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

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

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

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

Los Angeles Cathedral

Los Angeles Cathedral

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

Sloppy Justice; Crystal Chapel; Reenchantment


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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


* * *

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

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

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

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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

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

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

Panic; Civil War; Gardening Accidents

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

That will teach me not to ask these questions. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Next American Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


America after the United States


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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

Respectable children's literature circa 1913

Respectable children's literature circa 1913

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

Things You Can't Say

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

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

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

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

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

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

The Patience of the Saints


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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

The police chose to blame the incident on skinheads.

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Dante's World Government

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

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


By John J. Reilly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The De Monarchia
By Dante Alighieri

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

Institutional stupidity

Institutional stupidity

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

Crimes & Mistakes

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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The Long View 2004-04-30: Some Protests

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

Some Protests

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

The Darwin Award Ceremonies

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Long View 2004-04-23: Cracking Ice

Rumors of the demise of the North Korean system were clearly exaggerated. Kim Jong-il made it another 7 years after this 2004 news item.

Cracking Ice

Accounts of yesterday's train disaster in North Korea are proliferating and inconsistent. (So is the romanization of the place where it occurred: "Ryongchon" or "Yongchon.") Earlier accounts say that the trains in question contained LNG and petrol. Later ones say explosives. In the explosive-laden versions, the trains either collided, or the explosives were set off by overhead electrical wires while the explosives were moved from one train to another. Total fatalities may be about 50, or 150, or that may just be for the people in the rail yard, with the final total about 3,000. None of these accounts is authoritative, including the ones from the Red Cross.

President Kim Jong-il's movements are generally secret, but he is believed to have passed through the station in question about nine hours before the explosion, returning from his recent summit meeting in Beijing, which is not believed to have gone well for him. This occasioned speculation that the disaster may have been a failed assassination attempt. The New York Times, which favors the petrol & gas theory, suggested another possible connection:

The fuel trains may have been payment to Mr. Kim for traveling to Beijing last week to meet with Chinese officials. In recent years, South Korea and China have routinely made large gifts to North Korea: either fuel, fertilizer, food or cash to ensure that bilateral meetings take place.

This explosion of rumor in an vacuum of hard information is reminiscent of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986. Because the government of the USSR initially tried to cover up or minimize the event, there were rumors (as I recall) that 50,000 people could have received lethal doses of radiation. Immediate casualties seem to have been in the dozens rather than hundreds, but perhaps 200,000 had to be evacuated, and there was a chronic uptic in thyroid cancer rates.

The Chernobyl incident marked the beginning of the end of the USSR. It did not seem so at the time, however. Then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev used the occasion to reverse the USSR's traditional "bad news is no news" policy, as part of his larger program of glasnost ("openness") and market reform. These were universally seen as rational and humane policies. Some people predicted that the USSR would blow up if the level of repression decreased. Hardly anyone foresaw that the union would simply fall apart in five years.

This sequence of events is unlikely to recur in North Korea, but it's about time for something to happen.

* * *

Speaking of harbingers for the future, one notes this bit of unwelcome news from Capitol Hill:

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said it is time to think about compulsory military service again -- with American forces stretched thin by fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq -- but he stopped short of actually calling for resumption of the draft.

I am at a loss to understand what conscription would be supposed to accomplish at this point. Conscription made sense when "the army" meant masses of riflemen: the cannon-fodder military that appeared with the French Revolution. All specialties are so technical now that the brief training regimes of conscript militaries, as we know from the European countries that still have them, are little to the purpose. Moreover, combat arms is fairly selective. Even people who want a draft to make the military unusable would accomplish nothing more than to create a voluntary combat elite within a summer-camp system.

Regarding the argument that America's elite are shirking the risks of military service, who constitutes "the elite" in civilian life? Few Harvard graduates these days have military experience, perhaps, but businesses looking to hire executives are far more impressed by a military commission on a CV than they are by an MBA.

* * *

Meanwhile, Congress is thinking about what to do should a decapitation attack on Washington succeed:

[One] bill, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (search), R-Wis., would require the holding of special elections within 45 days of the speaker's announcement of "extraordinary circumstances" that include more than 100 vacant seats in the 435-seat House...Democrats who oppose the Sensenbrenner bill as inadequate are angered by what they say are GOP-imposed limits on their ability to present alternatives, such as constitutional amendments to recognize temporary appointments as a way of preventing congressional paralysis...Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., also has proposed amending the Constitution so that each general election candidate for the House or Senate would be authorized to name, in ranked order, three to five potential temporary successors.

To this I say (as perhaps I have said before): instead of special elections, why not draft ordinary citizens to sit in Congress until a special election can be held? We do it for trial juries and grand juries. That would be a more meaningful way for the political class to mix with ordinary citizens than would sending them all off to boot camp together. In ancient Greece, remember, elections were thought aristocratic; democrats preferred to select decision makers by lot.

* * *

Finally, on the subject of postmortem disposition, I have become a great fan of the Kingdom Hospital series on ABC. This is an adaptation by Stephen King of a Danish television series. King was inspired to write it by his own stay in a hospital: he was hit by an SUV while walking along a road in Maine, which is what happens to a character at beginning of the series, too. In real life, the driver of the car was later found horribly and mysteriously murdered in his trailer home. In the series, the driver just fell off a roof. I'm not making this up

The series has a cleverly understated website here. Actually, it is so understated that casual websurfers may not get the joke, which seems to be the problem with the series in general.

One quibble: did I mishear the television, or does the script confuse All Souls' Day (November 2) with all Saints' Day (November 1)? Maybe that's what you get for not just using Halloween as the date of the fire that killed those innocent children so many years ago. 

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The Long View 2004-04-19: Delusions of Utility

I never liked the second and third Matrix movies much, but I did appreciate that the movies were sufficiently high concept to introduce a lot of otherwise uninterested people to philosophy. My main objection is the that the idea so many people were introduced to is Gnosticism.

Now that the Wachowski brothers have turned into the Wachowski sisters, the Matrix reminds me of Steve Sailer's idea that for some science fiction enthusiasts, the idea of changing your gender is less about feeling like a little girl on the inside, and more about bending nature to your will.

Delusions of Utility


Considering the UN's record in administering the Oil for Food program in Iraq, the organization's chief officials should probably be grateful they cannot be prosecuted by the state and federal district attorneys for Manhattan. Actually, mere corruption may be the least of the UN's problems. Consider this expression of self-delusion that appeared in yesterday's New York Times, under the headline Recast in Key Iraq Role, U.N. Envoys Are Wary:

Edward Mortimer, a senior aide to Secretary General Kofi Annan...contrasted the recent calls for assistance from President Bush with the disparagement he said the United Nations had become used to from the administration. "It's quite nice when you've been generally dissed about your irrelevancy and then suddenly have people coming on bended knee and saying, 'We need you to come back,' " he said. "On the other hand, it's quite unnerving to feel you're being projected into a very violent and volatile situation where you might be regarded as an agent or faithful servant of a power that has incurred great hostility."

In the buildup to the Iraq War, President Bush did not simply declare the UN irrelevant. He did say that it risked irrelevance, if it did not participate in the liberation and reconstruction of Iraq. The UN seems determined to take the president at his word.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the Times editorial page, Thomas Friedman was having this epiphany about the Bush Administration's approach to foreign policy:


At first, I thought I'd write a column that just ripped President Bush ...[but] I decided what I really wanted to say was this: I'm fed up with the Middle East, or more accurately, I'm fed up with the stalemate in the Middle East. All it has produced is death, destruction and endless "he hit me first" debates on cable television. Arabs, Israelis, Americans -- everyone is sick of it.

So now President Bush has stepped in and thrown the whole frozen Middle East chessboard up in the air. I don't like his style, but it's done. The status quo was no better.

Friedman was speaking in particular about Bush's declaration that the Israelis would retain some large settlements as part of a general agreement with the Palestinians, but the assessment refers to the the Middle East in general. Note that the column was written before the assassination of Hamas leader

I think that Friedman misunderstands the Bush Administration. The Bush people are not the sort who "roll the dice" and hope for improvement. These folks are not adventurous. Both on foreign and domestic issues, they generally have quite specific goals. The decisions that look like gambles are really steps in a larger strategy, steps that they take even if the strategy does not seem to be going well at the time. They may drive into a brick wall. On the other hand, this is the only way to pursue controversial projects that take years to complete.

* * *

Speaking of projects that take years to complete, over the weekend I rented the DVD to see The Matrix Revolutions (Widescreen Edition).

Probably I would have to be more of a student of film to properly appreciate this movie. Given the state of my knowledge, however, I was reminded chiefly of the Woody Allen film, Annie Hall. As in Annie Hall, it seemed as if there was just one conversation running through all the Matrix films, which different characters picked up and passed along.

