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    The Long View 2002-03-01: The European Constitutional Convention 

    Just today I read an article featuring a prediction about the future of the EU by Emmanuel Todd, a prominent French anthropologist. Todd is known for his work on Anglo-American exceptionalism, particularly in how families are viewed differently in England, Denmark, Brittany, the Netherlands, and parts of Norway.

    However, despite how interesting Todd's work on families is, the reason I mention him here is Todd's [correct] prediction in 1976 that the USSR would fall, based on failing demographics.

    Todd is now predicting the same thing for the EU. I am not a Euroskeptic; indeed I rather prefer not sticking my nose into other people's business. Thus I take no sides in the political travails of the EU. I am simply interested that Todd was correct once before on a similar matter.

    I do note that futures other than mere collapse may be possible for the EU and its member states. John always had a keen eye for historical analogy, and to that let me add a physical analogy. The fragmentation of Europe into nation-states took a great deal of energy; energy that Western Civilization now seems to lack. Without conscious effort to maintain the system created by the Peace of Westphalia, it is likely to relax back into the ground state.

    That ground state is Empire.



    The European Constitutional Convention

    Yesterday, a convention opened in Brussels that is supposed to make recommendations for restructuring the European Union, in preparation for the expansion of the EU from 15 to 24 members. At any rate, that's the party line. The Convention was not called for the explicit purpose of writing a constitution, and its spokesmen say they have no intention of creating a "European Superstate," whatever that might be. Nonetheless, though the very term "constitution" is missing from the official title of the assembly, the press has decided to call it the Constitutional Convention. They have also decided to compare it to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which drafted the current federal constitution of the United States, and to find that the European Convention compares badly.

    Certainly there is some chance the whole thing could crash and burn. The public debate in America on the Constitution of 1787 was open and the choices were clear. The Constitution had to be ratified by specially convened conventions in each state, so that the proposed Constitution would not fall prey to the interests of local elites. However, the Convention that wrote the draft was closed. The members thought, probably correctly, that they could not make compromises if they had to deal with public reaction to their daily debates. The European Constitutional Convention, in contrast, was called precisely because the European publics are tired of secret conclaves of diplomats and bureaucrats creating plans that fundamentally alter the way the publics' countries are governed. So, the Convention is to be televised, webcast, and otherwise open to inspection. The Convention will make decisions by "consensus," not by taking votes. Moreover, a Civil Society Forum will parallel the proceedings. There the EU's NGOs and other Usual Suspects can criticize the Convention's proceedings and offer proposals of their own. We have all heard the old witticism that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. This structure could easily produce a kangaroo.

    Maybe, but not necessarily. For one thing, the Brussels Convention does not suffer from the bloat that characterizes today's international conferences. There will be just 105 delegates, in contrast to the 55 in the Philadelphia Convention (who, incidentally, represented a country with fewer people than live in Paris today). More important, the Brussels Convention simply is not trying to do the same thing that the Philadelphia Convention did. The Founding Fathers met just from May 25 to September 15 of 1787, while the talk will go on at Brussels for a year. That is more the scale of an ecumenical council than of a deliberative conference.

    What we are looking at here is a difference of historical periods. The Philadelphia Convention was an exercise in Enlightenment Neoclassicism, perhaps the last moment such a thing could have been done, even in America. The National Assembly in Paris just two years later was already on the other side of the historical watershed, the first great expression of political Romanticism. The Brussels Convention of 2002-2003 may provide the signature to a new era.

    It is sometimes said that the European Union is an attempt to revive the Roman Empire. Sometimes even the architects of the EU said that, but they were wrong. What the EU resembles, and probably will resemble even more if the Brussels Convention does not fail, is the Holy Roman Empire. The Empire can be dated, according to taste, to the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in 800, or, more correctly, to the accession of Otto I to the title of "Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation" in 962. A confederal structure, the Empire waxed and waned over the course of almost 1000 years. It mostly waned after the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 created the Western system of sovereign states. At the behest of Napoleon, the Empire broke up into its constituent parts in 1806, with the last emperor abdicating to the slightly less exalted position of King-Emperor of Austria-Hungary.

    The Empire reached maturity only with the promulgation of its constitution, the Golden Bull, in 1356. Americans usually think that they invented federalism, the separation of powers and checks-and-balances. Americans even think they invented the idea of a written constitution. A quick look at the Golden Bull will show otherwise. The Empire had a multilobed legislature, extreme deference to the sovereignty of its constituent states, and a court system with ample authority to gum up the works. The Empire looked, in fact, like nothing so much as the current EU, with the difference that it could, sometimes, function as a great power.

    The Western nation-state system grew out of the fragmentation of the Empire. In the 21st century, the fragments are falling back together. Even if the Convention is successful, its work will be provisional. Eventually the US, as the other half of the West, is going to have to associate with the system somehow. The American president could perhaps be ceremonial head of state. This would give the EU a measure of diplomatic and military heft it would otherwise lack. It would reassuure the smaller states that they are still states among other states and not mere provinces. It would also act as a restraint on the American executive. No one on either side of the Atlantic is likely to suggest such a thing this year, however.

