The Long View 2007-01-11: Bush on Iraq; the Conversion of Islam; Scandals & Bad Motives

Since David French has done the unspeakable by defending the indefensible sixteen years later, here is a moment of sanity from John J. Reilly in 2006:

Regarding the official Democratic reply to the president's address, I think that Senator Dick Durbin was quite mistaken in expressing the desire for the Iraqi government to now make the hard political decisions. That should be the last thing that anyone wants. The hard decision in Iraq would be to abandon attempts at compromise with the Sunni minority and to ethnically cleanse it. The presence of US troops in Iraq is to facilitate workable half-measures and tactful evasions.

In retrospect, this was an admirable thing about the US occupation of Iraq. When we fomented war in Libya or Syria or Yemen, we kept our troops safely out of harms way, but we did absolutely nothing to restrain the regrettably normal impulse to ethnically cleanse inconvenient neighbors.

Iraq was a stupid war, but since we got involved, at least the US occupation tried to keep the peace.


Bush on Iraq; the Conversion of Islam; Scandals & Bad Motives

George Bush does not give bad formal speeches. Last night's address was up to the usual standard. It differed from the usual Bush commentary on foreign affairs by being very detailed and modest in scope, perhaps misleadingly so. What the president seemed to be doing was explaining the tactics of a minor campaign to restore the police situation in Baghdad. The difficulty of that enterprise may not so great as we might suppose, if this report is accurate and as important as it seems:

NAJAF, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Iraq's national security adviser said on Wednesday the country's most senior Shi'ite cleric had given his blessing to government efforts to disarm militants as it prepares to implement a major new security plan for Baghdad....Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said he had briefed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on the security situation in Iraq, and particularly in Baghdad, during a meeting in the holy city of Najaf.

The reclusive Sistani hardly ever makes public statements but is an influential figure behind the scenes and the spiritual leader of Iraq's majority Shi'ites.

"His eminence Sistani recommended an emphasis on the implementation of the law without any discrimination based on identity or background," Rubaie told reporters.

"He also asserted the need for weapons to be in the hands only of the state, and to disarm those holding weapons illegally," said Rubaie, who is himself a Shi'ite....The meeting with Rubaie comes just three days after Sistani met Sadr for the first time in over a year.

Essentially, the Bush Administration is proposing to put down the reaction to last year's bombing of the Golden Mosque, an event that was intended to cause Shia retaliation and which, as the president noted, succeeded in doing so. Before that, the US strategy of training Iraqi forces and pressuring for local political compromise was working well enough that the Pentagon was contemplating beginning troop reductions for late 2006. The Administration now is, in part, seeking to return to that glide path. A problem with Bush's speech was that it failed to communicate that his plan requires several weeks of telegenically unsightly street-fighting.

* * *

Regarding the official Democratic reply to the president's address, I think that Senator Dick Durbin was quite mistaken in expressing the desire for the Iraqi government to now make the hard political decisions. That should be the last thing that anyone wants. The hard decision in Iraq would be to abandon attempts at compromise with the Sunni minority and to ethnically cleanse it. The presence of US troops in Iraq is to facilitate workable half-measures and tactful evasions.

* * *

Meanwhile, one suspects that this is the real news:

U.S. forces stormed an Iranian consular office in the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil early on Thursday and arrested five people, including diplomats and staff, Iranian officials said...As the overnight raid was in progress, President George W. Bush was vowing in a keynote address on American television to disrupt what he called the "flow of support" from Iran and Syria for insurgent attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.

Plus there is that extra carrier group the president mentioned he was sending to the area.

It would be very foolish if the Administration were doing this to deter Iran, or to "send a message" to Syria. The results of last November's elections deprived the Administration of the power to deter, in the sense of threatening a wider war: few people believe the US political climate would support such a war. We should assume that the new air and sea forces have some specific mission.

* * *

Among the most interesting new members of Congress is Senator James Webb, Democrat of Virginia. In recent days, he has been favoring the media with statements like this:

“One of the biggest problems in the entire approach to the Iraq war is that this administration has never articulated a strategy that will show you an end point,” Mr. Webb said in an interview on National Public Radio. “If you can’t tell this country when this war is going to be over in specific terms, then you don’t have a strategy.”

Webb's ideas seem to be one of those tests that divide the world into two kinds of people: those who find his statements to be wise and sober and those who find them manifestly idiotic.

* * *

If you start looking for a class of story, you start to find examples. I have been looking for items demonstrating the collapse of Islam's long immunity to conversion; and look, here's an example, which MEMRI quotes this from the Algerian paper El-Shourouq El-Yawmi:

"It appears that the fears…concerning the Christianization of the Kabylie region have in effect come true this time, and it has become clear that President Bouteflika's admonition to the region's population to uphold Islam and not to surrender to the lures of Christianization… stemmed from knowledge of what is going on there. 'Santa Claus' appearing there, overtly this time, is a sure sign of the swiftly descending danger that has come into [our] Algerian home. Will the relevant authorities - and first and foremost the Ministry of Religious Affairs - seize the initiative, or will [Algeria] be left to its own devices, in confronting the death arriving from the West?"

MEMRI prefaces the quote with these comments:

The article comes in the context of an ongoing polemic over the phenomenon of conversion to Christianity in the Kabylie region. In 2004, Minister of Religious Affairs Bouabdellah Ghlamallah denounced Christian proselytizing, warning that it could lead to bloodshed. Several weeks later, in an about-face, he said that proselytizing posed no danger, and that "everyone is free to convert to the religion he finds right for him."...

While there is debate over the scope of conversion to Christianity in Kabylie, there is no doubt that the phenomenon exists. The regional daily La Depechede Kabylie often reports on it...and the Berber activist website www.kabyle.com currently features on its home page a link to a November 17, 2004 program on the subject, that aired on the Franco-German Arte TV.

While the vast majority of Kabyles are Muslim, they tend to be liberal and secularist. In the 1991 elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front won the landslide victory that led to civil war, Kabylie was one of the few regions that did not grant them a majority.

Again I ask: is this systemically important? Suppose it becomes so?

* * *

There are embarrassments within Christianity, of course, as we were reminded by the sudden resignation of Bishop Stanislaw Wielgus, who had been appointed metropolitan-archbishop of Warsaw. During the Communist era, he seems to have at least gone through the motions of cooperating with the secret police, though apparently not to their benefit. Many people in similar situations did likewise without committing any gravely evil acts. Reasonable people may differ about whether he should have been offered the appointment, or accepted it in light of the elements in his past that he knew might become public.

The real embarrassment here is the behavior of the Vatican which, as Robert Miller noted at First Things, is part of a pattern:

“[T]he current wave of attacks against the Catholic Church in Poland,” the Vatican Press Office continues, “rather than a sincere search for transparency and truth, has many hallmarks of being a strange alliance between the persecutors of the past and their adversaries, a vendetta by those who used to persecute the Church and were defeated by the faith and the thirst for freedom of the Polish people.” ...Similarly, in 2002 many high church officials complained that the sex scandals had been ginned up by anti-Catholics in the media. For example, in an interview in Spain, reported in the Zenit Daily Dispatch for December 3, 2002, then Cardinal Ratzinger said: “I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign. . . . This sort of thing will not do. For one thing, we’re not supposed to judge the intentions of hearts. If someone does something that is, in itself, moral and reasonable—like using documentary evidence in the public domain to show that someone nominated to a high and responsible office is not fit to hold it—we do not ordinarily inquire into his motives; even if we have reason to believe they’re questionable, we leave such things to God. That’s a large part of what the Lord meant when he said, Judge not.

It's perfectly true. Some of the most necessary reporting is done by some pretty dreadful people, and for the shabbiest of motives.

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The Long View 2007-01-02: Overdiagnosis; Literature Maps; Starship Jesus Conversion from Islam; Spengler's Deal; Shabby Hanging

I do agree with John here that our diagnostic tools often don’t improve health, and that the definitions of “disease” are often too broad, but I disagree about why healthcare doesn’t do much as you might think to improve our health. I definitely don’t blame administrative costs, although I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find something to cut there, it wouldn’t make healthcare in the US cost half as much. Universities are another matter.


Overdiagnosis; Literature Maps;
Starship Jesus Conversion from Islam; Spengler's Deal; Shabby Hanging

The smartest thing anyone has said in years about the US health-care system appears in an editorial in today's New York Times by members of the VA Outcomes Group of White River Junction, Vt.:

For most Americans, the biggest health threat is...our health-care system..more and more of us are being drawn into the system not because of an epidemic of disease, but because of an epidemic of diagnoses...First, advanced technology allows doctors to look really hard for things to be wrong. ...These technologies make it possible to give a diagnosis to just about everybody: arthritis in people without joint pain, stomach damage in people without heartburn and prostate cancer in over a million people who, but for testing, would have lived as long without being a cancer patient...Second, the rules are changing. Expert panels constantly expand what constitutes disease: thresholds for diagnosing diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and obesity have all fallen in the last few years. The criterion for normal cholesterol has dropped multiple times. With these changes, disease can now be diagnosed in more than half the population.

It's perfectly true: doctors will keep ordering tests no matter your physical condition until you tell them to stop. This practice is particularly pernicious in the case of the trusting and fragile elderly. That's half the explanation for the runaway insurance costs. The other half is bloated and duplicative (and triplicative) administration.

* * *

And if we must do tests, the best personality test I know of is to look at the books in the subject's home library. We soon learn that certain books belong in the same bookcase. Now comes Marek Gidney and his ingenious literature map, essentially a search engine where you input the name of an author and then see what other people who read that author are likely to read. (There are parallel engines for film and music). If this engine to be believed (and we should take it no more seriously than the "recommended books" feature at Amazon), communities of taste are not what we supposed. For instance, there is strangely little overlap between the readership of JRR Tolkien and that of CS Lewis. Tolkien fans favor high-concept science fiction; CS Lewis, to judge by this search engine, is read mostly as a devotional author. I also see that, if you read William Shakespeare, then quite likely you also read HP Lovecraft.

* * *

I don't believe it literally true that there are Millions of Muslims Converting to Christianity, but the reports to that effect multiply:

Around a million believed in Jesus over the past decade in Egypt. The Egyptian Bible Society used to sell about 3,000 copies of the JESUS film a year in the early 1990s. But last year they sold 600,000 copies, plus 750,000 copies of the Bible on tape (in Arabic) and about a half million copies of the Arabic New Testament. "Egyptians are increasingly hungry for God's Word," an Egyptian Christian leader told.

Does anyone have any hard information about this? And if so, why haven't you told me? What don't you want me to know?

* * *

Asia Times Spengler, seeking, no doubt, to annoy me in particular, suggests in his latest that President Bush's fortunes could be about to improve so dramatically that yet another Bush might successfully be elected to the White House in the near future:

[B]rother Jeb, about to step down as governor of the state of Florida, will be elected president of the United States in 2008, thanks in large measure to the rebound of the current president's standing.

For one thing, Spengler notes, the US position in the world is far better than the political class in advanced countries have reason to admit:

Asians cannot earn money to be saved without selling to the American consumer, and they cannot invest their savings except in United States. ...For all America's embarrassment in Iraq, none of its fundamental interests is impaired by Iraq's misery.

The real problem in that part of the world, as Spengler exhorts us every other Monday, is Iran:

There is no point negotiating with the present regime in Teheran...

This is because the current regime there knows its oil exporting period is nearly over, but has dealt with that fact by turning to apocalyptic fantasy. In contrast, we are told, China and Russia will pursue their real interests with sober good sense:

Securing Russian and Chinese cooperation with US strategic objectives, I believe, is a far simpler proposition than is portrayed in the myth of US imperial decline...

China must settle perhaps 15 million rural migrants in cities each year, while building infrastructure and employment in the interior and correcting urgent environmental problems. To do this, China requires stability and predictability in its foreign economic relations.

What does Russia want? Stability on its borders, often at the expense of the aspirations of peoples who have the misfortune to occupy the Russian near abroad, and a free hand in arranging the economic affairs of the Russian state.

According to Spengler, the US should and will drop its fancy notions about spreading democracy universally, but especially in the Russian Near Abroad. Similarly, the US should let it be known that it will stop pestering China about the yuan-dollar exchange rate. Then, Spengler assures us, the US would have all possible options for dealing with Iran, some of them much better than a speculative strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Henry Kissinger believed during the Vietnam War that the Soviet Union was offering to give the United States a free hand in Vietnam, even to invading and overthrowing the government in the North, if the US would acquiesce in a preemptive Soviet strike against China. Then Secretary of State Kissinger and President Nixon showed the proposal no favor.

In this they did wisely. Deals of this sort are like multilevel marketing schemes. They sound like good idea, but they aren't.

* * *

Speaking of impending atrocities, Anthony Sacramone at First Things has alerted an incredulous world to this project:

In this month’s Empire magazine Paul Verhoeven opened up about his upcoming project based, perhaps surprisingly, on the life of Jesus.

Verhoeven is a director with many films to his credit, but he holds a special place in the hearts of Heinlein fans for his 1997 adaptation of Starship Troopers. Anyone who is familiar with both the Heinlein story and the movie knows that we need not take Paul Verhoeven seriously about any book in the world.

* * *

Mark Steyn has some cutting things to say about the recent execution of Saddam Hussein, but not least about the official European reaction to it. We read:

According to a poll published in Le Monde, the majority of Spaniards, Germans, French and British were all in favor of executing Saddam. ...When Die Zeit and The Times and all the rest say that "Europe" condemns the death of Saddam, what they mean is that a narrow, remote, self-insulating politico-media elite condemns it....Whatever one's views on capital punishment, that's not what it's about. Hardcore dictatorships have to be not just politically but psychologically liberated. When one man is so murderously powerful, incarceration cannot suffice - because as long as he lives there will always be the possibility that he will return. ...

On the other hand, the hanging was not all we might have wished:

Unfortunately, when the US handed him over to the Iraqi authorities, the "authorities" did their best to look entirely unauthorized. Saddam was dispatched in some dingy low-ceilinged windowless room of one of his old secret-police torture joints by a handful of goons in ski masks and black leather jackets.

Steyn suggests that someone from the US embassy, or at least the military, should have been on hand to advise on the proper protocol. To that suggestion, I reply that the execution really was not supposed to be public. American executions these days are normally short on pomp and circumstance, too.

On the other hand, the addition of the ceremonial of public executions to the education of the diplomatic corps would add a whole new dimension to Foreign Service School.

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The Long View 2007-01-01: Whatever Can't Continue Won't

Here is John J. Reilly’s New Years’ predictions for 2007. Let us see how he did:

  • The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq. Flat wrong. This went on for another four years or so. And even after it petered out, the former Ba’athists enabled the later rise of ISIS.

  • Sub-replacement birthrates in advanced countries. Somewhat right. I was a little surprised by this one, since the US seems to be a bit of an outlier. Look at this chart, and then go look at any set of countries you want in the data set. There really was an uptick in several advanced countries in the late 2010s.

  • US Federal Deficit Spending. Tax revenues were trending up at the time. There was a huge jump shortly thereafter, but that was the housing bubble, and almost no one got that right.

US Federal Total Revenues and Outlays  By Congressional Budget Office - https://www.cbo.gov/publication/53651, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69489104

US Federal Total Revenues and Outlays

By Congressional Budget Office - https://www.cbo.gov/publication/53651, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69489104

  • Barack Obama. Clearly wrong. John’s partisanship probably didn’t help.

  • The Political Invective Industry. Also wrong. John missed out on Twitter.

  • Embryonic stem-cell research. Mostly right. The science really isn’t good on this, and John correctly perceived this.

  • Skepticism about climate change becoming a fringe phenomenon. Right on. This has definitely moved beyond the pale.

  • This wasn’t in the bulleted list, but John also correctly noted that the replacement for the Reaganite conservatism post GWB was going to be 1970s style identity politics.


Whatever Can't Continue Won't

If you are reading this, then I survived this year's New Year's Eve party: the point is uncertain as I write this on the preceding afternoon. So, in the spirit of gratitude for small favors, we will make a modest excursion down the via negativa. Here are some things that, I am pretty sure, will pass their sell-by date in 2007:

The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq: The traditional position of the Sunni minority in Iraq became untenable the last time Saddam Hussein left his office in 2003. The only question was whether they would exchange that position for a part in a national coalition, or whether they would prefer to be ethnically cleansed. Surprisingly (and some fraction of US bafflement about what to do next in Iraq arises from this), they have been leaning toward Option B. Time for them to change their mind is running out: this is the year when the Iraqi government will begin to have the military resources to conduct its own policy.

