The Long View: A Culture of Conspiracy

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Rainbow Six

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


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

 

Reviewed by John J. Reilly

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly 

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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On a related note: I've used women's bathrooms for several years, because not everywhere has changing tables in men's restrooms. Logically, one might think of this as a feminist issue, but it isn't. I have dark theories about this. And, I will also note not one damn person has once said anything to me. Probably because I have an infant in tow when I do this.

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Again, I'm not surprised. I tend to interpret most culture war fights like this as one group of whites trying to assert superiority over other whites using minorities as a proxy. Whatever the actual people involved want just complicates the narrative. An exception seems to be Black Lives Matter, which is run by black people and is actually about black people. 

The Long View: Executive Orders

Tom Clancy

Tom Clancy

Here is a link to the Oliver Stone review of Executive Orders that motivated John to read the book. I find the Stone review kind of funny, especially this:

As usual, some of the Clancy plotting is fiendishly inventive, and he has a technically sharp command of the realistic detail, like the horrifying use of Ebola as an instrument of war rather than of nature. But the realism comes at the expense of the story's flow, and here I must ask whether anyone actually ''edits'' Mr. Clancy, or for that matter whether there is any living workaholic who actually reads every cybernetic paragraph, with its obligatory expressions of grief, anger, fear and that little bit of love that in Mr. Clancy's world can be taken to mean ''responsibility.''

This is actually my primary complaint about Tom Clancy novels: he got too rich and too famous to edit. For Clancy himself, this was forgivable, at least in my eyes. I tried reading one of the sequels penned after his death. It was as long as any Jack Ryan tale, but it lacked Clancy's spirit. Ah well.

Tom Clancy was massively popular, the LA Times estimated that more than 100 million books he authored were in print at the time of his death. John's review tells us part of the reason why:

The fact is that Executive Orders really is not a techno-shot-’em-up at all. It is a novel of ideas. Some of them are naive ideas. Some of them are bad ideas. Many of them are commonplaces. Nevertheless, Executive Orders does ask questions that ought to be part of the political landscape in the United States but are not. Someone as variously well-informed as Tom Clancy would no doubt be offended if he were told that his writings were examples of the popular mind at work. However, it might be just to say that this book is a fair sample of the educated but non-elite mind of America. It is neither ignorant nor unperceptive, and it is reaching conclusions quite different from those enunciated by people who claim to speak for it.

This constituency is now probably going to vote for Trump, after being pointedly ignored for the last twenty years.


Executive Orders
by Tom Clancy
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996
$27.95, 874 pp.
ISBN: 0-399-14218-5

A Thought Experiment

Oliver Stone persuaded me to read this book. I had never read a Tom Clancy novel before. I had heard of them, of course. They were all, obviously, very big, and I had the impression that they dealt mostly with the design specifications of lethal instruments. Neither of these are qualities that normally engage my interest. Oliver Stone’s review of Executive Orders in The New York Times of September 22, however, suggested to me that there might be something special about this book. Stone patronized Clancy’s reactionary political opinions and the obdurate adherence by Clancy’s main character to Catholicism of the most obscurantist sort. He made light of the international perils that Clancy described as slightly paranoid plot conventions. Finally, he explained Clancy’s world view in Jungian terms: by describing an America beset by foreign enemies against which his heroes had to defend her, Clancy was really describing his own attempts to come to terms with his feminine “other.” The implication was that dramatic fiction of this sort was no longer appropriate to a matriarchal era, when we can approach our feminine selves in more direct and conscious ways. Since I was unable to strangle Mr. Stone after reading his review, I decided that the least I could do was read the book as an act of solidarity with the non-airheads of the world.

Not being a regular Clancy reader, I cannot say precisely how this work differs from his earlier books. However, I am reliably informed that this one is far more political and even chatty than his usual efforts. There cannot be more than 150 pages of actual combat, terrorist raids and assassination attempts, apparently a small percentage for a Clancy book. Furthermore, though we have one major and one minor international conflict depicted here, the book’s focus is more on the sorry state of American domestic politics than is usually the case.

The book, in fact, is an unsubtle thought experiment. In the opening pages, we have Jack Ryan, the CIA agent-history professor-former Marine long familiar to Clancy’s readers, looking with great dismay at the burning wreck of the Capitol building. It seems an irate Japanese pilot from the last novel had just crashed a commercial airliner into the building during a joint session of Congress, thereby killing the president, most members of both Houses, the entire Supreme Court and pretty much the whole cabinet. Ryan’s particular problem was that the joint session in question had just elected him vice president so that he could serve out the term of the previous incumbent, who had been forced to resign for conduct unbecoming a goat. The appointment was intended as a pro-forma honor for Ryan’s many services to the Republic.Unfortunately for him, once the president and Congress were blown to cinders, he became a president without a government, or even a party. His mission this time is to rebuild the federal government of the United States from the ground up to a degree unprecedented for any president since Washington. This is a premise to give one pause.

In many ways, Executive Orders was a pleasant surprise. I had read some techno-shoot-’em-ups by other authors, and they were conspicuous for the wooden quality of their characters and the didactic improbability of their dialogue. No one is ever going to confuse Clancy with Dickens, but Clancy’s characters do look a bit like people, certainly enough to excite the sympathy or antipathy of the reader. Some of them even develop in the course of the story. Also, Clancy seems to have a gift for imagining villainies truly villainous. For instance, the way in which the forces of evil collect Ebola virus for a germ warfare attack on the United States is so breathtakingly wicked that only the reticence customary in reviewing novels of intrigue inhibits me from sharing the procedure with you now. (Oh, what the hell: The Iranians kidnap an elderly nun infected with the virus from West Africa and take her to a secret laboratory on the outskirts of Tehran. There they deny her pain medication so as to prolong her life as she melts into a puddle of infectious material. The bastards!) The chief stylistic drawback to the book is that this novel alone is longer than the entire literatures of certain minor languages. Also, though you cannot always have everything, when you do it might be a good idea to have it in larger print.

The fact is that Executive Orders really is not a techno-shot-’em-up at all. It is a novel of ideas. Some of them are naive ideas. Some of them are bad ideas. Many of them are commonplaces. Nevertheless, Executive Orders does ask questions that ought to be part of the political landscape in the United States but are not. Someone as variously well-informed as Tom Clancy would no doubt be offended if he were told that his writings were examples of the popular mind at work. However, it might be just to say that this book is a fair sample of the educated but non-elite mind of America. It is neither ignorant nor unperceptive, and it is reaching conclusions quite different from those enunciated by people who claim to speak for it.

For one thing, Clancy understands the shape of the world. The international element in this book is provided by a conspiracy in which the Chinese instigate a crisis with Taiwan just serious enough to draw American forces out of the Indian Ocean while the Iranians are up to no good on the other side of Asia. While the particular scenario Clancy paints is no more probable than any other, the basic configuration of simultaneous threats of both sides of Eurasia is the primary fact of life for the United States today. There is no escaping the reality that US security is threatened if something goes seriously wrong in Europe, the Middle East or East Asia. The worldwide military capability that the US developed during the Cold War is a permanent fact of life, because there is no alternative to a US military that is capable of fighting two major wars at once.

The most informative technically oriented passages of the book deal with the Iranian germ-warfare attack on the United States itself. Clancy is to be forgiven for presenting us with one more rendition of the ghastly effects of the Ebola virus (an innocent nun, the absolute bastards!), and he does in fact perform some service by demoting this and other superdiseases from the status of apocalyptic agents to just more nasty bugs. Unlike what films like “The Hot Zone” would have you believe, epidemics really do not spread all over the world like a quart of fuel oil spilled on a map. Diseases that are both highly contagious and rapidly fatal also usually burn themselves out quickly. Most serious infections, including Ebola and AIDS, actually are not highly contagious at all, and can be controlled through their means of transmission. That is why germ warfare is really a terror weapon.

The constitutional crisis that Clancy describes arising from the president’s restriction of the right to travel is chimerical, however. The police powers of government in times of emergency have very few restrictions, and certainly closing down the airports and highways would be well within them. One minor disappointment to me, in fact, was how little use Clancy makes of the “executive orders” of the title. I once worked for the publishing company that has the contract to codify federal law, and one of the things I did was figure out where permanent presidential executive orders would go in the United States Code. I was astonished at just how much of the administrative activity of the federal government is governed by this kind of “legislation,” some of it based on rather general but perfectly valid statutory authority. The practical reach of this authority would of course be much greater if Congress were not around to object.

Not all of Clancy’s ideas are happy. The notion of staffing the CIA with former policemen instead of drunken fraternity brothers is misguided. Spies are not cops, just as cops are not soldiers. Spies, or at least the agents who control them, are essentially social workers: they keep track of disgruntled people and give them money to keep them cooperative. Cops can be taught to do this, of course, but there is no reason to think they would be especially good at it.

President Ryan’s ideas about the domestic reform of the federal government are expounded at great length, often in interviews with untrustworthy journalists, but there are few specifics. He wants budgets balanced. He wants taxes flat. He wants useless bureaucrats cleaned out of the departments. He also wants all of this done yesterday, which maybe you could do with Congress blown up, but I would not bet on it. In any event, this agenda misses the point. The United States is not overburdened with hordes of pestilential bureaucrats. Rather the opposite: when the government malfunctions, it is usually because the staffs are too small to carry out the duties Congress assigned. If you have ever had trouble with the IRS, for instance, you know that half the problem is getting some harassed officer worker to look at your file for a full ten minutes. The rising cost of government is purely a function of the growth of entitlements. What the federal government mostly does is write checks and send them to people who are sick or old or disabled. Balancing the budget means writing smaller checks or collecting more tax money. It is as simple as that.

One luminously sensible domestic position that Ryan takes has almost disappeared from American political discourse. He will enforce existing laws regarding abortion. However, he opposes abortion, not just personally but as a matter of public policy, and he believes that the Supreme Court decisions on this matter are wrong because the Constitution simply does not address the issue. He will seek to have those decisions overturned by appointing judges who believe likewise. Once the Supreme Court gets it right, the whole subject would then be de-constitutionalized and de-federalized. No phony support for a constitutional amendment, and no pretense of agonized neutrality. This is a winning formula, one that is neglected by allegedly “pro-life” politicians who are perhaps less eager to actually change the law than they would have us believe.

In some ways, the book is most interesting for the ideas that should be there but still are missing. There is little sense here of government as a positive good. This is not to suggest that the service of the state is the goal of life. The state is not even the master of civil society. However, in the Thomistic political theory espoused by the Catholic Church even today, politics is a worthy enterprise in its own sphere, just as art and science are in theirs. It is the means by which we achieve those goods that we cannot achieve as private persons. The people who make a career of conducting government should not be assumed to be tyrants or crooks waiting for the citizenry to relax their guard so they can steal the treasury. They do not deserve to be blown up by a Japanese airliner, nor do they need to be for government to work effectively. Clancy seems to be a visceral Catholic. This means, among other things, that he understands that authority is a necessary element in human life. It also means that he can distinguish legitimate authority from authoritarianism. What he lacks, because the general culture still lacks it, is a developed sense of how the state can be more than a mere utility.

You should not read too much into popular novels, especially not into popular novels by one author. Nevertheless, the very fact that a successful novelist thought his readers would be interested in the sort of examination of the political system Clancy presents here does show that a lot of things that formerly were taken for granted are now open to question. If Clancy’s feel for his readership is right, they do not want a revolution, Republican or otherwise. They don’t want a dictator, and they don’t want a country that is run like an army. What they do want is a change of regime, something far deeper than a change of parties. To paraphrase Justice Anthony Scalia, they want a government suited to a country they can recognize.

Well, at the end of the novel President Ryan was announcing his bid for reelection. No doubt he will have an eventful second term. 

This article originally appeared in the December 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-02-18: Spoilers

Fr. Richard John Neuhau

Fr. Richard John Neuhau

There was a period of time when the New Oxford Review was one of the few reasonably orthodox Catholic magazines in the United States. Unfortunately, NOR's salad days are long behind it. A look at their home page in course of writing this post confirmed that they are stuck in the 90s, in many senses. 

John also makes the point that the campaign for gay marriage in 2004 made use of the best, most photogenic examples it could find. This is of course just good marketing, and obviously has been successful. However, it is true that real life is different than what you find in glossy photo magazines, for people in all walks of life. I appreciate journalists who go out and try to see the world as it is, rather than as we might wish it to be. An example of this is zombietime, a pseudonymous photo blog of a journalist living in San Francisco. You can find, interesting, and very NSFW photos of some of San Francisco's more outré festivals there.


Spoilers

 

I really don't know the answer to this: when political commentators make much of the underdog in a primary race of the party they oppose, are they just trying to damage the front-runner? The Democratic primaries have reached the point where John Kerry would be the nominee even if he were photographed in bed with an underage aardvark. Nonetheless, perfectly respectable Republicans continue to ooh and aah over the relatively small margins by which John Edwards loses. Are the commentators just unable to turn their critical gifts to other subjects, or are they trying to encourage the Democrats to keep the contest going, so there will be less money and more intra-party rancor for the general election? If so, then shame on them. Shame.