Matrix Revolutions had much better special effects than Annie Hall, of course. The Matrix animations, in fact, can be compared to Richard Wagner's music, which is said to be much better than it sounds. The animators and computer people who were interviewed in the special features on Disk 2 succeeded in communicating their enthusiasm to me. The problem was that their masterpiece, the 17-minute robot-versus-human battle called "The Siege," was too complicated to see.

Actually, the movie's credits seemed to me to hint at a whole new genre. The entire population of Australia east of Alice Springs seem to have been involved in making this film. Their names clumped in patterns that hovered at the edge of intelligibility as they rolled down the screen. The serial-music score swelled and diminished in harmony with the density of the names. It was genuinely eerie.

All three films were chock-a-block with theology and philosophy. The image I most remember was the interface that Neo spoke to in the robot city. It looked very much like a "monstrance," a roughly cruciform display case that holds a consecrated Host at the intersection of the arms. One could go on.

On a philosophical level, I was struck by the answer that Neo gave to Agent Smith in the watery crater, when Smith demanded to know why Neo continued to fight in a meaningless reality. Smith was the avatar of analytical nihilism; he was asking Neo for a metaphysical foundation. The answer Neo gave, "Because I will to," or words to that effect, was Kant's answer. Kant said that only in the act of willing does the noumenal meet the phenomenal, and we know we are not deceived. Also: Neo, like Kant, believed that radical freedom is not formless freedom; Neo was free for something, not just from something. Nietzsche pointed out that Kant's ideas about the logical constraints on freedom have no power to bind, but that's another movie.

An interesting point: in any other film in the history of science fiction, the robot civilization would either have won (Colossus: The Forbin Project) or been defeated (to make an unreliable estimate: about 15% of all Star Trek episodes). In Matrix Revolutions, the humans and machines made peace. Essentially, the machine world was accepted as a supernatural.

Frankly, I had wondered how all those millions of pod people were going to manage if they all woke up in their vats with tubes sticking into them. Now we see that "only those who want to" will leave the Matrix. This does smack of Gnosticism: and worse; a sequel. 

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The Long View 2004-04-16: Hegemony and the Left

Thanks to a South Asian history professor I had, I always hear the word 'hegemony' with an British accent in my head. I also remember dropping my coffee into my favorite hat in that class, but the TA was teaching that day.

Unlike a lot of John's post-9/11 writing about the intersection of war, terrorism, the Middle East, and American domestic politics, I find this blog post interesting. At this point, I find a lot of the things John said in 2003 and 2004 embarrassing, but I try to stick to the program of reposting everything because I believed those things too, at the time. I also think John was a better man than his advocacy of the Iraq War might imply. But we have to face what we have said, and what we have thought; what we have done, and what we failed to do.

John first references a very old essay of his, Permanent Interests, written in 1996. After twenty years, I think that essay has aged pretty well. Especially as politics in the Western world has started to pivot to the globalism/nationalism axis instead of the Left/Right axis, it is good to remember that the current state of international politics is a creation of the United States of America. The UN Security Council represents the coalition that won the Second World War, and things like the World Trade Organization represent the later United States that had won the Cold War too.

John goes on to suggest there is a kind of historical inevitability to this, insofar as the peculiar madness the Soviet Union represented may not have been the primary factor resulting in the world we see today. I am not entirely convinced, but this kind of argument relies on counterfactuals, and is hard to make. 

Despite Gordan Chang still being wrong, I remain more sympathetic to the idea that China may not fully realize the potential of its vast population and surging economy in the coming decades. One of the greatest points in favor of the metahistorical theories of Spengler and Toynbee and their ilk is that is makes it easier to understand why Europe happened to eclipse the older and more advanced Chinese and Ottoman Empires; they were just in different phases of their civilizations, and it is hard to overcome the inertia built up over nearly a thousand years. 

Of course, this theory may be wrong, so I would like to wait and see what happens.

John's more narrow point about the trajectory of American politics seems to have been largely borne out by subsequent events. The foreign policy of President Barack Obama, or the likely foreign policy of Hillary Clinton, bear a strong family resemblance to the foreign policy of the hated George W. Bush, minus the American casualties, plus a strong dose of drones and special forces. 

You can see the adumbration of this in the cited opinion article in the New York Times

The only long-term hope for tamping down the terrorist impulse was to turn America's traditional policies upside down, and come out for once in favor of the liberal democrats of the Muslim world. This would mean promoting a counter-wave of liberal and rational ideas to combat the allure of paranoia and apocalypse....
As for the results — well, in one respect, these have turned out to be, in spite of everything, almost comically successful. Baathism's super-weapons may have been a figment of the universal imagination; but as soon as the United States elevated this figment into a world crisis, astonishing progress was made in tracking down weapons programs and trafficking in Libya, Iran, Dubai and Pakistan... 

In the bitter aftermath of the Arab Spring, we can see the fruit of this idea, now enacted by both Right and Left in America.

Socialism in the sense of caring deeply for your citizens, has been effectively buried by Hillary Clinton [in the form of Bernie Sanders]; instead she represents the international community precisely as John defined it in 1996. The twist that John missed is that the identity politics of the Left have been used as a cover for the economic politics of the Right. The economic inequality of the robber barons has been successfully fused with the most radical individualism of the flower children.

In my opinion, this is the culmination of long-standing American policy. For example, consider the allegation that the CIA funded modern art as a tactic in the Cold War. Even now, Americans on the right often consider modern art a sign of decadence and decline. Yet, for all that, modern art is as expensive as ever. The reason is that rich capitalists keep buying it

Hegemony and the Left

Is there anything more annoying than when a writer quotes one of his old pieces to say "I told you so?" Why, yes, quite a few things are more annoying, which is I why I can dredge up this bit of analysis I wrote in the innocent days of 1996:

Finally, we may note one other way in which the state of the world has not changed with the end of the Cold War. The Left in the U.S. throughout that period saw its role as more or less the defense of socialism. Thus, they sought to limit the influence and power of the United States. Even with no more Fatherland of Socialism to defend, they still continue the same policy, like a missile defense system that keeps working even after the civilization that built it has died out. When they finally realize that anything they want to achieve in the world will have to be achieved through the United States, we will have a different politics.

There is some evidence that the Kerry campaign has gotten the memo about the role of the United States in the world. At any rate, we know for a fact that some people on the Left have been trying to deliver it. A prime example is this Op Ed by Paul Berman, which appeared in The New York Times of April 15 under the title, "Will the Opposition Lead?" Consider these excerpts:

The Sept. 11 attacks came from a relatively small organization. But Al Qaeda was a kind of foam thrown up by the larger extremist wave. The police and special forces were never going to be able to stamp out the Qaeda cells so long as millions of people around the world accepted the paranoid and apocalyptic views and revered suicide terror. The only long-term hope for tamping down the terrorist impulse was to turn America's traditional policies upside down, and come out for once in favor of the liberal democrats of the Muslim world. This would mean promoting a counter-wave of liberal and rational ideas to combat the allure of paranoia and apocalypse....

As for the results — well, in one respect, these have turned out to be, in spite of everything, almost comically successful. Baathism's super-weapons may have been a figment of the universal imagination; but as soon as the United States elevated this figment into a world crisis, astonishing progress was made in tracking down weapons programs and trafficking in Libya, Iran, Dubai and Pakistan...

[However, entire] populations around the world feel a personal dislike for America's president, which makes it difficult for even the friendliest of political leaders in some countries to take pro-American positions.

But the bigger problem has to do with public understandings of the war...

Somebody else will have to straighten out these confusions, then. I think it will have to be the Democrats -- at least those Democrats who accept the anti-totalitarian logic. And why shouldn't they show a bit of leadership?...

The gist of the argument here is that the Bush Administration's foreign policy is both correct and feasible. The problem is that too many people around the world feel about Bush the way that Danny Devito's character in one of his comedies felt about his ex-wife:

I hate, I hate that woman. I hate everything about her. I hate the way she licks stamps.

There is something to be said for this assessment, as well as for the historical analogies that Berman's prescription conjures up. It's often the case that the opposition implements the policies of its discredited predecessor. FDR's economic policies were different in degree rather than kind from Herbert Hoover's. Poor, damned Richard Nixon spent his years in office enacting the wishlist of the progressive Democrats. So why might John Kerry not complete what George W. Bush has begun?

For one thing, the foreign policy wing of the Democratic Party is the American avatar of progressive transnationalism. Today, at least, Tranzie World is a morbid, unhelpful phenomenon. It's the European malady writ large. There is actually something of a bait-and-switch in the Berman article. There really are "liberal democrats" in the Muslim world. There are, however, few if any "liberal democrats" in the domestic American sense. This can never be repeated often enough: if "liberal democracy" means things like defining marriage out of existence, then the world will reject it. The Culture War is a national security issue, and the Democrats are on the wrong side.

