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 2007-02-07: Islamic Reformation; Pro-Natalist Irony; Kakutani on D'Souza

A less relaxed blogger might explain in angry detail that reproduction is only the central circle in the Ven diagram of the human model of marriage. The next layer is regulation of the co-existence of men and women, the next layer is the care of the elderly, and the last the transfer of property between generations. However, it almost is not worth making these points: Darwin will judge between the viability of those societies that favor gendered over gender-neutral models of marriage and those that do not.

I’ve always appreciated John J. Reilly’s point that marriage is an anthropological institution as much as a legal one. Natural marriage doesn’t require a ceremony or a license to come into being, which explains why Scandinavians don’t get married as much anymore, but you don’t see much change otherwise. They are in fact married, and act like it in terms of raising children and forming households, they are just skipping the ceremony and the paperwork. It is the behavior that matters, a stable orbit into which human beings can fall in a number of ways.

The state has its own reasons for regulating marriage, mostly related to stability and taxation and population growth. John referred to this as a pre-constitutional function of government, this is something any state has to do, because it is a state. Aristotle talked about this at length.

One of the greatest projects of the twentieth century was to find a way to lower the birthrate. Everyone who was anyone thought about it, and it looks like it actually worked!

Whether this was in fact a good idea is another matter. How this program interacted with the quite unplanned mechanism of the demographic transition is not well-explored, but it at least conceivable that the birth rate would have fallen regardless, given that it started to go down long before the middle of the twentieth century in America and Western Europe.

The Baby Boom post-WWII was a genuine departure from trend, which probably explains the reaction at the time. But the birth rate had been declining for a century, at least. At this point, we do seem to have hit some kind of floor.


Islamic Reformation; Pro-Natalist Irony; Kakutani on D'Souza

The hypothesis of an Islamic Reformation continues to surface, as we see in the current Newsweek piece by Fareed Zakaria:

For those in the West asking when Islam will have its Reformation, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the process appears to have begun. The bad news is it's been marked by calumny, hatred and bloody violence. In this way it mirrors the Reformation itself, which we now remember in a highly sanitized way. During that era, Christians of differing sects massacred each other as they fought to own the true interpretation of their religion. No analogy is exact, but something similar seems to be happening within Islam. Here the divide is between the Sunnis, who make up 85 percent of the Muslim world, and the Shiites, who represent most of the other 15 percent.

The author notes that Al Qaeda as originally conceived was supposed to be indifferent to the Shia-Sunni divide. However, the radical Sunnis where Al Qaeda was able use violence also happened to have traditions of anti-Shiism, thus giving Al Qaeda's enterprise an unintended sectarian spin.

The trouble for Al Qaeda is that as a practical matter, loathing Shiites works in only a few places: principally Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some parts of the gulf....

These emerging divisions weaken Al Qaeda, but they will help most Muslims only if this story ends as the Reformation did. What is currently a war of sects must become a war of ideas. First, Islam must make space for differing views about what makes a good Muslim. Then it will be able to take the next step and accept the diversity among religions, each true in its own way.

The Reformation model does not really fit. There are some liturgical and ecclesial differences between Sunni and Shia, but the differences are more like those between Protestant denominations than between Rome and Luther. As I have perhaps already said once too often, in many ways Islam is a Reformation. Certainly with regard to the sort of tolerance that the author proposes as a goal, Islam has been there, done that, got the T-shirt. In fact, what we are seeing now is the combustion of that old consensus.

The conflict within Islam today is morbid in a way that the Western Reformation was not. At least as far as I know, there is no struggle of competing lines of doctrinal development, or a competition of views about the nature of reality and how the world should work. Essentially, oil money has provided the energy to put fossils in collision. Fossils can be very tough, but they are fundamentally brittle. Watch.

* * *

Here's a bit of irony waiting to happen. It comes to us from Washington State:

OLYMPIA, Wash. - An initiative filed by proponents of same-sex marriage would require heterosexual couples to have kids within three years or else have their marriage annulled...“For many years, social conservatives have claimed that marriage exists solely for the purpose of procreation ... The time has come for these conservatives to be dosed with their own medicine," said WA-DOMA organizer Gregory Gadow in a printed statement.

A less relaxed blogger might explain in angry detail that reproduction is only the central circle in the Ven diagram of the human model of marriage. The next layer is regulation of the co-existence of men and women, the next layer is the care of the elderly, and the last the transfer of property between generations. However, it almost is not worth making these points: Darwin will judge between the viability of those societies that favor gendered over gender-neutral models of marriage and those that do not.

The interesting thing about this initiative is that we are in the last few years when it will immediately be perceived as a joke. There are below-replacement-level birthrate societies in Europe and East Asia, and even some depopulating states in the United States, that really should be considering pro-natalist schemes at least this radical, if not this stupid. It's a good bet that they soon will.

* * *

I hope soon to be able to publish a thorough response to Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home. Until then, though, let us amuse ourselves by considering the spluttering outrage that the book has elicited, not least on the part of The New York Times's own Michiko Kakutani:

It’s a nasty stewpot of intellectually untenable premises and irresponsible speculation that frequently reads like a “Saturday Night Live” parody of the crackpot right...

[D'Souza says] that “the left is the primary reason for Islamic anti-Americanism as well as the anti-Americanism of other traditional cultures around the world” because “liberals defend and promote values that are controversial in America and deeply revolting to people in traditional societies, especially in the Muslim world.”

He ignores the host of experts like the former C.I.A. officer Michael Scheuer and the terrorism analyst Peter Bergen who have cited, as Mr. bin Laden’s chief grievances against America, the continued presence of American troops on the Arabian peninsula ...He similarly denounces liberals for promoting ideas like women’s rights around the world: this meddling, he argues, angers Muslims who see such foreign forms of liberation as undermining their religion and traditional family values. But he praises the Bush administration for trying to export democracy to Iraq....

Actually, D'Souza does address Steuer's assessment of the motivations of Al Qaeda, and does not wholly disagree. In fact, D'Souza often sounds rather like Steuer, and I think that is one of the problems with the book. In any case, Kakutani continues:

In the course of this book, Mr. D’Souza rages against the separation of church and state in American public life, and denounces what he calls “Secular Warriors” who are “trying to eradicate every public trace of the religious and moral values that most of the world lives by.” He contends that freedom in America “has come to be defined by its grossest abuses” and complains that in movies and television shows, “the white businessman in the suit is usually the villain,” “prostitutes are always portrayed more favorably and decently than anyone who criticizes them” and “homosexuals are typically presented as good-looking and charming, and unappealing features of the gay lifestyle are either ignored or presented in an amusing light.”

In this shrill, slipshod book, Mr. D’Souza often sounds as if he has a lot in common with those radical Middle Eastern mullahs who are eager to subject daily life to religious strictures and want to curtail individuals’ freedoms and civil liberties.

The book is indeed partisan, but by no means slipshod. As for the assertion that D'Souza is trying to accommodate the mullahs, all I can say is that those Times writers are just as sharp as a tack.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Future of Peace and Justice in the Global Village

C. S. Lewis famously made much the same argument in the Abolition of Man that McFaul makes here: the ethical systems of most world religions are strikingly similar, no matter how incompatible their ultimate claims about reality are.

An interesting aside here is if you look at the ethnographic literature, which typically doesn’t weight by the number of people who possess a particular culture, you will find much greater diversity of ethical systems. The number of people involved is often as few as thousands, rather than millions or billions which is what you get when you look at world religions.

Peter Kreeft took that idea and ran with it in his book Ecumenical Jihad, but John J. Reilly was skeptical of grand alliances between religions in the manner that Kreeft and McFaul describe.


The Future of Peace and Justice in the Global Village : The Role of the World Religions in the 21st Century
By Thomas R. McFaul
$49.95, Approx. 310 pp.
Praeger Publishers, 10/30/2006
ISBN: 0275993132

The hypothesis that the whole world is on a glide path toward a post-religious future is no longer accepted uncritically. Having gotten that far, however, political scientists have little notion what role religion will play in a world whose component parts seem fated to react with each other ever more intimately. Thomas R. McFaul, Professor of Ethics and Religious Studies Emeritus at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois (and author of Transformation Ethics) tries in this book to sketch the religious topography of the world and suggest ways that its main religious components might contribute to the harmonization of a more united world, or at least help to prevent a world of perpetual sectarian strife.

The author’s argument is essentially that of John Rawls: the most likely way to achieve concord is by prescinding from questions of worldview or theology and by focusing on those elements of the world’s ethical traditions that are compatible with the categorical imperative. He comes to this conclusion after an analysis of what he takes to be the seven major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism in the Asian group; Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism in the Middle Eastern group. These faiths simply do not have compatible views on God, the afterlife, or the ontological status of their scriptures. He also rejects the proposal that the religions could easily unite transcendentally, at the level of religious experience. Even if the wordless apprehension of the divine is the same for mystics of all faiths, they eventually have to talk about what they have experienced, and then the fist-fights start. In contrast, standards of decent behavior are remarkably similar around the world whether people justify them in terms of the will of God or the need to avoid bad karma. Variations on the Golden Rule, the author argues, are very close to being universal.

