The Long View 2005-09-13: The Rapture Today; Modernity and the Arabists; Heinlein Lives

Robert Heinlein, dean of American science fiction

Robert Heinlein, dean of American science fiction

I read a number of Heinlein juveniles at my elementary school library. I think Citizen of the Galaxy was one of them. Now that I'm older, I notice more of Heinlein's weirdness, but as a kid, all that sailed right over my head, and I just enjoyed the stories. Heinlein was a great storyteller, and I'm glad I found him when I did. 


The Rapture Today; Modernity and the Arabists; Heinlein Lives

 

Here's a bit of good sense from the New York Times's Alessandra Stanley, commenting on the spate of new shows on American television with supernatural and paranormal themes:

"Supernatural," on WB, is genuinely scary. But there are half a dozen other new dramas designed to make viewers run from the room screaming, including two about aliens from outer space, and at least one sea monster. There is even a remodeled "Night Stalker."

Could it be a symptom of our times? In an era plagued with man-made perils like global warming and biological terrorism, when even natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina seem compounded by human failings, perhaps we seek the comfort of a higher scapegoat-supernatural forces beyond our control and not our fault.

Nah.

Indeed, to paraphrase Instapundit. I also note that recent untoward events seem to have done little to enhance apocalyptic expectations, so much so that Terry James of Rapture Ready had to offer this defense of the imminence of the Endtime:

Some people write me to argue that the Black Death (1330-40 AD) and the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 invalidated birth pangs. When Jesus mentioned the precursors to His return, He wasn't citing calamities that had never happened before. Disasters like earthquakes, war, floods, and hurricanes have been around since the fall of Adam and Eve.

The birth pangs we should be looking for are normally record-setting events. When you read reports of the most "most deadly tsunami in recorded history" and the "most destructive Atlantic hurricane" you know they're talking about our generation.

Well, maybe, but Rapture Ready's invaluable Rapture Index (produced from a basket of indicators of social distress) now stands at 161. The high for last year was 157. The high for the year before that was 177.

Michael Barkun has theorized about a relationship between disaster and millennial movements, but he says the gap between the former and the latter is half a generation. The idea is that disasters prove the fragility of the ordinary world, thereby making its overthrow more plausible to young adults who had experienced the disaster as children. The model has no obvious current application.

* * *

Speaking of eschatology, my Latin Mass group is organizing a major concert-liturgy for All Saints Day. I was drafted to do a poster. I produced three options: Chant Text, Poltergeist, and Ramp.

Chant Text

Chant Text

Poltergeist

Poltergeist

Ramp

Ramp

Guess which one the choir did not like.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the War on Terror, I came across a piece by Michael Hirsh from November of last year, Bernard Lewis Revisited. Actually, Lewis is not so much revisited as excoriated, because, we are told, it was his fault that:

The administration's vision of postwar Iraq was also fundamentally Lewisian, which is to say Kemalist.

The better view, Hirsch suggests, is held by a new school of revisionists, who are in wonderful accord with the consensus in the Arabist academy that prevailed before 911:

For centuries, [Richard] Bulliet argues, comparative stability prevailed in the Islamic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the Ottomans' success, but because Islam was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny. “The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Islam to redress the tyranny.” This began to play out during the period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. “What Lewis never talks about is the concomitant removal of Islam from the center of public life, the devalidation of Islamic education and Islamic law, the marginalization of Islamic scholars,” Bulliet told me. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Muslim clerics had long feared, tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Islamic political development, notes Bulliet.

On the merits of this argument I will not comment here. Rather, look at what happens when I do a bit of mischief with the find-and-replace tool:

For centuries, [Richard] Bulliet argues, comparative stability prevailed in the Catholic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the French success, but because Catholicism was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny. “The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Catholicism is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Catholicism to redress the tyranny.” This began to play out during the period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. “What Lewis never talks about is the concomitant removal of Catholicism from the center of public life, the devalidation of Catholic education and Catholic law, the marginalization of Catholic scholars,” Bulliet told me. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Catholic clerics had long feared, tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Catholic political development, notes Bulliet.

