The Long View 2004-08-02: Hellboy & Friends

I greatly enjoy Hellboy as well, and I second John's endorsement.


Hellboy & Friends

 

Over the weekend, the Department of Fear and Trembling raised the threat level for certain finance-related buildings in New York, Washington D.C. and Newark (New Jersey). This was the most specific warning the Department (otherwise known as the Department of Homeland Security) has given since it was organized. As The New York Times noted this morning, the measure has met with surprisingly little skepticism among the political class, including all but a few partisan Democrats. Under other circumstances, it might have been possible to argue that the Administration was seeking to counteract the bounce in popularity that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry would normally expect after last week's Convention in Boston. However, it has been apparent since Thursday that there was no bounce. Maybe, like the Watergate Break In, the Administration is giving hostages to fortune by taking superfluous but dangerous steps to ensure reelection. I would not bet on it.

The one voice of unalloyed skepticism I have heard in the mainstream media is that of Larry Johnson, an anti-terrorism consultant, formerly of the CIA and the State Department. On National Public Radio's Morning Edition today, he accused Homeland Security of "irresponsibility" and "grandstanding." To the extent that terrorist activity may have occurred at all, he suggests that the terrorists were just testing our security systems, to see how they would react. The Administration is crying "wolf," he says, and will have to pay for it in lost credibility when a real threat arrives.

There are lots of things one could say about this analysis; starting, perhaps, with the observation that it sounds like the FBI's pre-911 philosophy of allowing terrorist conspiracies to proceed almost to the point of consummation, so as to make a better legal case. However, it may be enough to cite this excerpt on Slate from a piece by a Larry C. Johnson (apparently the same person) that appeared in the The New York Times of July 10, 2001, entitled "The Declining Terrorist Threat":

Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.

None of these beliefs are based in fact. ... While terrorism is not vanquished, in a world where thousands of nuclear warheads are still aimed across the continents, terrorism is not the biggest security challenge confronting the United States, and it should not be portrayed that way.

Incidentally, shortly after Homeland Security raised the alert level for those three sites, the State of New Jersey did the same for several counties, including my own Hudson County. Jersey City in particular has some conspicuous financial-service industry buildings on the Hudson River. However, I have not noted dramatic increases in security measures, except for the black helicopters, which we are used to by now.

* * *

Moving on to pleasanter topics, I highly recommend the film, Hellboy (Two-Disc Special Edition), based on the Mike Mignola character from Dark Horse. It's got everything: bits of Satanic eschatology, such as the notion of starting a new eon by opening a connection to another world; references to the Occult Reich mythology, which probably shouldn't be encouraged (see here for a sober view) but which makes a great backstory; and there is even a New Jersey location, since the secret headquarters of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense is in, or under, Newark. Like The Addams Family series and films, Hellboy uses all those gothic trappings to tell a fundamentally edifying story. Ron Perlman's Hellboy is a big, sulky adolescent whose heart is in the right place, ethically if not necessarily anatomically. What's not to like?

Still, there is a bit of mismatch in the story's premises. Rosaries and relics "from the Vatican" work in this film to ward off evil, as has the Holy Hardware in horror stories since Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, the evils that BPRAD confronts are Lovecraftian. You might almost call them Kantian monsters; they do not come from the Id, but from the Noumenon, the unknowable region that is much more fearsome than Dante's neatly charted Hell. We have been given eschatological assurances about the defeat of Satan, but against Cthulu what hope have we?

* * *

Speaking of the Vatican, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a document entitled "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World," which I gather condemns feminist ideology. From the reports, the document seems scarcely controversial: feminist ideology substitutes gender conflict for class conflict; it inhibits traditional family formation; and the denial of gender differences has served to normalize homosexuality. There are feminists and homosexual activists who would not quarrel with these characterizations.

Something I quarrel with is that the official document is not on the Vatican's site yet. Critiques and condemnation of the new document littered the Internet within a day of the document's announcement. What has not been available is a systematic defense, or even the text itself.

The Vatican has existed in something like its present form since the Roman Senate took a long lunch about AD 600 and never came back. You would think that the Curia would have learned something about newscycles by now.

* * *

Finally, Hell and the presidential campaign met most wonderfully in a short item that appeared in yesterday's New York Times:

IF you think that today's staged political conventions aren't what they used to be, you're not looking back far enough. Pitt Harding [a Democrat and Milton scholar at Jacksonville State University in Alabama] argues that the gathering in Boston was quite similar to the first and greatest convention of them all: the assembly of the fallen angels in "Paradise Lost."...When the devils convene in Pandemonium, a hall even more chaotic than the FleetCenter, their base is energized with rage against the militarist they blame for unfairly defeating them and ruling dictatorially. There are deep divisions in the party - some want all-out war with God, others are doves - but Satan unites them with two classic techniques [: soaring rhetoric and] a scripted convention. Satan doesn't want any surprise votes or divisive debates on the party platform.

Then there is Satan's closing pledge to the delegates, before he leaves for Earth to solicit the votes of Adam and Eve:

"I abroad
Through all the coasts of dark destruction seek
Deliverance for us all."

Would that Hellboy had been selected to blog from the floor.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-07-30: Some of the Damnedest Things

John missed out on Obama-mania in 2004:

I actually missed the keynote address by Barack Obama, though it was the most discussed presentation of the whole event. The text is here. He is now running for US Senate from Illinois, where he is largely unopposed. I have seen clips of the man, and he has many gifts, but the Democratic leadership may be making a mistake in touting him as the party's new star. I think what we have here is a political analogue to the making of The Incredible Hulk; wonderfully high-concept, but the product will leave the audience cold.

 


Some of the Damnedest Things

 

One can only admire the thoroughness with which the Democratic Party converted itself into the Barracks State Party in the finale to the National Convention in Boston last night. Not in my lifetime has there been such a profusion at one of these events of flags, veterans, and promises of a military buildup. And John Kerry's delivery of his acceptance speech was positively rousing. He was animated, cheerful, and clear. Only once or twice did the ratio of noise to signal rise to a dangerous level; similes are his enemy. Informed opinion said that he had to deliver a good speech last night, and that's what he did.

Nonetheless, this morning I began to wonder whether his campaign may not have made a catastrophic miscalculation. The convention, and the speech, are not going down well among the anti-war movement.

There are people who would vote for anyone other than George Bush. Senator Kerry could not have alienated those people last night, even if he had bitten off the head of a chicken onstage. However, that group is only about 20% of the electorate. The bulk of Kerry's support comes from people who oppose the war in Iraq, or even the War on Terror. Was it David Brooks who said that some large fraction of the electorate is just tired of history? Many people who supported the Iraq War initially now feel free to oppose it, because the they believe it was optional. Now comes Kerry, saluting the convention and reporting for duty, and promising to accept nothing less than victory.

The Senator may win a fourth Purple Heart for shooting himself in the foot.

* * *

A few other points about the Convention:

I actually missed the keynote address by Barack Obama, though it was the most discussed presentation of the whole event. The text is here. He is now running for US Senate from Illinois, where he is largely unopposed. I have seen clips of the man, and he has many gifts, but the Democratic leadership may be making a mistake in touting him as the party's new star. I think what we have here is a political analogue to the making of The Incredible Hulk; wonderfully high-concept, but the product will leave the audience cold.

My favorite address was the one given quite early on, by former Vice President Al Gore. He was witty and relaxed. He did not speak in a honking roar. His hair was not slicked back in a deranged fashion. When he finished, his many friends and well-wishers came to lead him gently, gently away from the podium. We have by no means seen the last of Al Gore.

My favorite commentary remains a piece that was spiked, the now famous column by Ann Coulter that begins, "Here at the Spawn of Satan convention in Boston..." USA Today had commissioned her to do a week's worth of reporting from the Convention, but thought better of the matter. I find USA Today's decision mysterious. Ann Coulter writes humorous invective. That's why they hired her. If she was on deadline and on topic, what cause had the newspaper to complain?

In any case, I commend the Convention organizers for using the the oddly disturbing U2 song, Beautiful Day, for the fanfare as Kerry finished his speech. You will recall that was what Bono sang at the half-time show at the Super Bowl just after 911, though it has been haunting me since it came out, long before 911. That piece of music really is the theme song for these years. One trusts it will be taken up in the future by motion pictures about this time.

* * *

While Thomas Friedman of The New York Times is away recovering from cognitive dissonance, his column space is being filled by various guest columnists, among whom is the Transnational Establishment Feminist, Barbara Ehrenreich. Her contribution yesterday, The New Macho: Feminism, illustrates how the militarization of Democratic Party rhetoric is driving its base to distraction. Here she suggests how Kerry should really combat terror:

If Kerry were to embrace a feminist strategy against the insurgency, he'd have to start by addressing our own dismal record on women's rights. He'd be pushing for the immediate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has been ratified by 169 countries but remains stalled in the Senate. He'd be threatening to break off relations with Saudi Arabia until it acknowledges the humanity of women. And he'd be thundering about the shortage of women in the U.S. Senate and the House, an internationally embarrassing 14 percent. We should be aiming for at least 25 percent representation, the same target the Transitional Administrative Law of Iraq has set for the federal assembly there.

This column sets out the whole desire of the transnational colony in the United States. The strategy depends on the invocation of newly minted "international standards" to implement policies that have been rejected by electoral politics, and even by the courts. A principal feature of this project is an implacable, almost metaphysical anti-natalism, but that's another story. In any case, these few sentences hint at the return of a line of progressive thought that surfaced briefly during the early Clinton Administration, but then went underground in response to popular outrage: the use of affirmative-action rules to modify the composition of Congress and the state legislatures. That was, of course, how the rubber-stamp legislatures of the old Communist Block were chosen, and it is the condition that the EU is approaching today.

As John Fonte recently noted in The National Interest ("Democracy's Trojan Horse," Summer 2004), once you let these people into power, there is no way to vote them out. They will create institutional and treaty structures in which elections continue, but are largely irrelevant, because the real decisions are made by unelected experts.

* * *

Meanwhile, over at Foreign Policy, Niall Ferguson is up to his old tricks, explaining in an essay called "A World Without Power" why an American defeat in Iraq would not create a multipolar world, but an "apolar" one, like the ninth and tenth centuries. Here's an apolar world for you:

The worst effects of the new Dark Age would be felt on the edges of the waning great powers. The wealthiest ports of the global economy -- from New York to Rotterdam to Shanghai -- would become the targets of plunderers and pirates. With ease, terrorists could disrupt the freedom of the seas, targeting oil tankers, aircraft carriers, and cruise liners, while Western nations frantically concentrated on making their airports secure. Meanwhile, limited nuclear wars could devastate numerous regions, beginning in the Korean peninsula and Kashmir, perhaps ending catastrophically in the Middle East. In Latin America, wretchedly poor citizens would seek solace in Evangelical Christianity imported by U.S. religious orders. In Africa, the great plagues of AIDS and malaria would continue their deadly work. The few remaining solvent airlines would simply suspend services to many cities in these continents; who would wish to leave their privately guarded safe havens to go there?

As always from Ferguson, this is all very interesting, even if we quarrel with his take on general history. As for the possibility of a Dark Age, I have explained, at tedious length why that will not happen for centuries.

* * *

A reader with a wicked sense of humor writes:

According to this calculator,

http://homokaasu.org/gematriculator/

your site is 87% good and 13% evil.

This is slightly better than the Green Nazis (Libertarians)
http://www.nazi.org
which is 86% good and 14% evil

Using that site, which has a gematria-engine to determine the metaphysical value of texts, I find that:

Fox News is 83% good, 17% evil.

PBS is 40% good, 60% evil.

I simply report the news.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View 2004-07-26: Spies & Pigeons, Catholic Tradition, Catholic Muslims, Pre-Fab Politics

Ordinarily, I would trust John's judgment on a matter of legal interpretation, but I do wonder whether his opinion on the Valerie Plame affair was unbiased. We don't have a legal decision to look back on, since the courts declined to take up the charge, although in this case it doesn't truly seem that Plame was much harmed, in retrospect.

John expresses an idea here that I brought up in a comment at Steve Sailer's blog: the present political environment in the United States is ripe for personal politics, in part because American lack of corruption makes politics relatively cheap, and also because the political parties are losing power as institutions.

Not really. What this activity leads to is a system in which prefabricated components can quickly assemble around attractive candidates. The comparison we should think of is the production of a major motion picture. The sums involved for a presidential campaign are oddly similar, too: some small multiple of $100 million. In any case, as the article notes, the year to focus on is 2008.

The amount of money Hillary spent is arguably not a small multiple of $100 million, but Trump's spending falls in that range.


Spies & Pigeons, Catholic Tradition, Catholic Muslims, Pre-Fab Politics

 

Anyone can write about the Wilson-Plame Affair, so I can do it, too. The question is whether a felony was committed when someone in the Bush Administration leaked the news to a columnist that Plame, Wilson's wife, was a CIA agent. For what it's worth, I would say "no."

The key provision is 50 USC 421 [Protection of identities of certain United States undercover intelligence officers, agents, informants, and sources]. There are separate subsections creating liability for leakers and leakees in that section, but they both do so only for an offender "knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States." The term "affirmative measure" suggests some step in addition to the original designation of someone as working undercover. More specifically, 50 USC 426(4)(A)(ii) defines "covert agent" as someone "who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States."

There are factual issues here, of course, but also more questions of statutory interpretation. Suppose an agent simply traveled abroad on intelligence business: would that reset the five-year secrecy period? The CIA might not be well advised to pursue the widest possible interpretation of the statute in this case. If a court decides the ambiguity against the Agency, then the broad interpretation can no longer be used as a threat.

These are not new points. However, while looking up the statutes in the United States Code, I did make some startling discoveries. For instance, there was once a Chapter 7 of Title 50 of that Code that Jorge Luis Borges would have loved: Interference with Homing Pigeons Owned by United States. The provisions have long since been repealed. Casual readers of the US Code who are too lazy to hunt for the original legislation in the US Statutes, which is the uncompiled and unclassified output of Congress, must make do with these enigmatic repealer notes:

Section 111, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 1, 40 Stat. 533, related to prohibited acts affecting homing pigeons owned by United States. See section 45 of Title 18, Crimes and Criminal Procedure.

Section 112, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 2, 40 Stat. 533, related to possession of pigeons as evidence of violation of law. See section 45 of Title 18.

Section 113, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 3, 40 Stat. 533, related to punishment. See section 45 of Title 18

I used to write repealer notes, when I worked for West Publishing many years ago, so I know what extraordinary details may lurk behind the studied blandness of these memorial summaries. In particular, we must wonder what terrible punishment Congress deemed fitting for those who would molest the Pigeons of the Great Republic.

* * *

Even before I read Mark Sedgwick's Against the Modern World, I had reached the stage where I saw Traditionalists lurking in every footnote of every critique of modernity. I got this way because, in many cases, they do lurk in such places, but don't get me started. In any case, a more fruitful way to study Tradition is to read what people who identify themselves as Traditionalists have to say. I have become particularly interested in the overlap between Tradition in the Guenonian sense (which is what Sedgwick chiefly studied) and Catholic Traditionalism. The best-thought-out synthesis is the work of Rama Coomaraswamy, a retired thoracic surgeon and a priest in a group with its own bishops that continues to use the old Latin liturgies.

In his essay on Philosophia Perennis and the Sensus Catholicus, the Reverend Doctor Coomaraswamy does an interpretation of salvation history that is new to me, but which makes perfect sense in a Guenonian context:

It is also necessary to consider history, not as a progressive advance from primitive times to the present "enlightened" era but more realistically as a continuous degeneration from a former golden age. Adam’s fall from paradise is a paradigm for understanding the present situation. God did not abandon His creation and Adam found regeneration, and is indeed considered by the Church to be a saint. In ancient days, saving revelation, in accordance with man’s more direct apprehension of truth, was appropriately more simple. With each succeeding "fall," God provided more stringent requirements for man to follow if he sought to reverse the process of degeneration, until the time of Moses when the rules required encompassed every aspect of life. This is well reflected in the Sacrifice of Abel, followed by that of Abraham, and finally by that established through the medium of Moses. Yet throughout all this we have the Sacrifice of Melchisedech, renewed once again in Christ.

The author is a "sedevacantist." Such people believe that, quite literally, they are more Catholic than the pope. Because the pope supports the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, the author holds that the See of Peter is vacant. (Other sedevacantists say there is a pope, but someone other than John Paul II: an opinion that need not detain us.) It is interesting to note how sedevacantism recapitulates the original Guenonian critique of Catholicism. Rene Guenon said 70 years ago that the "initiatory" element in Catholicism had been lost for centuries, so that the chain of primordial Tradition was no longer intact in the Catholic Church. Sedevacantists say that everything was fine until the Second Vatican Council cut the cord.

It's not just that the decrees of the Council are heretical, they say, but that the new rites of ordination for priests and bishops that were among the new liturgies promulgated after the Council are not valid, for much the same reason that Anglican ordinations are not valid. Thus any Mass, even a Mass in Latin, said by a priest who was ordained by a bishop consecrated using the new rite is not a valid Mass. Thus, bishops consecrated after 1982 are not real bishops, and the Catholic hierarchy is gradually being replaced with imposters.