The author would settle provisionally for a world of religious pluralism, but expects a near-term future of exclusivity, in which religious groups seek to divinize war and the state. His preference, however, is for a world in which the great religions reinterpret their traditions in such a way as to withdraw their claims to exclusive truth. He expounds at length on the different ways the Asian and Middle Eastern groups might do this, but the common theme is the need for an acknowledgment that none of theses faiths exhausts the truth and all of them are moving toward it. Only unity, or the prospect of unity, would really conduce to a stable world. In the long run, we are told, the tolerance necessary for pluralism is unacceptable, because tolerance can protect oppression.

Resistance is useless, particularly in the case of gender relations. The author purports to be in search of common ground among the great religions. However, when he finds one such common patch in the fact that no religious tradition treats men and women identically, he immediately digs up the patch and paves it over with gender equality. Similarly, it will be necessary for the ancient faiths in most cases to abandon their assumption that certain social institutions are “in the nature of things.” The state itself, of course, would have to be secular.

This book is a useful and interesting exercise. It is also good evidence, if any more were needed, that the one place that a Rawlsian reformation will not lead is to peace.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-04: Glitter & Doom

This Weimar era art exhibition John J. Reilly describes here sounds fascinating. I found a few examples from the three artists John said were most prominent in the show: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz.

Max Beckmann – Descent from the Cross 1917  Public domain in the US

Max Beckmann – Descent from the Cross 1917

Public domain in the US

Otto Dix – The Trench 1923  Public domain in the US

Otto Dix – The Trench 1923

Public domain in the US

George Grosz – The City 1916 -1917  Public domain in the US

George Grosz – The City 1916 -1917

Public domain in the US

Their work is fascinating, but I can see why the Weimar era couldn’t hold the hearts of Germans. Much of this art is striking, but very little of it is beautiful.


Glitter & Doom

This is the name of an exhibition, now at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, of paintings and sketches from the Weimar era in Germany. They are portraits, for the most part. The artists were Max Beckmann, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Karl Hubbuch, Ludwig Meidner, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlichter, Georg Scholz, and Gert H. Wollheim. The emphasis is on Dix, Beckmann, and Grosz, but particularly Dix. I visited the exhibition, which runs for two more weeks, on Saturday, February 3. The website is here.

The show is supposed to be a survey of the Verist tendency of the now venerable Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) School. Given the general inflation of depravity in high culture in the intervening years, it has been a long time since Weimar was able to shock, but visitors to this exhibition may doubt how shocking its components were even when they were new. A sign at the entrance to gallery warns that some of the pictures may not be suitable for children, and indeed there are a few pictures of prostitutes that would probably merit some blackout bars if the pictures were ever shown on American television. Frankly, though, most of the more tarted-up denizens of the Weimar demimonde seem to be paint-by-numbers illustrations of the theme “Respectability Brought Low.” Beckmann denied any connection with the Verists on the grounds that the school was too literary, and he may have had a point.

Actually, the kids who visit the exhibition are most likely to be scared by the Crypt Keeper intensity of some of the portraits of the artists' friends. Dix in particular was famous for his hallucinogenically unflattering portraits of his patrons, who nevertheless were not a small group. Still, for the most part, these artists were good draftsman: you never get the impression that their departures from reality are due to an inability to represent it. And in fact, the ratio of sentiment and even affection is quite high, especially among the sketches of wives and girl friends.

One perhaps unintended effect of this exhibition is that I will never regard George Grosz's work in quite the same way again. In some ways his pictures of bad, bobble-headed bourgeoisie are as much fun as Disney cartoons, but to see them in the company of other paintings from the same time and place is to realize that they have more to do with George Grosz than with Weimar.

I noted particularly the businessmen. Grosz's are studies in porcine greed. For the other artists, though, the Weimar businessman was a vigorous, young, unsympathetic intelligence, perhaps unsympathetic because the intelligence on their unlined faces is unrelated to experience. And there was this: for the most part, they were shown either holding a telephone, or a telephone was at their elbow. What did the possession of a telephone mean in Germany in the 1920s?

After I left the show, I wandered for a while around the Metropolitan; as usual, I got lost. I don't believe I had seen the garden by the American Art section before. It is one of the finest enclosed spaces in New York. When I got to the Egyptian section, I noticed that visitors were walking on the platform of the Temple of Dendr. I remember that when I walked on that platform many years ago klaxons sounded and guards erupted from every doorway to take me off it. I made up the bit about the klaxons, but apparently the museum management has changed its mind about the fragility of the monument.

I finally had to ask a guard to direct me toward the exit. She sniffed and pointed, apparently offended that anyone would want to leave her wonderful museum.

* * *

Meanwhile, quite without any coordination with me, Spengler at Asia Times has favored us with his own views on modern art:

Admit it - you really hate modern art

You, however, hate and detest the 20th century's entire output in the plastic arts, as do I. ...You have been browbeaten into feigning pleasure at the sight of so-called art that actually makes your skin crawl,...Museums are bulging with visitors who come to view works they secretly detest, and prices paid for modern art keep rising....

An enormous literature exists on the relationship between abstract painting and atonal music, and the extensive Kandinsky-Schoenberg correspondence can be found on the Internet....The most striking difference between the two founding fathers of modernism is this: the price of Kandinsky's smallest work probably exceeds the aggregate royalties paid for the performances of Schoenberg's music. ..

It was the ideologues, namely the critics, who made the reputation of the abstract impressionists...It is not supposed to "please" the senses on first glance, after the manner of a Raphael or an Ingres, but to challenge the viewer to think and consider. ...

When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control....When you listen to atonal music, for example Schoenberg, you are stuck in your seat for a quarter of an hour that feels like many hours in a dentist's chair....You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow, rather than admiring it at a safe distance. ...By inflicting sufficient ugliness upon us, the modern artists believe, they will wear down our capacity to see beauty.

Again, much 20th-century art is very fine, but Paul Johnson has a point when he suggests that the production of "fashion objects" is a racket. The epilogue of the story of modern art will be the bursting of the investment bubble that has seized on these fashion objects as assets. As is the nature of these things, the collapse could all happen very quickly. Museums and galleries dedicated to this kind of art could become as deserted as Anglican churches, but they are less likely to be turned into mosques: the rooms lack a central focus.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-02: Groundhog's Day

Homo floresensis is definitely a new species. Time flies with ancient DNA.


Groundhog's Day

The case against homo floresensis is not quite closed, if this report is to be believed:

The tiny woman dubbed the Hobbit who lived 18,000 years ago on a remote Indonesian island deserves to be deemed a new human species and not a deformed modern human as skeptics assert, researchers said on Monday....rebutting scientists like primatologist Robert Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago ...Two features in the frontal lobes and a structure called the cerebellum separated [normal humans from microcephalics], with the Flores woman fitting in with normal humans, not microcephalics, the study found. But she was unlike modern humans in four other features distinguishing her from Homo sapiens, crying out for recognition as a separate species, the researchers said....Martin said the new study was flawed, questioned whether Falk's team knew enough about microcephaly and insisted the question of a separate species is unresolved.

Be this as it may, I am about to finish reading a book by W.Y. Evans-Wentz called The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) (it's available from The Gutenberg Project, but I can't get a link to the file right now). Regarding the legends and continuing reports about contacts with the Good People in northwestern Europe and worldwide, the authors proposes that the most reasonable explanations are the psychical theory, the ancient-pygmy theory, and the Druid-tradition theory. He resolves the conflict among them by embracing all three.

* * *

Speaking of fairy stories, this article by Donald Stoker of the U.S. Naval War College's Monterey Program throws cold water on the myth of insurgent invincibility:

Insurgencies Rarely Win – And Iraq Won’t Be Any Different (Maybe).....

Insurgencies generally fail if all they are able to do is fight an irregular war. Successful practitioners of the guerrilla art from Nathanael Greene in the American Revolution to Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War have insisted upon having a regular army for which their guerrilla forces served mainly as an adjunct. Insurgencies also have inherent weaknesses and disadvantages vis-à-vis an established state. They lack governmental authority, established training areas, and secure supply lines. The danger is that insurgents can create these things, if given the time to do so. And, once they have them, they are well on their way to establishing themselves as a functioning and powerful alternative to the government. If they reach this point, they can very well succeed.

Marx was right when he said that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. A lot of odd things happened in Congress during the Vietnam War, but nothing as strange as the new Democratic majority's project of reenacting their slightly garbled memories of 1975. The ironic thing is that this pantomime is taking the form of opposition to the Administration's plan for the pacification of Baghdad, a relatively minor undertaking that I suspect the president chose to emphasize in public chiefly because he needed to be able to point to some initiative that would be quickly successful.