    Certainly not me.


    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site


    CrossFit 2014-07-08

    Stretch armstrong 

    • 100 double unders [1/2 DU 1/2 2x singles]
    • 3 rounds of
      • 15 deadlifts [155#]
      • 35 abmat situps
    • 100 double unders [1/2 DU 1/2 2x singles]

    Time 18:15


    The Long View: On the Nature of the Coming World Government

    As a proponent of a mild version of the cyclical theory of history, John thought that the development of a world-spanning universal state was inevitable in the 21st century. I am inclined to agree, and like John, I think it will probably be for the best. John felt that historical precedents made the terrifying states of the 20th century anomalous, and whatever is to come would be fundamentally unlike them.

    This is good, in that ordinary people will probably be less affected by the worst the state has to offer. The downside is that ordinary people will also be less affected by the best the state has to offer. In John's view, the power of governments to motivate and corral their citizens peaked in the 1940s, and represented the culmination of modernity in the West. We should expect that as we slide into Empire, the reach of the state will gradually diminish along with the interest of the citizenry in the apparatus of government.

    If you look at the average state of the world today, that is already the condition of much of the globe. A middle of the pack nation like Brazil is representative. They can host the World Cup, but can't maintain public order everywhere. Any world government will not be able to do any better.

    On the Nature of the Coming World Government


    John J. Reilly


    I have every confidence that a political authority which is both sovereign and universal will be established sometime in the 21st century. The human world is now only a day or two wide, even by ordinary commercial transport. It is absurd to think that a society so concentrated could endure indefinitely without a government for the whole. During the time of the great European colonial empires, it required an act of will to keep worldwide social entities together. By the end of the 20th century, an act of will was required to inhibit their formation. In the 21st century, this resolve must inevitably weaken once, twice, maybe three times. Then the world will collapse into what Toynbee called a "universal state." This development is so inevitable that it is not even interesting.

    The prospect of a state encompassing the whole planet occasioned much hope and anxiety throughout the 20th century. The hope was based on reaction to the militant nationalisms that framed the century's world wars. Since the right to wage war is one of the incidents of national sovereignty, it was thought that a world with only a single sovereign would necessarily be without war. The fear was based on the assumption that anything that is universal is also necessarily totalitarian. If government is only a necessary evil, the logic ran, then a universal government would be an evil of unprecedented proportions.

    Both the hope and the fear are misplaced. They are based on extrapolations of the historically eccentric experiences of the 20th century. They overlook the common features that the universal states of particular civilizations have displayed in the past. They also overlook the nature of the society the coming world government will rule, which is to say, the civilization of Earth.

    The key thing to remember about Earth is that it is essentially an advanced Third World country, rather like Brazil. This characterization is not necessarily an insult; there are Third World countries that have a lot to recommend them. The defining feature of Third World status, however, is not the presence or absence of democracy, or even the level of economic development. Taking the definition supplied by the former CIA analyst, Patrick E. Kennon, a Third World country is one in which the government, broadly defined, has little control over civil society. Using the sort of nautical expression so favored by the CIA in its Cold War period, he likens a Third World country to a great barge in a slow-moving river. It is hard to steer, hard to upset, and the very devil to right again if it somehow capsizes.

    Countries can be like this for any number of reasons. They may have a tradition of tax avoidance. They may be so constitutionally constructed that governments cannot do very much and still remain legal. They may be chaotic places, with no law outside a few major cities. They may just be dirt poor. Whatever the particular circumstances, what Third World countries have in common is governments that lack the resources to either serve or police their citizens to any but the most rudimentary degree.

    This is almost certainly what Earth would be like, should unification come late in the next century. The world in those days should have from 10 to 12 billion people in it. This is quite likely the figure that the human race will top out at for the foreseeable future, since the demographic transition to lower birthrates should have spread universally by then. This, of course, would also imply the general increase in living standards that goes along with the transition. Still, you are talking about an immense amount of territory, inhabited for the most part by relatively poor people. Also, since there are likely to be one or more world wars preceding unification, the infrastructure of civilization may be substantially damaged. The world government may be large, relative to that of national states. However, it will have to be relatively small compared to the society it purports to govern, simply because the per capita resources won't be available for more.

    A universal state may have democratic features, but there has never been an instance of one with a genuinely democratic government. Even the Roman universal state, with its tradition of popular and aristocratic assemblies, rarely experienced effective Senatorial control. In the 20th century, of course, we see already that supranational bodies have only the most perfunctory democratic elements. This is not only true of the United Nations, with its General Assembly of rotten boroughs and its Security Council that serves chiefly to maintain the coalition that won World War II. It is also true of the European Union, which has an elected parliament, but one with very limited powers. (The system has been described as "The German Empire without the Kaiser.")