Sub-replacement Birthrates in Advanced Countries: This is not going to turn around in a year, but there has been considerable discussion of the issue and the beginning in France, Japan, and Australia of serious pro-natal programs. The issue could begin to surface in US politics this year: the matter has already been raised as one of the public-policy objections to gay marriage.

US Federal Deficit Spending: The predicate for this was always the position of the US dollar as the world's reserve currency: the money markets would absorb all the debt the US federal government chose to issue. There are good reasons for supposing that the US dollar will remain the principal reserve currency. I also don't quite see how there could be a run on the dollar: who would the dollars be sold to? However, the advent of the euro as an alternative currency means that there will now be upward pressure that was not there before on interest rates. We may see the Chairman of the Federal Reserve telling Congress that he cannot promise that there will be an adequate market for US sovereign debt unless the federal government increases taxes.

Barrack Obama: Perhaps his enemies arranged for him to have this much public exposure so early in his career. The result is the worst of all possible worlds: both a blank record and a a trailing pack of opposition political operatives eager to magnify his missteps.

The Political Invective Industry: Since the great age of snarky commentary began with the Clinton Administration, this has been a one-sidedly Republican enterprise. Throughout the period there have been Democratic editorialists at least as unhinged as their Republican colleagues, of course, but none was as much fun as, say, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter: certainly none was as popular. Now, however, they cannot claim to be the voice of a populist majority. They also suffer from a lack of risible opponents. The new Democratic Congressional leadership may do some very foolish things, but there is no Newt Gingrich among them to symbolize their malefactions. Meanwhile, the bitter and second-rate Democratic commentariat has further cause for bitterness in that they are the dog that caught the car. They have already discredited George Bush to their own satisfaction, but the very fact the Republicans lost an election discredited their darker fantasies.

Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Forgive me if I repeat myself, but this is looking more and more like a scam. Half the research money for the medical uses of stem cells (which in general do show promise) is going into the approach that presents the greatest theoretical difficulties and which is least likely to be of clinical use. The enthusiasm for embryonic stem-cell research differs from the enthusiasm around 1990 for cold fusion (which also got some public funding, by the way) in that the cold-fusion scientists believed what they were saying.

Skepticism about Climate Change: I think that this is the year when disbelief in climate change moves from minority opinion to fringe idea. The science more or less supports substantial recent climate change. The science also supports human activity playing a role. Be that as it may, the persuasion of the public in this matter has more to do with the fact the media have made it their business to report weird weather. That's not to say that weird weather is far to seek. It snowed in southeast Australia just before Christmas. That's like snow in Chicago in July.

Actually, what's most remarkable about the world today is the lack of plausible alternatives. The Reaganite conservative movement in the United States is dead, partly because its original deregulation agenda has been achieved and partly because it proved corruptible and inflexible in power. The opposition, however, stands for nothing but the multiculti patronage politics that could not tolerate the light of day in the 1970s and which has not improved with age.

Similarly, the international institutions designed to be the instruments of a small alliance of stable nation states has now become like a residential property whose apartments have been subdivided far past the point of safety and whose pipes and wiring are being stolen by the building managers in connivance with some of the owners. The only alternative offered to this system is American hegemony, an institution with no inherent legitimacy in the law of nations or, just as important, any institutional mechanism for coupling the hegemonic function to domestic politics or government.

I could go on in this vein, and indeed I will: that's why people have blogs. On the whole, though, I am not impressed by our problems. History is often more confusing than it is today.

Just watch.

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The Long View 2006-12-26: The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

One of the most fascinating things about P. D. James’ dystopia Children of Men is that so many people invest so much time and effort into trying to make it a reality.


The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

Once upon a time there were two goats that were eating old movie-film from out of a trash bin behind MGM Studios. One goat said to the other:

"Hey, this is a good movie!"

The other goat replied:

"Yes, but it's not as good as the book."

We should keep that cautionary exchange in mind whenever we suspect that a film adaptation has missed the point of the book on which it is based. We should in any case be cautious in commenting about a film we have not seem yet. Nonetheless, the laudatory review that Manohla Dragis wrote for The New York Times regarding the film version of P.D. James's novel, The Children of Men, gives me grave misgivings:

Based in broad outline on the 1992 dystopian novel by P. D. James about a world suffering from global infertility — and written with a nod to Orwell by Mr. Cuarón and his writing partner Timothy J. Sexton along with David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby — “Children of Men” pictures a world that looks a lot like our own, but darker, grimmer and more frighteningly, violently precarious. It imagines a world drained of hope and defined by terror in which bombs regularly explode in cafes crowded with men and women on their way to work. It imagines the unthinkable: What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?...heavily armed soldiers are ubiquitous. They flank the streets and train platforms, guarding the pervasive metal cages crammed with a veritable Babel of humanity, illegal immigrants who have fled to Britain from hot spots, becoming refugees or “fugees” for short...“Children of Men” has none of the hectoring qualities that tend to accompany good intentions in Hollywood.

Actually, to judge by that review, the film sounds pretty hectoring to me, but hectoring about the wrong things. The novel does mention the sorry state of guest workers in Britain in a world in which there had been no births for over 20 years, but they are barely an afterthought. In fact, violence (unless you count the semi-voluntary euthanasia program) is almost absent from the book. This is, after all, a world without young people. James was not writing science fiction, but she thought through very carefully the economic and cultural implications of a population in which the ratio of elderly consumers to relatively young producers grows ever larger.

James was more interested in making metaphysical than demographic points, as we see in the review of James's book by Alan Jacobs in First Things:

Does the Warden's apparently benevolent despotism give people even a modicum of genuine comfort? Not if they are anything like Theo Faron, who writes in his journal that "without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruins." But Faron is more honest and self-reflective than the majority, who prefer not to think hard thoughts or confront troubling facts.

Still, if you are looking for birth-dearth fiction, The Children of Men is a good place to start. (See also Brian Aldiss's Greybeard. This seems to be one case where, if you plan to see the movie, you should consider reading the book first:

I'm still cranky about David Lynch's adaptation of Dune, but don't get me started.

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has more to worry about than cinematic adaptations of his ideas, as we see in this column:

Whatever the “realists” may say, nations talk to each other all the time. Unfortunately, when nation A opens its mouth, nation B doesn't always get the message, no matter how loud and clear it is. Syria and Iran, for example, have subverted post-Saddam Iraq for three years now. Rather quietly at first. But, like a kid playing gangsta rap in his bedroom, if there are no complaints, you might as well crank up the volume. So Iran began openly threatening genocide against a neighboring state. And Syria had one of its opponents in Lebanon, Pierre Gemayel, assassinated.

Syria and Iran are talking, but are we listening?

Likewise, Russia. These days, we talk to the Bear incessantly, to the point of holding the G8 photo-op on Vladimir Putin’s turf. The old KGB man’s pals are also back in the assassination game, not just in his backyard but in London, too...when it became obvious that there was no price to be paid for obstructing American aims, the world got the message. Yet at home too many Americans are wedded to an absurd proposition: that somehow the lone “superpower” can choose to lose yet another war and there will be no consequences, except for Bush and sundry discredited “neocons”; that no matter how America stumbles in the world it can stay rich and happy and technologically advanced even as it becomes a laughingstock in Tehran and Damascus and Pyongyang and Caracas and Moscow and on, and on, and on.

Not so. We are on the brink of a terrible tipping point.

Let me reiterate that I am not sure that Vladimir Putin has poisoned anyone. If you want to worry about Russia, worry about what they are doing to the customers for their natural gas. Still, Steyn's points are well taken, so much so that I am reminded of these words from Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties by Paul Johnson, pages 309-311:

During the 1920s, the civilized Western democracies had maintained some kind of shaky world order, through the League on the one hand, and through Anglo-American financial diplomacy on the other. At the beginning of the 1930s, the system -- if it could be called a system, broke down completely, opening an era of international banditry in which the totalitarian states behaved simply in accordance with their military means...In the 1920s the world had been run by the power of money. In the 1930s it was subject to the arbitration of the sword....A careful study of the period reveals the extent to which the totalitarian powers, though acting independently and sometimes in avowed hostility towards each other, took advantage of their numbers and growing strength to challenge and outface the pitifully stretched resources of democratic order.

(Incidentally, the book was first published in 1983, but the author revised it after 1989. Read the first edition.)

What we see here is not "re-balancing" against one power or alliance by other powers, but a situation in which it became clear that the rules no longer applied, so opportunistic behavior appeared. Call it a geopolitical version of the broken windows effect.

Don't worry, though. I'll try to have a solution by Monday.

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The Long View 2006-12-07: Iraq Study Group; Vladimir the Poisoner; Space Colonization

Alexander Litvinenko dying of polonium poisoning

Alexander Litvinenko dying of polonium poisoning

The Patrick Buchanan article John links to here looks a little batshit [OK, more than a little] in retrospect, given that Vladimir Putin has whacked a number of political enemies inside and outside of Russia in the years since.


Iraq Study Group; Vladimir the Poisoner; Space Colonization


If you insist on reading the whole thing (and I have not yet done so) the report of the Iraq Study Group is here. However, Richard Fernandez has offered what seems to be a balanced assessment at Pajamas Media and at The Belmont Club. He says the report gives a useful description of the situation in Iraq and Iraq's role in the region. The report makes no fewer than 79 recommendations, but he says they come down to these:

* creating a forum at which Iraqís neighbors will be invited to exert their influence in the internal affairs of Iraq;

* linking the legitimization of Iranís nuclear program to any help it can provide to stabilize Iraq; and

* linking Iraq to a comprehensive solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

As the Pajamas Media piece puts it even more briefly:

The intractable is combined with the insoluble.

Is this stupidity or subtlety? As other commentators have noted, the ISG Report is precisely the opposite of a plan for American disengagement from the Middle East, much less from Iraq. The report seems to exclude the possibility of a military withdrawal. Since its explicit recommendations are unworkable and mutually exclusive, they cannot actually be used to embarrass the Bush Administration. The effect, and perhaps the purpose, of the report is nothing more than to give the Administration a few more months to reconstruct the political situation in Iraq.

Readers of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy will be reminded of the semantic analysis that the Mayor of Terminus ordered done on the statements of the imperial ambassador at the time of the Foundation's first crisis. The ambassador spoke lucidly for a week, the analysis concluded, but did not say a damn thing.

* * *

Oh, that Pat, I thought last week when I saw that Patrick Buchanan was asking whether President Vladimir Putin was the real victim in the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, whose last words, almost, were an indictment of Putin. Buchanan wants to know: Is Putin Being Set Up?

Why would the Russian president, at the peak of his popularity, with his regime awash in oil revenue and himself playing a strong hand in world politics, risk a breach with every Western nation by ordering the public murder of a man who was more of a nuisance than a threat to his regime?

Litvinenko, after all, made his sensational charges against the Kremlin that the KGB blew up the Moscow apartment buildings, not Chechen terrorists, as a casus belli for a war on Chechnya and that he had refused a KGB order to assassinate oligarch Boris Berezovsky in the late 1990s. Of late, Litvinenko has been regarded as a less and less credible figure, with his charges of KGB involvement in 9-11 and complicity in the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad that ignited the Muslim firestorm....

Scotland Yard has yet to declare this a murder case and is looking into the possibility of a "martyrdom operation" suicide dressed up like murder in which Litvinenko may have colluded. The Putin-dominated Russian press is pushing this line, as well as the idea of an oligarchs' plot to discredit Putin and destroy Russia's relations with the West.

I have, alas, reached the point when I suspect any defense of the Russian government to be evidence of creeping Eurasianism. But what, then, to make of today's report, Radioactive spy's coffin barred from mosque:

The final tragedy for poisoned Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko unravelled today as his family were denied the Muslim funeral he had wished for...

Mr Litvinenko, 43, who was poisoned with a lethal dose of polonium-210, converted to Islam shortly before his death in a London hospital exactly two weeks ago.

Was the late Litvinenko a would-be jihadi who had found a way to subvert the enemies of Muslim Chechnya that would be far more effective than a mere explosion? Then this report puts him in an even worse light:

The FBI has been dragged into the investigation of Alexander Litvinenko's death after details emerged that he had planned to make tens of thousands of pounds blackmailing senior Russian spies and business figures. The Observer has obtained remarkable testimony from a Russian academic, Julia Svetlichnaja, who met Litvinenko earlier this year and received more than 100 emails from him. In a series of interviews, she reveals that the former Russian secret agent had documents from the FSB, the Russian agency formerly known as the KGB. He had asked Svetlichnaja, who is based in London, to enter into a business deal with him and 'make money'.

Profiteering and aggressive suicide are not mutually exclusive, though it seems odd to do one while doing the other. But does any of this fit with murder-suicide?

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Dmitry Kovtun, a contact of dead Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, is in critical condition in hospital from radiation poisoning, Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying on Thursday.

I am sorry that all these people are dead or sick, and I don't want to blacken anyone's reputation on the basis of mere speculation, but Russia continues to be one of those countries where Occam's Razor does not cut very deep.

* * *

There is news about pleasanter places. As I am sure most of us know, NASA is promising to return to the Moon, this time to establish a permanent base at the south pole, about 2020. NASA has also followed up from a report last year with good (though not incontrovertible) evidence of flowing water on Mars today.

Well, it's nice work if you can get it, but I have been looking at artists' conceptions of lunar colonies for so long that now I wonder why the artists' conceptions are so threadbare. If there is a law against designing a building on the Moon that people might want to live in?

lunakirche.jpg

There are good reasons for putting a base at the Moon's southern pole, but I am not comforted by the comparison with the Antarctic bases. Politics and environmentalism prevented serious human settlement of Antarctica; the bases would simply be abandoned if a few countries made trivial changes to their funding of scientific research. Has anyone ever been born in Antarctica? (Well, yes: a few.)

As for Mars, should settlement occur, it will occur not with the sense of beginning the human extraterrestrial story, but ending it. Short of some great breakthrough in physics, it's not clear that the human race could reach any planets outside the Solar System, and none of the other planets within it are suitable for terraforming (assuming that Mars is suitable). Even so, the architecture being considered would be no better than on the Moon. I don't think that modern architecture will be transferrable between planets, however. Martian settlements, should there be such a thing, will not be modern societies

That picture is from the Gobi Desert, by the way, but it looks more Martian than an artist's conception. [BE I can’t find the picture John used to have here, but I’m sure you can find images of the Gobi that match the description given.]

* * *

And what do we mean by genuinely after-modern? The change would be not so much a matter of high theory (the theories would become heirlooms) as of folkways. Perhaps we see this kind of thing happening when David Clarke looks back at some religious interpretations of UFO phenomena:

So why did the demonic theory of UFOs become such a popular explanation from the late 1960s and early 1970s on? And how many ufologists and, indeed, members of the public, give credence to this idea today?

It is, of course, absurd to believe that UFOs are either modern extraterrestrial vehicles or after-modern demons. They are Sidhe.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-12-04: Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

John J. Reilly poo-poohs criticizing the high cousin marriage rate in the Middle East, but it really is bad…..

Genetics wasn’t really one of his interests, but I thought it was more widely known that cousin marriage makes your kids dumber and sicker than they would be otherwise.


Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

Does that Other Spengler have the Middle East in a nutshell?

What formerly were civil wars (or prospective civil wars) in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine have become three fronts in a Sunni-Shi'ite war, in which the local contestants are mere proxies. This is obvious in Lebanon, and becoming so in Palestine ...[The new configuration for the region could be something like] the great German civil war, namely the 30 Years' War of 1618-48. The Catholic and Protestant Germans, with roughly equal strength, battered each other through two generations because France sneakily shifted resources to whichever side seemed likely to fold. I have contended for years that the United States ultimately will adopt the perpetual-warfare doctrine that so well served Cardinal Richelieu and made France the master of Europe for a century ...Iran, I warned on September 13, 2005, is running short of oil and soldiers...Its oil exports could fall to zero within only 10 years, according to new studies reviewed in the December 11 Business Week. Iran's circumstances appear far more pressing than I believed a year ago,

We tried very much the policy Spengler suggests, in the long war between Iraq and Iran. One side eventually won.