I have never met anyone who believes the first version of this paragraph, though I will take it on faith that they exist. I have, however, met a few who believe the second. I thought I would just point out the parallel.

* * *

The disturbing thing about Robert Heinlein is that, though long since dead, he seems still to be publishing books at a respectable rate. In any case, I am still finding books by him that I have not read yet (books in new editions, mind you) that are quite as good as the ones that made him famous. Sometimes these are hitherto unpublished works, but sometimes they are reprints. Among the latter is Citizen of the Galaxy, first published in 1957 but reissued this year. It is reviewed at length here; Amazon link here.

It's set in your average galactic future, about a slave boy who is rescued and turns out to have a remarkable ancestry. As other readers have noticed, you could the story is made up of plug-and-play elements from Heinlein's other stories. There are elements of it that I gag on now, which perhaps I would not have done if I had read the book when I was a member of the juvenile readership for which it was published. Even today, I am willing to suspend disbelief on the matter of spacecraft that travel at superluminal speeds. What I can't get my head around now is the idea that it might be economic to transport vegetables from star system to star system. Surely anyone who could build the transport ship could also build a greenhouse to grow the vegetables?

Still, the book reminded me of why Heinlein still wears well. Anyone can write a story, like this one, that begins in a slave empire, whose capital is well-stocked with whores with hearts of gold, and then moves on to Earth, which seems to be inhabited mostly by stupid rich people. Only Heinlein would close down the action for two pages so that a skipper could discuss with his burser how to characterize the cost of an identity search. The notion of a ruinously expensive search for information has become anachronistic, of course, but even the anachronisms provide food for thought.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-08-20: The Sick Man of Mesopotamia

The funniest [and most horrible] thing about this blog post is how very, very wrong John was about the relative stability of Iran and Saudi Arabia. I've been hearing rumors of collapse about Saudi Arabia for a long time, even Greg Cochran has gotten in the act recently. So far, the Saudis continue to do what they do, although running out of oil money, as Greg suggests is nearing, will be a real problem.

The Iranians seem to be relatively strong, and have managed to do quite well for themselves with many years of embargo by the US. I suspect they could outlast their regional rivals, but we shall see.


The Sick Man of Mesopotamia

 

When people talk about the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century, Lovecrafty adjectives like "moribund" and "necrotic" are brought into play. The empire had the unenviable distinction, until it actually did collapse in the chaos that followed the First World War, of being called "the Sick Man of Europe." The only thing that prevented the empire from being carved up was the inability of the European powers to agree on who would get what piece of it. The remarkable thing was how long the empire was able to loiter on the border between life and death. In effect, it turned the immensity of its weakness into an asset, like a failing business that is so huge that its creditors don't dare to push it into bankruptcy.

That is, pretty much, the strategy that Edward Luttwak advocated on August 18 for the United States, in a New York Times Op Ed entitled Time to Quit Iraq (Sort Of):

But if the Shiites were persuaded that America might truly abandon them to face Saddam Hussein's loyalists alone, it seems certain that they would quickly revert to the attitude of collaboration with the occupation forces they showed in the aftermath of invasion....

For now, with the United States viewed as determined to stay the course, the hard-liners in Iran can pursue their anti-American vendetta by encouraging the Shiite opposition, supplying Mr. Sadr's militia and encouraging Syria to help Islamist terrorists sneak into Iraq. But an American withdrawal would mean the end of any hopes for a unified, Shiite-led Iraq, which is Iran's long-term goal, and likely a restored Sunni supremacy, which is Iran's greatest fear....Again, the threat of American withdrawal would be apt to concentrate minds wonderfully. The goal would be to get Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to replace the American taxpayer in aiding Iraq; the two could also jointly sponsor peacekeeping troops, in earnest this time, financially rewarding poorer Muslim countries with troops to spare.

This is tactically impossible: there is no way the US could show just enough disinterest in the region while not signaling a complete loss of nerve. Even a conditional threat to withdraw would mean a complete collapse of the intermin government. If the Coalition threatened to withdraw, sort of, then what the US wants or fears in Iraq would become irrelevant. More important, though, is that this approach is strategically wrong-headed on two counts.