* * *

Speaking of picking useless fights, I see that New Oxford Review, in its February issue, continues its descent into crank status by launching yet another attack on Richard John Neuhaus. The NOR piece, "The One-World Church," takes exception to some comments that Fr. Neuhaus published in a First Things editorial under the heading Getting Along at the Altar, as well as to another item of his in Touchstone, which I haven't read. The comments in First Things are a defense of the papal encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. The encyclical restates the traditional Catholic position that, with rare exceptions, only Catholics can receive the Catholic eucharist. Neuhaus quotes that document, and adds his own comments:

"The Eucharist, as the supreme sacramental manifestation of communion in the Church, demands to be celebrated in a context where the outward bonds of communion are intact. . . . Christ is the truth, and he bears witness to the truth (cf. John 14:6; 18:37); the sacrament of his body and blood does not permit duplicity".... The encyclical says that the Church understands "an ecclesiology of communion [to be] the central and fundamental idea of the documents of the Second Vatican Council." Intercommunion without a shared ecclesiology of communion is the enemy of authentic unity.

The First Things piece also contrasts, as an aside, the false ecumenism that would result from simply overlooking interdenominational differences of theology and governance with the prospect of true ecumenism:

When the prayer of Jesus in John 17 ["that they all may be one"] is fulfilled, it will not be a matter of Baptists or Presbyterians becoming Roman Catholic. There will be but one Church, and it may well be that distinct traditions of theology and practice, now embodied in separated denominations, will continue, perhaps in ordered communities such as the Benedictines, Dominicans, and Franciscans today.

In a nearly heroic act of misreading, NOR chose to imagine that Fr. Neuhaus meant this:

Neuhaus yearns for full communion with all two billion Christians in the world. So then we'd belong to the same Church as Jesse Jackson, Harvey Cox, Al Sharpton, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Troy Perry, Cornel West, Hillary Clinton, the newly minted Bishop V. Gene Robinson, and the head of the National Council of Churches. These folks will in some way acknowledge the Bishop of Rome (no doubt the way Anglicans acknowledge the Archbishop of Canterbury), but since they will be able to keep their 'distinct traditions of theology and practice,' there will be no common Faith and no shared morality. Sorry, but the thought of that leaves us totally cold.

This is so obviously off base that you have to wonder whether NOR does this sort thing with the hope of getting some much-needed publicity should Neuhaus make a reply. I write for First Things occasionally and I am happy to have the exposure, but I don't pick fights with it for that purpose.

I have had my own thoughts about the future of the papacy, by the way. First Things turned them down. Ha.

* * *

There is an old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The gay movement for three decades took this principle to heart. Even the most cleaned up reports of rallies and demonstrations for gay causes would mention that some fraction of the participants came dressed as if for Mardi Gras. The really interesting thing about the illicit gay marriages now being performed in San Francisco is the Norman Rockwell face the event tries to put on the gay subculture.

Look at the photos that come with the reports: no drag queens, no tutus; scarcely a leather jacket. Those crowds are not just a sanitized version of gay activism; they are too neat and tidy to be mistaken even for the ordinary applicants at the municipal marriage bureau.

At this writing, the City of San Francisco is still able to grant licenses because the state judiciary is colluding with the illegality by delaying the granting of the injunctions that would stop the process. Since the crowds come from across the country, each of the couples can now sue to challenge the marriage laws in their home states. It will be impossible for the US Supreme Court to avoid the issue, even if the Court were so inclined.

* * *

On a completely different note, I cringed when I saw this frontpage story in today's New York Times: Hip New Churches Pray to a Different Drummer. The title and pictures stirred up images of the guitar Masses from my youth. They and other community-oriented liturgies convinced me for a decade that the Church did not believe its own theology either, and was just trying to change the subject. But no: something else may be going on here:

Called "emerging" or "postmodern" churches, they are diverse in theology and method, linked loosely by Internet sites, Web logs, conferences and a growing stack of hip-looking paperbacks. Some religious historians believe the churches represent the next wave of evangelical worship, after the boom in megachurches in the 1980's and 1990's....

Many emerging churches...have revived medieval liturgies or practices, including prayer labyrinths and lectio divina, or sacred reading, a process of intense meditation and prayer over a short biblical passage. Some borrow Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox rituals that pre-date the Enlightenment....

To tell you the truth, the description the article gives of some of the new liturgies sounds little different from the kaffeklatsch that churches often have after a conventional liturgy. More seems to be going on here, though. The article quotes Dan Kimball (age 42) who is pastor at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, and a former drummer in a punk rockabilly band. (He is also the author of Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations):

Expanding his ministry, Mr. Kimball brought in candles and crosses from garage sales, and began reading long passages from the Bible, inviting people to talk back to him or discuss what the stories meant to them as a group. In contrast to the bright and cheerful big churches, he said, "younger people want it like a dusty cathedral."

"They want a sense of mystery and transcendence," he said. "Anything that sniffs of performance turns them off."

For the last generation, Catholic dioceses in the US have been jettisoning the candles and other holy hardware, usually with bad results. I am happy to learn that some of this stuff has found a good home. More generally, I note that this movement seems directed at artistic types, which is fine. The very music of Solesmes is a cut-and-paste job from just such a revival that occurred in the 19th century.

Anyone interested in promoting Gothic liturgies for congregations of goths might want to take a look at Aristotle Esguerra's blog. I wish something like this had existed when we were trying to start our own chant choir here.

* * *

Just to put all this in perspective: the universe could end much sooner than we have been led to believe. A hypothetical interpretation of "dark energy," called by the even more ominous name "phantom energy," suggests that the universe could explode into a post-temporal field in a few dozens of billions of years, perhaps even before the stars burn out. On the upside, the phantom-energy model would allow for time machines and FTL travel. Let us be grateful for these consolations.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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The Long View 2004-02-13: Scandals; Legislative Tactics; Creeping Doom

Secretary of State Lurch

Secretary of State Lurch

It is kind of fun to relive past presidential elections through John's blog when another one is going on. It is much easier to gain perspective on manufactured scandals when you see them again twelve years later. For example, who now remembers the alleged sex scandal involving John Kerry. Or who cares? Fortunately, I tend to see elections as dark comedy. Very dark comedy.

I also find it interesting to re-read John's musings on gay marriage from the future. By now, the culture war is over, and the Left won, but I am curious to see whether something like the Roe v. Wade model will persist. A dogged, and sometimes unpopular, anti-abortion movement has slowly, slowly scaled back abortion in the United States. Probably both because abortion is widespread, and icky, if you think about it, which most people don't.

Gay marriage isn't like that in either way, because ceremonies are usually big parties, and there also aren't all that many gays and lesbians who want to get married, in comparison to straight people. Thus, despite years and years and years of electoral defeats, the eventual imposition of gay marriage by the US Supreme Court was mostly met by quiet acceptance. However, it does seem likely that there will be an unconvinced minority in the United States on this issue for a long time, and there is now a template for how to play a successful long game.


Scandals; Legislative Tactics; Creeping Doom

 

I actually voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988. I hadn't planned to, but my mind was changed by that stultifying campaign the elder George Bush ran. It was Bush's visit to the flag factory that did it. For many people, this year's flag factory could be the attempt to manufacture a sex scandal involving John Kerry. The allegation that Kerry might have been carrying on with women above the age of consent while married to a ketchup heiress would be deplorable if it turns out to be true, but I am appalled that someone would make this a campaign issue.

It's worse than a crime; it's mistake. The public willingly forgave Bill Clinton his trailer-park shenanigans during the primaries of 1991-1992. Why would they do less for the achingly respectable Senator Lurch? Moreover, if one must bring up an issue like this, one does it in the final days of the general election. Some such bit of foolishness about the younger Bush was released to the press just before the pre-election weekend in 2000. (What was it: something about a drunk-driving incident?) It probably lost Bush the popular vote. Had the matter been raised six months earlier, its effect would been zero.

Of course, for pure cluelessness, nothing can beat the National Guard Scandal. To begin with, even if Bush the Younger did miss some Guard-service weekends, that is very far short of a hanging offense. More important: if you are going to stage a scandal, the scandal has to be about something interesting. Sex is good. Death is better. Even accounting will do, if the accounting is about money. The Guard attendance "issue" is about as interesting as whether a candidate took enough course credits in a subject to justify him listing it as a minor academic concentration on his resume.

* * *

And what does a People Magazine political system do to the actual operation of government? Mark Steyn hit the nail on the head:

It was summed up by Americans' only glimpse of the president on the morning of 9/11: the commander-in-chief being informed of the first attack on the American mainland in nearly 200 years while he was speaking to grade-schoolers in Florida. That image encapsulates everything that's wrong with both parties' approach to government.....

As we learned in the days after, because of incompatible computers, the FBI was unable to e-mail pictures of the 9/11 killers to local offices. Yet there's money for rock 'n' roll nostalgia, and an "indoor rain forest" in Iowa. The president should not be the National School Superintendent, the Pharmacist-in-Chief, the Curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or the Inspector-General of Janet Jackson's Breasts. And, if neither politicians nor the electorate understands that at a time of war, then republican government is doomed.

* * *

Legislative challenges continue to Roe v. Wade, as they will until the Supreme Court relents or the principle of constitutional judicial review collapses:

Wed, Feb 11, 2004

After over two hours of emotional debate, the South Dakota House last night overwhelmingly passed House Bill 1191, 54 to 14. The Bill establishes that life begins at conception and would outlaw abortions in the state making the practice a five year felony. The Bill is designed to have the U.S. Supreme Court reconsider its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade which legalized abortions nationwide....

Approval by the House now sends the bill to the Senate where support continues to be strong. Should South Dakota's pro-life governor sign the bill, the new law would directly confront Roe v. Wade.

The novelty here is that the statute attempts to address some of the issues that the Supreme Court said were beyond its competence, and, apparently, to meet the "strict scrutiny" test that the Court demands for the restriction of rights that the Court has decided are basic:

In the preamble to HB 1191, the legislature determined that based on the best scientific and medical evidence, life begins at fertilization and that South Dakota's Bill of Rights applies equally to born and unborn human beings. The Bill also finds that abortions impose significant risks to the health and life of the pregnant mother, including significant risk of suicide, depression and other post traumatic disorders.

This strategy will almost certainly not work, though it might force the Supreme Court to adopt a position that is publicly untenable. However, the statute will itself garner only limited national support, because it seeks to recriminalize an area that most people only want heavily regulated. What such statutes should seek to do is fold the abortion question into medical ethics: any physician who performs an abortion that does not fall into a very short list of exceptions should be deemed to have committed a breach of medical ethics. The physician's license should be suspended, pending the satisfactory completion of an ethics course.

If you live in South Dakota, you might consider writing to your state senator to this effect.

* * *

On the matter of gay marriage, which the Supreme Court has told us is the same issue as Roe v. Wade, I see that the Massachusetts constitutional convention has suspended its deliberations. The convention was trying to formulate an amendment that would have overturned the Diktat by that state's supreme court, which requires that same-sex unions be included in the definition of marriage. Most of the convention seems to have wanted to compromise, by passing an amendment that would have allowed civil unions. The proponents of the gay agenda, however, would have none of it: they insisted that any amendment exclude the possibility of both gay marriage and civil unions. The idea is that the public will see this as an extreme position, which the voters would reject when the amendment goes on the ballot.

Once again, we see the Left daring the body politic to defy progressive opinion: "It's us or them!" When challenged in this way, the voters almost invariably choose "them."

By the way, if no one has done so already, someone (other than myself) should draft a standard, nationally valid document that creates domestic partnerships. I suppose that it would take the form of a mutual exchange of powers of attorney, along with a joint will (which is possible, but tricky). Such a partnership would be a far more complete sharing of private fortunes than matrimony affords. People who want to hire a complaisant member of the clergy to preside over the signing would be welcome to do so.

What nonsense this whole subject is.

* * *

No doubt part of the reason I am so keen on models of history is the dread that the world might be derailed by something wholly unheard of, as in a J.G. Ballard story. Consider this news from Sicily:

Since mid-January dozens of domestic items have spontaneously burst into flames, badly damaging houses and spreading panic in Canneto di Caronia....

Italian utility Enel cut off the town's power after the first reports, but the fires continued.

And then it gets worse:

On Monday the affair took a new turn when a chair burst into flames. Then a fire started in a water pipe.

Incidents like this tend to evaporate in the light of later information, but I can't help wondering what would happen if the effect spread. Suppose some airborne organism has evolved that spontaneously combusts when given a little encouragement. This won't do. This won't do at all.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-05-13

Turns out Friday the 13th falls on a Friday this year.

The day we discovered our parents were Russian spies

Spying is a daily reality in the world.

50 years on, one of Mao's 'little generals' exposes the horror of the Cultural Revolution

Fortunately, Mao doesn't have many apologists in the US.

Not a joke: Budweiser will rename beer 'America'

On reflection, this may be a pretty good marketing move. Lots of beers are named for where they are made, e.g. Weihenstephaner. The kind of people who drink Budweiser probably do associate it with America.

AMERICA F*#K YEAH! MUSIC VIDEO from the move "Team America World Police" Regular & Bummer Versions !!!!!!

We are not your Asian American (Political) Sidekick

Razib Khan:

And yet the Quartz piece engages in some interesting jujitsu by actually reporting the statistics of Asian American advantage vis-a-vis white Americans in the service of a broader agenda of putting whites in their place in relation to their critiques of black Americans. In particular it quotes Anil Dash as saying “If Asian Americans talked about white Americans the way whites talk about black folks, they’d bring back the Exclusion Act.”
This to me is really bizarre, and why I term the piece mendacious: Asian Americans do talk about white Americans the way whites talk about black folks.

This reminds me of the time I found out what gwailo meant.

The Long View 2004-02-09: We Don't Deserve These People

Thomas Friedman's 2004 sentiment about the honor our military deserves probably has something to do with how much money the Defense Department spends on sporting events and movies these days.