* * *

Chaos has other advocates. To loose mere anarchy upon the world, in fact, is one of the options that Paul Starobin explores in his National Journal piece, Beyond Hegemony:

As the science writer James Gleick reminds in "Chaos," his 1987 best-seller, "chaos and instability" are "not the same at all." The essence of a chaotic system is not an absence of balance but an inherent unpredictability. Thus, weather patterns and the stock market have a chaotic quality -- but they are not lacking in self-adjusting orderly principles. So it might be in a footloose world without any hegemon.

In this regard, Thomas L. Friedman -- a New York Times columnist, an inveterate optimist, and the advancer of the idea that, as the title of his best-selling book puts it, "The World Is Flat" -- offered an intriguing idea at a recent forum in Washington sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The world of the last half-century has been tracing an arc, Friedman said. The Cold War was the bipolar world, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union keeping things in check, and this stage, he continued, was followed by the unipolar world of American dominance -- which, in turn, is already starting to give way to a decentralized one in which the key force is not any one state or set of states but the technologically empowered individual.

All this is in aid of the latest recrudescence of Declinism, the thesis advanced in the late 1980s by Paul Kennedy to the effect the US would soon be joined by peer powers: Japan and Europe certainly, and perhaps more. Pretty much none of the forecasts that Kennedy made have been borne out by latter events, though the piece allows Kennedy some self-congratulatory quotes. In fact, in the list of prospective peer powers we are given, India is the only one without imploding demographics or a Potemkin financial system or both. Even with regard to Iraq, we should note that none of the supposed poles of a future multipolar world seem much interested in actually planting themselves in the region. The return of Declinism is really just part of a campaign by transnational institutions, and particularly the UN, to use the political embarrassment of the Bush Administration to reestablish their credibility. However, it is only after taking us through speculation about China World and Plurality World that the author takes us to the World World scenario:

It may be that the E.U. model -- more than the talkathon United Nations one -- could serve as the blueprint of a future World Government. Today the euro, tomorrow the universo -- with an image of Kant on the bill? (If you think the restaurant fare is good in Brussels now, wait until it becomes the capital of the planet.) But if the E.U. precedent holds, it could take not only the end of American hegemony but also some kind of global catastrophe -- akin to World War II but on an even larger scale -- to establish a World Government with the power to enforce its own "world security" policy.

The piece actually makes a reference to the way a world government is formed in the Left Behind books, but tactfully omits reference to the Rapture.

* * *

Here is a review of John Derbyshire's review of Mark Steyn's America Alone. (My own review, in length comparable to Derbyshire's, is here.) Derbyshire tells us:

A literary and stylistic gem like America Alone might be utterly wrong-headed; but one would be much more reluctant to think so than one would in the case of a dull, clumsily-written book on the same subject....

For someone so impressed by the book, Derbyshire seems oddly uninterested in Steyn's central argument about the unsustainability of below-replacement birthrates:

Birthrates are dropping everywhere, even in Muslim countries, even in non-Israeli Palestine. This is just a feature of our postindustrial age, and it’s unlikely there is anything we can do about it, or should want to...The earth’s surface is finite, after all...

Does Derbyshire dismiss the concept of social reform? We get a clue to that later. For now, let's see what he says when he's trying to be helpful:

[T]he reader who has traversed those 200 pages has been having different thoughts from the ones Steyn tries to guide him to. For example: Is that original list of options—submit to, destroy, or reform Islam—really exhaustive? How about we just fence it off...

I put the book down at last, though, wondering if it is pessimistic enough. For all his splendid conservative credentials, Mark Steyn has tendencies towards root-causes liberalism. [Quoting Steyn] "John Derbyshire began promoting the slogan 'Rubble doesn't Cause Trouble.' Cute, and I wish him well with the T-shirt sales. But in arguing for a 'realist' foreign policy of long-range bombing as necessary, he overlooks the very obvious point that rubble causes quite a lot of trouble..." Ah, but Mark, there is rubble, and there is rubble. ...I am, in fact, willing to confess myself a collateral-damage armchair warrior, who would be happy to see us trade in our inventory of smart laser-guided precision munitions for lots and lots and lots of old-style iron bombs

Well, maybe not very helpful. In any case, we eventually discover that his embrace of popular sociobiology probably has disabled his ability to think about social issues:

And there are, of course, as must always be pointed out nowadays, the Great Unmentionables...Nothing is about race, because there is no such thing as race. (Repeat 100 times.) It’s about culture—the aether, the phlogiston, of current social-anthropological speculation, whose actual nature is mysterious, but whose explanatory power is infinite...Good, solid scientific studies are beginning to appear that altogether refute the “culture” paradigm. We are not a uniform species...What of those Muslim Middle-Eastern family trees? The ones labeled “Arab Shia,” “Iranian Shia,” “Mesopotamian Sunni,” “Saudi” (that’s the one with a 55 percent cousin-marriage rate), and so on? Can they, with a little help and encouragement, make harmonious, consensual modern societies out of themselves?

I am perfectly willing to believe that the reaction of early 20th-century cultural anthropologists to Social Darwinism occasioned quite a lot of bogus research. However, Social Darwinism was pretty bogus, too; it's still bogus if you recast it in genetic and neurobiological terminology. Just glance above at Spengler's allusion to the Thirty Years' War, when the Germans blew each other up at least as efficiently as the Sunni and Shia of today. Maybe the German genes have changed. More likely, the same genes have more than one mode of expression.

* * *

If you must recast conservatism in Darwinian terms, then start with this item at Right Reason:

[L]arry Arnhart, recently responded on his blog to [RR's] review of his book, Darwinian Conservatism. [RR's] review, which was published under the title, "Natural Law Without a Lawgiver," just appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of The Review of Politics (68.4, pp. 680-82). You can find a pdf of it on [RR's] website....

I'm a great fan of paleontology, and also of popular genetics, but the problem with Darwinism as a pure method is that it explains imaginary animals as readily as real ones. The same, I am afraid, goes for sociobiological accounts of human societies.

* * *

Some political systems are obviously doomed, of course, not least among them Hugo Chavez's patronage socialism:

The boom [in Venezuela] is evident in an economy that has put financial speculation and conspicuous consumption ahead of domestic manufacturing. For instance, foreign automobile companies Ford and General Motors will sell 300,000 cars in the country this year. Economists describe Venezuela as a “harbor economy” because of its lust for imported goods...

Some Chávez economic policies draw inspiration from formulas used with mixed results by countries in the developing and industrialized worlds the 1960s and 1970s. These include price controls for food and gasoline, strict limits on buying and selling foreign currency and caps on everything from lending rates at banks to hourly fees at parking lots....Despite boasting of some of South America’s most fertile land in an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, Venezuela still imports more than half its food, largely from the United States and Colombia. An overvalued currency, meanwhile, has been disastrous for Venezuelan industry with the number of manufacturing companies falling to about 8,000 today from 17,000 in 1998, according to Mr. Guerra, the former economist at the central bank.

Castro promised his people blood, sweat, and tears: he stayed in power by meeting the low expectations he had created. Chavez promises ice cream and lollipops, which he can deliver, until the next collapse in oil prices.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-11-27: Atheists Panic; Democracy & Necessity; CO2/SCOTUS; Cannibalism Today

I’m about as disinterested in arguing with internet atheists as Ventakesh is with arguing with internet theists [that is Eve Keneinan’s beat], the reason I put this here is that the tendency John Reilly was describing is still pretty strong. Arguably, the two firmly committed poles here are just getting more entrenched.

As John says, I do think most internet atheists are unacquainted with the best arguments both against and for their position. For the most part, this turns on tribal identify and personality more than reasoned debate. However, much like null RCTs on diets, a lack of reasoned debate on God doesn’t mean conversions don’t happen.

Here is an argument that I think may have convinced me of the opposite of what John seems to mean here:

One way to restate Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis is that, at the end of the Cold War, the proponents of liberal democracy finally convinced everybody in the West, except for a few cranks, that democracy is irresistible in the long run. If democracy is not a universal imperative, however, then it is everywhere contingent. In other words, if it is not compatible with the current culture of the Middle East, then one could imagine situations arising in the West in which it would not be compatible, either. At the moment, no argues anything like this, except in the context of judicial review. Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss the prospect that "realism" will spread to domestic politics.

John was a big advocate of the Iraq war, but if you read the rest of his corpus, it is pretty clear that democracy isn’t a universal good at all times and in all places, not in Iraq now, and maybe not in the West anymore either.


Atheists Panic; Democracy & Necessity; CO2/SCOTUS; Cannibalism Today

Surely it is a splendid thing to be a " professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago," as is Richard A. Shweder. This morning, however, he rose to an even dizzier eminence with the publication of this opinion piece in The New York Times:

It has long been assumed that religion is opposed to science, reason and human progress; and the death of gods is simply taken for granted as a deeply ingrained Darwinian article of faith...Why, then, are the enlightened so conspicuously up in arms these days, reiterating every possible argument against the existence of God? ...The most obvious answer is that the armies of disbelief have been provoked....A deeper and far more unsettling answer, however, is that the popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real....

The Enlightenment story has its own version of Genesis, and the themes are well known: The world woke up from the slumber of the “dark ages,” finally got in touch with the truth and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe. ...Unfortunately, as a theory of history, that story has had a predictive utility of approximately zero. At the turn of the millennium it was pretty hard not to notice that the 20th century was probably the worst one yet, and that the big causes of all the death and destruction had rather little to do with religion. ...Much to everyone’s surprise, that great dance on the Berlin Wall back in 1989 turned out not to be the apotheosis of the Enlightenment....

Science has not replaced religion; group loyalties have intensified, not eroded. The collapse of the cold war’s balance of power has not resulted in the end of collective faiths or a rush to democracy and individualism. In Iraq, the “West is best” default (and its discourse about universal human rights) has provided a foundation for chaos...

There are sophisticated arguments for atheism, but the scientists who take up iconoclasm as a hobby rarely seem to be aware of them. At least in part, that may be because the sophisticated arguments involve the sort of fundamental skepticism that would also undermine the optimistic epistemology on which the scientific enterprise depends. The price of making God invisible is to turn out all the lights.

* * *

Speaking of the default mode of politics, Mark Steyn's recent comments on the excellent British site, New Culture Forum actually have graver implications than he supposes:

The fact of the matter is that the snob right in Britain, the Max Hastings crowd, who denounce American adventurism in Iraq and all this, the Michael Moore conservatives as they are sometimes known over here, basically their argument - that George W. Bush is engaged in a hopeless task in Iraq, that Islam and democracy [are] completely incompatible - that’s not a problem for Iraq, that’s a problem for Britain, and Belgium and the Netherlands and Scandinavia. And to airily make that statement about Iraq and not to see its implications for your own country is almost unbelievably crass.

One way to restate Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis is that, at the end of the Cold War, the proponents of liberal democracy finally convinced everybody in the West, except for a few cranks, that democracy is irresistible in the long run. If democracy is not a universal imperative, however, then it is everywhere contingent. In other words, if it is not compatible with the current culture of the Middle East, then one could imagine situations arising in the West in which it would not be compatible, either. At the moment, no argues anything like this, except in the context of judicial review. Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss the prospect that "realism" will spread to domestic politics.

* * *

Pigs will fly before the Supreme does what the plaintiffs are asking here:

The Supreme Court hears arguments this week in a case that could determine whether the Bush administration must change course in how it deals with the threat of global warming....The case is Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, 05-1120...A dozen states as well as environmental groups and large cities are trying to convince the court that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate, as a matter of public health, the amount of carbon dioxide that comes from vehicles.

Even though the Court would not order the EPA to control CO2 emissions, however, I would not be surprised if it found the EPA already had the power to do so. This suit illustrates why it was so important for the United States not to sign the Kyoto Treaty. It would have done for climate policy what Roe v. Wade did for population control.

* * *

Enlightened atheists are correct when they fret that ancient brutalities are reasserting themselves these days; the problem is that they are looking in the wrong places. As we have noted before, uncontrolled illegal immigration has already re-created significant pockets of indentured servitude in sweatshop industries, and then there are the poor slave-nannies who dare not complain to authorities no matter how their employers treat them. Most gruesome of all, however, is the prospect of consensual cannibalism:

The wait for a kidney can stretch for years. People die waiting for one -- more than 4,000 in the United States alone last year.

A recent editorial in The Economist magazine suggested that instead of making it illegal for people to sell their kidneys, governments should permit it: even license and encourage it.

NPR's Scott Simon talks with Daniel Franklin, executive editor of The Economist, who says that legalizing the individual sale of kidneys would help. Legalizing the process, he says, would end a black market for the organs.

The key, Franklin says, would be "a robust system of regulation."

We all know how keen The Economist is for robust regulation.

All this reminds me of an episode in the Futurama series. The characters walk into a deli in New New York in the 31st century and see the food available from all across the galaxy. One of them says: "Boy, I bet you can find any kind of meat here but human!" The clawed and semi-aquatic shopkeeper asks, "You want human?"

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-11-25: A Dark Surmise; The Crazy Aunt; The Transnational Avatar

In retrospect, I absolutely prefer Bush 1’s approach to Iraq. My uncle came back from Desert Storm with nothing worse than a worry he might have been exposed to chemical weapons, but all of his limbs and with his mind intact.


A Dark Surmise; The Crazy Aunt; The Transnational Avatar

I can be terribly slow on the uptake about some things, one of which is the real motive behind the sort of diplomatic strategies that have entered public discourse in anticipation of the recommendations of James Baker's Iraq Study Group. The penny dropped, however, when I read this piece by Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, What would victory in Iraq look like?.

The challenge here is not to avert civil war, however. Iraq is already in a civil war—and has been for a long time. It is too late for prevention. The real challenge now is termination...This means we need to shift from a strategy designed for classical counter-insurgency to one designed for terminating an ongoing civil war.

The use of the strangely neutral word "termination" in this context reminds me of Garrison Keillor's quip that Unitarians don't want salvation, they want closure. In any case, most civil wars that got terminated and stayed that way did so because one side demolished the other. That is not what The Usual Suspects are contemplating for Iraq, however. Biddle continues:

James Dobbins of Rand has proposed a regional diplomatic campaign to induce Iraq’s neighbors to use their influence with their Iraqi clients to compel compromise on a power-sharing deal. Given the Sunnis’ dependence on outside backers for money and supplies, and the growing Shi‘a links with Iran, an agreement by neighboring states to sever this support unless their clients compromise could have real traction. Of course, this means offering neighbors such as Iran and Syria inducements that would make this worth their while;...

This is the kind of deeply weird proposal that had me wondering about the sanity of its proponents. It does start to make sense, however, if we note the neighbor of Iraq that is not mentioned here: Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were content to see the Baathist government in Baghdad removed, but they then implored the Bush II Administration to leave the personnel of the old government in place and simply appoint a new dictator.

That was pretty much what the Saudis had advised Bush I to do in 1991. Bush I took the advice, in the sense of trying to promote a coup in Baghdad rather than removing the regime once and for all. The results of that policy have not been happy, but James Baker, who was Bush I's Secretary of State, regards the "realist" close of the war of 1990-1991 as his finest hour.

This time around, Bush II refused the realist advice, and tried to actually solve the problem. He was the the Bush who was not principally concerned with the oil. However, a democratic Iraq, even a populist Iraq, would be a disaster for the House of Saud. We must imagine their horror at seeing the Bush family, which had always been so solicitous of its interests (not least through the ministrations of chief family retainer James Baker) taking steps that would probably lead to the downfall of the monarchy. Now, however, Bush II's policy has bogged down, and the older heads in the Bush family are again in the ascendant. Am I overreading the situation in suggesting that the subtext of the ISG report will be ensuring Saudi Arabia preemptive chaos and a bit of influence?

* * *

God has a lot to answer for, according to most of the participants at a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The principal writers of popular science were there, or at least the ones who make a career of using their popularizing work to make metaphysical points and then express outrage when metaphysical objections are raised against them:

With a rough consensus that the grand stories of evolution by natural selection and the blossoming of the universe from the Big Bang are losing out in the intellectual marketplace, most of the discussion came down to strategy. How can science fight back without appearing to be just one more ideology?...By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of “a den of vipers.” ...“With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”...[P]erhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

It's always tempting to mine stories like this for apologetic points. For instance, was the heartbreakingness an objective quality of those misshapen infants? If not, then the best course would be to desensitise yourself to human suffering. If real tragedy can occur anywhere in the universe, however, even locally for just a little while, then reality cannot be entirely impersonal.