The first is that the regimes that Luttwak hopes to use to create a balance of power in Iraq, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, need to be changed. If that sounds like neoconservative hubris for you, we cannot avoid the fact that both are unstable and probably will change at no distant date. Indeed, one of the seldom-acknowledged reasons for the Iraq War is that the nature of the new regimes will turn in part on the nature of the regime that governs Iraq at the time.

The second point is more subtle, and has been missed both by Realpolitiker and tranzies: the international system is not going to work if the United States is discredited. This is one of the morals we should draw from another New York Times Op Ed, this one in today's paper, entitled An Idea Lost in the Rubble. It was written by Gil Loescher, who lost both legs in the terrorist bombing last year of the UN headquarters in Baghdad:

In fact, the Baghdad bombing and the retreat of Doctors Without Borders make clear that humanitarian workers have increasingly become the targets of violence in war-torn countries. For these workers, there is no middle ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are identified by militants in both countries as taking sides and collaborating with the United States.

The piece goes on to recommend that military forces in areas suffering humanitarian crises confine themselves to providing security and let the NGOs get on with their own work. That sounds like an unworkable solution, and in any case, it misses the point. The United States is a utility of the international system. The failure of one implies the failure of the other.

* * *

Speaking of failing tactics, one notes that The New York Times ran a frontpage, above the fold story today attempting to debunk the critics of Senator John Kerry's war record. The major media had tried to avoid mentioning the accusations at all. However, because talkshows and the Internet disseminated them anyway, Kerry himself said this week that he would meet the charges head on, just as he drove his swiftboat into hostile fire in Vietnam. "Bring it on!" he said.

This strategy will prove unfortunate. The Kerry campaign's rejoinders make plausible points when they argue that the circumstances under which Kerry won his medals were more or less as reported. His defenders make less good points when they go on at length about the funding sources of the swiftboat veterans who oppose Kerry. What could lose the election for Kerry is that his claims to have been in Cambodia on Christmas Eve in 1968 are demonstrably false; the fact that he has spoken of the incident as "seared in my memory" means he cannot pass the claims off as poor recollection. It sounds as if one of Kerry's favorite war stories is a personalized retelling of Apocalypse Now.

The Times can print all the charts it likes of Texan campaign donors. The senator's critics are simply correct on an accusation that is both damning and easy to understand.

* * *

I see that The Washington Post is conducting a poll for Best Political Blog. Anyone who wants to vote for The Long Viewis welcome, though it seems to me that this blog is not political enough, or even blog-like enough, to merit inclusion. I personally will vote for the Belmont Club.

* * *

Speaking of Internet behavior, here is a story that expands one's sense of the possible: Mass Hysteria Strikes Small Rural U.S. High School:

(Reuters Health) - Ten healthy female students at a rural, co-ed North Carolina high school had repeated bouts of seizures, swooning and hyperventilation over a four-month period in 2002 -- an outbreak that experts are calling an example of mass hysteria...The first girl began experiencing seizures in August. Over the next few weeks, more girls began to show the same symptoms. The attacks escalated throughout the fall months, then appeared to taper off by the winter holiday break....

Writing in the Archives of Neurology, [Dr. E. Steve Roach of Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Dr. Ricky L. Langley of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services ] conclude that the evidence "strongly suggested" that the girls were experiencing an episode of mass hysteria, defined as "the simultaneous occurrence of related signs or symptoms with a psychogenic basis in multiple individuals in a group."

Many episodes of mass hysteria are triggered by harmless odors or when a "prominent" person begins showing symptoms, they add. No environmental trigger was found, and since the first girl to experience seizures was a cheerleader and four others were as well, Roach and Langley suggest that seeing the symptoms in these girls "could have encouraged additional students to develop similar episodes."

This sounds like the behavior of the witnesses at the Salem Witch Trials. It sounds even more like the "dancing epidemics," which were supposed to have been a feature of late medieval Europe. One wonders why, with today's unmediated net of communication, things like this don't happen regionally, or even worldwide.

Something to look forward to, maybe.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-04-15: 2002 < 1914

I loved Star Trek: TNG growing up. Looking back, I can see John's point though. The series really was relentlessly PC, but in a sunnier, happier time when PC hadn't metastasized yet.