Then there is personality. George Bush is not Lyndon Johnson. I suspect that John Kerry may well be.

* * *

There are three interesting points about Osama bin Laden's recent offer of a truce to Europe. The first is that the text makes a conditional offer at all. Usually, his messages are along the lines of "This is why I am killing you." It's something of a novelty for him to ask his enemies to do anything but die.

The second point is that he apparently follows the anti-war literature. The military supplier, Halliburton, has become one of the objects of his especial ire. It's hard to believe that this condemnation has anything to do with events on the ground. He is reaching out to Western opponents of the war (as the hapless Moqtada al-Sadr has attempted to do, too, now that I think of it).

Finally, and most important for the people muttering about exit strategies, he links the US and the UN in a way that leaves no room for compromise with either. He is onto something if he thinks that the UN does not mean much without the US in the context of an actual war. It's a pity that the UN's advocates have never taken this on board.

* * *

This is not to say that the UN does no good. Its agencies, often older international bodies that the UN has absorbed, continue to carry on the unseen maintenance functions on which civilization depends. The International Telecommunications Union, for instance, has recently seen fit to update Morse Code. Hereafter, the "@" symbol found in email addresses is supposed to be rendered as "dit-dah-dah-dit-dah-dit." Many of the hobbyists who use the code will continue to just write "at," of course, but I for one am pleased to see that anyone is still using Morse at all.

* * *

On the subject of private contractors in Iraq, it was only the recent mutilation of four contract guards that alerted many people to just how privatized the military function is becoming. This has led to the observation that, in the 21st century, the world seems to be getting back to normal:

Before the 20th Century, private armies were as common as government-backed militaries; maybe more so. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used arrows-for-hire. "Contract armies fighting contract armies, led by contract generals," is how Singer describes the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

This all has a fine Spenglerian ring; Spengler was predicting the end of mass, national armies even as the build-up to World War II started. However, this does not seem to be what is happening in Iraq. There are no armies of mercenaries there conducting large-scale operations. In a situation where the state does not exist, a few rent-a-cops are not enough; hence the rent-a-paratrooper.

* * *

Headlines like this are multiplying: Newest Export Out of China: Inflation Fears. Domestic inflation in the US also seems to be reviving; at least it is no longer negligible. This is important for a number of reasons, but among the most important is that it makes the Bush Republican Party obsolete. Whatever its other elements, the glue that held his coalition together was the promise of lower taxes. It was possible to deliver on that platform, so long as the fiscal deficit was costless. However, we are now moving to a situation like the 1970s, when people will associate deficits with ever-rising prices. It will be possible to portray tax cuts as a form of theft: government by inflationary expropriation.

Again, there is no safe alternative to reelecting George W. Bush in 2004. That is necessary for the successful prosecution of the Terror War. Then, however, it will be necessary to change partners. For the longer term, there has to be a coalition of fiscal conservatives, military realists, and sober Culture Warriors. All these were features, oddly enough, of the New Deal. The trend is away from libertarianism, and toward public order, which will have to be seen to encompass features like a national health system. The existing political parties may have to dissolve to provide components for the mix.

* * *

Finally, thanks again to those of you who have been using the Amazon search buttons. The commissions are nice, but I appreciate the thought more. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-04-14: Failed Campaign

Actually, al-Mahdi is like Jesus in Christian eschatology, in that he is the one who will reorder the world in complete justice.

Failed Campaign

The events on the ground in Iraq are progressing as well as can be expected for that difficult enterprise. The long-expected Islamist attempts to foment civil war have occurred. The situation could change within hours, but it looks as if the Coalition has successfully called the bluff of the anti-democratic opposition. That does not mean that the anarchy will suddenly stop, but that the opposition to the Coalition program for Iraq will abandon it as their chief political tool.

The campaign that seems to be unraveling is the one to use foreign policy to undermine the Bush Administration. Consider this editorial in today's New York Times:

Happily, President Bush finally held a prime-time news conference last night. Unhappily, he failed to address either of the questions uppermost in Americans' minds: how to move Iraq from its current chaos, and what he has learned from the 9/11 investigations...But his rhetoric, including the repetition of the phrase "stay the course," did not seem to indicate any fresh or clear thinking about Iraq, despite the many disturbing events of recent weeks...The second issue that has overwhelmed the nation in recent days is the 9/11 investigating commission.

There is a serious disconnect from reality here. The nation was not "overwhelmed" in recent days by testimony before the 911 Commission. The press coverage was overwhelming, but the public took little note. Despite the generally anti-Administration reporting slant, the hearings seem to have helped Bush rather than otherwise. There are several reasons for this, but the upshot is that Richard Clarke is the most unsuccessful media creation since Ja Ja Binks.

As for the Times editorial complaint that the president merely declared that he would stay the course, you wonder whether the editorial editors read their paper's own news analysis in the same issue:

He could have simply talked Tuesday evening about the crimes of Saddam Hussein or the fear that chaos in Iraq would breed terror in one of the most volatile corners of the world.

But he did far more, reaching for the kind of language about America's moral mission in the world that seemed drawn from the era of Teddy Roosevelt, whose speeches he keeps on the coffee table of his ranch in Texas. He described an America chosen by God to spread freedom. He never used the word "crusade," which touched off a firestorm of criticism in the Muslim world when he uttered it soon after Sept. 11, 2001. But he described one.

Lyndon Johnson used to declare crusades, too. George Bush, however, is willing to actually conduct one. The political class should be giving thought to what would happen if the Bush plan for the Middle East succeeds.

* * *

Meanwhile, my opinion of Democratic challenger John Kerry has gone up. He has scrupulously avoided giving aid and comfort to the surrender wing of the Democratic Party. No one, reading his prudently sparse comments about the current situation in Iraq, would gain the impression that he plans a withdrawal. Nonetheless, whether because of political necessity or conviction, much of what he does have to say about Iraq is manifest nonsense:

DURHAM, N.H. (Reuters) - Democratic challenger John Kerry said on Monday Washington needed to "de-Americanize" the transformation of Iraq by replacing U.S. administrator Paul Bremer with someone like top U.N. aide Lakhdar Brahimi...

"He's one of the most skilled and capable people with respect to Iraq and the Middle East," Kerry said. "He can talk to all the parties. He would be a perfect example of somebody whom you could ask to really take over what Paul Bremer's doing, de-Americanize the effort and begin to put it under the United Nations' umbrella."

President Bush, in last night's press conference, mentioned the role of the UN in Iraq, too, but only as an arbitrator. Kofi Anan has pointed out that the country is too violent for the UN to administer. In a situation like this, for the US to ask the UN to take a larger role would be like leaving a message for help on your own answering machine. To put it another way: the US and the UN are both international utilities. The US sometimes represents the world in a more realistic sense than the UN could.

* * *

Also, the UN, or elements of the UN system, display symptoms of chronic delusions of grandeur beyond anything that emanates from Washington. God knows why anyone would want to know the religious opinions of the transnational class, but these people persist in organizing conferences to foment global religious unity. Maurice Strong and Ted Turner make a particular nuisance of themselves by funding and organizing these events.

I mention this because I recently reviewed a book, The Coming World Civilization, written by William Ernest Hocking about 50 years ago. The theological reasoning was all worked out, even then. I am still trying to figure out why I had not run across Hocking before.

* * *

Speaking of the political appropriation of religion, one of the things to keep in mind about Moqtada al-Sadr is that he is leading an apocalyptic movement. Here's what a couple of Usual Suspects had to say about the matter on last night's PBS News Hour:

JUAN COLE: Muqtada al-Sadr leads a sectarian group within the Iraqi Shia who expect the end of the world, the coming of the promised one any moment...

REUEL GERECHT: I'm a little bit skeptical that you can buy out some of those folks. I think particularly with the Dawa Party and the Islamic -- and the Sadriyyun I'm not sure poverty is the driving force behind them. I do believe they in fact do have a millenarian impulse. Eventually we may have to deal with them in a fairly forceful way.

Al-Sadr's militia is called the Mahdi's Army, and of course the Mahdi is an endtime figure. The name means, "the divinely led one" or "the inspired one." The Mahdi is more a figure of Shia than of Sunni Islam. Being the Mahdi is not like being Jesus (Who, by the way, is expected in most Muslim eschatological scenarios to be the Judge of the Last Judgment). In more accounts, the Mahdi's career is interrupted by the eruption of ad-Dajjal, an Antichrist-like character. Ad-Dajjal is normally expected to be an apostate Muslim, but apocalyptic scenarios tend to accommodate themselves to events.