We Don't Deserve These People

 

So said Thomas Friedman in The New York Times yesterday, contrasting the sterling character of the members of the US armed forces (increasingly members of Strauss & Howe's Millennial Generation, let us note) with the shiftless and no-account nature of the American body politic. He puts it this way:

I was actually at the Super Bowl. Yup. And I too was upset about the halftime show -- but not just because of Janet Jackson's antics. After the show ended, I said to my wife: How can we present something to America and the world that is this frivolous and gross when we have 115,000 U.S. soldiers at war in Iraq, dying at one per day? I realize this is irrational -- there's no rule that says the Super Bowl show must honor America's soldiers at war. But that halftime show has become a kind of national moment and the grotesque way it came out really captured what has bothered me most about how this war is being conducted: The whole burden is being borne by a small cadre of Americans -- the soldiers, their families and reservists -- and the rest of us are just sailing along, as if it has nothing to do with us.

I suspect Thomas Friedman is still far from seeing that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision in the Goodridge case (the one that mandated same-sex marriage) was more of a national embarrassment than anything that Janet Jackson could do. However, I would not be surprised if he eventually came around to that view. In a decade like this, what is inconceivable one year can become blindingly obvious five years later.

What's interesting about the Goodridge opinion is that the court chose to pull the trigger; the time for half-measures were over, as far as the justices were concerned. This is precisely the attitude that led George Bush to treat the terror threat as a world war, rather than as a police problem. The Massachusetts justices for the majority were, for the most part, born a few years before George Bush. Still, for good and ill, what we are seeing here is Baby Boomer government.

* * *

Speaking of George Bush, I thought that many of the reviews of his interview by Tim Russert of Meet the Press were surprisingly negative. Few commentators are so friendly to Bush as is Peggy Noonan, but she said:

 

The president seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling. His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse. He did not seem prepared.

She has a theory that explains why so many Republicans seem to have trouble tying their rhetorical shoelaces:

Speeches are the vehicle for philosophy. Interviews are the vehicle of policy. Mr. Kerry does talking points and can't give an interesting speech. Mr. Bush can't do talking points and gives speeches full of thought and assertion.

This was a plausible argument for Ronald Reagan, who really was a pretty good copywriter, even though he did not write his own major addresses. It's a little less convincing in connection with GWB. Whatever his other merits, an excessive attention to political philosophy is not one of them.

In any case, what most struck me about the interview was this exchange toward the end:

Russert: Are you prepared to lose [the election]?

President Bush: No, I'm not going to lose.

Russert: If you did, what would you do?

President Bush: Well, I don't plan on losing. I have got a vision for what I want to do for the country. See, I know exactly where I want to lead. I want to lead us I want to lead this world toward more peace and freedom. I want to lead this great country to work with others to change the world in positive ways, particularly as we fight the war on terror, and we got changing times here in America, too.

Perhaps I am misreading this, but it looks to me as if the interviewer were asking for a pro forma assurance that the president would accept the results of an election, and the president did not say "yes."

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the actual war, a perversely hopeful sign has emerged in the form of an internal memo from the insurgency. An analysis appears in today's New York Times:

American officials here [in Iraq] have obtained a detailed proposal that they conclude was written by an operative in Iraq to senior leaders of Al Qaeda, asking for help to wage a "sectarian war" in Iraq in the next months.

The Americans say they believe that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has long been under scrutiny by the United States for suspected ties to Al Qaeda, wrote the undated 17-page document. Mr. Zarqawi is believed to be operating here in Iraq.

There is a cottage industry in Iraq that produces documents that purport to come from the old regime and the current jihad. These forgeries say things the occupation authorities want to hear, so those authorities have been very slow to endorse any captured document. If they are confidant enough to release this one, then it is probably worth taking seriously. The gist of the document seems to be that the insurgents are having trouble recruiting. They are even being denied passive support from Iraq's Sunnis. Furthermore, the window of opportunity for the insurgents is closing as the Coalition forces are replaced by local forces as peacekeepers:

With some exasperation, the author writes: "We can pack up and leave and look for another land, just like what has happened in so many lands of jihad. Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases.

"By God, this is suffocation!" the writer says.

But there is still time to mount a war against the Shiites, thereby to set off a wider war, he writes, if attacks are well under way before the turnover of sovereignty in June. After that, the writer suggests, any attacks on Shiites will be viewed as Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence that will find little support among the people.

"We have to get to the zero hour in order to openly begin controlling the land by night, and after that by day, God willing," the writer says. "The zero hour needs to be at least four months before the new government gets in place."

That is the timetable, the author concludes, because, after that, "How can we kill their cousins and sons?"

All of this chimes with the confusing reports last week that an assassination attempt had been made against Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, reports that were later denied. If the point of the exercise is to start a civil war, then the mere rumor of an attempt to kill the Shiite religious leader might suffice to start intercommunal riots. It is not impossible that such a strategy would succeed. However, if the insurgents really are contemplating such a thing, they are in effect admitting failure.

* * *

I have just a few comments about the Imminent Threat controversy that has dragged on in the wake of recent remarks by arms inspector David Kay and CIA chief George Tennet. At the risk of restating the record yet again, let me repeat that President Bush said he it was necessary to change the regime in Iraq before the threat it posed became imminent. He also said that the current threat included WMD stockpiles. However, Iraq's current arsenal was never the justification for the war. And no, that isn't a later rationalization.

The scary aspect of the imminence hoax is that the Democratic candidates now how have to argue that the situation the Coalition forces found in Iraq was tolerable. Moreover, they have to promise to be more cautious about the WMD threat, though in fact the recent revelations from Iran and Libya show that the situation is worse than we had imagined. This attitude has met with a positive response among most of the media, and a fraction of the electorate whose size we will discover in November.

Maybe these people are exactly what we deserve. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-02-04: When the Vampire Speaks

Bill Clinton in Qatar in 2004

Bill Clinton in Qatar in 2004

Bill Clinton's visit to U.S.-Islamic World Forum in 2004 is a good reminder that there isn't really that much difference between the two American parties on foreign policy.

[Bill Clinton] told his audience that had he been president when the September 11 attacks occurred, he would have followed a course identical to that of his successor. He praised President Bush for trying to convince Muslims that America's war on terror is not a war against Islam. And despite all of the baiting during a question and answer session, Clinton never blamed the Bush administration for its many policy missteps. Instead, he called on his audience to bring about a "free, independent, stable, and representative government in Iraq"...[He scolded the crowd that blaming others for their own failings was useless and destructive.] It is a message few Americans could deliver to Muslim leaders -- to a standing ovation.

Here are some interesting off-hand comments about the 2004 papal conclave:

Weigel points out that, at the next conclave to elect a pope, the cardinals will not divide along the liberal-conservative lines that religion journalists write about in the US. In the context of Catholic orthodoxy, there really isn't more than one possible opinion about abortion or the ordination of women. The cardinals will have serious prudential matters to talk about, however:
Collapsing Catholicism in Europe The collapse here is not just in church attendance, but in the populations that are supposed to attend. It's hard to start a religious revival on a dying continent. To me, this suggests that the cardinals would have to look at new ways to support natalism. They will also have to reconsider whether the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council did far more harm than good. The next pope is not going to endorse gay marriage; he may well endorse a Latin liturgy.
Radical Islam The penny seems to have dropped that some elements of modern Islam just can't be dialogued with. I was about to write "No one wants a Crusade," but I am not so sure. At the very least, one would expect some attention to the evangelization of Muslims in Christian countries.
Biotechnology There is a European phobia about this that I have always had trouble grasping. The really interesting point will be whether the theologization of environmentalism continues. I would suggest that would be a mistake, but then no one has asked me to attend the meeting.

This guess about the character of the then future Pope Benedict XVI was pretty good.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI


When the Vampire Speaks

 

The Democratic presidential primaries have now reached the point where only one question remains: is there any way that Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts can fail to get the nomination? The dynamics of the race are now wholly in his favor: almost all the organized money is flowing his way, and the media is following him as a real front-runner. In that he is more fortunate than Howard Dean, who from first to last was treated as a popular-culture phenomenon. Nonetheless, we should not forget the wisdom of Edgar Frog in The Lost Boys (1987), who had this explanation for his rapid retreat from a nest of sleeping vampires:

We had no choice! They pulled the Mind Scramble on us! They opened their eyes and talked!

John Kerry is ahead because he looks, and no doubt is, serious. His seriousness is so profound that it is hard to remember anything he actually says. This is his talent as a politician. The danger is that he has rarely benefited from close attention to his words.

Senator Kerry's record in Vietnam outclasses the martial credentials of any serious contender for the presidency since Theodore Roosevelt. This leaves him free to act as an avatar of anti-American transnationalism. The same pattern runs through his whole life: he gets a credential to deflect criticism from what otherwise would be a vulnerable position. His economic populism might seem threatening to investors and entrepreneurs, had he not taken the trouble to become a Bonesman at Yale. He opposes gay marriage, but also voted against the Federal Defense of Marriage Act. Most recently, of course, he voted for the resolution that made the Iraq War possible, but now is campaigning on the proposition that the war was a mistake, and was always obviously a mistake.

Consistency is not that much of a factor in the general election; in November, people vote on the the basis of the candidate's perceived character. However, consistency really does matter in primaries, where the voters are much more likely to be unforgiving ideologues and over-informed news junkies. So, it's possible that John Kerry will utter some show-stopper in the next few days that will put Wesley Clark or John Edwards back in play. The window is closing fast, however.

* * *

Speaking of confrontations with uncongenial realities, Mary Eberstadt has an opinion piece in the February issue of First Things that puts the gay phenomenon in perspective. The essay, entitled "The Family: Discovering the Obvious," points out that homosexual marriage is the only context in which open opposition to the traditional family survives:

That is a major transformation in public life. Only twenty-five years ago, not only the acceptance but the active ideological defense of [heterosexual single-parent households] was the intellectual norm among secular educated people. Divorce, it was commonly argued then, is not only a human right but actually better for the child. One parent was said to be as good as two...Today, by contrast, they are all playing defense. Whether they like it or not, whether they begrudge the fact or not, most people in the public square have been brought around to recognizing the truth of this proposition: the traditional family, despite its problems, it is nonetheless the best arrangement yet contrived for raising children.

As for the gay exception, she makes this prediction:

Sooner or later, someone is going to ask why, if being gay is cause for celebration, gay boys and men continue to kill themselves at significantly higher rates than do heterosexuals. Sooner or later, someone is going to wonder why, despite society's open arms, virtually every study of gay mental health shows higher rates of depression, alcoholism, sexual addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, and the rest.

This is the evidence ignored by, for example, judges who place children in gay-headed households. It is also the evidence ignored by everyone who argues that homosexuality has nothing to do with sex scandals involving young boys. It is also the evidence that will not go away. The empirical reality of much gay life contradicts the rhetoric of virtual normality; and eventually, it seems safe to predict, the twain will meet.

Not to belabor the point, but the whole gay phenomenon is starting to look like the Internet bubble at the beginning of 2000, when AOL was briefly worth more than all the stars in the sky. To switch metaphors: the Hindenburg is almost above Lakehurst, and Fritz is about to sneak a quick smoke next to a leaky gasbag on the afterdeck.

* * *

This is not to say that there is no life after the bubble bursts. Bill Clinton, despite the trail of slime he left on his exit from the White House, is turning into a useful ex-president. In the February 9 issue of The Weekly Standard, Marc Ginsberg, a former US ambassador to Morocco, recounts how the president emeritus saved American's bacon during the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, which was hosted in Qatar in January. The meeting brought together journalists and politicians from all over the Muslim world, as well as members of the Western press. Some high-ranking Bush Administration officials were also supposed to attend, but backed out when Bill Clinton agreed to come. No matter:

[Bill Clinton] told his audience that had he been president when the September 11 attacks occurred, he would have followed a course identical to that of his successor. He praised President Bush for trying to convince Muslims that America's war on terror is not a war against Islam. And despite all of the baiting during a question and answer session, Clinton never blamed the Bush administration for its many policy missteps. Instead, he called on his audience to bring about a "free, independent, stable, and representative government in Iraq"...[He scolded the crowd that blaming others for their own failings was useless and destructive.] It is a message few Americans could deliver to Muslim leaders -- to a standing ovation.

As Tacitus said of the unfortunate Emperor Galba: "by general consent, the most fit to rule, had he not ruled."

* * *

A friend sent me this link to a piece by George Weigel, A Crossroad for the Catholic Church. It appeared in yesterday's Washington Post: it's the sort of thing that The New York Times just will not publish anymore, even as an Op Ed.

Weigel points out that, at the next conclave to elect a pope, the cardinals will not divide along the liberal-conservative lines that religion journalists write about in the US. In the context of Catholic orthodoxy, there really isn't more than one possible opinion about abortion or the ordination of women. The cardinals will have serious prudential matters to talk about, however:

Collapsing Catholicism in Europe The collapse here is not just in church attendance, but in the populations that are supposed to attend. It's hard to start a religious revival on a dying continent. To me, this suggests that the cardinals would have to look at new ways to support natalism. They will also have to reconsider whether the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council did far more harm than good. The next pope is not going to endorse gay marriage; he may well endorse a Latin liturgy.

Radical Islam The penny seems to have dropped that some elements of modern Islam just can't be dialogued with. I was about to write "No one wants a Crusade," but I am not so sure. At the very least, one would expect some attention to the evangelization of Muslims in Christian countries.

Biotechnology There is a European phobia about this that I have always had trouble grasping. The really interesting point will be whether the theologization of environmentalism continues. I would suggest that would be a mistake, but then no one has asked me to attend the meeting.