The really interesting point here is that "traditional" Catholics are usually keen on the exclusive truth of Catholicism and the almost inevitable damnation of everyone who is not a member of the visible Church (or, sometimes, of one's own schismatic sect). How does this square with the Guenonian principle of the "perennial wisdom," which all the great Traditions of the world supposedly share? In Dr. Coomaraswamy's version, the two meanings of Tradition can be reconciled by emphasizing scriptural rather than hermetic proofs for this wisdom, and also by leaning very heavily on the notions of "the baptism of desire" and the "invincible ignorance" of some unbelievers, including intelligent ones. Those points, at least, are not off the reservation of respectable Catholic opinion, but they are not the sort of thing usually embraced by conservatives.

The moral, I think, is that we have yet another instance in which we see that Tradition should never be confused with conservatism. Perhaps it would be too much to state this categorically, but we can clearly see this trajectory in every form of Tradition: for a Traditionalist, no public institution in his own society is legitimate.

* * *

Global Policy Exchange has been holding discussions on whether what Islam really needs is a Reformation. In the August/September issue of First Things, one contributor to the discussion, Paul Marshall of Freedom House, has an essay whose title, "Islamic Counter-Reformation," sums up a contrary position:

My view is that many of the problems of contemporary Islam are more like Protestant problems than like Catholic problems, and therefore more akin to a dilution of Protestantism is required.

You can make your own list of Islamic "Protestant problems": a principle of "sola scriptura" based on the Koran that makes flexibility impossible; a neglect of natural law; the lack of hierarchical oversight of charismatic leaders. Randall suggests that what Islam needs is a renewal of the ancient science of interpretation, along with the creation of a more centralized system of authority to issue such interpretations.

I might point out that Spengler, in The Decline of the West, identified Islam as a Reformation of Eastern Christianity within what he called "Magian Culture," or at least as the Puritan phase of a Reformation. The problem is that Islam may not only have had its Reformation, but also its Counter Reformation: that is arguably what Shia Islam was all about. Particularly in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is a strong hierarchy and a sophisticated magisterium. There are also the makings of nukes, in the hands of people who should not be trusted with sharp objects.

* * *

As part of the New York Times coverage of this week's Democratic National Convention, the newspaper's Sunday Magazine section of July 25 had a long article by Matt Bai, entitled Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy. The story is about the efforts of leftist-progressive-democratic rich people to fund a network of new foundations and activist groups to counter the depredations of the American Enterprise Institute and the National Rifle Association and suchlike rabble.

There is something terribly delusional about all this. The organizers of the lefty network claim that they were blindsided by the fearsome new foundations and news outlets that the Right has assembled. Does the Hoover Institution really hold a candle to the Kennedy School of Government? Is FOX of much account compared to all three broadcast networks? About Hollywood we need not speak.

Be that as it may, the article is interesting because it emphasizes that the system of political financing is disengaging from the two major political parties:

The second potential outcome to which Dean alludes -- that the Democratic Party, per se, might not always exist in America -- might sound, coming from Dean, characteristically overwrought. But it does raise a significant question about the political venture capitalists: what if, in the future, they decided not to support Democrats at all? ... When I suggested this to Stern, the service employees' union president, he thought about it for a moment before answering. ''There is an incredible opportunity to have the infrastructure for a third party,''

Not really. What this activity leads to is a system in which prefabricated components can quickly assemble around attractive candidates. The comparison we should think of is the production of a major motion picture. The sums involved for a presidential campaign are oddly similar, too: some small multiple of $100 million. In any case, as the article notes, the year to focus on is 2008.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

LinkFest 2016-12-31

Last link roundup of 2016. Happy New Year!

Stun guns and male crew: Korean Air to get tough on unruly passengers

This article is interesting for all kinds of reasons. The proffered explanation that "Asian carriers including us [Korean Air] have not imposed tough standards because of Asian culture", the claim that the offending passenger had two and a half shots of whiskey and then claimed to be blackout drunk [possible for a Korean, but not plausible in my mind], and the recent increase in violent incidents on Korean airlines.

Nine charts that show how white women are drinking themselves to death

Part of my sad, continuing series on how American women are having increasing problems with alcohol.

What Made 2016's Doom Great

I'm less and less comfortable with graphic violence in videogames, but I appreciate this review of the new Doom.

Farewell

Thomas Sowell was a formative influence on me. I read a number of his books in high school, and while I haven't read his column in a very long time, I think of him very fondly. Enjoy your retirement, Dr. Sowell.

Varieties of Religious Experience

Ross Douthat explores the mysteries of human life.

The volatile history of Star Wars videogames

A bit of history on LucasArts, Lucasfilm's in-house videogame studio.

The desert that revealed the ultimate ice age

A short piece about the Snowball Earth hypothesis.

A Call for a New Strenuous Age

Brett McKay at the Art of Manliness argues that we need to rediscover healthy challenges to restore our masculinity to balance.

Accounting for Thanksgiving’s Ghosts

Jacobin Mag entertains a counter-factual about what the United States would be like if disease hadn't killed most of the inhabitants of the Americas post-Columbus.

The Long View 2004-07-22: Usage & Breaking News

The management and mis-management of classified information is a perennial topic. Sandy Berger's conviction is  probably typical of the genre.

However, these days, the joke would be Hail Hydra.

Here is a really bad prediction from John, since it is quantified:

Debacle? Custer's Last Stand was a debacle. The Battle of Corregidor was a debacle. In Iraq, the Coalition defeated and occupied a country about the size of California for what will probably turn out to be about a thousand military fatalities. That is, frankly, what one would expect for a campaign of this size. One can argue about the viability of the new political system in Iraq, or the long-term effect on diplomacy in the region. However, now it is clear to hostile regimes and organizations that open support for the Jihad can have lethal consequences. This state of things is not the end of the story, but it is a reasonably successful end of the beginning.

Dammit, John.


Usage & Breaking News

 

Everything you might reasonably want to know about the current state of the Joseph Wilson and Sandy Berger scandals can be found in Martin Peretz's updates, posted yesterday. His accounts are pointed, but easily verified from other sources. What a shame: about Peretz's New Republic, I mean. It still does good reporting sometimes, as it did in the 1980s. However, after its endorsement of the Goldhagen Libel, one can no longer trust the magazine.

As for the scandals themselves, the Berger case would be the more important of the two, if there is anything in it. Berger says that he removed documents from the National Security Archive by accident. Reports now say that there was nothing random about the documents he took; he walked off with documents that had handwritten comments by Clinton Administration officials on them. Some of these items now seem to be permanently lost.

A more partisan person than I might imagine all sorts of remarks scribbled in the margins, such as:

The only way to achieve border security is to turn the Customs Service over to the UN
Hail Satan! 
CC: Hillary, Clarke

I would not bet on it, though.

As for former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, I was always aware that his investigation in Niger had little to do with President Bush's claim that Baathist Iraq had been making inquiries about buying yellowcake. Since I always thought him too fishy to take seriously, I did not pay attention to everything he said. Only now do I realize just how deep a hole he had dug for himself. As has so often been the case during the Bush years, this affair is interesting not as a political scandal, but as a media scandal.

And in that connection, there is one point that has too often been overlooked:

Television and radio newsreaders must learn to distinguish the pronunciation of Nigerian from Nigerien. The first has to with Nigeria (Nigh-JEER-ee-ah), which exports oil and financial scams. The second has to do with Niger (Nee-ZHAIR), the country immediately to the north, which exports yellowcake (plus some other stuff that Iraq would not have been interested in). It is understandable that people mix these countries up, since the spellings are malicious.

* * *

A more substantive mistake in usage can be found in Andrew J. Bacevich's piece, A Time for Reckoning: Ten lessons to take away from Iraq, which appears in the current issue of American Conservative. Much of what the author has to say is unexceptionable. Point number two, for instance, wars leave loose ends, is true both in general and about Iraq in particular, though he does not address the thesis that the Iraq campaign is really part of a wider war. Also, few people would argue with point number six, the margin of U.S. military supremacy is thinner than advertised, though he might have noted that some of the people who said the United States is ominipotent did so to argue against the war, on the grounds that the US was so powerful that it could afford to lose a skyscraper every few years. However, the article is really interesting as an example of the "declare defeat and get out" school.

Consider the seventh item: the myth of American casualty aversion is just that. He tells us that the reputation the US developed in the 1990s for refusing to risk casualties did not reflect popular sentiment:

The onus for the pseudo-campaigns of the decade leading up to 9/11 -- the zenith coming in 1998 when U.S. Navy cruise missiles demolished an empty pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum -- lay not with the commander-in-chief but with foot-dragging generals and fainthearted citizens who lacked the stomach for serious military action.

That's interesting, and it's quite likely true. He concludes the point by saying this:

But as the Iraq debacle has made plain, competence remains, as it was in the 1990s, in precariously short supply.

Debacle? Custer's Last Stand was a debacle. The Battle of Corregidor was a debacle. In Iraq, the Coalition defeated and occupied a country about the size of California for what will probably turn out to be about a thousand military fatalities. That is, frankly, what one would expect for a campaign of this size. One can argue about the viability of the new political system in Iraq, or the long-term effect on diplomacy in the region. However, now it is clear to hostile regimes and organizations that open support for the Jihad can have lethal consequences. This state of things is not the end of the story, but it is a reasonably successful end of the beginning.

For Bacevich, however, as he tells us at the beginning of his article, "the war cannot be won." This is not an assessment of the situation on the ground: it's an axiom of the the orthodox wing of the national security establishment. (About this, Walter Russell Mead is on the right track.) Any outcome of the war would have been declared a debacle by these people. Their objection is not that the Bush Doctrine has made no progress; it's that the Doctrine progresses in what they believe to be an undesirable direction.

This is not the first time this has happened. There have always been people, not all of them cranks, who claim that the United States really lost the Second World War, because the advance of the Soviet Union into central Europe left America less secure than it was in 1939.

And of course, if Henry Wallace had been on the ticket with FDR in 1944, they would have been right.

* * *

On the subject of the use of words, bookmark Paul McFedries' Word Spy site. It collects and defines new terms as they appear on the Internet, and not all of them tec words, either. Now I know what "bling" means. I didn't before.

* * *

Yesterday, proper bloggers noted the rise and fall of the story from the Iraqi newspaper, Al-Sabaah, about the discovery of three nuclear missiles in the neighborhood of Tikrit. The story was just credible, if you took "missiles" to mean tactical missiles, and maybe "nuclear capable" rather than nuclear-armed. However, within two hours, the Iraqi Interior Ministry dismissed the report as "stupid." US sources soon confirmed this assessment more tactfully.

Today, Al-Sabaah was still reluctant to let the story go. They had, however, reached the point of saying that "officials who asked not to be identified had no comment." The New York Times could not have put it better.

* * *

Meanwhile, there was a more credible report from Holland:

Roberto the 2-year-old Continental Giant is almost 4 feet long and sleeps on a dog's bed because he can't fit into a normal-sized hutch. Roberto is larger than most 3-year-old children, according to the report.

Roberto is a rabbit. By happy symmetry, there was another report today of this sort, this time from America:

He lives in central Illinois, is two years old, weighs about three pounds and is the world's smallest cat. He's Mr. Peebles...The cat's small stature has been verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. It officially lists him as the smallest living domestic cat.

That last sentence is significant, because of something we learn from the rabbit story:

Guinness World Records said it has stopped listing "biggest animal" titles out of fear that it may lead to people deliberately overfeeding their pets to win the coveted title.

And isn't Guinness worried that people might starve their pets to stunt their growth, or maybe teach them to smoke?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View: Power, Terror, Peace, and War

I occasionally read Walter Russell Mead, because I find his writing interesting. I don't regularly read him, because sometimes I wonder about his conclusions. For example, the idea in Power, Terror, Peace, and War that American foreign policy under George W. Bush was an attempt to refound diplomacy in a characteristically American way seems plausible, especially since much of this foreign policy continued under Barack Obama, just under the control, and with the priorities, of the other wing of the American establishment. On the other hand, much of Mead's analysis seems to be centered in the now anachronistic Kennedy Enlightenment, which makes me wonder if he is responding the world as it is, or as it was.

I suspect that a marriage of Mead's classically liberal division of American schools of foreign policy into Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, with the biological determinism of Albion's Seed would be illuminating.


Power, Terror, Peace, and War:
America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk
By Walter Russell Mead
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
226 Pages, US$19.95
ISBN 1-4000-4237-2

A Review
By
John J. Reilly

 

Few Establishment figures are so established as Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations. So, we can probably rely on his characterization of the international system's reaction to the Bush Administration:

“A mix of incredulity, outrage, shock, anger, and despair is running through the foreign policy establishment as many of its cherished ideas and institutions are brushed aside...In the vision of the diplomatic establishment in the United States and abroad, the Neanderthals have escaped from their cages and the abomination of desolation has been set up in the Holy of Holies.”

Maybe we knew that already. The novel part is Mead's argument that the international system was becoming dangerously dysfunctional long before George Bush the Younger entered the White House. He says the Administration can be faulted for the way it executed its major policies, but he gives it credit for at least reacting to the world as it actually exists. That is more than he says for the Administration's immediate predecessors, or for the major international institutions. No one will mistake this book for a partisan defense of the Bush Administration. It is far more important: the first persuasive attempt to describe the post-Cold War world and America's place in it.

According to Mead, the world is being destabilized because the US is getting stronger. The world order is both a system of equal states and an American empire. After September 11, the US lost the balance between the two. Imperial rhetoric created justifiable fears in other countries, but with the result that a perfectly justifiable war in Iraq was attacked as an assault on the foundations of world order.

Mead calls the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 “the Lost Decade” in American foreign policy. The American political class chattered about global warming and the distant prospect of a Chinese threat. Washington scarcely questioned the assumption that the world was not just unipolar, but “monothelete.” That's a Christological heresy, whose precise meaning need not detain us, except to note that it means “having a single will.” US policy makers tended to assume the world's only will was the policy of the government of the United States.

These delusions waxed at just the time America's traditional alliances were fraying and disintegrating, a process that the Iraq War revealed but did not cause. Around the world, in fact, there had been a quiet “secession of the elites” from support for the American system. Especially in the Middle East, fashionable American ideas about gender roles and homosexuality became simultaneously ubiquitous and unendurable. A fringe slice of the Muslim world acquired the will and the means to make war on the United States.

There were reasons for democracies as well as dictatorships to oppose American hegemony: more American power is, in effect, less democracy for populations that cannot vote for American officials. Since the end of the Second World War, the US has dealt with this tension by fostering consultative international institutions, but by century's end this policy had created a new arena for conflict. On one hand, there is the Party of Heaven, composed of countries like Germany and Canada, which want to proceed immediately to the universal rule of law under world government. They seek to make the US act within the narrow confines of diminished sovereignty. On the other hand, there is the Party of Hell, composed of countries like France and Russia, which seek to return to a world of multipolar power politics. Tactically, therefore, they insist on the prerogatives of international institutions, at least to the extent those prerogatives hamper the United States. Thus, when crises occur that require rapid action, Heaven and Hell unite to ensure that international institutions take no action, but also to ensure that the US does nothing.

Mead surmises that there is no angel in the storm of American foreign policy, in the sense of a Clausewitzian will. The political system is too shortsighted and diverse for grand strategy in the classical sense. In any case, the way that the US affects the world has less to do with what the American government does or wants than it does with what the US and the world are each becoming.

In the first two-thirds of the 20th century, the US promoted a model that Mead calls “Fordism.” (That's apparently a Marxist term, but readers will be reminded of the ideology of the world government in “Brave New World.”) It was the world of big institutions and intrusive government regulation. Keynesianism made peace between oligopolies and big labor, while the educated classes were transformed from disgruntled intellectuals to non-political experts. It was secular and secularizing, if not quite anti-religious. Fordism brought a measure of mass comfort. It also brought international peace among the countries that adopted it.

Mead does not dwell on the economic reasons why Fordism could not last forever, though anyone who remembers the 1970s understands what Mancur Olsen meant by “blocked society.” Fordism in the United States has not reproduced itself, we are told. It depended on a model of organizations in which power lies in the hands of middle managers. The key to today's world is “disintermediation”: clerisies of all types are shrinking, as information and economic decision-making become more decentralized.

Fordism gave way to what Mead calls Millennial Capitalism, or sometimes “Millennialism” for short. The basis of Millennial Capitalism, perhaps, is the principle that there is no such thing as a natural monopoly. It's not a return to Victorian non-regulation. Quite the opposite: it has called into being a whole new class of regulation, much of it global. However, Millennial regulation is intended to keep markets transparent and efficient, not to mitigate their instabilities.

Domestically, Fordism never fit all that well with the American national character, or at least with the Jacksonian side of it. Mead never defines Jacksonianism more precisely than as “populist nationalism,” though the concept is important to his argument. It has elsewhere been defined as Scotch-Irish suspicion of government. In international affairs, it means a disposition to limit government-to-government obligations, though not necessarily person-to-person contact. Its chief peculiarity is that it does not recognize war as diplomacy by other means: it favors overwhelming force and total victories.