Frankly, though, I don't like this kind of phenomenological argument: it has a sentimental quality that I find too tacky for theology. I also find that true of the sort of anti-theistic rhetoric at La Jolla, however. They do not disagree with religion: they are offended by it. They find it distasteful because they believe it to be dishonest. Honesty is a virtue. If you plant the tiniest virtue in an ontology, the most amazing tree will grow from it.

On a lighter note, however, we see that:

Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.

I could help but wonder whether this was the same crazy old aunt who played such a large role in the presidential election of 1996:

It was Ross Perot front and center who was talking about the budget deficit, crazy aunt in the attic, and he forced the other campaign staff to deal with something they didn't want to talk about.

That particular crazy old aunt badgered the political class into balancing the federal budget for a few years. But I digress.

* * *

Some prophets are more plausible than others, as we see in this disconcerting report:

ENCINITAS – There were lightsticks and earplugs. People danced and clapped. But this was no concert. This was church...Yesterday, as the sun went into its evening descent, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Encinitas joined a growing list of congregations around the world who are blending the music of the Irish rock band U2 with special Communion services. The result is something being called a “U2 Eucharist” – or “U2charist” for short...The mission of the U2 Eucharist movement is to help the United Nations achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals it adopted in 2000...U2's music is used because Bono, the band's lead singer and a Christian, is the global ambassador for the millennium campaign.

I am not surprised. Is it a secret that U2 is fundamentally a Christian band? The Alarm used to open for them. Of course, back then in the early 1980s, everyone in both bands looked like a poodle.

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The Long View 2006-03-19: Iraq after Three Years; Life's Solution; Reading Habits

Three years later, John was honest enough to find a rather embarrassing prediction he had made about the course of the Iraq war. With the benefit of hindsight, I've found a few more,  but the point of that exercise here is to remind us how easily we can fool ourselves, rather than congratulate our good judgement in hindsight.


Iraq after Three Years; Life's Solution; Reading Habits

 

W.B. Yeats once famously asked whether any man had ever been taken out and shot because of something that Yeats had written. Actually, I suspect that Yeats was more worried about whether he had ever written anything for which he himself should have been shot on stylistic rather than politics grounds. Still, anyone who expresses political opinions in public must wonder from time to time whether anything they have said made the world worse, even in a case such as mine, when the opinions are derivative and whatever effect they have had derives from their having been first expressed by more prominent people.

In that spirit, I have been looking over my blog-postings for 2002 and 2003 to see whether there is anything I would want to unsay about my support for the invasion and my analysis of the situation. Readers are invited to search my Archives for items that now appear ridiculous, but here is the one paragraph that caught my eye. It's from September 26, 2002, in a critique of an article that appeared in The American Conservative. I said there about the course of the invasion still under consideration:

At risk of jinxing the operation, a happy outcome is by far the most likely. The fighting will be short. The country will not break up; it will be cantonized and demilitarized. The Iraqis will sing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" and get back to business, which is good: the country's GDP grew 15% last year. The democratic movement in Iran will be bolstered and the Syrians will stop funding terrorist organizations.

Perhaps the allusion to The Wizard of Oz did jinx the operation, but not fatally. Regarding the state of Iraq today, I would say that, if the Iraqis really wanted to have a civil war, they would have had one before now. What we are seeing today is the dying reverberations of the attack on the Golden Mosque, a desperate attempt by the largely discredited Jihadi wing of the insurgency to disable the political process. As for the reasons for launching the invasion, there is nothing to add to Walter Russell Mead's account in Power, Terror, Peace, and War. Here is the summary from my review:

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

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

In retrospect, it is not the pre-2003 assessments that look prescient, but the pre-1991 ones. The cost for Iraq was always going to be around 3000 American dead, spread out over a period of several years rather than several weeks. We deluded ourselves when we thought that all that would be necessary was another end-of-history campaign in which more soldiers were killed in traffic accidents than in combat.

To that grim note, I would add the following points, some of which I have made before:

What is most different now from 2003 is that the Jihad has clearly moved to Western soil. As the witticism has it, the Arab street did rise after the invasion of Iraq, but it rose in Paris. That is one of the reasons the attempt to use the third anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War to mount large protests has failed.

No outcome of the Iraq War will be characterized in the elite media as a victory. Iraq is not going to become a Jeffersonian democracy, but even if it did, that would be called only a mitigation of a general disaster. Similarly, if there is democratic revolution in Iran, the argument will be made that the invasion of Iraq delayed that transformation.

We should be more impressed by the fact that all the pillars of the international system have been discredited to a greater or lesser degree in recent years. Regular readers will be familiar with my thesis that the United States functions as an international utility in the 21st-century world, but a utility whose management has been widely criticized. Similarly, the United Nations has yet to recover from the oil-for-food scandal in connection with Iraq, but also because of its record in Africa. The rejection of the European Union constitutional treaty seemed to be wholly unconnected to events in the Middle East, until the French riots and the Cartoon Jihad showed how irrelevant that institution was to the existential crisis of the eastern half of Western Civilization.

Regarding the whole War on Terror, we are not even at half-time yet, folks.

* * *

Regarding evolution, readers will recall the remarks that Christoph Cardinal Schönborn made in the New York Times last year, and which he later expanded on in First Things. The gist of his position is that Darwinism is theologically and perhaps scientifically insufficient. The discussion has continued in the Letters section of the latter journal, including the April 2006 issue, now on the news stands.

I mention this, not to get involved in the argument (the point of which, I confess, has surpassed my small understanding) but to note that were is an authority whom everyone seems agreed on. Thus, in one of the Letters to the Editor, the industrious and ingenious Edward T. Oakes, SJ., says:

As for Dawkins, I recommend Simon Conway Morris' book Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge) for a full-scale refutation of Dawkins on solid Darwinian grounds

To that the cardinal counters:

First, I respectfully disagree with [Fr Oakes's] characterization of the work of Simon Conway Morris as a "refutation of Dawkins on solid Darwinian grounds." Morris' work on teleological, lawlike evolution is in fact a powerful challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy, which is based in large part on the absolute contingency of the results of variation and natural selection as they drive the purposeless meanderings of phylogeny across an arbitrarily changing fitness landscape.

Such a question is partly a matter of definition, but I think that Fr. Oakes is closer to the mark in regarding Morris's work as a refinement within Darwinian science. In fact, Morris may be said to offer reasons for the teleology that early Darwinism assumed but then abandoned, in part for political reasons.

In any case, I have a long review of Morris's book here. I marvel, frankly, that only now am I seeing the book widely cited. (It was mentioned last year in First Things by Stephen Barr, too.)

* * *

And now for you lazy people: Readers may have noticed that I recently uploaded an allofictional novella to my website, The Gray Havens. About its literary quality, I can only say that I have more reason to worry than did Yeats. The text is divided among 10 webpages, for ease of reading. You must imagine my shock, indeed my horror, to discover from my Activity Report that a third of the people who read the first section simply skip ahead and read the tenth.

Look, you want to know how it ends? The giant spider eats them all. I hope you are satisfied.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-02-24: Future Teeth; The Golden Mosque; The Two Wicked Cities

Lind in 2016

Lind in 2016

John Reilly mentions William S. Lind in this post, because Lind repeatedly predicted defeat for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. John predicted victory, and some kind of friendly democratic government in both countries. What actually happened is somewhere in-between. Lind's predictions of defeat were too dire, but what we got wasn't exactly victory either.


Future Teeth; The Golden Mosque; The Two Wicked Cities

 

This science story got a remarkable amount of attention:

By making a few changes to the expression of certain molecules in the pathway, the researchers were able to induce tooth growth in normal developing chickens. These teeth also looked like reptilian teeth and shared many of the same genetic traits, supporting the scientists' hypothesis. None of these chickens were allowed to hatch.

The moral of the story is that the genes to guide the formation of the features of an organism remain in the genome even after the features are no longer expressed in the organism's lineage. Thus, for instance, snakes could be made to sprout legs like those of their ancestors, if we felt sufficiently strongly about it. Ah, but you ask: what about genes for future evolution? Are they there too, waiting to be switched on?

Some readers will no doubt recall the episode from the Outer Limits series of the 1960s, entitled The Sixth Finger. The sixth finger, of course, was what grew from the hand of the experimental subject after he was put in the Infernal Machine that advanced his evolution. His head also became photogenically distended as his brain expanded.

That was a very good episode. Actually, the whole series was so much better than the recent revival that the principle of historical progress is put in doubt, at least with regard to television. Nonetheless, the idea that later-evolving features are implicit in earlier features is one of the tenets of the model of evolution in Simon Conway Morris's Life's Solution.

* * *

Most of Congress and every elected official on the East Coast have denounced the plan by a company owned by the government of Dubai to acquire the British company that, among other things, manages much of the Port of New York. At this writing, the deal looks as if it will be delayed, and then probably scrapped. Still, I noted this item yesterday:

The Bush administration secretly required a company in the United Arab Emirates to cooperate with future U.S. investigations before approving its takeover of operations at six American ports, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. It chose not to impose other, routine restrictions.

I have no information about this deal. Still, I might note, simply as food for speculation, that the Middle East is where Western governments base activities that they would not dare do at home. A government-owned company would make a better front than a private one, but there is also a long history of using nominally private enterprises for these purposes. Does no one remember Air America?

* * *

Here is a culture clash where the clash is between European church-state relations and those of the United States:

DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) - A German court on Thursday convicted a businessman of insulting Islam by printing the word "Koran" on toilet paper and offering it to mosques.

The 61-year-old man, identified only as Manfred van H., was given a one-year jail sentence, suspended for five years, and ordered to complete 300 hours of community service, a district court in the western German town of Luedinghausen ruled.

I would prefer to think that the court was just pandering to Muslim sentiment, but I have the disturbing feeling that this is how the legal system always works there. Look, religion is like the American flag: if you can't burn it, it is not worth saluting. Faith, like patriotism, thrives on invective.

* * *

Is the bombing of the Golden Mosque actually good news? That would seem to be the implication of Syed Saleem Shahzad's analysis at Asia Times:

Spring is only a month away, and preparations for Nauroz (the Persian new year) are well under way. In Iran this year, however, Nauroz was due to come with a deadly dimension: the start of a new phase of a broad-based anti-US resistance movement stretching from Afghanistan to Jerusalem.

Wednesday's attack on a revered shrine in Iraq could change all this.

There has been quite a lot of contact between Iran and al-Qaeda in recent years. Indeed, important al-Qaeda organizers are in Iran today:

The aim of these people in Iran is to establish a chain of anti-US resistance groups that will take the offensive before the West makes its expected move against Tehran.

Their mission, however, has now become nearly hopeless:

The anti-US resistance movement had wanted to use Shi'ite Iran as the final base to link the resistance groups of this whole region. If the current volatile situation results in Shi'ites sitting on one side, and Sunnis and al-Qaeda-linked groups on the other, this is unlikely to happen.

Instead, Iraq could become a new battlefield, not only against US-led forces, but between different factions. Iran, meanwhile, would be left to deal with the West on its own...

Some Sunnis are saying that it was the Iranians themselves who blew up the mosque, to unite all Shia factions behind Moqtada al-Sadr, or possibly al-Sadr himself ordered the explosion. Or it might have been the Americans, to put pressure on the Sunnis to reach a deal about forming the new government. Or maybe it was the Israelis in order to...well, just because. The most economical explanation is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates realize that if a workable government forms, they will have essentially lost the war, and not just in Iraq. The mosque was blown up to delay that awful day.

Sometimes I think that these people learned the art of government in New Orleans.

* * *

Defeat is editorial policy for American Conservative. Consider this piece, War of the Worlds, by William S. Lind, who argues that there are two great evils today, the Jihad of Fourth Generation warfare and the Brave New World of the West:

The Fourth Generation of Modern War, warfare since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, is the greatest change in armed conflict since the modern era began. It is marked by the state’s loss of the monopoly on war it established with Westphalia and the rise of non-state elements that can fight states and win...Fourth Generation war is giving rise to new forms of social organization. It should not surprise us that al-Qaeda’s goal is not taking power within states but abolishing the state altogether and replacing it with an ummah...

The march toward Brave New World is led by the United States. The main characteristics of Huxley’s dystopia are all too evident in post-1960s America (and Europe). They include a culture where the summary of the law is “you must be happy,” happiness coming from a combination of materialism, consumerism, electronic entertainment, and sexual pleasure; globalism, the elites’ “one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them” under de facto if not de jure world government; and endless psychological conditioning, especially through the government schools and the video-screen media. Religion is already relegated to the eccentric margins, at least among the elites, if not yet quite forbidden

Readers may amuse themselves by searching through Lind's writings to see how many times he has predicted, indeed reported, the defeat of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past few years.

When Brave New World’s walls come a tumblin’ down—and they will—men of the West may have their opportunity. Bewildered, shocked, sometimes panicked societies will seek alternatives but not know where to turn.

They will, of course, turn to American Conservative's brand of tradition. It worked for Marshal Petain, didn't it?

There are confusions here. Yes, there is a Brave New World faction in the West, whose chief representatives are, perhaps, the transnationalists of the Davos type. It has little or nothing to do with the neocons. The Brave New Worlders have not prospered in recent years. Part of the story is the foundering of the European Union project; part of it is the defenestration of cultural and media elites in the US. The Brave New World is not fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Brave New World not only could not fight a war; it could not survive in a world where war were possible.

Someone should write an AH story in which the the Draka invade Brave New World. That will teach them.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-19: Bush Speaks; Spengler Smirks; Aslan Roars

More tedious political crap from 2005.


Bush Speaks; Spengler Smirks; Aslan Roars

 

It is otiose, as a rule, for a blogger to quote Glenn Reynolds, since if you read any blogs at all you probably read his. Nonetheless, let me note for the record his take on President Bush's address from the Oval Office last night:

BUSH DOUBLES DOWN: I just watched Bush's speech. Nothing new there for anyone who's been paying attention to the speeches he's been giving over the past couple of weeks. But one big thing struck me: In this national televised speech, Bush went out of his way to take responsibility for the war. He repeatedly talked about "my decision to invade Iraq," even though, of course, it was also Congress's decision. He made very clear that, ultimately, this was his war, and the decisions were his.

Why did he do that? Because he thinks we're winning, and he wants credit. By November 2006, and especially November 2008, he thinks that'll be obvious, and he wants to lay down his marker now on what he believed -- and what the other side did. That's my guess, anyway.

That is possible, but the hypothesis is unnecessary: Bush needed to be seen to be in favor of his own war no matter how he thinks it is going. In any case, let me also note these remarks by that old calumniator, Mark Steyn:

One day Iraq will be a G7 member hosting the Olympics in the world's No. 1 luxury vacation resort of Fallujah, and the Defeaticrat Party will still be running around screaming it's a quagmire. It's not just that Iraq is going better than expected, but that it's a huge success that's being very deftly managed: The timeframe imposed on the democratic process turns out to have worked very well...

The Iraq election's over, the media did their best to ignore it, and, judging from the rippling torsos I saw every time I switched on the TV, the press seem to reckon that that gay cowboy movie was the big geopolitical event of the last week, if not of all time.

He is correct about the establishment-media treatment. The policy of the US opposition seems to be that no outcome in Iraq can be judged to be anything better than a disaster, at least as long as the Bush Administration is responsible for it.

As for silence about good news, I note that the The New York Times must have had an advanced copy of Bush's speech in good time to make an editorial comment about it in today's edition, but no such comment appeared on today's editorial page. That's not censorship, though it's odd enough to suggest a division of opinion in the paper's management. More troubling about the Times was the publication, on the day after the Iraqi elections, of the story about NSA wiretaps or residents of the United States who mad been in communication with possible terrorist organizations abroad. The wiretaps were colorably legal, and the people being monitored were reasonable objects of surveillance. The appropriate members of Congress had been informed.

What stinks to high heaven is the timing of the story. The Times had sat on the information for two years. They released it when they did, apparently, for no other reason than to have something else on their frontpage besides coverage of the notably successful elections. (There was also the fact that the journalist who reported the story is about to publish a book on the subject.) To paraphrase a recent Times editorial, we have to ask whether the country can tolerate having a newspaper of record this bad.