    The truly "democratic" feature of universal states is their openness to "talents." They all rely heavily on bureaucracies, which are generally not recruited from the upper classes of the era of national states that precede them. These bureaucrats can enter government in the most haphazard fashion. The Roman Empire was administered in large part by "freedmen," who were former slaves. The Ottoman Empire was, to an appalling degree, run by people who still were slaves. (The empire's elite troops, the Janissaries, were a slave corps, recruited largely from Eastern European children.) China achieved universal states twice in its history, and by the second occasion, in the fourteenth century, it had a well-developed tradition of civil service tests to recruit staff for the new government. What all these examples have in common, however, is that world governments are open to some degree of influence from the lower parts of the social scale.

    Something else that all universal states have in common, of course, is that they are all monarchies. For better or worse, the world government is going to be under the direction of an emperor, certainly in fact and perhaps also in name. Of course, the title "emperor" has meant different things in different contexts. It has been borne by men viewed by most of their subjects as a hated foreign tyrant, but then it has also been held by legitimate and well-loved rulers of partially parliamentary states. It will mean more than one thing in the coming universal state, too. Over the 500 years or so that a world government can be expected to exist, much of its political history is describable in terms of the transformation of the emperor from a military dictator to a ritual figurehead. Except at the very beginning, during the reign of the founder, the emperor rarely tries to employ the degree of initiative that the executive of a modern state routinely uses. What then does he do?

    The function of emperors is to read their mail. That, at least, is the conclusion reached by Fergus Millar is his exhaustive study, "The Emperor in the Roman World." Most of the time, emperors waited for problems to come to them. They answered queries from their governors and they sat as the court of last resort in certain legal disputes. They answered a remarkable number of written petitions from private persons, even from slaves. However, except in extraordinary situations, and those mostly concerned military emergencies, they did not plan vast reforming "programs" for their reigns. They scarcely had "policies." Their policy was to keep the great barge of empire floating along with as little disruption as possible. They could act decisively to aid or punish individuals, even whole cities, but their capacity to affect life in the empire as a whole was limited.

    Something like this also seems to have been true in China, to judge from Ray Huang's snapshot history of the Ming Dynasty, "1587: A Year of No Significance." In that case, the right of petition was rather more limited. It extended to local magistrates, who did not hesitate to pepper the imperial secretariat with memorials containing their bright ideas. The emperor exercised "government" by writing "approved" on the memorials he like or "acknowledged" on the ones he didn't. Except for a few large, continuing government functions, such as guarding the northern frontier and maintaining the dikes on the Yangtsee, that was the extent of administrative control that the central government would exert itself to exercise.

    The social structures of universal states are not conspicuously unjust, compared to most times and places, but they are not very egalitarian. Social distinctions are most fluid at a universal state's beginning, which occurs after the most highly commercial phase of its civilization's history. By that point, traditional aristocracies have been exchanged entirely for far more flexible plutocracies. During the era of independent sovereign states, finance and commercial enterprises tend to slip beyond the effective control of any government. Universal states come into existence in part precisely to curb the power of money. However, class flexibility is one of the things that disappear along with the vulnerability of government to market fluctuations. By the second generation, there will be some attempt to return to a measure of ascriptive status. By the end of the empire, there will be an elaborate system of ranks and the beginnings of serfdom.

    As for "peace," universal states are better at keeping it than are international systems, but this ability is not absolute. The argument that a world government will ensure the end of war is in part a semantic confusion. Certainly a world government can do away with the juridical state known as war. However, this is quite a different thing from suppressing all armed conflict. Insurgencies small and great clutter the history of every universal state. Sometimes the insurgents seek to be free of the world government, sometimes they accept it in principle, but want a change in administration. Not infrequently, and as we see in some areas of the world today, wars are merely random brigandage by groups with no particular goal or ideology. This sort of conflict requires any universal state to keep armed forces in being.

    Historically, local universal states have also maintained militaries in order to control external barbarians. These efforts inevitably failed, but for most of a universal state's history, its standing army is remarkably modest in size. While Earth has no external barbarians at the moment, it could develop some in the form of breakaway space colonies. This could occur if the world government pursued a policy of colonization early in its history and later lost control of the settlements. There is also the possibility that extraterrestrial intelligence will be discovered. Even if the civilization is far away and lived long ago and could have no way of knowing that mankind existed, still the very possibility of a threat from space could promote the creation of warning systems and a force in space intended to counter it.

    Whatever the rationale, we may be certain that the world government will have considerable military forces, though as is the case with everything else about a universal state, quite small forces in relation to the area and population they will be called on to police. On at least some occasions, particularly in the last half of the universal state's life, these forces will be used in civil wars between contenders for the imperial power. The wars in question will be smaller than those of the 20th century, but destructive enough in their own right. Additionally, they will be occurring in a civilization that is much less economically dynamic and demographically resilient than it was during the era of sovereign states. Damage that is done will often stay done. These remarks about the decline and fall, however, are premature, to say the least.