John was also correct in noting that despite popular millennial theology to the contrary [for both Christians and Muslims], war in the Middle East is currently unlikely to cause World War III. Peace is in fact possible, since the general unrest in the Middle East is a contemporary invention. Ukraine may be another story.

2002 < 1914

 

The Star Trek series spun off several television sagas in later decades, my least favorite of which was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Nonetheless, even that lifeless exercise in political correctness produced a few interesting story ideas, such as the episode about the alien society whose language seemed to consist almost entirely of proper nouns. Eventually, the crew of the Enterprise realize that the aliens' references to persons and places were really concise references to historical incidents. The key to communicating with them was building up some common history to refer to.

The use of historical events as symbols is not novel. That's how the I Ching works, for instance. Often, though, we use dates rather than proper nouns. There was an example of this in the Sunday New York Times of April 14. In an essay entitled "When Savage Passions Set a Trap for the World," R.W. Apple considered the significance of "August 1914" for the current state of things in the Middle East.

There are obvious differences, of course, and Apple does not fail to mention them. The biggest is that there is no Mutual Assured Destruction treaty system connecting Arabs, Israelis, and Iranians to the world's great powers. It was almost the case in Europe in 1914 that a war anywhere on the continent would oblige every major power to fight on one side or the other. The mechanism was not as automatic in practice as it was on paper. Some historians have exaggerated the amount of freedom that the British had about intervening in Belgium, but certainly the British obligations were more diplomatic than legal. The Italians actually reneged on their understanding with Austria and Germany when the time came; they even joined the other side later. Still, a general war was the path of least resistance. One of the powers would have had to adopt a steadfast new policy to prevent it. In the Middle east today, the path of least resistance has the opposite slope. If outside powers really want to pick a fight with each other, they might do it in the Middle East, but only if they abandon their policies of many years' running.

The parallel that Apple does see is that war in the region might be not so much inevitable as irreversible. Particularly if civilian populations become more and more targeted, it will become impossible for the immediate parties to negotiate, even if they have a mind to. The same emotional investment would trap their patrons and make them unable to talk to each other. The result could be not so different from that of the First Battle of the Marne in 1914. Before that point, even after the invasion of Belgium, it might have been possible for the Western powers to negotiate a settlement. A viable settlement might even have been possible had one side won a decisive victory. As things turned out, however, the result was a bloody stalemate for which all parties wanted revenge.

For my part, I hold that the significant analogy between the events of 1914 and those of recent history is the 911 attack, and that the only strong parallel is with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Serbian terrorists of the dreaded Black Hand hoped that a general war would make the Great Powers withdraw from the Balkans, much as Al Qeda hopes with regard to the Middle East today. The Serbian strategy worked, and Yugoslavia was their reward. Al Qaeda is less likely to succeed, but of that more below.

The biggest difference from 1914 is that it is anachronistic to talk about "Great Powers" in the plural. No matter how interested China and the European Union and Russia may be in the Middle East, none of them has the ability to project significant force into the area. The US does not have unlimited military options, either, but it is unique in having some options. (This is the real meaning of hegemony in a demilitarized world: the hegemon is the smart kid in the dumb room.) The notion that the Middle East is the point from which a world war of the Great Powers could start is a fixed feature of the popular imagination. For many quite astute people it is a point of theology. Nonetheless, it is very hard to spin even an improbable scenario that would result in such a conflict. The world has lost the structural prerequisites for a world war.

Readers will note that, in this piece, I have not distinguished the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Al Qaeda War, or either of them from the threat of weapons of mass destruction produced by Iran and Iraq. The omission is deliberate, since the distinctions are largely chimerical. Iran subsidizes the terrorist campaign against Israel, Iraq had quite a lot to do with 911, and the Palestinian campaign legitimizes both regimes domestically. The real issue is the fate of Saudi Arabia; the Palestinian question is a carefully maintained diversion.

The long-term solution is obvious enough: regional demilitarization and the limitation of sovereignty. Some foreign policing will be necessary, as will some segregation of populations. As the Ottomans demonstrated for 500 years, peace in the region is possible.


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