The Long View 2007-02-09: Steyn on D'Souza; Hillary v. Rudolph; Climate Crimes; Mystery History

Mette Frederiksen, attacking immigration from the Left

Mette Frederiksen, attacking immigration from the Left

It is a real pity that John J. Reilly didn’t live long enough to see President Trump. As a longtime Jersey resident, I’m sure he would have had opinions. Here is a funny bit on Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton:

My own suspicion is that Senator Clinton's candidacy is a media artifact that will disintegrate on take-off; about that we will see. As for Rudolph Giuliani, I am pretty sure that he is too much the New York exotic to succeed nationally. Certainly he is an unusually bad fit for the Republican Party.

Rudolph Giuliani did not save New York City singlehandedly, but he was the most effective big-city mayor during the second half of the 20th century. However, the sort of infrastructure and institutional collapse that Giuliani set himself to reverse is precisely the sort of thing that the post-Reagan Republican Party is designed not to see. Today, on the national level, both the unravelling of the health-insurance system and the loss of control of the borders are issues of the sort that New York City faced when Giuliani became mayor, and both health care and immigration are losers for the Republicans. Why is this? Because the expensive, labor-intensive, highly detailed governance that Giuliani provided is what is needed to address those issues, and that sort of governance has been declared impossible by modern conservatism.

What appeal the Trump campaign in 2016 had was achieved by making inarticulate noises in the direction of what John suggested here: pick a couple of issues that could be popular and propose a big government solution. Populist-style campaigns all over the Western world have been going in this direction. Some of them are more successful than others.


Steyn on D'Souza; Hillary v. Rudolph; Climate Crimes; Mystery History

Mark Steyn has reviewed Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home. The remarks that I quote here more or less match some observations in my own review of that book, which I promise readers will see as soon as I am at liberty to post it. In any case, Steyn here takes issue with the proposition that the Islamists were incited to attack the United States by recent American debaucheries:

Where I part company is in his belief that this will make any difference to the war on terror. In what feels like a slightly dishonest passage, the author devotes considerable space to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual progenitor of what passes for modern Islamist “thought”. “Qutb became fiercely anti-American after living in the United States,” writes D’Souza without once mentioning where or when this occurred: New York in the disco era? San Francisco in the summer of love? No. It was 1949 – the year when America’s lascivious debauched popular culture produced Doris Day, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and South Pacific. ...The reality is that Islam sees our decadence not as a threat but as an opportunity. For the west to reverse the gains of the cultural left would not endear us to Islam but would make us better suited to resisting its depredations. We should reject Britney because she’s rubbish not as a geopolitical strategy.

D'Souza's argument has the most force in the context of the use of transnational institutions to impose a cultural revolution for which there is no global consensus. Nonetheless, I think that the more transgressive features of American popular culture really are a strategic liability.

* * *

Speaking of things that children should not see, Peggy Noonan's latest column meditates on the prospect that the 2008 presidential race will be between Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate and Rudolph Giuliani as the republican. Given that choice, Noonan clearly prefers the latter:

But it is significant that in Mrs. Clinton's case, for the past 30 years, from 1978 through 2007--which is to say throughout most, almost all, of her adulthood--her view of America, and of American life, came through the tinted window of a limousine. (Now the view is, mostly, through the tinted window of an SUV.)

From first lady of Arkansas through first lady of the United States to U.S. senator, her life has been eased and cosseted by staff--by aides, drivers, cooks, Secret Service, etc. Her life has been lived within a motorcade. And so she didn't have to worry about crime, the cost of things, the culture. Status incubates. Rudy Giuliani was fighting a deterioration she didn't have to face. That's a big difference. It's the difference between the New Yorker in the subway and the Wall Street titan in the town car.

My own suspicion is that Senator Clinton's candidacy is a media artifact that will disintegrate on take-off; about that we will see. As for Rudolph Giuliani, I am pretty sure that he is too much the New York exotic to succeed nationally. Certainly he is an unusually bad fit for the Republican Party.

Rudolph Giuliani did not save New York City singlehandedly, but he was the most effective big-city mayor during the second half of the 20th century. However, the sort of infrastructure and institutional collapse that Giuliani set himself to reverse is precisely the sort of thing that the post-Reagan Republican Party is designed not to see. Today, on the national level, both the unravelling of the health-insurance system and the loss of control of the borders are issues of the sort that New York City faced when Giuliani became mayor, and both health care and immigration are losers for the Republicans. Why is this? Because the expensive, labor-intensive, highly detailed governance that Giuliani provided is what is needed to address those issues, and that sort of governance has been declared impossible by modern conservatism.

* * *

What fun the era of Climate Dread promises to be, if we may judge by this retort from Jonah Goldberg to Ellen Goodman:

[Stupid, illogical, disgusting] are just some of the words that come to mind from this passage by Ellen Goodman:

I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.

No, Ellen. Let's not just say that. Denying that the industrialized mass-murder of millions actually happened isn't really quite the same thing as refusing to believe global warming is real....I know people who don't believe global warming is happening and let me just say they aren't the same people and to equate them with Holocaust deniers is a reprehensible attempt to dehumanize opponents in an argument.

It is a mistake to attribute the collapse in the last few weeks of all political resistance to the idea of anthropogenic global warming to the triumph of pseudoscience among the elites. For one thing, the science is not all that pseudo; the burden of proof really has flipped. The interesting point, though, is that global warming is popular, in the sense that people find the idea intuitive. In that it resembles global nuclear war, which was blowing up Earth and many other planets in science fiction for decades before the politicians finally bowed to popular demand and built the necessary infrastructure.

Nonetheless, I view these events with a measure of frustration. As I have no doubt mentioned before, in the late 1980s I tried to sell the management of Warren, Gorham & Lamont on a new publication dedicated to reporting on new laws and regulations related to climate change. The audience would have been local environmental agencies and the environmental bar. The reporter would have covered debates on the subject at the national and international levels, of course, but until laws were passed at those levels, the reporter would focus on local environmental initiatives, with a view to encouraging the standardization of local regulation. I acknowledged that this was all a little speculative at the time, but the market was certain to grow, and it would be an advantage to be first in the field. The weather itself would sell it for us.

That reporter was a good idea. It was just 20 years too early, if indeed it is not too early still. This has been typical of my experience of prescience. People are often right about what will happen, eventually. Getting the clock-time right is another matter. Perhaps it's one of those quantum-nonlocality things: you can send information as fast as you like, provided it doesn't mean anything.

* * *

And why am I waxing mystical? I just finished reading a review copy of Endless Things, the final book in John Crowley's Aegypt series. Actually, I just finished a review; that is another which I am not at the moment at liberty to upload. Until I can, here are some thoughts from a Crowley character on historical causality. They occur to him in Prague in 1969, as he looks up at the window from which the famous Defenestration of Prague occurred in 1618, and from which a Czech patriot was martyred in 1948:

Defenestration. Kraft looked up with the others. It was as though the sources of certain events lay not in their antecedent causes but in mirror or shadow events that lay far in the past or in the future; as though by chance a secret lever on a clockwork could be pressed that made it go after being long still, or as though a wind blowing up in one age could tear off leaves from trees and bring down steeples in another.

Is this helpful? Possibly not, but it's a lot of fun.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: God's Plan for America

It is never prudent to completely dismiss the suggestion that the purpose of your life to serve as a warning to others. It may not be a leading hypothesis, but it is a possible one.

That being said, this essay contains John J. Reilly’s reflections on how Christians ought to relate to politics. This essay is brief, but only because John included most of his thought by reference, rather than repeating things he had already said.

Like all of us, John had particular political commitments and preferences, but I think he pointed toward something bigger than his party affiliation here.


God's Plan for America


That's the title of a column by Vox Day (hat tip to Brainbiter) where we read in part:

I do find it peculiar that there are so many people who make national politics a central part, if not the central point, of their theology. And I'm saying this as a member of the Christian right by blood; when Ralph Reed was in town with the Christian Coalition, he stayed at my parent's house.

Consider the state of the seven deadly sins in America...

There is, I suspect, an unconscious stream of omniderigence underlying the concept of divine American exceptionalism. Either God has inordinately blessed America because of the unique qualities of her inhabitants or because He has a special plan for America. The problem with the first possibility should be obvious in light of the character and behavior of said inhabitants; the problem with the latter is that it requires believing that the Christian God is responsible for the death of millions of unborn children, the establishment of transnational globalism and Paris Hilton.

Wise words (particularly "omniderigence"). One might point out that the United States could have been providentially preordained as an Awful Example, but I rather doubt that to be the case.

I see two issues.

The first is the status of politics and government in a Christian framework. I don't really find this problematical: all government is a divine institution, in the sense that legitimate authority comes from above. That by no means implies that all governments are or should be theocracies. However, there is a sacred, not merely prudential, obligation to participate in public life and not make a nuisance of yourself. Patriotism is a virtue. Get over it.

On the other hand, patriotism is not analytically the expression of the highest political loyalty. (In many eras in may be the highest available, of course). The common humanity of the human race implies natural standards of just treatment, which, as the human race interacts on a broader and broader scale, implies the establishment of ever more universal structures to ensure these standards. Dante famously argued that only a universal government could be altogether legitimate. The Catholic Church, after having skewered Dante (posthumously) for his inordinate affection for the Holy Roman Empire, has come around to an oddly similar point of view, in the sense that doctrine today asserts that certain sovereign prerogatives must, in the modern world, be reserved to supranational authorities.

This presents us with the second issue: the relationship between theodicy and macrohistory. If you accept that there is a tendency toward global unity, does that make the process a divine imperative? Contrariwise, is there an imperative to oppose it? (As C.S. Lewis once remarked, just because you have terminal cancer is no reason to be on the tumor's side.) For my part, I would suggest that this question tends to generate much the sort of category mistake that we see in sacralized environmentalism: anything as big as history or the atmosphere is presumed to be a theater of miracle and moral absolute.

Nonetheless, there is an level of loyalty that is ordinate to the ideal universal empire that Dante envisioned. For St. Augustine in the final generation of the Roman Empire, this loyalty was the highest form of patriotism he knew. Similarly, it would be possible to make the argument that some form of globalization merits devotion of this order, since the universal empire is also a divine institution, though most of the time it exists only virtually.

If you accept the neo-Spenglerian hypothesis that the United States is going to play the same role in the modern world that Rome did in Classical antiquity and Qin did in ancient China, then you might be able to formulate "God's Plan for America" in terms of the providential formation of a universal state at the end of the modern era; however, this development would be "providential" only at the level of natural providence, not as a matter of divine election.

In other words, somebody had to do it.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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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.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Cobra book review

Cobra
by Timothy Zahn
236 pages
Published by Baen (2015)
ASIN B00XLTZTIK

When I read the cover blurb for this book, I expected something like the Blackcollar series: military sci-fi about super soldiers, cyborgs in this case instead of pharmaceutically enhanced ninjas. That impression is completely wrong. While there are some battle scenes in this book, that isn’t really the focus. This isn’t really military sci-fi at all, but rather speculative fiction about politics using super soldiers as a thought experiment.

This is the second book I’ve read recently that looks at the problem of how a society would change if people appeared within it who were faster, stronger, and generally more dangerous than the norm. The first, Heroes Fall, was in the superhero genre. The reaction of that society to superhumans in their midst is mostly adulation, with a few generally ignored naysayers. The corruption of society is subtle and slow, underneath the public fanfare.

For the Dominion of Man, the seventy-world setting of Cobra, their cyborg super soldiers were created [perhaps in a bit of a panic] to help win a war, without much thought for what would come afterward. Men with unusual strength, automated reflexes, and lasers built into their fingertips are not universally loved once demobilized, especially when accidents and misunderstandings that escalate into things far worse start to occur.

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he  is  a drifter

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he is a drifter

I was reminded of David Morell’s First Blood, a novel that really captured the struggles of Vietnam veterans to find a place back home, or the ending of The Hurt Locker, when Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James stands bewildered by the endless varieties of breakfast cereal in a supermarket. Men who did everything their government and society asked of them come home to find that they no longer have a home to return to.

The bulk of the book is taken up with the search for an acceptable political solution to the problems the Cobras pose to their society. Officially, the Cobras are war heroes. In the public eye, they are mostly objects of fear and loathing. Unofficially, the Central Committee that runs the Dominion considers them a threat; bored and frustrated former soldiers that have more in common with each other than their fellow citizens can become agents of revolution.

While we are treated to brief interludes within the halls of power on the planet Asgard, we mostly see this play out through the eyes of Jonny Moreau, a bright young man who volunteered to go off to war, and found that he was changed forever by the experience. We follow Moreau from young adulthood, when he volunteers for service, into middle age, when he brokers a deal to preserve hard won freedoms and privileges for his fellow Cobras at immense personal cost. I gather there are a number of sequels that follow from this book, as Zahn explores the further implications of Jonny Moreau’s actions at the end of this book.

Since this is hard sci-fi, many of the problems the Cobras face, both in battle and life, stem from the physical consequences of their modifications. During the bootcamp section of the book, the Cobra trainees spend time learning how to pick up unusually heavy things without tearing their ligaments or giving themselves subdermal hematomas. Their bones have been strengthened, and their strength and speed supplemented by servo motors, but the rest of their bodies remain much as they always were.

First and foremost, they are men, and they want the same things as anyone else: a job, a family, a home. Unfortunately, most other people don’t want them around. In a memorable incident in his home town after Jonny comes marching home, a couple of young punks hassle him in a local entertainment center, and then swerve their car towards him when they seem him walking on the street later. Jonny’s programmed combat reflexes take over [literally, COBRA means computerized body reflex armament], he shoots out the tires of the kids’ car and they both die in the resulting crash.