Mickey Kaus notes that some of the Republican senators who have lately opposed the surge worry that they may be embarrassed if the surge succeeds:

Cynic's Scorecard: 7 Outs and Counting: Are Senators who vote for the Warner anti-surge resolution taking any political risk, or are they just protecting themselves against anti-war sentiment? In other words, on the off chance that the surge works, would they be embarrassed? Bob Wright says yes. But Senators in this situation have been known to leave themselves escape hatches.

The fewer escape hatches, of course, the greater the political consequences of getting it wrong, and the more support for the anti-surge resolution should actually reflect a senator's judgment that the chances of an embarrassing surge success are small. The more escape hatches, the more the Warner resolution seems simply a convenient way for pols to hedge their bets against any outcome...

I think that the senators need not worry. As I have remarked before, the political class is less interested in losing the war than in making sure that the Bush Administration does not get credit for a victory. One might judge the progress of the war, I suspect, by creating a News Alert for "Pyrrhic Victory" and counting the increase in occurrences over the course of the year.

* * *

Another C.S. Lewis film is in the works. Ralph Winter Prods. is producing The Screwtape Letters along with Walden Media, as we see from IGN:

Planned for a 2008 release, Screwtape Letters is described as follows: "[It] takes the form of a series of missives from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his wannabe diabolical nephew, Wormwood. As a mentor, Screwtape advises his protégé on the finer points of undermining faith and promoting sin. His instructions are interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine."

I hope they have sense enough to keep the story a period-piece. The "novel" is just a string of essays about dealing with temptation. There is a love story, but the only strong narrative thread in the book is the beginning of World War II and the growing menace of the Blitz. It would be difficult to move all this into the early 21st century.

Let me repeat yet again: the Lewis book that should be made into a major film is That Hideous Strength. Well, maybe that and this alternative biography.

* * *

Columnists should wax nostalgic when writing a memorial piece, but this one by Peggy Noonan is nostalgic in a dangerous way:

Next Tuesday would have been Ronald Reagan's 96th birthday, which is amazing when you consider he is, in a way, more with us than ever: his memory and meaning summoned in political conversation, his name evoked by candidates.

Certainly Ronald Reagan's name is often invoked, but the invocations are starting to sound like the references that old-style Democrats in the 1970s and '80s used to make to FDR. The Republican establishment delude themselves if they think the intervening Clinton years are remembered as a dark time.

Be that as it may, do I detect another dig at Bush II and his rich kid ways?

There was the courage to swim against the tide, to show not a burst of bravery but guts in the long haul. The good cheer and good nature that amounted to a kind of faith. The air of pleasure Reagan emanated on meeting others, and his egalitarianism.

By most accounts, George Bush is sharp and personable when you meet him in person. However, whoever thought that he had the public presence for a national stage should have their license to consult revoked.

* * *

What this country needs are British-style tabloids, according to Mark Steyn. Here he explains to Hugh Hewitt why the American newspaper industry is in secular decline:

MS: And the thing about this, the thing about this is when you look at the numbers for Fleet Street newspapers, they’ve actually, basically, held up over the last forty years. They’re not significantly in overall decline since 1965. Now there is…the problem here is that the American model of just being a pompous newspaper, that offends no one, but at the same time, delights no one, I think simply doesn’t work. If you take the average Gannett newspaper, monopoly newspaper in a medium sized American city, it’s boring.

Well, yes, the papers are boring. If you want invective and scandal, you listen to talk radio or watch Fox News. About the Internet we need not speak. Maybe the newspapers in Britain are livelier because the media there are otherwise so controlled and monopolized that there is no place else for the liveliness to go.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-01-27: The Real Enemy; Guardian Robots; The Constant of Tolerable Terror

The High Altar survived the fire just fine

The High Altar survived the fire just fine

Two of the links John J. Reilly put in this post are really good:

  1. A Culture Worth Dying For

    The fact is that if democracy meant nothing else than that blasphemy could be freely circulated, or that pornography was always available at the touch of a button, or that Michael Moore got to make as many tendentious films as he wanted, then democracy would not be worth having; certainly it would not be worth dying for. The fact is that we put up with these annoyances because they are necessary frictions. We have freedom of the press and contested elections because, on the whole and over the long run, they produce good government and the improvement of the human estate. They produce virtue. The lethal danger that postmodernism and libertarianism pose for the West is their embrace of the transgressive. Their mixture makes Western society repulsive abroad and, in the long run, causes the freedoms on which they depend to become a matter of indifference at home.

  2. Culture War and Foreign Policy

    How this links into foreign policy was both sides in the Cold War sought to recruit allies from the Third World to bolster their international reputation and fight in proxy wars. Insofar as the Soviets could tar the West with the Original Sins of slavery and colonialism, the Soviets had a clear advantage. Thus, John claims that desegregation and civil rights in America set the stage for the Helsinki Accords, which the Soviets considered to be a victory at the time, but later were seen as a key factor that weakened the Soviet Union and its satellites from within.

    The twist is that the political movements that allowed the United States to claim the mantle of justice in the mid-twentieth century now seem increasingly bizarre to an international audience, let alone to their domestic political opponents. Thus we have an odd collusion of interests both at home and abroad that increasingly see the continuing dominance of America as something at odds with both political order and domestic harmony. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, this shades off into outright identification of the United States with the Whore of Babylon. So far, this remains a minority opinion.

We currently have a culture a lot of people tried really hard to make, but when it comes down to it, how many of its architects or proponents would make warre to the knife to defend it?


The Real Enemy; Guardian Robots; The Constant of Tolerable Terror

Regarding Dinesh D'Souza's new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, visitors to my website may be interested to know that I have done a review, but I have submitted it for print publication. If no one picks it up, I will post it to my website (as indeed I will even if someone does publish it, but then I will post it several weeks later). Here, let me just say that there are elements of D'Souza's thesis with which I agree. Let me refer readers to a posting I made to this space about this time last year, A Culture Worth Dying For, and to an item I wrote in 2000 and posted two years later, Culture War and Foreign Policy. Where I differ from the book is my lack of confidence in the proposal for an alliance of American and Muslim conservatives.

I find that I am not the only person to have had thoughts along these lines, particularly among writers who have been critical of Islam itself. Srdja Trifkovic has entitled his response to the book "Dinesh the Dhimmi," in which he says:

Two of the titles D’Souza finds so offensive that condemning them tops his list of “critical steps” are by my friend Robert Spencer, and “The Sword” is mine. D’Souza wants us, and presumably other similarly minded authors (Bat Ye’or, Ibn Warraq, Andrew Bostom, Walid Shoebat, et al.), to shut up.

Lawrence Auster is of similar mind:

Now think how amazing this is. Has it ever happened in this country—I’m not talking about some totalitarian country but America—has it ever happened that a prominent “intellectual” called on leading writers on a subject of major importance to stop writing what they’re writing, because it would “offend” someone?

My own take on all this is that D'Souza's call for an alliance of traditionalists has less to do with tradition than with Tradition.

* * *

Speaking of tradition, the Telegraph (UK) has cast cold water on the expectation that Benedict XVI is about to issue a motu proprio (a document "on his own initiative") encouraging the use of the Tridentine Latin Mass. The report is an interview with "Fr Reginald Foster, 68, a Carmelite friar who was appointed the Papal Latinist 38 years ago by Pope Paul VI," who said:

"He is not going to do it," Fr Foster said. "He had trouble with Regensberg, and then trouble in Warsaw, and if he does this, all hell will break loose." In any case, he added: "It is a useless mass and the whole mentality is stupid. The idea of it is that things were better in the old days. It makes the Vatican look medieval."

This does not look like a Vatican leak; it looks like the opinion of a clerk. As for me, I have set up a Google News Alert for the term "motu proprio." Thus, when the document is issued, I will be able to go immediately into the public square and join one of the mobs that will form to call the liturgists to account. These venacularist-roaders will then be paraded through the streets and forced in struggle-sessions to recant their errors.

Medieval indeed.

* * *

Other computers watch over me, too, including the ones at Amazon, which were recently kind enough to suggest I might want to buy this list of things:

Crusade Against the Grail: The Struggle between the Cathars, the Templars, and the Church of Rome

The SS Brotherhood of the Bell: Nasa's Nazis, JFK, And Majic-12

Nietzsche, Prophet of Nazism: The Cult of the Superman--Unveiling the Nazi Secret Doctrine

The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust

The Vril Society

Reich Of The Black Sun: Nazi Secret Weapons & The Cold War Allied Legend

The Secret of the Spear: The Mystery of the Spear of Longinus (Mysteries of the Universe)

Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest (Two-Disc Collector's Edition)

The first I might actually get: it's a translation of a book published in 1933 by Otto Rahn, that Nazi who really was looking for the Holy Grail. However, the really scary item in this list is the last one.

* * *

Not only I noticed that yesterday's anti-war rally in Washington was a dud. Readers are encouraged to amuse themselves by looking for pictures of the event: they all take advantage of oblique angles and the Mall's scant foliage to avoid showing how much space the crowd did not occupy. NPR this morning was still reporting that "tens of thousands" of people were there. So, I am told, did the frontpage of the Washington Post, but the online headline was Thousands Protest Bush Policy:

The crowd, while exuberant, seemed significantly smaller than the half-million people organizers said were present and may not have matched similar protests in September 2005 and January 2003. The throng filled much of the Mall between Third and Fourth streets NW but thinned toward Seventh Street.

