scientists look for it eagerly.

The basic notion behind the postmodern treatment of science is social constructivism, the notion that our knowledge of the world is just as much a social product as our music or our myths, and is similarly open to criticism. The authors have no problem with the fact that cultural conditions can affect what kind of questions scientists will seek to address or what kind of explanation will seem plausible to a researcher. What they object to is the "strong form" of social constructivism, which holds that our knowledge is simply a representation of nature. The "truth" of this representation cannot be ascertained by reference to the natural world, since any experimental result will also be a representation. Constructivists therefore say that we can understand the elements of a scientific theory only by reference to the social condition and personal histories of the scientists involved. This, as the authors correctly note, is batty.

The lengths to which the principle of constructivism has been extended are nearly unbelievable. Take AIDS, for instance, which has itself almost become a postmodernist subspecialty. The tone in the postmodernist literature dealing with the disease echoes the dictum of AIDS activist Larry Kramer: "...I think a good case can also be made that the AIDS pandemic is the fault of the heterosexual white majority." Some people, particularly in black studies departments, take "constructed" quite literally, in the sense that the AIDS virus was created in a laboratory as an instrument of genocide. Kramer's notion is more modest: he suggests that the extreme homosexual promiscuity which did so much to spread the disease in the New York and San Francisco of the late 1960s and early 1970s was forced upon the gay community by its ghettoization. This is an odd argument, but not so odd as the assumption that you can talk about the origins of an epidemic without discussing the infectious agent that causes it. The upshot is that AIDS is considered to be a product of "semiological discourse," a system of social conventions. It can be defeated, not through standard medical research, but through the creation of a new language, one that does not stigmatize certain groups and behaviors. (Dr. Peter Duesberg's purely behavioral explanation of AIDS, though it has the attractions of scientific heresy, gets only a cautious reception because of its implied criticism of homosexual sex.) The postmodern academy actually seems to have a certain investment in a cure for AIDS not being found, since the apparent helplessness of science in this area is taken as a license to give equal authority to "other ways of knowing" and other ways of healing, particularly of the New Age variety.

The postmodernist critics of science usually ply their trade by studiously ignoring what scientists themselves actually think about. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, for instance, has made a name for himself by subjecting scientists to the kind of observation usually reserved for members of primitive tribes. Once he was commissioned by the French government to do a post-mortem on their Aramis project. This was to be a radically new, computerized subway system in which small trams would travel on a vastly complicated track-and-switch system along routes improvised for the passengers of each car. The idea was that passengers would type their proposed destination into a computer terminal when they entered a subway station. They would then be assigned a car with other people going to compatible destinations. The project turned into a ten year boondoggle and was eventually cancelled. The French government hired Latour to find out what went wrong. Now, the basic conceptual problem with the system is obvious: the French engineers had to come up with a way to handle the "traveling salesman" problem, the classic problem of finding the shortest way to connect a set of points. This seemingly simple question has no neat solution, and the search for approximate answers keeps the designers of telephone switching systems and railroad traffic managers awake nights. Latour did not even mention it. He did, however, do a subtle semiological analysis of the aesthetic design of the tram cars.

Postmodernists regard themselves as omniscient and omnicompetent, fully qualified to put any intellectual discipline in the world in its place. They have this confidence because of the mistaken belief that science has refuted itself, thus leaving the field clear for other ways of understanding the world. They love chaos theory, for instance, having absorbed the hazy notion that it makes the universe unpredictable. Chaos theory in fact is simply a partial solution to the problem of describing turbulence. Indeed, chaos theory is something of a victory for mathematical platonism, since it shows that some very exotic mathematical objects have great descriptive power. The implications of chaos theory are rather the opposite of chaos in the popular sense, but this idea shows little sign of penetrating the nation's literature departments. The same goes for features of quantum mechanics, notably the uncertainty principle. Quantum mechanics actually makes the world a far more manageable place. Among other things, it is the basis of electronics. To read the postmodernists, however, you would think that it makes physicists flutter about their laboratories in an agony of ontological confusion because quantum theory phrases the answers to some questions probabilistically.

On a more esoteric level, we have the strange cult of Kurt Goedel's incompleteness theorem, first propounded in the 1930s. Now Goedel's Theorem is one of the great treasures of 20th century mathematics. There are several ways to put it, one of which is that logical systems beyond a certain level of complexity can generate correctly expressed statements whose truth value cannot be determined. Some versions of the "Liar Paradox" illustrate this quality of undecidability. It is easy to get the point slightly wrong. (Even the authors' statement of it is a tad misleading. According to them, the theorem "says that no finite system of axioms can completely characterize even a seemingly 'natural' mathematical object..." It should be made clear that some logical systems, notably Euclid's geometry, are quite complete, so that every properly expressed Euclidean theorem is either true or false.) Simply false, however, is the postmodernist conviction that Goedel's Theorem proved that all language is fundamentally self-contradictory and inconsistent. Postmodernists find the idea attractive, however, because they believe that it frees them from the chains of logic, and undermines the claims of scientists to have reached conclusions dictated by logic.

Postmodernism, say the authors, is the deliberate negation of the Enlightenment project, which they hold to be the construction of a sound body of knowledge about the world. The academic left generally believes that the reality of the Enlightenment has been the construction of a thought-world designed to oppress women and people of color in the interests of white patriarchal capitalism. Or possibly capitalist patriarchy. Anyhow, fashion has it that the Enlightenment was a bad idea. Now that modernity is about to end, say the postmodernists, the idea is being refuted on every hand. Actually, it seems to many people of various ideological persuasions that the end of modernity is indeed probably not too far off: no era lasts forever, after all. However, it is also reasonably clear that postmodernism is not on the far side of the modern era. Postmodernism is simply late modernity. Whatever follows modernity is very unlikely to have much to do with the sentiments of today's academic left.

Granted that the radical academy does not have much of a future, still the authors cannot find a really satisfying explanation for why the natural sciences have been subject to special reprobation and outrage in recent years. In the charmingly titled penultimate chapter, "Why Do the People Imagine a Vain Thing?", they run through the obvious explanations. It does not take much imagination to see that today's academic leftist is often a refugee from the 1960s. Political correctness is in large part the whimsical antinomianism of the Counterculture translated into humorourless middle age. Then, of course, there is the revenge factor. In the heyday of Logical Positivism from the end of World War II to the middle 1960s, physical scientists tended to look down on the liberal arts. In the eyes of that austere philosophy, any statement which was not based either on observation or induction was literally "nonsense," a category that therefore covered every non-science department from theology to accounting. The patronizing attitude of scientists was not made more bearable by the unquestioning generosity of the subsidies provided by government to science in those years. The resentment caused by this state of affairs still rankled when the current crop of academic leftists were graduates and undergraduates. Now they see the chance to cut science down to size.