The reason this all happens is that the computer implanted in the brain cannot be removed with causing brain damage, and the finger lasers cannot be removed without amputation, and that was a price the Central Committee was unwilling to pay [or unwilling to be seen to be willing to pay]. Although, I did wonder why they didn’t do something about the power source, which was implanted in the chest, and thus much easier to get to. Much of the other equipment Jonny carried into war was successfully removed, but none of it other than the strengthened bones would work without power. I do remember reading about how much heavier their bodies got, so maybe it was seen as too much of a burden to leave them with limbs too heavy to lift. Perhaps this could have been explored a bit more.

The Central Committee itself is interesting, insofar as it really is an Inner Party. The Central Committee almost functions as a character, one analogous to Lathe in the Blackcollar novels or Thrawn in Heir to the Empire, powerful and far-seeing, capable of predicting its opponents and laying traps. It is also quite good at governing, since the Dominion of Man seems quite peaceful and prosperous. Except, in this case, everything that happens is because the Central Committee made a mistake in even allowing the Cobras to be created. Over the many years depicted in the novel, we see the Central Committee continue to dominate, but also to make critical mistakes at times. I enjoyed how Zahn took a central idea in his style and inverted it, making the the clever and powerful Central Committee the antagonist.

I also liked the broad sweep of the novel, covering several decades in the life of Jonny Moreau. Since the kind of things Zahn wants to explore in this novel take a long time to work themselves out, nothing shorter than a generation would have been adequate. Looking through the blurbs for the many sequels, we will continue to follow the Moreau family as the implications of Jonny’s solution work themselves out over the generations to follow. Overall, this was an interesting novel, and I’m curious to see where Zahn decided to take the society he created in the conclusion of this book.

My other book reviews

Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

The Long View 2006-11-06: Wretched Excess

Twelve years ago, dissatisfaction with W brought both houses of Congress to the Democrats. This time, it looks like the House may swing, but the Senate may not. We shall see.


Wretched Excess

So how many stunning rebukes to the Bush Administration have we seen in the past few days? There was Stars & Stripes; there was Richard Perle (who claims he was quoted out of context, but it is never good when the Prince of Darkness is only equivocally on your side); there was the Simpsons belated Halloween show. I lost count of the number of scandals, accusations, and expose' books that have been brought to the public's attention recently, all of them to the effect that the Republicans are liars and child-molesters. That is why I am not altogether surprised to see that, nationally, the Republican poll numbers had suddenly risen to a near statistical dead-heat with those of the Democrats. This comment in today's New York Times sums up the situation well enough:

Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the Democrat leading his party’s effort to win control of the House, said, “It’s inevitable that there would be some tightening in the end.”

Still, Mr. Emanuel, who has been careful this campaign to avoid the public expressions of optimism voiced by other Democrats, added, “This is making me nervous.”

You can overdo any kind of advertising. It is a shame that Gestalt Psychology has so thoroughly fallen out of popular consciousness. Studies of voter behavior done from a Gestalt perspective showed many years ago that political advertising for one side sometimes had the effect of increasing turnout for the other side. The advertising just reminded people of the category of "politics": the semantic content of the ads was much less important.

The Republican Party, the party of Lee Atwater, would be in no position to complain if it were undone by unprincipled campaign tactics. However, it now seems that the Democrats' prospects would be far more certain if they had employed a little less venom, and injected it from fewer directions.

* * *

Regarding the death sentence just handed down to Saddam Hussein, we note three classes of objection. From The New York Times, we have the fatuous:

The editorial called for deferring the death penalty "long enough to allow the completion of a second trial, in which Mr. Hussein is charged with ordering genocidal massacres against the Kurds."

From the European Union, we have a principled response:

BRUSSELS, Nov 5 (Reuters) - The European Union urged Iraq on Sunday not to carry out the death sentence passed on Iraq's former leader Saddam Hussein after his conviction for crimes against humanity.

"The EU opposes capital punishment in all cases and under all circumstances, and it should not be carried out in this case either," Finland, current holder of the rotating EU presidency, said in a statement.

By far the most interesting was this bit of confusion from the Vatican:

VATICAN CITY, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Vatican and Roman Catholic officials said on Sunday that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein should not be put to death even if he has committed crimes against humanity because every life is sacred...Roman Catholic Church teaching is against the death penalty except in the most extreme circumstances, stating that modern society has all the means needed to render a criminal harmless for the rest of his natural life without capital punishment...Jesuit priest Father Michele Simone, deputy director of the Vatican-approved Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, said ..."Even in a situation like Iraq, where there are hundreds of de facto death sentences every day, adding another death to this toll will not serve anything..."

As I have had occasion to point out before, the paradigm case for the ethical use of the death penalty would be when the continued incarceration of a convicted murderer incites violence and kidnapping by his followers, who hope to liberate him. That is precisely the case with Saddam Hussein. According to his American guards, in fact, he himself still claims to believe that he will return to power someday. Vengeance is irrelevant. The death of that man will solve a great deal.

* * *

The Presidium of the Central Committee of the Republican Party sometimes favors me with email. Just recently, they sent me this request:

With four days to go, a handful of House and Senate races will determine control of Congress. No matter where you are, you can put us over the top in this fight. How? Just pick up the phone, log on, and use your free minutes to contact 30 Republican voters in battleground states this weekend.

I have had bad experiences with political telemarketing. The callers all seem to be natives of the South and West; frequently, they do not know the local pronunciation of the names of the candidates. As it happens, I do live in a battleground state, so no one would suspect I was calling from a cubicle in Mumbai if I participated in this effort.

But no.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Populism and the Mirror of Democracy

It has been a while since I've put up one of the orphan posts written by John J. Reilly that he didn't explicitly call out in his main blog. This one is from 2005, and originally appeared in the journal Democratization.

John used the line, “The people have spoken. The bastards.”, but I would have used the Wizard of Id classic, "The peasants are revolting!" 

I enjoy this book review because of this useful definition of populism:

“Populism” has no ideological content: “populist movements” can be Left or Right, violent or peaceful, liberal or tyrannical. Nonetheless, certain formal features of some political environments can be usefully defined as populist. Populism is a likely result when the ordinary processes of politics and administration do not address a growing list of demands and dissatisfactions. Various groups of dissatisfied persons can then be persuaded that they are all parts of a single group, the people. In this sense, the “people” is defined by its antagonism to some elite, a minority who prevent the people from achieving plenitude.

The West is in a broadly populist moment, and antagonism to some elite is a widespread emotion, although not every part of the People hates the same elites.


Populism and the Mirror of Democracy
Edited by Francisco Panizza
London: Verso, 2005
Pp. 358; index, bibliography
£15 (paperback)
ISBN 1 85984 489 8

 

There is an old saying: “The people have spoken. The bastards.” The people, variously defined, have lately been making political establishments around the world say just that. This book explains not so much why this is happening as how.

Ernesto Laclau’s contribution articulates a discourse theory based on Gramsci’s notion of ideological hegemony; the other nine contributors use this framework to analyze populist movements from Alberta to Natal. The semiotological language of the contributors will not be to every reader’s taste (certainly it wasn’t to this reviewer’s), but in all the pieces local knowledge and practical insight compensate for the excesses of theory. The editor, Francisco Panizza of the London School of Economics, provides a clarifying introduction.

“Populism” has no ideological content: “populist movements” can be Left or Right, violent or peaceful, liberal or tyrannical. Nonetheless, certain formal features of some political environments can be usefully defined as populist. Populism is a likely result when the ordinary processes of politics and administration do not address a growing list of demands and dissatisfactions. Various groups of dissatisfied persons can then be persuaded that they are all parts of a single group, the people. In this sense, the “people” is defined by its antagonism to some elite, a minority who prevent the people from achieving plenitude.

Populist movements are organized around symbolic issues of little substantive content. Populist leaders bulk large because the leader’s name can become the unifying symbol the movement needs. They operate outside the rules of ordinary politics, which they condemn as corrupt. These leaders speak in moral terms: even patronage becomes social justice. Of course, all this can be quite consistent with operating within the law and the broader rules of the democratic process.

Ernesto Laclau points out that all politics is populist to some extent. Not all public issues can be handled as questions of administration, and it would be a mistake to try. Chantal Mouffe, in her contribution, suggests that right-wing populism has flourished lately because the political establishments of Europe have tried to do just that. Benjamin Arditi proposes that populism represents the internal frontier of the democratic system. There exists a sort of political Freudian unconscious, which manifests itself in populist “symptoms” when the political system is unresponsive.

Not all populist projects become popular. Oscar Reyes details the odd attempt by William Hague to redefine the Tory Party as the people oppressed by the elites. In the western provinces of Canada, the Reform Party and its successors had better luck, but David Laycock notes that the movement foundered when it tried to increase its electoral chances by muting moral issues and focusing on economic libertarianism. Even when populist formulas prove durable, the leader who espoused them need not. According to Joseph Lowndes, former Alabama Governor George Wallace created the link between liberal economics, private morality, and public order that eventually became the consensus of American politics, but thereby made himself unnecessary.

Successful populist organizations deploy symbols rather than substantive platforms. That is how the ANC prospered in South Africa, says David Horwith, though success meant throwing overboard the socialist hopes of many of its members. Sebastian Borros says something similar happened in Argentina. Carlos Menem achieved the alchemical transformation of the Peronist movement into a government of economic neo-liberals.

Disparate victims of violence can become a people, or the people, because of their victimhood; nationalism differs from populism to the extent that the people’s enemies are external or internal. Glenn Bowman notes the enemies of the newly created Palestinian people and of the new nations of the former Yugoslavia were all external, but in the latter case the violence was recollected from inter-ethnic strife of the Second World War. Yannis Stavrakakis presents a less gruesome overlap of nationalism and populism in the role of the Orthodox Church in Greece, whose leaders increasingly serve to articulate popular unease about absorption into Europe.

Populism can never wholly succeed: the unfettered “people” united under its leader is as much an image of the end of history as the homogenous and universal state. Populism in the real world does both good and harm. As the title of the book suggests, populism is neither the highest form of democracy nor its enemy, but its mirror.

 

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly
The review first appeared in the journal Democratization (2005).

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The Long View 2006-08-09: Qinshihuangdi; Republican versus Conservative; Bernard Lewis; Mark Steyn

Qin Shi Huang  By Unknown - Yuan, Zhongyi. China's terracotta army and the First Emperor's mausoleum: the art and culture of Qin Shihuang's underground palace. Paramus, New Jersey: Homa & Sekey Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-931907-68-2 (p.140), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=364539

Qin Shi Huang

By Unknown - Yuan, Zhongyi. China's terracotta army and the First Emperor's mausoleum: the art and culture of Qin Shihuang's underground palace. Paramus, New Jersey: Homa & Sekey Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-931907-68-2 (p.140), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=364539

When I was younger, I was much taken with the wild, Indiana Jones-style tales of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang. Alas, they are likely fables, but a young man can dream.

Also, the zingers just keep coming. Anyone who has ever had a run-in with an overzealous HOA can probably understand what John is getting at here. HOAs are extremely powerful within their small domain.

Readers will note that Steyn is really complaining about unresponsive, bureaucratic government. If by "big" you mean "affecting a large portion of everyday life," then no form of government is quite so large as the sort of busybody town-meeting government that the Puritans introduced to New England. This kind of government, and not the bureaucratic state, is government at its most powerful.

Qinshihuangdi; Republican versus Conservative; Bernard Lewis; Mark Steyn

 

Even for ancient Chinese history, this is not really news:

According to a news report from China, DNA analysis indicates that at least one of the workers who constructed the tomb of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of China, was in fact of west Eurasian ancestry.

What I find far more interesting is the preface to this question:

People are familiar with Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (260-210 B.C., r. 247-221 B.C.), in large part because of his army of terra-cotta warriors. Chinese archaeologists have refrained from excavating the emperor's tomb, so where was the "worker" found?

The delay in opening the tomb has now extended over decades. Historical accounts say that the tomb is ingeniously booby-trapped, so it would be difficult to reach the chamber where the emperor's sarcophagous floats on a pool of mercury. However, it is impossible to believe that these difficulties could not be overcome with modern tools and techniques. I want that tomb opened. I want it opened right now.

* * *

The gap between conservatism and the Republican Party widens, for reasons we may infer from this comment by Stephen Webb in yesterday's First Things:

Why do so many people these days sound like conservatives but still insist they are liberals? I recently had a conversation with a female lawyer who spoke as if she had just finished reading Oswald Spengler. When she learned that I was a college professor, she unleashed a torrent of vitriol against leftist academics. She knew more about the high-handed politics, the corrupting conformism, and the stifling relativism of humanities professors than any dean in America would be willing to admit to knowing. When the subject of the media came up, she understood instinctively that most journalists are out of touch with Middle America, and she had nothing positive to say about Hillary Clinton’s blatantly ingratiating turn toward a softer, more moderate rhetoric...OK, I said, I’ve told you why I think you are a conservative. Now you tell me why you think you are a liberal. At that point, a string of vehement blathering about how horrible Bush is came out of her like a broken doll whose string had been pulled one too many times.

The piece goes on about what being cool meant in the 1970s, but the explanation could stop with the irresponsibility of the Republican Party. One cannot take seriously a party that lowers taxes during a world war, and at a time when the economy is growing fast enough that the Fed raises interest rates quarter after quarter to prevent inflation. (I know the Fed did not raise rates yesterday; what will fiscal policy be if the economy slows and inflation increases?) And then, frankly, there are the limitations of George Bush. He is by no means a stupid man. If his foreign policy has a flaw, it is not excessive simplicity but over subtlety. The problem is that he is not the man to explain it. He was nominated because his party did not expect a complicated future and everyone appreciated his ability to campaign on a small number of easily comprehensible domestic issues. The choice over John McCain was a costly mistake.