Millennialism chimes with Anglo-Saxon individualism. In America, at least, Fordism is giving way to the American Revival, which is essentially a new form of Hamiltonianism. Revival Hamiltonianism is self-confident in a way that Fordism was not. Worldwide, however, Millennialism is unpopular in a way that Fordism was not. Around the world, state elites hate it, since it diminishes their control of local economies. Below the elite level, many people dread it, because it is a threat to the subsidies on which so much of the world depends.

The Revival has altered the traditional categories of foreign policy. Revival Wilsonianism, like its predecessor, seeks security through the dissemination of American values, but it has an Evangelical's distrust of universal institutions. There has been a shift in the content of foreign policy, too: Realpolitik is now often deployed for Christian ends. This gives Revival Hamiltonianism the hope of someday achieving real popular depth, something that Fordist multilateralism never had.

Whatever else the US is becoming now, the author has little time for the argument that the US is like an overleveraged company on the verge of collapse. Regarding specifically the question of the ever-growing US debt, public and private, Mead notes that the founding of the Bank of England at the end of the 17th century turned England's debt into national strength. The Bank, and the novel possibility of a government honoring its obligations, gave the nation's creditors a stake in the system. Alexander Hamilton did the same a century later, when he insisted the federal government assume the debts of the states. The US government did it again in the second half of the 20th century, but globally.

Readers are no doubt familiar with the distinction between “hard power” (military capability) and “soft power” (culture and institutions). In Mead's account, this distinction is refined to baroque complexity:

“Sharp military power serves as the solid foundation of the American system. Sticky power -- the set of economic institutions and policies – attracts others into our system and makes it hard for them to leave. Sweet power – the values, ideas, and politics inherent in the system we have built – keeps them happy, and hegemonic power makes something as artificial and arbitrary, historically speaking, as the American world since World War II look natural, desirable, inevitable, and permanent. So, at least, we hope.”

Mead defines hegemonic power as “the perception of inevitability.” It is the “harmonic convergence” of all other forms of power. Even the use of military force has sticky and sweet components: the US acts as a sort of military public utility, which means that other states do not trouble to create capable militaries of their own. Mead says this about the harmonic convergence in its Fordist incarnation:

“Descended from and claiming to fulfill the hopes of the European Enlightenment, recognizably related to Marxist ideas of progress, and resonating with traditional American optimism, the concept of harmonic convergence was the spearhead of capitalism in its ideological war with communism and also a key element in willing consent to the American system.”

Americans generally saw this project as successful and laudable, and saw no reason why it should not continue after the Cold War. However, history did not end after 1989. The US is not just a hegemonic power, but also the leader of a worldwide liberal capitalist revolution. The American Project cannot be finished, because in each generation it creates a new world.

President Bush's problem is that he is making the first systematic attempt to refound the nation's diplomacy on the American Revival. Bush's geostrategic model is not new: the US is still defending the sea-lanes and both ends of Eurasia. The doctrine of preemption is not new, either. The novelty is that US policy is no longer Eurocentric. The Administration used deliberately dramatic language to deter the state harborers of terrorism, and to reassure the Jacksonians at home. That effect was more important to Bush policymakers than publicly reassuring the European allies.

The Bush Administration was right to abandon a foreign policy based on Fordist harmonic convergence, Mead tells us. It was also right to abandon Eurocentrism: Earth is simply no longer Eurocentric. Furthermore, foreign policy must follow Americans' intuitive beliefs about how the world works, and those intuitions are Jacksonian. Europe must accept the US for what it is, and a European veto on matters of the first order is not acceptable. Mead faults President Clinton for failing to make clear to Europe how unreasonable it was to demand US adherence to the Kyoto Treaty and to the International Criminal Court.

Conflicting perceptions were at work in creating the strains with Europe. Europe felt itself a rising power; the US found Europe economically uninteresting and strategically irrelevant. Europeans saw the threat from Al-Qaeda as not different in kind from that posed by Basque separatists or the IRA. This was a serious misapprehension, Mead judges. The scale of the violence that the new enemy could enact, and the total nature of their demands, presented the sort of challenge that historically could be mounted only by a hostile power.

The US underestimated the degree to which the French were willing to embarrass the US. The French may have underestimated the ability of the US to remove the French from the roster of great powers: fewer important decisions will be made in forums in which a Frenchman is present. Bush's single greatest mistake in alliance relations, however, was to think of the decline and division of Europe as an opportunity, and not as a problem.

Mead lists three reasons for the Iraq War. The first was that Iraq was cheating on its commitments not to develop weapons of mass destruction. That was a plausible argument, but it was only tenuously verified, and the Administration paid dearly for making this its chief public argument. The second reason, added by the neoconservatives, was the humanitarian argument that the Baathist regime was itself an ongoing human-rights violation, the removal of which would begin the liberation of the Middle East. Mead finds most persuasive the third reason, which is that the “containment” of Iraq was poisoning the region.

Because Iraq never fully complied with the ceasefire terms of 1991, US troops were trapped in the region. Moreover, they had to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. That outraged religious Muslim opinion. Meanwhile, the US and Britain were fighting a low-level air campaign against suspect Iraqi military installations, while UN sanctions were preventing Iraq from recovering from the war. After September 11, the US could not simply retreat from the area, and it could not continue as it had been. There was no other course than regime change.

Ragged as the execution of the occupation of Iraq has been, the war has produced tangible good results in the policies of Libya, Iran, Syria, and even Palestine. Mead faults the Bush Administration for carrying out its policies in a choppy manner, and most of all for being singularly inarticulate. Its biggest single mistake was to fail to prepare the public for a difficult occupation. The better course would have been to promise blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Mead tells us that he has often successfully defended the Administration's policies while abroad. What he finds exasperating is that, so often, the groups he addresses have never heard the case before. The infrastructure of propaganda that had existed during the Cold War has atrophied.

What should America do now? The US must simultaneously fight apocalyptic terrorism while creating a social and political order the world finds attractive. One cannot be done without the other: poverty does not cause terrorism, but chaos does. The US will sometimes find itself in the odd position of pressing unilaterally for basic principles that make universal international law possible. The chief principle is that one state may not promote the murder of the citizens of other states. Eventually, multilateral institutions will adopt this principle, too.

“Forward Containment” is the name that Mead suggests for the strategy to eliminate terrorism. Terrorist organizations must be attacked and harassed at every level, wherever they exist. The immediate goal is to cut links between terrorist groups and states, by persuasion if possible, but by force if necessary. As he puts it: “Governments cannot have links to terror movements; terror movements, unless they change their ways, cannot have governments.” The distinction between “civil” and “military” wings of terrorist organizations can no longer be made; for a state to allow even a representative office of a proscribed group on its territory will not be tolerable. To pay subsidies to the families of suicide bombers must count as an act of war.

Actually, Mead is clearly less interested in the war part of the War on Terror than in outreach and evangelization. For one thing, he says, we need a better word than “Islamicism” for the enemy. He echoes a suggestion that “Arabian Fascism” might be better. (If you want to be very precise, religion-motivated groups like Al-Qaeda might be called “White Fascists,” and secular groups like the Baathists might be “Black Fascists.) In any case, we must clearly learn to distinguish religious conservatives from the former and legitimate nationalists from the latter. Conservatives and nationalists can sometimes be our opponents, but they need not be our enemies. Carl Schmitt lives, it seems.

For a book on foreign policy, Mead's work is unique in my experience in its insistence on accommodating the religious sensibilities, not just of exotic foreigners, but even of Americans. For instance, Mead says that Americans must put the lie to the White Fascists' allegation that America is an agnostic and libertine country. The American Revival is also, at least in part, a religious revival. Certainly conservative ecumenism is part of it, as we see in the rapprochement among conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and Orthodox Jews. The American system, or at least the author's take on it, is much friendlier to religion than the laicism that the Middle East thinks is an essential feature of the modern West. In America, people are encouraged to use their religious beliefs as the basis for action in the public square; anyone who proposes otherwise is, no doubt, undermining the Republic. Muslims have no experience of government action to protect religious expression rather than to suppress or control it; America has the power to pleasantly surprise them.

Not only Carl Schmitt lives, but so does Oswald Spengler: at any rate, “The Decline of the West” is the only other place I have seen the idea that Islam is a kind of Reformation or Puritan movement. Mead says:

“The difference between contemporary American Christianity and the Christianity of the era of Muhammad developed because American Christians and their forebears came to agree with substantial elements of the Islamic critique of Byzantine Christianity as it existed at the time of the prophet.”

The Ecumenical Jihad just isn't going to work, I can tell you, but it is significant that the idea reappears in this context.

This book has some suggestions for the Palestinian-Israel conflict that are so weary that they might actually work. Mead points out that any plausible settlement would leave minorities on either side shooting mad. If a settlement were imposed, the peacekeepers would just be shot at. The US should be focusing on a compensation mechanism for the Palestinians that would help individuals. If I understand him correctly, he suggests direct payments to persons who can certify a claim for lost family property, for an aggregate sum of upwards of $50 billion. No money changes hands until a treaty is signed, however.

It's easy to make fun of the UN, and Mead perhaps exerts himself not to be cruel. To paraphrase, he says that, in the General Assembly, coral reefs have as much representation as major civilizations, while the Security Council is a retirement home for former world powers. He does say that there would be some sense in almost tripling the number of states on the Council with permanent seats and the veto. That way, on the rare occasions when the Council agrees, the agreement would mean something. In general, though, Mead makes few specific recommendations for changes to the institutional structure of the world system. He says that Bush's preference for ad hoc coalitions is probably here to stay. There should probably be more organizations for specific regions, which would have the focus that the UN lacks.

Part of the world's problem with George Bush is that he appeared to the world in an authoritarian guise after September 11. It was precisely the spread of Millennialism that made that appearance no longer acceptable. Local elites that might have been willing to tolerate Bush and his ways were overwhelmed by populist pressure; the pressure could be applied only because of the new decentralization that began in America. At every point, Mead is at pains to emphasize that it is America's businesses, religious groups, and private foundations that have the most power to develop a Millennialist world that is as attractive as the Fordist one.

The most striking aspect of US history, Mead tell us, is that American governments always thought globally, with an eye on the far side of both oceans. American foreign policy seeks to implement the American Project, which is the goal of securing America domestically within a network of states that share common democratic values and a common prosperity. Latterly, the American Project added to the traditional assumption of the superiority of American ways the nuclear-age conviction that the mere existence of nondemocratic governments is an intolerable security risk. The upshot is that the United States has committed itself to creating an international system in which great power conflict cannot occur. The author is reasonably sure that the interests of humanity coincide with this project. He is nearly certain that the failure of the American Project would be a catastrophe for the human race.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Linkfest 2016-12-23

IT Jobs Explained

I'm sure this applies to more than just IT.

How a Pen and Paper RPG Brought 'Star Wars' Back From the Dead

A more detailed look at the way West End Games' Star Wars RPG set the stage for everything we have now, creating places, characters, and plot points that have been worked into the official storyline.

The Maillard Reaction

The science behind tasty french fries.

The case for protecting infant industries

Noah Smith makes the argues that we should take a second look at protecting infant industries.

What it's like to be brought back after an overdose

I suppose there is a reason you use opiates for palliative care.

How a greedy corporation saved Star Wars from a stubborn artist

Thanks, Disney.

Paul Fussell - Ties and Class

An except from Fussell's masterpiece Class.

Right-wing terrorism in America

I saw this graph, and others much like it, frequently on social media. I think is is a good idea to look into things that seem contrary to your impressions, and this one seemed to challenge mine.

As a engineer, I also always like to look at the source data, so I sought out the article from the New America Foundation, Terrorism in America, that was cited. The graph below appears in the article, and sure enough, it looks like the one above, with a big spike for Jihadist victims in 2016, since the dataset has been updated since the previous chart was generated. You can download a set of .csv files from the New America Foundation that contains all of the data they have collected. I appreciate the effort that went into compiling this, and I also appreciate the New America foundation and the authors choosing to share their data freely.

Looking at that data set [downloaded 2016-12-19], I was a little surprised at what I found. Looking at American domestic attacks only [Mumbai is a big spike in 2008], out of 210 plots, 190 had been categorized as Jihadist, as compared to 19 Right Wing and 1 Left Wing.[and one with no data, the 2010 King Salmon plot] That is an order of magnitude of difference between all three categories!

I decided to plot the data in a number of different ways, which is often a good way of looking at trends in a dataset. I excluded anything outside of the US [foreign_attack=TRUE in the dataset]. I also just summed victims by year, rather than using a cumulative sum like the New America Foundation chart. Here are my charts:

One of the biggest differences is how often a given plot is prevented. Jihadist plots are prevented much more frequently than right wing plots. In the chart of prevented/not prevented, deadly attacks are not included. You can see that in the next chart down, which compares plots per year to the number of people injured or killed. I've said before that we are lucky that our enemies are so incompetent. Here is proof it is true.

The big differences are in rate of occurrence, and in rate of prevention. I don't know enough to really understand why the FBI and other American police forces and security agencies are so much better at preventing Jihadist plots than right-wing ones, but I think that given the 10x difference in rate of plots, they are doing the right thing.

By the way, I think my initial impressions ended up justified by the data.

LinkFest 2016-12-18

Who was first in the race to the moon? The tortoise

I expected a bit more out of the punny title, but a nice bit of space history.

Skill Builder: Understanding Handsaws

A nice primer on the way saws work.

When an Animal's Sex Is Set by a Microbe

Genetics is weird. And fun.

The Parochial Progressive Obsession with Ayn Rand

I went through a Rand phase myself, so I understand the confusion, but outside of teenagers, very few people take Rand seriously.

Scientists reconstructed the face of St. Nicholas – here’s what they found

A week late, but let us see St. Nick!

How Rogue One’s Alan Tudyk Turned Himself Into a 7-Foot Droid

After my Thrawn review, I'm in a Star Wars mood. Plus I'm a fan of Alan Tudyk.

Approve Drugs for Safety Only – it’s Like “Back to the Future” – Not for Me

There really isn't any such thing as safety only. All drugs [and all medical treatment] carry risk as well as benefit. You can't assess the value of the treatment without taking both into account.

Childhood forecasting of a small segment of the population with large economic burden

A paper published using the Dunedin data, one of the longest running longitudinal studies. I've seen this kind of result before, so I don't find this result particularly surprising. I haven't really got any idea of what kind of practical public policy could come out of this, at least anything that hasn't already been tried. The authors of the paper found that poor "brain health" at age 3 was associated with poor ourcomes later in life. Searching through the paper, I found "brain health" to be a euphemism for a combination of intelligence, the ability to defer gratification, and the ability to get along with others. Right, I could have told you that mattered. Personality psychology is the one part of psychology that replicates well.

The Long View 2004-07-16: I Read These Things So You Don't Have To

John is presumably past caring at this point. However:

His arguments carry less force now, however, because they included some falsifiable predictions:
"U.S. military forces may exhaust the remnants of the Ba'ath but that will not overcome Shi'a groups like Moqtada Sadr's militia."
That is pretty much the opposite of what has happened.

Well....


I Read These Things So You Don't Have To

 

If you are the sort of dutiful person who believes in high-fiber vacation reading, you can take along a copy of the Summer 2004 issue of The National Interest to the beach. Among other things, it contains a symposium, "Iraq at the Turn," with no fewer than 18 sober contributors. Yum. As is ever the peril with quarterlies, many of the contributions have been dated by events, especially since many of them seem to have been finalized during the nasty patch in the spring, when it seemed as if the wheels were falling off in Iraq.

This is most apparent in William E. Odom's contribution, "Retreating in Good Order." Using such terms as "strategic disaster" to describe the situation in Iraq, he argues that, since there was no benefit to be had from occupying Iraq to begin with, the best course would be to minimize losses by simply withdrawing as quickly as possible. Again, in April, that was a disturbingly plausible thing to say. His arguments carry less force now, however, because they included some falsifiable predictions:

"U.S. military forces may exhaust the remnants of the Ba'ath but that will not overcome Shi'a groups like Moqtada Sadr's militia."

That is pretty much the opposite of what has happened.

* * *

Francis Fukuyama's keynote article, "The Neoconservative Moment," is not technically part of the symposium, but it does address the issue of the consequences of withdrawal before the new government is secure:

"During the Cold War, when our power was more or less evenly matched against that of the Soviets, we cared a great deal about credibility and slippery slopes. We were afraid that withdrawal in the face of a challenge would be taken as a sign of weakness and exploited by the other side. Today, the United States is utterly dominant in the military sphere. Credibility in our willingness and ability to use force remains important, but we simply do not have to prove our toughness to the rest of the world at every turn."