This does not mean that the media is making up the unpopularity of the war. The unusual thing about this war, and what makes it different from the Vietnam War, is that the population that is bearing the burden of the conflict is distinct geographically and socially from the people who are strongly against it.

* * *

Meanwhile, American conservatism was committing suicide a few blocks away, at the National Review Conservative Summit. Jeb Bush was well received: enough said, I think.

Consider these remarks by Mark Steyn in an interview by Hugh Hewitt I have already linked to:

I’m a believer in small government. I think it’s very difficult for big government to maintain the kind of self reliant citizenry that you need to win long existential struggles like the one we’re in.

I have raised this point before, but let me put the response to this thesis more tersely:

PuR * PrR = Kt

PuR = Public Risk
PrR = Private Risk
Kt = Constant of Tolerable Terror

In other words: Societies whose members experience greater than normal risks because of some collective threat must assume collectively some of the risk that their members would otherwise manage individually. Failure to make this adjustment will have the effect of a confiscatory tax, causing concealment, withdrawal, and a diminishment of activity. Conversely, perfectly safe societies can normally allow their members to assume a great deal of risk without degrading social morale.

In other words, in an existential crisis, small government is a form of expropriation.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: We All Fall Down

The best paragraph in this fascinating book review by John J. Reilly is this:

As an aside, we may note that this solidifying of the self into an entity that acts without regard to desire is also the goal of certain esotericists. The adamantine self becomes a "body of light" divorced from time, and so immortal. The preservation of the self through the rejection of the rest of reality might, in another view, be thought to be nothing more than the construction of a personal Hell. The author of We All Fall Down may well have intended to make just this point.

As a modern, it is actually kind of hard for me to find fault with the lead character’s stubbornness. The power to be able to say “No” is rather appealing. But as the ashes of Notre Dame cool in Paris, it is worth reflecting that the woman who is honored above all other people in our culture, except for her Son, said “Yes”.

Pierre Téqui‏  @Pierretequi   Photo de l’intérieur de  #NotreDame  La voûte du transept s’est effondrée

Pierre Téqui‏ @Pierretequi

Photo de l’intérieur de #NotreDame La voûte du transept s’est effondrée


We All Fall Down
By Brian Caldwell
2000, Infinity Publishing.com
(2006, Reissue by Alphar Publishing)
253 Pages, US$15.95
ISBN 0-7414-0499-0


Yes, the Antichrist is evil and his agents are vivisecting nightmares from splatterpunk fiction. Anyone who understood that would never accept his mark; certainly not now, when the visible fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation proves that the Second Coming of Christ is less than seven years distant. But wouldn’t making a decision for Christ be, well, inauthentic? That’s the existential decision that the remarkably foul-mouthed Jimmy Lordan has to make during the Tribulation period in this equally remarkable riff on the now-familiar themes of the apocalyptic novel.

The theme song for this book should probably be The Day the Ravens Left the Tower by the Alarm, a Welsh evangelical rock-band that used to open for U2 25 years ago. The song is about the legend that England would end when the ravens leave the Tower of London; the song ends with the rhyme, "Ring around the Rosie," which is also recited in the course of the book. The connection of the song to the book is speculative, but the Generation-X edginess is obvious enough. The protagonist is a member of that generation, a teacher of English at a high school in Michigan but a native of Boston, a city to which he returns twice in the course of the story. (The book is in three acts, rather like a screenplay, and they are presented nonsequentially.) We see Jimmy sliding into early middle age in the early 21st century after his devout wife disappears in the Rapture and the world begins to come apart at the seams.

The pre-tribulation millenarianism that the story assumes is explained only in briefest outline. This is quite unlike the custom in apocalyptic novels, whose primary point is usually to inform the reader of the details of that eschatology. We get just a glimpse of the Antichrist (one Sir Richard Grant Morrison) and that only on television, when he welcomes the sadly depopulated United States into the One World Community. The story is not about world history, but the choices that cosmic catastrophe bring to Jimmy. Readers accustomed to the air-brushed atrocities of the Left Behind series may well be shocked by what they read in this book. As Jimmy explains to the penitent homosexual who tries to help him perform at least one good deed before the Second Coming:

"George, do you have any idea how many times in the last few years I’ve woken up without the slightest fucking clue where I was and what was happening? My wife disappeared from my bed, I watched my father get shot in the face, I thought I was going to die in a nuclear attack, I spent a month getting tortured, a building I was in collapsed, killing everyone but me. I’ve wandered insane through the Israeli desert, spent two years surrounded by Christ-freaks in a camp protected by God, a month on a prison ship watching kids get raped. I’ve been beaten by an ex-student who worked in a death camp and got attacked by a swarm of locusts."

Actually, Jimmy’s adventures are even worse than that, because here Jimmy is telling only what happened to him, not what he himself did. There is quite a lot of graphic sex in this book. It’s not gratuitous, since it serves to establish character, but it is often vindictive.

The Rapture in this book serves to set us a philosophical puzzle by removing metaphysical doubt. Suppose we knew for a fact that theism is true, as we well might surmise in the face of the clockwork fulfillment of the pre-tribulation Endtime scenario. Obviously, the worship of God would then be advisable on utilitarian grounds. However, does the power of God make it morally imperative that we love Him?

This is not a new question. The Book of Job is the text to which all other treatments of the matter are commentaries. In this connection, Immanuel Kant laid down the principle that a command, even the sort of command that God seems to spend so much of His time issuing in the Bible, cannot be the basis of a moral duty. Perhaps the most entertaining relatively recent treatment of the issue in fiction is Robert Heinlein’s Answer to Job. That book, too, is set during the Endtime, indeed during the Endtime in several parallel universes. Theodicy fails to justify the arbitrary salvation and damnation of the characters; in the end, God Himself is ultimately convicted of tyranny. The problem with that conclusion, though, is that it rather incoherently appeals to a justice that transcends God. We All Fall Down takes the issue in a more radical direction. We see it stated here by Jimmy’s highly amputated cellmate, Stan, as he explains why he once refused to inform on a prison gang that had abused him:

"You wanna keep saying no, then ya better find your Inch, boy. Find it and protect it. Ya can cry and scream and beg and curse. Ya can do any damn thing ya gotta do to get through it, but as long as you don’t say yes, you win. Long as ya keep yer Inch for yerself, long as ya don’t pussy out and give it to Morrison or God, you win. You win and they lose."

The power not to say “yes” seems even more intolerable to Antichrist’s government than mere Christianity. As is usual in apocalyptic fiction, people who refuse to receive the mark of the Beast are arrested. Receiving the mark is called “tagging” here; as has also become a literary commonplace, it means you need an implanted microchip in your hand to buy or sell. The authorities quickly execute the Christians, once it is clear they are sincere. In contrast, the authorities take infinite pains with the small number of people who have not converted to Christianity but who refuse to be tagged as a matter of personal integrity. They beat the recusants in ingenious ways over a period of weeks; by and by they snip off ever more noticeable bits of them, all the while engaging in the sort of thoughtful dialogue familiar to us from O’Brien’s exchanges with Winston in 1984. Jimmy’s rudeness during these sessions is stunning, but then, as we slowly come to realize, Jimmy is a genuinely bad man.

Jimmy’s refusal to give an Inch, in fact, raises the question whether the evil in this book comes in two distinct varieties. There is the garden-variety evil of those who willingly follow Antichrist. They worship an object unworthy of worship, and therefore suffer a fitting decline in their sanity and physical condition. Then there are the elite of the damned, people like Jimmy and his father and Stan. Their whole motivation shrinks to the defense of their personal integrity, which is defined in an amoral, even ahedonic way. In normal times, perhaps, one might take this supernal stubbornness for ordinary existentialism: the existentialist defines as real what he would be willing to die for. As an aside, we may note that this solidifying of the self into an entity that acts without regard to desire is also the goal of certain esotericists. The adamantine self becomes a "body of light" divorced from time, and so immortal. The preservation of the self through the rejection of the rest of reality might, in another view, be thought to be nothing more than the construction of a personal Hell. The author of We All Fall Down may well have intended to make just this point.

There is another perspective that the book does not consider, however. Though Jimmy’s recusal from the demands of both God and the Devil is not presented as admirable, it is presented as unanswerable. The final defense of the self is made to seem as self-evident a choice as the acceptance of salvation, even if the final outcome of that defense is completely horrible. This equation is not just ill-advised, however; it may also be merely mistaken.

We should note that the discernment of the absolute self has not always been thought to lead to an inescapable spiritual black hole. The method of contemplative prayer described in The Cloud of Unknowing is based on the premise that, when the contemplative strips away all desires, fears, and distractions, all that remains is the naked desire for God. Furthermore, only someone who has already become virtuous in conventional ways can hope to clarify his basic nature for this purpose.