    Let us rather imagine the universal state in its youth, in the 22nd century. There will be cities as huge and sparkling as anything imagined by modern science fiction. There will be other cities, perhaps more of them, not much improved from 20th century slums. There will even be notable ruins in the growing wilderness, as the world's population slowly retreats from its late modern climax. Politics at every level will be increasingly personal, a matter of family ambition and often of petty graft. Government on the ground will be tolerant, partly from conviction, partly from negligence.

    It will be a more relaxed world, in many ways a more comfortable world than that of the modern era. The climate may even be warmer: it may help you visualize this future by thinking of white Panama suits and slowly turning overhead fans. The economy will chug along under fairly heavy state regulation. This will advance the interests of large enterprises, but also of job security for the growing portion of the world's population that works for them. People will have forgotten that, on the whole, living standards used to increase from year to year; they will complain only when they decline. New technologies will become a rarity, but the existing stock of industrial technique will still in many ways exceed those of the 20th century. For ordinary people living ordinary lives, things will not be so bad.

    As for the world government itself, it will normally impinge on people's lives rather lightly. Taxes will be raised for it one way or another, though not necessarily through taxes on individuals. If there is an elective feature to the central government, participation in the elections is likely to be a ritualized matter. The people will love or mock the emperor and his government, but the universal state itself will be beyond question. It will seem to be the end of history, and few people will want to return to a world of sovereign states. Universal government will be considered not just inevitable but right, the only way that civilization could conceivably be organized.

    This is scarcely an ideal future. Still, it is very far from the worst that might happen.




    CrossFit 2014-07-03

    Push press

    Back squat


    The Long View: Art Lessons

    I love this essay. Once I read it, I never saw the National Endowment for the Arts the same way. John had a way of framing things that was simultaneously novel and familiar, and this is one of the best examples of that for me. There are probably a dozen quips in this article that resonate with me, even now.

    By way of example:

    However, since there was no one agency at the federal level responsible for subsidizing "art," the 1950s began to hear complaints that it was absurd for the United States to have no mechanism to promote high culture. European countries, famous artists complained, routinely spent large fractions of their budgets to patronize artists and showcase the national artistic heritage. (This is yet more true today. The French even have a Deputy Minister for Culture in charge of promoting French rock- and-roll. That is why you whistle French pop music on the way to work.]

    There actually is French pop music I like. You can thank Slumdog Millionaire for that.

    I also listen to NPR, because I am in fact a SWPL.

    Art Lessons:
    Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding
    by Alice Goldfarb Marquis
    Basic Books, 1995
    ISBN: 0-465-00437-7


    Funding the Artistic Deficit

    The best way to learn about a large subject is to become thoroughly familiar with some small part of it. The part you learn about will provide a point of reference for the study of the whole, which otherwise would appear to be a mass of unrelated detail. That is just what this book, by an independent scholar at the University of California at San Diego, does for the collapse of the fine arts in the late twentieth century. The focus of the book is the history (and prehistory) of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the agency founded in 1965 to help raise the populace to a level of artistic sophistication worthy of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.

    It really should be emphasized just how small the NEA is in the scheme of things. At the height of its funding in the 1980s, it disposed of only about $170 million dollars per year. More than half of this went to salaries and supporting expenses, and the whole was less than New York City alone spent on artistic endeavors. It should also be emphasized how little of what money the NEA does manage to distribute goes to produce such works as Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or the homoerotic-sadomasochistic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The NEA is in many ways simply a pretentious patronage organization: Congress has been funding it because it pays for cultural festivals and museum exhibitions in the members' home districts. It is not even an "endowment" in any serious sense of the word, since it has no assets but what Congress appropriates. Its very existence is up for review every two years. However, the NEA is significant as the point where several tales meet. In it we see the power of local campaign contributors, the influence of the foundations and the long story of the exhaustion of the arts in the modern era. The Endowment has always been a largely symbolic institution. Its history provides a symbolic guide to trends far more important than the agency itself.

    While America has never been terribly enthusiastic about the principle of "art for art's sake," it has always been enthusiastic about the "art religion." This nineteenth century cult rests on the slightly incoherent conviction that certain pictures, buildings and public performances are in themselves good for the soul and good for society. It is a cheerful cult. As Alice Goldfarb Marquis suggests, its spirit is that of the 1957 musical, "The Music Man," in which a town is persuaded to save itself from moral degeneration by a mellifluous con-man, who sells them equipment for a marching band. In the nineteenth century, of course, this national project of moral uplift was carried out on the Chautauqua circuit, in vaudeville halls and in granges. Scenes from Shakespearean plays might be followed by a dog act, followed in turn by a reading of treacly poetry. People gladly heard new compositions by serious contemporary composers, which might appear on the same bill as Sousa marches (Sousa, after all, was contemporary, too). Even then, of course, there was some distinction between vulgar spectacle and serious art, but in the United States this did not really become institutionalized until around the turn of the century. The instrument that separated high culture from mere popular entertainment was the nonprofit corporation.