This is so breathtakingly counterfactual that it takes a real effort of imagination to understand what he is trying to say. Obviously, in dealing with the Islamofascist threat, nothing counts more than the appearance of toughness. After some thought, I realized that Fukuyama meant that America's place in the formal international system is secure, almost no matter what happens. Even if a nuke goes off at the Washington Monument and a hijacked airliner flies into the Golden Gate Bridge, even if Osama bin Laden is acclaimed caliph in liberated Baghdad and immediately declares himself the Protector of the Two Holy Places, the United States would still have a veto on the UN Security Council, it would still have the only all-ocean navy, and it would still be the center of a planetary system of alliances.

That's perfectly true. However, what the foreign policy establishment has yet to grasp is that the international system in which they work is increasingly irrelevant to American security, or at any rate, to the current set of threats. There is a saying, "You can't rule the world from 30,000 feet," meaning that strategic bombing has limited uses. The problem is that NGO-land, and UN World, and Space Station WTO, all live in a world that is metaphorically at 30,000 feet. They just are not in the same frame of reference as the Islamofascists, or the would-be nuke entrepreneurs.

The institutional international system is not without importance. However, it should be thought of like a market that is no longer growing, and whose products have been commoditized. It can often be bracketed, while serious statecraft happens elsewhere.

* * *

Then there were some contributors to this issue whose reasoning defies even the most sympathetic analysis. Chief among them is Martin Sieff. In "Sand in Our Eyes: U.S.-Saudi Relations After Iraq," he advises us thusly:

"To restore the sundered trust between Washington and Riyadh, the Saudis need to be convinced by a serious commitment that the United States will not initiate any new ambitious operation or strategy for 'regime change' in neighboring countries such as Syria or Iran."

You do that, Martin.

* * *

The National Interest is not the only thing I read in the summer. Sometimes I read City Journal, where Theodore Dalrymple has an analysis of the growing criminal underclass in Britain of Pakistani origin, entitled When Islam Breaks Down. Among other things, he says:

The control that Islam has over its populations in an era of globalization reminds me of the hold that the Ceausescus appeared to have over the Rumanians: an absolute hold, until Ceausescu appeared one day on the balcony and was jeered by the crowd that had lost its fear. The game was over, as far as Ceausescu was concerned, even if there had been no preexisting conspiracy to oust him.

... What I think these young Muslim prisoners demonstrate is that the rigidity of the traditional code by which their parents live, with its universalist pretensions and emphasis on outward conformity to them, is all or nothing; when it dissolves, it dissolves completely and leaves nothing in its place.

... Islam in the modern world is weak and brittle, not strong: that accounts for its so frequent shrillness. The Shah will, sooner or later, triumph over the Ayatollah in Iran...

Readers may recall that I have had some thoughts along these lines myself. About Dalrymple's remarks, I would add just two points:

(1) The underclass he is talking about in Britain seems to be an artifact of the welfare state. In Europe, too, an Islamofascist Fifth Column seems to have been nurtured on the dole. In the US, though the Immigration Service is clueless about who is in the country and why, it is much harder for young men to be idly homicidal. Even the 911 hijackers had jobs.

(2) Dalrymple is almost certainly wrong to suggest that Islam in the West will simply succumb to all-conquering secularization. That it will succumb is a good bet, but that will happen in part because it sparks a series of Christian revivals.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2004-07-12: Updates, Millennials, Failures, Zap Guns

It will be interesting to see if Strauss and Howe's generational model comes to anything.


Updates, Millennials, Failures, Zap Guns

 

A helpful reader saw my comments last week about the new, unsuccessful film, King Arthur, and sent me some information on the historical model the film uses. The gist of it seems to be that characteristic features of the Arthurian mythos were of north Iranian origin, and were introduced into Britain by Roman soldiers from the east. The argument is set out in detail, apparently, in From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail. You can get current with the scholarship by visiting The Heroic Age. Search for articles by Linda Malcor and Scott Littleton. (Thanks, Jamie!)

Frankly, I am suspicious of diffusionist scenarios of this sort. They are like conspiracy theories in which every chain of contact, however long, is necessarily an exchange of key information between the ends of the chain. Still, that's my personal taste, and not a considered assessment of the evidence.

* * *

Speaking of suspicious chains of influence, on July 10 The New York Times published a review by Edward Rothstein entitled Those Who Were Inspired to Hate the Modern World. The review is about Mark Sedgwick's Against the Modern World. Visitors to my main website will know that I put a review of the same book online just a few days earlier, here.

The view the Times takes of the book is not so different from mine, except the reviewer seemed quick to jump to conclusions about Islamist connections. I did not do that in my review. I did it here.

* * *

And on the subject of unsuccessful movies, over the weekend I viewed the DVD of Secret Window. I liked other Johnny Depp horror movies, such as The Ninth Gate and From Hell. This one was an adaptation of a Stephen King story, with music by Philip Glass, so what was not to like?

Two hours without suspense, actually. I can hear the pitch to the producer now: "It's Fight Club with a stalker plot." The problem is that it is obvious within the first ten minutes that the Mississippi dairy farmer who claims Depp's character stole his short story is actually the Depp character's alter ego. The arson and the axe murders, tactfully committed off-screen, add no interest to the film's clockwork inevitability.

The film preens itself on its ending. That's when we find out how the murderer disposed of his wife's body. The ending is repeatedly alluded to as the story progresses. The problem is that nothing in the story turns on the disposition of the body; we are just told again and again how clever the ending will be when we get there.

And it is clever. It just is not worth the price of a DVD rental to find out what it is.

* * *

Yet more reports are appearing that tout the Strauss & Howe model of history as it applies to today's youth. The latest is It’s Morning After in America, by Kay S. Hymowitz in City Journal. In all their books, but particularly in Millennials: The Next Great Generation, William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted that the generation born after 1981 would be better behaved, harder-working, and generally more respectful of authority than its predecessors. On the whole, surveys have borne these predictions out. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the "Millennials," at least to a Babyboomer, is the collapse of the generation gap:

When they’re asked ‘Do you trust your parents to help you with important life decisions?’ they don’t see parents as meddling or interfering,” Howe concludes. “They’re grateful.”

One may doubt whether teenagers are more docile to their parents than they ever were. The big thing that was different in the 1960s was that the larger culture was telling young people that they were right to disregard their elders' advice, indeed their whole past. Prize nitwits like Margaret Mead said then that the relationship of the generations had become unique, because for the first time in history children understood the world better than their parents did.

In reality, neither then nor now did parents necessarily know what was going on. Thing are better today, however, because we know that the Millennials are at least as clueless.

* * *

Fans of Nikola Tesla (not a small group, I know) have long been aware that he had various devices that could immobilize electricity-using internal combustion engines at a distance. Latterly, we heard more of effects like this in connection with the electromagnetic pulse that nuclear explosions emit. There are supposed to be non-nuclear EMP bombs in the US arsenal. If there are, though, they may be stored next to the Ark of the Covenant for all we hear about them. Imagine my delight, then, in learning that machines of this sort could soon be in the hands of your friendly local police:

When the radio waves hit the targeted car, they induce surges of electricity in its electronics, upsetting the fuel injection and engine firing signals. "It works on most cars built in the past 10 years, because their engines are controlled by computer chips," said Dr Giri. "If we can disrupt the computer, we can stop the car." A prototype is due to be ready by next summer.

Zap guns: it's about time.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Against the Modern World

This book review is part of the reason I distrust Religious Studies departments. Anything influenced by Evola and Guénon probably bears close watching. John's warning here is pretty important in the post 9/11 era as well:

If you've been reading about Islam in English, you have probably been reading material heavily influenced by Traditionalism. The discipline of "religious studies" was largely founded by "soft Traditionalists."

It is always hard to come at a religious tradition from the outside. The relatively unknown ideology of Tradition makes that even harder.

I've been following Tradition for fifteen years now. As John says, there is a danger in thinking this movement stronger and more prevalent than it actually is. However, the alt-right, much in the news of late, really is influenced by Tradition. Or at least a small number of relatively uninfluential Twitterati are. The broader populist political movements in the West are not. Even the Russians don't pay much attention to Tradition.

I've also often felt relieved that Guénon deemed Catholicism [Christianity in general really, but he was from France] unsuitable ground for Tradition. Like John, and other authors who have studied Tradition, I find something intriguing about the idea, but at root, it seems wicked and perverse. Some seeds fall on on stony ground.


Against the Modern World:
Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century
By Mark Sedgwick
Oxford University Press, 2004
370 Pages, $35.00
ISBN 0-19-515297-2
Companion Website: www.traditionalists.org

“Some theories which he may meet in modern Christian circles may prove helpful here; theories, I mean, that place the hope of society in some inner ring of 'clerks,' some trained minority of theocrats. It is no affair of yours whether those theories are true or false; the great thing is to make Christianity a mystery religion in which he feels himself one of the initiates.”

--C.S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters

This general history of the Traditionalist movement starts with the author in a smoldering building in Moscow, wondering whether the security services had just tried to burn out his borrowed apartment in order to impede his investigation of the Tradition-influenced National Bolshevik Party. As a matter of fact, they hadn't, and the National Bolshevik Party turned out to be more a political performance-art ensemble than a serious political party. Still, anyone who has tried to assess the place of Traditionalism in 20th-century intellectual history has probably experienced something like his mild paranoia.

If you've been reading about Islam in English, you have probably been reading material heavily influenced by Traditionalism. The discipline of "religious studies" was largely founded by "soft Traditionalists." That is also true of some fields of anthropology, particularly regarding the Plains Indians. The paranoia sets in when you learn there is good reason to look for Traditionalism in the works of an apparently endless list of authors, including Thomas Merton, T.S. Eliot, and E.F. Schumacher. (Prince Charles is involved, too, a little.) The fact that some academic Traditionalists take care not to cite their Traditionalist sources only adds to the impression of a vast, shadowy network that includes everyone in the world but you.

Happily, this sober survey does not spin conspiracy theories. It also does not make the mistake of overestimating its subject, a movement that is important but not central to understanding the last century. The author, Mark Sedgwick, is a young British scholar at the American University in Cairo. He encountered Traditionalism while studying the spread of semi-secret Sufi orders among Westerners, a process that began in the early 20th century. From there, the study spread to mutations in French Freemasonry, to the development of the theory of esoteric fascism, and then to the nihilist political violence of the 1960s and '70s. The story goes on to Eurasianism, which is an anti-Western but increasingly respectable school of thought in Russia, and to the effects of Traditionalism on Islamism and on the politics of non-Arab Muslim countries.

In addition to paranoia, one of the dangers of studying Traditionalism is that you soon bite off more than you can chew. The only flaw I find in this book is that it does not cover nearly enough. Also, a note on nomenclature: self-identified Traditionalists generally refer to their system in print as "Tradition" or "tradition." However, this survey settled on "Traditionalism," so this reviewer is not going to argue.

Traditionalism is firmly rooted in Western hermeticism. Its most important element, "perennialism," may be traced to Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) of the Platonic Academy of Florence, who developed the hypothesis of the "philosophia perennis." (The term was coined later, though: Sedgwick credits Agostino Steuco at around 1540; Aldous Huxley, in The Perennial Philosophy, credits Leibnitz.) Ficino used the "Corpus Hermeticum," a venerable collection of neoplatonic texts, to argue that a primordial metaphysical basis lies behind all the world's major religions, which could therefore be said to be transcendentally united.

The problem was that the "Corpus Hermeticum" was not as venerable as the Renaissance thought. In the early 17th century, it was proven that the "Corpus" dates from the early centuries of the first millennium, and not from ancient Egyptian times, as had been supposed. Thus, it no longer seemed so remarkable that the texts contained Platonic and even Christian elements. Still, though Ficino's arguments for perennialism had been discredited, the idea never entirely went away. It received new support in the 19th century, when the availability of Vedanta texts made it possible to argue for metaphysical universals on a cross-cultural basis.

That was where René Guénon (1886-1951) came in. Traditionalism was his creation, and its history is largely the tale of his influence. The son of an ordinary French bourgeois Catholic family, he wandered from what otherwise might have been a conventional teaching career into Indic studies and thence into the occult milieu of the Belle Époque. His Traditionalism was a reaction to the Theosophy and spiritualism of the time, though a disinterested observer might be forgiven for concluding that it is simply another school of the same sort.

To the principle of perennialism, Guénon made two powerful additions. One was the principle of “initiation.” This meant that spiritual advancement required a direct link to the supernatural, which usually meant induction into a chain of adepts going back to some historical source of power. In his occult phase, which lasted until about 1920, Guénon was initiated into no fewer than six Masonic or mystical groups. One of these was the Sufi order, the Shadhiliyya Arabiyya. Guénon took the Arabic name “Abd al-Wahid.” Sedgwick insists this initiation was not a conversion; certainly Guénon did not begin to live as a Muslim for another decade.

One of the most important consequences of the principle of initiation was a tendency toward “vanguardism” (a term Sedgwick does not use). Traditionalism sought to create an elite, sometimes thought of as a saving remnant of the Western world. Traditionalism differs from Theosophy and other occult sects in that it has never sought a mass audience. In practical terms, this meant that Traditionalism expressed itself in Masonic groups and other semi-secret societies. When it took the form of Sufi orders, it often turned them into clandestine organizations, which is not how Sufism works in Muslim countries.

Guénon's second innovation was “inversion,” the principle that all the change in the Western world since medieval times was for the worse, indeed that all historical change is a decline. What the West thinks of as progress is really decay, leading to an inevitable collapse. Guénon defined modernity in terms of the privation of the good: “If everyone understood what the modern world was, it would immediately cease to exist.” Inversion gave Traditionalism its apocalyptic content. In some contexts, it gave Traditionalism revolutionary potential, as adepts sought to hasten the end of modernity.

When discussing Traditionalism, there is always the danger of attributing to Guénon projects that were really worked out in detail only by his followers. Still, it does not falsify his system to say that his general intent was to create an order of persons who could make the West a Traditional civilization again, either by arresting its decay or rebuilding it on Traditional lines after its collapse. The most interesting constraint on this ambition was Guenon's rejection of Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular as a possible basis for reconstruction. He sometimes wavered on this point, and there have always been Christian Traditionalists; in Paris, Guénon is still a “Catholic” author. Generally, though, Guénon argued that the chain of initiation had been irremediably broken in the Catholic Church. Thus, the true Tradition was to be sought in Vedanta, Sufism, Freemasonry, Taoism, or even High Paganism, but not in the public spiritual heritage of the West.

If Sedgwick is to be believed, one of the key inflections in the development of Traditionalism, the turn toward Islam, was an accident. Guénon's metaphysical point of reference was always Vedanta. Nonetheless, in the 1920s, when he wrote his principal books, Guénon seemed to be just a slightly eccentric Catholic intellectual. (His most-cited books, incidentally, are The Crisis of the Modern World (1927) and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945).), He attended Mass regularly with his devout wife. For a time, he lectured at the Catholic Institute in Paris, where he was a protégé of Jacques Maritain. He did get into increasing trouble for declining to acknowledge Catholicism as the fullest expression of the truth, and he was quite capable of equating the Third Eye of Shiva with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In any case, after his wife's unexpected death at the end of the decade, Guénon made an unsuccessful business trip to Egypt. Perhaps simply because it was cheaper, he remained in Cairo, and took up the life of a Muslim. He started a new family. He did not abandon his perennialism, but thereafter advised his growing cadre of followers of the necessity to observe the full practice of one of the great Traditions, as he observed the Sharia.

The spread of Sufism in the West during the 20th century is a tale in itself, one that intersects only at points with Traditionalism. Sedgwick names Robert Graves as a Sufi, for instance, though apparently not of a Traditionalist order. (I would suggest that Graves's novel, “Seven Days in New Crete,” actually expresses the Traditionalist agenda quite well, but there's the paranoia again.) Rudolf Freiherr von Sebottendorf, the alchemist and numerologist who managed the Thule Society in Munich in the 1920s and who founded the party that eventually became the Nazi Party, was also a Sufi, but again, not a Traditionalist. (Hitler was neither, by the way.) There is even something called “Neo-Sufism,” which divorces Sufi initiation from Islam entirely.

By far the most important Sufi in Traditionalist history was Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), a man of complicated Franco-German parentage who acquired Swiss citizenship, but finally created a sort of commune in Bloomington, Indiana. Guénon seems to have entertained high hopes that Schuon's Alawiyya order (later the Maryamiyya order), then based in Switzerland, would develop a way to indigenize Traditionalism in Europe. That might spare the old continent the indignity of eventually being culturally annexed by alien Islamic societies. Schuon's version of Traditionalism had its own trajectory, however.

Schuon rejected Guénon's position that Christianity had lost the power of initiation: both baptism and confirmation really were the initiations they claimed to be, in his estimation. Schuon, in fact, is among the best-known exponents of the transcendental unity of religions. However, he went beyond perennialism to something like universalism, which mixes and matches elements of the major Traditions: a grave error for most Traditionalists. Moreover, he seemed to acquiesce in the belief among his followers that the Traditions were united, not just primordially, but in himself. In any case, he had considerable effect on several academic disciplines. His keen interest in Native Americans, for instance, ensured that friendly anthropologists would write about Black Elk from a Traditionalist perspective.