While there is something to this assessment, the fact is that the academic left has a point. Logical Positivism and postmodernism are both essentially forms of linguistic skepticism. Both alike are products of the rejection of metaphysics, the key theme in Western philosophy since Kant. The hope of the logical positivist philosophers of the 1920s and 30s was to save just enough of the machinery of abstract thought so that scientists could work. Science is not skeptical in the sense that Nietzsche was skeptical, or the later Sophists. It takes quite a lot of faith in the world and the power of the mind to do science. And in fact, the authors note that Logical Positivism, with a little help from the philosophy of Karl Popper, remains the philosophical framework of working scientists to this day. The problem, however, is that Logical Positivism leaves science as a little bubble of coherence in a sea of "nonsense," of thoughts and ideas that cannot be directly related to measurable physical events.

Logical Positivism has many inherent problems as a philosophy (the chief of which being that its propositions cannot themselves be derived from sense experience), but one ability that even its strongest adherents cannot claim for it is the capacity to answer a consistent skepticism. In their defense of science, the authors are reduced to pounding the table (or, after the fashion of Dr. Johnson's refutation of Berkeley's Idealist philosophy, kicking the stone.) Thus, it is a "brutal" fact that science makes reliable predictions about physical events, that antibiotics cure infections while New Age crystals will not, that the advisability of nuclear power is a question of engineering and not of moral rectitude. Well, sure. But why? "Because" is not an answer. Without some way to relate the reliability of science to the rest of reality, the scientific community will be living in an acid bath skepticism and superstition.

The authors tell us that the scientific methodology of the 17th century "almost unwittingly set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries...[that] Newton or Leibnitz affirm some version of this divine almost beside the point...Open-endedness is the vital principle at stake here...Unless we are unlucky, this will always be the case." In reality, of course, it surpasses the wit of any thinker to set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries, or even entirely of his own generation. The scientists of the early Enlightenment did indeed scrap a great deal of Aristotle's physics. Metaphysically, however, they were fundamentally conservative: they settled on one strand of the philosophical heritage of the West and resisted discussing the matter further.

As Alfred Whitehead realized early in this century, science is based on a stripped-down version of scholasticism, the kind that says (a) truth can be reached using reason but (b) only through reasoning about experience provided by the senses. This should not be surprising. Cultures have their insistences. Analogous ideas keep popping up in different forms throughout a civilization's history. When the Senate debates funding for parochial schools, it is carrying on the traditional conflict between church and state that has run through Western history since the Investiture Controversy in medieval Germany. In the same way, certain assumptions about the knowability and rationality of the world run right through Western history. The Enlightenment was not unique in remembering these things. Its uniqueness lay in what it was willing to forget.

It would be folly to dismiss so great a pulse of human history as the Enlightenment with a single characterization, either for good or ill. Everything good and everything bad that we know about either appeared in that wave or was transformed by it. Its force is not yet wholly spent. However, one important thing about the Enlightenment is that it has always been a movement of critique. It is an opposition to the powers that be, whether the crown, or the ancient intellectual authorities, or God. The authors of "Higher Superstition" tell us that the academic left hopes to overthrow the Enlightenment, while the authors cast themselves as the Enlightenment's defenders. The authors are correct in seeing the academic left as silly people, who do not know what they are about. The authors are mistaken too, however. The fact is that the academic left are as truly the children of the Enlightenment as ever the scientists are. Science was once an indispensable ally in the leveling of ancient hierarchies of thought and society, but today it presents itself to postmodern academics simply as the only target left standing. Is it any wonder that these heirs of the Enlightenment should hope to bring down the last Bastille?

This article originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-12-20: Iraq Counterfactuals; Hero & Empire; Iceland

By Source, Fair use,

By Source, Fair use,

The First Emperor of China was assumed to be mythical for a long time. Then the archeological finds started piling up. The remarkable unity of the Chinese state over the millennia is in part due to this man.

Iraq Counterfactuals; Hero & Empire; Iceland


You have to wonder why the literary world treated Philip Roth's book, The Plot against America, as a conceptual novelty. The most-broadcast Christmastime movie in the United States is It's a Wonderful Life, which is an alternative-history story on the scale of a single life. (When Stephen Jay Gould's book of that name appeared in German, by the way, the publisher had to use a less resonant title that meant "Man the Accident.") After Dickens's Christmas CarolIt's a Wonderful Life is also the most parodied Christmas story in the United States. Maureen Dowd added to the canon in yesterday's New York Times, in a column entitled A Not So Wonderful Life. In this version, George Bailey becomes Donald Rumsfeld, and the angel explains how much better the world would be if he had never been born:

[Former George Senator Sam Nunn is] the defense secretary. Sam consults with Congress. Never acts arrogant or misleads them. He didn't banish the generals who challenged him - he promoted 'em. And, of course, he caught Osama back in '01. He threw 100,000 troops into Afghanistan on 9/11 and sealed the borders. Our Special Forces trapped the evildoer and his top lieutenants at Tora Bora. You weren't at that cabinet meeting the day after 9/11, so nobody suggested going after Saddam. No American troops died or were maimed in Iraq. No American soldiers tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. No Iraqi explosives fell into the hands of terrorists. There's no office of disinformation to twist perception abroad. We're not on the cusp of an Iraq run by Muslim clerics tied to Iran.

Considering the current state of Afghanistan, it's not at all clear what those 100,000 troops would have been needed for. It's also vastly unlikely that no one at a cabinet meeting after 911 would have suggested going after the Baathist regime in Iraq; surely they would have been familiar with Richard Clarke's memos that mentioned the links between Al-Qaeda and Iraq? The final improbability is this quote from an Alternative Colin Powell:

Merry Christmas, Mr. President. With the help of our allies around the world, we have won the war on terror. And Saddam has been overthrown. Once Hans Blix exposed the fact that Saddam had no weapons, the tyrant was a goner. No Arab dictator can afford to be humiliated by a Swedish disarmament lawyer.

Blix and his elves were allowed in Iraq when the regime realized, belatedly, that the United States had a gun pointed at its head. In any case, Blix's audit would have proven indecisive no matter how long it continued.