    At least in its artistic incarnation, this novel class of institution first appeared in the neighborhood of Boston. At that time, the city was largely overrun by an Irish rabble, so the better people of the city sought to create institutions in which civilization could be in some measure preserved. The museums and orchestras which the new foundations funded were, of course, "public" institutions. Certainly there were open to anyone who could pay admission, or even for free. Their chief claim to tax exemption lay in the assertion that they were providing public services. This was perfectly true. However, from that day to this the foundations, and the purely public agencies that followed them, have always dissimulated about the size of the audience they served. The Boston orchestras and museums served a relatively small public drawn from the class of well-educated professionals. It was true then, and it is true today. National Public Radio, for instance, provides some excellent programming, but for all their protestations of populism and diversity, their denim-clad audience consists of the spiritual descendents of those Bostonians in evening dress and furs. The "public" of the not-for-profit cultural organizations, like the "people" of who embody Rousseau's "General Will," somehow always seems to be limited to about 10% of the actual population.

    In the decades that followed, government at various levels spent quite a lot on "art" of various sorts. The General Services Administration of the federal government, for instance, has long required that the construction budgets for federal buildings contain a certain amount for art. Funding bills for education routinely provided for money to bring art into the schools. Neither were localities neglectful of their duties to the art religion, particularly with regard to serious music. The City of New York, for instance, organized New York City Center in record time during the Second World War and lodged it in a conveniently derelict Masonic Hall. However, since there was no one agency at the federal level responsible for subsidizing "art," the 1950s began to hear complaints that it was absurd for the United States to have no mechanism to promote high culture. European countries, famous artists complained, routinely spent large fractions of their budgets to patronize artists and showcase the national artistic heritage. (This is yet more true today. The French even have a Deputy Minister for Culture in charge of promoting French rock- and-roll. That is why you whistle French pop music on the way to work.]

    The charge of American stinginess was nonsense, of course. In addition to the nonprofit cultural corporations, which by 1965 were donating more than half-a-billion dollars to cultural activities annually, America had produced another invention, the "charitable" tax deduction. This essentially lets individuals and corporations subsidize cultural activity using public money. (Much of this money, of course, does not go to support secular cultural activities, but then one might take this fact as an instance of people voting with their wallets.) Be this as it may, enlightened opinion in the Kennedy Administration had it that the United States would not be an intellectually mature nation until it had a national arts agency. Indeed, an arts agency was held to be a necessity in the Cold War, since the Russians ran a cultural propaganda industry as lavish as their Olympic sports program. The NEA, in other words, was created by much the same people, and for some of the same reasons, as those that brought us the war in Vietnam.

    Lyndon Johnson actually got Congress to buy these arguments. He did this partly as yet another homage to his supposedly more civilized predecessor, though in fact John Kennedy did not have much interest in the arts, either. As is so often the case, it was his wife who was the priestess of the art religion in their household. The chief problem in designing the arts agency was to find some mechanism to keep both the scholars and the artists happy. The original idea of creating a single "culture" department was abandoned when it became clear these two groups had different interests. The solution was to create two agencies, the NEA and the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities), both components, for reasons known only to God, of the Department of the Interior. The NEH, which tends to fund things like bookwriting fellowships, has arguably become more politically correct in recent years than ever the NEA did, but its efforts, being usually less visible, attract less criticism. The structure of the NEA is supposed to be simple. The chair ultimately decides which applicants are given grants. He is assisted in this by a council, whose members, presumably artists themselves, serve for a term of years. (Later legislation forbade the chair to grant any applications rejected by the council.) The council, turn, is advised by a variable number of panels of artists and experts, each panel dedicated to a special area, such as "jazz" or "dance" or "ceramics."

    This rather hierarchical structure originally provoked fears that the chair would become a culture Czar, and that the National Council on the Arts would become a Star Chamber of national taste. Nothing of the kind happened, of course. The original NEA council consisted of strong personalities prominent in the arts. The amount of money they had to distribute in the early years was derisory, $2.5 million in the first year, maybe a thirtieth of what the Ford Foundation was spending on symphony orchestras alone. The council members all quickly set a pattern of grabbing for their own areas whatever funds there were. Richard Nixon, the architect of the late liberal state, increased these appropriations ten and twenty-fold in the delusory hope that then artists would hate him less. As money became available on a regular basis, arts organizations formed to receive it. Museums of this and that, dance troupes and university theater companies proliferated to a degree that can only be called dismaying. The process of institution-building was considerably facilitated by the new cadres of professional philanthropists created by the foundations, particularly Ford, to administer the distribution of their money.

    The growth of state arts councils was a large part of the story. Populated by local notables who also happened to be the chief campaign contributors to most members of Congress, they developed a matching-grant arrangement with the NEA, whereby a little federal money provided the seal of approval for a lot of state and local money. Since the organizations in question often depended on public money (though rarely federal money alone), grants tended to become entitlements. The number of applications ballooned, but the bulk of NEA money inevitably gravitated to a few large, gray arts institutions, suitable venues for the public-spirited activities of the NEA's upper middle class grassroots.