* * *

Bernard Lewis predicts doomsday for August 22. At any rate, The Wall Street Journal yesterday ran an opinion piece by him in which he drew attention to the possible role of Shia eschatology in the Middle East. The full piece is now available here. I excerpt for your convenience:

During the Cold War, both sides possessed weapons of mass destruction, but neither side used them, deterred by what was known as MAD...[these]... constraints, the same fear of mutual assured destruction [would not] restrain a nuclear-armed Iran from using such weapons against the U.S. or against Israel...[because]...[t]here is a radical difference ...[in]...the apocalyptic worldview of Iran's present rulers. ...Even in the past it was clear that terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam had no compunction in slaughtering large numbers of fellow Muslims. ...The phrase "Allah will know his own" is usually used to explain such apparently callous unconcern...A direct attack on the U.S., though possible, is less likely in the immediate future. Israel is a nearer ...an attack that wipes out Israel would almost certainly wipe out the Palestinians too...an attack would evoke a devastating reprisal from Israel against Iran...The first of these possible deterrents might well be of concern to the Palestinians--but not apparently to their fanatical champions in the Iranian government. The second deterrent--the threat of direct retaliation on Iran--is...weakened by the suicide or martyrdom complex ...Mr. Ahmadinejad and his followers clearly believe that [the endtime] is now, and that the terminal struggle has already begun and is indeed well advanced. It may even have a date, indicated by several references by the Iranian president to giving his final answer to the U.S. about nuclear development by Aug. 22. ...Aug. 22 corresponds, in the Islamic calendar, to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427. This, by tradition, is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to "the farthest mosque," usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back (c.f., Koran XVII.1). ...[there is no direct evidence that the Iranians plan any such thing, but]...[f]or people with this mindset, MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement.

Very well, but could the assurance "we will tell you by the 27th of Rajab" be the equivalent of "we will tell you by Labor Day"? There may be no more to this than the accusations that the Bush Administration is try to provoke the Rapture.

* * *

Mark Steyn is now annoying the Australians in person, as we see from this transcript of the talkshow Counterpoint:

[Mark Steyn] I mean, basically in Europe, once the state takes care of every issue of life, from childcare to healthcare to looking after your elderly parents to giving you six weeks paid vacation a year, 30-hour work weeks...what have you got to worry about? You are basically the world's wrinkliest teenagers, you are left to go down to the record store and pick out your record collection, everything else is taken care of by the state. That's not a healthy principle on which to build society.

Michael Duffy: Is that one of the reasons you're a conservative or why you support smaller government?

Mark Steyn: Yes, I think big government is a national security issue. I live in the great state of New Hampshire in the United States which has...basically money is raised and spent at town level, so if you've got a budgetary overspend, it's generally your neighbour that's overspending, he's listed in the phone book so you can call him up at home and shout at him. And I think there's a lot to be said for small government precisely for that reason; it's accountable. And the minute you get this big, bloated government...

Readers will note that Steyn is really complaining about unresponsive, bureaucratic government. If by "big" you mean "affecting a large portion of everyday life," then no form of government is quite so large as the sort of busybody town-meeting government that the Puritans introduced to New England. This kind of government, and not the bureaucratic state, is government at its most powerful.

Note too that this power can be for good or ill. The oppressiveness of totalitarian societies is effected chiefly through the work unit and the block committee; the secret police are just a carapace.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-05-22: Immigration & the West; Various Elections; Unauthorized Photo

Democratic Gains in the 2006 Midterm Elections

Democratic Gains in the 2006 Midterm Elections

I see two good predictions John Reilly made here.

  1. The Democratic Party was going to gain in the 2006 Midterm Elections in the United States
  2. The Open Borders Movement was going to become increasingly bold

Immigration & the West; Various Elections; Unauthorized Photo

 

Of course the Republicans are toast this November; I have nothing to add to this bucket of bile from Sidney Blumenthal:

President Bush's nationally televised address on immigration Monday night [May 15] was intended as a grand gesture to revive his collapsing presidency, but instead he has plunged the Republican Party into a political centrifuge that is breaking it down into its raw elements, which are colliding into each other, triggering explosions of unexpected and ever greater magnitude.

The nativist Republican base is at the throat of the business community. The Republican House of Representatives, in the grip of the far right, is at war with the Republican Senate. The evangelical religious right is paralyzed while the Roman Catholic Church has emerged as a mobilizing force behind the mass demonstrations of millions of Hispanic immigrants. Every effort Bush makes to hold a nonexistent Republican center is generating an opposing effect within his party.

The important point is that the Democratic Party will be subject to the same stresses, as we see in this New York Times account of the debate in the Senate over the immigration bill (hat-tip to Mickey Kaus):

Though the immigration issue was initially thought to favor Democrats since it could hurt Republican efforts to court Hispanics, some Democrats facing tough re-election fights in the fall are finding it cuts both ways. Almost as the votes were being counted on the Senate floor, Democrats like Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Robert Menendez of New Jersey were coming under fire.

"Stabenow Supports Social Security Benefits for Illegal Workers," said the headline over a press release issued by a challenger, Michael Bouchard, after Ms. Stabenow voted against a Republican plan to deny immigrants credit for payroll taxes paid while working illegally.

Tom Kean, a challenger to Mr. Menendez, issued a statement noting the senator opposed designating English the national language. "While I respect the diverse heritage of our nation, English is the bond that binds us together," said Mr. Kean in a statement.

By the way, the Senate rejected the only amendment that would have made the bill acceptable:

[Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota] and other Democrats also joined conservative Republicans in a failed bid to require the Department of Homeland Security to certify that the border was secured before any new programs for immigrants could start.

In any case, the worst thing that could happen to the Democratic Party would be to gain control of Congress and start pandering to what they imagine to be the Hispanic vote. The irredentist wing of the open-borders movement will only become bolder with the passage of time: woe to the party that tries to meet it halfway. If the Democratic party leadership tries, it is not inconceivable that there would be no Democratic Party by 2008. Democrats don't want to see the United States abolished or balkanized anymore than Republicans do.

Everyone I talk to about this says they would like to vote for a third party. The problem is all the third parties on offer are looney bins. Grassroots organization is not enough: we need some of the leadership of both existing parties to secede and join together in third-party caucuses in Congress and some of the legislatures before the new party starts soliciting votes.

This is a pipe-dream, perhaps, but stranger things have happened, just lately.

* * *

This issue is pan-Western. Readers may want to take a look at the Other Spengler's review of Londonistan and perhaps compare it with Victor Davis Hanson's Mexifornia (something I have not done yet, but I may).

Again, I would not trade America's immigration problem for Europe's. America would have no trouble at all assimilating the existing illegal population, or accommodating an expanded guest-worker program, though I think the latter is a bad idea; the problem is control of the border. There are some important parallels on the two sides of the Atlantic, notably the wilful neglect of what would have been an easily manageable problem by a political class that has been debilitated by multiculturalism. (The US neglect was perhaps more rational: the borders have been kept open in large part by libertarians who imagine that they can import an arbitrarily large amount of cheap labor without importing a proportionate political risk.) Something I am trying to get a handle on are the parallels, if any between the use of immigrant population by foreign powers.

The Islamist connection is clear enough. In Europe, Islamism has gone beyond providing a medium in which terrorist networks can flourish to becoming an important factor in retail politics. In Mexico, of course, there has long been some sentiment for the Reconquista, but the Mexican Voelkerwanderung does not seem to be a result of political will. The analogy to that would be a links between the irrdentists and Chavez in Venezuela, which of course would also be an oblique link to Iran.

More pipe-dreams, perhaps, but is anyone working on this?

* * *

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration's strategy in Iraq seems to have succeeded, or so one must characterize the formation of a regular government. Was it paranoid of me to suspect that much of the media did its best to bury this development under atrocity stories? (The atrocities may have happened, but why publicize them just now?) In any case, the issues now become the degree and speed of the Coalition withdrawal.

* * *

Perhaps New Orleans really will be abandoned. Any political culture that could re-elect Mayor Ray Nagin is probably too defective to be viable:

[D]uring the run-off campaign, Nagin courted conservative white voters by emphasizing his business background in contrast to Landrieu, a longtime politician and a member of Louisiana's equivalent to the Kennedy family...The mayoral election Saturday that returned Ray Nagin to office was split largely along racial lines, but both candidates got one-fifth crossover votes...

In such a case, the problem may not be the lethal incompetence of the incumbent, but the failure of the system to put forward a palatable alternative.

Thinking of investing in New Orleans, by the way?

Nagin dismissed threats by some business people who said they would leave if he remained in office..."Business people are predators, and if the economic opportunities are here, they're going to stay. If not, they're going to leave," said Nagin. "I don't worry about that stuff. I think there's enough interest around the country that we're going to attract top businesses. ... God bless them. I hope they stay, but if they don't, I'll send them a postcard."

E-mail might be better: the Post Office requires more public order to function than New Orleans is likely to afford.

* * *

Europe burned to create the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918, which later became a Republic, variously Socialist or Federal, depending on the current constitution. With the divorce of Montenegro and Serbia, however, now it's all gone. Actually, it was only while reading about the referendum that I realized that the Yugoslav federal government had dissolved in 2003; only a close alliance had held the last two remaining republics together.

* * *

Alvar Hanso supports spelling reform, as we see in this image from his address to a recent international spelling reform conference:

The Hanso Foundation has yet to add its Orthographic Initiative to its list of Active Projects, but no doubt that will happen in due course.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-03-03: Proscriptions and Shields

Gaius Marius

Gaius Marius

Political proscription is a feature of the late Roman Republic I hope we don't see, but we might, if history rhymes. I do worry a bit that you tend to hear this more and more. I had forgotten this bit from Jody Bottum, who had taken over the editorship of First Things after the death of Fr. Neuhaus.

Like John, I find the coalitions that comprise the major political parties in the United States a bit strange. It is easy to imagine alternatives, but it seems it would take a lot of activation energy to move us out of the state we find ourselves in. I'm not sure any of us would enjoy what it would take to blow up the current party system.


Proscriptions and Shields

 

Here is a bit of news from the penultimate phase of the Roman Republic:

Marius was possibly suffering from mental defects as he came to power: he ordered the the massacre of even the slightest of his political enemies. Many of those who had their severed heads staked around the Forum's Rostra were largely political bystanders; many had made the proscription lists simply in Marian attempts to settle old scores; and some because a Marian supporter wanted their possessions. Marius created a precedent for organized factional murder that would improved upon by his old subordinate, Sulla, after Sulla returned from the East and resumed political power in the capital. A pattern for the turbulent decades to follow of using tribunes as stalking horses, of using mob tactics to pass his policies into law, and of murdering political opponents had been established.

Marius, now 71, and Cinna forced through their elections as joint consuls. They entered the consulship in 86 B.C. It was Marius' seventh consulship. Marius, however, only "enjoyed" holding his last office for a few days: he died on 13 January.

And now, simply in the interests of causing trouble, here is a bit of what that Spenglerphobe, Joseph Bottum, had to say on March 2 at First Things:

So, a friend and I get talking yesterday. He’s a lefty, kind of....[t]he facts, he said, are these...the Democrats are circling for the kill, and they are entirely serious about impeachment if they gain the House and Senate—and jail time for everybody in the Bush administration if they win the presidential election in 2008. The Patriot Act and other assertions of executive power have put power in the hands of the White House, and there will be no hesitation to use it against political enemies when the Democrats regain the presidency and a thug like—perhaps I shouldn’t name him, but it doesn’t matter: imagine any of a dozen well-known Democratic party operatives here—is made chief of staff to a Democratic president...[t]he Republicans are going down. In fact, they’re going down for a generation, and their opponents will be moving brutally against everybody who has had anything to do with them...Start making Democratic friends as fast as you can, he advised. Give money, intellectual analysis, and political commitment to a couple that seem plausible, and boom them as hard as you can—for things could break so hard against you that your only chance to have influence for years, and maybe to stay out of jail, is to have some elected Democrats on your side.

There are several bizarre notions in the lefty friend's prophecies, notably the notion that there is anything in the Patriot Act that might be useful domestically to a government of vindictive liberal reactionaries. I don't doubt that the Left hopes for another 1974, the year of President Nixon's resignation, except that this time they want to actually convict the president and vice president in the Senate and then try them in the ordinary criminal courts. (All the impeachment process could do is remove them from office; putting them in jail would take a real judge.) I am not altogether certain that the congressional Democratic leadership wants to push that button.

Actually, the particular context in which Bottum entertains these florid hypotheses is the question of what the prolife movement should do if the Republican Party turns into the eponymous pet in the Dead Parrot Sketch. Even if the Republican Party declines below the level needed to function as an opposition, there are unlikely to be lynchings of prominent Republicans, except perhaps in Texas. However, it is true that the prolife movement would be the object of Democratic activists' particular ire.

As I have been saying for some time, the electoral linkage of social conservatives with libertarian and pro-business forces is not necessary, nor even particularly natural. The lefty friend's advice to prolifers to find congenial Democrats to support is well taken. That is not a solution, though, either for prolifers or for the country as a whole. Neither party makes much sense, in that both are composed of unnatural coalitions.