For myself, I am reluctant to speculate about the Conclave. Over the years, too many people who have written about the passing of John Paul II have been called by their Maker for closer consultations.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-02-02: Groundhog Day


Groundhog Day

 

One may well ask how I could live so long without realizing that Candlemas and Groundhog Day are the same festival. No doubt they are related as Halloween is to All Saints' Day: a very old festival whose more recent, Christian lid has come loose, so that most people are unaware that the lid was ever there.

These days, probably more Wiccans than Catholics are aware of Candlemas, since Candlemas is not a holy day of obligation. There is a liturgy for the day that involves cool stuff with candles, but you are likely to see it only if the feast falls on a Sunday, as it did last year.

* * *

Groundhog Day is also the name of a movie about people trapped in a time loop, so that they have to repeat and repeat the day. That's why I bring it up, because it reflects the sense I get of the current presidential election. The parallels with the 1992 election would be spooky if they were not so unimaginative. Going into the election year, President Bush Senior was running on the recent victory in the Gulf War. He hoped that the economy, which had been in recession but was beginning to recover, would improve enough by Election Day that it would not be a factor. In that he was sorely mistaken; the Democrats framed the election in terms of economic issues and won. However, they did not neglect to systematically belittle the president's foreign-policy record. Beginning in the Fall of 1991, there was an endless stream of revisionist accounts of the Gulf War which argued that the war was unnecessary and that, in any case, the US had not really won at all.

Today, when the stakes are higher by an order of magnitude, pretty much the same story is being put out, with surprisingly little attention to the change in circumstances. The result is not always very coherent. The Democratic senators at last week's hearings with former arms inspector David Kay asked for an independent inquiry into whether the Administration manipulated the intelligence it had received about the WMD situation in Iraq, when Kay had just told them that the intelligence agencies had told the president exactly what the president repeated to the public. It is hard to see how there can be manipulation when the output is the same as the input. Nonetheless, the Democrats will get their independent investigation. The benefit from the process, from their point of view, is less likely to be a final report that is damning to the Administration than the wrangles that will emerge over the Administration's unwillingness to answer some of the subpoenas the investigators will issue.

The chief outcome of the Democratic repudiation of the Gulf War of 1990-1991 was that the world was put on notice that the United States would do nothing of the sort again, at least as long as a Democrat is in the White House. In today's world, that would mean that people living in countries under assault from the Islamists (not a small number of countries) would be best advised to make what accommodation they can with the jihad. Meanwhile, on the surface, the UN would be abuzz with new international law-enforcement and arms-control initiatives. The results really are predictable. I have a nightmare image of President Kerry's curiously immobile face, speaking to the nation from an extremely secure location as the fallout settles from the nuke in the rental truck that took out Wall Street.

* * *

Should we not repeat 1992, there is always 1972. The Eastern Establishment (for want of a better term) never accepted the presidency of Richard Nixon as legitimate. When he was reelected, his opponents no longer cut him the slack that is customary in a democracy. Ronald Reagan, with his privately funded covert action unit that came to light in the Iran-Contra scandal, had arguably committed acts far more worthy of impeachment than ever Richard Nixon did. However, few responsible people really wanted to see Reagan removed from office, so the Democrats didn't push the button. They did for Nixon. They will for George W. Bush.

Again, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, which I daily regret having briefly supported, set a very low standard for beginning the process of removal. All that stands between GWB and a serious attempt to remove him from office is the Republican control of both houses of Congress, which is a slender margin of safety.

And speaking of slender margins: if President Bush wins in 2004 only in the Electoral College again, there will be gunfire. Possibly the jihad would acquire domestic allies in the US (not all the links need be on the Left, by the way). It is a mystery to me why the College has not been reformed, after the wake-up call of 2000. We will deeply regret having neglected the matter.

* * *

On a less alarming note: I have been pestering people about my new review of David Frum and Richard Perle's book, An End to Evil. The Federal Papers it ain't, but it is the flavor of the month.

AN ADDENDUM: Just after I updated, the invaluable Dan Darling emailed me to say he was discussing the review on Regnum Crucis. He makes many of the points that even a reviewer as long-winded as I could not make in the review itself. (Note how wonderfully Talmudic all this is, by the way: a commentary on a commentary on a text, with yet more meta commentary on in the Regnum Crucis "Comments" feature.")   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Groundhog Day (Special 15th Anniversary Edition)
Starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Robin Duke, Chris Elliott, Willie Garson

The Long View: An End to Evil

This is Exhibit A in the story of what went wrong during George W. Bush's response to 9/11. In retrospect, I see both how it seemed emotionally appealing, and how not everything Frum and Perle advocated is stupid. It is just the whole package that is stupid, but you need to know a lot to really get there.

Hindsight is 20/20, although in theory this is what experts are supposed to do: give us advice when we need it most and want it least. Frum and Perle clearly failed by that standard. For example, here is the definition of the problem of terrorism from this book:

For us, terrorism remains the great evil of our time, and the war against this evil, our generation's great cause. We do not believe that Americans are fighting this evil to minimize it or to manage it. We believe they are fighting to win – to end this evil before it kills again and on a genocidal scale. There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust.

No. No, it isn't. There is no possible way al-Qaeda then, or ISIS now, could possibly destroy America or the West. Their objective strength is 10,000 times less than the last mortal adversary the United States faced, the USSR. Bad things will happen, and have happened, but the time and money we have spent on this is vastly disproportionate to the problem.

Thanks, Frum and Perle.

I don't have any idea how to truly 'fix' the problem, by which I mean eliminate the ability of terrorists to do things like fly planes into the World Trade Center or shoot and bomb people in Paris on a November evening. But I do know that the usual way of putting it is exactly backwards: it doesn't matter how many of us they kill, our civilization cannot be killed by the likes of them.

9/11 was almost a decade in the works. The actual field strength of ISIS is less than 30,000 men. That isn't what a life or death struggle looks like. Almost 50,000 men died in the battle of Gettysburg alone. No one is all in here. Get a grip.


An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror
By David Frum and Richard Perle
Random House, 2003
284 Pages, US$29.95
ISBN 1-4000-6194-6

 

“But what did Mrs. Karswell say?”

“She was so excited I scarcely understood her. She kept repeating, 'All evil must end.' But how could it?”

---Curse of the Demon (1957)

 

By its own account, this book is a “manual for victory” in the War on Terror. It's probably just as well that the book delivers somewhat less than its title promises. Nonetheless, the strategy it does set out is more hopeful than George Kennan's “containment” policy must have seemed at the beginning of the Cold War. Certainly it is more proactive.

The authors are David Frum, who was George W. Bush's presidential assistant, and Richard Perle, who recently was chairman of the Defense Policy Board in the Department of Defense. (He is also remembered in policy circles as the “Prince of Darkness” because of his hard anti-Soviet line during the Reagan Administration, but that is another story.) Both authors are Resident Fellows at the American Enterprise Institute. They would be members of the Neoconservative Politburo, if the neoconservatives had a politburo, which the authors insist they don't. They assure us that the cabal you keep hearing about is really just four independent analysts who hardly anyone at the State or Defense Departments ever talks to.

In terms of literary form, “An End to Evil” falls under the category of “memorandum.” Much of the text employs the special White House mood that might be called the Presidential Declarative. It's quite without index or bibliography; the rare footnotes are chiefly to websites and a few magazines. For that matter, the lines of text are widely spaced, to make them easily readable by people too busy to read an ordinary book format. The effect is not like an ordinary political polemic. It's like being briefed.

But enough form criticism. The memorandum defines The Problem thus:

“For us, terrorism remains the great evil of our time, and the war against this evil, our generation's great cause. We do not believe that Americans are fighting this evil to minimize it or to manage it. We believe they are fighting to win – to end this evil before it kills again and on a genocidal scale. There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust.”

The problem within the Problem is that, sometime in the Spring of 2002, the elites of the West began to tire of the War on Terror. This includes the US State Department, which the authors sometimes seem to suggest is just marginally less of a menace to American security than is Al Qaeda. Certainly the foreign-affairs establishment opposed the war in Iraq, by means overt and covert.

The authors defend that war in detail. They note that, despite the lack of stocks of weapons of mass destruction, the Baathist regime had numerous weapons programs, and that the mere existence of the regime was an ongoing human-rights violation. The authors' main point, however, is that pursuing the War on Terror requires a strategy broader than the pursuit of the actual perpetrators of terror.

The reasons for the jihad against the West are largely autochthonous, though it is funded with oil dollars and facilitated by Finnish cellphones. The authors ascribe the root cause to the conceptual inability of Muslim societies to cope with their relative decline in the world, aggravated by the season of fantasy made possible by the sudden infusion of oil money. A terse characterization of the current situation (though not one that the authors give) is that the jihad is an Islamic civil war being fought in part on Western soil.

The strategy of the terrorists is not at all irrational. By spectacular acts of carnage, they hope to cow Western publics into deference to their goals, and to promote the prestige and credibility of Islamists in Muslim countries. By the same token, however, if the Islamists are seen to be losing, if their terror attacks are thwarted and their sponsors are being overrun, then the terrorist networks will disintegrate. “Nobody wants to die on a fool's errand,” the author's note. The War on Terror is difficult, but it is winnable.

The perpetrators are just the final product of a system of financial support, logistical assistance and, ultimately, of physical protection that only states can provide. It is nonsense to assert, as some opponents of military action apparently do, that the 911 attacks were accomplished using fewer than two-dozen men at a cost of a few thousand dollars. In fact, the system that recruited and trained the hijackers extended over several countries. It took more than a decade to build, at great expense. Most important of all: Al Qaeda is just a special case. Despite differences in ideology and theology, the Baathists and Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Brigades are in fact in continuous contact, and sometimes hold general conferences in friendly countries. In the final analysis, nothing will serve but to change the nature of those regimes that actively support these groups, or are too weak to resist them.

That said, we are still left with the question: “Why start with Iraq?” Iraq does have a history of supporting terrorists, notably Abu Nidal. However, the Baathist regime has clearly been far less active in this regard since the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Though the authors never quite say so, one gathers that Iraq was simply the best choice in legal and logistical terms. I find that justification persuasive. It is also scarcely a secret: preemption was the chief theoretical reason the Bush Administration gave for pursuing the Iraq War. However, the Administration did not trouble to keep this theory before the public.

Emphasizing preemption would have been difficult for the Administration, since the logic of the theory makes Saudi Arabia the real target. That may not be what the Administration intends. Nonetheless, the authors make a good case that something even beyond regime change is necessary in the Arabian peninsula: the elimination of the Saudi state. The authors repeat certain embarrassing facts. Saudi-funded religious schools have radicalized a generation of young Muslims, from the Gulf to Indonesia to American prisons, with an ideology of jihad and a worldwide caliphate. Saudi money supports front groups in Western countries that deflect the authorities from investigating the terrorist connections of many mosques and academics. Saudi money has corrupted an appreciable fraction of the diplomatic corps in the United States, where the easy transformation from career diplomat to splendidly compensated lobbyist for Saudi causes is a scandal that dwarfs private-sector influence buying. And let us not forget: the suicide bombers on 911 were mostly Saudis.

The Saudi monarchy is not particularly malicious. It is dangerous because it is weak. The monarchy can maintain itself only by buying off radical Islamists, who then use the money for purposes that are very malicious indeed. The Saudi state is so grossly corrupt and incompetent that its survival is problematic at best. While the authors do not exclude the possibility that the monarchy might be reformed, they say that US should be focusing on the fact that the kingdom's Eastern Province, where most of the oil is located, is also largely Shiite and notably restive. Presently, the authors imply, the opportunity may come to redraw the map.

Breaking up Saudi Arabia is the single most dramatic suggestion in the book. Regime change should also be the goal in Iran, they say, but that can be accomplished by economic pressure, the support of dissidents, and the promotion of Western media. The one thing to avoid is to treat the Islamic Republic as a democracy, or even as legitimate. Regarding the other great intractable, North Korea, the authors note that there are no attractive options, but insist that some are better than others. We should disabuse ourselves of the idea that North Korea can be trusted to negotiate away its nuclear weapons. The US should take steps to make a war on the Korean peninsula less catastrophic, by redeploying its own troops and installing artillery suppression and antimissile systems. The key to Korea, however, is China, which can close down the North Korean regime almost at will. At least in the middle term, the US goal should be a North Korea that is more subservient to China.

“An End to Evil” sometimes waxes surprisingly irenic. Although Pakistan is in some ways even more frightening than Baathist Iraq was, the authors are inclined to attribute the radicalization of the Pakistani public square to Saudi subventions. The Pakistani government was unable to fund a comprehensive public-education system, so the Saudis stepped in with what in effect were missionary centers for Wahhabism. Moreover, the Saudis provided about three quarters of the funds for the Pakistani atomic bomb. There is no hope in the immediate future of persuading Pakistan to get rid of its nuclear weapons. The same is true of India. It is, however, possible to make the situation much less dangerous by rescuing the Pakistani state and economy. Normalizing economic relations between India and Pakistan can do that. The policy can be promoted by three-sided agreements with the US: India and Pakistan get to trade with America, if they agree to trade with each other. Again, the predicate for such a policy is cutting off the flow of poison money from the Arabian peninsula.

After the tools of War and Trade comes the Calculated Slight. Russia, for instance, should lose its courtesy seat in the Group of Eight if it continues to act as it did in the buildup to the Iraq War. France should be shut out of military and intelligence structures in which the US has a decisive say. More generally, the US should contemplate the possibility that increased European integration might not be in America's interest. Certainly it is not in US interests for Great Britain, with its deployable military forces, to become inextricably bound up with a confederacy dedicated to “counterbalancing” the US. This is not to say that the US should promote the dissolution of the EU, much less of NATO. The US should encourage as many new members as possible to join both organizations. The newbies can be counted on to be friendly to the US, and will soon put the French in their place.