    By the 1970s, the NEA council was populated by foundation trustees, museum directors, and similar busy art bureaucrats who often failed to attend meetings. When their attention could be spared, they were no less greedy and parochial than their colorful predecessors had been. Almost all of the NEA chairs have been canny administrators with a subtle understanding of the ways of Washington. However, with the exception of Livingston Biddle, appointed during the Carter Administration, they have not been cultured people possessing a sophisticated understanding either of cultural history or of the contemporary arts. Neither they nor the council had any cultural policies, nor any real standards by which to judge the 17,000 applications that came before them every year. Their press releases emphasized the search for excellence, but in fact their chief goal was the satisfaction or one or another artistic community. The injection of multiculturalism into the process, initiated largely through the intervention of Joan Mondale, wife of Carter's Vice President, did nothing to clarify the situation. Since the heads of the agency had no criteria, neither did the immense staff that the agency soon had to create to handle the paperflow. The end result was that the arts panels, flown to Washington and housed at great expense for their periodic meetings, became in most cases the final voices, indeed the only voices, on which artistic projects should be funded. The applications for which the panelists voiced support were often those of friends, who just as often returned the favor when they themselves were appointed to be panelists.

    It is at this point in our tale of bureaucratic inertia that we encounter one of the great, silent realities of contemporary history. Even before NEA began to be put on a shorter leash during the Republican administrations of the 1980s, its leaders understood that they were not funding a new Renaissance. This realization was something of a surprise, since hopes of this order had in fact been entertained during the heady days of the Kennedy Administration. After all, hadn't the 50s seen the birth of the International Style in architecture? Didn't Jackson Pollack's painting make a thousand years of representational art obsolete? Wasn't music being transformed by the experimentation of people like John Cage? One cringes to hear such assessments today, but sophisticated people really did believe such things thirty years ago. The applications for new artistic work the NEA received were mostly unobjectionable exercises in various forms of modernism. There was no reason not to fund them, but not even the NEA could pretend that the world would be a much worse place if they were never executed. The bureaucratic locution for the fact that most new art is not very good is "the artistic deficit." The artists had run out of new things to say.

    The actual sterility of the past forty years has in no way discouraged the NEA (or other arts funders) from relentlessly promoting the ideology of modern art, which holds that there is always an avant garde pushing the arts in new, exciting directions. However, ideology is not everything, and even a passionate conviction in the eternal value of the shock of the new has not prevented most arts money from going to enterprises that are essentially curatorial. For instance, it is true that a vast number of new operas have been written and produced in the last two decades. Much of this work has been sponsored by universities. (A doctoral project of this sort provides the framework for Robertson Davies' novel, The Lyre of Orpheus (1988). Unlike the situation in the book, operas today are frequently driven by the libretto rather than the music. There are so many of them because they have become a form of literature.) Despite all this original work, however, opera companies continue to produce the old war-horses, their Don Giovannis and Zauberfloeten, to the unending satisfaction of their audiences. The state of orchestral music is even more revealing. Thanks in no small part to the NEA and the foundations, there are now about 2000 symphony orchestras in the United States from sea to shining sea, maybe a 170 of them professional companies. They will, from time to time, perform a contemporary piece, provided it's short and scheduled so that the audience cannot easily flee the theatre. However, the reality is that the repertoire of classical must is becoming as fixed as the list of the Chinese Five Classics. It follows an arc from Mozart to Mahler, and no amount of avant garde boosterism has made much progress toward expanding the canon. For most purposes, Western classical music is as "finished" as Euclidean geometry.

    Nine-tenths of what the NEA does, therefore, has been consistently conservative. It was the other tenth that got it into trouble. In most people's lives in the 1970s and 80s, the NEA was likely to intrude as one of the sponsors of a new, appalling piece of sculpture in some local public place. It probably is not true that the NEA itself has a prejudice against representational art; that would require a level of aesthetic coherence that has always been beyond its ability. However, the NEA panelists who actually chose among the proposed sculptures certainly had (and have) such a prejudice. Thus, public spaces tended to fill up with stuff like the hard-to-describe "Batcolumn" in Chicago or "Tilted Arc" in New York. The latter, a long steel wall cutting across the courtyard of the federal building in lower Manhattan, actually made the front doors of the building almost unusable in high winds. While the artists' contracts and state laws often made it nearly impossible to remove such objects once they had been installed, some, such as the construction of yellow aluminum parallelograms set up to great fanfare in Flint, Michigan, displayed a gratifying tendency to collapse on their own. Though rarely causing moral outrage, these sculptures did create the impression in much of the general public that the people running the NEA must be very odd people indeed.

    It took the politically radical and sexually aggressive art of the 1980s to persuade much of the public that the NEA was positively evil. Art Lessons does not dwell on the horror- story projects that made the agency the apple of the demagogue's eye, though it does mention some that had escaped my attention, such as the animal-rights film that consisted of a repeating sequence of a dog being shot, and of the performance art that involved suspending the artist from the ceiling of the gallery with fishhooks. Called to account for these goings-on, the council and the chair (for most of the period, the stolid and sensible Reagan-appointee Frank Hodsoll) could justly point to two layers of insulation from the dead dogs and suspended artists.