If that example seems too esoteric for Stan’s Inch, then consider that it is precisely in those extreme situations of danger, when recourse to moral theory is impractical, that many people first encounter the moral life. This is the truth of which existentialism is a caricature. There are circumstances in which moral imperatives are experienced as both commands and discoveries. Kant had a point when he said that a command from one human being to another cannot create a moral duty, but he was wrong when he assumed that experience cannot be commanding. In this sense, the moral life can be said to be a direct experience of the substance of God.

At the risk of taxing the concept behind the book with more analysis than it should be required to bear, let me also suggest that the choice for salvation and the defense of the Inch may not be so incompatible as We All Fall Down takes for granted. Readers may be familiar with the C.S. Lewis novel, That Hideous Strength. It involves an occult conspiracy that could well have been the beginning of the Endtime, if it had been permitted to get off the ground. The story includes another interview between an interrogator and a victim whom the interrogator is trying to convince to make a decision very like the one the forces of Antichrist were trying to foist on Jimmy Lordan. The victim in the Lewis novel refuses, too. He does not refuse because of theological scruples, but because he sees that what he is being asked to do would be the end of him in some more fundamental way than merely dying. However, far from being the event horizon of a spiritual black hole, the victim’s refusal is his first discovery of the moral life, and then of the transcendent. In deciding to resist, he had decided, all unknowing, to fight on the side of the angels in whom he did not believe. In other words, by defending his Inch, he had also accepted the grace of salvation.

This book uses eschatology to simplify certain questions, which is fair enough. Still, I could not help wondering as I read what would happen to the logic of the story if complications had been introduced. Suppose anonymous Christians had been raptured. Well, that’s another story.


Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-01-26: The Dead Hand of the Seventies Flexes but Is Mitigated by Scientific Advances

The end of low mass stars

The end of low mass stars

I have never bothered to closely follow popular science news for two reasons:

  1. It is often confused, at best

  2. Even when it is well-reported, whatever results are covered tend to be invalidated over time

Nothing here strikes me as especially dumb, but I like to wait for the dust to settle.


The Dead Hand of the Seventies Flexes but Is Mitigated by Scientific Advances

Homer Simpson himself once characterized the 1970s as "a dark time when folly and madness ruled the earth." Now Mark Steyn sees that decade's return:

“It feels like August,” wrote National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, about eight months after 9/11. August 2001, that is: he meant America’s war on terror seemed to have lost its urgency and the “sleeping giant” appeared to be resuming his slumbers. Five years on, it’s worse than that: it feels like the Seventies.

But it does not feel like the Seventies. The characteristic of the Seventies (and the Sixties after 1965) was that all the West's establishments, political, artistic, and spiritual, abdicated their historical moral authority. At least in public, they deferred to the superior wisdom of "the kids," or simply embraced chaos. That is not the case today. The establishments know more or less what they are doing. They are far more guilty.

* * *

On a happier note, we are getting closer to a reliable projection for the ultimate fate of Earth. Lee Anne Willson of Iowa State University has been doing the math:

The life-giving, aging star we orbit is using up its fuel supply and will collapse within 7 billion years. Before that, though, there will be an agonizing period of repeated swelling, as the sun grows into a red giant. How giant?...

"Earth will end up in the sun, vaporizing and blending its material with that of the sun," said Iowa State University's Lee Anne Willson. "That part of the sun then blows away into space, so one might say Earth is cremated and the ashes are scattered into interstellar space"...

Willson and her colleague George Bowen studied other red giants, medium-sized stars like our sun that are near death, and used their findings to calculate the fate of Earth.

"If the sun loses mass before it gets too big, then Earth moves into a larger orbit and escapes," Willson told SPACE.com. "The sun would need to lose 20 percent of its mass earlier in its evolution, and this is not what we expect to happen."

I had read an estimate that the sun would in fact lose enough mass to allow Earth to rise to a sustainable orbit. Now I'll have to change my plans.

But what about the moon, you ask?

During the red giant phase the Sun will swell until its distended atmosphere reaches out to envelop the Earth and Moon, which will both begin to be affected by gas drag—the space through which they orbit will contain more molecules.

The Moon is now moving away from Earth and by then will be in an orbit that's about 40 percent larger than today. It will be the first to warp under the Sun’s influence...

If left unabated the moon would continue in its retreat until it would take bout 47 days to orbit the Earth. Both Earth and Moon would then keep the same faces permanently turned toward one another as Earth’s spin would also have slowed to one rotation every 47 days....

[T]he drag caused by the Sun's extended atmosphere will cause the Moon's orbit to decay. The Moon will swing ever closer to Earth until it reaches a point 11,470 miles (18,470 kilometers) above our planet, a point termed the Roche limit.

“Reaching the Roche limit means that the gravity holding it [the Moon] together is weaker than the tidal forces acting to pull it apart,” Willson said.

I had read that solar tidal forces would continue to slow the rotation of Earth even after the day became equal to the month, causing a tidal drag that would draw the Moon to the Roche limit irrespective of friction from the evaporation of the Sun.

I am sorry, but I find this question troubling. Can't these people keep their story straight?

* * *

Speaking of troubling thoughts, there are few more troubling than the ones mentioned recently by Wesley J. Smith at First Things in the comment Zoos: Not for Children Anymore:

Perhaps it is wrong for me to comment about a movie I have no intention of seeing: But if this review of the new semi-documentary Zoo is accurate, it apparently has a sympathetic take on “the last taboo,” meaning bestiality. (”Zoos” in this context don’t refer to animal viewing facilities but are apparently the chosen moniker of people who like to have sex with animals. It is a take off on zoophilia. Who knew?)

Surely this is not the last taboo. That would be consensual cannibalism, of which there have been a few incidents in recent years. Actually, if the courts discern an autonomy right to suicide, it would be hard to see what the objection to this form of self-expression would be. Certainly it would present fewer objections than bestiality, where the consent of the animal is always in doubt. The limiting factor, perhaps, is that any society that really did not see a problem with the practice would already be so chaotic that it would make little difference what the law said.

Getting back to the Seventies for a moment: this film will have to be very strange indeed to be stranger than Equus (1977).

* * *

A scientific cliche' may be about to bite the dust: String Theory may be falsifiable!

[R]esearchers at the University of California, San Diego, Carnegie Mellon University, and The University of Texas at Austin have now developed an important test for this controversial "theory of everything"...at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a subatomic particle collider scheduled to be operating later this year at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, or CERN....

"The beauty of our test is the simplicity of its assumptions," explained Grinstein of UCSD. "The canonical forms of string theory include three mathematical assumptions-Lorentz invariance (the laws of physics are the same for all uniformly moving observers), analyticity (a smoothness criteria for the scattering of high-energy particles after a collision) and unitarity (all probabilities always add up to one). Our test sets bounds on these assumptions"...

He added, "If the test does not find what the theory predicts about W boson scattering, it would be evidence that one of string theory's key mathematical assumptions is violated. In other words, string theory-as articulated in its current form-would be proven impossible."

If those pesky W bosons do scatter as theory predicts, that does not prove that String Theory is true, just that it will live to face further tests. That is the best that can be said for any theory.

* * *

On the other hand, there is disturbing news from Mars:

Dried up riverbeds and other evidence imply that Mars once had enough water to fill a global ocean more than 600 metres deep...Some scientists have proposed that the Red Planet lost its water and CO2 to space as the solar wind stripped molecules from the top of the planet's atmosphere. Measurements by Russia's Phobos-2 probe to Mars in 1989 hinted that the loss was quite rapid....Now the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft has revealed that the rate of loss is much lower...Its measurements suggest the whole planet loses only about 20 grams per second of oxygen and CO2 to space, only about 1% of the rate inferred from Phobos-2 data...If this rate has held steady over Mars's history, it would have removed just a few centimetres of water, and a thousandth of the original CO2.

As the link explains, it is possible, even likely, that the rate of solar-wind erosion has not been constant over time. Still, there is an apparent anomaly in the lack of a modern Martian hydrosphere.

Or is it lacking? Once again, the Seventies extend a hand of dementia into the 21st century, and I recall the lyrics of the song A Horse with No Name (1971):

An ocean is a desert
with its life underground
and a perfect disguise
above.

And no, that was not recorded by Neil Young, but by America.

* * *

Finally, here is the strangest item in a post notable for strange items:

Bush Pushes Health Care Plan

He's doing it again. He won re-election in 2004 because he assured people he would not lose the war in Iraq; then he spent months promoting a Social Security reform that was incoherent and repulsive. Today, he just lost an election, he pleaded with the Congress and the public in the State of the Union Address to let him win the war in Iraq, and the first thing he focuses on is that nitwit health-insurance proposal.