Traditionalism has often sought political influence, and not without success. For instance, the Iron Guard in Romania, which supported the alliance with Nazi Germany, grew out of a sophisticated Christian Traditionalist movement, the Legion of the Archangel Michael. Mircea Eliade famously supported the Legion, though he distanced himself as the movement became less spiritual and more political. However, the most important political Traditionalist, and indeed the best known of all Traditionalists after Guénon, was the Italian occultist, Baron Julius Evola (1896/8-1974).

Evola was able to get a hearing in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for his ideas about the cultivation of elites and the need to reconstitute the Holy Roman Empire on a non-Christian basis. Sedgwick emphasizes, however, that Evola had little effect on policy. The loss of World War II set Evola free. His philosophy was arguably a kind of existentialism; hence, perhaps, its influence in the postwar world, along with other kinds of existentialism. In the 1960s and '70s, Evola's ethic of “spontaneismo armato” inspired first a wave of rightwing anarchism, and then spread to the left.

Evola's ideas, and perhaps Evola himself, were connected with some early attempts to forge a “Red-Brown” alliance against the liberal West, a story that Sedgwick misses. However, Sedgwick gives considerable attention to efforts along these lines in post-Soviet Russia. Chief of these is the Eurasian Movement, organized by the Traditionalist and former-dissident, Alexander Dugin. Dugin's movement is not a political party; it maintains institutions to advise the government, which apparently takes it seriously.

Eurasianism combines the geopolitics of Sir Halford Mackinder with the Slavophilism of Konstantin Nikolayavich Leontyev. Its model of world history is a struggle between the spiritual Heartland and the materialist Atlantic Bloc. In this version of Traditionalism, Russian Orthodoxy plays the role that Islam plays in other versions. Russia's destiny is no longer to spread Marxism-Leninism, but to promote Slavic Christianity.

The same dissident group that produced Dugin also produced Gaydar Jamal, who somehow manages to support Russian policy in Chechnya while maintaining links to the Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi of the Sudan. Jamal's own version of Islamism is heavily influenced by Traditionalism, but has enough orthodox Islamic elements to make it difficult to classify. It is possible to speak of a “Red-Brown-Green” coalition (with green as the color of Islam) in some contexts, but Sedgwick reports that Traditionalism has little influence in the Arab world, except perhaps in Morocco. Its profile is higher in Turkey, Iran, and Malaysia, where its role is more cultural than political.

The most important Traditionalist institution of the 20th century was the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy. It was founded by the eminent scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and generously funded by the last shah's government. The Academy was a serious academic institution, created to study Islamic art and philosophy, as well as modern science, from a Traditionalist perspective. Sedgwick notes the ironies in its history. Though Nasr is a man of conservative disposition who endorsed the monarchy as a Traditional form of government, the studies his Academy sponsored were a part of the renewal of enthusiasm for Iran's spiritual past that ultimately overthrew the shah. The academy survived the Islamic Revolution, but Nasr sought exile in the United States, where he is now an ornament to the faculty of George Washington University.

Actually, for followers of a philosophy with a name that suggests reverence for the past, Traditionalists are peculiarly liable to get into trouble when they try to deal with actual history. Ananda Coomaraswamy, one of the earliest of Guénon's followers, was already in an unassailable position as curator of the Indian collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when he became a Traditionalist. He continued to do valuable work, and he added an esthetic element to Traditionalism that it never lost. However, even his admirers noted that his interest in history evaporated in favor of metaphysics. Guénon himself failed to get a doctorate from the Sorbonne because his thesis on Indian philosophy dispensed with the historical-critical method. When scholars influenced by Traditionalism do not cite to Traditionalist authors, they were not necessarily trying to conceal the connection; the sources are sometimes just too embarrassing.

One could add a critique of Traditionalism as a kind of fancy-dress. Guénon was relatively isolated in Cairo: he soon discovered that the spiritual East of Traditionalism often had little to do with the merely eastern East. From the 1970s into the '90s, the face of “Islam” in Italy was largely that of another European Sufi, Felice (Abd al-Wahid) Pallavicini. Unfortunately, his career as a participant on interfaith dialogues was interrupted by the immigration of Muslims, who pointed out that his theology and practice were not very orthodox. Particularly in the Arab world, the open exponents of Traditionalism are told that perennialism is not an Islamic doctrine. Indeed, in the Islamic world since the 19th century, the Sufism that Guénon identified with initiatic Islam has been in retreat before Salafism and Wahhabism.

Despite these weaknesses, and the odd turns that Traditionalism has sometimes taken, Sedgwick cautions that we should not dismiss Traditionalism as evil or deluded:

“Traditionalism was the exhilarating attempt to reinstate a divine order, the response of sensitive and intelligent individuals to an alien world...”

He doubts that it has much of a future in the West, where it is merging with the esoteric background from which it came. However, it may have an impact on those societies that are still trying to decide between East and West. Whatever you think of this assessment of Traditionalism's future influence, it is certainly high time that more attention was paid to its impact on the past.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Thrawn Trilogy Book Review

Image Credit: Lucas Films Ltd.

Image Credit: Lucas Films Ltd.

Heir to the Empire
by Timothy Zahn
Bantam Spectra, 1992
$5.99; 404 pages
ISBN 0-553-29612-4

Dark Force Rising
by Timothy Zahn
Bantam Spectra, 1993
$5.99; 439 pages
ISBN 978-0-553-56071-8

The Last Command
by Timothy Zahn
Bantam Spectra, 1994
$5.99; 467 pages
ISBN 0-553-56492-7

Outside of the original trilogy, I think these thee books by Timothy Zahn are my favorite Star Wars stories. I fell in love with them twenty-five years ago, and I still love them now. My first glimpse of Zahn's work was a stripped book, a copy of Heir to the Empire with it's front cover cut off. I read that book, and read it again, and then I stole that book from a friend's older brother, in 1991 or 1992. I couldn't get enough.

I was born in 1980, which meant Star Wars loomed large in my mind growing up. However, at that time, Star Wars wasn't quite the marketing and merchandising juggernaut it is now. In the 80s and early 90s, Star Wars books were pretty sparse. Splinter of the Mind's Eye, by Alan Dean Foster, was written in 1978, and a trilogy apiece were dedicated to Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, but not much else could be found. 

Then, in 1991, Zahn wrote Heir to the Empire, using short stories created by West End Games for their Star Wars roleplaying game as background material. Zahn quickly followed up with Dark Force Rising in 1992, and The Last Command in 1993. I am not surprised that this subsequently exploded into a panoply of books, comics, and videogames that came to be known as the Expanded Universe, because I was hungry for more, and there were lots of kids just like me who would buy whatever came out. And buy it we did.

In retrospect, I think Zahn's work was the best of the lot. I bought a lot of Star Wars books during the 90s, and then I sold them all to my local used bookstore in the 2000s. The Thrawn Trilogy are the only ones I have ever wanted to read again. I bought all three of the books, and read them over Thanksgiving. They really were as good as I remembered. Maybe even more so.

I was a little cautious going in. I had been reminiscing about the Thrawn Trilogy recently, and I had purchased the prequel volume Outbound Flight by Zahn. I was a bit disappointed. That book just isn't that good. I questioned myself. Perhaps my literary judgement as a twelve year old was suspect. I had, after all, bought all of those other books that I didn't miss a bit. Well, except the Han Solo Adventures. There were some really choice lines in those books.

Han Solo's opinion of for-profit prisons

Han Solo's opinion of for-profit prisons

However, the weight of memory and nostalgia won out, and I dove in. I wasn't disappointed. In the first chapter of Heir to the Empire we are introduced to Grand Admiral Thrawn, the best villain in the Star Wars universe. Thrawn is cunning, ruthless, and...cautious. Strategic. Thoughtful. Inspiring. His men fear him, but they love him even more. 

The Grand Admiral returns from mysterious tasks in the Unknown Region to find an rump of the Empire on the run from a newly respectable Rebellion that is trying to style itself the New Republic. In a series of bold strokes, Thrawn revitalizes the routed Imperial Forces and paralyzes the new government in fear and indecision. 

Jerry Pournelle said that surprise is an event that occurs in the mind of an enemy commander, and what better way to do that than by knowing your enemy better than he knows himself. That is Thrawn's great power, a piercing insight into the minds of men [or aliens], along with a ruthless will to power that shrinks from nothing. In the end, only hubris is capable of bringing Thrawn to defeat. Watching this play out in Zahn's books is what really makes this fun, so despite the age of these books, I won't spoil the fun.  Go read them for yourself.

Thrawn is also popular with the fans. These three books have been re-issued under the new Legends line, and now Thrawn occupies a more prominent place on the covers. In addition, the Grand Admiral has been added to the on-going Star Wars Rebels TV series, which is the preferred mechanism at present for Disney choosing to re-integrate characters and settings from the former Expanded Universe into the primary storyline.

I am glad to see the return of such a great character, and I salute Zahn for creating him in the first place. Sure, I get that Star Wars is myth rather than hard sci-fi, but the choice of more cartoonish villains in the Force Awakens will probably end up aging more quickly and more poorly than a more realistic opponent like Thrawn.

I think this contrast is what I disliked so much about the Thrawn prequel, Outbound Flight. Zahn had to try to retcon not only the new information from Lucas' prequels, he had to take into account subsequent developments in the Expanded Universe. It was a damn fine effort, but it didn't fit in with the moral universe of the movies because made Emperor Palapatine [and Thrawn by extension] seem more reasonable, like hard men trying to make difficult choices. I like that kind of thing, but that isn't really a great fit for the Star Wars universe

My other book reviews

 

LinkFest 2016-12-09

Venezuela's currency value depends largely on one guy at an Alabama Home Depot

Venezuela is a messed up place, and it always amazes me what ordinary people can do.

Mesmerizing Commute Maps Reveal We All Live in Mega-Regions, Not Cities

Most US time zones follow state lines, but exceptions do exist. For example, Couer d'Alene Idaho, and Spokane Washington share a time zone. My dad explained to me when I was a child that this is because they are so close, and not much else is. I think this is fundamentally the same thing this article is getting at.

Respect All Builds — This Needs to Stop

I am not a car guy, but I understand where this guy is coming from. Not everything you can do to a car is worthy of praise, and you can never get really good at something without competition and challenge.

Art Of Atari – A Hardcover Trip Down Video Game Memory Lane

I flipped through this book, and it really brought me back. So much of the appeal of Atari 2600 games came from the manual and box art.

Greg Cochran's book recommendations for 2016

Greg's recommendations are always good, and he likes Tim Powers too!

11 twisted facts about 'The Far Side'

The Far Side as a formative influence on me, and I have the collection sitting on my shelf.

To Mars in 70 days: Expert discusses NASA's study of paradoxical EM propulsion drive

I would love if this were true, but I remain very skeptical. That being said, I think that a better way to prove the critics wrong would be to make something that unambiguously thrusts in space.

The Long View: The System of Antichrist

Here is an excellent example of why I still think John J. Reilly has something to say all these years later. This book review is a synthesis of ideas he had been working on for nearly ten years, nicely summarized by the links he put in to his earlier work. And also, this paragraph:

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Reminds me of this current controversy in the Catholic Church. These ideas haven't gone away, or even changed very much.


The System of Antichrist

Truth & Falsehood in
Postmodernism & the
New Age

By Charles Upton
Sophia Perennis, 2001
562 Pages, US$27.95
ISBN 0-900588-30-6

A Review by
John J. Reilly

 

Globalization, the New Age Movement, and postmodernism did not merely arise at about the same time, according to The System of Antichrist. Rather, they are all manifestations of a common impulse, one that is not entirely of human origin. They are in fact symptoms of the impending end of the world. As is the way with eschatological analysis, much of the book's argument is best taken metaphorically. However, these are the sort of metaphors you neglect at your peril.

The author, Charles Upton, began life as a conventional Catholic. He experienced the 1960's Counter Culture and subsequent New Age spiritualities, which he now views as pathologies that have been marketed to a mass audience. Eventually, he washed up on the shores of Tradition, and became a Muslim Sufi. Upton's book is largely a synthesis of the theological metaphysics of Frithjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions with the eschatology of Rene Guenon's The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.

The System of Antichrist does not attempt to summarize Tradition systematically, so neither will this review. Suffice it to say that Tradition is a curious blend of neoplatonism and comparative religion that was devised in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Tradition, or corruptions of it, crops up in the most extraordinary places, from Black Metal music to the writings of Robertson Davies. As a matter of intellectual history, it belongs in the same class as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy, Jung's psychology, and the comparative mythology of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell.

Additionally, I think it important to point out that Tradition is also closely related to the reaction against speculative philosophy that we see in Heidegger, with the vital difference that Traditionalists find that the Transcendent, rather than Being, is inescapably "thrown" to them.

As we will see, Traditionalists tend to believe that the state of the world is very unsatisfactory, and fated to get worse. Wicked Traditionalists not only believe that the world is ending, but are keen to help it along. (One of the most puzzling features of this book is the failure to engage directly the esoteric fascism of Julius Evola.) In the sense in which Upton uses the term, however, "Tradition" means almost the opposite of world-hating Gnosticism. Gnostics deny the value of the world; Traditionalists see eternal value in the world. For Tradition, the creation of the world was not a mistake, but an act of divine mercy. Everything in it tells us something about God. These things include the human institutions ordained by God, the most important of which are the world's revealed religions.

This is where Tradition differs from ordinary syncretism. Tradition is a spiritual practice that needs a revealed matrix. Traditionalists can be Muslims, or Jews, or Christians, or Buddhists, or even shamanists, but they cannot mix and match. These traditional religions, at least according to the Traditionalists, are united by the transcendent object toward which they look. Each represents a revelation of the divine nature; the differences between them can be resolved only eschatologically. The attempt to create a world spirituality, in fact, is one of the satanic counterfeits of these latter days.

Although The System of Antichrist has its biases, it is not religiously partisan. Many of its theological points are perfectly orthodox. For one thing, Upton never departs from the principle that eschatology is fundamentally personal. Creation and apocalypse are always present. Eschatological history is only a symbol of the death of the ego and its replacement by God. In one sense, you are the Antichrist, and in your own latter day that tyrant will be overthrown. On the other hand, there is no denying that eschatology also has a universal dimension. The book usually works on the assumption that a personal Antichrist will appear in the penultimate stage of world history; several of the world's religious traditions say as much, and personification facilitates the discussion. However, Upton reminds us repeatedly that the concept of Antichrist can also be taken to refer to a collectivity, one that has existed as long as Christianity itself. That collectivity becomes coherent and visible as the end nears.

Admirers of C.S. Lewis will be happy to know that they may have already read some fictionalized Traditional metaphysics, in the form of Lewis's novel, That Hideous Strength, which deals with a conspiracy of scientific magicians to open a branch office of Hell in central England. In The System of Antichrist, Upton seeks to make explicit the suppositions behind that story:

"[A]s this cycle of manifestation draws to a close, the cosmic environment first solidifies – this being the result and the cause of modern materialism – after which it simply fractures, because a materialist reality absolutely cut off from the subtle planes is metaphysically impossible. These cracks in the 'great wall' separating the physical universe from the subtle or etheric plane initially open in a 'downward' direction, toward the 'infra-psychic' or demonic realm (cf. Rev. 9:1-3); 'magical realism' replaces 'ordinary life.' It is only at the final moment that a great crack appears in the 'upward' direction..."

If you don't like esoteric metaphysics, this would still be an interesting statement about the history of philosophy. The rejection of the transcendent resulted in materialism, which, like all monisms, is at best incomplete. By the middle of the 20th century the materialist edifice was riven by skepticism toward scientific and historical knowledge. With the coming of postmodernism, very strange substitutes for metaphysics began to appear. Upton means much more than this, but this is one way to look at it.

The Intellect is the faculty of the mind by which we perceive "self-evident truths." During the 19th century, the Intellect could no longer look to a transcendent God; even metaphysical first principles were rejected after Kant. In consequence, emotion became divorced from the truth. The affective part of human nature was expressed, for a while, as the irrational sentiments of Romanticism. The postmodern declension from Romanticism is emotional numbness, enlivened by atrocity and sinister fascination. There is such a thing as emotional intelligence, and the trajectory of the postmodern world is to stultify it. Postmodernism removes the possibility of romantic heterosexual love as a spiritual exercise. Worse yet, it makes God inaccessible.

The New Age might be called "folk postmodernism," except that folk religion is better structured. In traditional civilizations, there is a hierarchy of the religious life: popular practice, an institutional church, and esoteric tradition. The New Age collapses these layers, so that the transcendent element that had been the object of esoteric spirituality is lost. All that remains is the psychic, meaning both ordinary psychology and the shadowy realm that surrounds the material world but is not necessarily superior to it. The result is people who channel extraterrestrials, or embrace psychological management techniques, or are attracted to some of the less-grounded forms of Pentecostalism. The forgetting of the distinction between psyche and spirit makes Antichrist's counterfeit of the spiritual possible.