There is reason to believe the story will backfire. Bush justified the wiretaps at length in his press conference this morning. He took special care to note his consultation with Congress. Many of the president's most ardent supporters are fed up with him, but I think that the public now appreciates how artificial these "scandals" have become.

* * *

Despite the good news for the White House, That Spengler continues to blaspheme against the implacable benevolence of Immanuel Kant and his Democratic Peace:

Apropos of Washington's triumphal response to the high voter turnout in last week's Iraqi elections, we should ask this simple question: why do political leaders believe that democracy fosters peace, despite innumerable examples to the contrary? History shows us that the broad electorate can be as bellicose as the most bloodthirsty tyrant. But there is a sound reason to equate democracy and peace; sadly, this argument has a fatal flaw...The trouble is that entire peoples frequently find themselves faced with probable or inevitable ruin, such that no peaceful solution can be found...That is why Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is the Islamic world's pre-eminent democrat...By the same token, Hamas represents the popular will in Gaza and the West Bank.

That Spengler's many admirers will recall that he has a theory that the Iranian theocracy is doomed six ways to Sunday, so the theocrats quite literally have nothing left to lose. The same is true, he tells us, not of Islam, but of its Islamist deformations.

Be that as it may, I am reasonably sure that the outcome of the recent Iraqi elections was not a victory for Iran. Unless I am greatly misinformed, Arab Shia think that Iranian Shiism is something of an impertinence. Watch.

* * *

As for stability fascists, let them choke on this:

'Drastic global warming threat from Pantheron Dileoxide': Chief Wolf speaks out

By Our Own Correspondent, Digdirt the Dwarf

Today, the Wolf Council of the White Queen, Imperial Majesty Jadis, Empress of the Lone Islands, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, the Witch of Narnia, ('May She Freeze Forever!'), howled an apocalyptic warning in the Narnian Independent that the world is threatened by drastic global warming from the continued emissions of Lion's Breath, Pantheron Dileoxide (PL2). "PL2 is a dangerous, roaring greenhouse gas", the Chief Wolf, Maugrim, growled. "It melts everything, even frozen fauns and fountains. Climate change is the biggest threat ever to Narnia - we might even have Christmas, and the Queen's war chariot polar bears will have nowhere to live", he snarled.

* * *

Many intelligent people never got the memo about Alternative History, and those who come upon that section of my website sometimes take for real the items there. Well, I at least have menu page that explains what AH is and clearly lists all the AH items. In contrast, what excuse will the Weekly Standard be able to give for Joe Queenan's "Keeping it Real," which appears without warning in the December 19 issue of the magazine?

[F]rom Schubert to Shakur, musical violence is an old story

The recent shooting of record mogul Suge Knight at a music industry celebration has evoked the usual handwringing [but recent scholarship contends] that violent internecine behavior has been a staple of Western music since at least the 18th century..."Brahms blinded his first agent, fed his publisher's ear to his pet piranha, Sasha, and paid to have an opera critic gang-raped by lovesick Montenegrin goatherds," says [one scholar] "And Brahms did not even write operas..."

* * *

Here's another paranoia engine for you, called They Rule (Thanks, Tim!). This one cover CEOs, financial moguls, and their corporate entities.

It seems to me, by the way, that the real use of this engine is as an aide to customer complaints. If you have some intractable billing problem, for instance, but can't get satisfaction from Customer Service, try writing to the whole board of directors. Remember to be brief and polite.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-02: Tradition, Optimism & Cartography

It is rather sad that John didn't live to see the rise of the tradinistas. He would have enjoyed pointing out they make the same arguments as Tradition.


Tradition, Optimism & Cartography

 

Over at First Things, Fr. Neuhaus has noted that there may be a contradiction between the goals of the magazine and the argument against capital punishment that Joseph Bottum made in his famous article published over the summer. I have already remarked on the piece here. What drew Neuhaus's attention, however, was a comment by Caleb Stegall in the remarkable quarterly, New Pantagruel. In "Natural Law, the Death Penalty, and Political Theology," Stegall observes:

Bottum’s point about liberal forms forsaking history in favor of the dead letters of the social contract is quite good and right. What is startling is his blithe acceptance of this as the necessary result of Christianity... When, in the wake of religious wars, old Christendom attempted to do away with political theology altogether by demythologizing history (and the state along with it) and by rationalizing all order as nothing more than a social contract, it made the conscious decision to rely on positive law...

The problem, of course, is that First Things is dedicated to the reintroduction of a natural law perspective into American political life. Bottum's analysis rubbed me the wrong way because it too closely resembles the critique of the liberal state put forward by Tradition. Note that Stegall ends his piece by suggesting that the project of the liberal state should be abandoned In favor of an explicitly Christian political culture. Bottum, in contrast, says that it was one of the great victories of Christianity to whittle the state down to liberal dimensions. Go figure.

* * *

Speaking of Tradition, I recently came across this site, created in admiring memory of the British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley.

The site is managed by neo-fascists, so it tilts toward the Continental Conservative Revolution. There is a long quotation from Julius Evola, for instance, on the prerequisites for the creation of a European nation . (Mosley did have thoughts along these lines in the 1930s, but he focused on them only after the Second World War, when he was little more than a national amusement.) The startling thing is the encomiums on the introductory page from people like AJP Taylor and Michael Foote. The site's editors have expanded their possible audience by using the word "Jew" very sparingly. The material is useful for anyone studying the interwar years, but it could mislead uninformed Youth.

Mosley and his ideas, as they appear here, remind me of HG Wells more than of anyone else. Wells, in his later years, had much the same notions. I don't mean just the obvious stuff, like the disgust with parliamentary democracy. Mosley and Wells both advocated turning the judiciary into a cadre of sociological experts with the power to make law, without reference to the constitution, and over the objection of the government. Today, this has a familiar ring, in both the US and the EU. It is startling to see it in a British context, since the notion of judicial review is quite limited in British jurisprudence. An idea that has gone down the memory hole entirely in recent years, however, is Mosley's proposal that the franchise should rest on the basis of occupation rather than geography. In the US, that was quite a Lefty notion in the 1930s.

Roger Eatwell once remarked that Mosley had the best-worked-out programme of all the fascists in Europe. No doubt Mosley suffered from the "if we build it, they will come" syndrome. In reality, if you build it, people will be able to see it from a distance, and they may have the sense to run away.

* * *

Am I too optimistic about Iraq?. Maybe, but then I see items like this one by Victor Davis Hanson, which recently appeared in National Review, and my assessments are reconfirmed:

Almost everything that is now written about Iraq rings not quite right: It was a “blunder”; there should have been far more troops there; the country must be trisected; we must abide by a timetable and leave regardless of events on the ground; Iraq will soon devolve into either an Islamic republic or another dictatorship; the U.S. military is enervated and nearly ruined; and so on.

In fact, precisely because we have killed thousands of terrorists, trained an army, and ensured a political process, it is possible to do what was intended from the very beginning: lessen the footprint of American troops in the heart of the ancient caliphate.

When Hanson speaks here of lessening the footprint, he seems to be referring to drawing down the number of troops present in Iraq now. However, we should not forget that reducing the military face of American influence in that region was one of the reasons for the Iraq War in the first place. As Walter Russell Mead has noted, there was no peace in and around Iraq even before 2003. The United States and Great Britain were involved in a low-level air-war with Iraq that began the last time the Baathist government kicked the UN weapons inspectors out. The Iraqi government was being forcefully restrained from entering its own Kurdish region, lest it murder the inhabitants. It was prohibited by force from flying its aircraft in the south of the country under the ceasefire agreement that ended the war of 1990-1991. Sanctions were kept in place that impoverished the population, enriched government officials and their agents of influence in the West, and created a propaganda theme that could be used against United States.

People sometimes object to the statement that the Iraq War was a reaction to 911. The objection is inapposite, whatever role the Baathist government might have had in the destruction of the World Trade Center. (There are actually pretty good reasons for believing that Iraq was directly involved with the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, but that's another story.) After 911, the situation in Iraq had to be settled. Every day the regime survived was more evidence that even losing a war to the United States had a limited price that other regimes might be willing to pay.

* * *

If you are looking for the official manufacture of disinformation, Washington is probably not the place you should start. In yesterday's New York Times, there is a piece in the Business Section that records the continuation of an old Soviet tradition:

From the maps the Russians gave Mr. Monroe, he could never really know where he was, a mystery for him as an oil engineer at a joint venture between BP and Russian investors. The latitude and longitude had been blotted out from his maps and the grid diverged from true north....Even now, Mr. Murrow and his colleagues can use only Russian digital map files that encrypt and hide the coordinates of his location. Officially, only Russians with security clearances are permitted to see well field maps with a scale [finer than] 1:2500.

During the Cold War, it made a certain amount of sense for the Soviets to give false coordinates for the locations of their cities. Most of the information was available from pre-Revolutionary maps, of course. The locations of newer industrial facilities probably were not such great secrets, either. Still, the practice added another layer of complexity to nuclear targeting. In any case, the Times piece suggests that the continuation of this practice may be due to more than simple bureaucratic inertia. It's a jobs program, for one thing: the Russian Federal Security Bureau keeps a large cadre of cartographers harmlessly employed removing and falsifying the coordinates of important industrial facilities. Then there is the security-clearance angle. If only Russians are allowed to know where they are, then, all things being equal, it is better to hire Russian engineers.

And yes, they do have Google Earth in Russia. That is beside the point.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-11-30: Won Wars; Lost Films & Doctrines

Here is a prediction that did not pan out:

There is also this: Post-911 veterans are not Vietnam veterans. Their numbers are smaller, of course, but they are already an admired and self-confident minority. They will transform the military and, one suspects, domestic politics.

At this point, it seems that veterans of America's imperial wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other shitholes are mostly ignored, both by politicians and the wider public, unless some issue forces them into the public eye. 


Won Wars; Lost Films & Doctrines

 

It was as if someone threw a switch. Two weeks ago, if you were following the media, it seemed as if the only remaining question about the Iraq War was whether the US had the lift capacity to evacuate the bleeding remnants of its army from Iraq before they were all massacred. Then (I think it was last Friday) I heard Mark Shields on the PBS New Hour remark soberly that of course there are serious people on both sides of the withdrawal question. Today, I see this from Glenn Reynolds:

Funny, but not long after Rep. Murtha's outburst on the war, we're seeing a bipartisan consensus that a cut-and-run approach would be disastrous.

Murtha's six-month withdrawal resolution jumped the shark. If the Democratic leadership used him as a stalking horse on the matter, then they did the old man a grave disservice.

From what I can tell, it really does seem to be the case that opinion on the ground in Iraq has it that the war is going well both militarily and politically. The question has become how the war will be perceived in retrospect. Security Watchtower recently quoted itself from July:

"It will be interesting to analyze the media's reaction to any U.S. troop withdrawals that might occur in Iraq over the next 12 to 18 months. With the Iraqi Constitution being finalized and another election in December, the subject of bringing American soldiers home will remain a prominent topic of conversation for some time. There is a segment of the media that will attempt to portray any troops withdrawals as a desperate, defeated and humbled superpower that blundered through one mistake after another and managed to eject when they realized the effort could not be won. Get use to seeing alot more of this 'history' over the next year or two."

There was quite a lot of this revisionism in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. It became a matter of dogma that the Reagan Administration had either had no effect of the liquidation of the Soviet Block or had actually retarded the process. The arms-control industry continued to insist that Reagan's Star Wars proposal was a blunder, no matter how many former Soviet officials attended post-Cold War conferences in the West and said that of course Star Wars was a major factor in their decision to end the arms race.

Something similar happened after the First Gulf War, largely for the purpose of diminishing the senior George Bush's reelection campaign in 1992. That conflict really was one of the great conventional victories of modern times, but by the beginning of 1992 there was a flood of articles explaining why it wasn't.

After the Vietnam War, there turned out to be little political advantage in denigrating the military. On the other hand, some people tried to argue that the US had really won, but had been stabbed in the back: that did not fly either. After the US largely disengages from Iraq, politicians will find that attempts to disparage the outcome or the rationale for the war will be ill-received. With whatever justice, Iraq is going to get the credit for defeating the Jihad.

There is also this: Post-911 veterans are not Vietnam veterans. Their numbers are smaller, of course, but they are already an admired and self-confident minority. They will transform the military and, one suspects, domestic politics.

* * *

George Bush is not a stupid man, but there is reason to believe he may be ineducable. You would think that the rout of his Social Security proposals would teach him to forget about his libertarian schemes. But no: Look:

President Bush vowed today [Nov. 28] to step up enforcement of U.S. immigration laws on America's borders and inside the country, but he said this could not be done without also creating a new "temporary worker program" that would allow illegal immigrants to live and work in the United States for a defined period.

Sometimes commenting on the Bush Administration is like repeating the Dead Parrot Sketch. The Guest Worker Program is not pining for the fjords. It's dead. Deceased. Statements to the effect that this idea has any chance at all are inoperative.

I object to more than the waste of time. Like the Harriet Myers nomination, this proposal alienates the president's base. He needs the base in order to work with Congress. He needs to work with Congress in order to win the Terror War. That's what he was reelected to do.

* * *

My local video store recently closed, so I dropped by during the going-out-of-business sale to see if there were any DVDs I might want at a low price. And indeed I found one of the most famous obscure movies of all time: Incubus

It's a low-budget horror film, made in 1965. You can find details here, but there are three reasons it attracts attention:

(1) Stars the young William Shatner, as a veteran from an unnamed war who is tempted by diabolical forces.

(2) It is the only major film ever made in Esperanto. (The DVD has French and English subtitles.) Esperanto sounds like Italian. In this film, it sometimes sounds like Italian spoken by American tourists. Not Shatner, though: he clearly worked hard.

(3) There is a Curse of Incubus.

Most horror movies are provided with suitable "curses" by their publicity departments. Incubus's misfortune was genuine, however. All copies of the film and all materials relating to it were lost soon after the film went into release. It was only in the 1990s that a single print was discovered, in France, where a movie house showed it weekly like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The SciFi channel subsidized cleaning up the print and producing the DVD.

By the way: watching the film is like seeing a slightly extended episode of the old Outer Limits series because much the same people (Anthony Taylor, Leslie Stevens, and Conrad Hall) were involved with both the film and the series.

By another way: Esperanto is not an "artificial language." It is a "planned language."

* * *

Speaking of films, it has become headline news that C.S. Lewis did not want his Narnia stories turned into live films:

I am absolutely opposed – adamant isn’t in it! – to a TV version. Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare. At least, with photography. Cartoons (if only Disney did not combine so much vulgarity with his genius!) wld. be another matter. A human, pantomime, Aslan wld. be to me blasphemy.

I see the point, but the worry seems to have been misplaced. There is already a good BBC version.

* * *

Limbo also seems about to become inoperative:

THE Catholic Church is preparing to abandon the idea of limbo, the theological belief that children who die before being baptised are suspended in a space between heaven and hell.

The concept, which was devised in the 13th century and was depicted in numerous works of art during the Renaissance, such as Descent into Limbo by the painter Giotto, and in Dante's masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, is of a metaphysical space where infants are blissfully happy but are not actually in the presence of God...[A]n international commission of Catholic theologians, meeting in the Vatican this week, has been pondering the issue and is expected to advise Pope Benedict XVI to announce officially that the theological concept of limbo is incorrect.

The Catholic Church actually has little dogmatic to say about the afterlife. Limbo was the sort of speculation that occurs when people insist on asking questions on subjects about which there is little information.

Here is a point I have never seen addressed: was Limbo related to the notion of the Neutral Angels? We see them in Grail lore from roughly the same period.

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The Long View 2005-11-21: The Rally for Marshal Pétain

By Marcel Baschet (1862-1941) - L'illustration, n° 5074 du 1er juin 1940, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25577429

By Marcel Baschet (1862-1941) - L'illustration, n° 5074 du 1er juin 1940, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25577429

It was unfair of John to associate Lt. General William Odom with Marshal Pétain, although John did at least go out of his way to give Pétain some credit. In retrospect, Odom sounds like he was right.