* * *

Happily, The New York Times has saved me the trouble of correcting Dowd. Today's edition has another Alternative History scenario, this time by William Safire, entitled Roth Plot II:

Opening scene in the Oval Office in winter 2001, after U.S. and allied forces crushed the Taliban in retaliation for their part in 9/11, with bin Laden not yet found in Afghanistan...State's Powell counsels relaxing U.N. pressure on Iraq by calling them "smart sanctions," hoping this will persuade Saddam to permit inspections. Bush glumly agrees... Having gloriously faced down the U.S. - and gaining greater financial and weaponry strength every day - Saddam becomes an iconic, heroic figure in the Arab and Muslim world. Through massive kickbacks and smuggling operations involving France, Russia and China, the murderous despot ensures U.N. protection from inspections. Free from fear of retaliation, Saddam offers safe haven in Iraq to bin Laden and followers seeking a center of operations...Cut to Libya, where Qaddafi has purchased nuclear know-how and fissionable material from corrupt Pakistani scientists...In early 2004, a Wilsonian Democrat bursts upon the political scene.

You see why "Alternative History" is better than "Alternate History"? There are more than two possibilities.

* * *

Over the weekend, I viewed Hero, starring Jet Li. My interest in martial arts is no greater than my interest in square dancing, but I rented this film because of the historical setting. That is, I did not expect to learn more about the end of the Warring States Period (475 BC -- 221 BC), but because I wanted to see how the film treated the era. The scenario runs like this:

Before he became the First Emperor of China, Ying Zheng (played by Cheng Daoming), King of the state of Qin, brutal and ruthless, was the target of many assassins. Among them, Broken Sword, (played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Flying Snow, (played by Maggie Cheung) and Sky (played by Donnie Yen) are the best. However, their plan was challenged by No-name (played by Jet Li). He rarely spoke and no one knew what he was up to, but something was hidden behind this eyes. No-name told the king that his enemies had been wiped out by him, but the king did not trust him.

The gimmick is that No-name, nominally one of the king's officials, enlists the help of the three assassins to get close enough to the king to kill him, even to the extent of letting themselves be killed (only one actually dies by No-name's hand; it's complicated). However, before No-name's audience with the king, Broken Sword dissuades him from his purpose. Broken Sword is a master calligrapher as well as a master swordsman; the two arts have the same foundation. However, Broken Sword also explains that his study of calligraphy had given him insight into historical necessity, and that he sees that Ying Zheng should unite China.

There is an interesting bit of mistranslation in the English subtitles. When the characters discuss what the king is supposed to unite, the English is given as "Our Land." My Mandarin does not rise to the level of negligible, but even I could make out that the term they were using for China was "tien xia," which means "Under Heaven," or "All Under Heaven": roughly the equivalent of the Greek "oikoumene." This mistranslation undermines Broken Sword's argument.

When Broken Sword said that he understood from his study of calligraphy that the world needed to be united, he was saying that his study of form and flow in the arts allowed him to intuit historical necessity. This was exactly the point that Kant made when he said that his model of history had the plot of a novel, which in his case ends in the formation of a liberal world republic. Dante's argument for a universal monarchy is of the same class: an esthetic intuition, not mechanical determinism.

The Empire, Cosmopolis, All Under Heaven: whether or not you would want to live in a universal state, the fact remains that the idea really is archetypical. It has exerted moral force in many times and places, even on people who ultimately reject it. "Our Land," however, cannot be intuited in this way. Patriotism is a fine thing, but one of the things that makes a homeland lovable is that it is mortal: it does not have to exist. The empire does.

Finally, as many reviewers have pointed out, this film does the First Emperor too much honor. Like Napoleon, the First Emperor is generally credited with making reforms and creating institutions that long outlasted his regime. On the other hand, the First Emperor was not a military genius, or any other kind of genius. He was just a conscientious, hardworking monster.

* * *

Winter starts tomorrow here, and I find the days plenty dark enough. However, I note from a piece in yesterday's New York TimesIn a Cold Country, the Nights Are Hot, that partygoers from the northeastern United States and from northwestern Europe have been making wild weekends in Rekjavik. The idea, apparently, is that "drinking all night" really means something if night does not end until 9:00 AM.

This sounds like a bad idea. In any case, anyone interested in what Iceland looks like sober should see Danny Yee's travelogue.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Napoleon: A Political Life

Napoleon crossing the Alps

Napoleon crossing the Alps

Napoleon was one of the great figures of European history. This is a fine summary of his life.

Napoleon: A Political Life
By Steven Englund
Scribner, 2004
592 Pages, $35.00
ISBN 0-684-87142-4


Several biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) have been published over the years. This one, by an American historian who has taught at the University of Paris, merits special attention. Napoleon did the damnedest things. When he was around, history did not work as it usually did. At his best, Napoleon practiced political architecture in a way that one sometimes encounters in American jurisprudence, but almost never in practicing politicians. This biography by an outsider helps us distinguish what was French (and durable) in Napoleon's achievements from what was merely Napoleonic.

There is a tradition of aphoristic writing about Napoleon, and the book does not disappoint on that score, either. Englund remarks of Napoleon's choice as Second Consul, after the coup that made Napoleon head of state: “The gesture to Sieyès was essentially an expensive floral arrangement sent to the man's political funeral.” Englund also favors indictable puns, such as “the unbearable tightness of Napoleon's being” with regard to the autocrat's fiscal habits, and “Paris was worth a mess.” If you try to take notes on this book, you will take too many.

“Napoleon: A Political Life” is a biography, not a big block of political theory. We get some insight into Napoleon the man, but Napoleon remains histrionically inscrutable. According to Englund, we probably would not have liked Napoleon if we had known him personally: “Napoleon was a self-made man, and he worshipped his creator.” Still, there was nothing much wrong with him. He had no dark traumas in his past, and no debilitating pathologies. He did not arrest people arbitrarily or condemn categories of people to death. His paranoia, such as it was, expressed itself as exasperating bureaucratic oversight.

Some points about Napoleon's background do help us understand, however.

Napoleon came from the lowest level of the provincial aristocracy. That meant that he was just aristocratic enough to attend respectable military schools, but not so grand as to be a class enemy when the Revolution came. How did Napoleon get promoted to brigadier general at age 24? Well, he besieged and captured Toulon, for one thing. However, he was able to do that only because France's senior officers, who belonged to the higher aristocracy, had deserted.