    There were, of course, the panels themselves. The artist panel-members really were not doing much work that even they found very interesting. However, we should remember that the 1980s were a period of "asset" inflation, when the market value of everything from real estate to classic cars rose to absurd heights. New art was no different. The panelists thought that, since you could sell bones in a bag for hundreds of thousands of dollars, art was pretty much anything they said it was. The Endowment's money had to be spent somehow. They also recalled the slogan of the nineteenth century avant garde, "Shock the bourgeoisie!" Indeed, this was almost the last artistic criterion they were willing to entertain. For a project to be repellant was in itself something of a plus for it. The second layer of insulation was provided by the arts organizations to which most grants actually went. The Mapplethorpe photo exhibition, for instance, was actually staged by museums. The NEA trusted the good sense of the curators, and in fact most of the exhibition consisted of perfectly respectable still-lifes. NEA applications are the size of a book, but they do not always give the agency a clear idea of just what the artists who eventually received the money would do with it. However, plausible deniability did not protect the NEA from the wrath of Congress, an institution inhabited by perhaps the last section of the bourgeoisie still capable of being shocked.

    Government funding for the arts is now in decline, and not just at the federal level. It appears that we are in for a transformation of art institutions (and art markets) as great as that which occurred in the 1960s. There is no great mystery about why: they have been overbuilt, and many have lost touch with any real audience. Ms. Marquis hopes for something of a return to the 19th century, with impresarios providing a variety of arts, high and low, in response to the actual demand to be found in each local area. These people would merit some public funding. Unlike the back-slapping art panels of the current system, they would be accountable for the projects they promoted. At the very least, recommercializing the high arts would loose them from the deadening grip of the universities. To me at least, the idea of a federally supported P. T. Barnum in every state, or even every congressional district, does have some appeal. It would surely be less wasteful and less productive of embarrassment than the current system. However, it would not produce any more art of lasting value.

    The crisis in the art business goes far beyond budget constraints. The fact is that we created this ecology of tax-supported, nonprofit art enterprises because we were confident that we could create work the equal of anything from the past. The NEA reflected the optimism of the 1960s, when it seemed that the world was going to be made new, and better, from the ground up. This is not a premonition widely shared today. Maybe the old Bostonians were right after all. The long-term goal, both of public and non-for-profit funding, may have to be limited to preservation. If ever another golden age does dawn on the arts in America, it will be because our familiarity with the golden ages of the past prepared us to receive it.


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

    Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly


    CrossFit 2014-07-01


    • 1 RM weighted pullup
    • Max reps strict handstand pushup
    • 2 minutes double-unders
    • 500m row

    Weight and reps

    • 60#
    • 5 HSPU
    • 25 DU
    • 1:48 row

    The Long View: Polemical Writings

    I've long been a fan of polemical writings. Witness my popular Amazon review of Ed Feser's polemical assault on the New Atheists, The Last Superstition. John was a fan too, I think, even though he himself was of a rather mild disposition. Maybe impish is a better description.

    My favorite of all these is his piece on the National Endowment for the Arts, Art Lessons. I will never look at P. T. Barnum, or the NEA, the same way. I think I'll post that one next.

    As usual, most of these writings aren't posted yet. You can find them by downloading John's entire site, using an internet archive, or just being patient for me to get to 15+ years of John's digital writings.



    Polemical Writings

    It takes a lot of government to keep libertarians living in anarchy.



    The Triumph of Consciousness III (Charles Reich was right.) After America (Mark Steyn explains that things are as bad as they seem.) Red Capitalism (Carl E. Walter and Fraser J. T. Howie describe the fragile financial system of China.)


    The Overton Window (Glenn Beck reveals the danger to Archduke Ferdinand.)


    The Death of Conservatism (Sam Tanenhaus throws rocks in a glass house.)

    Left in Dark Times (Bernard-Henri Lévy tries to save the Left from the Counter Enlightenment.) Grand New Party (Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam show the way to political realignment through Sam's Club.)




    The Last Superstition Book Review

    This book review was accidentally taken down in a site update. This is the most popular book review I have ever written, so it seems worthwhile to revisit. I've long been a fan of Ed Feser, and I recommend his work. The tone of The Last Superstition has been offputting to some, but Feser knew what he was doing. If you think Feser is bad, you should read the things his critics have said about him. At least Feser feels the need to prove his assertions. If that isn't your cup of tea, he has written plenty of books with a more academic tone. Philosophy of Mind is well done. I haven't yet read Aquinas, but I managed to acquire two copies already.

    The Last Superstition
    by Edward Feser
    ISBN 978-1587314520; $19.00

    Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is a polemical work. However, this should not be surprising for two reasons. First, Feser is dealing with amounts to not mere nonsense, but nonsense on stilts. Second, Feser once wrote an essay entitled, "Can Philosophy be Polemical?", pondering whether it is appropriate to engage in polemical debate over philosophical questions. In this book, Feser answers that question in the affirmative. He freely admits in the preface, "If this seems to be an angry book, that is because it is." (TLS, x) Feser regards the creed of the New Atheists as dangerous both personally and socially, and his response is écrasez l'infâme.