The Rally for Marshal Pétain

 

As I have elsewhere had occasion to remark, 50 USC Section 407 forbids the expenditure of federal money to devise contingency plans under which the United States would surrender to an enemy. That provision, of course, applies only to the Executive Branch, so it would not apply to the sort of legislative debate that Democratic Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha began when he proposed a resolution in favor of a rapid US withdrawal from Iraq. (The Republican leadership immediately emended the resolution to "immediate withdrawal," which was soundly defeated: a stunt, of course, but then it also forced Congress to acknowledge what it was actually taking about.) In any case, the fact that the heretofore obscure Congressman Murtha took the lead on this matter has some interesting historical resonance.

Murtha, as the world beyond Pennsylvania was immediately informed, is a Marine Corps veteran. This personal history is supposed to give his views greater credibility, or even immunity from criticism:

Referring to Vice President Dick Cheney, Murtha used the "chicken hawk" attack so far uttered in public only by out-of-office liberals.

"I like guys who got five deferments and have never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what ought to be done," Murtha said.

It is an old principle of politics that opposition to a distasteful policy will be minimized if the step is taken by a leader of the party that finds it distasteful. As the saying goes, "Only Nixon could go to China." By this logic, then, the best person to conclude a surrender would be a leader with a respected military career. This was exactly the logic that made Henri-Philippe Pétain the French premier in 1940.

Marshal Pétain was a genuine hero of the First World War. In that war of attrition, he had a reputation for not wasting the lives of his men. His gift was the defense of territory while minimizing French losses. After the war, he became a gray eminence: a man of the Right, but generally respected by all parties. He was more than willing to help when the Third Republic was overrun:

On 14th June 1940, the German Army occupied Paris. Paul Reynaud, the French prime minister, now realized that the German Western Offensive could not be halted and suggested that the government should move to territories it owned in North Africa. This was opposed by his vice-premier, Henri-Philippe Pétain, and the supreme commander of the armed forces, General Maxime Weygand. They insisted that the government should remain in France and seek an armistice.

Outvoted, Reynaud resigned and President Albert Lebrun, appointed Petain as France's new premier. He immediately began negotiations with Adolf Hitler and on 22nd June signed an armistice with Germany. The terms of the agreement divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones, with a rigid demarcation line between the two. The Germans would directly control three-fifths of the country, an area that included northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast. The remaining section of the country would be administered by the French government at Vichy under Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain.

The interesting thing about the Vichy Armistice is that it was actually a very good result, considering the French negotiating position. It kept the French state and administrative structure intact. France continued to function as an independent diplomatic actor. It even preserved the French empire, at least as far as the Germans were concerned. The US law against government funding of surrender studies was passed when someone on the federal payroll was tactless enough to suggest that, should the US lose a nuclear war, we would be lucky to get an agreement for the US as good as the one Henri-Philippe Pétain obtained for France.

* * *

Surrender may be a misnomer in this context of the Terror War, however, because it implies an enemy that would be willing and able to accept one. For that reason, arguments by people in the US for withdrawal from Iraq tend to be a bit self-referential, as we see in the list of reasons for withdrawal recently published by yet another retired military figure, William E. Odom, a former Air Force general. He has actually been saying these things for quite some time, without reference to the state of things on the ground in Iraq, but his latest pronouncements got media coverage because of the Murtha incident. Some points from the latest restatement of his argument run like this.(He has always liked numbered lists, apparently):

1) On civil war. Iraqis are already fighting Iraqis. Insurgents have killed far more Iraqis than Americans. That’s civil war. We created the civil war when we invaded; we can’t prevent a civil war by staying...

Certainly it is a goal of the terror campaign to start a civil war; it is also clear that the goal has not yet been reached. Should open war break out, of course, it can hardly be a matter of indifference to the US who wins it. But moving along...

3) On the insurgency and democracy. There is no question the insurgents and other anti-American parties will take over the government once we leave. But that will happen no matter how long we stay. Any government capable of holding power in Iraq will be anti-American, because the Iraqi people are increasingly becoming anti-American.

The logic behind this is obscure. The base of the insurgency is the Arab Sunnis, a fifth of the population. The tactic of terror attacks on the Shia and Kurds has not endeared the insurgency to the rest of Iraq. The insurgents, in fact, are the only people we know for sure that most Iraqis do not want to run the government. Of course, Iraq was governed by a minority before the invasion, so unpopularity would not exclude such a government arising again. "National unity" would have nothing to do with it, however.

In any case, next we see where Odom's policy is flawed in a way that Pétain's was not:

4) On terrorists. Iraq is already a training ground for terrorists. In fact, the CIA has pointed out to the administration and congress that Iraq is spawning so many terrorists that they are returning home to many other countries to further practice their skills there. The quicker a new dictator wins the political power in Iraq and imposes order, the sooner the country will stop producing well-experienced terrorists.

And why should the new dictator stop producing terrorists? I suppose it is possible that Odom thinks that the Baathist Party might return to power. It's hard to see why: the Baathists were blown of of power pretty decisively, and they seem to have less and less to do with the violent opposition to the new government.

Mark Steyn remarked about jihadi suicide tactics that the Islamists like them for the same reason the British in the 19th century liked the Gattling gun: it brings them victory. An American withdrawal from Iraq at this point would, correctly, be seen as a victory for that tactic: when you talk about the insurgency in Iraq these days, that's mostly what you mean.

If Odom's insurgents ran the country, there would be an Islamist state that believes it could discount retaliation from abroad incurred by any mischief it works in the world. What's the worst that can happen: an invasion? The withdrawal would not solve the problem.

* * *

Odom's analysis is much more than the Democratic Party in the US needs. It's not just that it is divorced from the course of Iraqi politics; it's that the party is not actually trying to lose the war. In point of fact, the notion of beginning a withdrawal in 2006 is close to being a consensus. What the Democrats are trying to ensure is that the outcome of the war, any outcome, is seen as a failure of the policies of the Bush Administration.

The withdrawal must be perceived to be a change in course, made under pressure from the Democrats in Congress. After that, if the new government collapses and Osama bin Ladin is is acclaimed the new caliph at Baghdad, that would provide a campaign issue for many years to come. On the other hand, if the new government is a success, then the Democrats can claim credit for having forced the withdrawal that allowed the Iraqi political factions to find a way to accommodate each other.

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The Long View 2005-11-09: French Nuances

We are now back to our regularly scheduled programming.


French Nuances

 

Here's an occasion for a bit of Alternative History. Writing for the BBC in a piece entitled Violence exposes France's weaknesses, John Simpson offered this aside on the relationship between France's policy of appeasement in the Middle East and its troubles at home:

No matter that events have thoroughly borne out his criticisms of the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Muslim teenagers who briefly applauded him then have long since forgotten all that - though of course if he had supported President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair then, he would be in even greater trouble now.

It is hard to see exactly what the French government was right about. Like everyone else, they thought that Iraq had an active WMD program, but that the Baathist government could be trusted to abandon the project after one last round of inspections. The inspections after the invasion proved both beliefs were wrong. The French also warned against an uprising of the Arab street. That did occur, after a fashion, but it happened about 10 klicks from the president's office.

Imagine that the US and UK had adopted the French position and settle for inspection rather than invasion. The results would have been negative. The sanctions would have been lifted. Iraq would have gone back into the WMD business, since we know for a fact that the plan was to wait until the UN went away. Baathist Iraq was ruled by a kind of Islamofascist distinct from the Islamists, but they had reached the point where the victory of one was celebrated as the victory of the other; celebrations were held in Iraq after 911, for instance. Similarly, the end of the sanctions on Iraq would have been seen, correctly, as a victory of militant Islam over the West, France included. This could only have enhanced the appeal of Islamism to the immigrant communities in Europe. For that matter, the Iraqi government would have been in a position to press for concessions to the energized Islamic minorities.

One can argue, though I think incorrectly, that the US would be in a better position today if the Iraq War had been aborted. In such a scenario, however, the position for France would have been far more desperate.

* * *

I myself have used the term "Intifada" to describe the events in France, but I recognize that this needs qualification. Many bloggers have noted that the Mainstream Media rarely mention the Muslim angle. Libertarians mention it, but discount it. Culture war types, a group that includes me for most purposes, seem to speak of little else. Certainly the tactics used by the rioters appear influenced by television reporting of the Palestinian Intifada. If you want to make a case that the riots are an Islamist uprising, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. A site called Information Regarding Israeli Security has compiled a long list of links to support that proposition: see Evidence the "Paris Riots" Are Actually the "French Intifada"

However, though there is a degree of coordination in the violence, it is not organized in the semi-military manner that we see in the Palestinian territories. Casualties have been light. There have been no suicide bombings.

Mark Steyn says that we should take no comfort from these differences:

As to the "French" "youth", a reader in Antibes cautions me against characterising the disaffected as "Islamist". "Look at the pictures of the youths," he advises. "They look like LA gangsters, not beturbaned prophet-monkeys."

Leaving aside what I'm told are more than a few cries of "Allahu Akhbar!" on the streets, my correspondent is correct. But that's the point...But, whether in turbans or gangsta threads, just as Communism was in its day, so Islam is today's ideology of choice for the world's disaffected.

That sounds plausible to me, but it makes the threat a little hypothetical. When I used the term "Arab street" above, I used it advisedly. What seems to have happened is that the French and other European countries have succeeded in transferring Arab (and South Asian) political culture to their own soil, gangs and all. What we have seen in France in recent days is what would happen in the Middle East if the regimes there had not learned to keep the Arab street clear by shooting the Arabs in it.

Will that happen in Europe? Some people think so, but I rather doubt it. We have to remember that the problem is neither class warfare in the European tradition, nor the sort of racial conflict that bedevils American history. A Middle Eastern millet is trying to form in Europe. That has to be prevented, but it cannot be prevented by pretending that we are dealing with a class or a race issue.

* * *

Meanwhile, a new evil has been discovered by Andrew Sullivan:

CHRISTIANISM AND THE LEFT: The emergence of Christianism in this country - a political movement founded on evangelical doctrine - is arguably the most significant political development of the new millennium. And what's critical about this new movement is its relationship to government: there's nothing Christianists like more than active, interventionist government to right wrong, police private lives and uphold their version of morality.

There is a very old New Age term, "Christine," for an follower of the alleged esoteric teachings of Jesus. That coinage did not stick. I have small hope for "Christianist."

* * *

But what if we are attacked by pirates!?! Well, obviously, you fire your sonic blaster:

MIAMI - The crew of a luxury cruise ship used a sonic weapon that blasts earsplitting noise in a directed beam while being attacked by a gang of pirates off Africa this weekend, the cruise line said Monday...The LRAD is a so-called "non-lethal weapon" developed for the U.S. military after the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off Yemen as a way to keep operators of small boats from approaching U.S. warships.

The military version is a 45-pound, dish-shaped device that can direct a high-pitched, piercing tone with a tight beam. Neither the LRAD's operators or others in the immediate area are affected.

Piracy is no longer a joke. Shipping companies and the world's navies seem to have gotten the memo, but more needs to be done.

* * *

A Correction: A reader informs me that the Alternative Minimum Tax was not, as I had recalled, created in 1986. It was augmented as part of the TEFRA reform of that year, but a version of it was created in 1978, which was actually a modification of an earlier "minimum tax" that dates to 1969. You may read the whole sorry tale here. (Thanks, Adam!)

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The Long View: America Alone

habsburg-dynasty.jpg

If the National Intelligence Council really predicted that the EU will collapse by 2020, their prediction is looking like a real long shot at this point. Maybe that is why DARPA funded Philip Tetlock's superforecaster project: to improve the accuracy of things like this.

To be fair, if you had told someone in 2006 that a huge wave of migrants from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa would move into Europe in 2016, and that terrorism would be a regular feature of life in much of Western Europe, then a collapse of the EU might have seemed more likely.

I think it demonstrates that the neoliberal consensus is a lot stronger that it might otherwise seem. A relatively tolerant, multicultural, welfare capitalist global system [with a military/secret police enforcement system] seems to be the twenty-first century answer to the same problem the Habsburgs faced in Central Europe: how do you hold together a truly diverse polity?

There are a lot of people who suspect you can't. I think you can, but it's hard. I think this is one of the things that is likely to push us towards a truly post-democratic political order: the need to keep the peace.

Steyn's book talks about how we built a global system on the assumption that populations would keep growing forever. Large scale immigration is often advocated for precisely this reason: we need people to keep the system going. The controversy over immigration has become explosive, but what is interesting to me is that the model doesn't actually seem to be right.

The developed economies keep doing just fine, despite aging populations. If anything, there is too little work to be done, rather than too much. The assumption that Steyn and his political opponents share, the social democratic state needs to constantly grow to survive, may not be true.

In the eleven years since John wrote this, the average number of children across the world has continued to fall everywhere except Africa. So far, sub-Saharan Africa has proven unusually resistant to the demographic transition.


America Alone:
The End of the World as We Know It
By Mark Steyn
Regnery Publishing, 2006
224 Pages, US$27.95, Can$34.95
ISBN 0-89526-078-6

 

There is no way to put Mark Steyn’s view of the next few decades gently:

“The U.S. government’s National Intelligence Council is predicting the EU will collapse by 2020... How bad is it going to get in Europe? As bad as it can get – as in societal collapse, fascist revivalism, and the long Eurabian night, not over the entire Continent but over significant parts of it. And those countries that manage to escape the darkness will do so only after violent convulsions of their own.”

But who is this Steyn fellow, and why is he saying these terrible things? Mark Steyn is a Canadian-American journalist (he first attracted notice as an arts and music critic) who is now sometimes accounted the most influential conservative writer in the anglophone world. He owes that position in part to an epigrammatic style that bears comparison to that of the early G.K. Chesterton. America Alone is composed chiefly of Steyn’s scintillating columns of recent years, but he or his editors have accomplished something very rare: a compilation of previously published occasional pieces that reads like a connected text, with a lucid argument and surprisingly little repetition. This synthesis was possible because Steyn believes he has discovered the Key to World History, or at least the mechanism that will determine the history of the 21st century. To put it briefly:

“[D]emography is an existential crisis for the developed world, because the twentieth-century social democratic state was built on a careless model that requires a constantly growing population to sustain it... The single most important fact about the early twenty-first century is the rapid aging of almost every developed nation other than the United States.”

The magic number here is 2.1, as in the total fertility rate per woman that a developed society needs to maintain its population over time. The US fertility rate is at about that number, a fact explained only in part by immigration: the native-born population of Red State America is over that figure, while the figure for the Blue States is generally below it. It is almost uncanny how much of the rest of the world is below it, either slightly (like Australia) or catastrophically (like Italy and Russia and Japan; and don’t forget China, doomed to get old before it can get rich). It’s true even of most of Latin America. Aside from America, the only regions where it is not true are India, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Muslim world. Without the Muslim angle, this might be a story of economies freezing up and welfare states closing down as the percentage of working-age people becomes too small to support a growing majority of pensioners. The effect of Muslim immigration and conversion, however, coupled as it is with the spread of lethal jihadist ideology, is to raise the possibility that much of Europe could slip out of the Western world entirely. Steyn did not coin the term “Eurabia,” but in an age when a third of the young people in France have been born to Muslim parents, it comes in handy.

Several writers have raised these points in recent years. However, despite the title of the book, Steyn does not subscribe to the conclusion of many of his colleagues that the United States should simply turn inward:

“And I’m a little unnerved at the number of readers who seem to think the rest of the world can go hang and America will endure as a lonely candle of liberty in the new Dark Ages. Think that one through: a totalitarian China, a crumbling Russia, an insane Middle East, a disease-ridden Africa, a civil-war Eurabia -- and a country that can’t even enforce its borders against two relatively benign states will be able to hold the entire planet at bay? Dream on, ‘realists.’”

Neither is the book a call for an American Empire. Steyn tends to support the Bush Administration’s military policy, and particularly the invasion of Iraq; he faults the execution of that campaign principally for being too culturally sensitive. However, he tells us:

“This book isn’t an argument for more war, more bombing, or more killing, but for more will.”

Steyn’s Key to History unlocks not just a proper reading of foreign affairs, but reveals to him the need for a cultural and political transformation of the West. That part of the book, and particularly his prescriptions for the future, is the most problematical. As for the doomsday material, one might observe that it is in the nature of present trends not to continue. If the ones Steyn highlights do continue, however, his grim forecasts will be right.