A replay of 1974 is unlikely. The Bush Administration, even now, could call on an ideological network that Richard Nixon never could. In 1974, I don't think that he could have filled the Mall in Washington with his supporters. George Bush probably could do that today, not that the crowd would have much to do with the useless Republican leadership. Conversely, as we saw during the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the Democratic leadership has turned into a freakshow. The day it has enough votes in Congress to impeach the president, or even to take control of the ordinary legislative agenda, is the day it discredits itself. It could not enjoy a long tenure in power, as the New Deal Democratic Party did. It will not last that long.

The solution is clear enough. Both parties are moribund enterprises. The salvageable components of each should be unplugged and reconfigured into something viable. The sequence of events by which that would happen is by no means clear.

By the way, I think it's more than a generation too early for Marius & Sulla, but I could be wrong. 

But look up! Our salvation is at hand: A Rochester, N.Y., company has developed paint that can switch between blocking cell phone signals and allowing them through!

Using nanotechnology, particles of copper are inserted into nanotubes, which are ultra-tiny tubes that occur naturally in halloysite clay mined in Utah. Combined with a radio-filtering device that collects phone signals from outside a shielded space...

"We oppose any kind of blocking technology," said Joe Farren, spokesman for The Wireless Association, the leading cell phone trade group. "What about the young parents whose baby-sitter is trying to call them, or the brain surgeon who needs notification of emergency surgery? These calls need to get through."

No, they don't. People had kids and aneurisms long before cell phones were invented and they got along just fine. I want every flat surface in the civilized world covered straightaway with this shielding paint. I want it done right now.

The thought also occurs to me that this stuff might be a defense against electromagnetic-pulse weapons, but that's another story.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Menace of Multiculturalism in America

Seeing this book had a foreword by Dinesh D'Souza, who has descended into hackery in the twenty years since this review was written, made me think of the fantastic Twitter exchange above.

The book John reviews here isn't very good, but his discussion of the issues is much better than the book itself. For instance, Schmidt makes the argument that the supremacy of English in the US probably helped preserve national cohesion during the two world wars, since the US had [and has] a large minority of German ethnics, who might have otherwise identified with the states we fought against. There is probably something to this, but linguistic policy is too blunt an instrument to really speed along assimilation.

Some of my great-grandparents in Indiana spoke German at home, but forced their children to speak English in the years between the two world wars, probably to make sure that they were thoroughly Americanized. This was a topic of some controversy at the time, as Teddy Roosevelt's hyphenated American speech to Knights of Columbus indicates. In the US, a social and political compromise emerged over time, that seems to have worked well. Explicit prohibitions on the speaking of German, or the use of German for public business weren't common, or needed. Woodrow Wilson's administration was less-forgiving on this subject than Teddy's was, and you can see the kind of resentment Wilson's policies created in contrast to TR's.

Contra Schmidt, there is a kind of multi-lingual multi-cultural society that works well. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire that preceded it are notable examples. Precisely insofar as these were imperial enterprises, peoples of different nations and ethnicities were united under one banner. Wilsonian nationalism was the doom of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the current fad for fracturing identity to a million warring camps is a degenerate form of Wilsonian national self-determination.

I also appreciate John's critique of multicultural histories, which so often simply swap the good guys and bad guys in a potted history, without bothering to be interesting or really engage the times and cultures they are purportedly about.

Also, in a warning that was not heeded, John said that the cultural and political Right in America should be wary of adopting the tactics of the Left, insofar as many of the Left's winning tactics work by fragmenting people into smaller and smaller groups and identities. Any durable politial consensus will need to reintegrate the American polity. At the moment, nothing is on offer.


The Menace of Multiculturalism: Trojan Horse in America
by Alvin J. Schmidt
(Foreword by Dinesh D'Souza)
Praeger Publishers, 1997
211 Pages, $39.95
ISBN: 0-275-95598-2
(Order 1-800-225-5800)

 

The Road to Bosnia

 

In the summer of 1997, The New York Times ran an article on the topic of "Who Won the Culture War?" The gist of the piece was that the cultural controversies of the past 30 years had ended more or less in a draw, resulting in a society that had mixed many new elements with traditional ones. (Think-pieces don't have to be very original.) The most interesting thing about the article, however, was the unquestioned assumption that the culture war is in fact over. After all, hadn't President Clinton just achieved reelection? Wasn't the Republican Party becoming a culturally "moderate" big-tent presided over by the likes of Ring Mistress Christie Todd Whitman? I suppose if you are a staff writer for the Times, it seems reasonable to conclude that the 1960s Counterculture has completed the "Long March through the institutions" and is now so firmly in control that it can afford to make cosmetic concessions to the nation's reactionaries without undermining its own position.

The problem with this view from the Times is that it assumes the society the Counterculture is in control of can continue to exist for any length of time after the Counterculture's views have been implemented. According to Alvin J. Schmidt, Professor of Sociology at Illinois College, the ideology of multiculturalism (which is the form the Counterculture took in its glacial phase) is so intrinsically corrosive that it will eventually destroy any society that adopts it.

The Menace of Multiculturalism is not a terribly original book. It collects an appalling number of horror stories about the oppressive enforcement of political correctness, most of which you have probably seen before (and some of which are cited from the oeuvre of Rush Limbaugh). Nevertheless, Schmidt has a background that makes him peculiarly worth listening to on the subject of "celebrating diversity." He is Canadian born (a former Mounty, no less) who has watched the Anglo-French linguistic antagonism in his native land grow worse and worse since the 1960s, to the point where now he has little hope for the survival of the confederation. He is also the son of Silesian German immigrants who came to Canada in large part to escape the Polish-German interethnic strife of the years following World War I. Schmidt's first language was German, but he went through a public school system that coerced German-speaking children to speak only English while on school property. In other words, he has personally suffered a fair amount of ethnic and linguistic discrimination himself, but he also has some precise knowledge of what happens to a society that encourages its members to cling to their ethnic and linguistic identities. He concludes that there is no alternative to a national policy of thoroughgoing cultural assimilation.

This, of course, assumes that policy is being made with an eye to keeping the nation together. With multiculturalists, this is not always the case. Schmidt has a lively sense that multiculturalism is Marxist in style and sometimes in content. (Cultural policies very like it were also the reigning orthodoxy in most Communist states that are now usually referred to with the prefix "former.") Certainly committed multiculturalists tend to be people who think that the wrong side won the Cold War and that the United States is mostly what's wrong with the world. This comes out quite explicitly in the sentiment among some "language rights" activists for the creation of the "State of Aztlan," an entity that would essentially reverse the outcome of the Mexican-American War. The establishment of Aztlan would require a certain demographic critical mass of unassimilated persons of Mexican extraction in the Southwest, and so the supporters of the idea fight tooth and nail for things like bilingual education (or monolingual education in Spanish, where they can get it). The wealth of data showing that bilingual education does not educate very well is thus irrelevant to many of its proponents. The point really is not to educate. It is to create a revolutionary class.

Quite aside from the motives of the multiculturalists, multiculturalism is also objectionable because it isn't really multicultural. (The Foreword by Dinesh D'Souza is particularly good on this.) Schmidt makes the interesting observation that schools started talking about learning other "cultures" at about the same time they stopped making their students learn other languages, which is often a necessary predicate for the serious study of genuinely foreign societies, past or present. The treatment of other cultures in school curricula is awfully thin at best. For the most part, though, the accounts are so tendentious as to be little more than fairy stories. A particularly egregious example of this is the treatment given the societies of the pre-Columbian Americas, who through no fault of their own tend to be portrayed as paragons of matriarchal eco-sensitivity. In such a context, the fact that a large chunk of the Great Plains in the 18th century was an Indian artifact, and that North America has been gradually reforested since the coming of Europeans, becomes unmentionable in every sense of the word.

It seems to me that the problem with instruction like this is not just that it's propaganda, it's boring propaganda. It kills whatever interest students may have in history or anthropology. The major societies of human history are all of them both wonderful and monstrous, because virtues and vices are always linked. The heartless social rectitude of Neo-Confucian China, the damned nobility of Aztec Mexico, the ruthless piety of early (and late) Islam, these are the sort of thing that first grip the imagination. They can entice students to a detailed and sympathetic understanding of other societies. Unfortunately, as Schmidt notes, they are precisely the sort of thing that multicultural education gives no hint of.

In short, "multiculturalism" simply does not tell you much about other cultures. It does tell you a great deal about the prejudices of textbook-writers and the negligence of the public officials who buy their work. It is common enough (and Schmidt does it himself) to characterize multiculturalism as "anti-Western," but that epithet presupposes an informed perspective on the West and its place in the world that is frankly beyond the capacities of the proponents of multiculturalism. As D'Souza notes, multiculturalism is an event within Western culture. One way to look at it is as a didactic puppet-show in which the puppets wear crude representations of folk costumes. Whatever the puppeteers think they are doing, their performance is in fact inciting the members of the audience to quarrel with each other and start fist fights. If the performance goes on long enough, there is a good chance the audience will burn down the theater.

Well, so much for the problem. What do you do about it? Schmidt has no original ideas, though he is categorical about some things. As far as he is concerned, there is no way to fudge the language issue: multilingual societies just don't work very well, so there is no alternative to English as the single national language of government and public affairs. (He says this despite his Germanic impatience with the "chaos" of English, referring no doubt to its orthography.) He does not advocate that the use of other languages by private persons and groups should be in any way hindered (as, for instance, the commercial use of English is restricted in Quebec and Mexico). What he does want is for voting ballots to be exclusively in English, for public ceremonies to be conducted exclusively in English, for English to be the sole language of instruction in the schools. He knows from his own experience how harsh this can be, since it was the regime under which he grew up. He also knows that this regime saved him from living in a linguistic ghetto for the rest of his life. He further suspects it saved the United States and Canada, with their huge German immigrant populations from the nineteenth century, from disintegrating during the twentieth-century world wars.

For myself, I am inclined to think that Schmidt is too pessimistic. Extreme situations are self-correcting, and multiculturalism is close to the aphelion of historical possibility. Politically correct history is interesting only to people who know the traditional history it is supposed to refute: young people who encounter only sanitized history don't know what it's about, so they study as little history as possible. The linguistic assimilation of new immigrant groups is in fact ticking along at about its historical pace, if not faster. In any case, all those Red Diaper Babies from the 1960s are starting to get a little gray around the gills. (You can tell, since their memoirs have been multiplying in recent years.) They are indeed of the age when you get to run things, and they are far from retirement, but they are not being replaced. The generation that remembers Ronald Reagan as president during its adolescent years is not going to act the same way as the one that remembers Lyndon Johnson.

I think now about the American Counterculture what I thought about the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s: once it starts to crack, it will collapse very quickly. Frankly, it might not be out of order for cultural restorationists to start giving some thought to self-restraint in the years ahead. Schmidt cites (on page 94) what I think would be a very bad precedent, a case in which politically correct university administrators who had been prevented from suppressing a fraternity were forced to undergo several hours of "sensitivity training" on freedom of speech issues. There is undeniably a certain rough justice in this. Sessions of this sort are directly descended from what old-line Communists used to call "struggle sessions," and they have become the grossest instrument of liberal oppression in industry and the academy. That is why conservatives in power should resist the temptation to use them. They are a Maoist technique and they stink up the place.

More conventional conservative proposals are also due for reconsideration. For instance, are charter schools and school vouchers really such a good idea in a society whose chief task in the near future will be to reverse a generation of deliberately engineered fragmentation? Are term limits for legislators such a dandy notion when you are likely to be in the majority for some time to come? Do you really want to create precedents for the censorship of the Internet while it is the only means of communication that cannot be controlled by the liberal establishment? The great danger is that we will simply turn the instruments of the Counterculture against itself. We don't need to pass legislation that treats dissenting conservatives as a legally protected minority: we need to eliminate the whole mythology of minorities and minority rights, period. A lot less sensitivity all around would do us a world of good.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly. This article originally appeared in the February 1998 issue of Culture Wars magazine

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The Long View 2005-06-15: Conspiracy, China, and the Defenestration of the Clercs

Lots of fun stuff in this blog post from just over twelve years ago. Gordon Chang is still wrong, of course, but why is really the more interesting question. I don't believe Gordon Chang's predictions of doom for China, but I also don't believe china hawks like Steve Hsu. Something is just not quite right with the assertion that China will easily dominate the next century. It seems plausible, given the sheer number of people and the rapid economic growth and modernization of China. However, John Reilly suggested that China was at a point in its civilizational cycle that meant consolidation and retrenchment of past accomplishments rather than a huge burst of creativity.

Greg Cochran seems to be of much the same mind. He recently asked: what are the innovations coming out of China today. Not science, but technological marvels of the type that seemed like they were daily occurrences in the Victorian age. Nothing truly amazing was forthcoming, which seems like a point in favor of John's theory.

Sony Reader with e-ink

Sony Reader with e-ink

The next thing is the Sony Reader. I was sure that the Sony e-ink technology would be a huge win, but then it turned out that people really wanted to play Angry Birds on their tablets instead of read books, and e-ink is no good for that.

Finally, the notion of the West. President Trump's speech in Poland, evoking the concept of the West, appalled everyone with right-on politics. For all that, it isn't a terribly obscure notion in Western politics, and it has been used by many other politicians across the political spectrum. Ross Douthat argues that the mainstream of Western politics right now is neoliberalism, a protean word to be sure, but it aptly describes where the center-left has found itself.

In the American context, Reaganite conservatism is really part of this stream as well. Trump and Sanders represented the first real populist challenge to the dominance of this tradition in the United States. We should only expect more of this.