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Anti-historicism is central to Tradition. The school arose in opposition to that other tradition, the one that proceeds from the French Revolution. Tradition denies the possibility of historical progress. It is resolutely anti-Hegelian. Also, largely in response to the evolution-based postmillennialism of the Theosophical Society, it will have nothing to do with the concept of evolution. Even if new forms of life appeared over time, they were simply the instantiation of preexisting archetypes. The only historical change is decay:

"It is certainly true, according to esoteric philosophy, that the created order returns to its Divine Source through the conscious spiritual unfolding of individual sentient beings. But this 'evolution,' this unfolding of the individual through a transcendence of the self-identified ego, is not a continuance of the cosmogonic process, but a reversal of the process..."

One could expand at length on the misapprehensions in this book about evolution. The chief one is the common error that the Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids local increases in order. As a corrective, one might refer to Robert Wright's "non-zero-sum" model of evolution, which gives a persuasive explanation for why history must be, in some sense, both progressive and teleological. Actually, the idea that evolution may be a process by which "ideal forms" incarnate is not so far off the scientific reservation, according to Simon Conway Morris. However, even a Platonic approach to evolution requires that higher forms appear with the passage of time.

Be this as it may, the point Tradition tries to make is that religious novelty is never for the better. This has proven to be the case with the New Age. There is such a thing as a New Age agenda, one with a long pedigree. New Agers suppose that belief in anything beyond the psychic is patriarchic oppression. The major New Age writers usually envisage the end of Christianity, and particularly of the Catholic Church.

Upton gives us a selective tour of some of the fashionable New Age belief systems of the past three decades. James Redfield's Celestine Prophecies gets a rather more thorough critique than the matter merits. (Upton does hit the nail on the head by calling the cult of the books a manifestation of "New Age singles culture.") Deepak Chopra comes in for measured criticism for seeming to equate enlightenment with material well-being. Some of these writers have always been obscure and have become only more so with the passage of time. Still, their ideas have permanently affected the popular imagination.

Upton believes that "A Course in Miracles" is the acme of New Age thought. It is based on the channeling of the "Seth Material" by Jane Roberts. As you might expect, this is a lengthy revelation that is supposed to come from a supernatural entity named Seth. The resulting doctrine does, at least, accept the existence of a divine absolute. The problem is that the absolute is so absolute that God does not even know this world exists. "A Course in Miracles" purports to go beyond the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence by saying that this ego-generated world is too unreal for God to be immanent in.

I was previously unfamiliar with "A Course in Miracles." It seems to be almost classically Gnostic, complete with a dying and senescent demiurge in the form of the Christian God. Remarkably, "A Course in Miracles" adapts the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as the basis of a theory of simultaneous incarnation. That is unlikely to be true, but it is very ingenious.

Upton is so impressed by the Seth material that he wonders whether it may have been designed to lead astray the metaphysically inclined. He has particularly harsh words for its treatment of the question of whether God is personal: "The tendency to use the Impersonal Absolute to deny the Personal God, all-too-common among many people shallowly interested in mysticism and metaphysics, is simply another form of the ego's desire to be God." Depersonalizing God distorts the divine essence into a mere cosmic potentiality. We may use it, but it can make no demands on us. In Christianity, Upton points out, the meaning of the incarnation of the Second Person is that no one may approach the Godhead except through personality.

There is a larger metaphysical point here that is worth a little attention: the distinction between transcendence and abstraction. An abstract idea is merely a selection of common features. Upton's notion of a transcendent idea, in contrast, sounds like a "phase space." It encompasses all that something can be. Archetypal ideas are ideas of this order. In Upton's system, an entity of this sort is just what we mean by a "person." God is more than personal, but he is also personal in this way.

If great archetypal ideas are personal, it by no means follows that they are necessarily friendly. The powers of darkness appear as unconscious belief systems and social mores. An unconscious false belief on the psychological level is a demon at the psychic or spiritual level. The world is misled by fallen entities of a high order: cherubim, demons of the Intellect rather than of the will. In Upton's estimation, these shadows of the Four about the Throne can be characterized as Law, Fate, Chaos, and Self. These false alternatives war among themselves, and foment war on Earth. Self-deluded, they delude us.

The postmodern world presents a greater peril than merely a disordered cultural climate:

"Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'Be careful: while you are looking into the abyss, the abyss is looking into you.' This is why I caution the reader not to open this section while in a state of depression, anxiety, or morbid curiosity. Whoever already knows how bad UFOs are, and is not required by his or her duties to investigate them, should skip this chapter."

Despite the warning, Upton's account of extraterrestrials as a postmodern demonology is not without a certain morbid fascination. The growth of the popular cult of UFOs means that the blackest kind of black magic has gone mainstream; an assessment that, oddly enough, echoes Michael Barkun's conclusion that the UFO mythology have served to distribute "stigmatized knowledge" throughout the whole culture.

Upton relies heavily on the UFO researcher Jacque Vallee, who is best-known for arguing that the reports of UFO encounters closely resemble folkloric accounts of meetings with faeries, incubi, and (Upton's favorite spooks) jinn. Vallee does not limit the phenomenon to folklore. In the more than fifty years of UFO reports, there are real physical effects, instances of mass psychological phenomena, and human manipulation. About this Upton says: "The critical mind tries to make sense of this, fails, and then shuts down. It is meant to."

Upton sketches a history for us. The earliest accounts of meetings with extraterrestrials, which date from the mid-20th century, come from people with connections to the occult underground. Black magicians, who earlier in the Occult Revival had been able to invoke demons only for themselves, had been searching since the beginning of the century to invoke them for the masses. This was not entirely the magicians' idea. The Jinn, or at least the malicious ones, are seeking a stable incarnation in this world. They induce people to welcome and worship them. They also, perhaps, inspire computer technology and genetic engineering. These technologies undermine the human image. They also could be media through which the jinn achieve bodily form. They would then either displace the human race, or corrupt it to their purposes.

I would say that little of this is likely to be literally true. Still, it is true that there is a deep connection between flying-saucer cults and transhumanism. In any case, these dark desires, whether human or demonic, interpenetrate seamlessly with the spirituality of what has been called "the transnational class," but which Upton calls simply "the global elite":

"The characteristic 'religion' of some (but not all) sectors of this global elite is a kind of 'world fusion spirituality' – which, however, is essentially psychic, not spiritual – made up of texts, music, ritual objects, yogic and magical practices, and even shamanic initiations from around the world."

The spiritual disorders that arise from the denial of the personal God are important precisely because they are integral to the drive toward world unification. Neither side of the globalization struggle is strictly on the side of the Antichrist, but then neither is necessarily opposed to him.

Postmodernism is one of the reasons what a united world would be intolerable. Upton correctly notes that pluralism and the subjectivity on which postmodernism is based are incompatible. Postmodernist globalism, under the cover of multiculturalism, creates unity by denying its possibility. Metaphysical unity is a reality, always and everywhere. When it is denied, it reasserts itself as power rather than as cognizance. On the other hand, the multiplicity of cultures is metaphysically necessary, because each reflects some aspect of the divine. Suppress that multiplicity, and the result will be inter-ethnic chaos, which only force can control.

As is so often the case in this book, one notes that Tradition comes in different forms, and that all of them use the cultural resources of historical societies in a selective fashion. Other writers influenced by Tradition emphasize the archetype of the "empire," of the necessary unity of humanity, which is found in many civilizations. Even Islam, which makes a point of officially tolerating the existence of other confessions, contemplates that this toleration should occur in the context of a universal Caliphate. Upton's critique echoes the common anti-globalist complaint that both the unity and the diversity offered by globalization are disingenuous.

In any case, Upton asserts that today we live in a world that has moved from "the revolt of the masses" (which old-style conservatives like Guenon worried about) to "revolt of the elites" (which troubled another of Upton's favorites, Christopher Lasch). For the first time in history, it is the wealthy and educated who want to remake the world. As a critique of globalization, The System of Antichrist is in many ways a more lucid version of Hardt & Negri's "Empire." (That book, despite it postmodern Marxist rhetoric, expresses many Traditional themes.) Actually, for a book that is supposed to reflect the viewpoint of primordial truth, Upton's seems to accept uncritically the "litany" of the anarchist left, from alleged environmental collapse to corporate malfeasance. Fundamentally, however, politics and economics are epiphenomenal to what is really happening.

The Antichrist appeals to the best in us; therefore he is at his worst when he most closely approximates the truth. Beyond the vulgar New Age, we learn, there is a long-running tradition of "counter-initiation." The people engaged in this project do not seek to destroy the revealed religions, but to subvert them in all their forms, exoteric and esoteric. The Theosophical Society is the best–known example, but Upton is most alarmed by those he calls the "false traditionalists." Most famous of these is Carl Gustav Jung, who is a well known inspiration for the world's proto-global elites. The object of Upton's peculiar ire, however, is one William W. Quinn, Jr., author of The Only Tradition. While sometimes deploring the dissolution of traditional cultures and religions, Quinn sees it as a necessary step toward the creation of a Traditional Planetary Culture, one that will be simultaneously scientific and religious, a post-democratic world ruled by a hierarchy of adepts. This is very much what the system of Antichrist would look like in its maturity.

Upton admits he was strongly tempted by the prospect of a Traditional Planetary Culture, but overcame the glamour. False Tradition of this kind is a mere "higher empiricism." It views revelation, not as the word of God, but only as data. The result is metaphysics without religion; in other words, a sort of psychic engineering. Again, God becomes a resource, not a person.

As for the apocalypse itself, we are given a comparative tour of mythologies as they relate to the endtime. (I once attempted such a study myself, by the way, in a book called "The Perennial Apocalypse.") Upton's survey includes aspects of the eschatological ideas found in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity (chiefly in its Orthodox version), Islam, and the religions of the Hopi and the Lakota. As you might expect, the survey finds a high incidence of Antichrist-like figures who deceive the world in the latter days, and Messianic figures who briefly restore Tradition before the end.

We learn quite a lot about the Shiite idea of the "occultation": messianic figures disappear for centuries, until they are ready to play their endtime role. Despite the high incidence of millenarian hopes throughout history, we are given to understand that a literal Millennium, of a perfected earthly society, is not Traditional. However, Upton intriguingly parses the possibility of a "short Millennium." This might be consistent with the reign of the Mahdi, or the period alluded to in Revelation that occurs immediately after the Second Coming. This period is variously described as lasting a few days, or months, or years; in one Shiite version, it lasts 309 years.

Our destiny is the New Jerusalem, the perfection and crystallization of our world. Though Upton is no more clear than his sources, one gathers that will occur Elsewhere. There may be some continuity of our physical world with a following one. It is possible that Earth will not be destroyed, and even that there may be a few human survivors. That next world, however, will be another creation. Our business is with salvation in this one.

Upton suggests some spiritual possibilities unique to the endtime. The latter days allow for detachment, since at last we know enough not to place our hopes in history or "the future." There is also a unique opportunity to acquire encyclopedic spiritual knowledge from around the world. Indeed, the very advent of the Traditionalist school is a providential "sign of the times." Finally, we may hope for the spread of serenity like that which accompanies the old age of just persons, through whom eternity begins to shine.

On a practical level, we must not forget that the forces of globalization and those opposed to it are equally apt to the hand of Antichrist. He might even come to power to overthrow a previously established world system. The System of Antichrist suggests that we deal with this situation in the way that Jesus did when he was asked whether it was licit to pay taxes to the Romans. To that he answered that we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. We must avoid being trapped in crooked choices. Our goal in the latter days is not to save our lives, but our souls. Even politics can be a "liturgy," in which we play the role we are assigned.

* * *

Upton's analysis merits comment. So does the doctrine of Tradition itself.

No doubt it is true that God forgives even theologians for their theology. Nonetheless, the principle of the transcendental unity of religions is open to question. The doctrine holds that the revealed religions are more similar to the degree that they approach their Object. This is not obviously so. Regarding personal eschatology, for instance, the Buddhist "moksa" is not equivalent to the Christian Beatific Vision; neither is self-evidently identical to the model of collective immortality that Upton himself seems to favor. The latter's best known exponent is the Muslim mystic Ibn al-Arabi. That is an important point.

In addition to Western Hermeticism, Tradition exhibits quite a lot of Sufism. The primordial Traditionalist, Rene Guenon, famously became a Muslim, and Upton followed suit. There are Christians, indeed Latin Christians, who consider themselves Traditionalists. Still, sometimes I can't help but wonder whether Tradition is just a very refined form of Sufism. This suspicion is probably misplaced, but Tradition is nonetheless parochial in a more fundamental way.

Sufism is a wisdom that crystallized from an age of skepticism and heresy. So, for the most part, are the other civilized esoteric traditions from which Tradition was composed. Tradition is not primordial. It's like the music of Solesmes, which was created at almost the same time as Tradition, and for much the same reasons. The Traditionalists are right, surely, when they say that it is mere bigotry to look on the past as inferior simply because it is past. We have a duty to extend the same sort of imaginative sympathy to the modern era that we do to distant times and places. The West is still going through its own centuries of skepticism. Someday, modernity could appear as primordial as Atlantis.

End

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Apocalypse Kit

All these years later, the Heaven's Gate webpage is still up and running. That is an apt metaphor for John's point here: millennialism is a permanent [well, really really stable] feature of the human mind. You see the same pattern over and over again, in widely separated times and places. It is an idea that manages to survive the death of its adherents, over and over again.

I haven't got a theoretical explanation for that, but I also think you don't need one to acknowledge the fact.


The Apocalypse Kit

“The avatars of the New Age, as the Irish mystic A. E. realized in a vision fifty years ago, will not be the solitary male, but the male and the female together.”

--From “The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light” (1981) by William Irwin Thompson, Page 254

 

Do and Ti. Bo and Peep. Guinea and Pig. Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles. These two variously-named founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult first achieved the eminence of a New York Times Magazine feature story in February of 1976. Then they were just a couple of eccentric people on the West Coast who came to public attention because they had begun to recruit people to fly away with them in a flying saucer. They had some success with the recruiting. As time went on, they no doubt believed they had some success in communicating with the flying saucer people, too. They then disappeared from public view for twenty years, invisible to all but a few cult-watchers.

While in obscurity, they practiced meditation techniques, lived in rural encampments and learned the Internet. They took on a few new recruits, but the bulk of the membership seems to have remained the people who joined in the ‘70s. Many of the men had themselves castrated in order to escape the temptations of the flesh and the peril of reproduction in an evil world. Some of the people who joined were lonely losers, but the most striking thing about the membership was how many of them were somewhat superior people, with degrees and careers and happy families. In any event, the world next learned of them at the end of March, 1997, when we heard that 39 members of the group had killed themselves neatly, antiseptically, without so much as a library fine left unpaid. The contrast with the bloody mess left by the suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple, the Camp Davidians and Jonestown could not have been greater. This terrifying tidiness was the only unique thing about them.

To me, at least, the significance of Heaven’s Gate is the way it adhered so closely to ancient patterns. It was as if the whole thing had been constructed from a kit, a collection of ready-made parts that the principals did not invent. You cannot call on psychology or sociology to explain what happened to Heaven’s Gate. The small personal crises of Applewhite and Nettles in the early 1970s perhaps provided occasions for what was to come, but these accidents did not determine the content or trajectory of the cult. Neither does the cultural crisis of those years have much explanatory power. People in entirely different societies under entirely different pressures have done very much what Heaven’s Gate did, in whole or in part. In Heaven’s Gate, you had something close to the Platonic ideal of a passive millenarian movement. You will learn little about America or late modernity from studying it. You will, however, learn a great deal about one of the more dreadful capacities of the human condition.

What is a millenarian movement? Basically, it is a group that believes that the world, or an age of the world, is about to end. The end they conceive need not be catastrophic, but it often is. The group is usually concerned with surviving the transition, or preparing to escape the catastrophe, or quite often with engineering the catastrophe themselves. Millenarianism is not an attribute only of cults or small sects. Whole societies can become millenarian for decades at a time. When that happens, some version of apocalypse is often enacted in literal fact. The short explanation for the rapid Spanish conquest of Mexico, for instance, is that the arrival of the Spanish occurred at a time when the belief was already widespread in Mexico that the “Fifth Sun,” the final age of the world, was about to end. Similarly, the catastrophes of the first half of the European 20th century were preceded at both the popular and the elite level by a growing sense of a “trembling of the veil,” of impending wonder and disaster.

In Christianity, millenarians usually look forward to the Second Coming of Christ after a period of tribulation. As a rule, Christian millenarians also look forward to a literal “millennium” on the other side of that event, an age in which they themselves will help to rule. Christian millenarians in the United States have traditionally been politically passive, though this is changing with the increasing political mobilization of the evangelical vote. Some millenarians, on the other hand, form revolutionary armies, like the Fifth Monarchy Men of the English Civil War. These reactions are really matters of degree. The passive millenarians seek to retreat into an end-time community, while the aggressive ones seek to make that community coextensive with the world.