By the way: Najaf is repeatedly compared by commentators to the Vatican, at least as far as the Shia are concerned. May I point out that, back when the pope had armies, the Vatican was frequently attacked and occupied, generally by Catholics?    

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The Long View: The Coming World Civilization

William Ernest Hocking

William Ernest Hocking

The most interesting idea to come out of this book by William Ernest Hocking is the 'unlosables', those aspects of a culture that persist even when the society that created them falls into decay. It the unlosables that we speak of when we refer to the Greek or Roman heritage of the West. In many ways, Western Civilization has very little in common with Classical Greece or Rome. The Roman ideal of justice, for example, would be seen as unspeakably brutal by nearly everyone in the United States or Western Europe. Yet, there is a certain something that we do share, that has outlived its creators by millennia.

Hocking wanted to sift out what is unlosable in our civilization. John wasn't entirely sure he got there, but it is much harder to evaluate our own selves in such a way.

There are a couple of really striking paragraphs here:

First, from Hocking:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.
“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

And next, from John Reilly:

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

These two ideas have stuck with me for a very long time. Perhaps not unlosable, but pretty good. I shan't speculate what might fit that requirement; the only way I know to identify them is after the fact. If you could identify these ideas in advance, that Golden Age scifi conceit of truly scientific social science might become a reality.

Richard Dawkins' memes have not proven to be particularly useful as scientific concepts, but Hocking's unlosables seem to share a family resemblance to memes. In an analogous way to how genes outlast the species in which they evolved, unlosables can persist when a culture has been entirely eliminated from the Earth.  More's the pity that Dawkins never read anything by a real philosopher, it might have helped him shore up his most distinctive idea.

The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking
Harper & Brothers, 1956
210 Pages



This book is about just one feature of the hypothetical coming world civilization: the nature of the religion that civilization will need to undergird it. The gist of the answer is that Christianity is best suited for that role, but a Christianity stripped of mythology, and reconceptualized in existential terms. The book's argument has many similarities to esoteric Tradition, but is devoid of reference to the modern esoteric writers.

William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) chaired the philosophy department at Harvard University around 1940; Alfred North Whitehead was a colleague. This book is influenced by the Harvard pragmatists friendly to theism, William James and Josiah Royce, whose careers at Harvard ended about the time Hocking's began in 1914. However, Hocking wrote “The Coming World Civilization” when Toynbee was in flower. That was the last time, before the 1990s, when people were inclined to speculate about universal states, the role of religion in world order, and the conflicts among civilizations. Already in 1956, Hocking was trying to view the modern era as a whole, and to imagine what would come after it.

Hocking does not trouble to argue for the inevitability of a world civilization. He simply notes that, though civilizations rise and fall, they never fall below the starting point of the last rise. Civilizations create “unlosables,” technologies and ideas and ethical principles, which become part of the ever-increasing common heritage of the race. Mechanically, the world was already unified by the middle of the 20th century. The problem Hocking addresses here is that a world civilization, like any other civilization, needs something more than a common technology, or even a common politics:

“[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art – the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command.”

Hocking's description of the limits of the competence of the state is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that he takes propositions as self-evident that neoconservatives were just beginning to articulate thirty years later:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Many Traditionalists, however defined, foresee that the modern age will not last forever. Often they see it as a total loss, and they cannot wait for it to be over. Hocking, too, looks for the end of modernity at no very distant date. (The nearly 50 years since the writing of this book are still no great distance in history.) His endeavor, though, is to discern the “unlosables” that modernity has achieved, and to separate them from the characteristic faults of the era.

Modern individualism, in Hocking's estimation, is one such advance. Unfortunately, it is tinged by the malady of meaninglessness. Because of Kant and Descartes, it has a subjective base, which serves to separate the individual from any greater whole from which meaning might descend.

The problem of modern individuality is solipsism. It cannot be remedied by a retreat to pre-modern religion, not if we are to preserve the depth of modern subjectivity. (The loss of which would mean what? A world without autobiographical novels?) Rather, we must pass straight through modernity, to the other side. The key to that is the recognition that each subject has a common experience: the Thou-art relationship.

The “thou” here is not just other people, but also the experience of a world. A world is far more than a mere collection of experiences. It is coherent in the way that our experience of other people is personal. In fact, the world is personal, if not quite a person. As for the “selves” in this world, we must recognize that we know other selves in much the way we known our own thinking self: the self is a concept, never a matter of direct perception.

The experience of the Thou is the foundation of science, which is identical to the intuition of the existence of God:

“All this is wrapped up in the spontaneous impulsive summoning of one's will to think, the simplest and most general response to the presence in experience of the universal Other-mind.

“The strength and persistence of that response is seen in the corporate and historic edifice we call 'science,' a building surely not made with hands.”

The religion of the coming civilization will mend the link between the modern soul and the Absolute. At any rate, it better. Modern subjectivity and science are among the unlosables. They will become universals. The problem is that, in the West, these advances were predicated on specific motivations and a characteristic morale; the advances meant specific things, and Western civilization developed the reflexes to deal with them. These predicates are not found in other civilizations. If subjectivity and science are not incorporated into a spirituality, the result will be incalculable. That is why Christianity is most likely to play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era: the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

Consider, for instance, the most extreme view of 19th-century science, that the world is nothing but dead matter. Hocking calls that “the Night Vision.” He also argues that it is a great moral achievement. Western science is based on the virtues of humility and austerity: humility before the facts, and the rejection of extravagance in the making of hypotheses. Francis Bacon said: “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” Science is the willful suppression of self-will. Only thus could the will of God be known, as manifest in the created world.

Hocking also points out that only the purposeless physical world revealed by science could morally become the object of human purpose. Opening the world to human exploitation is another real advance.

The science of Christendom naturally pushed toward autonomy, toward a system of the physical world in which God does not interfere. The tension between this science and the religion that created it haunts modern man, but it is a fruitful tension. Religion rests on a broad empiricism, which understands that the world transcends scientific questions, but which does not challenge science within its own sphere. Much of the modern malaise comes from false science, which tries to put forward metaphysical propositions about meaning and truth for which science offers no warrant.

In Western history, as the arts and sciences were freed from religion, they curbed and instructed Christianity. By removing the historical and cultural excrescences that had made Christianity specifically Western, free thought is making Christianity universal. Christianity is not going to lose its particularity, or the marks of its history. However, if it is to play a universal role, it must be purged and purified and simplified enough to represent universals to the whole world.

Christianity, Hocking assures us, is a religion of induction. This is how Jesus could say that love of God and love of neighbor are the whole of the Law and the Prophets. There are, of course, particulars of Christian ethics, which are often paralleled in other traditions: kindness to enemies; the need for rebirth; the injunctions, not just to do certain things, but also to feel in a certain way. However, this can all be summed up in the Great Induction: “He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

Christianity is not a sacrifice, then, but the will to create through suffering. Its moral code is inseparable from a worldview in which the most real is the all-loving.

Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. Thus, the will, particularly the will to futurity, is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer. Similarly, the sense of sin is direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand.

Assume that the Christian movement succeeds in purifying itself to its simple essence. It would thereby cease to be specifically Western, and so more fitted for a universal role. But what would the religious system of the coming world civilization look like?

The key is that a universal system can affirm some things without necessarily rejecting everything else. Hocking assures us there is an intuitive recognition of mystic by mystic across the boundaries of the great religions. Thus, the great religions are already united at their summits. This is far from saying that every religion is essentially the same, or that one is no better than another. Indifferentism, relativism, and syncretism betray the search for truth.

The historic faiths will survive in the world civilization, but will not seek to displace each other. Rather, they will share a “reverence for reverence.” The struggle against idolatry will continue, but within each religious tradition, not between them. In much the same way, nations in the coming civilization will retain their value and historical mission. A spiritually and culturally homogenous world would be a nightmare.

* * *

Readers will have gathered that, to some extent, this book is a period piece. At least in the field of religion, I have encountered few other works that appealed so strongly to the authority of experience, while insisting so hard that experience must behave itself. Quite aside from Hocking's unconsidered dismissal of the supernatural as conventionally understood, there is something odd about his tendency to equate “mysticism” with the existentialist's intuition of Being. Agony and ecstasy, much less flaming chariots and the dread of Hell, seem to play no part in the spirituality of the world civilization. Hocking is aware of this himself. He expresses the hope that the East might add healthy fanaticism to the West's maturity. The problem is that all this rather misses what religion means to people at all levels of sophistication.

Hocking's account of Christianity as a system of inductions is fascinating, but it's not Christianity. People bother with Jesus because of the Atonement; Christian ethics is simply a radiation from that core. The ethics is not, frankly, all that interesting. In the early 21st century, a stripped-down form of Christianity does in fact bid fair to become a universal religion, but it has less to do with existentialism than with Pentecostalism.