Conspiracy, China, and the Defenestration of the Clercs

 

Many readers of this page no doubt suppose that the Second Vatican Council was the point where the Roman Catholic Church began to go soft. This was not the case, according to Egyptian historian Professor Zaynab Abd Al-Aziz, in an interview that aired on Saudi Iqra TV [1] on May 26, 2005. According to MEMRI:

Abd Al-Aziz: "The decision to impose one religion over the entire world was made in the Second Vatican Council in 1965."

Host: "Huh?"

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes. A long time ago...."

"When in January 2001, the World Council of Churches delegated this mission to the US - what did the US do? It fabricated the show of -- is it September 9 or 11?"

Host: "11. Please explain this to me."

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes, of course--"

Host: "You mean to say that the World Council of Churches delegated the mission of Christianizing of the world to the US."

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes. And how could the US win legitimacy for this without anyone saying that they are perpetrating massacres and waging a Crusader war? It fabricated the 9/11 show.

If this is how the World Council of Churches behaves, then what must the Bilderbergers be up to?

* * *

Mark Steyn recently asked and answered this question about the future of Asia: Who can stop the rise and rise of China? The communists, of course:

If the People's Republic is now the workshop of the world, the Communist Party is the bull in its own China shop. It's unclear, for example, whether they have the discipline to be able to resist moving against Taiwan in the next couple of years. Unlike the demoralised late-period Soviet nomenklatura, Beijing's leadership does not accept that the cause is lost:...

China won't advance to the First World with its present borders intact. In a billion-strong state with an 80 per cent rural population cut off from the coastal boom and prevented from participating in it, "One country, two systems" will lead to two or three countries, three or four systems. The 21st century will be an Anglosphere century, with America, India and Australia leading the way. Anti-Americans betting on Beijing will find the China shop is in the end mostly a lot of bull.

The prognosis that Gordon Chang made four years ago is not dissimilar. One notes, though, that Steyn's analysis is less driven by economics. Chang said that the current regime could not survive much past the middle of this decade because WTO rules would make China's hilarious financial system implode; Steyn is talking almost pure politics. Both strongly suggest, however, that the regime could attempt to settle the Taiwan issue by force, in order to maintain domestic legitimacy.

* * *

By the way, the eschaton has arrived on little cat feet: Sony's Librié text-display device seems very close to the realization of The Last Book. The reader is light, it's physically flexible, the text is as permanent as ink even when the power is off. Sony's version does have some annoying features, but something very like it could replace the codex.

* * *

Yet more evidence, if any were needed, of the perpetual unity of the West was recently presented in an essay by Frank Furedi, which appeared in Spiked, the most remarkable political ezine I have seen in a very long time. The essay is called From Europe to America: the populist moment has arrived. Its moral is given in the subtitle, On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has become convinced that the people do not know what is best for them. We read in part:

'People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about', notes Thomas Frank in his US bestseller What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Otherwise, Frank argues, how could they possibly vote for the Republicans? The belief that people are too stupid to understand the complexities of public life was also widely expressed during the heated exchanges that surrounded the recent referendums on the EU in France and Germany. Margot Wallstrom, vice president of the EU, commented on her blog that the Constitution is a 'complex issue to vote on', which can lead many citizens to 'use a referendum to answer a question that was not put to them'.

We should note that this populism (a word with a protean definition, but none better suggests itself) is by no means always in support of conservatism (an even slipperier word), or for that matter, that all elites are transnational socialists. In a way, President Bush's privatization plan for Social Security was just as much an elite notion as the EU Constitution ever was. Like the Constitution, electorates liked it less the more they heard about it. The saving garce for Bush and the Republicans is that they did not then claim that the privatization scheme failed because people were too stupid to understand it.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Politics of Meaning

I don't think I can improve on this concluding paragraph.


The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism

By Michael Lerner
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996
$24.00, 355 pages
ISBN: 0-201-47966-4

 

The '60s Left Tries God

Remember back in 1993 when First Lady Hillary Clinton began to wax eloquent about The Politics of Virtue? Remember that you could not understand what she was talking about? Because she and her husband had picked up a lot of the vocabulary for their new enthusiasm from Tikkun magazine, its editor, Michael Lerner, was briefly designated White House Guru by members of the press. In this book, Dr. Lerner (he holds doctorates in philosophy and clinical psychology) tries to explain what the First Lady was talking about, or at least what she would have been talking about if she had understood the magazine better. This is scarcely a campaign book; only an Epilogue deals with the Clinton presidency at length, and that critically. Rather, the book is nothing less than an attempt to sketch a general theory of leftist politics for a post-secular age.

In fairness, it should be said that Lerner speaks of a "progressive" politics that "goes beyond Right and Left." However, as with so many other calls to go "beyond" those categories, Lerner seeks to do so by assuming unconditional victory for the Left on almost every controversial point. The book is most interesting for its critique of liberalism. Like Christopher Lasch, Lerner sees it as basically a servant of the market. The argument might have been more persuasive were it not for the repetitive psychobabble in which it is written. In any event, Lerner's psychoanalytical bent has unfortunate consequences that go beyond style. The author's critique of contemporary conservatism, for instance, fails to engage the ideas of its subject as anything but symptoms of the psychological distress inherent in a repressive social system. The real problem with the book is far more fundamental, however. Lerner seeks to reconstruct "progressive" politics around a spiritual core, but the fact is that late modern cultural liberalism is flatly incompatible with piety. One will eventually destroy the other. It is as simple as that.

The author has two fears, one general and one more specific. The general fear is that the Right, both cultural and economic, will achieve permanent hegemony in the United States because it speaks to the spiritual dimension of life that liberalism has traditionally disparaged or ignored. Lerner is willing, indeed anxious, to acknowledge that the religious and cultural Right perceives real flaws in liberal society. However, since he is an economic leftist of the old school who has little sympathy with the actual program of today's Right, he is not pleased.

Lerner uses a slightly repulsive term, "meaning-needs," to refer to this element missing from the mind of modernity, but his point is clear enough. No society worth living in can be grounded in pure procedure, even just and equitable procedures. Healthy societies must look to a transcendent point of reference. Traditional religions do this, though Lerner is careful to allow that the same function could be served by nondenominational metaphysics. When a society loses sight of the transcendent, he suggests, it becomes disoriented. Families fall apart, people hate their jobs, some people become literally ill, either physically or psychologically. Where people are not seen to be images of God, they soon become objects rather than subjects, and then hated objects. Lerner has a quite lively sense that this is precisely the kind of cultural world that secular liberalism, or liberal secularism if you prefer, has been creating since the Enlightenment, and that people naturally loathe it.

His more specific fear is touched on directly only a few times, but the author clearly regards it as important. It is his belief that the Jews have been peculiarly associated with the progress of modernity, and so might be expected to be peculiarly subject to attack when modernity, at least in its liberal form, goes into retreat. This argument perhaps works better for continental European history than for American or even British history. Since the French Revolution, the "conservative" wing in the politics of most European countries has usually been based on an alliance of throne-and-altar, one to which non-Christians of any description were almost by definition in opposition. Even in the United States, however, the law regarding the separation of church and state was in large measure created to accommodate Jewish demands for purely secular public institutions, particularly with regard to education. According to Lerner, Jewish Americans are wrong to congratulate themselves on living in a country where most traces of Christianity have been removed from public life and the rest are under litigation. It is, for instance, conceivable that a resurgent Christian Right, which arose precisely to oppose this trend in the nation's civil life, would hold a grudge if it came to power. The more fundamental problem, however, is that secularization has been correlated with an appreciable decline in the public and private ethics of the American people. A godless America is not good for anybody, the Jews included.

This account of the theses of "The Politics of Meaning" is a kind of translation, since the intended audience for the book lives in a special mental universe where people speak a special language. The people Lerner seeks to persuade are old New Leftists, people for whom the 1960s was the acme of the moral evolution of the human race. In that universe, corporations are assumed to be criminal enterprises and the people who manage them are on the moral level of muggers and rapists. In that universe, feminism is an unalloyed success whose methods of consciousness-raising and mass action are models for every other form of social change. In that universe, private enterprise is the chief danger to the ecological health of the planet. (This may be because in that universe socialism has not really been tried, so the layer of toxic soot that covers so much of Eastern Europe in our own world is no evidence.) Perhaps the most bizarre thing about this other universe is that, there, Wilhelm Reich is a great psychoanalytic thinker. (Indeed, Lerner bandies Reichian-sounding terms like "spiritual energy" and even "God-energy" so freely that you have to wonder how tightly his notion of the "transcendent" is screwed on.) The inhabitants of that other universe have interests different from those of the people we know. Lerner's argument in the book, in fact, has less to do with demonstrating the reality of the transcendent than with showing why the "politics of meaning" is necessary for the fight against capitalism.

One of the many sixty-ish things about the book is that its attack on liberalism is from the Left. We are given to understand that the problem with the ACLU is that it is not radical enough. Lerner attacks the traditional liberal program of identifying and protecting ever more rights as essentially a diversion. "Rights talk," as it has come to be called, assumes the licitness of the market economy and seeks to make that economy more palatable. In fact, the whole problem with civil liberties as liberalism has conceived them is that they are based on the notion of contract, of free agreement between equal adults who have no history and no community. In order to disparage this notion, Lerner even goes so far as to nibble at the rationale for the abortion right, saying that abortion is a matter not just between a woman and her doctor, but a woman, her community and her doctor. (As I said, you have to wonder how tightly his notion of the transcendent is screwed on.) Lerner suggests an alternative model of rights, one proposed by certain feminists. Instead of thinking of rights as entitlements that flow from the implicit "social contract" between adults, we should think of them as arising from a social nurturing relationship like that which exists between a mother and child. My own reaction to this idea is that it gives new meaning to the term "nanny state," but in the universe where Lerner's audience lives, such a characterization is not an objection.

Lerner's postulate that market economies dissolve the cultures of the societies in which they exist is not new, and I can see how a few years ago it might have seemed to be obviously true. Lately, though, many people have begun to wonder. Francis Fukuyama, for instance, has taken to assessing the developmental potential of different countries by assessing the level of certain virtues among their inhabitants. So many societies have attempted to build capitalist economies since 1989, and with such varying success, that you have to question the assumption that the market economy is a universal anticulture. Lerner, however, remains fixed in the undergraduate certitudes of thirty years ago. For him, business is just a kind of predation. Competitors are obstacles to be overcome, employees are tools to be expended, consumers are cattle for the slaughter. Now, there are indeed post-Communist countries were business really is a war of all against all, one fought with real bullets that leaves real dead bodies. And of course, managers even in sophisticated capitalist countries are sometimes possessed by strange fashions, such as the recent practice of downsizing companies even in the face of expanding markets. However, I think that one lesson we can learn from the events of the past decade, if we did not already know it, is that businesses are normal human associations that depend on such virtues as trust, loyalty and hard work. Furthermore, far from relentlessly destroying these virtues, they normally promote them.

 

Successful market economies are culture specific phenomena that depend on the Post Office not stealing the mail, on accountants honestly totaling the receipts, on workers not sabotaging machines. Successful business pay their suppliers promptly. Their bosses look for new markets rather than try to bribe the government to give them monopolies. The sorry state of so much of the post-Communist world can be explained by the lack of cultural reflexes of this sort. Private enterprise does not run on "greed" or any other vice, though Lerner seems to think that greed is the sum of the morality of the market. Additionally, the notion that capitalist economies run on false needs generated by wicked marketers is an unsupportable piece of ancient leftist polemic. Doubtless most of the needs to which market economies cater are "false needs," in the sense that they far exceed the needs of bare subsistence. However, the fact that capitalist countries keep most of their citizens far above the level of bare subsistence can appear to be a fault only to people who hope for universal misery as a necessary predicate to revolution.

There is a distinct Gnostic flavor to Lerner's belief that most people in advanced countries spend most of their days in the service of criminal enterprises. (He allows, of course, that the guilt of business executives, like that of drug dealers, may be mitigated by the warped social environment in which they grew up.) Just as the ancient Gnostics thought that the body was evil in itself and the world therefore the doomed kingdom of the devil, so Lerner regards the normal activities of everyday life with a sort of disgust, tempered by the hope that people will someday abandon their inhuman market practices and instead deal with each other in a humane and loving way.

Lerner's model of truly human social interaction seems to be therapy. In the 1970s he was part of an institute dedicated to relieving the burdens of work-related stress. From what I can gather from this book, therapy consisted of awakening the workers to the harm that market competition was doing to their lives. The enterprise did not go far, and to his credit, Lerner realized that his clients had moral and spiritual concerns that could not be addressed in the language of the New Left or that of psychotherapy. "The Politics of Meaning" is an attempt to outline a language that could be used for just such a purpose. The "democratization" of the economy (which seems to mean establishing markets and prices by vote) and the "humanization" of the workplace (which seems to mean the old Soviet model of folding social services into the operations of factories and offices) would not be undertaken to comply with some economic theory. That would be just as dehumanizing as market economics. Rather, the truly human society would be created through a process of healing. The cure is to be found in a reformation of consciousness, to be accomplished through the familiar means of group therapy and other tools of progressive politics. The key to a new society is a transforming knowledge, a gnosis. To focus on mere details is not just unnecessary, but an evasion of the task at hand.

Tikkun, the name of the magazine that Lerner edits, means "reconstruction." In kabbalah, it means healing the damage done to the world by the primordial disaster that marred it. Traditionally, this was supposed to be accomplished by the devotion of the pious, but the idea lends itself to a theory of social progress as readily as does St. Augustine's model of history. The life's work of every participant in the society for which Lerner hopes would be to become a fully actualized human being, a creature that reflects the image of God. Nevertheless, the fact that the whole business sounds more than a bit like the Chinese Cultural Revolution with facilitators is not perhaps entirely coincidental.