Most famously, Napoleon was Corsican. He was born “Napoleone Buonaparte,” a form he used even after he had become a national figure in revolutionary France. In the 18th century, Corsica had been a possession of the crumbling Republic of Genoa, which traded it to France. Force had to be used to make the Corsicans accept the deal, but in the meantime the island was briefly an independent commonwealth under the enlightened leadership of Pasquale Paoli. Paolisti republicanism was moderately patriotic, economically progressive, keen on education, and not in the least anti-clerical: its spirit was that of Montesquieu, not that of Rousseau. This was what “republic” meant in the Buonaparte household. Sometimes, it seemed to be what Citizen First Consul Bonaparte meant by “Republic,” and, more rarely, what Emperor Napoleon I meant by “Empire.”

Englund characterizes Napoleon as a “realist.” If that's true, he was a realist in the way that some untrained autistic people can draw photographically realistic images; they record exactly what the eye sees. Napoleon's gift as a military commander was of this nature. His constant criticism of his commanders was that they “made a picture” of what the enemy ought to do, rather than seeing the possibilities offered by the terrain and what the enemy was actually doing. Napoleon's ability to grasp the situation long bewildered his enemies, who thought in terms of the refined tactics of the Baroque. As a political leader, Napoleon similarly bewilders with the barrage of titles and constitutional forms he deployed throughout his career: Director; First Consul (Provisional, Decennial, and Life Tenure); not to mention his occasional status as King, President, or Mediator of various vassal states. Finally, he was Emperor, an office that also underwent constitutional mutation, even during the final Hundred Days. In the 20th century, change like this usually meant chaos and collapse for the state in which it occurred. In Napoleonic France, things were quite otherwise: the foundation was laid on which France rests to this day.

The key to understanding the political Napoleon is the distinction the French make between “le politique,” meaning important matters of public policy, and “la politique,” which is retail politics, particularly the politics of electoral democracy. In American terms, “le politique” would most definitely include federal, but not state, constitutional law. American high politics is also rather impersonal: the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence are discovered; they are not the gift of a Rousseauean Law Giver. The French, at least since the Revolution, categorize things differently. They clearly distinguish between the state, the maintenance of which is the purpose of high politics, and the constitutional forms of the state that might be convenient from time to time. They are also willing to allow a DeGaulle (or, dare one say it, a Petain) exercise leadership on fundamental issues. The result is generally more conservative than not.

Englund, like Napoleon, is less interested in the various French constitutions than in the “granite blocks” that Napoleon laid, particularly during the Consulate (1799-1804), when post-revolutionary France was still a republic and Napoleon was a sort of president. The civil code that was drawn up under his auspices, and which bears his name, still governs the law of everyday life in France. In fact, its clarity and logical structure helped ensure that it would become the model code for much of the world. He gave France a sound currency and the beginnings of a workable financial system. His administrative and educational establishments survived into the 20th century. He also created the Legion of Honor, a distinction that grated on revolutionary scruples against titles of nobility, but which few have ever refused. These creations were of such lasting benefit to France that, despite more than a decade of ruinous war, one can still argue that Napoleon did more good than harm.

At least from an Anglo-Saxon point of view, there was something terribly wrong-headed about even the good that Napoleon accomplished. Napoleon wanted as little unregulated politics as possible, just as he wanted a financial system that did not generate much independent finance. (He got his wish: there was no French counterpart of the British financial market for Napoleon's government to borrow from.) Important matters were for the bureaucracy to decide, not parliament. When Napoleon acted in what he considered everyday politics, however, he was often irresponsible.

The general tendency of Napoleon's rule was away from the Republic, a mere constitutional form, and toward the Nation. Increasingly as First Consul, and then as Emperor, Napoleon claimed to speak for the nation. This gave him a status far beyond mere divine right, at least in his own estimation. In fact, “Bonapartism” came to mean a claim to represent the nation in a way more profound than that of the representatives who were merely elected. Napoleon once snarled at one of his legislatures:

“Do these phrase-makers and ideologues imagine they can attack me like I was Louis XVI? I won't stand for it. I am a child of the revolution, sprung from the loins of the people, and I won't suffer being insulted like I was a king.”

One should note, though, that Napoleon's legislatures were not merely decorative. The upper house was often a serious consultative body, and anyone in the national government was there because Napoleon had a use for him. Even the imperial court, when Napoleon created one, was peopled by officials with ridiculous titles (what's an Arch-Chancellor?) who also had real jobs. They scarcely had time for the complicated ceremonial.

Neither did Napoleon object to elections. Far from it: whenever he did anything important, he held a plebiscite. He always won. There was no secret ballot, so people tended to express opposition by not voting rather than by voting “no.” However, the plebiscites drained legitimacy away from the organs of ordinary politics.

Before 1804, Napoleon was the Father of Nations, though the new states he created from the old multinational empires found French exactions burdensome. He had both domesticated and made peace with the Church, though he never quite lived up to his side of the Concordat. The French economy flourished, though it did so with the aid of subsidies, and the Napoleonic Code did not allow for joint-stock companies. Most important: he had saved the Revolution by suppressing the extremists, though the list of his powers grew ever longer. Then, after five years as First Consul, he decided he should be emperor, and he turned into a pure nuisance.

The problem with the Empire was that its operatic invocations of tradition, including the presence of the pope at the coronation, had nothing to do with its sources of legitimacy. Like the Consulate, it was a plebiscitary regime. It was dependent on Napoleon's personal charisma. Until the name of the state was tactfully changed to “Empire,” Napoleon was sometimes styled “Emperor of the French Republic.” That was a confused thing to be.

Englund sides against those historians who say that aggression was a systemic feature of the Empire. Napoleon's advisors were almost all doves. The Peace of Amiens (1802-1803) between France and Britain might have had a long run. It was Napoleon himself, with his opportunistic conversion of Holland and Switzerland to vassal states, who renewed the war with Britain. Domestically, Napoleon was a conciliator. At the international level, however, he was without patience or tolerance:

“In short, the French emperor's distaste for politics now embraced the foreign as well as the domestic arena; he looked on other rulers as if they were heads of factions and parties who bridled and schemed against 'rightful' government, vexing its plans and troubling the peace of its head, the emperor of the French.”

Napoleon never tried to create a peace that Europe could live with. Even his “Continental System,” which might have reconciled Europe to French hegemony, was used shortsightedly. “Le politique” did not extend to the structure of the international system. Indeed, if you look at French behavior in the European Union and the United Nations, it still doesn't.

Meanwhile, Napoleon's enemies learned his tricks: Napoleonic military tactics, national conscription, even appeals to nationalism, though Englund thinks that later German historians overestimated the effectiveness of those appeals. The enemies of Napoleon, quite against their will, were compelled by him to become his peers. He was quite capable of defeating his peers, but not all the time.