Nonetheless, this book is full of wisdom. It gives a satisfactory, if not wholly unchallengeable, answer to the problem of solipsism. That “quiet music in the back of the mind” (I think of it as a prosaic hum) that William James described as the everyday sense of the presence of God may not be the Beatific Vision, but it is not a bad place to begin theological inquiry. There is nothing wrong with a phenomenological approach to the spiritual life. That is what John Paul II has been up to all these years.

And what about the central questions of the book? Does a world civilization require a world religion? Can this religion be unified at the top, in the sphere of religious genius, while the spiritual life of ordinary mankind continues in its colorful variety? No, not if the religion is God's doing. God doesn't start at the top. You can look it up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking

The Long View 2004-04-09: Good Friday

The best thing I can say about this post from twelve years ago is that almost nothing has changed in that time.

Good Friday

Let us begin with the Stations of the Cross. For our meditations, we will use the lyrics to Fires (Which Burned Brightly), by the old art-rock group, Procol Harum (all rights reserved):

This war we are waging is already lost
The cause for the fighting has long been a ghost
Malice and habit have now won the day
The honours we fought for are lost in the fray
Standards and bugles are trod in the dust
Wounds have burst open, and corridors rust
Once proud and truthful, now humbled and bent
Fires which burnt brightly, now energies spent
Let down the curtain, and exit the play
The crowds have gone home and the cast sailed away
Our flowers and feathers as scarring as weapons
Our poems and letters have turned to deceptions

Now snap out of it. Pull yourself together. In a few days, we will see that the tomb is empty.

What we are seeing in Iraq now is not a general uprising, or even a coup d'etat, though the latter seems to be what Moqtada al-Sadr intended. What we are seeing is another eruption of the lawlessness that met the Coalition forces when they arrived in Iraq. No alternative to the Provisional Government is on offer. Neither is there much prospect of a national guerrilla underground. Casualties in the current disturbances are more like those from a riot than from a war. That includes Falluja, where damage and casualties do not compare with the urban fighting during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. It will be seen, presently, that the opponents of the Coalition and of the nascent Iraqi government have done their worst, and their worst is no great shakes.

One could argue that the same was true of the Tet Offensive, which began on January 31, 1968. In that case, too, the offensive was a military failure. The Viet Cong never entirely recovered from it. However, public morale in the United States collapsed in the aftermath. That was partly because of the way the offensive was presented by the news media, but chiefly because the US government itself was shaken. Lyndon Johnson soon announced he would not seek reelection. The US theater commander was fired. American policy thereafter was to fight for a draw, and the North Vietnamese knew it.

George Bush and their Administration have their faults, but lack of resolve is not among them. They have a virtue: they won't try to compromise with people who can't be trusted to keep an agreement. Those are the essentials.

This is not to say that victory in the Terror War is assured. Only the tried-and-true method of assuring civil peace in the Middle East could do that: slaughter civilians in their thousands and tens of thousands, until the feuding communities are stunned with horror. The great Islamist bombings of civilians in the West are simply another expression of that political culture. That is not all there is to the societies of the Middle East, however. Shia Islam in particular has resources that could support a humane politics, if only a space is available where those resources can develop. That space can and will be created. Whether anything will grow in it in the long run remains to be seen.

* * *

Another factor is that patience with Islam is wearing thin in the West, even in the most unlikely places:

[In March], the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, formerly a preacher of multiculti boilerplate and now morphed into a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy...said in a speech in Rome that Islam is "authoritarian, inflexible and under-achieving". Taking no prisoners, he drew attention to the "glaring absence" of democracy in most Muslim countries and suggested that they had "contributed little of major significance to world culture for centuries."

This could be part of a larger trend in Britain toward, well, Britishness:

Britain's race relations chief Trevor Phillips was attacked by politicians, community leaders and commentators yesterday after he called for the country to abandon its attempts to be more multicultural. In a newspaper interview the head of the Commission for Racial Equality said that 'multiculturalism suggests separateness' and added that the UK should strive towards a more homogeneous culture with 'common values ... the common currency of the English language, honouring the culture of these islands, like Shakespeare and Dickens'.

The interesting thing is that the man who said this was not actually lynched, or at least not by the time of this writing.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the US, the engines of social deconstruction grind on. There is, for instance, a serious move afoot to allow non-citizen aliens to vote in New York City elections:

At first glance, it may seem a long shot in an era of orange alerts and stepped-up border patrols. But quietly and carefully, elected officials, labor unions and community groups are starting to push the notion of allowing legal immigrants who are not United States citizens to vote in New York City elections....

A stumbling block was removed this year when lawyers for the City Council reviewed state election law and decided that the city could alter its voting statutes without the approval of the State Legislature, where noncitizen voting measures were introduced without success three times during the 1990's...

"In many ways, this prepares people," said Gouri Sadhwani, the executive director of the New York Civic Participation Project, one of the groups pressing the issue. "They start local, and then they become citizens and vote in national elections."

That last comment is, of course, simply wrong. An alien franchise would not prepare resident aliens for participation in national life. It would make it possible for them to forgo participation in national life entirely. It would be fatal to assimilation, since the local institutions that have traditionally Americanized immigrants would be controlled in part by people with no interest in assimilation. For three decades, the opponents of assimilation have busied themselves institutionalizing multiculturalism. Except for the scandal of bilingual education, these efforts have for the most part been harmless rackets. We can no longer take that attitude, however. Multiculturalism has become a national security threat.

New York City politics is a universe unto itself; though I live just across the Hudson, I cannot gauge what chance this measure has. If it became the law in New York City, it would quickly become a national issue. Once that happens, America as a whole will shout it down. If the state government does not forbid alien voting, then Congress will. The text of the Constitution may suggest that this sort of thing is a state matter, but the area of voting rights has been federalized so extensively that such an objection can no longer stand. God help the Supreme Court if it finds otherwise.

* * *

The citizenship issue could follow a trajectory like that of the gay-marriage campaign: both involve basic institutions that were being successfully undermined, until the underminers broke into daylight. It is, perhaps, no accident that the most honest proposal to abolish marriage also comes from New York City:

The same-sex marriage controversy took a new and dramatic turn [in early April] as one of the state Legislature's few openly gay members proposed abolishing marriage altogether in New York. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) said she would introduce legislation today to remove all references to marriage from the state Domestic Relations Law and replace them with the term "civil unions."

This is the direction in which progressive family law has been moving for years. The program has been effectively implemented in parts of Europe, the dying continent. It's more a symptom than a cause of morbidity, but it does make recovery more difficult.

* * *

Speaking of Good Friday, I was greatly surprised to see that expert opinion on the Shroud of Turin has undergone another revolution. According to the PBS series Secrets of the Dead, the Shroud probably is a first-century Palestinian artifact. That unpleasantness with the radio-carbon dating a few years ago was the consequence of choosing a dirty corner to test.

I would still want to see another carbon-14 test on the Shroud. I also want to see a test on the Sudarium, another supposed piece of burial clothes. It has stains that allegedly match those on the Shroud, and it is reliably known to be at least as old as the eighth century.

In any case, the question now appears in a different light.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-07-29

Man Who Doxxed Dozens Of People, Engaged In Nineteen 'Swattings', Nets Only One Year In Prison

I don't think I know enough to really have an opinion about appropriate sentencing for this, but it does *seem* a little light.

A Reason for Optimism

Source: Meyer and Sullivan (forthcoming)

Source: Meyer and Sullivan (forthcoming)

This is a fascinating look at patterns in consumption over the past 50 years, and how the gap between rich and poor looks a little different when you look at consumption measures instead of income. I looked at the draft paper in order to understand exactly what was being measured. To my outsider's eye, consumption is primarily spending, with some adjustments like amortizing the value of a car over its lifetime instead of accounting for it all when it is purchased, to reflect the value gained by using the car. When you look at it this way, the difference between the spending habits of the top 10% and everyone else in the US has not really changed much in the last 30 years or so. Part of the reason for this is transfers and subsidies from safety-net programs are not usually reflected in income measures.

Tyler Cowen's Great Stagnation

A nice summary of the idea that economic progress in the West has stalled.

The Terror of Sierra Leone

I came across this while reading a story about the trainer jets Nigeria uses to bomb Boko Haram. War is hell, and especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This is as horrible as war gets.


The Long View 2004-04-05: Mullah John Belushi

Muqtada al-Sadr

Muqtada al-Sadr

I don't know enough about Muqtada al-Sadr to have a real opinion, other than to say he is still influential twelve years later. I do know that Shia clerics like al-Sadr often study Aristotle and Plato, and that gives us something in common.