Lerner remarks at one point that "to be human is to be commanded." There is something to be said for this formula, if you believe that morality is objective. The problem is that he seems singularly unwilling to be commanded by scripture, tradition or history. There is no significant feature of America's own cultural revolution in the 1960s that he is willing to repudiate. Certainly no laws, like those relating to divorce or abortion, are to be changed. The only problem with homosexual culture for him is homophobia. Even his willingness to allow instruction about religion in the schools is tempered by the proviso that Christianity is to have no greater part in the curriculum than any other religion, an odd restriction in a largely Christian country, even from a purely academic point of view. One of his refrains is that we should not limit our thinking to the practical, but should try to implement our highest ideals. The problem is that in Lerner's case, the social ideal is a religiously observant kibbutz. In contrast, the ideal for most people most of the time has been their own house with a bit of garden. When most Americans actually got something like that after the Second World War, the Left derided the ideal with songs about "little houses made of ticky-tacky" and began trying to make people want what they are supposed to want. Michael Lerner is still at it.

The lesson of the 1960s Lerner has refused to learn is perhaps the chief lesson of the whole revolutionary tradition of the modern West: we are commanded to be practical. To do otherwise, when contemplating so grave a matter as reconstructing a society, is to practice depraved indifference to human life. Lerner thinks that society as it exists is composed of criminals and psychopaths, of people who oppress each other and who steal valuable resources from the future. Nevertheless, he holds out the hope that they can be rehabilitated through a reeducation process in which they will have the sort of rights that children have in relation to their parents. Frankly, this has been the formula for bloody mass murder in so many places in the 20th century that it is hard to see how anyone who is not a moral idiot could propose it yet again.

One of the important points about the linear model of history shared by Judaism and Christianity is that you are supposed to learn something as you go along. We learn about the world through induction, through planned experiment and everyday experience. This is how we derive meaning from history. It is how we get some inkling of the influence of the transcendent on our world. The rejection by modernity of this source of guidance is what made modernity what it is. Nevertheless, something we have indeed learned is that market economics is true as far as it goes. It is, after all, just a set of theorems about the interrelation of prices. We have also learned that the market is not what is wrong with the world, and that those who say that it is usually have an agenda for which economics is just an excuse. These small insights do not exhaust the meaning of the twentieth century. However, they must be the basis for any humane practical politics of the twenty-first.

End

 

This article first appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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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.

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The Long View: Downsizing Is Easy; Government Is Hard

When I turned 18, I registered as a libertarian. Then I found out how weird most libertarians are, and I switched back to mainstream American politics. Joking aside, a big philosophical difference that I have with libertarianism is the idea that government, as such, is evil. This is an idea with a long pedigree in American politics, and lots of examples. The kind of governments that really took this idea to heart are known mostly for the poverty of their citizens and the corruption of their civil servants.

A libertarian critique of the wastefulness and inefficiency of government is often on point. The failure of the FAA Advanced Automation System that John discusses here is an excellent example. The challenge is that libertarian solutions have been tried, and found wanting. Privatizing the FAA, or at least it's air traffic control function, probably would work. But there isn't any reason to think that would have made the development of satellite based air traffic control any faster. 


Downsizing Is Easy; Government Is Hard

 

Why We Failed to Upgrade the Air Traffic Control System

In this campaign year of 1996, the airwaves and the newspapers are full of criticisms of big government and promises to return power to the people and to the states. Since the downfall of the Nixon Administration, American politics has been increasingly dominated by the theme that government itself is an evil. Responding simply to the polls, politicians echo what people say about the corruption and incompetence of public officials, even while seeking to occupy public offices themselves. Almost the only changes they can bring themselves to recommend are to make the organs of civil government smaller, more cautious, less able to affect the lives of ordinary citizens. Apparently, the chief duty of public officials is to restrain the ferocious ambitions of government bureaus, especially on the federal level.

This state of mind is lunacy. The chief responsibility of public officials is to govern. Government is hard. It requires the full attention of very smart people just to maintain those functions of the state that are necessary for civilized life. When officials are concentrating on something else, whether their own careers or some ideological nostrum, then the streets are not fixed, kids are not taught to read, and the country loses control of its borders. On the federal level in recent years, the textbook case of disaster-through- inattention was the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s. The cause was simple. The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation continued to insure the deposits at savings-and-loans as it always had, but it stopped doing serious inspections of the savings- and-loans to see if they merited the insurance. All the FSLIC had to do was maintain the inspection standards it had maintained for fifty years. The minds of the agency and of Congress were elsewhere, however, and the inevitable happened.

Now it seems that we have another scandal fit to set beside S&L Hell. The effort to create a new air traffic control system, called the Advanced Automation System, lasted 15 years and was originally supposed to be completed in 1990 at a cost of $3.6 billion. It was cancelled two years ago. It wasted half-a-billion dollars without improving the existing system. Now the FAA is working on a more modest upgrade for only $898 million, which it hopes to begin in 1998. This project is supposed to be on schedule. It, too, is an outrage. The problem with planning to simply upgrade the existing air traffic control system is that the one we have now is fundamentally obsolete. The matter goes beyond the old hardware and software. The system is based on controllers passing off aircraft from one imaginary point to another, following a system of radio beacons that goes back to 1941. Today, of course, when you can tell where you are to within a few meters by using the satellite technology of the Global Positioning System, there is no need for this clumsy relay. The upgrade now in the works makes no provision for this technology, though it might be adapted to use it in the future.

How did this Third World humiliation come about? Most of the information for this piece comes from a story by Matthew Wald that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on January 29, 1996. He proposes various causes, from the Reagan Administration's profligate ways with research and development money in the era of Stars Wars to the FAA's unrealistic safety requirements. However, it seems to me that the most important cause is more basic and more frightening. It increasingly menaces the legitimacy of our public institutions. The problem is that our elected officials have lost the ability to discern the core functions of government, the ones that must be maintained at all costs. They have lost the ability to discern these vital functions because the people who elect them have lost this ability, too.

The impetus to begin the overhaul of the air traffic control system was the air controllers strike of 1981. The controllers themselves were striking in part because even then they knew the system was inadequate to the demands placed upon it. In any event, the strike converted the FAA to the need for a more highly automated system, one that would be less vulnerable to walkouts. Most important of all, the explosion of air travel that accompanied deregulation clearly required a fundamental upgrade in the system.

Now think about this. The basic predicate of everything else the FAA might hope to accomplish is reliable air traffic control. There is no function, none at all, more central to the FAA's mission. However, having decided in 1982 to build an improved system, the FAA still managed to take until 1988 to choose a contractor for the software (the heart of the project) and to write the specifications. After all that effort, they chose IBM. This was like pouring over a menu at an ice cream parlor for fifteen minutes and then ordering vanilla.

You might think that control of the FAA would rank in importance with the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve or the directorship of the FBI in terms of the attention it receives from Congress and the President. It is a job that deals with life and death issues in an industry that just about everybody has contact with at least a few times a year. This sort of job needs incumbents who serve for long terms so they can attend to long-term policy. This is not the case with the Administrator of the FAA. Since the Administrator who began the Advanced Automation System project left office in 1984 until the current Administrator, David Hinson, killed it two years ago, the office has had three other occupants. It was also vacant for twenty months. This is the sort of indifference that make-weight jobs like Surgeon General get.

Political attention at the level of long-term policy is necessary for an important organ of government, because it lets the bureaucracy know what is politically possible. The staff at the FAA has not had this advantage, to the cost of us all. The original plan of the Advanced Automation System was to consolidate the controllers in its 250 Terminal Radar Control facilities, called "tracons," into 20 major control centers. This would have required not just new hardware but a dramatically increased level of computing power, since the enhanced control centers would have far more work do. Long after the project was underway, the FAA realized that consolidation of this sort was as politically difficult as closing an Army base; no member of Congress likes to have a federal facility closed in the home district. So the FAA told IBM to forget about the consolidation. The current upgrade plans involve only the control centers. This decision, of course, had the incidental effect of making the years of work already done largely irrelevant.

We know that it is possible to do complicated research and development in a reasonable period of time and at a predictable cost. While IBM was working simply on its proposal for the Advanced Automation System, for instance, Apple Computer conceived, developed and marketed the Mac, operating system and all. In times past, the government too knew how to coax good research and development from contractors. A good example is the contract that the Army made with the Wright brothers in the early years of this century to develop a spotter plane. It had few specifications. The ones it did have were enforceable and made perfect sense, such as that the machine had to be operable by a person of normal intelligence. The contract came to under ten pages.

The contract between the Department of Translocation and IBM for the new air traffic control software, in contrast, ran to hundreds of pages. Not only was it the longest contract in the DOT's experience, it was the longest in IBM's. Now, as anyone knows who has ever dealt with a complicated set of rules, the more rules you have, the more likely you are to overlook the important ones. The FAA, for instance, wanted the software to be upgradable while the system was in use. This requirement ("continuous operation") was perhaps implicit in the specifications. Unfortunately, nowhere in the hundreds of pages did it ever actually state this requirement. IBM had been working on the project for years before the engineers became aware of the requirement, which meant that hundreds of millions of dollars of programming they had already done had to be redone. By the early 1990s, confusion like this was putting the project's completion date back three and a half months for every month that passed. A new system was receding into the infinite future.

The Advanced Automation System suffered from that peculiar form of dissociation from reality which seems to happen only when lawyers try to tell engineers what to do. According to an one engineer working with the FAA, some of the specifications in the contract may have violated the laws of physics. The FAA asked for a system that was 99.99999% reliable. This is the actual figure; it would have meant a system that malfunctioned only about three seconds a year. Every further increment of reliability, of course, is harder to achieve than the one before. When you are talking about five decimal places, you are talking about spending an immense amount of effort (and money) to achieve almost nothing. As it happened, nothing was what the programmers achieved.

A report by independent consultants, the CNA Corporation, also lays a large share of the blame on IBM itself. The project involved dozens of programmers, whose work IBM made little effort to coordinate. (Despite the length of the contract, no one seems to have given much thought to compensating IBM in such a way that it would have been in the company's interest to spot problems beforehand.) IBM has great strengths in the design both of hardware and software, but they are not necessarily the first company you would think of if you wanted software that would have to be used by exhausted people in stressful situations. The software engineers seem at every stage to have had little interest in making the control interfaces user friendly. The flight controllers wanted to be able to move images and information around on their screens with a recessed button. IBM wanted them to type code. This is a perfect example of what is known as "corporate culture."

The National Transportation Safety Board recently affirmed that the current air traffic control system is safe, but acknowledged that the system is increasingly prone to delay. The major airlines say these delays cost them around $5 billion a year. As we have seen, there are no plans to build an up-to-date system. The best we might hope for, a few years for now, is a system that is obsolete but not actually made of junk.

The problem with the air traffic control system is not big government, over-regulation or the need for privatization. One might be forgiven for suspecting that a privatized FAA would work about as well as the Post Office and Amtrak, both of which are run by semi- independent corporations. In fact, privatizing the FAA would be just the sort of phony solution that has come to substitute for competent administration since the 1970s. Sometimes in some situations we need smaller government. What we need now is ordinary good government.

END

This article originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Business Travel Executive magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 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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The Long View: Napoleon: A Political Life

Napoleon crossing the Alps

Napoleon crossing the Alps

Napoleon was one of the great figures of European history. This is a fine summary of his life.


Napoleon: A Political Life
By Steven Englund
Scribner, 2004
592 Pages, $35.00
ISBN 0-684-87142-4

 

Several biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) have been published over the years. This one, by an American historian who has taught at the University of Paris, merits special attention. Napoleon did the damnedest things. When he was around, history did not work as it usually did. At his best, Napoleon practiced political architecture in a way that one sometimes encounters in American jurisprudence, but almost never in practicing politicians. This biography by an outsider helps us distinguish what was French (and durable) in Napoleon's achievements from what was merely Napoleonic.

There is a tradition of aphoristic writing about Napoleon, and the book does not disappoint on that score, either. Englund remarks of Napoleon's choice as Second Consul, after the coup that made Napoleon head of state: “The gesture to Sieyès was essentially an expensive floral arrangement sent to the man's political funeral.” Englund also favors indictable puns, such as “the unbearable tightness of Napoleon's being” with regard to the autocrat's fiscal habits, and “Paris was worth a mess.” If you try to take notes on this book, you will take too many.

“Napoleon: A Political Life” is a biography, not a big block of political theory. We get some insight into Napoleon the man, but Napoleon remains histrionically inscrutable. According to Englund, we probably would not have liked Napoleon if we had known him personally: “Napoleon was a self-made man, and he worshipped his creator.” Still, there was nothing much wrong with him. He had no dark traumas in his past, and no debilitating pathologies. He did not arrest people arbitrarily or condemn categories of people to death. His paranoia, such as it was, expressed itself as exasperating bureaucratic oversight.

Some points about Napoleon's background do help us understand, however.

Napoleon came from the lowest level of the provincial aristocracy. That meant that he was just aristocratic enough to attend respectable military schools, but not so grand as to be a class enemy when the Revolution came. How did Napoleon get promoted to brigadier general at age 24? Well, he besieged and captured Toulon, for one thing. However, he was able to do that only because France's senior officers, who belonged to the higher aristocracy, had deserted.