This is beyond satire.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-01-24: The State of the Union

Senator James Webb  By United States Senate - http://www.webb.senate.gov/newsroom/official_photo.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1709405

Senator James Webb

By United States Senate - http://www.webb.senate.gov/newsroom/official_photo.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1709405

This The Long View post is brief, so I will be similarly brief: I still think you could assemble an interesting majority coalition in American politics that was all-in for universal healthcare, moderately skeptical about immigration, and just a little bit anti-free trade. I don’t expect this to happen, because party alignments are durable and hard to change, but John poked around these ideas for years and I think he was on to something.


The State of the Union


Unlike Saddam Hussein's execution, last night's State of the Union Address was a model of courtesy on the part of both the audience and the guest of honor. We may legitimately wonder, though, whether both ceremonies will have a similar outcome. These are the points that struck me:

Balancing the federal budget in five years: This is better than promising to balance the budget in 50 years. The people who make the promise will at least still be alive in five years to comment on the state of things then. However, five years is the horizon you choose in federal budgeting when you want to do something now without being incommoded by actual concern for the future.

Expanding health insurance: I understood, after a fashion, the press explanations of the president's proposal, but not the explanation the president gave last night. Still, it was clear that the proposal was based on the expansion of the deductibility of health-insurance premiums, a mechanism which is wholly irrelevant to the problem. He did support federal subsidies to the states that are experimenting with universal-coverage programs, though he took care not to call them that.

Immigration Reform: This was the item toward which the reaction of the president's audience was most ambiguous. To George Bush, immigration reform means unlimited access to cheap foreign labor channeled through a guest-worker program. He seems to be the last politician in America not to recognize that this is the one solution for which there is no popular constituency.

The War in Iraq: I put this item last, in the place of honor to which the president assigned it. It was frank and coherent. It did a good job of connecting the war in Iraq with the war on terror (which are certainly connected now, even though one could argue they were not connected originally). Presentations like that were why George Bush was reelected in 2004. And then nothing happened. Or rather, quite a bit happened, but George Bush was publicly disconnected from all of it as he pursued his idiosyncratic enthusiasms about Social Security and taxes.

Regarding the Democratic responses to the president's address, we note first the English-language response by Senator James Webb of Virginia. We should all take every opportunity to view a live television appearance by Senator Webb. I cannot predict what he will do to secure his place in history, but I keep thinking of that film The Howling (1981). In any case, just as the president did, the senator led with a discussion of domestic affairs, the point of which seemed to be to instruct the American people that they were more immiserated than they actually felt. Then there was this bit:

"We in the Democratic Party hope that this administration is serious about improving education and healthcare for all Americans, and addressing such domestic priorities as restoring the vitality of New Orleans," Webb said.

The vitality of New Orleans was gone long before Katrina. Most of us have gathered by now that curing what ails the place is beyond federal intervention.

As for Iraq, Webb proposed that Bush take as a model President Eisenhower's policy toward Korea, which quickly resulted in the truce that lasts to this day. My understanding is that Eisenhower got a settlement by threatening to drop atomic bombs on Manchuria. Be careful what you wish for.

I don't follow spoken Spanish well enough to understand the Spanish-language response from Rep. Xavier Becerra; maybe I will see a transcript later. In any case, it is profoundly disturbing that different responses were issued simultaneously to different linguistic groups. That's just one step away from making different responses to different nations, which is in fact where bilingualism always leads.

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The Long View 2007-01-21: I've Had a Really Bad Weekend

I did not have a bad weekend, but John J. Reilly was rather disappointed in the Republican convention in 2007.

JJR had some substantial disagreements with the domestic policy of President George W. Bush, leading to this cri de coeur:

What a fraud the Republican Revolution was. It was not Burkean, it was not populist, it was not libertarian; it certainly wasn't Evangelical or Catholic. More and more it looks like a pro-business, anti-market scam that co-opted popular disgust with the decrepit and incoherent Democratic Party. The Republican Party in power, starting with the Reagan Administration (don't get me started on the S&L scandal again) has been marked by indifference to the ordinary principles of public administration.

….

If it were not for the necessity to prosecute the Terror War, I would just give up on the Bush Administration.

Would that he had. It is fascinating to return to how we got into the Iraq war after 9/11, and then to see how once it was all laid bare, criticism was really only possible in partisan terms.

Also, Peak Oil was false. Maybe the best you could say is that it is true in some ultimate, heat death of the universe sense.

Strictly speaking, I think we have to chalk up John’s endorsement of this prediction by Mark Steyn as false:

To put it briefly: Mark Steyn said that every major political party in the West will be pro-natalist by 2015. He is almost certainly right: look here.

That being said, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. The rise of populist parties in the West has gone along with pro-natalist sentiment, and even policies. What prevents this from being true is that the establishment parties have shown considerable power to fight back.


I've Had a Really Bad Weekend

What a fraud the Republican Revolution was. It was not Burkean, it was not populist, it was not libertarian; it certainly wasn't Evangelical or Catholic. More and more it looks like a pro-business, anti-market scam that co-opted popular disgust with the decrepit and incoherent Democratic Party. The Republican Party in power, starting with the Reagan Administration (don't get me started on the S&L scandal again) has been marked by indifference to the ordinary principles of public administration. The saddest thing is that these people think the country still owes them a living. As Mark Steyn put it to his confessor, Hugh Hewitt:

You know, I think there’s a big load of wishful thinking going on amongst the Republican leadership that in a sense, the pendulum will swing back in 2008, and things will go their way. I don’t think so. I think in my own state, for example, which was one of those red states with bluish inclinations, and transformed wholly blue, I think Senator Sununu would certainly be swept away if 2008 was like 2006. And they’re not going to hold those kind of seats with this kind of complacent establishment think that is represented by [the recent] RNC gathering...

That's just his assessment of the party in general. When he gets to the Bush Administration in particular, he becomes harsh:

I was very struck by a comment Michelle Malkin made. She’s just back from Iraq, and she said...the Bush administration is Lucy, and those of us who support it are looking like Charlie Brown, that basically, you go out, you spend your whole time…I’ve been in discussions on radio shows and what not, where you’re defending this thing, defending it, you’re whacking down in column after column these guys who are claiming that it’s treason and a police state, and the Bush-Hitler, and you defend, defend, defend, defend, and then it turns out, you know, that they quietly cave, or as you say, give that impression, and you’re left feeling what the hell did I write those last fifteen columns for?

With this thought in mind, we turn to media reports anticipating a key element of this week's State of the Union Address:

President Bush intends to use his State of the Union address Tuesday to tackle the rising cost of health care with a one-two punch: tax breaks to help low-income people buy health insurance and tax increases for some workers whose health plans cost significantly more than the national average...The basic concept is that employer-provided health insurance, now treated as a fringe benefit exempt from taxation, would no longer be entirely tax-free. Workers could be taxed if their coverage exceeded limits set by the government. But the government would also offer a new tax deduction for people buying health insurance on their own.

Here we see the fiscal brilliance of President Bush's Social Security privatization program, combined with the political sensitivity of his nomination of Harriet Meyers to the Supreme Court: an income-tax deduction-incentive for people who don't pay much income tax that will be paid for by degrading the coverage of the minority of the population with really adequate coverage.

If it were not for the necessity to prosecute the Terror War, I would just give up on the Bush Administration. And in that connection, let me take issue with Hugh Hewitt's parting remark to Mark Steyn:

HH: And so…well, Mark Steyn, always a pleasure in these despairing days. Luckily, there’s nothing that a victory won’t turn around in a hurry, and maybe David Petraeus will go get it.

Not really. The Democrats got serious about bringing down Richard Nixon only after he had negotiated a settlement in Vietnam that offered some hope of keeping the South independent. Victory is precisely what would be unforgivable; or at any rate, victory would be intolerable.

* * *

Some hoaxes never have the opportunity to flower, but wither in the bud. It looks as if Peak Oil is about to join their number:

Fresh data from the International Energy Agency show oil consumption in the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development fell 0.6% in 2006. Though the decline appears small, it marks the first annual drop in more than 20 years among the OECD countries...To be sure, global oil demand grew 0.9% in 2006, owing to steady growth in China and the Middle East. But that was down from growth of 3.9% in 2004 and 1.5% in 2005.

Americans should remember that low oil prices are not an unalloyed good for the United States, which remains a major oil producer. Be that as it may, neither the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela nor the Islam Republic in Iran will survive this trend.

* * *

But while the Republican Party is merely doomed and unworthy, the Democratic Party shows every sign of turning into a Vampire's Ball held on the beach because the organizers have convinced themselves the sun will never rise again. We see this especially in their idea of outreach:

Eager to avoid a resumption of the culture wars, the new Democratic leaders are trying to tiptoe around the abortion issue by promoting legislation to encourage birth control and assist women who decide to proceed with unwanted pregnancies...

"You're going to see a change in the tone of the debate, and a move toward more solutions, rather than the divisiveness," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion rights group that signed on early to the prevention agenda. "What we're going to see in this Congress is some problem-solving."