I also picked the first reasonable looking picture that came up on Google image search. The poor guy isn't always angry.

Mullah John Belushi

Moqtada al-Sadr is the sort of fellow who gives mad mullahs a bad name. He's pudgy; he glares at cameras from under a beetling brow; he reminds everyone of these characteristics by encouraging his followers to carry oversize pictures of him. He also seems to be fatally stupid. He's holed up in a major mosque, surround by an army of fanatics sworn to defend him to the death. Doesn't this guy know that extracting people like him from situations like that is what Special Forces were created to do?

I am sure you can follow the news as well as I can, so I won't clutter this comment with links. No doubt you have seen this note from the Iraqi blogger, Zeyad, which mentions, among other things, that Sunni hardliners are resisting al-Sadr's Army of the Mahdi. One hopes that this incident will concentrate the Sunnis' minds about what would actually happen to then if the US leaves prematurely. Dan Rather just looked earnestly into my eyes from the television screen and repeated unconfirmed reports that the uprising is being aided from Iran. If that's true, and the US makes a fuss about it, it could could backfire on the Persian reactionaries. There is also this bit of encouraging news: Dan Schorr on NPR's "All Things Considered" this evening used the term "quagmire." He has a history with that word, but maybe he has become so venerable that his editors hesitate to remind him of it.

The thing to keep in mind is that the uprising is happening at more or less a time of the Coalition's choosing. Al-Sadr would have done more to prevent a democratic transition than could the Sunni-based insurgency. Despite the fact the Shia establishment wants him gone, it would have been too much to ask of a transitional government to arrest him or to control his cult. It's never good when a situation arises in which hundreds of people could he killed. Still, what is happening now is by no means the worst that could have happened.

* * *

As we see from the Spanish experiment, surrender doesn't help. Despite having just elected a Quisling (or dhimmi?) government, the country is now met with fresh demands from the terrorists. An offensive planned for Holy Week-Easter Week by the terrorists may have been blunted by the explosion of a bomb factory; it's a shame that a Spanish policemen was killed in the incident.

Nonetheless, I see that anti-terrorism demonstrations in Spain still often have a "No Blood for Oil" theme. It still hasn't sunk in: the blood will flow whether the oil does or not.

* * *

Let no one be in any doubt about the superiority of American stupidity, however. Consider these excerpts from an Op Ed in USA Today: U.N. record in Iraq is strong:

There has been much discussion lately about the "scandal" of the U.N.-run oil-for-food program. The Iraqi Governing Council charges that hundreds of Iraqi officials, foreign companies and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein skimmed 10% or so from the humanitarian contracts...But let's be realistic. Iraq's economy plummeted from $60 billion a year in output to $13 billion. That's what brought about the terrible impoverishment...Though the U.N. is not yet involved in rebuilding Iraq, the U.S. is. But is its track record so much better? Have we forgotten that massive no-bid contracts were handed out to U.S. corporations such as Bechtel and Halliburton?...The U.N. is the better choice for nation-building with integrity and competence.

For some people, the UN is becoming what socialism used to be: not an institution, but a desire. Like the desire for ice cream, there is no argument against it. In fact, it's worse than ice cream, since there is no international equivalent of frozen yoghurt.

* * *

Does anyone keep track of the exotic weapons that may be headed for Iraq? There's the laser-armed humvee, for instance. That's for engineers to explode mines from a distance; it's not artillery. It sounds like a good idea, but it seems stuck in development.

Closer to being used is a horrible screaming-banshee machine called the Long Range Acoustic Device. It is supposed to be nonlethal. That's an improvement, I suppose, but I would not want to be in the first crowd on which it is used. I would say the same of the pain-inducing directed energy weapon, which is known to be in the works. I can't find links to it, oddly enough.

* * *

Much nonsense has been written about the role of religion in the current Bush Administration. George W. is more religious than his own father, perhaps, but not more than Bill Clinton, who goes through life with the manipulative, but real, piety of an Elmer Gantry. Be that as it may, some hostile critics say that Bush is motivated by the Armageddon scenario of the Left Behind series; others accuse him of aiming to legislate Biblical law, after the manner of the Reconstructionist movement.

Such gossip has enlivened many a wine-and-cheese party. However, as Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College recently noted, these imaginary horribles are mutually exclusive:

But there are major disagreements between [the Left Behind series and Reconstructionism], especially about eschatology -- that is, what the Bible teaches about the way human history will end. And those differences lead to very different ideas about how politics works and what it is for.

[Premillennialist] eschatology is, generally speaking, the default position for those who occupy the fundamentalist corner of the evangelical world. To be sure, many readers of the "Left Behind" books may enjoy the story without believing that LaHaye and Jenkins have rightly calculated every detail. But they will probably share the premillennialist view that human societies will not exhibit moral progress, but will deteriorate until the only option for redemption is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory, which will usher in the Millennium, the "thousand-year reign" of God. (What happens after that is disputed and complicated. Let's just say that eventually God wins.) contrast, generally don't believe in a Millennium in LaHaye's sense, and are pretty confident that Jesus isn't going to show up any time soon to rescue us. In fact, it is precisely because they don't believe in an imminent Second Coming that Reconstructionists are so determined to use Biblical law as the foundation for civilization. They'd like to build a world that Jesus would want to return to.

These comments are correct, but I would add something. Apocalyptic eschatologies often do describe history as a tale of degeneration, but there is a history of them adding brief periods of hope before the final crisis comes. That happened in the Middle Ages with the evolution of the legend of the Emperor of the Last Days. The Mahdi doctrine, found in some schools of Islam, is remarkably similar. Structurally, the Pretribulation Rapture itself fits in just this place on the timeline.

There is zero evidence of any of this in the Bush Administration. However, some such thought does seem to have occurred to Pat Robertson. The classification of eschatological ideas is necessary, but misleading. The end of the world is a felt necessity, like the the return to the tonic in music; but the music is jazz.   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-04-02: Innoculation

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment trends in newspaper publishing and other media

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment trends in newspaper publishing and other media

The process, predicted by Glenn Reynolds in National Interest in 1994, of altering the nature of journalism is now quite advanced. The prevalence of both still and motion cameras in nearly everyone's hands has certainly altered content production, since nearly every news item is now accompanied by cellphone video. From the BLS data in the chart above, newspapers have experienced a considerable drop in employment since 1994, almost 300,000 jobs. 

Reynolds prediction that the gatekeeper role of television and newspapers would disappear is probably half true. Lots of people get most of their news from the Internet now, but the survivors of the brutal consolidation process seen in the chart still are pretty influential. In the US, this would certainly include The New York Times, and NPR. Each of these organizations still produces a lot of news, and are still seen as authorities. Each one has a liberal flavor in US terms, but on the whole they both maintain their integrity, although at least in NY Times you need to get pretty deep into the article before anything interesting comes out.

A downside to the fracturing of the media market and consolidation among the survivors is you have fewer and fewer people doing the same work. According to John Schindler, foreign bureaus have often been cut, leaving only a few reporters on site to pass news into the system, which is then passed around by the Associated Press or other news sharing organizations.


You have to wonder: if the Madrid bombings had not just happened, would the American public have been so willing to take the desecration of the merceneries' bodies in Falluja so much in stride? Those video images from Iraq were far worse than anything that came from the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. When pictures of the Black Hawk pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu appeared on television, the morale of the media immediately collapsed, along with whatever support remained for the humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Today, some commentators seem eager to collapse again, but most don't, and neither does the general public. This is partly because a consensus has quickly developed that the fall of the Aznar government in Spain was a new Munich. Even public figures who were not very keen on the Iraq War to begin with accepted this view. What happened to those contract guards was just as gruesome as what happened to the Spanish commuters, but few people seem willing to suggest that now America should do what Spain did.

Something else that the public seems to be taking in stride is the 911 Commission testimony of Richard Clarke. Though his memoir, Against All Enemies, has become a must-read (or at least a must-own) among the political class, by most accounts it contains almost no new material. The politically informed public understands this. The politically uninformed public, for their part, recognize a hypocritical campaign tactic when they see one. In fact, one suspects that it is cable-news shenanigans like this that persuades so many people that politics does not merit their full attention.

* * *

But what about the people who watch only entertainment programs, you ask?. The New York Times reports today that the scripts of ordinary television shows increasingly incorporate anti-Bush material:

I have never, ever seen this community more united than right now, never," said Laurie David [wife of Larry David, the star of an HOBO comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm"], who has been active in organizing the creative community against Mr. Bush. "Not a day goes by when I'm not getting a dozen calls from people saying to me, `What can I do?' And it's all with one goal: to change the course of what's going on in this country and get rid of this administration."