Most famously, Napoleon was Corsican. He was born “Napoleone Buonaparte,” a form he used even after he had become a national figure in revolutionary France. In the 18th century, Corsica had been a possession of the crumbling Republic of Genoa, which traded it to France. Force had to be used to make the Corsicans accept the deal, but in the meantime the island was briefly an independent commonwealth under the enlightened leadership of Pasquale Paoli. Paolisti republicanism was moderately patriotic, economically progressive, keen on education, and not in the least anti-clerical: its spirit was that of Montesquieu, not that of Rousseau. This was what “republic” meant in the Buonaparte household. Sometimes, it seemed to be what Citizen First Consul Bonaparte meant by “Republic,” and, more rarely, what Emperor Napoleon I meant by “Empire.”

Englund characterizes Napoleon as a “realist.” If that's true, he was a realist in the way that some untrained autistic people can draw photographically realistic images; they record exactly what the eye sees. Napoleon's gift as a military commander was of this nature. His constant criticism of his commanders was that they “made a picture” of what the enemy ought to do, rather than seeing the possibilities offered by the terrain and what the enemy was actually doing. Napoleon's ability to grasp the situation long bewildered his enemies, who thought in terms of the refined tactics of the Baroque. As a political leader, Napoleon similarly bewilders with the barrage of titles and constitutional forms he deployed throughout his career: Director; First Consul (Provisional, Decennial, and Life Tenure); not to mention his occasional status as King, President, or Mediator of various vassal states. Finally, he was Emperor, an office that also underwent constitutional mutation, even during the final Hundred Days. In the 20th century, change like this usually meant chaos and collapse for the state in which it occurred. In Napoleonic France, things were quite otherwise: the foundation was laid on which France rests to this day.

The key to understanding the political Napoleon is the distinction the French make between “le politique,” meaning important matters of public policy, and “la politique,” which is retail politics, particularly the politics of electoral democracy. In American terms, “le politique” would most definitely include federal, but not state, constitutional law. American high politics is also rather impersonal: the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence are discovered; they are not the gift of a Rousseauean Law Giver. The French, at least since the Revolution, categorize things differently. They clearly distinguish between the state, the maintenance of which is the purpose of high politics, and the constitutional forms of the state that might be convenient from time to time. They are also willing to allow a DeGaulle (or, dare one say it, a Petain) exercise leadership on fundamental issues. The result is generally more conservative than not.

Englund, like Napoleon, is less interested in the various French constitutions than in the “granite blocks” that Napoleon laid, particularly during the Consulate (1799-1804), when post-revolutionary France was still a republic and Napoleon was a sort of president. The civil code that was drawn up under his auspices, and which bears his name, still governs the law of everyday life in France. In fact, its clarity and logical structure helped ensure that it would become the model code for much of the world. He gave France a sound currency and the beginnings of a workable financial system. His administrative and educational establishments survived into the 20th century. He also created the Legion of Honor, a distinction that grated on revolutionary scruples against titles of nobility, but which few have ever refused. These creations were of such lasting benefit to France that, despite more than a decade of ruinous war, one can still argue that Napoleon did more good than harm.

At least from an Anglo-Saxon point of view, there was something terribly wrong-headed about even the good that Napoleon accomplished. Napoleon wanted as little unregulated politics as possible, just as he wanted a financial system that did not generate much independent finance. (He got his wish: there was no French counterpart of the British financial market for Napoleon's government to borrow from.) Important matters were for the bureaucracy to decide, not parliament. When Napoleon acted in what he considered everyday politics, however, he was often irresponsible.

The general tendency of Napoleon's rule was away from the Republic, a mere constitutional form, and toward the Nation. Increasingly as First Consul, and then as Emperor, Napoleon claimed to speak for the nation. This gave him a status far beyond mere divine right, at least in his own estimation. In fact, “Bonapartism” came to mean a claim to represent the nation in a way more profound than that of the representatives who were merely elected. Napoleon once snarled at one of his legislatures:

“Do these phrase-makers and ideologues imagine they can attack me like I was Louis XVI? I won't stand for it. I am a child of the revolution, sprung from the loins of the people, and I won't suffer being insulted like I was a king.”

One should note, though, that Napoleon's legislatures were not merely decorative. The upper house was often a serious consultative body, and anyone in the national government was there because Napoleon had a use for him. Even the imperial court, when Napoleon created one, was peopled by officials with ridiculous titles (what's an Arch-Chancellor?) who also had real jobs. They scarcely had time for the complicated ceremonial.

Neither did Napoleon object to elections. Far from it: whenever he did anything important, he held a plebiscite. He always won. There was no secret ballot, so people tended to express opposition by not voting rather than by voting “no.” However, the plebiscites drained legitimacy away from the organs of ordinary politics.

Before 1804, Napoleon was the Father of Nations, though the new states he created from the old multinational empires found French exactions burdensome. He had both domesticated and made peace with the Church, though he never quite lived up to his side of the Concordat. The French economy flourished, though it did so with the aid of subsidies, and the Napoleonic Code did not allow for joint-stock companies. Most important: he had saved the Revolution by suppressing the extremists, though the list of his powers grew ever longer. Then, after five years as First Consul, he decided he should be emperor, and he turned into a pure nuisance.

The problem with the Empire was that its operatic invocations of tradition, including the presence of the pope at the coronation, had nothing to do with its sources of legitimacy. Like the Consulate, it was a plebiscitary regime. It was dependent on Napoleon's personal charisma. Until the name of the state was tactfully changed to “Empire,” Napoleon was sometimes styled “Emperor of the French Republic.” That was a confused thing to be.

Englund sides against those historians who say that aggression was a systemic feature of the Empire. Napoleon's advisors were almost all doves. The Peace of Amiens (1802-1803) between France and Britain might have had a long run. It was Napoleon himself, with his opportunistic conversion of Holland and Switzerland to vassal states, who renewed the war with Britain. Domestically, Napoleon was a conciliator. At the international level, however, he was without patience or tolerance:

“In short, the French emperor's distaste for politics now embraced the foreign as well as the domestic arena; he looked on other rulers as if they were heads of factions and parties who bridled and schemed against 'rightful' government, vexing its plans and troubling the peace of its head, the emperor of the French.”

Napoleon never tried to create a peace that Europe could live with. Even his “Continental System,” which might have reconciled Europe to French hegemony, was used shortsightedly. “Le politique” did not extend to the structure of the international system. Indeed, if you look at French behavior in the European Union and the United Nations, it still doesn't.

Meanwhile, Napoleon's enemies learned his tricks: Napoleonic military tactics, national conscription, even appeals to nationalism, though Englund thinks that later German historians overestimated the effectiveness of those appeals. The enemies of Napoleon, quite against their will, were compelled by him to become his peers. He was quite capable of defeating his peers, but not all the time.

History is full of revolutionary and chaotic eras, when a genius can rise into world-history on pure ability. Few generations were quite as revolutionary as the gateway between Old Europe and modernity. Nationalism, secularism, in a sense politics itself, all first materialized in that gateway where we meet Napoleon. He did not create these things. They did not create him, either.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Napoleon: A Political Life
By Steven Englund

The Long View 2004-12-13: McCain Ring; Perfect UN; Culture War Overseas; Chinese Bubble

I enjoyed a taste of Hillary Clinton's 2004 efforts to position herself as a future President:

On immigration she has begun talking tough on border security, accusing the administration of not spending enough, employing enough people, using the best technology. She recently called herself "adamantly against illegal immigrants," by which she no doubt meant illegal immigration, and has been inching toward support for a national ID card.

Oh how the times change.


McCain Ring; Perfect UN; Culture War Overseas; Chinese Bubble

 

Speculation about the presidential election of 2008 was well underway even before November 2. Today, one almost feels that time grows short. In any case, I was thinking of starting a purely exploratory "McCain for President" webring. If anyone is interested, please drop me a note.

Some candidacies are not at all speculative. Peggy Noonan's assessment of the protocampaign of Hillary Clinton is provocative on several levels:

She is taking care of her liberal base while cherry-picking key issues on which she can get to the right of the Republican party. This is most astute and quite effective. For the liberals she produces a steady stream of base-friendly efforts (Special Committee on the Aging, education funding, help for the emotionally disturbed, extended unemployment insurance) and classic pork barrel. To get to the right of the president she talks homeland security and immigration. On homeland security she fights for increased funding, better controls at U.S. ports, tightened security for nuclear power plants and chemical plants. She issues warnings about the use of weapons of mass destruction on American soil. She is a member of the Armed Services Committee and likes to talk about military reform. On immigration she has begun talking tough on border security, accusing the administration of not spending enough, employing enough people, using the best technology. She recently called herself "adamantly against illegal immigrants," by which she no doubt meant illegal immigration, and has been inching toward support for a national ID card.

Why does she want to get to Mr. Bush's right on these issues? [One reason] is that she knows another attack on American soil is inevitable and wants to position herself politically as The Wise One Who Warned Us.

This is why we have elections.

* * *

American foes of the United Nations are engaged in a campaign to prevent the organization from expanding its headquarters in New York, or even repairing its existing crumbly old modernist signature building:

Currently, there are several efforts under way to block the U.N.'s expansion and renovation of its building. Move America Forward has thrown its weight behind lawmakers and other community leaders to prevent the U.N. from growing in New York.

The United Nations' plan calls for a new 35-story building built on a park and the renovation of its current 52-year-old main headquarters.

The United Nations is not without its faults. Even people who approve of it in principle increasingly suspect that, like the pharisees, it neither enters the Kingdom, nor allows others to enter. In any case, those who believe the organization should be put out of its misery are barking up the wrong tree if they try to prevent the United Nations from creating a more palatial headquarters complex. Northcote Parkinson understood the matter perfectly:

One chapter [of Parkinson's Law], titled "Plans and Plants, or The Administrative Block," did deal with architecture. I remember it since it undermined much of what I was being taught in my classes. Parkinson's thesis, briefly put, was that when an organization commissioned an architectural masterpiece for itself, it was almost always done at precisely the moment when that organization was on its last legs. "During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters," he wrote. "The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death."

I know this, but I can't help myself.

* * *

For some time now, I have been waxing tedious about the link between the Culture War and the Terror War. Some anecdotal evidence supports the link, as we see from this report by Tyler Golson, an American academic teaching in Damascus:

One afternoon I was explaining the passive tense of verbs, and I used an example that came to mind from American culture. I asked them if they knew who was nominated by the two main parties to run for president. "John Kerry was nominated by the Democratic Party, and George Bush was nominated by the Republicans," replied one of the brightest in the class, a veiled Muslim engineering student named Rahaf. "Very good," I said. "Now, who do you think will be elected?" "Bush," cried several of the students at once, smiling. Abandoning my lesson plan for the moment, but curious at this sudden display of interest in the election, I ventured: "Who do you want to win?" "Bush," said Rahaf, while a number of others nodded in solid agreement. I pressed them further for a few minutes, asking individual students why they liked Bush. The same ideas came up again and again: he is a strong leader, an honest man, and, most of all, a believer. Like the winning margin of American voters this year, these Middle Easterners related to Bush's sense of religious conviction and his confident steering of a nation and culture they admired.

Supporting Bush may be as close as the students could come to openly opposing the Baathist government of Syria. Still, one wonders what they would have said about America if Kerry had been elected.

* * *

Perhaps I am not the only person whom the recent sale of IBM's PC business to the Chinese firm, Lenovo, reminded of the huge, ill-advised purchases of American assets by Japanese companies in the late 1980s. About the IBM deal, the analogy may not be apposite. The Chinese did not just ship oil freighters full of dollars to IBM, which was pretty much what the Japanese did. As the New York Times pointed out today, I.B.M. Sought a China Partnership, Not Just a Sale, and the deal was structured to give IBM a continuing interest in the future of Lenovo. However, other Chinese firms are doing deals just as appalling as the Japanese purchase of Rockefeller Center. As another New York Times story put it, China's Splurge on Resources May Not Be a Sign of Strength:

In one closely scrutinized deal, China's state-owned Minmetals Corporation is bidding to purchase Noranda of Canada, the third-largest zinc producer and ninth-largest copper producer in the world, for a reported $5.5 billion. The deal is expected to include assumption of a substantial amount of debt not reflected in the cash price, and appears to be based on the assumption that commodity prices will stay high indefinitely, said Jason Kindopp, a China analyst at the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political-risk consulting firm. Mr. Kindopp said that China risked waking up one day to find itself holding vastly inflated contracts in a global recession in commodities, much the way Japan suffered major losses after having overpaid for international assets during its boom in the 1980's.

Has there ever been a country with a big trade surplus that did not turn out to have more money than sense?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-11-02: The Gore Family

I found a blog entry that I missed from 2002. Which is unfortunate, because John makes the very interesting point here, often re-iterated, that the social and economic arrangements of the United States in the 1950s were unusual. They were intentionally unusual, and represented the pinnacle of 150 years of concerted effort. It took a lot of energy to keep people in a state that is so different from the average. Once we stopped being willing or able to put so much effort into it, that state of affairs started to unravel. 


The Gore Family

 

For my part, I have always rather liked former Vice President Al Gore. I am a pedantic nerd, too, and I think I can speak for all nerds when I say that we are always pleased when one of our own attains to honorable public prominence. I say this despite the fact I have long been aware of Al Gore's limitations; as anyone who has actually read Gore's Earth in the Balance knows, the man has no critical sense. Still, his personal behavior has been exemplary.

It has only been lately that the former vice president has started to give off the sort of creepy-crawly vibes that Bill Clinton has been radiating more and more strongly these many years. This has happened in connection with the promotional tour that Al and his wife Tippper have been doing for their new book, Joined at the Heart. (I gather there is also a coffee-table companion volume called Spirit of Family.) I heard them on National Public Radio, their voices playing off each other like laughing flutes. They mildly urged the interviewer to call them "Al" and "Tipper," all the while making non-negotiable statements of their family-friendly and ecologically sensitive philosophy. A few minutes of this, and I started to be reminded of another joined-at-the-hip feminist couple: Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, the founders of the Heaven's Gate suicide cult.