The authors know that all these other steps will work only if the US wins the war of ideas. Richard Perle (like Caesar, he is often referred to in his own book in the third person) relates his experiences on talkshows and radio forums that suggest the US is doing a dismal job at this. There should be an all-media infrastructure by now that broadcasts in Arabic and Farsi, like that which served Eastern Europe during the Cold War. (The book does not have a clue about networks, incidentally: the authors regard the Internet as just another kind of cable television.) The US should turn away from supporting stability to supporting democracy in the Islamic world. A large part of this strategy would be the improvement of the position of women, both educationally and economically. All in all, the US should not be shy about creating a Middle East that looks like America:

“We do not show our respect for human difference by shrugging indifferently when people somehow different from ourselves are brutalized in body and spirit. If a foreign people lack liberty, it is not because of some misguided act of cultural choice. It is because they have been seized and oppressed and tyrannized. To say that we are engaged in 'imposing American values' when we liberate people is to imply that there are peoples on this earth who value their own subjugation.”

This is more right than wrong, but the authors are blind to the fact that some of the supposedly universal values being promoted by international bodies these days are quite as intolerant and oppressive as anything the Wahhabis endorse. Particularly in the area of women's rights, institutions that were originally created to ensure the civil equality of women and to promote women's health have been taken over, in large part, by ideologues. Their chief interests are population control and the normalization of homosexuality. Humanitarian organizations founded to promote the well-being of children are now often more interested in ensuring that fewer children come into existence.

The authors applaud the fact that, soon after 911, the president rejected a proposal that he issue an apology for aspects of American culture, along the lines of “America is not always proud of its media.” That was a wise move: the last thing the US needed after attack by an ambitious and self-confident enemy was more introspection. Be that as it may, if the West wants to export its political culture to the Middle East, the West must recognize that there are aspects of Western modernity that really are repulsive. Not only would-be suicide bombers think that much Western popular culture is sadistic and leering, and that much Western high culture is not neutrally secular, but willfully blasphemous. A war of ideas that overlooks these issues could be lost.

The authors do recognize one truth uncongenial to the liberal West: the essential irrelevance of the Palestinian issue to the War on Terror. The US might receive some plaudits, even from Islamists, if it actually dismantled Israel and evacuated its people from the region. In reality, though, any Palestinian state that is likely to emerge in the Middle East would be an embarrassment: over-policed, corruptly governed, with a political culture based on evasive grievances. As far as the War on Terror is concerned, the US would achieve nothing by pressuring Israel to acquiesce in the establishment of such a state.

A democratic Palestinian state with a liberal economy would be a good idea: both for its own sake, and as a demonstration project for the rest of the region. However, the authors believe that the best place for such a demonstration is Iraq. If that works, then maybe Palestinian civil society will be emboldened to demand better governance.

The authors recommend some very specific steps at home to support the war. They have pretty much given up in the CIA: it should be stripped of all functions but collecting and analyzing intelligence. Similarly, the FBI should go back to crime fighting, while domestic security is put in the hands of a new agency. The authors seem to have trouble taking on board the fact that all persons located in the United States, even those here illegally, must have some rights under the Constitution; that's what “jurisdiction” means.

The book seems to take special delight in redesigning the State Department. All those pesky regional bureaus must go, for a start. To add outrage to injury, the authors recommend more political appointments, especially at the policymaking level. Foreign Service officers are patriotic public servants, the authors concede. However, unlike the patriotic public servants in the military, they have no compunctions about sabotaging policies that are not to their liking.

Quite aside from the motives of the Islamists, the authors detect a deeper explanation for why the US was attacked on 911.

“The 1990s were a decade of illusions in foreign policy. On September 11, 2001, this age of illusion ended. The United States asked its friends and allies to join in the fight against terror – and discovered that after the first emotional expressions of sympathy for the victims, those friends and allies were prepared to do little. September 11 revealed what Americans had been concealing from themselves for far too long: The end of the cold war and the emergence of the United States as the world's superpower had not put an end to the rivalries and animosities of nations. It had simply misdirected them – often against the United States.”

At the end of the book, the authors make many criticisms of the UN. Most important is the accusation that it is anachronistic. The UN was designed to prevent a Blitzkrieg. Today, however, the UN's concepts of aggression and defense actually prevent rational action against international terrorism and its state sponsors. Maybe the definitions of the UN system could be expanded to accommodate the new reality. If not, however, the authors are quite willing to dispense with the system, even if many well-meaning people do regard the United Nations as the parliament of man.

This is not enough. No doubt the UN is due to be scrapped. However, the authors leave nothing to replace it, except for the unfettered discretion of the United States. That's not even an American Empire, which the authors agree would be a bad idea in any case. The authors are probably right that that War on Terror can be won at reasonable cost and in a reasonable amount of time. But what happens then? They may create a vacuum and call it peace. That would not be the end to evil, however. Evil is the absence of good. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror
By David Frum, Richard Perle

The Long View 2004-01-28: New Hampshire; Mars; The Straits of Malacca; NGO Land

It is often the case that today's solutions are tomorrows problems. It is also often the case that yesterday's solutions are sometimes today's solutions too, although that implies we shall subsequently have yesterday's + 1 problems. 

So, for your reflection, in the portrait gallery below are the first men who came to mind when considering John's final rhetorical question:

What this planet needs is NGOs with a sense of the fragility of civilization. Actually, what it really needs is conservatives whose conservatism embraces the need for a livable transnational system. Isn't this what we have foundations for?  

New Hampshire; Mars; The Straits of Malacca; NGO Land

 

By far the most telling comment I have seen so far about the current Democratic presidential primaries was made by the Google ad software. The oracle spoke in connection with a column of Mark Steyn's that appeared online on January 25, entitled: Mad Dr. Dean jolts Kerry campaign to life. Among other worthy points, Steyn remarked:

Ever since last Monday's audition for ''An American Werewolf In Des Moines,'' the Vermonster has been in sleep mode.

The Google system chose these Related Advertising Links to go at the bottom of the column. One was to "Howard Dean for President." The other was to "Sleep Disorders."

There is wisdom here, and not just about Dr. Dean. I have nothing against John Kerry, who did very well in New Hampshire, but few people voted for him because of his long-nosed Brahmin drone, or the zero-vitamin content of his campaign speeches. He won yesterday because a plurality of the Democratic electorate thought he has the best chance of beating President Bush in November. That's as may be, but Kerry's campaign is always threatened by the danger that one of his opponents might say something interesting.

If there isn't a chatterbot already that does political commentary, someone should write one.

* * *

Through some inexplicable oversight, NASA has managed to send the rover Opportunity to a bit of Mars that is not as uniformly drab as Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. We read:

NASA released new images yesterday of a rock outcrop about 25 feet from where the Opportunity spacecraft landed Saturday night. Details in the new photographs suggest the outcrop may contain layers like those in sedimentary rocks on Earth, layers possibly created through the action of wind or water, which Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, were sent to Mars to find.

Any week now, NASA will make Opportunity travel to the outcrop and begin the long process of inconclusive robotic examination. It's entirely possible that the layers in question will turn out to be consistent with deposits of volcanic ash. Support for the hypothesis of aquatic sedimentation would be important, but we would still be grinding our teeth over the rover's inability to answer in 90 days the sort of questions that an on-site geologist could answer in half-an-hour. (I almost wrote "areologist" for "geologist," but I think that would be a bit of planetary correctness that we should avoid. "Geo" should be inclusive of whatever planet you're on.)

The most bio-friendly speculation I have seen about the evolution of Mars suggests that its biosphere, if it had one, would not have lasted long enough to get to the Cambrian Explosion, or even to multicellularity. Still, one can't help but wonder what would happen if a visual examination disclosed something spectacular, such as an obvious fossil. I don't think that such a discovery would move the man-to-Mars project to the status of a national priority, but I could see it being a catalyst for an international effort. The problem is that the precedent for this is the International Space Station; not a bad idea to begin with, but later redesigns ensured the station would do nothing.

Of course, maybe we have been wrong about the history of Mars, and about biospheres in general. Maybe biospheres move as quickly as they can to a point of maximum complexity, and then simply fall apart. Perhaps Mars went through the cycle much faster than did Earth. Maybe Spirit or Opportunity really will find the remains of a Martian gunboat on an ancient seabed. I would not bet on it, though.

* * *

Speaking of frustrating searches, one notes a certain uniformity in the reporting by the prestige press about former weapons-inspector David Kay's comments about his findings in Iraq. This headline from yesterday's New York Times tells the tale. Bush Backs Away From His Claims About Iraq Arms

In point of fact, what Kay actually said was that the Baathist government was in violation of the UN disarmament regime, and that it was preparing to resume production as soon as the international situation allowed. The erosion of the authority of the government there made the situation more dangerous, because terrorist groups were moving through the country and there was no way to tell what materials or information they were picking up. Kay really cannot be cited as someone who thought the Iraq war was ill-advised or unnecessary.

It's not unreasonable for Democrats to point out that the Iraqis did not have weapons stocks. If nothing else, the Coalition military's misguided belief that the Iraqis might use WMDs prevented the campaign from going even faster. What is lethally misleading, however, is the spin on the subject being given by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, who said the "overwhelming question" surrounding the intelligence issue remained "was this a predetermined war or not?"

The overwhelming question is this, I think: If you knew that a band of neo-nazis had a camp in Idaho where they were planning to build truck bombs, would you wait until they acquired the trucks before raiding the camp? Conspiracy is a crime, too, for the excellent reason that you should not have to wait until a crime is actually underway before taking steps to stop it.

It's true that lots of people in the world want to do what the Baathists wanted to do. We have to get them all.

* * *

On the subject of collapsing domestic and international norms, see Joseph (aka Jody) Bottum's lead editorial in the February 2 of The Weekly Standard, No Abortion Left Behind. It deals with some internal memos of a lawyers' NGO called the Center for Reproductive Rights, which were mailed anonymously to Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. They have since been entered in the Congressional Record by Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, where they will be afforded some protection against the NGO's attempts to suppress their publication.

The memos prove nothing criminal; they just illustrate the business that many NGOs are in. They seek to create "soft international norms" by inserting vague language into international agreements, which then can be enforced as hard law by friendly judges. The strategy is to ensure that certain policies, particularly the promotion of abortion, are never decided upon by actual electorates. Bottum says:

[The harm to the Center for Reproductive Rights] is, finally, the revelation of the circularity of the abortion activists' technique. Their legal briefs routinely cite phrases they themselves crafted in U.N. directives, international court decisions, and treaty-organization minutes. Every time a court admits one of these "soft norms" --- as the U.S. Supreme Court did in its Lawrence decision last November -- the activists move closer to achieving their goal...[T]he international community did little to hide the centrality of its abortion agenda or its disdain for the opponents of abortion.

* * *

International norms were invented to handle issues that cannot be managed by individual nations. Today's transnational society justifies its influence with the argument that there must be people and institutions that can act globally. That is actually true. The problem is that transnational society seems determined to devote itself to Higher Crank causes like population control and global warming, while the predicates of international order are being eroded. The biggest example of this is the rogue-state and WMD threat, but we also see it in the growth of chronic lawlessless.

Consider piracy, for instance, which is growing by leaps and bounds. Pirates are doing conspicuously well in the neighborhoods of Bangladesh and Nigeria, but there is a more acute problem:

Indonesian waters continue to be the most dangerous with 121 reported attacks in 2003. The Malacca Straits, between Indonesia and Malaysia and one of the world's most strategically important shipping lanes, saw a rise to 28 attacks in 2003. Thirty percent of the world's trade and 80 percent of Japan's crude oil is transported through the narrow waterway.

I have never met any pirates, but I suspect they respond badly to soft norms. Certainly Baathists, Jihadis, and Korean Stalinists respond badly.

What this planet needs is NGOs with a sense of the fragility of civilization. Actually, what it really needs is conservatives whose conservatism embraces the need for a livable transnational system. Isn't this what we have foundations for?  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The 'white squatter camps' of post Apartheid South Africa

The South African apartheid regime was memorably described as "socialism for the Afrikaners, capitalism for the English-speaking whites and Indians, and fascism for the blacks." Now that the boot is on the other foot, the Afrikaners and other whites are either spiraling into poverty, or leaving if they can.

Give us a King!

Ross Douthat was always one of John J. Reilly's favorite political commentators, and here he channel's John's Spengler with a Smile theories of history.

Woman says selfie provoked argument that led to fatal shooting at Texas Walgreens

This should be a case study for people who carry guns. There is a reason cops hate DV calls.

Alton Brown: The Bitter Southerner Interview

I do love Alton Brown, and this is a really interesting interview. I enjoyed learning about Brown's personal history, but I also felt a little sad for him.

Coordinated attack feared after massive cathedral blaze

Several Orthodox chapels across the world were burned on Pascha, Easter as observed by the Eastern Christians.

Myers' Race Car versus The General Fitness Factor

Scott Alexander takes a outsider's look at the argument between Steve Hsu and P. Z. Myers on whether you can genetically engineer smarter humans. I'm rather more sympathetic to Hsu than Myers for lots of reasons, but part of what is going on here is Hsu is making an argument that what we know of genetics means this should be possible, whereas Myers' response is it would be hard to execute. Well, yeah. Thus, Myers is both correct, and completely fails to refute Hsu's point. As a footnote to Alexander's footnote, just because an allele has an advantage doesn't mean it will necessarily spread. The approximate theoretical chance of a gene with survival advantage s going to fixation [100% of the population] is 2s. s is here defined as the extra kids you have compared to others with the current alleles instead of the variant, and it tends to be really small. An s of .1 is big in this context, and thus you would expect an allele with this big of an effect to disappear from the gene pool 4 times out of 5. Most gene variants just disappear, even when they are useful.