History is full of revolutionary and chaotic eras, when a genius can rise into world-history on pure ability. Few generations were quite as revolutionary as the gateway between Old Europe and modernity. Nationalism, secularism, in a sense politics itself, all first materialized in that gateway where we meet Napoleon. He did not create these things. They did not create him, either.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Napoleon: A Political Life
By Steven Englund

The Long View: Fonetic



This poem is taken from my recollection of the entry under Weather in Ambrose Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary":


Wuns I luukt into the fuecher, far as enywun cuud see,
And I saw the cheef forcaster, ded as enywun cuud be. 
Ded and damd and shut in hades as a lieer frum his berth
with a record of unreezon seldom parraleld on erth.
As I wocht, he raezd him solmenly, that incandesent yooth
frum the coels that he preferd to the advantejes of trooth. 
Then he cast his ies about him, then abuv him, and he roet
on a slab of thin asbestus whut I vencher heer to qoet
for I red it in the roez-liet of that everlasting glo:
"Cloudy, vairiabl winds; showers, cooler; sno."

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Truespel



This poem is taken from my recollection of the entry under Weather in Ambrose Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary":


Wunts ie lookd intue thu fyuecher, faar az eneewun kood see,
And ie sau thu cheef forkaster ded az eneewun kood bee.
Ded and damd and shut in haedeez az u lieyer frum hiz berthh
Withh u rekerd uv unreezin seldim pairuleld aan erthh.
Az ie waachd, hee raezd him saalimlee, that inkanddesint yuethh
Frum thu koelz that hee preefferd tue thee advvantijiz uv truethh.
Then hee kast hiz iez ubbout him, then ubbuv him, and hee roet
Aan u slab uv thhin azbbestis wut ie vencher heer tue kwoet.
For ie reed it in thu roez-liet uv that everlasteeng gloe:
"Kloudee, vaireeyubool windz; shaawerz, kueler; snoe."


[Corrected and appoved by Truespel's creator, Thomas Zurinskas.]

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: A History of Europe

In the twenty years since this was written, a common European identity has still failed to materialize. However, across the West we do see a common identity forming, a citizen of the world. A French voter, Rachid Berdouzi, memorably described himself as such, and this identity motivated him to vote for Macron and against Le Pen in the recent French election. John Reilly called this identity transnationalism, but I think globalism is the term most often used. This is usually contrasted to a variety of localisms, at a variety of scales.

Citizens of the world would likely reflexively oppose the idea that they are characteristically Western, but globalism is only strong in the European diaspora. Even in the West, it has ideological rivals. Other parts of the world are much more particularistic.

A History of Europe
by J. M. Roberts
Allen Lane (The Penguin Press), 1997
628 Pages, $34.95
ISBN: 0-713-99204-2


One of the greatest books never written is "Europe: An Autopsy," mentioned in Aldous Huxley's post-apocalyptic novel "Ape and Essence." In Huxley's story, it was possible for a scholar in New Zealand to write a definitive history of Europe because Europe had recently been depopulated by a nuclear war. It would be difficult to write an equally complete history today, since hundreds of millions of people continue to live in Europe and persist in doing things of historical note. Nevertheless, J. M. Roberts, formerly of Oxford and author of the recent "History of the World," suggests in "A History of Europe" that it is possible to look back on European history as a completed whole. According to Roberts, Europe has drawn the whole world into a single history over the past 500 years. Thus, while universal history has not ended, history in Europe is now so strongly affected by what goes on in the rest of the world that it is no longer peculiarly European.

Like most broad historical surveys, this one displays an asymptotic expansion in the number of pages devoted to each increment of time. The thirty thousand years before Periclean Athens, for instance, gets the same amount of coverage as the eight years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the author's interest does not seem to be fully engaged until he gets to A.D.1800 halfway through the book. Still, long before that point, he introduces us to a number of questions about the nature of European civilization that still concern us today.

The greatest of these, of course, is whether "Europe" is really an intelligible unit for historical study. Using the conventional geographical definition of Europe as everything from the Urals to Ireland, it is plain there have usually been several highly distinct societies existing simultaneously in this area for most of the time since the glaciers melted. Even in the "European Age" of world history since 1800, the ancient distinction between the Latin West and the Orthodox East has persisted, though the eastern half of the continent has been steadily acquiring more and more "western" characteristics. Roberts deals with this question, reasonably enough, by acknowledging it and then ignoring it. The book mentions Eastern Europe in general and Russia in particular whenever possible, but Russia really does not seem to be part of the same story until the nineteenth century. Thus, try as he might, European history for most purposes is Western European history. The way that Roberts tells it, readers may also sometimes get the impression that Western European history is largely that of Britain and her relations with the Continent, but he obviously tries to keep a broader perspective.

Allowing that the term "European civilization" refers primarily to the Germano-Roman mix that gelled around the year 1000, this still leaves us with the issue of the degree to which its history can be regarded as culturally autonomous. Europeans had no particular sense of cultural chauvinism until late in the eighteenth century. Medieval Europeans even put Jerusalem at the center of their world maps. Nonetheless, while Europe had hardly been reclusive before the age of oceanic exploration began in the fifteenth century, few of its contacts with other civilizations were really essential to its development. Roberts tries to mention all the major avenues for the exchange of goods and ideas between Europe and other civilizations. Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that by far the most important contact initiated by outsiders during the last thousand years was the purely military confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. It was this large degree of autonomy that makes it possible to speak of a separate European history.

Since 1500, Europe has been overwhelmingly a transmitter rather than a receiver of influence. The most striking feature of this process of transmission, indeed the most striking feature in world history during the period, was European imperialism. It has gone through two major phases of expansion, one in the sixteenth century and the other in the nineteenth. The first phase had modest impact on societies around the rim of Eurasia and Africa, catastrophic ones in the Americas. In the second phase, when almost the entire planet was controlled by European powers, the record is more mixed. Pretty much the same people abolished slavery worldwide as started the Opium Wars, which may be what you would expect considering human nature and the circumstances. In any case, as those 500 years of European imperial expansion progressed, contact with other societies increasingly changed from something that chartered trading monopolies did to something that governments and private persons did. (The big exception was the Spanish empire, which was state-dominated from first to last.) As European societies became more and more engaged with the rest of the world, the question that interests Roberts is when substantial influence began to flow the other way.