I can't confirm this from my own experience; my TV watching is shrinking to programs of the sort that feature Eliza Dushku. Even if it is true, though, this could turn out to be yet another case of the Entertainment Establishment being humiliated in public, as it usually is when it tries to influence politics. The Times article points out that much the same thing happened in 1992, when the entertainment industry gave its product a conspicuous spin in favor of Bill Clinton. That was a close election, and every little bit helped. However, the 1990s saws the explosion of talk radio, the Internet, and politically right-wing outlets on cable. Whatever happened in 1992 will not happen in 2004, at least not in the same way or to the same degree.

* * *

As for politics on the Internet, it has manifested a mischievous tendency to work not at all in the way that was expected. Glenn Reynolds, a.k.a. Instapundit, has this to say on the subject the the Spring 1994 National Interest, in the essay The Blogs of War

But it seems safe to say that prewar predictions that the Internet would be a force against war, and in favor of lefty, EU-style moral equivalency human rights advocates, turn out to have been partly right, but not in the way advocates seem to have thought. The Internet turned out to be a stronger force for human rights properly understood than for peace at any price, and the ability of people to use the Internet to bypass traditional organizations with different priorities has made a significant difference. This effect will probably grow larger over time. With the growing ubiquity of digital cameras (including digital video cameras) and broadband Internet access, the gatekeeper role of traditional news media, and other international organizations, is likely to disappear.

Many analyses of the cultural implications of the Internet, such as Erik Davis's Techgnosis and Michael Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy, have focused on the ability of the Internet to host what are almost parallel universes. Paranoids and conspiracy theorists have never had it so good. On the other hand, it does not seem to be true that the Internet is without a hierarchy of credibility. Every worldview may have started equal on the Internet, but webs of criticism and shared information soon developed. Instapundit in particular is one of the key nodes of a network of analysis and reporting that is, if anything, at least as intelligently critical as the world of major newspapers and public-affairs television.

That seems to be the real axis of evolution on the non-commercial Internet. Those parallel universes of conspiracy theorists increasingly look like isolated ecological niches. Strange creatures flourish in them, and the Internet allows many more people to visit them than would otherwise be the case. Still, those niches show little capacity to grow, or even change. When the creatures in them wander onto the main highways of cyberspace, they quickly become road kill.

* * *

On the subject of things that seem to alter very little, I got a sense of deja vu from this recent report about the Martian atmosphere:

A trio of research teams independently probing the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane have found it, a combined discovery that opens the door for a host of theories as to how the gas got there...Since methane has a relatively short lifetime on Mars for atmospheric gases, about 300 years or so, scientists believe there must be some process at work to keep replenishing its concentration in the atmosphere.

As we know, life stinks. The presence of highly reactive gasses, such as methane or oxygen, in a planetary atmosphere is good evidence for biology, if there is no geological explanation for it. There are other possible explanations for Martian methane. Inconspicuous vulcanism is one. Another would be carboniferous meteorites. I suspect, though I don't know, that the isotopic signatures of the carbon from these sources would be distinguishable. However, they can't be distinguished by using orbiters or terrestrial telescopes, which provided the data for these studies. We need a sample of the atmosphere.

The deja vu comes in because NASA announced, during one of the early Mariner missions I believe, that it had discovered methane on Mars, and that there was no explanation for it but organic decomposition. This discovery lasted only a few days; soon someone figured out that the instrument readings could also have been produced by dry ice and CO2, or something of that sort.

Again: are we really much further along than we were in 1970?

* * *

Not all precedents are unhopeful, however. Consider this rather hostile report, from The Washington Times, about the State of Maine's new health care system:

Other states have tried -- and failed -- to create universal health care. Now, Maine intends to show them how it's done. This summer, the state will begin enrolling people in its health care program, called Dirigo -- the state motto and Latin for "I lead." It is aimed at ensuring health care access for all 1.3 million residents.

It occurs to me that this is pretty much what happened with deposit insurance for banks. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states experimented with insuring the savings of depositors, but without much success. The insurance pools were not big enough, and the existence of insured and uninsured banks created a "moral hazard," whereby speculators put their money in insured banks with irresponsibly high returns. When the banking system collapsed nationwide during the Depression in the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration created national deposit insurance reluctantly, and almost as an afterthought. To everyone's surprise, a national system solved the century-old problem of unreliable financial institutions. I would not be at all surprised if something similar happened with health insurance.

* * *

And now for Art:

Easter is almost upon us, so I was asked to do yet another poster for the local Latin Mass group. You can find it here. Anyone is welcome, of course. There's coffee in the church basement afterwards.

Speaking of welcoming, I have made this animation using the picture on my website's top page. That's a 1.2 mb file, so be patient.

That animation will probably stay on my site, but the Easter poster will come down after a while: I need the storage space. Another item I am going to take down in the near future is this animated thank-you note I sent to a friend who sent me a Hellboy comic. No, I'm not interested in comics, but I may well see the movie.    

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: TechGnosis

Cyberspace, as envisioned in the 1990s

Cyberspace, as envisioned in the 1990s

I kind of miss the nineties cyberspace speculations like the book John reviews here. The Internet turned out to be far more tawdry and commercial than anyone thought twenty years ago. 

Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
by Erik Davis
Harmony Books, 1998
$25.00, 368 Pages
ISBN: 0-517-70415-3

Hypertext occasions more than its share of hype. Even this excellent book, by an author who has written for a number of journals (“Wired” inevitably heads the list) on cyberculture and religion, contains this dismaying self-description:

“You may think you are holding a conventional book, a solid and familiar chunk of infotech with chapters and endnotes and a linear argument about the mythical roots of technoculture. But that is really just a clever disguise. Once dissolved in your mindstream, TechGnosis will become a resonating hypertext, one whose links leap between machines and dreams, information and spirit, the dustbin of history and the alembics of the soul.”

Mindstream indeed. However, once you get past occasional passages like this (as well as such subcultural oddities as “hack” for “invent” and “meat-space” for “the real world”), you will find that “TechGnosis” really does provide a fairly cogent account of the cultural effects of information theory. The Internet is only the most conspicuous such effect, and the author notes many other ways in which the “triumph of technique,” so deplored by Jacques Ellul, both antedated the Internet and provides the context in which it now operates. Nevertheless, the book may be most valuable for explaining why the wired world is so permeated by the weird triumvirate of libertarianism, neopaganism and paranoia.

“Gnosticism” has become a cussword, and the author is alive to the need to distinguish the capitalized “Gnosis” of late antiquity from the gnostic-like movements of the spirit that have appeared in more recent times. Still, on the Internet, this is surprisingly hard to do. Researchers into modern occultism have been astonished by the high percentage of their subjects who work in computer-related industries. More significant, though, is the fact that the Internet is a peculiarly apt medium for the expression of the gnostic impulse. Three things that gnostics have always desired is freedom from the constraints of matter, absolute personal autonomy and some species of immortality. Computers and the Internet provide a hope or a simulacrum of all these things.

The relation of the Internet to pure capitalism probably does not need a great deal of explanation. There, and maybe there alone, money really is nothing but pure numbers. However, the Internet also hosts its own peculiar ontology. For instance, extropians and transhumanists, the most enthusiastic supporters of artificial intelligence, are working on ways to upload the structure of their brains into computer networks when they die, thus becoming ghosts in the world machine. More prosaically, fantasy-game players and even casual websurfers often create durable online personalities for themselves. These “avatars,” as they are called, can interact in virtual worlds presided over by demiurge-like systems-operators (sysops). These worlds are normally constructed with an eye to sword-and-sorcery fiction, but they are also “magical” for the simple reason that language there really is performative: typing in a “spell” will invoke some “law” of the virtual world. This is the essence of magic, which the technology merely facilitates. Serious gamers, and the numerous serious ritual magicians (“chaos wizards”) who communicate online, do not strongly differentiate the online worlds from their own carefully-cultivated imaginations.

This degree of freedom from the human condition has its price. When matter and social norms become fetters that can be cast aside for brief periods, the question arises of who forged them in the first place and who maintains them now. This paranoia was characteristic of ancient Gnosticism, and it is typical of much of the Internet today. Rumors of all sorts spread instantly and universally, each depicting some yet more subtle strategy of oppression deployed by the dark controllers. In a purely mental world, after all, all control is thought control, so the conspiracy theories most characteristic of online culture tend to smack of the blackest spiritual wickedness.

Among the archetypical themes to which information culture gives new body, not least is the apocalypse. Teilhard de Chardin has become the patron saint of philosophers of the virtual world, for the excellent reason that his notion of a “noosphere” really does bear a striking resemblance to the Internet. (The fact that he shared Henri Bergson's doubts about the possibility of artificial intelligence is often overlooked.) Teilhard's theology of history has more than a little to do with the widespread belief that the virtual world is moving toward a Singularity in the next century that will absorb the material world and end history as we have known it. There are also many less cheerful apocalypses involving aliens and the traditional international cabals. On the other hand, of course, the online world is host to quite traditional forms of premillennialism. Indeed, though every variety of radical thought can be found on the Internet, I for one have long been struck by how conservative most of its content really is.