The Long View 2004-01-24: More Catechesis

John here delves deeper into The Passion. Despite Gibson's personal flaws, the Passion isn't anti-Semitic. Yes, even though there has long been an undercurrent that insists on interpreting the Gospels this way.


More Catechesis

 

Here is a quick update to yesterday's exursion into the scriptural underpinnings of Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion.

The narrative in Matthew 27:24-25 that seems to be causing all the trouble runs thus:

Now Pilate, seeing that he was doing no good, but rather that a riot was breaking out, took water and washed his hands in sight of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just man; see to it yourselves." And all the people answered and said, "His blood be on us and on our children."

These lines would have immediately brought to the mind of their first audience this passage, Exodus 24:7-8:

Taking the Book of the Covenant, [Moses] read it aloud to the people, who answered, "All that the Lord has said, we will do." Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words."

Seen side-by-side, these passages are disorienting, like that Gestalt-puzzle that looks like the edges of two goblets when seen one way, but like two smiling faces when seen the other way. Oswald Spengler, of all people, came as close as any agnostic commentator has ever come to expressing this superimposition of realities :

But when Jesus was taken before Pilate, then the world of facts and the world of truths were face to face in immediate and implacable hostility. It is a scene appallingly distinct and overwhelming in its symbolism, such as the world's history had never before and has never since looked at...In the one world, the historical, the Roman caused the Galilean to be crucified -- that was his Destiny. In the other world, Rome was cast for perdition and the Cross became the pledge of Redemption -- that was the "will of God."
The Decline of the West Volume II
Historic Pseudomorphoses

In his later years, by the way, Spengler was working on a play about the trial of Jesus. I, for one, am sorry he did not live to finish it.

* * *

In any case, what the passage in Matthew clearly teaches is the establishment of a new covenant, one that includes the Jews, potentially if not always actually. Again, the question is whether the religious establishment will be able to divert its attention from social and psychological issues long enough to do a little old-fashioned exegesis.

* * *

Before all this is over, I will be sounding like Ned Flanders.  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly 

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The Long View 2004-01-23: Presidential Hostage-Taking; Sitzkrieg; Catechesis

John Reilly pooh-poohed a news report in 2004 linking Iran to al-Qaeda, but twelve years later, John Schindler, who was in the NSA at the time of 9/11, still wants to dig into the Iranian connection. Make of that what you will.

John also pooh-poohed the ability of Special Forces to fix what is wrong with the Middle East. Here, he is on much firmer ground. There are lots of reasons to doubt the utility of Special Forces as a matter of strategy, but they are pretty popular at present, especially after Seal Team Six finally killed Osama bin Laden.

Finally, we get a hint of the controversy that had yet to fully erupt regarding Gibson's Passion.


Presidential Hostage-Taking; Sitzkrieg; Catechesis

 

Regarding the foreign policy side of the current presidential contest, all I need do is cite the 5,897th instalment in Thomas Friedman's series, "Winning the War of Ideas," which appeared in yesterday's New York Times:

First, this notion, put forward by Mr. Dean and Al Gore, that the war in Iraq has diverted us from the real war on "terrorists" is just wrong. There is no war on "terrorism" that does not address the misgovernance and pervasive sense of humiliation in the Muslim world. Sure, Al Qaeda and Saddam pose different threats, Mr. [Will] Marshall [President of the Progressive Policy Institute] notes, "but they emerge from the same pathology of widespread repression, economic stagnation and fear of cultural decline." Building a decent Iraq is very much part of the war on terrorism.

Nonetheless, the irrepressible Friedman purports to be comforted by the progress of the Democratic primaries:

[I]t seems to me that Iowa Democrats, in opting for John Kerry and John Edwards over Howard Dean, signaled (among other things) that they want a presidential candidate who is serious about fighting the war against the Islamist totalitarianism threatening open societies.

The Iowa Democrats signaled no such thing; certainly the Jihadis who are scrambling for an opportunity to nuke a couple of American cities would not understand a Democratic victory in November in those terms. They would be right.

That's the terrifying thing about the current presidential race. The Administration's foreign policy is vital. It is also being executed as well as can be expected. However, it is being held hostage to the Administration's fiscal and social-service policies, which are short-sighted and fatuous. The price for the hope of physical security is the prospect that the federal debt may have to be repudiated by inflation toward the second half of this decade, and the certainty that there will be no solution to the health-insurance famine. It is possible that the people will not agree to pay that price.

When the electorate sent Bush Senior back to Kennebunkport in 1992, it did not matter much. Now it does matter. It's a matter of life and death.

* * *

Speaking of hysterical statements, what is one to make of this report from Germany?

A German judge has delayed his verdict in the trial in Hamburg of an accused accomplice of the September 11 hijackers to consider testimony from a new witness: a former Iranian spy who claims to have evidence that links Iran to al-Qaeda...The unidentified witness is described as a former Iranian intelligence agent. Last week he walked into the Berlin offices of the federal investigative police, the BKA, saying he had evidence that the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and its Iranian intelligence allies had ties to some September 11 plotters, sources said.

One notes that this is happening at the same time that Iranian President Mohammed Khatami is locked in a struggle with the Guardian Council, which has disqualified many parliamentary candidates who support Khatami, on the ground that the candidates are insufficiently Islamic.

Could the more liberal theocrats be trying to disembarrass themselves of Hezbollah and its works? Could they actually be inviting Special Operations against terrorist facilities in Lebanon and Syria?

* * *

On the subject of the use and abuse of Special Operations units, readers should look at a piece by Richard H. Shultz Jr. that appears in the January 26 issue of Weekly Standard: Showstoppers: Nine Reasons Why We Never Sent Our Special Operations after al Qaeda.

Some of the reasons are new to me, such as the argument that Title 50 of the US Code restricts the authority to conduct covert action solely to the CIA. The short answer is that the Code restricts the president's actions in no such way; he can direct any unit he likes to participate in covert actions. In any case, there is a distinction between "covert" (plausible deniability and all that) and "clandestine" (merely unpublicized). The former is governed by statute; the latter is a tactical question.

I remember editing Title 50, by the way, many years ago when I worked for West Publishing. What I chiefly recall was a lot of special legislation that provided pensions for groups of people who were defined in impenetrably elliptical ways. All of it had to be set out in teeny-tiny print in special footnotes. There can be no secret law, but you can punish nosy people by giving them eyestrain. But I digress.

A less esoteric brake on the use of Special Operation Forces [SOF] was the "Big Footprint" problem. As Shultz tells it:

The original concept for SOF counter-terrorism units was that they would be unconventional, small, flexible, adaptive, and stealthy, suited to discreet and discriminate use...[By the time SOF strikes were proposed in the 1990s against al Qaeda] "the Joint Staff and the chairman would come back and say, 'We highly recommend against doing it. But if ordered to do it, this is how we would do it.' And usually it involved the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The footprint was ridiculous." In each instance the civilian policymakers backed off.

For lightly informed history buffs like myself, this brings to mind the sort of discussions that the French government had during the Rhineland Crisis of 1936. That was when the new Nazi regime, testing French and British resolve, sent a token military force into the Rhineland, which was German territory but supposed to be demilitarized:

General [Maurice] Gamelin explained [the] very "idea of sending quickly into the Rhineland a French expeditionary force, even a more or less symbolical force, is chimerical. It is nonexistent. Our military system does not provide one."...What the Premier was envisaging that evening was a police action against a small band of German troops parading into the Rhineland, and the generals were telling him to envisage, instead, total war..."
The Collapse of the Third Republic
William Shirer

This analogy does not bear up, however. God alone knows what the French General Staff was thinking, but the US brass had ample reason for skepticism. There is a difference between a hostage rescue and a war. Since 911, Special Forces have been used to wonderful effect, but this has been as components of large, conventional invasions. Had it been possible to remove the Baathist regime in Iraq using only special forces, the US would have had very limited say in what replaced it. Even in Afghanistan, a kidnapping of Osama bin Laden and his court would not have ended the willingness of the Taliban regime to host such people. But then, you can't have everything.

* * *

I was recently asked to do a poster for a Latin Mass group that would incorporate the words "It is as it was," which are attributed to John Paul II as an assessment of Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion. Did the pope really say that? I am persuaded that he probably did. After the report was circulated worldwide, the pope's staff, reasonably enough but too late, realized that he should not be doing movie reviews. They are now making a hash of denying the report. Where are the Borgias when you need them?

I raise the matter now to clarify, not for the last time, what looks likely to be the central controversy that the film will generate. Consider this report from today's New York Times:

[T]wo of the nation's most prominent Jewish leaders said yesterday that they had watched recent versions of Mel Gibson's unreleased movie "The Passion of the Christ" and found it anti-Semitic and incendiary in the way it depicted the role of the Jews in Jesus's death.
***
Mr. Foxman said that in one scene in the version he watched, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas calls down a kind of curse on the Jewish people by declaring, of the Crucifixion: "His blood be on us, and on our children." In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 27, Verse 25, the only place in the Bible in which that statement appears, it is said to come from a crowd of Jews shouting for Jesus's death. The message of that passage, that the Jewish people were guilty of deicide, was repudiated by the Second Vatican Council.

Certainly the interpretation of that passage as a general indictment of the Jewish people was rejected by the Second Vatican Council. The original meaning of the passage, however, is that the sins of the Jews, like those of everyone else, are at least potentially washed away by the bloody atonement of Calvary, and this is true whether the beneficiaries of the atonement know it or not.

The kind of irony that we see in that passage of Matthew is not unique in the Gospels. Here is another example from John 11:45-53:

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.

46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.

47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

48 "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation."

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all!

50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish."

51He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation,

52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.

53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Two points for the theologically informed: First, I recognize that there is a difference between the doctrines of general and limited atonement, but the Matthew passage can be read to the same effect using either theory. Second, general atonement does not require apocatastasis. But don't get me started.

It is not absolutely certain that Matthew 27:25 will even appear in the film. If it does, the interesting question will be how many of today's theologically relaxed clergy will have the ability, or the inclination, to explain the passage correctly to their congregations. Orthodoxy is vital, too. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-21: The Iowa Caucuses and the State of the Union

Howard Dean Primal Scream

Howard Dean Primal Scream

What happened to Howard Dean in 2004 is what a lot of knowledgeable observers such as Nate Silver and Ross Douthat expected to happen to Donald Trump in 2015-16. What seems to have changed since 2004 is the Bushes lost control of the Republican party apparatus, and the Clintons have gained control of the Democratic party apparatus.

John also identified two issues here that would doom the Republican party establishment if not handled better: healthcare reform and Social Security. He nailed that one.


The Iowa Caucuses
and the State
of the Union

 

We should not attribute too much importance to Howard Dean's brief transformation into a werewolf on national television. Although there are certain disturbing similarities between the operation of the Dean campaign and the werewolf underground, actual lycanthropy is quite rare among liberal Democrats. We should recognize that the Iowa Caucus system is an anomalous process that routinely produces anomalous results. The Iowa Caucuses, in which people meet face-to-face and try to persuade each other, tend to filter out pure emotion. That will be much less the case when primary voters make their choices in the privacy of a voting booth. The sort of Democrats most likely to vote in primaries really are as artery-popping angry at George Bush as Howard Dean seems to be.

On the other hand, the defenestration of Howard Dean onto the snows of New Hampshire shows that there still exists a Democratic Party Establishment that is capable of defending itself. Until just last week, some pundits made disparaging comparisons between the inability of the Party elders to control Dean and the quick work that the Bush-family machine made of John McCain in the Republican primaries of 2000. No wing of the Democratic Party, and certainly no Democrat, has anything like the control that the Bushes have. Still, we see now that there really is more to the Party than a mere brand name.

* * *

The problem is that the candidate of the Establishment, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, is no more attractive now than before the Dean insurrection, when Kerry was the nominee presumptive. Howard Dean puts some people off because he lets anger get the better of him. Kerry gives the impression that the opposition is so tacky that he is demeaning himself by talking about it. Kerry suffers from the bane of the Democratic Party: totalitarian liberalism, which begins with the assumption that opposition to its positions is not just wrong, but also illegitimate. This flower of dementia is praised for its sophistication in certain political and academic hothouses, but it does not flourish in the ordinary atmosphere of Earth.

In a way, the most interesting candidate is the runner-up in Iowa, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Reputedly a brilliant speaker, he prospers by promising employees that he will sue their employers into bankruptcy, and by conveying the reassuring impression that he knows not one whit more about foreign policy than does the average newspaper reader.

Edwards' soft-southern appeal to class resentment never did the South much good; when such people come to power, as they do occasionally, they don't so much provide expanded social services as hire more people to provide them. This usually has ironic results. I'm writing this a few blocks from some bits of urban wasteland that still haven't been reclaimed after the catastrophe of Lyndon Johnson's "Model Cities" program.

* * *

The great merit of President Bush's State of the Union Address was that he reminded the people that they should still be afraid. The US is at war. It was attacked. Further attacks are being attempted. Controlling the problem through law enforcement and transnational politics was tried and did not work. The war in Iraq, apparently, did work: the example has made fence-sitting states more cooperative about rooting out terrorist networks, and all but the looniest rogue states are at least going through the motions of foreswearing WMDs.