Steyn has a short explanation for demographic catastrophe:

“In demographic terms, the salient feature of much of the ‘progressive agenda’ – abortion, gay marriage, endlessly deferred adulthood – is that, whatever the charms of any individual item, cumulatively it’s a literal dead end...In fact, [opposition to Islamization] ought to be the Left’s issue. I’m a social conservative. When the mullahs take over, I’ll grow my beard a little fuller, get a couple of extra wives, and keep my head down. It’s the feminists and the gays who’ll have a tougher time.”

The welfare state in Europe and Canada allows the political system to focus on satisfying “secondary impulses,” such as long, legally mandated vacations and government-provided daycare, or for that matter, responsibility for the care of the elderly:

“But once you decide you can do without grandparents, it’s not such a stretch to decide you can do without grandchildren...[T]he torpor of the West derives in part from the annexation by the government of most of the core functions of adulthood.”

As he never ceases to remind us, there is an important distinction between Europe and America in these matters, or at least between Europe and Red State America. The distinction, he argues, results from a recent historical accident:

“It dates all the way back to, oh, the 1970s. It’s a product of the U.S. military presence, a security guarantee that liberated European budgets...[however]...[u]nchecked, government social programs are a security threat because they weaken the ultimate line of defense: the free-born citizen whose responsibilities are not subcontracted to the government.”

To quote an authority that Steyn does not, Immanuel Kant once said, “Even a nation of demons could maintain a liberal republic, provided they had understanding.” If we are to believe Steyn, however, Kant was wrong about the degree to which rights and procedures could replace morality and religion:

“[B]y relieving the individual of the need to have ‘private virtues,’ you’ll ensure that they wither away to the edges of society...Almost by definition, secularism cannot be a future: it’s a present-tense culture that over time disconnects a society from cross-generational purpose.”

One may note that this would apply only to a form of secularism with no metahistorical script for the future. Thus, a Marxist society (if it did not starve), or a eugenicist society, or a society intent on colonizing the solar system, might make the connection between generations. A society that was just a gas of atomic individuals today and looked forward to being just a gas of atomic individuals tomorrow, in contrast, would have neither a past nor a future.

Steyn is not just another talkshow ranter (though he does that, too) because he sometimes slows down enough to express skepticism about his own arguments. He asks: does the loss of religion explain the morbid state of advanced and even moderately developed countries? That might seem to be an explanation within the United States, with its relatively sterile and aging New England versus, say, the burgeoning Mormon population of Utah. But what about Europe, where the relatively religious South has even lower fertility rates than the godless North? One might also adduce East Asia: the populations of neither Japan nor South Korea are sustainable, but South Korea is a hotbed of evangelism of all sorts, while Japan is as secular as Sweden.

If God is not the answer, could Mammon be? America as a whole has a somewhat more free-market economy than most of Europe, but the most laissez faire economies in the world are in East Asia, and they have birth rates lower than most Western countries. We should also note, as Steyn does not, that the prolific Red State populations receive more in federal subsidies than they pay in taxes: those family values are paid for with farm subsidies and often rather paternalistic business practices. Steyn also points out that the major anglophone countries all have birthrates either at or near replacement level, but he does not suggest that the birth dearth could be solved with Berlitz courses.

* * *

Among the most delightful features of America Alone is the blurb on the front bookjacket from Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to the United States: “The arrogance of Mark Steyn knows no bounds.” The prince perhaps has reason to be miffed. Though he does not say so in this book, Steyn elsewhere likens the increasingly successful Islamization of Europe to an opportunistic infection, made possible by the simultaneous collapses in cultural confidence and fertility. He has many worthwhile things to say in this regard; he is certainly right to underline the fantastic level of mendacity among the people in the West who speak for and about Islam. In academia and on the evening news, “sophistication seems mostly to be a form of obfuscation by experts.” As for official appreciation of the threat, “government ministers in Western nations spend most of their time taking advice on the jihad from men who agree with its aims.” The problem is not simply a matter of immigrants with new ideas changing the nature of their new homes: “Islam,” not just in the West but around the world, increasingly means a brutal and hegemonic version of Wahhabism. The evangelization of this doctrine is lavishly subsidized by the government of Saudi Arabia, support that ranges from establishing local Islamic schools in Canadian and American cities to building mosques the size of cathedrals in Europe.

Steyn recounts many anecdotes of allegedly moderate Muslims in Western countries who turned out to be recruiting or fundraising for terrorist groups, but far more disturbing are the proliferating incidents of homegrown jihadis turning against the lands of their birth:

“If you’re a teenager in most European cities these days, you’ve a choice between two competing identities – a robust confident Islamic identity or a tentative post-nationalist cringingly apologetic European identity. It would be a mistake to assume the former is attractive only to Arabs and North Africans.”

As Steyn notes, multiculturalism was instituted not to acquaint Westerners with other cultures, but to criticize the West. One effect of multiculturalism has been to absolve students of learning any hard information about other cultures. The result is that the West has disarmed itself in the most critical arena:

“We have no strategy for dealing with an ideology...groups with terrorist ties are still able to insert their recruiters into American military bases, prisons, and pretty much anywhere else they get a yen to go.”

Western attempts to influence the development of Islam are usually exercises in self-delusion, beginning with the preferred choice of interlocutors: “’moderate Muslims’ would seem to be more accurately described as apostate or ex-Muslims.” As for more long-range efforts: “We – the befuddled infidels – talk airily about ‘reforming’ Islam. But what if the reform has already taken place and jihadism is it?”

The Islamization of Europe is no longer hypothetical, in part because of the determination of the anti-discrimination police to enforce accommodation to what often extremist and unrepresentative Islamic groups claim to be Muslim sensibilities: “there’s very little difference between living under Exquisitely Refined Multicultural Sensitivity and sharia.” Worse than that is the casual use of violence and threats against European writers and artists, or even against ordinary persons: non-Muslim women in heavily Muslim neighborhoods increasingly go about dressed in something approaching Muslim fashion in order to avoid insult.

* * *

How, you may ask, can the United States prevent much of the world from turning to theocratic rubble, like Taliban Afghanistan? Steyn suggests these priorities:

"In World War Two, the sands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa where the main event, and rounding up the enemy sympathizers in Michigan was the sideshow. One can argue that this time around the priorities are reversed -- that bombing Baby Assad out of the presidential palace in Damascus is a more marginal battlefield then turning back the tide of Islamicist support in Europe and elsewhere. America and a select few other countries have demonstrated they can just about summon the will to win on the battlefield. On the cultural front, where this war in the end will be won, there’s little evidence of any kind of will.”

Nonetheless, he says that the military dimension cannot be neglected: the worst thing to do is nothing. Even if the war is chiefly ideological, there are state sponsors of the hostile ideology, and something has to be done about them, either militarily or through devastating economic sanctions:

“[E]very year we remain committed to 'stability' increases the Islamists’ principal advantage: it strengthens the religion – the vehicle for their political project – and multiplies the raw material...So another decade or two of ‘stability and the world will be well on its way to a new Dark Ages...But the central fact of a new Dark Ages is this: it would not be a world in which the American superpower is succeeded by other powers but a world with no dominant powers at all.”

It is true that the United States is held in light esteem in many of the world’s better magazines, and even does increasingly badly in public opinion polls taken in countries whose leadership is not necessarily committed to America’s destruction. Steyn attributes the darkening of the American image to elites like those in France, who are obviously weighing their chances in a semi-Muslim future, or to other well-meaning people who live in a fantasy world, where the most pressing issue facing civilization is rising sea levels. One might also suggest that, if the post-World War II international system is decomposing, America has become the screen onto which are projected the anxieties and ambitions aroused by the decomposition. To the jihadis, America is the godless Great Satan; to much of Europe, and even to many Blue State Americans, America is a theocratic Jesusland. As Steyn puts it: “America is George Orwell’s Room 101: whatever your bugbear you will find it therein; whatever you’re against, America is the prime example thereof.”

In reality, though, what much of the developed world is going to experience in the next 10 or 20 years is re-primitivization: “The Serbs figured that out – as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ‘em.” Where states fail, private parties can be expected to step in:

“If a dirty bomb with unclear fingerprints goes off in London or Delhi, it’s not necessary to wait for the government to respond. As in Ulster, there’ll always be groups who think the state power is too [timid] to hit back. So unlisted numbers will be dialed hither and yon, arrangements will be made, and bombs will go off in Islamabad and Riyadh and Cairo. There will be plenty of non-state actors on the non-Islamic side. In the end the victims of the Islamist contagion will include many, many Muslims.”

To combat the Islamic dimension of the threat (and remember, it’s chiefly a demographic problem) Steyn has suggestions of various degrees of plausibility, of which the most intriguing is the proposal to create a civil corps to engage Islamism ideologically:

“If America won’t export its values -- self-reliance, decentralization -- others will export theirs. In the eighties, Paul Kennedy warned the United States of ‘imperial overstretch.’ But the danger right now is of imperial understretch -- of a hyperpower reluctant to sell its indisputably successful inheritance to the rest of the world.”

Steyn wants to scrap the post-World War II international institutions and replace them with an alliance of capable and committed democratic powers. He says the Saudis have to be stopped from financing their worldwide religious underground. He would also like to develop technology that would end the dependence of the developed world on Middle Eastern oil: a fine notion, and none the worse for having been suggested a hundred times before.

This brings us to the cultural front. It is a good bet that Steyn is prophetic when he tells us, “By 2015, almost every viable political party in the West will be natalist.” And what should the platforms of these Mewling Infant Parties contain? “We need to find a way to restore advantage to parenthood in the context of modern society. Shrink the state. If you got four dependents, your taxable income is to be divided by five. We must end deferred adulthood.” And how do we do that? “We need to redirect the system to telescope education into a much shorter period.” The upshot, apparently, is that educated people should be educated faster so that they will normally have children while they’re in their twenties. We hear not one word that these proposals, though perhaps inevitable, will mean that the life courses of men and women will diverge again.

Steyn has given us a fiery polemical introduction to the crisis of the first quarter of the 21st century. However, we recognize the limitations of his analysis when we come to statements like, “The free world’s citizenry could use more non-state actors.” Consider his view of the moral of September 11, 2001:

“What worked that day was municipal government, small government, core government -- fireman the NYPD cops, rescue workers. What flopped -- big-time, as the vice president would say -- was the federal government, the FBI, CIA, INS, FAA, and all the other hotshot, money-no-object, fancypants acronyms.”

Stirring words, but counterfactual. In reality, on 911 the World Trade Center’s security service killed many of the people in the buildings by urging them to return to their offices after the attack was underway. The radios of the various emergency services were not able to communicate with each other. The firemen died needlessly by charging into burning buildings that local fire experts had declared indestructible. The epitome of effective local government, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was almost killed because the city’s emergency command center was located in the World Trade Center complex, despite the fact everyone knew the complex was the most likely target for a terrorist attack. The federal government did not cover itself with glory on that day, either, but at least the feds managed to close down and then restart the airline system within the space of a few hours.

Toward the end of the book, Steyn remarks, “You can’t win a war of civilizational confidence with a population of nanny-state junkies.” But the fact is that is how the world wars were fought and won, either by states that had extensive social-welfare systems, or that promised such systems to their citizens as part of the reward of victory.

It is certainly the case that the nanny state of the postwar developed world, with its therapeutic model of governance and its subsidy of victimhood, is a degenerate and unsustainable type of polity. But consider what it degenerated from: the war-and-welfare state of the era of the Great Wars that lasted from 1861 to 1945. The same powers of economic and political mobilization that allowed those wars to be fought permitted, indeed required, the domestic mobilization of education and public health and industry that allowed the governments of that explosive era to function effectively as military actors. Those governments commanded the most effective states that ever existed, and the mark of the societies they governed was precisely that, during the long lifetime from Lincoln to Churchill, the fortunes of the state and of the citizen increasingly merged. For a while, for just a few years, the mechanisms were in place to drive society in the service of urgent public policy.

The nanny state is a declension from that height of state fitness, and so is the libertarian state. In the face of an existential crisis, Churchill promised his people that their lives would be drenched in blood, sweat, and tears until victory was won. In the face of a comparable threat to civilization, George Bush made some fine public restatements of America’s now traditional Wilsonianism, but otherwise told the American people to support the tourist industry by visiting America’s beauty spots; while cutting taxes in the middle of two major wars, he reminded the taxpayers, “It’s your money.” Even if you accept the president’s economic model, surely it is obvious that such policies have no power to mobilize. The philosophy behind them diverts attention from the core functions of government, as the embrace of an open-borders policy by the Republican establishment illustrates. The small government that Steyn urges might be able to win conventional wars, but it would be unable otherwise to affect events. Increasingly, its irrelevance to the real problems, many of which Steyn has identified, would lose it the loyalty of its citizens. Thus we see that the libertarian state undermines patriotism quite as effectively as the European Union. They are parallel manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Many of Steyn’s specific proposals have merit, but they need a context he has not yet attempted to articulate. It might be possible for America to revive the Churchillian State within its own borders; maybe Japan could do that too, but neither Europe as a whole nor the nations within it could manage such a thing. In any case, it is not at all clear that even America should try. The work of regeneration needed to fight off the Muslim infection and save the threatened societies of the world from suicide cannot dispense with patriotism. However, it must be patriotism strengthened by some wider loyalty impervious to the subversions to which the Churchillian State proved subject.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Saturday

I hadn't know that Huntington's affected saccadic eye movements.


Saturday: A Novel
By Ian McEwan
Doubleday, 2005
289 Pages, US$26.00
ISBN 0-385-51180-9

 

Don't get me wrong: this is a serious, gripping book, which succeeds like few other contemporary novels in linking ordinary personal life to the great issues of the early 21st century. Nonetheless, as I was reading it, I could not help thinking of an animation in Episode 24 of the old Monty Python Flying Circus series, the Job Hunter sketch:

Voice Over: So Miss Johnson returned to her typing and dreamed her little dreamy dreams, unaware as she was of the cruel trick fate had in store for her. For Miss Johnson was about to fall victim of the dreaded international Chinese Communist Conspiracy. (lots of little yellow men pour into the office) Yes, these fanatical thieves under the leadership of the so-called Moo Tse-tung (who appears in the animation) had caught Miss Johnson off guard for one brief but fatal moment and destroyed her. (Miss Johnson is submerged in a tide of yellow men) Just as they are ready to do anytime free men anywhere waver in their defence of democracy.

In this novel, Miss Johnson is represented by Henry Perowne, a busy London neurosurgeon. We follow his thoughts and adventures through the whole of Saturday, February 15, 2003, the day of the big march in London to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq. He argues with his two children, both sensible, talented young adults, and we hear his debates in his own mind. (Well, he argues with his poet-daughter; his blues-playing son is against the war, but too cool to have systematic political opinions.) In the morning of that day, Perowne's one direct encounter with the march occasions a minor traffic accident, involving a minor criminal in the other car who suffers from a degenerative neurological disorder. That sets the doctor up for a home invasion in the evening. Such an event might seem a reproof, an irruption of real life into a day spent woolgathering about history, but maybe not, as we will see.

This book is filled with plausible technical detail. From what we learn of Perowne's medical practice at a public hospital, neurosurgery sounds oddly like dentistry: lots of impromptu procedures in the course of long days, conducted for the most part on patients who are sitting up. Amidst the blizzard of Latin medical vocabulary, I kept expecting the patients to be asked to rinse and spit. More difficult to write, I suspect, was the blow-by-blow account of a grudge-match of squash with the American anesthesiologist. The nuts-and-bolts research that went into this book seems endless: you could learn how to make a pretty good fish stew from Perowne's preparations for the family reunion that goes awry later in the day.

Despite all the action in the book, the story really consists of Perowne's inner reflections, not all of which are about the impending war. Book-length descriptions of subjective experience can be awfully tedious, unless you find the protagonist thinking things that you thought had occurred only to you. That happened to me several times in this novel, as in this passage about London traffic:

Rivers of light! He wants to make himself see it as Newton might, or his contemporaries, Boyle, Hooker, Wren, Willis—those clever, curious men of the English Enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the world's science. Surely, they would be awed. Mentally, he shows it off to them: this is what we've done, this is commonplace in our time. All this teeming illumination would be wondrous if he could only see it through their eyes.