It is an axiom in some history departments that imperialism is the main theme of European history in the nineteenth century. Certainly it was economically important, particularly for small countries like the Netherlands whose colonial empires were the largest thing about them. Nevertheless, until the twentieth century there is little indication that extra-European factors were driving domestic politics; rather the opposite, in fact. Particularly in the scramble for Africa (to coin a phrase) in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many conquests and annexations made zero economic sense to the European states involved. Though economic rationales were usually provided for expansion, the Dutch and the English preferred to invest their money in the U.S., the French in Russia, the Germans in Turkey. At least in the final phase of imperialism, the empires were built for prestige, or to outflank rival powers. It is probably an exaggeration to say that some colonial wars were fought to sell newspapers, but not much of one. The chief reason why European states were able to shed their huge empires in the twentieth century with relatively little trouble is that the empires by that time were of little practical value.

Roberts credits Adolf Hitler with ending the European phase of world history. By invading Russia in June 1941 and declaring war on the United States a few months later, he ensured that Europe would be overrun. For a while, and for the first time since the Arab invasions of southern Europe 1200 years before, the continent as a whole became an object of history rather than a subject. Now, this definition of the end of European history may involve a bit of slight of hand. The U.S., he acknowledges, is part of a larger cultural unit called "the West," which may be a better unit for historical study than is the European continent by itself. As for Russia, Roberts can never make up his mind whether that country is really "European" or not. Be this as it may, though, it was certainly the case that the empires disappeared with remarkable swiftness after 1945.

The collapse of the Soviet regime in the last decade of the century held out the prospect that Europe could at least entertain the prospect of becoming an independent historical actor again. Roberts also notes, however, that even those Europeans who are citizens of the European Union are very far from adopting a common European identity. If such an identity does arise, it will be something new, like the national identities that began to appeared among the subjects of some European states in the eighteenth century.

In a way, this book may be too long for its subject. Since it is impossible to provide a detailed history of a topic like this in anything shorter than an encyclopedia, general surveys of this type are sometimes better served by very brief volumes that simply sketch trends and themes. We get plenty of trends and themes here; under the apparent influence of the Annales school, much of the book is composed of little essays that deal with things like comparative demographics and the status of women in medieval society. Still, this book is for the most part an old-fashioned political and military history, which means that very many people and events are mentioned but none of them at length. There are helpful charts scattered throughout the text that sum up the major dates and incidents of a given period. There are maybe a dozen footnotes, and no bibliography.

All things considered, "A History of Europe" is useful as a historical refresher of manageable proportions. There are many people who used to know things like the difference between the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession who will be happy to have a single source to remind them. The book is lucidly written and, especially in the second half, does come close to tying together European history as an intelligible whole. While doubtless there will be more "history of Europe" to be written about in the future, Roberts is probably correct in surmising that a coda has been set to the last 500 years. Despite all the terrible features of the twentieth century, European history has come to a reasonably happy end. At least general surveys of it do not use the word "autopsy" in the title.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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A History of Europe
By J. M. Roberts

The Long View: The Plot Against America

A good apocalyptic novel never gets old.

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004
391 Pages, US$26.00
ISBN 0-618-50928-3


It's always interesting when a major novelist turns his hand to genre fiction, and especially when he does it well. Philip Roth has done just that: with The Plot Against America, he has made a significant contribution to the canon of the apocalyptic novel. Since they first began to appear about 70 years ago, novels of this type have usually been painfully didactic (and often, as in the case the Left Behind series, just painful). Roth's book is almost unique in the genre in combining a believable human story with the creeping menace of a disguised dystopia. He succeeds while following the conventions of the genre almost step by step.

Before we get to the latter days, however, we must note that The Plot Against America has attracted attention chiefly as an exercise in “counterfactual” or “alternate” history. (I prefer “alternative history”; “alternate” implies just two possibilities.) The divergence from our timeline is made with conceptual economy; Charles Lindbergh accepts the invitations to run for president in 1940 on the Republican ticket that he rejected in our world. He wins. Though he does not then set about establishing a fascist state, he does conclude nonagression pacts with Germany and Japan. His government also launches programs to promote the assimilation of ethnic minorities. The programs are neutral in their terms, but obviously directed at the Jews.

Rather less economically, Walter Winchell, the radio commentator, determines to run for president after his opposition to Lindbergh's policies gets him thrown off the air. He begins his campaign in 1942 with a nationwide speaking tour that sparks antisemitic riots. In some places, the police keep order, but in others hostile local authorities let the disturbances turn into pogroms. After a belated attempt to reassure the nation, President Lindbergh disappears. His vice president, Burton K. Wheeler (an actual figure in Montana politics, by the way) then does attempt to stage a fascist coup. He declares martial law, arrests prominent figures from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Fiorella LaGuardia, and apparently moves toward war with Canada. Thanks to the leadership of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the missing president's presumptive widow, the coup collapses. Congress authorizes a special presidential election for 1942, and Roosevelt becomes president again. Next month, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. History as we know it returns, just one year late.

I know from experience not to argue too strenuously with someone else's counterfactual, so I will raise just two points. It seems unlikely to me that Charles Lindbergh could have translated his celebrity into votes, though Roth's description of Lindbergh's unconventional campaign, consisting of flights in "The Spirit of St. Louis" from city to city, does have a certain dramatic appeal. (Whether by accident or design, Lindbergh's campaign resembles the airborne "Hitler Over Germany" tour that the Nazis conducted in their unsuccessful electoral challenge to President Hindenberg.) Also, if America had withdrawn from the North Atlantic and avoided engagement with Japan in 1941, then Great Britain and the Soviet Union might well have been forced to seek terms. This is the kind of thing that alternative history buffs love to talk about, but it's usually not worth discussing at greater length than I have done here.

What makes it possible to spin this premise to novel length is that Roth has translated these events into the terms of his own childhood. In this book, Roth reconstructs the working-class Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, where he was born and raised. There is too much projection from later experience here to say that he describes these events from the perspective of his eight-year-old self, but he tells us pretty much what a child would see as the darkening of the times affects his own family.

Young Roth's parents are ferociously patriotic, but so culturally timid that Roth's father turns down a promotion that would have required the family to move to a neighboring Gentile town. Not long afterward, these same people have to decide whether to accept a virtual relocation order under the federal "Homestead 42" program, under which the elder Roth's company would transfer him to a small town in Kentucky. A foolish aunt marries a windbag of a collaborationist rabbi and gets to dance with visiting German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the White House, only to see the rabbi arrested during the attempted coup. There is a cousin who goes to Canada to fight in Europe; he comes home with one leg and joins Jewish organized crime, of whose existence the author never ceases to remind us. A brother is a Lindbergh supporter, because he enjoyed a summer on a farm under another federal program. The experience does him little harm, except that the guileless farm family feeds him pig's meat, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This domestication of uncannily trying times is one of the marks of the apocalyptic novel. Such tales usually start with the daily life of a few ordinary families. They live in more or less the world we know, but through their eyes we see how an extra budget of bad news brings society as a whole to crisis. The trouble appears to be resolved through the unexpected intervention of a charismatic public figure. However, some of the ordinary people are suspicious of the new order from the start. Their fears seem groundless, but evidence accumulates that the great mass of people is being deceived. Those who understand the reality of the situation become a spiritual elite (apocalyptic novels take care to reveal ordinary people as heroes). In the final stage of the time of tribulation, the mask comes off the new regime, and those who sought to collaborate with it are destroyed. Very soon, though, the nightmare comes to an end, through events as unexpected as those with which it began.