In Iraq itself, the war overthrew a regime that was a continuing human-rights violation. There seem to have been no stocks of WMDs, but there were certainly programs to produce them once international pressure relaxed. As in horseshoes, close is good enough.

Allowing for certain omissions and ambiguities, this part of the speech was essentially correct. John Kerry's critique of Bush's foreign policy is a heroic attempt by the Eastern Establishment to throw itself back into the delusion of the Clinton years. Most Americans, probably, accept Bush's analysis. The problem is that the people could declare victory prematurely, and then look at the rest of the speech

* * *

The best that can be said for the domestic part of the address is that it does not violate the principle of "first, do no harm." There were no major spending initiatives, and the tax-reduction proposals (still) were familiar.

Two items struck me. One was that Bush spoke for 10 minutes about adding incremental changes to the already complex system of subsidies and tax inducements by which the federal government manages the health-insurance system. Then the president ended that section by promising to maintain private health care. There has been little "private" about it for time out of mind. It's a parastatal system that produces a mediocre product at inflated costs. A Democratic reform proposal that is both plausible and can be stated in a few words could lose Bush the election.

Then there's Social Security. The president said that he wants to turn Social Security into an "ownership program." It's not an ownership program; it's a guaranteed old-age pension. Certain augmentations have been added in recent years, but in essence that's what it is. If the Republican Party cannot grasp that kind of point, the Party's national position will collapse as soon as the international situation conspicuously improves.

* * *

The president also supported a constitutional amendment to define marriage. He did so elliptically, as something that would become an issue only if the courts tried to preempt the issue. By this, he was inviting the Cultural Left to also "first, do no harm." Not likely. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-19: My Platform

American politics just keeps getting stranger and stranger. President Obama made a Red Wedding joke at the White House Correspondents Dinner. One might hope he thinks of himself as Tywin Lannister rather than Walder Frey, 


My Platform

 

Tomorrow we have both the president's State of the Union Address and the results of the Iowa caucuses, both of them key factors in a presidential election that already seems to have gone on longer than the Palestinian peace process. (I see that Iraqi Shiites are demonstrating against picking the new government by caucus; they're on to something.) Readers will have gathered that I am not altogether happy with any of the candidates, including the incumbent, though I intend to support President Bush in any case. It is too much for an individual voter to ask that any candidate be precisely to his mind, but there is no reason I cannot speculate about the perfect platform. Here is how I conceptualize What Needs to Be Done:

War & Peace

THE TERROR WAR should be prosecuted in a way that builds on the example of the Iraq campaign, which is that a lack of transparency in the matters of WMD and the hosting of terrorist groups could be lethal. This means that international institutions, such as the UN, should be asked to help only in the role of utilities. However, though the international system is decadent in many ways, this is chiefly a matter of the culture of the transnational class. The institutions themselves, in most cases, should be preserved. NATO in particular is part of the constitution of the West, and should not be allowed to fall apart.

THE CONTROL AND REDUCTION OF IMMIGRATION is the key to the terrorist threat within the United States. Also, if the border with Mexico is not brought under control, the US faces serious irredentist movements in the Southwest. That is more important than any economic consideration. The president's recent proposal to re-instate a guest-worker program is an invitation to catastrophe.

 

Law & Order


PUBLIC HEALTH, like the police function, is a feature of public order. The US is going to have a universal health care system eventually; businesses as well as individuals have begun to demand it. The question is whether we are going to have a manageable one. A single-payer system would collapse of its own weight, but a voucher system that allowed private insurers to compete would probably cost less than the current system.

CLASS ACTION LITIGATION directed at deep-pocket entities should be recognized as criminal extortion. This includes a large fraction of environmental litigation, the slavery reparations movement, and some of the activities of the Holocaust bar. The statutes governing the jurisdiction of the federal courts should be amended to make clear that US courts do not have universal jurisdiction in human rights cases. Additionally, genuine public representation should be required on the boards of the major not-for-profit foundations.

 

God & Mammon


THE CULTURE WARS should be deconstitutionalized. As a matter of public policy, the political branches of government should declare that the line of privacy-and-liberty cases, beginning with Griswald v. Connecticut and extending through Lawrence v. Texas, are not just wrongly decided, but incompatible with constitutional government. This will entail reprimanding the courts through the enactment of unusually specific constitutional amendments, notably an amendment that will state the institution of marriage in constitutional terms.

THE FEDERAL BUDGET DEFICIT does matter. It matters a lot.

* * *

On a less cosmic note, I must mention an example of the kind of journalism that gives American conservatism a bad name. I have subscribed to the Weekly Standard from the beginning. I recognize that little magazines sometimes print things for reasons that have little to do with disinterested analysis. Nonetheless, it is still jolting to see the sort of blatant industry-handouts that The Weekly Standard occasionally publishes.

A prime exhibit is "The Real Car of the Year," which appears in the January 19 issue. Written by Henry Payne, whose cartoons appear in the Detroit News, it complains that American-made zero-emission gasoline vehicles got less press at the recent North American International Auto Show than Toyota's gas-electric hybrid. Toyota's car, the Prius, gets 51 mpg, whereas Ford's zero-emission Focus gets 36; the prices are $20,500 versus $13,455 respectively. Noting that the two cars are solutions to different problems, the article goes on to explain why the problems for which the Prius was designed don't matter:

"But global warming is not an issue in the United States, where the Senate voted down the Kyoto Treaty 97-0. Nor is fuel economy an issue in a country where gasoline is well below $2 a gallon...Even the perennial political argument that higher fuel mileage would make the United States less energy dependent on the Middle East is a red herring. Europe, which taxes its gasoline to $4 a gallon, is still over 50 percent dependent on the vast -- and cheap -- oil resources of the Middle East."

It's embarrassing to have to answer points like these. Yes, it's a fine thing that the Kyoto Treaty was rejected; the Kyoto Treaty was a scam. Global warming, however, is not a scam. One can be cautious about the science but still recognize that the subject is as much an "issue" in the US as it is anywhere. As for the argument that fuel efficiency counts for nothing, all I can say is that it is unique in my experience. Europe imports half its oil from the Middle East because it does not have much of its own and the Middle East is where the oil is. Then there is the suggestion that there is nothing problematical about the role of the Middle East as the chief energy supplier to the developed world.

Let me put it this way: if a magazine publishes enough "arguments" like these, eventually no one will take it seriously about any subject in the world.

* * *

On a more cosmic note, readers who saw my review of Simon Conway Morris's Life's Solution might want to take a look at my appreciation of John Paul II's Fides et Ratio. It all hangs together, you know.    

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-04-30

Titan's Great Lakes Appear to be Filled with Clear, Colorless Methane

Hopefully we will be up to the task if any life is found on the moons of other planets.

Why is Reaction Taboo?

Any treatment of the rising right in either America or Europe needs to take a good hard look at Tradition, the only twentieth century ideology that hasn't yet captured a state. Tradition shouldn't be confused with traditionalism, which is more an attitude or a disposition. Tradition is a gnostic political movement best described thus:

While there are groups that promote one or more aspects of the Politica Hermetica, there is no great conspiracy behind it. René Guénon called it "Tradition," which comes close enough, though even that exaggerates its coherence. In any case, it is a mode of thought that political science tends to overlook. It is characterized by self-appointed elites who represent a cause rather than human constituents. This implicit devotion to hierarchy, however, coexists with a tactical anarchism. This is the world of "direct action" anarchists, but it is not confined to them. No doubt we have all met "conservatives" who would not leave one stone of the modern world standing on another. Their loyalty is not to this world, but to a transcendent realm. If they are conventionally religious, they adhere to some ineffable orthodoxy that excludes most of their nominal co-religionists. To some extent, this is just a matter of personality type. Still, when we find such people, I suspect we will often find some direct ideological influence from writers associated with Tradition or the Conservative Revolution.

No Great Technological Stagnation

This is very much like a post I have been meaning to write for years. Technologically, the West continues to progress. This is readily seen by looking at any kind of data you would like. Water usage, fuel efficiency, infectious disease, food produced per acre, et cetera. Yet, the idea of a great stagnation is widely believed. I think the problem is cultural and political, rather than technological, so this doesn't surprise me.

Are History's Greatest Philosophers All That Great?

This is something I have wondered about too: is the outsized impact of certain figures on intellectual history an artifact of when they lived? Unlike the author of this piece, I have come to the conclusion that the answer is mostly, but not wholly, no. Primarily, this is because I think historical figures like Aristotle and Aquinas are just as brilliant as their reputations. 

Lewis makes a statistical argument that if we assume that intellectual ability is largely innate, and has a significant element of randomness in it, then we should expect some level of proportionality in the numbers of great intellects in any population. All else being equal, a bigger population produces more people at or above any given level of ability than a smaller one. Anatoly Karlin made a similar argument with more explicit math in December of last year.

This is an argument whose broad lines I am rather sympathetic to, but I think Lewis is missing a lot of relevant detail. For example, at the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the Ionian Greeks were considered rather clever, far more so than anyone living nearby. This implies an average difference in ability for the Ionian Greeks, which makes the foundations of Lewis's argument fall apart. 

On a slightly different tack of individual ability, Thomas Aquinas, for example was seen as exceptionally bright by his contemporaries. At university, his classmates had a hard time keeping up with him. Since Aquinas is more recent, we know a fair bit about what people wrote down about him during his lifetime. When the judgment of history and the impressions a man made in life correspond so well, I am inclined to believe them.

Finally, my personal impression from studying philosophy by reading the texts of Aristotle and Aquinas is that these men were both exceptionally bright, and exceptionally broad of mind. It is not an uncommon experience for a student of philosophy to be amazed upon first encountering the texts themselves, rather that modern summaries or glossaries. The originals are so clear and precise that the difference in quality is immediately apparent.

Thus, I find the idea that Aristotle or Plato might struggle to compete in modern intellectual life kind of silly. 

Book Review: Albion's Seed

Scott Alexander reviews Albion's Seed. This is an interesting book, especially if you don't try to make too much of it.

The Long View: Life's Solution

This is a line of argument John often pursued with regard to genetics. I am somewhat sympathetic to a teleological reading of evolution, but I also know that I am wayyyy out of my depth in this subject. Most of my reading in genetics has been of very recent adaptations that only involve one gene, rather than complex adaptions of many genes working together.  Thus, I feel a bit cautious about Conway's argument. Philosophically, I have no objections, but I don't have any idea whether the science actually supports his claims.


 Life's Solution:
Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe
By Simon Conway Morris
Cambridge University Press, 2003
464 Pages, US$21.00
ISBN 0-521-82704-3

 

Maybe you have sometimes suspected that the portrait of evolution as a random process is somewhat overstated. Maybe you have also wondered how scientist-popularizers, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, have been able to draw consistently agnostic metaphysical conclusions from a supposedly meaningless process. This book, by a professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge, calls the decade-long campaign by the neo-Darwinianists what it is: a polemic. In its place, he offers a model of evolution that is less like literary deconstruction and more like real science. The book is likely to restore many a science buff's faith in evolutionary biology. As for faith in other things, Morris is far from Creation Science, or even from Intelligent Design. However, he suggests that the natural world is the preface to the spiritual world that human beings inhabit, and not its antithesis.

This is not the first time that Morris has ventured into the field. His earlier book, “The Crucible of Creation,” used better fossil evidence to refute the main points of Stephen Gould's depressingly influential, “It's a Wonderful Life.” This time around, there are four key points that Morris wants to make about the history of life on Earth:

First, the complex is usually inherent in the simple. That is, structures that appear in advanced organisms are generally based on features that already appear in their simple ancestors. The existence of these “inherences,” or as yet unmanifested potentials, are some evidence that the whole history of evolution was already implied at the beginning.

Second, the number of evolutionary endpoints is limited. Not every imaginable creature actually exists, or has ever existed in the past. In fact, only a small fraction of the imaginary “space” of conceivable living things has ever been occupied. That is even more true of biochemistry. The number of possible proteins is ridiculously huge, but only a tiny bubble in “protein space” has anything in it. In neither case is this economy of forms a matter of mere chance. Again and again, evolution “converges” on a relatively small set of possible solutions to the problems the world poses.

Third, anything that can happen usually happens more than once. History counts for a great deal in evolution, but nevertheless, quite different lineages routinely arrive at the same “solution,” producing organisms with similar structures and behaviors. Stephen Jay Gould was simply wrong to say that, if we started evolutionary history over again, we would get a world completely different from our world. We know this because biological history does in fact often repeat itself, even in the laboratory.

Fourth, evolution takes time. Not everything is possible in every historical period. Evoution is generally progressive over time. That is, it continues certain long-term trends. This is not to say that every lineage becomes more complex over time, much less that every lineage is trying to evolve into mankind. However, when novelty occurs, it prefers some directions to others.

One might distill Morris's model into two principles. One is that there are certain “islands of stability” (like the “strange attractors” familiar from chaos theory) toward which evolution trends. The other is that evolution is as much about the development of “biological properties,” such as sight, endothermy, or body size, as about the development of lineages. The lineages come and go. The biological properties are strangely persistent.

The breadth of Morris's argument is truly universal (in a moment, we'll get to his discussion of the place of Earth in the cosmos). His treatment of “convergences” in the biochemistry of unrelated creatures is perhaps a bit dense. However, one point that stands out is that the origin of life really does present intractable problems for mere natural selection. There are many possible codes that DNA could use to make proteins; the actual number has 18 zeroes in it. Most of these codes probably wouldn't work; those that would, still an immense number, are more or less efficient. The code that DNA actually uses may well be the optimum code; certainly it's one of just a handful of the best.