    The Last Superstition is the book I had been wanting, not because it is a tract against the New Atheism, but because it summarizes the best arguments for an Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics in the face of modern objections. This metaphysics is presented as it developed historically, beginning with the pre-Socratics, on through Plato and Aristotle, to its full flowering among the Scholastics. Feser covers change, actuality and potency, form and matter, the four causes, arguments for the existence of God, and the rational foundations of morality.

    By succinctly providing this history, Feser is providing a service to all those who have forgotten, or never truly knew what are the main features of an Aristotelian philosophy. For Feser's most damning criticism of Richard Dawkins et al. is that they have simply not bothered to do their homework. By not collecting the relevant data, they have sinned against the spirit of the science in whose name they crusade. To publish a scientific paper without any evidence would be scandalous, but is precisely the case that Feser makes against them. None of the New Atheists demonstrates any familiarity with the actual arguments of historical theist philosophers except for Rev. William Paley, who functions as a convenient whipping boy.

    By way of example, Feser quotes the admission of philosopher Antony Flew in 2004 that he now believes in the existence of God despite a lifetime of argument to the contrary. Flew admitted that he had never actually considered the Aristotelian arguments for the existence of God, and was forced to admit their cogency upon doing so. Those whom Feser targets in The Last Superstition have not yet bothered to consult the texts. Feser documents this amply through quotations from the New Atheists' works.

    The weakest part of Feser's argument is in the section on natural law. The difficulty is not that the best contemporary formulation is not presented. The difficulty is that contemporary natural law arguments use human, homo sapiens, and person univocally. These are not just different things, they are different kinds of things. To use the Scholastic terminology, each belongs to a different genus. However, this failure leaves Feser's main argument untouched, because Aristotle and Aquinas were alike able to discern rational foundations for morality without the benefit of a modern doctrine of natural rights that makes use of equivocal terms.

    Feser's references are very good, providing further information for the many points which could be elaborated upon. Covering as much ground as this book does would be impossible without considering a great many complicated and subtle topics briefly. However, this is not to say that Feser does not adequately address his topic. He makes short work of the New Atheists due to the poverty of their arguments, and then briefly presents arguments that modernity is more comprehensible if one considers modern problems in light of broadly Aristotelian philosophy. In particular, many of the perennial questions of modern philosophy, such as the mind-body problem or the validity of inductive reasoning become explainable with Aristotle's more robust account of causation. Feser's task is made easier here by the latent Aristotelianism lurking in every corner of Western Civilization. We do not notice our debt to Aristotle for the same reason that fish do not feel wet.

    Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is a worthy introduction to the realist philosophical tradition, and is enlivened by Feser's sharp wit. Good for anyone who would like to know more about Aristotelian philosophy.



    The Long View 2002-02-27: Getting Back to Normal

    Thirteen years later, and we don't really seem back to normal. The immediate, searing impact of 9-11 on most American's consciousness has faded, but by and large we seem resigned to the changes it wrought on our country. We gripe about the TSA, but we still have it. The NSA still keeps absurdly detailed track of everything and everyone. Domestic politics has returned to the forefront after the Housing Bubble, but even President Obama cannot escape political fallout from events in Syria and Ukraine.

    Getting Back to Normal

    Here we are at nearly six months after September 11, and many people are saying that the time has come to get back to normal. They are not saying this because the security situation has changed fundamentally since then. The international terrorist network still exists. The clock is still ticking while states lethally hostile to the United States develop nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The problem is that the emergency changed the subject for almost everyone with a political agenda. Now the people with agendas want it changed back.

    The bulk of the unrest is among partisan Democrats, of course. They want to talk about HMO regulation, women's issues, reparations for slavery, anything at all but foreign affairs and military strategy. The biggest effort to break free is the investigation, indeed the dozen investigations, into the Enron affair. This is showing signs of becoming the Democrat's version of the Vince Foster suicide: there comes a point when the the persistence of the investigators becomes the scandal.

    That said, though, there are also quite a number of "conservatives," variously defined, who also wish to have done with post-911 politics. Moral reformers are frustrated that the Bush Administration has scarcely a word to say in opposition to abortion these days. The general drift of the Administration's social-service policy is pro-family, so the reformers' unhappiness is not acute. Among the most unhappy people in America, however, are Libertarians and some business groups.

    War may or may not be the health of the state, but it certainly makes discussions about supply-side economics and privatization irrelevant. It is possible that the tax cuts the Bush Administration got enacted in its first few months will remain in place, but there will be no more. Since cutting taxes is the only reason some Republicans run for office, the Administration has not had a particularly easy time with its own party.



    CrossFit 2014-06-27


    5 rounds

    • 400m run
    • Overhead squat [65#]

    Time 19:39