There are no openly supernatural elements in this story. As for organized religion, the Roths and their neighbors are only minimally observant, while the term “church-going Christian” is merely a term of dread. However, the course of history in the alternative world has the character of a malign providence. Lindbergh's early-morning nomination by the Republican National Convention in 1940, which really starts the story, is experienced by the Roths' neighborhood as a cosmic disaster: "Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake." The Lindbergh Administration is experienced, not as an unfortunate political situation, but like a delusion projected by some dark archon. As the father of the family puts it after a not altogether happy trip to Washington: "They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare."

The author has insisted that his tale of the Lindbergh Administration is not an allegory of the Bush Administration, though one can't help but suspect that Roth's description of the bug-eyed hostility toward Lindbergh is informed, at least in part, by Roth's own observation of so-called "Bush Derangement Syndrome." Be that as it may, The Plot Against America surely reflects its times by recalling another generation when tribulation had begun and further crises loomed.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Robertson Davies on Spelling Reform

Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies

From "The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks"
Penguin Books, 1996
Copyright (C) Robertson Davies, 1986
Page 434:

Dear Miss Hawser:

Your suggestion that a few people in Canada try to revive the lost art of letter-writing is a worthy one, and I am flattered that you should include me in your group. I am grateful for the copy of "The Maple Leaf Letter Writer" which you have sent me, and I have read it with great care. But there is one point on which I disagree with the book, and that is its insistence on absolutely conventional spelling. Although I am myself a fair speller, I have thought for some time that a reasonable amount of personal choice should be allowed in this matter. After all, the passion for spelling according to a dictionary is only about a hundred years old; every writer of any importance before that spelled a few words at least in his own way.

Only the other day I was looking at a book of letters from the seventeenth century, in which one writer expressed himself thus: "As for Mr. A--, I esteem him no better than a Pigg." Consider that word "Pigg." The extra "g" is not strictly necessary, but what power it gives to the word! How pig-like it makes poor Mr. A--! How vivid his swinishness becomes! And look at that capital "P." It seems to enrich the sentence by calling special attention to the most important word.

I am not a spelling reformer. I am a laissez-faire liberal in matters of spelling. I do not care that our present system of spelling wastes time and paper. I firmly believe that both time and paper are of less importance than the perfect expression of the writer's meaning. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a Pedantick Booby.

Yours for orthographicall freedom,
Samuel Marchbanks.

And while we are on the subject of Robertson Davies, here is a link to my review of The Cunning Man. Enjoy!

Linkfest 2017-05-05

Steve Sailer is getting more attention. This probably isn't good attention, but what can you do?

I still don't understand macroeconomics, but I am trying.

This is pretty good. 

The shift from male-dominated campus leftism to female-dominated is interesting.

A Thomist ruminating on the way in which we try to explain things we understand well in terms of things we don't understand well.

Rusty Reno argues that globalism/nationalism is the axis upon which the world will turn.

BD Sixsmith's somber memorial to the Bolshevik Revolution.

This makes me feel better that they aren't all dead. There is a counterpoint here challenging this research [which cites the faulty idea that you can alter the ratio male/female births by stopping having kids after you have a boy]

I like apocalyptic fiction. I am glad I never got around to The Road.

The application is a bit disconcerting, but I am amazed at the functionality/price ratio.

I expect that history will fondly remember Benedict XVI.

The Long View: The Last Division: A History of Berlin 1945-1989

While Kennedy did say something that could have been seen as funny in his famous Berlin speech, if you watch video of the speech it is pretty clear the crowd didn't take it that way.

I have a number of personal connections to Berlin that make this review interesting to me. As a child, I met a friend of my father's who had escaped from East Germany. Also my wife's grandmother was a native of Berlin who met her US Army husband because of the garrisons there.

The Last Division: A History of Berlin 1945-1989
by Ann Tusa
Publication Date May 1, 1997
ISBN: 0-201-14399-2


I Am a Doughnut


The problem with the Cold War was not so much that it threatened to go on forever as that it was so godawful boring. Year after year there were indistinguishable stories about unsatisfactory arms control negotiations, proxy guerrilla wars in places you never heard of and speculation about the health of the old hacks who ran the shabby but durable Soviet Empire. The frozen ninth circle of international tedium was, of course, Berlin. There the confrontation between East and West was most direct and the web of explicit agreements and insoluble differences was thickest. In literature, the Berlin espionage industry became a familiar metaphor for the ambiguous nature of the human condition, or something. Metaphorical treatment was necessary, perhaps, since thinking about the status and future of the divided city itself was likely to produce unconsciousness in anyone who did not actually work for the Brookings Institute. Just as the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall was unimaginable even a few months before it happened, so it may seem unimaginable that there could be either pleasure or profit in a history of how the Wall got there and how the city lived with it for 28 years.

Ann Tusa, co-author of two other books on postwar German subjects, has done the unimaginable. “The Last Division” is a serious, detailed and vastly entertaining history of the city of Berlin from its largely ruined state in 1945 to that wonderful street party that erupted on the night of November 9, 1989. The story concentrates on the 1950s and the events that precipitated the building of the Wall in 1961. We get only a cursory glance at West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Oestpolitik” that resulted in 1971 in a Four Power agreement on the status of the city. President Kennedy’s 1963 visit is mentioned primarily to note that his famous line, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” idiomatically means “I am a doughnut.” Still, the book gives us a perceptive look at the key personalities of mid-twentieth century European history and a somewhat disconcerting introduction to the mechanics of diplomacy at the summit.