It must be emphasized that millenarianism is not confined to Christianity or the West. The nineteenth century was particularly rich in millenarian activity of every description. The Plains Indians “Ghost Dance” cult was a millenarian phenomenon; the Indians danced in hope of the end of European settlement and the return of the Buffalo. A generation earlier, the Millerites of western New York State bravely announced a date certain for the Second Coming (two, in fact), thereby producing the Great Disappointment of 1844. By far the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century was the “Tai Ping” rebellion in China in the 1850s and 60s, which sought to install the Age of Highest Peace on Earth. One of the curiosities of colonial history was the career of Charles Stuart Gordon, the British general who made his reputation helping the Manchu government of China put down the Tai Ping. So great was his fame that 20 year later he got the assignment to hold Khartoum in the Sudan against the Mahdi Rebellion, another millenarian uprising, this time inspired by Muslim eschatology. This posting was less successful, since it terminated with the fall of the city and the loss of Gordon’s head. The Mahdi’s Jihad was only one of a number of similar uprisings in Africa, Asia and Polynesia.

Actually, the 20th century has, if anything, been even more affected by millenarian patterns of political behavior. The Marxist theory of history, many observers have long noted, retains the shape of the Judeo-Christian model. For the Tribulation of the Last Days read Late Capitalist Immiseration, for the Second Coming read the Revolution, and for the Millennium read the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. On the other side of the political spectrum, the expression “Third Reich” is an old term for the Millennium. (It refers to the Third Age of the world, the Age of the Holy Spirit, which the 12th century Abbot Joachim of Fiore suggested might begin in 1260 AD.) For that matter, there is good reason to believe that such 20th century institutions as annihilation bombing of civilian populations were inspired rather directly by H.G. Wells’s secularization of the Book of Revelation in many of his stories. In a way, then, the return of self-consciously religious millenarianism at the end of the 20th century is simply a return to normal.

Of all the exotic things about Heaven’s Gate, perhaps the group’s surgical approach to androgyny attracted the most media interest. This is not the sort of thing they tell you about in journalism school, probably for good reason. Nevertheless, the notion of sacramental castration is nothing new, even within Christianity. The “proof text” for this practice is Matthew 19:11-12, which reads: “Not all can accept this teaching, but those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs that were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” This passage, of course, comes at the end of a discussion of divorce, and it may be taken in various senses. However, in apostolic times it does not seem to have occurred to anyone to interpret it as an injunction to literal castration. For that, we have to wait for the third century writer Origen, who probably, though not certainly, castrated himself as a young man.

The most systematic recent practice of sacramental castration that I am aware of occurred in the sect of the Skoptsi, the “Castrated Ones” of Russia. The group began as an outgrowth of Russian flagellant sects in the middle of the 18th century. The police attempted to suppress it as soon as they became aware of it. However, under their leader Kondratji Selivanov, the Skoptsi not only survived but enjoyed a measure of patronage by Czar Alexander I in the early 19th century. Even when the political climate turned against them again, they continued to find converts at all levels of society, not only in Russia but in the Balkans. Remnants of the sect may have survived in Romania as late as the Second World War.

Deliberate communal suicide is a rare phenomenon in any context, millenarian groups included. Of course, millenarian societies often have beliefs that are suicidal if put into practice. The Xhosa of what is now South Africa, for instance, destroyed their cattle in an act of mass sacrifice in the 1840s, in the belief that this would spark a new age in which they would be free of the British, the Boers and the Zulus. The result was mass starvation, and only a remnant of the people survived. More generally, it was widely held among insurgent millenarians fighting European armies in the 19th century that certain prayers or amulets would turn their enemies’ bullets to water. How this bad idea spread is one of history’s minor mysteries, but it had a great deal to do with turning what might otherwise have been merely lost battles for native insurgents into massacres.

The chief instance of mass suicide before Jonestown in 1978 was probably represented by the early stages of the Raskol, the “Great Schism” in Russian history. The event is perhaps an extreme example of what can happen when you do a liturgical reform badly. By the mid-17th century, Russia was coming out of a long time of troubles, and so it sought to put its house in order in many areas. Among these was a reform of the Orthodox Church. There were a number of reasons why a reform was a good idea. Corruptions had crept into the texts of the old Slavonic liturgy and Bible over the centuries, as the Greeks often pointed out. Additionally, the system of ecclesiastical discipline and administration had to be rationalized in response to the Jesuit-lead Catholicism of the Polish Empire, which the Russians were in the process of beating back militarily as well. The Synod that decided on the reforms was held in the ill-omened year 1666. The opponents of the reforms became known as the “Raskolniki” or “Schismatics.” They christened the Synod itself “The Synod of Antichrist.”

To an outside observer, the changes implemented by the Synod do not seem very great. Certainly there were no major theological changes. However, many of the reforms were needlessly intrusive into traditional practices, down to “correcting” the Russian pronunciation of the name of Jesus. Aggravating the situation was the personality of the Patriarch Nikon, who was not much interested in diplomacy or compromise. The result was that, while almost all the higher clergy reluctantly conformed, in the provinces all hell broke loose. Particularly in the north of the country, peasants became convinced that the age of Antichrist and the end of the world were upon them. To save their souls, the populations of whole villages killed themselves. In some cases the people gathered into a large building and set it afire. In others, the people starved themselves to death. In later years, the Raskolniki, who called themselves the “Old Believers,” were objects of perennial persecution by the Czarist authorities. In turn, the Raskolniki were ever after an important element in popular revolts and general unrest. Dostoyevsky did not choose the name “Raskolnikov” for the subversive protagonist of “Crime and Punishment” by accident.

This brings us to what many imagine to be the more strictly modern elements of the Heaven’s Gate story. Folklorists love flying saucers, or at any rate they love the people who believe in them and have reorganized their lives to take account of their existence. Partly, this is because beliefs about flying saucers so closely reproduce story patterns that are familiar from folktales. (A very good book on the subject is Keith Thompson’s “Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination” (1991)). Quite suddenly, in the 1950s, supposedly deracinated Americans began telling tales about encounters with fantastic beings, tales that followed the ancient patterns. Stories of meetings with diminutive people from the sky who paralyze their human acquaintances with light and sound are not very different from Celtic traditions about encounters with the Good People. Stories about the deplorable sexual proclivities of the aliens are often indistinguishable from medieval accounts of visitations of incubi and succubi. (In the 12th century, by the way, penitential manuals for parish priests took the sensible position that these things were hallucinatory, but that confessors should not make fun of people who confess to them.) As with the rumors that began to circulate in the 1980s about a witch-underground that sacrificed thousands of children every year, the flying saucer stories were often not just similar to those of 500 years ago; they were the same stories.

Flying saucers began to be incorporated into millenarian beliefs almost as soon as they were first reported, in a prosaic account by an experienced pilot in 1947. Little knots of less prosaic people collected to establish contact with the aliens. They soon formed a subculture that contrived to facilitate communications among its members quite without the benefit of the Internet. David Spangler’s memoir, “Emergence” (1984), is a reasonably lucid account of that milieu by someone who was raised in it and went on to be become a noted channeler and teacher in the 1970s. The popular side of the New Age was in fact little more than the popularization of this subculture for a mass audience.

In later years, the aliens tended to be taken in a more metaphysical sense by many New Agers, Spangler included. However, in the beginning, the motives attributed to the aliens were not thought to be hard to understand. Sometimes the aliens came to warn people that the human race was doomed unless it changed its ways. Sometimes they came to offer enlightenment. Curiously, there were few if any groups formed around the idea that the aliens were dangerous invaders who needed to be resisted, despite the popularity of that motif in contemporary fiction.

Occasionally the aliens came to offer personal rescue from apocalyptic catastrophe. Heaven’s Gate falls into this category. One of the most interesting books in the literature remains Leon Festinger’s “When Prophecy Fails,” which deals with a cult in the 1950s that was informed of impending natural calamities through a medium and promised rescue. The chief finding of the book was the fact that the failure of the saucer prophecies to come true actually strengthened the cultists’ faith. Their explanations for why the saucers did not come for them were often quite ingenious. Considering the book now in light of the Heaven’s Gate episode, one is struck by the fact that not only did both groups pack little traveling bags for the trip, they both even prepared “documentation” for the aliens to certify. The difference was that, after a string of failed prophecies, the beliefs of the 1950s cult just snapped. The cult quickly disintegrated in a shower of spin-off groups and disillusionment. The members of Heaven’s Gate, in contrast, took steps to prevent a change of heart.

What lessons can we learn from Heaven’s Gate?

Perhaps one thing we should do is stop blaming the proximate causes. There is, for instance, no special power in old Star Trek episodes or the Hale-Bopp comet to lead people to mass suicide. Neither is the Internet to blame. Anyone who has looked at the cult’s websites can see that they were hardly a menace to human life. (Actually, anyone who has talked to a marketer can tell you it is almost impossible to sell anything on the Internet anyway, cult membership included.) For that matter, neither can religion in general nor Christianity in particular be held liable. As we have seen, millenarianism is not specifically Christian. It is not even specifically religious. It is a way of making sense out of history, which really is episodically catastrophic. As Paul Boyer noted in “When Time Shall Be No More” (1992), millenarians at the beginning of the 20th century had a better intuition of the coming decades than did Wilsonian liberals.

I can come up with any number of social, moral and economic explanations for why just those 39 people killed themselves in San Diego in 1997, but I do not really believe them. Sociology I now believe to be merely a species of rhetoric, and there is no longer any school of psychology that I find persuasive at all. What we are left with is history, and the ancient patterns.

End

This article originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Celestine Prophecy

The archetype of gassy New Age puffery. I'm with John: probably not actively harmful, but it won't do you much good either.


The Celestine Prophecy
by James Redfield Warner Books, 1993
246 pp., $17.95
ISBN: 0-446-51862-X LC: 93-61754

 

Let us be charitable. Pilgrim's Progress was not very good as a story either. Still, for centuries people throughout the English-speaking world have been edified and entertained by that book, despite its relentless allegories, stiff characters and a plot with all the surprise and whimsy of a long ride on a freight elevator. The Celestine Prophecy is a novel also economical of artistic blandishments, yet it too has achieved an uncanny popularity. As of July 10, 1994, it had been on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks and was still number 2. On computer bulletin boards, people extol its virtues and testify to how it has changed their lives. The author, a New Age writer and spiritual guide who lives in Alabama, has been making the round of radio talkshows and afternoon television programs with some success. However, when all provision has been made for differences in taste and the quite real possibility that it is I who am obtuse, I cannot escape the conclusion that there is something terribly, terribly sad about the reaction to this book, that this savorless New Age confection should have been the most popular piece of spiritual reading in the United States in the first half of 1994 [when this was written].

The framework of the book ("plot" is perhaps an exaggeration) is simple enough. It seems than an Aramaic document, written about 600 B.C., has been discovered in Peru. This work, which is composed of nine "insights," explains the reason for human conflict and outlines the future of the race. The Peruvian government, at the behest of the Catholic Church, is trying to find and suppress the document. Therefore, its keepers have divided it up for safety and translation. The protagonist is a man from the United States who goes to Peru and finds the translated insights one by one.

Well, okay. It is interesting to note that when this book first appeared, it was characterized as non-fiction. Some of its readers, I gather, still think it may be literally true. (The book, by the way, had been self-published before Warner Books so profitably adopted it.) It was reclassified as fiction, perhaps because of little slips, such as the consistent reference to the indigenous civilization of Peru as "Mayan." That and the fact the denim-and-Jeep culture in which the characters move sounds rather more like Colorado than Peru.

The first insight is that we should take significant coincidences, what Jung called "synchronous events," more seriously. The protagonist takes this advice, and so progresses from encounter to encounter with just those people he must meet to in order to find each insight and become prepared for the next. Most of the insights deal with interpersonal relationships. Thus, we learn that marriages and friendships fail because they become struggles for power in a quite literal sense. As our protagonist's spiritual capabilities increase, he can actually see the cloud of psychic energy being pulled back and forth between people engaged in an argument. This energy is necessary for health and happiness. To dominate another person is to steal his energy. The solution to this dilemma is the insight that you can draw all the power you need directly from the universe. As you draw more and more power, you develop new faculties. At the end of the process, your body becomes spiritualized and you can walk into heaven.

Perhaps one of the attractions of the book is that the author's spiritual system is held together by a kind of soft millenarianism, a three-stage model of history quite like that developed by the Abbot Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. Starting about the year 1000 A.D., according to the author, the Western world lived in a universe of faith, certainty and otherworldliness. This lasted about 500 years, until dissatisfaction with the way the Church applied its own ideals led to a second age, one centered on enjoying and understanding this world. Today, it seems, the world is approaching a critical mass of spiritual disaffection which will at last open people to wider realties in the New Age, the third age to come. During the coming age, people will depend less and less on science and engineering and more on their psychic abilities. Indeed, one of the insights is that, deep in the New Age, the chief item of production for which people will be paid will be more spiritual insights. (For those who cannot wait for the New Age, the book thoughtfully provides subscription information to the author's monthly newsletter, The Celestine Journal, which is no doubt full of insights.) At the end of history, the whole human race will consist of spiritual adepts who will move on to a higher plane of existence.

It is hard to see how this book does any great harm. The advice about personal relations which the book provides is not vicious (or interesting). Even its fashionable anti- Catholicism lacks sting, since the author does not know enough about Catholicism to criticize it. The cardinal who is trying to destroy the manuscript, for instance, explains his actions in part with the argument that the insights, if published, would make people less prepared for the Rapture. Perhaps more important, the world of The Celestine Prophecy is one without evil. This is true even of the cardinal, who is merely deluded. This, maybe, is the problem: if the bad is not very bad, neither is the good very good. The book's prescriptions for reducing interpersonal conflict rest on a theory that sounds more like fluid dynamics than like ethics. Our conflicts, all the trouble in human history, are the result of the fact that we have unknowingly been trying to steal spiritual "stuff" from each other, what the Chinese call "chi" force. Fortunately, however, now we know that we can get all the stuff we want at will from the universe. All conflicts and violence can now therefore cease. Well, I'm glad that's settled.

The only frightening thing about this book is what it suggests about the state of American spirituality. Hundreds of thousands apparently find it provocative, life-changing and deep. You hope that this just a case of people reacting positively to the best that they can get. After all, the book does seem to be well-meant, and a little popular eschatology can be edifying. You fear, however, that the success of books like this means that people would not recognize the real spiritual life if they ever met it.

This article originally appeared in the October 1994 issue of Fidelity magazine. Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Spirit Wars

John Crowley

John Crowley

Now nearly twenty years old, this book review is a pretty good primer of the cultural movements in America that made the Da Vinci Code a best-seller.

So far, the biggest religious revival of the early twenty-first century has been an increasing lack of religious affiliation at all. The Second Religiousness may yet come, but it isn't here yet.


Spirit Wars: Pagan Renewal in Christian America
by Peter Jones
WinePress Publishing, 1997
$18.95, 331 pages
ISBN: 1-883893-74-7

 

A Preview of the Great Apostasy?

 

"Where was it ...said...that in the religious history of the West the old gods are always turning into devils, cast from their thrones into dark undergrounds, to be lords over the dead and the wicked? It had happened to..the Northern gods...who became horned devils for Christians to fear...And now look, the wheel turns, Jehovah becomes the devil. Old Nobadaddy, liver-spotted greasy-bearded jealous God, spread over his hoard of blessings like the Dragon, surrounded by his sycophants singing praises, never enough though...
(John Crowley, "Love & Sleep," pages 499-500)

 

It's a rare American church-goer who has not noticed that at least some of the leaders of his denomination have been talking funny in recent years. The use of gender-neutral language does not prove much, since this is becoming a standard professional-class dialect (failure to use which is in some cases actionable at law). Nevertheless, even the most trusting parishioner has to wonder whether new formulas like "Creator, Savior, Comforter" really mean the same as the old "Father, Son, Holy Spirit." Perhaps more incomprehensible to the folks in the pews has been the dogmatization of ecology, which might seem to some people to be the paradigm case of a prudential issue.

Paradoxically, it is only in the most extreme situations, where pastors speak openly of the Earth as the goddess Gaia and churches invite practicing witches to lead Bible study groups on Halloween, that it really becomes clear what is going on. The bald truth is that a large slice of the American theological establishment has abandoned Christianity as expressed in its traditional creedal formulations and adopted a species of gnosticism. "Spirit Wars," a new book by Peter Jones, currently Professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, is a guide to this new religion, showing how it fits into the intellectual landscape of late twentieth century America and describing in detail its many close links with the classical gnostic heresies of the first few centuries A.D.