Erik Davis may be right in describing his book as “nonlinear”: certainly it does not have much of a thesis beyond the observation that information theory has provided yet another opportunity for perennial myths and ideas to manifest themselves. Still, although he gives reasonable play to postmodern analysis in his discussion, he also suggests, with evident relief, that its “biting half-truths” have about outlived their usefulness. While he anticipates some sort of historical discontinuity in the near future, TechGnosis is hardly a compendium of impending disasters. The theory of alchemy seems to serve the author as a theory of progress. Human souls, human societies, and of course the Internet itself are alembics of the Great Work of spiritual transformation. While not yet post-postmodern enough to predict a happy outcome, the book does end with this engaging if not wholly comforting image: “Prometheus is hell-bent in the cockpit, but Hermes has snuck into Mission Control, and the matrix is ablaze with entangling tongues.” 

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly
This review first appeared in the May, 1999, issue of First Things. 

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The Long View 2004-03-29: Unexpected Storms

Richard Clarke comes in again for more aspersions from John. I'm not Clarke deserved this, but I suppose it doesn't matter much now, even though it would seem that Clarke was probably more in the right.

Of vastly more interest [to me] is John's reference to Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning. John was interested in models of history, as am I, and this work comes up again and again. I find John's review of the book endlessly fascinating, even as subsequent experience demonstrates that Strauss and Howe's generational model is far from perfect. Yet, for all that, it really does seem like they are on to something. [if recent events distress you, Strauss and Howe's model suggests the Crisis will not be fully resolved until 2025, so buckle up. We have another decade of this.]

It is easy to think of this as a really bad week, with racial unrest in the US from the killing first of blacks by police, and then the killing of police by blacks, followed by vehicular terrorism in Nice and a coup in Turkey. Probably it just is the way in which social media has only amplified and exaggerated the process by which rumors and bad news now spread. For example, look at this data collected by Gallup on American blacks' perceptions of police:

I honestly would have expected a bigger difference, with the focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, but this data highlights for me the way in which it is easy to exaggerate trends based on the news. More American blacks feel the police treat them unfairly than American whites, but there hasn't been a huge shift in that feeling in the last year. The linked Gallup article also contains a longer term data set, which does show a recent short term improvement in perceived fairness of police interactions with blacks, but also shows that American blacks are pretty dissatisfied with how the police treat them. If you hadn't already noticed that.

It is always worth looking at the data[and also worth making sure you know enough to interpret the data], which is why I follow an increasing number of quantitative social scientists on Twitter. There are parts of science suffering a replication crisis, and there are also parts that are not. I haven't yet delved into Peter Turchin's more quantitative take on models of history, but I think this is about the perfect time to start looking. 

Unexpected Storms

I have less and less patience with the Richard Clark[e] campaign against the Bush Administration. What we have here is a man who rose to national prominence overnight by accusing the Bush people, and Bush himself, of neglect of duty and even personal intimidation, but who now complains that the White House is trying to deflect attention from policy issues by attempting to assassinate his character. Clarke defines character assassination as comparing statements that he made in different forums. So does the Kerry campaign, which probably isn't a coincidence.

Nonetheless, one can still sympathize with Clarke's stint as a counterterrorism expert in the Clinton and Bush Administrations, both of which came into office with a pledge to think about foreign affairs as little as possible. That does not change the fact there is something terribly wrongheaded about what Clarke now represents. Barbara Amiel, writing in The Daily Telegraph, put it this way in a piece called Those Who Predicted Jihad Run Against the Wind:

If 9/11 can be reduced to being Washington's fault, the irrational hate and destruction becomes almost manageable. Change administrations, and the Islamists will go away. Such a seductive, comforting thought echoes in most political battles and elections today. The wind from the east blows gritty grains of fear and delusion into the West's eyes. One wonders apprehensively, which way the zeitgeist of this new millennium will turn. Worse, one fears the calamity that will really turn it hasn't happened yet.

That last point dovetails nicely with the argument recently made on Angst Dei, that Strauss & Howe's "Fourth Turning" has not even begun yet. That argument is, of course, a heretical departure from the one, true, interpretation of the Two Witnesses, but it is true that the will to self-delusion is no less strong today than it was on September 10, 2001. There really are people, lots of them, who think that the fundamental problem is the existence of criminal terrorist networks, rather than the ideological and political milieu from which they arise. Yes, you have to swat the mosquitoes, but there will be no peace until the swamp is drained.

* * *

That is not to say that the swamp is confined to the Middle East. Far from it, if you believe what Reuel Marc Gerecht had to say in the March 29 issue of The Weekly Standard, in the article "Holy War in Europe":

These young men are part of what the Iranian-French scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar has called the "neo-umma guerriere -- "the new holy-war community of believers" that recognizes neither national nor ethnic identity nor traditional Islamic values. Their Islam is "a new type of Nietzscheanism" where suicide and murder become sacred acts of an elite, a self-made race of believers who want to bring on a purifying Apocalypse.

At the risk of repeating myself yet again, this mix of ideas parallels point for point the ideology that Julius Evola put forward in Men Among the Ruins.

* * *

Speaking of the purifying apocalypse, fans of the Y2K bug will remember Gary North, a proponent of what is variously called Theonomy, Dominion Theology, or Reconstructionism. These models of history hold that the the world will be converted and reformed during the Millennium, at the end of which the Second Coming will occur. As with other forms of postmillennialism, North held that the millennial age will be more continuous than not with the current age. There may be disruptive events, but not necessarily "apocalypse" in the colloquial sense. North argued that there would be massive, but survivable, social disruption around the world because of the Y2K bug, which would be just the ticket to get the Millennium proper under way.

After the beginning of the new century, we heard rather less of Gary North. Now he's back, however, with a quickie ebook about the reception and social implications of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion. If you hurry, you can download The War Against Mel Gibson for yourself. Here's a bit of the Preface:

The Passion of the Christ is the most important recent event in the history of the American culture war. The Left went after Gibson and the movie early, but their efforts have backfired. The extent of that backfire is huge. It is possible – I believe highly probable – that this movie will mark a turning point in the culture war...Is The Passion the first step in a systematic, comprehensive counter-attack by Christians in a cultural war that Christians have been losing for almost a century? I think this is the case. So does Hollywood and Hollywood's cheerleaders in the media. This is why they are horrified.

I suspect that The Passion could be an important film, too, both culturally and religiously. It is, however, not the beginning of the Millennium. Trust me on this; I know these things.

* * *

As another example of misplaced enthusiasm, consider another article that appeared in the March 29 Weekly Standard, Maggie Gallagher's "Latter Day Federalists (Why we need a national definition of marriage)." In that piece, she argues that the definition of marriage was federalized long ago, particularly in connection with the campaign against polygamy in the Utah Territory, which was settled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Utah began petitioning for statehood as early as 1859, but Congress would have none of it until the Territory put its family law in order. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which criminalized bigamy in Utah. Harsher federal acts continued until 1890, when the Church relented on the polygamy question. The Utah Territory was admitted as a state six years later.

Readers of this site will know that I support a federal, constitutional definition of marriage. Nonetheless, I must point out that this particular argument won't fly. Congress has almost plenary power over the territories in the US that have not been admitted to the Union. The same is true of Congress's power over the District of Columbia. Congress generally does not exercise that power, once a local government has been established, but there is no constitutional novelty in Congress doing so.

There really will be some novelty in a federal definition of marriage. The question is whether there will be a novel judicial extension of Griswald (yes, that is where all this comes from) to create gay marriage, or a bit of honest new text to exclude it.

* * *

Did you know that hurricanes were supposed to occur only in the northern half of the Atlantic? Well, if you did, you are due for an update. It seems that Something Strange Is Happening:

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Florida estimated the storm was a full-fledged, Category I hurricane with central winds of between 75 and 80 mph, making it the first hurricane ever spotted in the South Atlantic. AccuWeather, Inc., a private forecasting company, said it also considered the storm a hurricane.

Brazilian scientists disagreed, saying the storm had top winds of 50 to 56 mph, far below the 75 mph threshold of a hurricane...

All sides said they were basing their estimates on satellite data, since the United States has no hurricane hunter airplanes in the area and Brazil doesn't own any.

When the storm struck land in Brazil over the weekend, it did considerable property damage. Last I heard, though, the Brazilian weather-people were sticking to their guns about the nature of the storm. This could be embarrassing. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

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