The story as told here rightfully ignores a lot of revisionist nonsense. It is, for instance, refreshing to read an account of John Kennedy’s administration that assumes the president was preoccupied with matters other than Addison’s Disease and Marilyn Monroe’s panties. (It helps, perhaps, that the author is highly British.) The book concentrates as narrowly as possible on Berlin, but simply by being factual it leaves little doubt about who was responsible for the Cold War. The basic cause of the recurring Berlin crises from the Soviet blockade of 1948 to the closing of the interzonal border in 1961 was that the Western Allies had neglected to get an ironclad agreement from the Soviets at the end of World War II regarding the governance of the city. The wartime leaders had vaguely agreed that the Western allies would share in the occupation of the city with the Soviets. The Western leaders seemed to have assumed that questions of supply for their garrison forces and for the civilian population would look after themselves. They didn’t.

Whenever the Western powers disagreed with the Soviets over any of the growing list of unresolved questions regarding the occupation of Europe, they would find services to their part of the city disrupted and road links to the West either cut or subject to interminable delays. In the blockade of 1948-49, the Soviets seem to have actually intended to make the Western powers choose between maintaining a presence in Berlin and reconstituting a democratic Germany in the West. Since the blockade was answered with an airlift, the scariest moments in the years thereafter were those when the Russians threatened to interfere with air transport, too. For instance, the Russians made a fuss when high-flying jets began to replace low-flying turboprops on the Berlin routes. Ann Tusa crystallizes the atmosphere of these events for us with this memorable footnote:

“Someone in the British embassy in Bonn had the spiffing wheeze of sending Lord Mountbatten to Berlin in a high altitude Comet to see what the Russians would do about it. It was rather reminiscent of the old ‘Beyond the Fringe’ sketch in which a hapless young man is told by his commanding officer ‘The time has come for a meaningless sacrifice. We have chosen you’ -- and not at all the conventional treatment for the Chief of Imperial General Staff.”

Western leaders tried hard to accommodate understandable Russian insecurity. They tried the personal touch. They sometimes tried something akin to bribery. None of it worked. One-on-one summit meetings with Khrushchev by Macmillan, Eisenhower and Kennedy all demonstrated that humoring the Russians did not work. The effort often seemed to make things worse, if the threatening tone of Khrushchev’s rhetoric was any indication. (In a particularly colorful turn of phrase, Khrushchev once remarked to John McCloy that Kennedy would be the last president of the United States. What a character.)

Part of the problem was that the Russians were not motivated simply by insecurity. It was not at all obvious in those days, for one thing, that command economies could not outperform market economies. As long as economic development was a matter of concrete and steel production, the Soviet economy was actually doing pretty well, and the Soviets expected to be deferred to accordingly. A deeper difficulty, perhaps, was that the Russians did not understand how contractual relationships among equals work. There is an old saying that Russians play chess and Americans play poker. What happened in the course of the Cold War was that the Russians eventually forced everyone who dealt with them to play chess, too.

Throughout the 1950s, this meant that the small Western garrisons of indefensible West Berlin enacted a nerve-wracking kabuki play with their Eastern counterparts over interzonal cross-points and rights of inspection. Everyone, including the Russians, had a lively awareness of how the First World War had started, and neither side pressed too far. However, the fact was that the Russians were the ones who wanted the status of the city changed. In fact, what they really wanted was a Germany demilitarized and ruled by a confederal government with a guaranteed Communist component. In that case, the status of Berlin would have been unimportant to them. The least that they would settle for, however, was recognition of their satellite, the German Democratic Republic. In that case, a Berlin in which people could move freely between East and West was a threat. In over ten years of negotiations, no one seems to have put forward a proposal as simple as trading recognition of the East German regime for the security of West Berlin. In the event, however, that is exactly what happened.

The Wall itself went up because of a demographic crisis of the Communists own devising. Emigration from East Germany to the West, largely through Berlin, had been a trickle through most of the 1950s. Towards the end of the decade, however, the East German government pressed a collectivization program against both small industrial firms and small farms. They thus started to lose farmers and skilled workers in large numbers. Peasant opposition caused food shortages, making the East an even less desirable place to live. Additionally, in 1958, Khrushchev began issuing a series of ultimatums, or what sounded like ultimatums, which demanded that the German question be settled in a specified period of time. The deadline kept changing, but increasing numbers of reasonable East Germans concluded that they would much rather be elsewhere if the border were sealed. By the time barbed-wire preliminaries to the Wall were put up on a sleepy weekend in August 1961, the small Communist republic was losing over 2000 people a day.

The Western Allies were outraged, after a fashion. They were certainly surprised. All kinds of scenarios had been prepared against forceful measures by the Communist governments. Most of them were variations on the blockade of 1948, with the envisioned remedy a much larger airlift. The one possibility they had not considered was that the East Germans might just isolate West Berlin from East Berlin but leave access to the West more or less alone. While it is clear enough that Western leaders did not collude in the establishment of the Wall, nevertheless they were clearly relieved. The Wall solved the practical problems the Russians and East Germans had been having, though it was another ten years before Willy Brandt’s diplomacy gave the solution an acceptable legal formulation. Western leaders got a standing photo opportunity whenever they visited Germany. “This wall proves the failure of communism!” they could say for three decades as they posed in front of it. West Berliners, in contrast, had trouble believing that a power that could keep a large selection of their friends and relatives permanently locked away was altogether impotent.

If the Cold War was a chess game, the Communist government of East Germany lost it in a way that in fact closely paralleled many games of chess. A doomed player may have considerable freedom of movement and just as many pieces as the other side until quite late in the game. Then, quite suddenly, the player’s position will collapse. The sacrifice of major pieces may buy a little more time. Even then, however, the end can be hastened by a panicky blunder. All the eastern regimes were doomed by Gorbachev’s decision not to support them militarily against internal unrest. East Germany in particular clearly did not have long to last after Hungary opened its borders with Austria in September 1989, providing a route for so many East Germans to leave that basic services began to break down. However, the sudden fall of the Wall was an accident. On November 9, a hapless spokesman for the East German government read a roomful of reporters an incomplete draft of a new regulation that would have let East Berliners get visas to travel to the Western Zones. It sounded, inaccurately, like a declaration of unrestricted passage. Once the guards at one crossing point started letting people through, the interzonal border simply dissolved.

Today, of course, the East Germans are very grumpy about the way things turned out. They think that they did pretty well in the postwar years, given that all the Russians left them after exacting reparations with was “Walter Ulbricht [the first East German leader] and a few potatoes.” They had some accomplishments to their credit, they say, that the West Germans should have respected. Probably they have a point. Still, the division of one of the great cities of Europe was not to anyone’s benefit, least of all theirs. Once upon a time, as this book shows, it seemed that the outcome of world history would turn on what happened in Berlin. As things turned out, however, the division ended without war, without riot, without even a cathartic lynching. This is one history book with a happy ending.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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