Professor Jones writes from an evangelical perspective, though not without reference to the state of Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church. (Regarding the latter, he quotes frequently from Donna Steichen's "Ungodly Rage.") With a masters degree from the Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary, he is certainly in a position to describe the progressive paganization of the leadership of the mainline churches in America. Though British-born, he seems to have made his way through the great educational institutions of the United States just before the Long March of `60s ideology began. Unlike many of his younger colleagues today, he is therefore still able to be shocked.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is the connections it makes between the resurgence of gnosticism and other trends in the academy and politics. The literary technique known as deconstruction, for instance, helped to create the intellectual universe in which the transcendental monotheism of orthodox Christianity became quite literally unthinkable to many people with expensive educations. I might add that, most recently, deconstruction (which turned out to have been founded by Nazis) has been superseded in some institutions by some form of "historicism." As practiced by many prominent theologians, this approach essentially consists of recasting biblical history to fit an ideological perspective. The metaphysical anti-monotheism inculcated by deconstruction still remains, of course, but there has been added to it a profound dishonesty in the use of historical sources.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is Jones's assertion that American gnosticism has begun to serve as the theological underpinning of cultural and even political liberalism. For two centuries, the chief alternative to orthodox Christianity was atheist humanism, or agnostic scientism, or at any rate some way of looking at the world that categorically excluded the supernatural. This is no longer the case. Increasingly, people who oppose traditional ethics and who seek to collapse the human race into the natural world are claiming some sort of supernatural sanction. This trend has entered the mainstream to an appalling degree, as even a cursory familiarity with Vice President Al Gore's preachy eco-feminist tract, "Earth in the Balance," will confirm. In some ways, the people who control the key institutions of American society are more pious than their predecessors were a century ago. The problem is that this piety is directed toward objects that have less and less in common with the religion of the people these institutions are supposed to serve and represent.

The origins of gnosticism are disputed, as is the precise time of its appearance, but it is clear that in the first few centuries after Jesus there was a variety of sects, other than the orthodox church, that claimed to be Christian, indeed to be the true and esoteric Christianity. They changed and multiplied, as their adherents followed after one charismatic adept after another, but a few themes and names stand out. Marcion, for instance, who lived in the second century, essentially threw out the whole Old Testament as the work of the devil and kept only fragments of the New. Others, such Valentinus, tended to keep the scriptures but modified their meaning. As a rule, though, in gnostic speculation the God of the Jews was denounced as a tyrant who had created the inferior world in which we live. His law is folly and his promises are lies. The universe over which he rules is a multi-layered prison in which human beings are confined in ignorance of their origin and destiny. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was seeking to liberate mankind, and Eve was its prophet.

In most gnostic systems, there is indeed a god worthy of worship, but one wholly alien to this world. This god is neither male nor female, neither good nor evil, but beyond all categories even by analogy. The Christ is his agent, but understood primarily as a psychological function. The Jesus of history, to the extent the gnostics were interested in him at all, was an exemplar rather than a redeemer. Human beings contain the "sparks" of the alien god. After many incarnations, these captive souls may hope to attain the "knowledge," the "gnosis" (the words are cognate, by the way) that will allow them to return to their origin.

How did the sparks get there? They are trapped, through "love and sleep," in the mass of the world, into which a fragment of the complex divine reality called the "pleroma" has fallen. This final emanation of the divine is called Sophia, "wisdom." She is conceived of as a goddess whose fear and terror and grief at her separation from the pleroma gave birth to the Demiurge, the false god of our creation. There is a "higher" or unfallen aspect of Sophia who works to undo the enslavement of the divine to matter and to rescue the human race from the world of birth, death and division.

Now, all of this sounds like pretty esoteric stuff, something that only scholars or would-be magicians might be expected to run across. Until a few years ago, that was largely true. Today, in contrast, expressions of gnosticism turn up in the most unexpected places. Consider, for instance, the following autobiographical description of a vision experienced by the author of a recent book that dealt largely with the state of current progress toward a unified field theory in physics:

"...I became convinced...that I was the only conscious being in the universe. There was no future, no past, no present other than what I imagined them to be. I was filled, initially, with a sense of limitless joy and power. Then, abruptly, I became convinced that if I abandoned myself further to ecstasy, it might consume me...With this realization, my bliss turned into horror...As I fell I dissolved into what seemed to be an infinity of selves."
(John Horgan, "The End of Science," page 261)

The interesting point here is that the writer of this passage had apparently never heard of the gnostic doctrine that the world had been created through God's own fear. He mulled over this experience for many years and eventually wrote "The End of Science" to work through the possibility of a downside to omniscience. However, most people do get their ideas about gnosticism from books rather than personal experience. With certain adaptations, all of the themes described above as elements of ancient gnosticism now have modern analogues, expounded in prestigious schools of divinity and, in many cases, preached to actual congregations.

Some things have needed translation, of course. Classical gnostics loathed matter and the structures of this world because they thought there was an immeasurably better world elsewhere. However, though this better reality was absolutely transcendent, they believed the way to find it was by looking within. In modern gnosticism, in contrast, the transcendent is a more muted theme; any appeal to the "beyond" is likely to be denounced as an ideology. The search within continues, however. Instead of seeking union with the alien god, modern gnostics seek their authentic selves. The techniques for this search are therefore more likely to be considered therapy than magic, though in fact rather a lot of traditional hocus-pocus has become fashionable in progressive religious circles.

In any event, today the opposition to the "structures of this world" is at least as fierce as it was in the religious underground of second-century Alexandria. To take the most colorful example: if the God of Genesis said to be fruitful and multiply but otherwise to behave yourself, then obviously the way to subvert his law is to engage in any form of sex that does not result in children. There has always been a real horror of reproduction in gnostics of all ages. This sentiment was well expressed by Jack Kerouac in his declining years, when he regretted that he had fathered a daughter and thereby had added to the "meat-wheel" of the world system. Similarly, both in modern and in ancient times, there has been a strong gnostic tendency to regard homosexuality as metaphysically superior, since it moves beyond the division of gender roles established by the Demiurge.

Modern gnosticism is predominantly feminist, and indeed to the extent that feminism seeks an ontological justification, gnosticism is probably it. However, we should keep in mind that consciously gnostic feminism has as little to do with the actual needs and concerns of most women as Leninism does with those of industrial workers. I, at least, am increasingly convinced that the role of feminism in the critique of the Western tradition is in any case largely instrumental. Notions like "patriarchy" are essentially a form of class analysis, with the genders substituted for economic classes. It is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Like the term "bourgeois," it is a cuss-word rather than a description of anything. When the whole of art and science and politics are denounced as part of a system of patriarchal oppression, the point is not to draw attention to unjust gender-relationships, the point is to get rid of the art and the science and the politics. Again, the impulse here is fundamentally gnostic, a studied loathing of ordinary life not because it is evil, but because it exists.

A novel aspect of modern gnosticism is its millenarian streak. Ancient gnostics anticipated that the corrupt world system created by the incompetent Demiurge would come crashing down one day, but they did not normally anticipate it happening anytime soon. They were wholly uninterested in transforming the world or in becoming a universal faith. In today's gnosticism, in contrast, there is a strong dispensationalist sentiment. The Age of Christianity (or of Jehovah) is over, they say, and the New Age is about to begin. Among feminist gnostics, the motto "women will destroy god" is frequently met with. There is a high end and a low end to this sentiment. The low end is represented by "witches" who conduct gothic ceremonies in honor of the return of the Goddess Sophia. The high end is represented by people like Joseph Campbell, who held that the global society of the third millennium requires a new global myth, one consonant with modern science and social practice. There is no lack of perfectly respectable people, again notably including Al Gore, who have suggested that the myth of the Goddess Gaia, of the Earth as organism, might serve this function. Thus, modern gnosticism has plans not only for destruction, but for the reconstruction to follow.

On a less global level, vandalism is a good enough description for what has been happening in the Protestant mainline churches and elements of the Catholic Church for the past quarter century. (Actually, in the case of Catholic parish churches, "vandalism" is not a mere metaphor, considering the ghastly effect that modernizing liturgists have had on the ornamentation and design of church buildings.) Church-goers who have been paying any attention at all have had little trouble following the irresponsible mutations that have occurred in the treatment of scripture and liturgy.

Peter Jones is particularly exercised by the proliferation of tendentious Bible translations in recent years. Perhaps the most dishonest exercise so far has been "The Five Gospels," a heavily-marketed translation of the four canonical gospels, plus the "Gospel of Thomas," a work that came to light among the gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The "Gospel of Thomas" is simply not a "gospel," both because it is of later composition and quite different in form, a mere collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. Nevertheless, this is precisely the kind of distinction that many modern theologians have been systematically subverting.

The progressive line now is that the gnostics had as much right to be considered Christians as did the orthodox Church. The victory of one faction over the other was a matter of pure chance, the outcome of a power struggle. How Christian orthodoxy, an outlawed religion for three centuries, could have won a power struggle against anybody is hard to see. Syncretistic religions that included elements of Christianity were not illegal; a statue of Jesus stood in the pantheon of the third century emperor Alexander Severus. Nevertheless, in the interests of inclusiveness, "Gnostic Bibles" containing apocryphal literature from Nag Hammadi and other sources have already begun to appear. They find increasing acceptance in seminaries where the whole idea of a biblical canon is under question.

The situation is only exacerbated by enterprises like the "Jesus Seminar," whose participants vote periodically on which elements of the New Testament should be given what level of credence, and particularly on which sayings attributed to Jesus were really his. The sayings they endorse are those that suggest Jesus was mostly interested in finding the inner self and subverting gender roles. The Seminar is, as Jones notes, essentially a hoax perpetrated by people with impeccable credentials. However, it has the backing of Time Magazine, which gives choice bits of its "discoveries" wide publicity every Christmas and Easter.

Just thinking about this subject is enough to invite cosmic paranoia (which is a good definition for gnosticism in the first place). And then, of course, sometimes merely odd stuff happens. As I mentioned, Peter Jones is English, and he hails from Liverpool. In fact, he was a good friend of John Lennon in high school. They parted company when Lennon went to vocational school for the arts while Jones took a college track. Jones pronounces himself mystified as to how, despite this divergence in education, Lennon was incorporating gnostic themes into his later work that Jones knew about only because he had studied patristics. I mention this because, a few hours before starting to read this book, I was poking about on the Web and I came across a site whose author purported to be no less a person than Antichrist himself. Of course, sites purportedly maintained by Abraham Lincoln are probably no less numerous than those maintained by Antichrist. This particular Antichrist, however, had an eschatology that incorporated John Lennon as the final incarnation of Christ, so that Lennon's death marked the beginning of the end of the Christian era. I hate it when this kind of thing happens.

Spirit Wars is in fact fairly free of paranoia and quite devoid of conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, towards the end of the book, Jones does permit himself this observation:

"As she covers her anemic body with a fake robe of Christ, Sophia begins to look more and more like the harlot of the Apocalypse, that startling image of an apostate Church, fornicating with the kings of the earth, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus. On the threshold of the third millennium, the `Spirit Wars' have begun in dead earnest, though at present we have only seen the initial skirmishes. Sophia is only at the beginning of her reign."
(Spirit Wars, page 257)

Well, maybe. On the other hand, there are some other points to consider. The big one is the size of gnosticism's actual audience. Peter Jones cites dozens of conferences, books and papers that propound a gnostic point of view (the book has 60 pages of notes; I just wish it had a better index). I am quite ready to believe, as Jones suggests, that gnosticism is now the orthodoxy of many of America's major seminaries. Still, he does overlook one key point about the power of gnosticism: it empties churches faster than stink bombs. The mainline Protestant churches with which Jones is primarily concerned have been bleeding membership for thirty years. They adopted fad after fad in theology and liturgy, so that when gnosticism and feminism came along they had no living tradition of resistance. The result was that soon many such churches also had no members.

On the Catholic side, of course, the saddest case has been what happened to American nuns. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, some few orders made only the modest reforms suggested by the Council, and at this writing they look like they will survive. Most, however, followed essentially the same gnosticizing trend as, say, the Episcopal Church in America. The result is that the scariest academic conferences Jones discusses, in which the God of the Bible is denounced as an idol and goddesses are openly worshipped, are largely populated by Catholic nuns. They are, however, for the most part aging nuns. Their orders do not attract new members. They can solicit contributions from ordinary Catholics successfully only by appealing to old memories of parochial school graduates. Their fate is as clear an indication as one could wish that liberal Christianity has no future.

The churches that are growing in the United States are for the most part those that make some effort to remain theologically conservative, though one might wish that they could combine this endeavor with a higher level of theological sophistication. Some of the mainline churches, notably the Presbyterians, have recoiled from the abyss at the insistence of their local memberships and started firing liberal staff in their central organizations. The Catholic Church in this decade has produced a thoroughly orthodox Catechism that has reached a wide popular audience despite the efforts of liberal ecclesiastical bureaucrats to suppress it. While these developments hardly constitute rollback (a fine old Cold War expression), they do suggest that Sophia is not having things all her own way.

Finally, there is one other point to consider in assessing the prospects of modern gnosticism. The religious future of the West cannot be discussed without reference to the future of the West as a whole. Peter Jones notes the analogies between the religious climate of the early Christian centuries and that of today. Cyclical historians have given this matter a great deal of thought. Jones cites Toynbee on the subject, who says that the twentieth century will be remembered as the time when the "Higher Religion" of the third millennium appeared. You may pick your own favorite historical tea-leaf reader, but mine is Oswald Spengler. Writing seventy years ago, he used the term "Second Religiousness" to describe the cultural state of old civilizations, after their "modern" eras have ended. According to him, it is precisely in this final phase that "fancy-religions" like Theosophy and the cult of Isis lose their appeal. Civilizations return to the forms of their springtimes, which in the case of the West means a form of conservative Christianity. It is not wholly clear that time is on the gnostics' side.

This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-07-07: Edwards; Gen-X; Arthur; Doppelgangers

I hadn't know until now that Pelagius was from Britain. Even now, John can surprise me.


Edwards; Gen-X; Arthur; Doppelgangers

There was another instance today of duelling columns on the New York Times editorial page. Commenting on the dour John Kerry's choice of the sprightly John Edwards as a running mate. William Safire remarks:

A larger question looms that confronts every presidential nominee: what if he wins and dies in office? In making his decision yesterday, Kerry should have kept that criterion of "the best man ready to take over" upper-most in his mind.

In my view, he failed that test. In the choice between the Democrat most ready to be president and the Democrat who would enliven a stalled campaign, Kerry played it safe and chose the political hottie, Edwards.

Meanwhile, exactly eight inches up the page and to the right, Nicholas D. Kristof retorts:

Is there a risk in choosing Mr. Edwards? Sure, Mr. Kerry might drop dead. Then we'd have a very inexpert president -- again!

What happened here is that John Kerry walked into an ice-cream parlor, studied the menu for five minutes, and, predictably, ordered vanilla. In fact, there is nothing wrong with John Edwards. Although he often sounds (and looks) like an infomercial, his unrehearsed statements show some capacity to deal with the unexpected. This is better than President Bush, who always sounds like he is answering a phone call at three in the morning. However, the greater contrast is actually with Kerry, who answers questions by throwing out strings of phrases that look like they have been generated from a thesaurus data base.

In fact, someone should create chatterbots for all these people. Ample archives of interviews are available online for the memories. Interviews and press conferences would be better than speeches, I think: you never know who writes speeches.

* * *

Continuing my interest in the generational model of American history, I noted this piece in the Sunday (July 4) issue of The New York Times: Look Who's Parenting, by Ann Hulbert. The article remarked on something I have noted myself: Generation X parents are less likely than Babyboomers to badger and plan their offspring into a state of perfection. They are also more likely to just be around to raise them. To use a contrast that does not appear in the article: Babyboomers were keen on planning "quality time" with their families; Gen-Xers are generous with "junk time," which I always thought was what families are for.

So this is what happened to the no-hopers from The Breakfast Club (1985), or at least the ones who are not dead or arrested. One can only compare this historical snapshot with the picture of the intolerable Boomers at the same stage in life in The Big Chill (1983). There is justice, maybe.

* * *

May I remark how hard it is to find top search-results that don't have aggressive ads? Those links in the paragraph above are to movie reviews. I chose them, not so much because of the content, as because they did not have graphics that make you sit through a commercial before you can read text.

* * *

On the subject of movies, I see that yet another film about King Arthur premiers today. This one sounds like a particularly dismal exercise. It throws away the legend, which is one of the great mythos of the world, and replaces it with a backstory that looks like the Soccer Hooligan Age of British history. Of course, I am responding here just to reviews of the film. It might be wonderful.

The most persuasive account of the "Arthur of history" I have read comes from The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, which was published in 1973. Yes, there was a historical Arthur, more or less, who took charge around AD 470 of a successful Britano-Roman counter-offensive against the Anglo-Saxons. Actually, by Arthur's time, the resistance was more "British," in the sense of early Welsh, than Roman. The Roman province of Britain had broken down thirty or forty years before.

The last days of the province are the interesting part of the story, if you ask me. Britain was the only major part of the Empire to escape invasion in the fourth century (AD 300-400). At the beginning of the fifth century, while Rome was being sacked, Britain was unique in successfully fighting off barbarian incursions (which were not just from Europe; they came from the Pictish north and from Ireland, too). There was a twilight period of a decade or two. The economy became demonetized, because the continental mints closed down, but the great country villas were still occupied. So were the cities, where there was enough intellectual life to produce the heretic Pelagius.

The provincial government was under the control of a man known as "Vortigern" to history. That's not a personal name, but some garbled title. He organized the defense of the province by hiring Germanic mercenaries, to whom he gave land in what were supposed to be tightly restricted areas. The government had no way to control the mercenaries except by hiring more mercenaries. The rest of the story writes itself.

By the way: is it really possib