Third Way, a moderate Democratic policy group, coined the term "abortion grays" to define the nearly two-thirds of voters who hold mixed views on the subject. Rachel Laser, Third Way's abortion expert, has counseled numerous Democratic candidates and lawmakers on prevention rhetoric. In a poll the group commissioned last summer, 69 percent of voters said they supported the goal of reducing the number of abortions "while still preserving the basic right to have one."

Aside from the underlying insincerity of this Third Way (my Lord, that term is jinxed!), there are three reasons this effort will miscarry:

(1) It conflates, yet again, the notion of "unplanned child" with "unwanted child." You may argue about what God thinks about this equation, but Darwin says "no."

(2) It tries to avoid the fact that Roe and the related cases are fatal to legitimate jurisprudence. By legitimate jurisprudence, I mean jurisprudence that is acceptable to the political system in the long run. Roe would have to be overturned, even if it were about double-parking.

(3) This Third Way is kairotically inapposite. It opposes the flow of the hour, which is the reversal of the anti-natalist population policy that was enacted through the courts in the 1960s and '70s. Official promotion of contraception is not the alternative to abortion; they are complements.

A change in kairos is always somewhat mysterious. When it occurs, the cultural defaults change, and those people who think they are controlling the change (and there always are some) are in fact the most helplessly under its influence.

To put it briefly: Mark Steyn said that every major political party in the West will be pro-natalist by 2015. He is almost certainly right: look here.

* * *

Presidential hopeful John Edwards recently chose to announce his candidacy in New Orleans, a city of social dysfunction and lethal political incompetence. Frankly, after the reelection of Mayor Nagin, the city became an argument against democracy.

According to The New York Times, the New Orleans of [the] Future May Stay Half Its Old Size. It would be better if it were 0% of its old size.

* * *

The cruelty of Spengler exceeds anything I say here, as we see in his latest column at Asia Times, Jimmy Carter's heart of dorkiness:

Where the Palestinians are concerned, Carter keens the same trope. It is repulsive to think that a people of several millions, honeycombed with representatives of international organizations, the virtual stepchild of the United Nations, appears doomed to reduce its national fever by letting blood. The 700,000 refugees of 1948, hothoused by the UN relief agencies, prevented from emigrating by other Arab regimes, have turned into a people, but a test-tube nation incapable of independent national life: four destitute millions of third-generation refugees in the small and barren territories of Gaza, Judea and Samaria, which cannot support a fraction of that number...Jimmy Carter knows better than that: the Palestinians are not in the position of southern American blacks, but rather of southern American whites, the exemplar of a self-exterminating people in the modern period. That is why Carter identifies with them. Apart from modern Palestine, there are very few cases in modern history in which a militant population showed its willingness to fight to the death. The US south sacrificed two-fifths of its military-age men during the Civil War of 1861-65...Think of Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings explaining to Samwise why he cannot give up hope for Gollum's redemption from the curse of Sauron's ring, because that would weaken Frodo's hope for his own redemption. This form of obsessive self-pity produces the unctuous forms of expression that make it so painful to listen to a Jimmy Carter or a Bill Clinton talk about political morality...

Let us never forget that Woodrow Wilson was a southerner.

That explains it all.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-01-17: Franco-British What-Ifs; Steyn on Children of Men; Obsolete Doomsday Clock

A Franco-British Union is the kind of alternative history that John J. Reilly loved to post about, except this one was seriously proposed more than once in mundane history.


Franco-British What-Ifs; Steyn on Children of Men; Obsolete Doomsday Clock

This is not one of the great "What-Ifs" of history, however much attention this archival revelation has received in the past week:

Britain and France talked about a 'union' in the 1950s and even discussed the possibility of Elizabeth II becoming the French head of state....

On September 10, 1956, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet came to London to discuss the possibility of a merger between the two countries with Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden.

But when Mr Mollet's request for a union failed, the French premier quickly responded with another radical plan: that France be allowed to join the British Commonwealth.

According to the BBC, this proposal appears to have met with more warmth from the British politician.

Actually, something like this had been a real possibility 16 years earlier, when the French government had fled from Paris to Bordeaux after the Germans took Paris. At that time, the British government made this astonishing proposal (I quote from William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic):

At this most fateful moment in the history of the modern world, the governments of the United Kingdom and the French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union and unyielding resolution to their common defense of justice and freedom ....

The two governments declare that France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union. The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defense, foreign, financial and economic policies.

Every citizen of France shall enjoy immediately citizenship of great Britain; every British subjects will become a citizen of France.

The Franco-British Union certainly had Churchillian boldness, but in fact Churchill had doubts about it. His government was prevailed upon to make the proposal by Frenchmen in London, among them Jean Monnet, who wanted to keep France in the Second World War. All that really interested the British at that point was securing the French Fleet. However, the desperate French premier, Paul Reynaud, was enthusiastic about the Union and thought he could convince his cabinet to accept. They did not, of course. His government fell, and its successor sought an armistice.

To this day that decision can be defended. The politicians who made it had been elected to save France. No one was paying them to save civilization, especially if saving civilization meant that all of France would be subject to foreign occupation. I think that calculation is incomplete: every state has a duty to the civilization of which it is a part, and indeed to mankind as a whole. However, the decision was not irrational, or even dishonorable.

It was also a much greater possibility than the proposal of 1956, simply because it would have served an immediate need. It is possible to imagine the French and British empires prosecuting the Second World War together (though one suspects that full union would not have been implemented). One result would have been that the Japanese would have included Indochina in their list of conquests a few months later. Another, perhaps more important, is that there might never have been a German campaign in North Africa: the hostility of the French possessions there would have made it untenable.

No North African campaign would, of course, have freed up resources for the Eastern Front. Would the non-capitulation of France have lost the war for the Allies by enabling a knockout blow against the Soviet Union? Probably not, but we see that the acceptance of the British proposal of 1940 would not necessarily have shortened the war.

* * *

Mr. Demographic Collapse, Mark Steyn, has seen the film version of P. D. James's book The Children of Men and is not pleased:

There are zillions of bad movies, but Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children Of Men is bad in an almost awe-inspiring way. ...the way in which he misses the point portends a difficult future for Hollywood in the years ahead. ...P D James’ short book is a meditation on loss of purpose in society: the symptoms are already well advanced in real-life Europe - convenience euthanasia, collapsed birth rates, wild animals reclaiming empty villages on the east German plain. Cuaron can’t even grasp the question, ...The film looks like a film – which is to say that, apart from Michael Caine, everyone in it is young: young transgressive leaders of young gangs pursued by young cops and young soldiers. But that’s exactly what the novel has in short supply: roads crumble to tracks because the employees of the state are too middle-aged to maintain the rural districts. Entirely accidentally, the ineptitude of Cuaron’s movie makes James’ point: A society without youth is so alien to our assumptions about ourselves that we can’t even make a film about it. Which suggests that Hollywood itself – at least in its present incarnation – will be one of the casualties of the coming of age.

I have not seen the movie, but I, too, regret that Cuaron chose to describe a conventional dystopia rather than to cinematize the book's unusual premise. (That is not the only case of directorial timidity I regret: just once, I want someone to make a film version of H.G. Well's The Time Machine and just shoot the book.) However, in Cuaron's defense, we should note his claim that James herself approved of his treatment of the book.

* * *

This gimmick has outlived its usefulness, as we can see from this report:

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) is moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock on January 17, 2007, from 7 to 5 minutes to midnight.

BAS announced the Clock change at an unprecedented joint news conference at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, and the Royal Society in London. In a statement supporting the decision to move the hand of the Doomsday Clock, the BAS Board focused on two major sources of catastrophe: the perils of 27,000 nuclear weapons, 2000 of them ready to launch within minutes; and the destruction of human habitats from climate change.

I'm sorry, but what does global warming have to do with atomic weapons? Is the clock now to measure all the Bad Things in the world? How about Bad Cholesterol?

Here's a more serious objection: what does the BAS do when nuclear weapons are actually used, probably in a terrorist attack or in an exchange between states with small arsenals? It is always awkward when the eschaton actually arrives.

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The Long View 2007-01-15: Stephen King & The Second Religiousness

Stephen King in 2007 at ComicCon  By Pinguino Kolb - "Pinguino's" flickr account, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1774637

Stephen King in 2007 at ComicCon

By Pinguino Kolb - "Pinguino's" flickr account, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1774637

I’ve never been a Steven King fan, but his influence is hard to escape in American fiction. John riffs off of Ross Douthat’s attempt to make sense of the historical moment King can represent.


Stephen King & The Second Religiousness

The title of this entry was not the one that Ross Douthat (of The American Scene) chose for his excellent piece in the February issue of First Things; he called it "Stephen King's American Apocalypse." Nonetheless, I think it pretty clear that Oswald Spengler's notion of the Second Religiousness is essentially what Douthat was talking about.