Not once did the Gores urge their listeners to prepare to leave on the mother ship, at least in the interview I heard, but their ideas about "family" did seem to be comparably anti-human. Essentially, their argument is that the broken families and pseudo families that have become so common should be accepted as normative. That is, public policy should not specially favor the model of a mother, a father, and their biological children.

There is something to be said for the argument that the nuclear, "Ozzie & Harriet" family of the 1950s was historically anomalous. For one thing, it was the first time that life expectancy rose high enough that an average couple could expect to live to old age together if they did not otherwise break up. However, it is a mistake to think that the mid-20th century family represented a new ideal. Rather, it was the culmination of a policy of political and cultural reform that had begun 150 years previously. The "Ozzie & Harriet" family was not a new family; it was simply the most successful version so far of a very old ideal.

What never seems to enter the Gores' heads is that the successful reformation that the Victorians began might be repeated, or that government should have any cultural policy but greater tolerance and fewer privately owned guns. They certainly don't seem to appreciate that, although only a minority of the people live in nuclear families, a majority feel that their improvised families are in some way suboptimal. The Gores' family policy is that that majority never be told why their intuition correct.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-11-18: You Can't Make This Stuff Up, But People Do Anyway

Unfortunately, Bush Derangement Syndrome has proven to be a permanent feature of American politics since 2004, with the object changing every so often.


You Can't Make This Stuff Up, But People Do Anyway

 

The expression "Bush Derangement Syndrome" seems to have been coined by Charles Krauthammer last year. Conceived as a witticism, it referred to the fury that afflicts some critics of the Bush Administration, a fury with the peculiar property that those who have Bush Derangement Syndrome don't recognize it as anger. The term has become widespread: David Kaspar uses it to describe the German media's reaction to Bush's reelection.

But if Bush Derangement Syndrome was supposed to be a joke, what are we to make of Post Election Stress Trauma [PEST]?

Boca Raton News: Mental health officials in South Florida blasted Rush Limbaugh on Monday, saying the conservative talk show host’s offer of "free therapy" for traumatized John Kerry voters has made a mockery of a valid psychological problem..."Rush Limbaugh has a way of back-handedly slamming people," said Sheila Cooperman, a licensed clinician with the American Health Association (AHA) who listened Friday as Limbaugh offered to personally treat her patients....Cooperman, whose professional practice is based in Delray Beach, said the election-related symptoms she sees in the Kerry supporters more than [qualify] PEST as "a legitimate syndrome or disorder within the trauma spectrum," according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

I suspect PEST is a joke, too. I am afraid to check. However, it is true that some people really do view the recent election as a medical trauma for which they require treatment.

* * *

Whenever discussion of a public issue begins to use therapeutic terms, you normally find that someone is trying to get back on-message because pesky facts are interfering with their opinions. We saw quite a bit of that during the Nuclear Freeze Movement, when psychologists began to diagnose support for the Reagan Administration's Soviet policy as "psychic numbing." This had the convenient effect of relieving the opponents of that policy of the need to discuss the nature of the Soviet Union, much less of the need to actually know something about arms control. Psychology is not the only way to keep on-message, however. Translating an issue into Marxist terms used to be a sure-fire way to obviate the need to mention unpalatable realities. More recently, feminism has served the same function. I think that we are seeing an example of this in Theodore Dalrymple's piece in City JournalWhy Theo Van Gogh Was Murdered:

But why kill Theo Van Gogh, of all the people who have expressed hostility to radical Islam? Perhaps it was mere chance, but more likely it resulted from his work’s exposure of a very raw nerve of Muslim identity in Western Europe: the abuse of women...Were it not for the abuse of women, Islam would go the way of the Church of England. ...Religious sanction for the oppression of women (whether theologically justified or not) is hence the main attraction of Islam to young men in an increasingly secular world.

So now we know. Islam does not make converts in every Western country because Westerners seek to ground a sober way of life in the transcendent, a desire that secular modernity cannot satisfy. They do it to abuse women. (Those converts who are women, presumably, do it to be abused.) In fact, one might surmise from Dalrymple's argument that the oppression of women is the only real attraction that any religion has.

There are no mitigating circumstances in the slaughter of Theo Van Gogh. There is an explanation, though, which is that he was Michael Moore without the tact (or the body-guards). From what I can tell, Van Gogh does seem to have shared something of Dalrymple's contempt about the religious roots of human life. In Van Gogh's case, I suspect, willful ignorance of the dangers he faced made him vulnerable. Secularists who adopt Dalrymple's analysis will similarly be blinded to the nature and the enormity of the threat.

* * *

Meanwhile, not only are physicians taking money to cure parodic diseases, but parody publishing concept are appearing in the light of day. Consider, for instance, this passage from an imaginary business-philosophy book that Walter Kirn described in his novel, Up in the Air:

In The Garage, I propose a bold new formula to replace the lurching pursuit of profit: "Sufficient Plenitude." Enough really can be enough, that is. Heresy? Not to students of the human body, who know that optimum health is not achieved by ever greater consumption, but by functioning within certain dynamic parameters of diet and exercise, work and leisure.

Very funny, but then what are we to make of this new publication?:

Plenty hits the newsstands today and is scheduled to be published six times in 2005. It is aimed, the creators say, with no apparent comic intent, at the "environmental consumer" and promises "smart living for a complex world." The idea is that you don't have to be stodgy and self-flagellating to be green.

I am almost certain that Plenty is for real. Again, I am afraid to check.

* * *

On the subject of timidity, those of us who are too timid to simply confront the future have long been comforted by the opportunity to read about it ahead of time in the books of Strauss & Howe, with their beguiling cyclical generations model of American history. The problem they have faced since 911 is whether that event began the long-predicted generation of Crisis. They recently addressed the matter again:

As we wrote at the time, and as many readers have remarked, 9/11 came a bit early in the cycle--before Silent influence weakened sufficiently, before Boomers began entering old age with generational imperatives, before Gen Xers began entering midlife as societal anchors, before Millennials began coming of age and asserting themselves politically. In The Fourth Turning, we set 2005 as the time when that generational constellation would make a shift from the third to the fourth turning more likely...On domestic as well as foreign issues, America is now primed for a spark to catalyze the new mood far more fundamentally than 9/11 ever did outside the two attacked cities.

The difficulty is that, if 911 was the beginning of the Crisis, like the financial collapse of 1929, or like the Dred Scott decision of 1857, then the corresponding "regeneracy" event is just about due, like the beginning of the New Deal in 1933, or the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1861. S&H cast doubt on whether the election of 2004 was a sufficient template for a new departure of that magnitude, so they wonder whether some incident still to come might serve to begin the Crisis.

In my opinion, the crisis that began on 911 was quite critical enough. As for the regeneracy, who knows what 2005 will bring?

* * *

Returning to merely historical history, John J. Dilulio Jr. argues in The Weekly Standard ("Wooing Purple America": November 17, 2004) that the Democratic Party has a dim future, unless it breaks its ties to the Cultural Left:

An old Philadelphia Democratic committeeman once put it this way: "I don't like [Moral Majority fundamentalist preacher] Jerry Falwell or [Grateful Dead drug-culture rocker] Jerry Garcia, but if I had to pick one Jerry to watch my grandkids, I'd sure pick Falwell."

Once again we see the old principle: give the people a choice between Us and Them, and the people will inevitably choose Them.

* * *

Finally, I have often complained in this space that the 21st century does not have all the technologies I had looked forward to, and it has other technologies that don't interest me, or are otherwise unsatisfactory. It was with some relief, therefore, that I saw this report about a good old-fashioned 21st-century system about to go into operation:

CHICAGO (CBS 2) Mayor Daley officially opened a new city operations center Tuesday that will include a dramatic increase in camera surveillance on Chicago’s streets...real time video and audio information from 2,000 cameras and microphones stationed around the city..The operations center will respond to anything from terrorist attacks to gas leaks...The new system also has the ability to instantly report the sound of gun shots within hearing distance of the microphones planned around the city.

The only problem is that the system is obsolete. Why doesn't the city just set up webcams that everyone can use?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-10-18: Alternative Realities

This bit here about whichever party in the US happens to be out of power pretends that the party that won the last election is doomed and and mired in corruption and scandal has been the pattern since at least 1992. Since politicians often are involved and scandal and corruption, it does have a way of partially coming true every so often.


Alternative Realities

 

The New York Times endorsed Senator Kerry for president yesterday, and ran some revealing hit-pieces to celebrate the event. The most amusing, though not perhaps for the reasons he intended, was film reviewer Frank Rich's essay, Will We Need a New 'All the President's Men'? The title explains the thesis. Having taken on board the possibility that, through some defect of the electoral system, George Bush might get a second term, Rich has chosen the Nixon Administration as the paradigm for the future. The Left was quite as adamant about denying the legitimacy of the Nixon Administration as the Right was about denying the legitimacy of Clinton's. The difference was that the Left got their man, and the pattern has become an archetype: meta-scandal, not so much about malfeasance as about denying the malfeasance; resignation; a lost war. To a certain kind of mind, the drill is perfectly clear, and we will be hearing much more about it in the coming months and years.

As for a remake of the wonderful old Robert Redford -- Dustin Hoffman film, however, I fear that Rich will be disappointed. He might be better advised to get a digital version of the film and redub parts of it with dialogue that fit his current antipathies. I am still waiting for someone to do that with Fahrenheit 911.

* * *

An altogether creepier offering from the Times was in the Sunday Magazine. In a longish story entitled Without a Doubt, Ron Suskind contrived to present President Bush's religious beliefs as a delusion that drives all his policies:

Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ''if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.'' The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.

''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . .

Actually, as nasty propaganda lines go, this one is probably not as repugnant as the "lunatic in the White House" campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964, which recruited practicing psychologists to publicly diagnose Goldwater as clinically insane. But note the shriveling of the audience: clinical psychology is public and, at least in principle, can provide the terms of an argument open to everyone, whereas the percentage of the population that regards evangelical Christianity as a damning association for a public figure probably is not much greater than the readership of the Times. This is more futile than preaching to the choir; publications like the Times are now reduced to preaching to choir directors.

* * *

On a somewhat different note: over the weekend, I viewed the film, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Talk about high concept. Anyone can film a story that, like Groundhog Day, involves an ever-repeating sequence of events. This story manages to embrace Nietzsche's Eternal Return.

For those whose undergraduate memories have been erased, recall that the Eternal Return was premised on a somewhat fishy cosmology, in which time is infinite, and all events repeat themselves an infinite number of times. Nietzsche proposed that we embrace the ineradicable past as a dramatic spectacle, including our blunders. That is pretty much what the characters in Eternal Sunshine do, when they realize that they have had their memories of each other clinically erased, and that they will just make the same mistakes with each other again.

The interesting thing is that they are not, like Nietzsche's ideal audience, despairing tyrants who wonder in old age whether they should have executed quite so many people. The characters live in unfashionable parts of Long Island, in cramped and shabby circumstances. I can't recall the last film that showed the rabbit-hutch dimensions of a typical modern medical clinic. There could be no greater irony than if a philosophy intended for supermen became a fashion in popular psychology.

* * *

Perhaps the opposite of the Eternal Return is the notion that the past might be malleable. The series Star Trek: Enterprise used just such an Alternative History premise for its two-part season premier, Storm Front. In those episodes, the crew of Captain Archer's Enterprise are sent back in time to the 1940s, where they find the Nazis occupying New England and the Middle Atlantic states. The Nazis are being aided by marooned time-traveling aliens, who need the Nazis' help to build a machine to send them back to the 29th century.

Probably there are too many moving parts here. Space travel stories and time travel stories don't really mix, at least not in a continuing series of episodes, since the ability to control the past tends to overwhelm all other types of narrative causality. Be that as it may, what really annoyed me about Storm Front was that the point of divergence in the timeline was an assassination of Lenin in 1916. Because of this, we are told, Russia did not become Communist. Hitler therefor did not consider Russia a threat, and so he was able to concentrate on the West.

What do they teach in screenwriter school these days? Hitler did not invade the Soviet Union because he thought it was a threat. He invaded the Soviet Union because he believed it to be inherently weak, and he found that weakness provocative. We know this because he said so. He was also planning on a war with the United States, but that was to take place after the conquest of the East.

The strange thing about AH is that, sometimes, you can settle a question about an alternative timeline by using documentary evidence.

* * *

With all this mendacity in the world, how are we to distinguish truth from falsehood? Perhaps soon we will be able to hire a ringer, if we believe this AP story by Randolph E. Schmid, 'Truth Wizards' Know Lie When They Hear It:

WASHINGTON - A word to the wise: Be careful who you're telling lies. There's an elite group of people who don't need to see Pinocchio's nose grow, but can pick up on subtle signs that they're not hearing the truth.

While most folks don't notice those flickers of falsehood, psychology professor Maureen O'Sullivan has found a few who can find the fibbers nearly every time.

Of 13,000 people tested for the ability to detect deception, "[psychology professor Maureen O'Sullivan of the University of San Francisco and her colleagues] found 31, who we call wizards, who are usually able to tell whether the person is lying, whether the lie is about an opinion, how someone is feeling or about a theft," she said... Asked whether the wizards could be used in real-life situations, she said that has been suggested but there are no formal programs to use them currently. And she cautioned that even the best of them is not 100 percent accurate.

In Frank Herbert's Dune, I did not mind the superluminal travel, or the prescience, and I positively warmed to the giant worms. The one thing that did strike me as implausible was the Truthsayers. Go figure.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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