One of the recurring themes of Perowne's thoughts is how different the world has become, now that it is impossible for intelligent people to believe in God. It irks him that so many people do not seem to have yet gotten the memo about the refutation of the supernatural. Perowne bristles at the sight of Muslim women in burkhas on the streets of London. He regrets the persecution of Falun Gong by the Chinese government, because the persecution's cruelty gives philosophical materialism a bad name. When he visits his mother in the nursing home (she is suffering from multi-infarct dementia, mind you, not Alzheimer's Disease), she does issue a sort of prophecy, but there is no way to know that at the time.

The home invasion cracks the shell of Perowne's naturalism, on an existential if not necessarily a metaphysical level. That morning, Perowne had humiliated Baxter, the fidgety minor criminal, by indicating that he knew that Baxter was in the early stages of Huntington's Chorea. This saved Perowne from an immediate beating, but resulted in Baxter's appearing in Perowne's living room a few hours later, along with another knife-wielding thug.

Baxter was apparently a textbook case of Huntington's: the inability to make saccades (look it up), the emotional lability, the narcissism. Perowne also recognizes his own fault in using his medical knowledge to manipulate such a man. However, Perowne also sees that it was not just an array of neurons and some bad genetic code that was holding a knife to his wife's throat. Baxter was a human being, with a mind as well as a brain, who had had the ability to make some choices, and had chosen poorly. And for the same reason, and not just because he had arguably provoked Baxter, Perowne owed him some degree of care.

The book seems in danger for only a few pages of turning into A Clockwork Orange. The actual violence to all parties is confined to a blow to the sternum, a punch in the nose (of Perowne's aggravating grand-old-man of a father-in-law), and a firm-but-fair push down a flight of stairs. In the end, Perowne saves the injured Baxter's life; he also does not press charges.

Readers are free to apply Perowne's decisions in this matter to his indecisive thoughts about the Iraq War. Perhaps the Baathist regime in Iraq was to some extent the fault of Britain and America, just as the home invasion was, to some extent, Perowne's fault. However, even if Perowne had helped make the mess, he still had to deal with the consequences, violently if necessary. That need not translate into an endorsement of the war. Perowne's concern that Baxter receive treatment rather than criminal prosecution as the Huntington's Disease progresses could be taken as a metaphor for the containment of Iraq until its pathological regime crumbles of its own accord. On the other hand, the brain surgery that Perowne eventually performs on Baxter, after Perowne is called in by the American anesthesiologist, could be seen as an unusually literal representation of a “surgical strike.”

The future should find this book useful. It does a good job of preserving the state of the argument about Iraq on the eve of the war, despite the fact the book was written after more knowledge became available. One wonders, though, whether the people of the future will try to see their present through Henry Perowne's eyes.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Saturday
By Ian McEwan

The Long View 2005-02-03: The State of the Union 2005

George W. Bush, 2005 State of the Union Address

George W. Bush, 2005 State of the Union Address

If President George W. Bush presented the 2003 Iraq War as just one campaign in a larger conflict, I suppose he was right. But I don't think we got exactly what he meant.


The State of the Union 2005

 

That was a very strong speech the president gave last night. He was speaking just after a major foreign-affairs victory, the success of the elections in Iraq, but he had the sense not to milk it. Most important, he did not do what his father did after the Gulf War of 1990-1991, which was to claim an entitlement to future political support based on an accomplishment in the past. That's not how politics works, even in the matter of mere popularity. The question is always "what have you done for me lately?" Better yet, the question is "what can you do for me in the future?" The president answered that question by presenting the Iraq War as just one campaign in a larger conflict. That's good. That's what he was reelected for.

Regarding the first half of the speech, the president made substantive proposals about important subjects. For the most part, he avoided reading a long list of tiny legislative and regulatory recommendations. What the president did propose was not always obviously a good idea, but an executive gains some credit simply by being seen to lead. If people don't follow, that is not necessarily fatal.

The president's ability to deal with failure is going to be the most important aspect of his drive to modify the Social Security system. Again, even that part of the speech was well managed. He did not sound dogmatic, he reached out to the opposition, and he did not try to create the impression of an immediate crisis. He sounded sincere and informed. The problem, of course, is that much of what he was saying was demonstrably nonsense. The Social Security system will not be bankrupt by 2042, or whatever improbable date he used. More important is the fact that his privatization proposal, or ownership program, or nest-egg program, does not do what it purports to do.

The retirement accounts would not be the property of the account holders in any serious sense. Workers paying money into the system will not be able to direct how the money is invested. They will not be able to liquidate their accounts and withdraw the funds. Even at retirement, they will get nothing more than an annuity based on the size of the account. The president proposes to create an "ownership" system in which the owners will own nothing more than a beneficial interest. The only thing that will really be privatized is the risk of low returns.

Is there a way to fix the Social Security system? Sure. Remove the wage cap on the Social Security tax and reduce the rate so that the change is revenue neutral. As the population ages, that will shift the burden from the smaller cohorts of low-earning younger workers to the larger cohorts of high-earning older ones. It's not hard, really.

The worrisome thing abut this controversy is that it could distract the president from the purpose of his presidency, which is almost entirely about foreign policy. George Bush is not going to be driven from office in disgrace like Richard Nixon was, but his party could easily lose the next congressional elections because of his privatization scheme. That would render him far less about to function as a diplomat or a war leader; or for that matter, as a domestic leader in other areas.

I don't particularly expect the Bush Administration to collapse in that fashion. As we have noted, the president has left enough daylight between himself and the specifics of Social Security reform that he can disavow hostile public reaction. There is also this: it is not up to George Bush to decide the great issues of his time in office. We must remember that he came into office in 2001 hoping to de-emphasize foreign affairs so he could concentrate on lowering taxes and pushing a few rather modest social-service initiatives. He is now just trying to return to type. It's not going to work.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-02-01: The Origins of Bad Behavior

SLC24A5

SLC24A5

We should indeed be wary of Just-So Stories when it comes to the evolution of traits, but not exactly in the way John expresses here:

The study itself, in fact, purports to find a correlation between the murder rates in primitive societies and the incidence of lefthandedness among their populations. Still, we should be wary of this sort of explanation. Too often, they come down to the assertion that we know that natural selection favored some trait because we see that the trait exists.

That a trait exists very much is evidence it was selected for. If you get more precise and quantitative about it, you can even tell about when it happened, with ancient DNA. It is the why that is very hard to explain, because we don't always know what it really was that selected a given trait.


The Origins of Bad Behavior

 

Regular readers of this space will know that I try to be as non-partisan as possible. However, even I have been moved to ask this question in the months since the November election: why have so many prominent Democrats been going out of their way to look like a horse's ass? What were they trying to accomplish when they forced Congress to debate the validity of the Electoral College votes from Ohio? More recently, what did Senator Kennedy think he was doing last week when he declared the Iraq War a failure and demanded that the US begin to withdraw immediately after Sunday's election? Confronted with this kind of behavior, I am inclined to attribute it to some profound deformation of the political system. Mickey Kaus of The Kausfiles, however, offered a much simpler explanation yesterday:

It used to be that at this stage, opposition party leaders would be making conciliatory noises in an attempt to please voters, and conservative or centrist noises in an attempt to please business lobbyists and PACs. But maybe the amount of money that can be raised over the Internet from Democratic true believers is now more important than PAC money. And if you want to draw a Dean-like share of this Web loot, you have to be ruthless in bashing Bush.

I find this theory strangely comforting.

* * *

Those of us with lefthanded friends, or who are lefthanded ourselves, have often asked how people who don't seem altogether at ease in ordinary three-dimensional space manage to reach adulthood. A recent study attempts to answer the question: Why has lefthandedness survived among humans?

That has long puzzled anthropologists, for lefties face worse disadvantages in life other than struggling with tin openers, guitars, scissors and golf clubs designed for the righthanded majority...French anthropologists believe they have the answer: lefthandedness, far from being a disadvantage, is an evolutionary boon.

Their theory is that lefthanders survived -- and in some cultures thrived -- because they were better at fighting, having a built-in advantage in combat with a righthanded opponent....The idea behind their theory — published on Wednesday in Proceedings B of the Royal Society, Britain's de-facto Academy of Science — comes from sport, where the southpaw technique often gets the better of confused righthanders.

This explanation is tempting. It would explain the widespread conceptual linkage between the "sinister" (Latin for lefthanded) and evil. The study itself, in fact, purports to find a correlation between the murder rates in primitive societies and the incidence of lefthandedness among their populations. Still, we should be wary of this sort of explanation. Too often, they come down to the assertion that we know that natural selection favored some trait because we see that the trait exists.

* * *

And speaking of sinister behavior, we see that the Wicked Spengler at Asia Times had the temerity to publish a column entitled: The dotage of Iraq's democracy:

Genuine births never are in doubt. Either the baby is alive and crying, or not. But in the case of Iraq, democracy was born already in its dotage, hooked up to intravenous devices and breathing tubes...[T]ake any country, and assume that 1) almost all public and private revenues derive from oil, 2) oil is owned entirely by the state, 3) the unemployment rate is above 40%, and 4) everyone depends on state subsidies for basic needs. Then tell people that they have to write down the names of the representatives who will control these revenues and pay out state subsidies. Will they turn up to vote or not?

The evolution of democracy in the West was quite different, the calumniator reminds us:

The [18th-century] democrats were keen to manage their own business, in good part, because they had business to manage.

In the Middle East, today, matters are quite otherwise:

Recall Bernard Lewis' marvelous summation of Middle Eastern economics, namely that the whole Arab world exports (net of oil) less than Finland.

The democracy that can exist in such a context is an inferior sort of animal:

There is a subtler effect when only one political good dominates the whole economy (oil in Iraq, donor aid in Palestine). Distribution of largesse from a central treasury does not threaten traditional social relations...[T]o represent what just occurred in Iraq as a precedent of any kind for anyone else requires better ideological reflexes than this writer possesses.

These bilious remarks echo the critique that Fareed Zakaria makes in his book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. To quote my own review:

Several Middle Eastern countries have average incomes well about the magic $6000 level [at which liberal government is usually secure], but are still far from being liberal democracies. The problem with the oil states is that they lack the stuffing of liberty. Wealth is not created by society, so the government need not bargain with the governed for the means to support itself. Rather, the government distributes a portion of the oil wealth in order to pacify the people. The rest tends to be stolen.

The short answer to this argument is that Australia and Canada got where they are today by exporting commodities. There are states in the world that are little more than than conveniences for export industries. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Emirates fall into this class. Iraq never has.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Iraqi state really was just a patronage distribution system. Is it really such a small matter whether the patronage is distributed by gangsters or by elected officials? And are there really so few other patronage states that might look to Iraq as a model?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-01-30: Defeats, Victories, Miracles, Chimeras, Fashion Protocol

Pensioners apply for relief

Pensioners apply for relief

We are lucky President George W. Bush's privatization of social security never got anywhere. That combined with the housing bubble could have been genuinely revolutionary, in the howling mob kind of way.


Defeats, Victories, Miracles, Chimeras, Fashion Protocol

 

National Public Radio this morning took care to remind its readers that today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Tet Offensive of 1968, the point after which American defeat in Vietnam was increasingly portrayed as inevitable. (For the sake of completeness, NPR also noted that today is also the date on which Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany.] Still, despite this somewhat ominous historical reminder, NPR's reports from Iraq did not disguise the fact that, given the circumstances, the Iraqi national elections were a rousing success. The insurgents were unable to stop the elections nationally. The large turnout repudiated the Islamists and the Baathists. This result is irreversible.

There are two things to keep in mind about this outcome:

First, if the Jihad is seen to fail in Iraq, it cannot hope for success anywhere. It was possible to dismiss the democratization of Afghanistan, a poor and remote country, inhabited by allegedly duplicitous Afghans. Iraq, in contrast, is easily accessible to would be jihadis. The old regime had months to prepare the insurgency, while the kabuki performance at the UN played out to its inevitable conclusion. If the Jihad cannot terrorize the population into stunned docility under these circumstances, then the strategy must be accounted a failure.

Second, we should keep in mind that the calls for withdrawal that are now being made by Democrats in America contemplate a process that is not very different from the wind-down of American involvement that the Administration was hoping to do anyway. Barring catastrophe, obviously the Coalition will reduce its presence in Iraq by the end of the year.

On a smaller scale, we will see a replay of the attempt that the Democrats made after 1989 to claim credit for the victory in the Cold War. It did not work then, and it is unlikely to work now.

* * *

The great humiliation for the Bush Administration, and for the Republican Party in general, will be the collapse of the attempt to restructure the Social Security system. The partial privatization scheme that the Administration has endorsed has been tried elsewhere in the world and found wanting. Chile has been running the most sophisticated system of this type, and as the New York Times put it last week, Chile's Retirees Find Shortfall in Private Plan:

But now that the first generation of workers to depend on the new system is beginning to retire, Chileans are finding that it is falling far short of what was originally advertised under the authoritarian government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. ...The problems have emerged despite what all here agree is the main strength of the privatized system: an average 10 percent annual return on investments. Those results have been achieved by the pension funds largely through the purchase of stocks and corporate and government bonds - investments that helped fuel an economic expansion giving Chile the highest growth rate in Latin America over the last 20 years....For those remaining in the government's original pay-as-you-go system, the maximum retirement benefit is now about $1,250 a month. The National Center for Alternative Development Studies, a research institute here, calculates that to get that same amount from a private pension fund, workers would have to contribute more than $250,000 over their careers, a target that has been reached by fewer than 500 of the private system's 7 million past and present contributors.

This leaves many Chileans in a situation that has led to the coining of a phrase: "pension damage." There is now even an Association of People With Pension Damage, 157,000 members and growing, that consists of Chileans, mostly former government employees, who find that their pensions, based on contributions to the private system, are significantly less than if they had remained in the old system.

Churchill won the Second World War in the spring of 1945. A few months later, he was out of office because of issues of just this sort. For that matter, much the same happened to the first President Bush.

* * *

Moving to a somewhat different topic, I have never been much interested in the Shroud of Turin. Still, I was among those people who were surprised by the radiocarbon dating test in the late 1990s that gave a medieval date. There was just so much circumstantial evidence from reputable parties that suggested the Shroud dated to antiquity, though of course no train of verifiable evidence linked it to Jesus Christ. Since the radiocarbon tests, more evidence for an early date has accumulated. Perhaps the strongest appears in this report in last week's Daily TelegraphThe Turin Shroud, believed by some to be Christ's burial cloth, is much older than previously thought, a new study has found.:

Research published in the scientific journal, Thermochimica Acta, has reignited the debate over the Shroud's origins, suggesting it is between 1,300 and 3,000 years old....Author, Dr Raymond Rogers, said the 1980s carbon dating test was valid but that the piece tested was from a patch woven in to the shroud at a later date....The tests revealed the presence of a chemical called vanillin in the radiocarbon sample but not the rest of the shroud. The limited life-span of the substance is proof that the original shroud is much older than the patch.

"An analysis of vanillin loss suggests the shroud is between 1,300 and 3,000 years old." said Dr Rogers

Again: interesting if true.

* * *

Though the 21st century has been disappointing in some ways so far, it is at least beginning to meet my expectations for simple weirdness. Consider this story: Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy

Chinese scientists at the Shanghai Second Medical University in 2003 successfully fused human cells with rabbit eggs. The embryos were reportedly the first human-animal chimeras successfully created. They were allowed to develop for several days in a laboratory dish before the scientists destroyed the embryos to harvest their stem cells. In Minnesota last year researchers at the Mayo Clinic created pigs with human blood flowing through their bodies. And at Stanford University in California an experiment might be done later this year to create mice with human brains.

I fully realize that I am missing the point, but I cannot help but reflect about this kind of story: when scientists outrage God and man in this fashion, couldn't they at least do it with cooler animals? A human-jaguar hybrid would be a monster out of myth. A parrot-person would give wonderful interviews. But no: it's always flatworms, weasels, and skunk cabbages.

Those responsible will bear an even heavier burden for this reason.

* * *

Meanwhile, the criticisms from Old Europe about the senior members of the Bush Administration have taken a stridently sartorial turn:

Vice President Dick Cheney raised eyebrows on Friday for wearing an olive-drab parka, hiking boots and knit ski cap to represent the United States at a solemn ceremony remembering the liberation of Auschwitz.

Other leaders at the event in Poland on Thursday marking the 60th anniversary of the death camp's liberation, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, wore dark, formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots.

I think they were just jealous.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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