Pure chance could not have sorted through that huge set of possibilities even in the known age of the universe. However, life arose no later than 200-million years after the crust of the Earth formed; it may have arisen in as little as 10-million years. Obviously, the lottery was rigged in some way to produce life, and to produce it quickly. The question is all the more exasperating because several decades of experiment have proven that no “one-pot” reaction will make life from primordial soup, or even advance the climb toward complexity.

Morris treats us to a fair sample of the many times nature has repeated itself. Indeed, some biologists question whether there are any biological properties that are not convergent. Inevitably, the multiple times that the eye has evolved are not neglected, including a long discussion of the relative merits of the camera eye (which humans and squids have, for instance), and the compound eye, which gives insects that disconcerting steely look.

The eye provides just one of many proofs that the expression “you can't get there from here” has little application to evolution. Some spiders and shrimp, for instance, originally opted for compound eyes, but then evolved camera eyes when the need arose. Similarly, some sharks have developed endothermy (internal control of body temperature). For that matter, even the great divide in the vegetable world, between flowering and non-flowering plants, is a narrower gulf than we supposed. The true flower seems to have evolved just once and then diversified. However, there is a kind of conifer, the Gnetales, which has devolved what in effect is a flower, down to the reinvention of the flower's trick of double pollination. Nature, we see, is no respecter of patent rights.

Some convergences are trivial. It is not, for instance, very interesting that sea horses have heads that look a little like the heads of horses. In contrast, it is very significant that the marsupial wolves of Tasmania, and the big hunting cats of everywhere else, developed saber-teeth that function in a very similar way. Morris is at pains to show that not just anatomy, but also behavior, evolves convergently. We hear a great deal about “eusociality,” which is possessed by those creatures that live in communities where just one or a small number of individuals reproduce, and the rest are divided among castes of workers and warriors. Ants have developed eusociality several times, along with genuine agriculture. So, of course, have bees. It was only relatively recently, though, that biologists have realized that some mammals are eusocial. The prime example is the mole rat, which is completely horrible and lives in Africa.

Properties of life that are more elusive than behavior may also be convergent. On the basis of some cross-species neurological comparisons, Morris suggests that many species share the “qualia,” the experience of sensation as distinct from the knowledge of facts. For instance, it seems that birds as well as humans experience sound “categorically.” That is, both the avian and human nervous systems break up continuous physical events into discrete packets of experience. Stretching a bit, Morris even argues that the consciousness of species that possess weird senses may not be so different from our own. Some fish that enjoy electrical sensitivity, for instance, have brains that treat it in much the way that other animals treat hearing. It is hard to say what the echolocation of bats may correspond to in our experience, but it would be premature to say it corresponds to nothing.

Amidst all these convergences, we are still left with the apparent uniqueness of man. Even biologists who grudgingly concede that terrestrial megafauna were likely to have evolved also say that nothing like us was at all probable. Echoing Schopenhauer, they say that the big human brain is a fluke, and that human intelligence is not the result of any adaptation. To this Morris replies that mankind's big-brained mentality, with its heavy use of vocality and its high social intelligence, is unique in degree rather than kind. Dolphins, for instance, have the second largest brains on the planet, relative to the size of their nervous systems. Like man, they seem to have acquired that brain in a geological instant, in response to environmental stress. They don't seem to actually talk, but they use sound to organize themselves in a way comparable to that of human hunting groups. They even use tools, after a fashion, in that they put coverings on their noses when they root about on the ocean floor. What can be said of dolphins can also be said to a lesser degree of the elephant, that other uncannily intelligent animal. Because of their anatomies, neither dolphins nor elephants were in a position make extensive use of tools. However, they do illustrate that big brains are another point of convergence.

Morris argues that more than one primate was ready to make the leap to intelligence about the time that man's ancestors did. He even nominates a bipedal ape as another candidate: oreopithecus, which lived seven million years ago on some islands that later became Tuscany. It might have beaten the human line to intelligence, had the sea level not fallen and exposed the creature to predators from the mainland. The actual pre-human line in Africa might have perished, but Morris says that some other species would have played the same role sooner rather than later. (He nominates another alternative, the capuchin monkeys of South America, despite their character flaws.) The lineage of homo sapiens was in no way favored. The biological property of “humanness” was favored. Some creature would have embodied it eventually.

You might think that, having demonstrated that something similar to man was very likely to evolve on Earth, Morris would go on to propose that the stars are full of bipedal, camera-eyed, big-brained intelligences almost exactly like us. In fact, he can't quite drop the notion. He makes playful references to the strangely familiar conditions that would obtain on an Earth-like planet that he calls Threga IX. (Morris makes many playful asides, by the way: there is something to be said for any popular-science book that quotes Chesterton and repeatedly alludes to Tolkien.) He seems to be of the opinion that, if there are any other planets like Earth, they would indeed develop in much the way Earth did. The problem is that he entertains doubts about whether there are other such planets. It is possible that mankind is both inevitable and unique.

It is interesting to compare his arguments with those that John Barrow and Frank Tipler made in “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.” They, too, decided that Earth was more or less unique: but not for cosmological reasons, which they knew something about. Rather, they deferred to what they took to be the consensus among evolutionary biologists, which was that the appearance of intelligent life was so improbable that it could not be expect it to happen twice. Morris, who is an evolutionary biologist, simply reverses the deference.

In Morris's defense, we may note that there is more information than there was in 1986, when Barrow and Tipler published their book. Dozens of planetary systems have been discovered since then, few if any like the solar system. On the other hand, Morris seems unduly impressed with studies suggesting that Earth's disproportionately large moon was necessary for the development of a stable biosphere. Without the slowing effect of the tides, it is said, Earth would rotate much more quickly, which we know would create routinely catastrophic weather. To that, one might respond that Mars and Venus rotate more slowly than Earth, Venus dramatically so, and neither has a large moon. Clearly, there are other factors.

Far more interesting is the suggestion that there might be a very narrow window in galactic history during which biospheres could form. Earlier in its history, the galaxy may have been speckled with gamma-ray events, resulting from the collision of neutron stars. These could have sterilized large regions of space. Meanwhile, in each generation of stars, the level of metalicity increases. In other words, there is more detritus of heavy elements that is dispersed by the explosion and outgassing of older stars. Those strange solar systems we have been finding, with their superjovian planets just a few million miles from their suns, are younger systems with high metalicity. Earth's sun, in contrast, formed about 1.8-billion years later than other stars that typically have the same composition. Thus, the prime time for the development of Earth-like solar systems might have coincided with a dangerous radiation environment. This is all very speculative, but it cannot be dismissed.

The final section of the book is called “Towards a theology of evolution.” It is short on actual theology. The author points out that he has not tried to make an Argument from Design. This is just as well, since an earlier generation of science-minded agnostics routinely used the supposed teleology in evolutionary history as an argument that God was an unnecessary hypothesis. He does suggest, though, that the actual content of science can co-exist very easily with a theistic worldview. The mind of the West could put back together the unity of intellect that the modern era tore asunder.

To judge from “Life's Solution,” Morris is not a voice crying in the wilderness. Though his choice of sources is necessarily selective, Morris's wide-ranging survey shows that the biological sciences are full of people who know that evolution is not random or directionless. Nonetheless, he fights shy of discussing the ideas of people who have attempted the philosophical synthesis he calls for. One could understand him not bringing up Teilhard de Chardin, whose teleological model of evolution comes with more metaphysical baggage than Morris might want to deal with. But what about Robert Wright, whose book “Nonzero” argues that even mechanistic Darwinism implies a world that favors the evolution of intelligence? And then there was Kenneth Boulding, whose model of evolution as a growing pyramid of niches is not so different from Morris's suggestion that evolution reaches out to islands of stability.

Such criticisms are churlish, however. “Life's Solution” goes as far toward explaining The Meaning of Life as can be expected of any one book. This is a story that will have many sequels. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-15: Stellar Conservatism

Space, the last refuge of the right

Space, the last refuge of the right

In an interesting libertarian-ish interpretation of James C. Bennett's article in the National Interest, John says this:

Bennett is not wholly averse to technological determinism. He argues that networking technology undermines the sort of states, even the democratic ones, that engage in extensive economic redistribution. This is because the new technologies will make it possible for the revenues from private enterprise to flow through channels the state cannot reach. 

Which I think is pretty much where the libertarian-ish sharing economy typified by Uber and AirBnB has ended up. As Steve Sailer noted:

Frequently, a major competitive advantage of the new High Tech modes is the widespread assumption that laws against overt and disparate impact discrimination don’t apply to them because they are new and high tech and thus can’t be anything like evil old white male ways of making money.

I'm don't think this counts as a prediction, but it does strike me as interesting.

It is also interesting to me that John felt that the drive to space in the twenty-first century was coming from the conservatives in America. JFK famously launched us to the Moon, and LBJ was in charge for most of the Apollo Program, but nearly fifty years later, America has largely lost interest in the idea. Insofar as scientists trend liberal in America, NASA and JPL probably trend left politically, but I would be interested to know where popular support for either manned or unmanned space exploration actually lies in America. I'm not certain that it maps well to the blue state/red state model at all.


Stellar Conservatism

In the current (Winter 2003/04] issue of the The National Interest, there is an article by James C. Bennett that may be the key to understanding President Bush's new Moon-to-Mars space initiative, though it does not mention space policy at all. The piece is entitled Networking Nation-States: The Coming Info-National Order. It begins thus:

The early years 20th century was filled with predictions that the airplane, the automobile or the assembly line had made parliamentary democracy, market economies, jury trials and bills of rights irrelevant, obsolete and harmful. Today's scientific-technological revolutions (epitomized by space shuttles and the Internet) make the technologies of the early 20th century -- its fabric-winged biplanes, Tin Lizzies and "Modern Times" gearwheel factories -- look like quaint relics. Yet all of the "obsolete" institutions derided by the modernists of that day thrive and strengthen. The true surprise of the scientific revolutions ahead is likely to be not the technological wonders and dangers they will bring but the robustness of the civil society institutions that will nurture them."

Bennett is not wholly averse to technological determinism. He argues that networking technology undermines the sort of states, even the democratic ones, that engage in extensive economic redistribution. This is because the new technologies will make it possible for the revenues from private enterprise to flow through channels the state cannot reach. They also make it possible for people to engage in politics far beyond their national borders. The result will be the loosening of the ties that bind the modern nation-state, and the simultaneous cohesion of larger, looser constellations of "civic societies." The constellations will be based on interest and affinity. The most advanced so far is the Anglosphere.

* * *

A curious point: Bennett's Anglosphere Institute seems to have no website, though the notion is webfauna if ever I saw any. However, he does have a book on the subject coming out soon: Anglosphere: The Future of the English-Speaking Nations in the Internet Era. Cecil Rhodes would be so pleased.

* * *

I would state Bennett's observation about the conservative effect of new technology much more strongly. It was, I believe, Marvin Harris who remarked in Cannibals and Kings that the result of his being a full professor at a major university was that he was able to take long vacations at the beach. There he could collect mussels and otherwise do what his hunter-gatherer ancestors had done all their lives. At low levels of technology, civilized people have to live in regimented herds and do uncongenial, repetitive work. They are exposed all the while to uncontrollable epidemic disease. As society becomes more advanced, more and more people can lead a sanitized version of the neolithic life. They enjoy some degree of physical isolation in detached dwellings; they deal regularly with a small "pack" of just 20 family and friends; and they can eat all the meat they want. Yum.

Even the Enchanted World is back, in the form of all these communications devices that chirp and talk and otherwise intrude themselves like vindictive banshees. The wired world is not arbitrary, but recapitulates the participation mystique, in which the borders of consciousness blur between people and things.

* * *

The interesting point about the drive to space is that it is now coming from the conservative part of the spectrum. This was not at all the case when John Kennedy announced the goal of putting men on the moon. In those days, political conservatism still meant a fair degree of skepticism about the possibilities and benefits of technology. It also implied an almost superstitious dread about transgressing traditional limits. Today, at least in America, conservatism increasingly means the determination to continue the modern, liberal democratic project, a key form of which is the ever-expanding physical frontier. It seems to be the libertarians who are keenest to get into space. The Left, in contrast, seems increasingly hostile to the idea that some people, however few, might escape.

* * *

The president's proposals seem little more than an attempt to begin turning the lumbering oil tanker that is NASA in a new direction; colonization has in fact never been high on NASA's list of things to do. I am not altogether reassured by the most important aspect of the proposal, the call for a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). Though that project would have the good effect of scrapping NASA's plans to build the useless Spaceplane, the CEV seems to be nothing more than an updated version of the Apollo series.

If private initiative does not do something to supplement these efforts in the near future, we could see a reenactment of the less desirable of the two major continental railroad-building strategies of the 19th-century. In America, the early continental rail-network was heavily subsidized by the federal government, but the actual work was done by entrepreneurs who were risking their own capital. Private markets soon gave the network a life of its own. In Russia, in contrast, the government built a railroad straight from Europe to the Pacific, for reasons of prestige and military convenience. The transportation system artificially created satellite settlements, but the Russian Far East never really paid its own way, and now the whole region is in danger of abandonment. The same could happen to space.

As for Bennett's post-national future, I think that his faith in the novelty of modernity is misplaced. Government always expands to enclose the economy. That is very close to being a law of history. If the networked world is, in some ways, a return to the fairy-tale world that human beings find so congenial, we should remember that more fairy tales allude to the Holy Roman Empire than to the Hanseatic League. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site