As a preliminary matter, we might note that the article has an obituary air that is not perhaps altogether seemly when discussing an author who is still living and publishing one or two books every year. However, Douthat takes it as given that King's best work is behind him, in the form of the horror novels that threatened to engulf the nation's bookstores in the 1970s and 80s. (For myself, I would argue that King's best book on all levels is Pet Sematary, but Douthat may have a point when takes The Stand as the acme of King's art.) Douthat contends that King's world of vampire-infestation and demon-possession amidst brand-name household appliances was less distant from real American experience than the self-consciously realistic literature of the period. As Douthat notes:

This kind of supernatural realism is hard to pull it off.

It seems to me that King's great strength as a writer is the ability to produce plausible interior monologue, a gift which affords a high level of verisimilitude even to a character who is fighting a giant spider. What interests Douthat, though, is the way that King's tales of disjuncture from conventional reality chimed with an era in which just that seemed to be happening in the wider world:

[I]t is not a coincidence that King did his best work in the decade of Jonestown and The Exorcist, the Ayatollah Khomeini and The Late Great Planet Earth, the decade that stripped away the self-confident science-and-progress ethos of the nineteen fifties and early nineteen sixties.

Douthat notes that this period was the beginning of the age of conspiracy that continues to this day, and which was not without its effect on serious fiction. King's books attracted a mass audience and remain influential today, however, because they were more serious than literature:

The paranoid style is steeped in agnosticism or a wary deism, whereas King's novels don't deal just in devils but in a personal, active Almighty as well.... God does elbow his way into King's America -- it wouldn't be recognizably America if he didn't -- and when he appears, it isn't as the distance half-glimpsed presence, a philosopher's god or the wan deity of wistful almost-believers. He is instead "the Lord of Hosts"...

America does not lack for Christian fiction, or even for supernatural thrillers intended for a Christian readership. The appeal of King is more interesting, however, because it is more fundamental:

At their best, his works aren't just a wide-open window into the bedlam of recent American life. They're the first significant attempts at a literature for a post-secular age.

If you will forgive me, I will quote again the famous passage from The Decline of the West describing the Second Religiousness:

But neither in the creations of this piety nor in the form of the Roman Imperium is there anything primary and spontaneous. Nothing is built up, no idea unfolds itself - it is only as if a mist cleared off the land and revealed the old forms, uncertainly at first, but presently with increasing distinctness. The material of the Second Religiousness is simply that of the first, genuine, young religiousness - only otherwise experienced and expressed. It starts with Rationalism's fading out in helplessness, then the forms of the Springtime become visible, and finally the whole world of the primitive religion, which had receded before the grand forms of the early faith, returns to the foreground, powerful in the guise of the popular syncretism that is to be found in every Culture at this phase.

This seems to be a good description of King's supernatural, to judge by Douthat's observation:

Nor is King's God disposed to handle every supernatural flare-up. He coexists with a multitude of lesser powers, and he allows most of them more or less free rein.

Perhaps not so much the God of the Old Testament comes back in King's fiction as the God of the Gothic, whose preeminence was not inconsistent with a feudal structure of lesser eminences, some of doubtful loyalty.

Be this all as it may, Douthat is not interested in King as the prophet of a New Age, but as the marker of a transitional period that still continues:

The result, across King's body of work, is a vision of contemporary America as a spiritual realm that is out of joint and up for grabs, thick with competing forces and watched over by an Almighty whose goals are inscrutable, whose demands are peremptory, and whose methods are sometimes cruel...The Age of Reason is over, but the Age of Faith has not yet returned. And so Stephen King's America endures in fear and trembling-waiting for a messiah or a second coming.

Popular culture, and perhaps popular superstition, continued to develop the post-theological spirituality that King made mainstream. An example of this trend is the television series Supernatural, in which the Other World has quite literally gone feral; characters who are probably members of the National Rifle Association have to go out to hunt it. American religion after the 1970s, however, did not continue on the trajectory that King's syncretistic spiritual imagination suggested. Instead, there was a conspicuous turn toward orthodoxy. As is the case with all renaissances, it was a revival that masked novelty. The fastest growing forms of Christianity are generically pentecostal: not a new religion, much less a new revelation, but arguably a new Christendom. The keynote is direct experience, without reference to historical tradition. Actually, I would argue that the same indifference to historical development is also behend the increasingly successful efforts to revive older forms of liturgy: the audience for the Latin Mass, for instance, may be less interested in history than in transcendence.

The end of modernity is not yet. When it arrives, though, it will have less to do with the return of the Sidhe than with the development of a spirituality that does not suffer progress.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

Meanwhile, one suspects that this is the real news:

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

MEMRI prefaces the quote with these comments:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Translator

John J. Reilly’s book review of John Crowley’s The Translator comes up at an apropos time: I am digesting a history of science fiction in the twentieth century, and The Translator seems to be a good example of science fiction as a kind of secular scripture.

There is one definition I want to post from 1973, because it is very revealing as to the type of people who made this separation such an obsessive goal to begin with. This is by Bulgarian writer Elka Konstantiova:

"Even though the origins of science fiction go back to the mid-19th century, nonetheless as a new literary genre, charged with special social functions, science fiction is the undoubted product of the nuclear age. The more meaningful the scientific and technological breakthroughs and their impact on modern life, the greater the role of science fiction, stimulating our vision for things to come, especially in the aspect of the changes wrought in man's mentality by the scientific and technological revolution. Science fiction brings home the awareness that the future will continue to bring radical changes in all areas of man's life; science fiction is there to prepare him for this eventuality."

In other words, it's secular scripture. Science fiction is a way to guide the populace by informing them on what path they should take to build a better tomorrow. Which better tomorrow, you might ask? Well, the one that will advance humanity as a whole.

This novel is a metaphorical [or metahistorical] interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and thus very much fits the mold described above.


The Translator
By John Crowley
HarperCollins, 2002
295 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-380-97862-8

Remember the Great Atomic War of 1963? It's odd that you shouldn't, or so it seemed in later years to Christa Malone, the protagonist in this metahistorical interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"The final logic of this [20th] century, this century that believed in logic and history and necessity, the final spasm so long and well prepared: it didn't happen, and now seemed likely never to happen."

The Translator explains why the inevitable did not happen, as well as something of the conflict in a higher world that the historical incidents of those days darkly reflected. This novel is not the long-awaited fourth volume of John Crowley's great work, the Aegypt series, but it does treat of many of the same themes: the end of the world, the hermetic subtext of everyday life, and the multiplicity of histories. The book is not precisely fantasy or science fiction, though readers may be reminded of Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven. Rather, the author tries to use just the suggestion of magic in order to rise above history and show that it is not what it seems. As a technique, that works well enough. However, the exercise also presents an example of the fallacy of "beyondism." Though affecting to view a historical conflict from the point of view of eternity, the author is really picking a side, and the stupid side at that.

A love story holds the novel together. Christa "Kit" Malone, a Catholic girl with a recently acquired dark past, comes to a Midwestern university in 1962. She makes many discoveries, some of them specific to her era. She is, for instance, slightly surprised to find that there really are Communists in America; she had begun to suspect that the nuns at school had make them up as minatory figures. Her chief discovery, though, is a Russian poet-in-exile, the mysterious Innokenti Isayevich Falin.

Falin is an uncanny fellow. He is one of those people, for instance, who seem able to appear and disappear without being seen to come and go. More concretely, there is the persistent question of why the Soviet government chose to exile him, when they did not exile, say, Pasternak. He also tells of a kind of life in the Soviet Union that has nothing to do with either the official world of the "gray gods," to use his phrase, or with the anticommunist polemics Kit heard from her nuns. Falin spent part of his childhood as a homeless vagabond in a Dickensian world of youth gangs and train stations, but "with no Dickens to make things right." Even in later life, Russia for him was a place where people just got lost, or were arrested for no reason even the jailors could name.

Kit becomes Falin's student, and later his translator. A fair amount of this book is about the difficulties of translation from one language to another, about whether a poem in translation is really the same poem. This being a John Crowley novel, however, we soon learn that translation is only a metaphor for the interface of worlds:

"Events in the world can perhaps be like rhyming words in poems: they can only, what would you say, pay off in one world, one translation, not in others. In one world people are cheering and weeping with joy, for best conclusion has been reached, heroes have come home safe. In another world, say this world, same events are events of no significance."

Falin's presence turns out to be of great significance in all worlds, however, because he is the way through which the apocalyptic logic of the 20th century can be confounded. Explaining it to her father long afterwards, Kit puts the reality of the Cold War this way:

"I think that back then, when he came to this country, there was a struggle going on between the angels of the nations, his and ours; and that in their anger and their fear, those angels came to destroy the world..."

Crowley's angels generally have more to do with the angels of the schoolmen than with those of popular comfort. Often they are like mathematical objects, insectile intelligences, both omniscient and stupid. There is more to be said about them, however. The great angels of the nations are attended by lesser angels, almost shadows, which complement their greater brethren's strengths and weaknesses. Falin describes the relationship in a poem written just before his disappearance, on the very night the danger of nuclear war crests and recedes. (There is a fair amount of original poetry in The Translator, and it's pretty good.):

"If a nation's angel is proud, then the other is shy
Brilliant if the nation's angel is dull
Full of pity if the angel shows none
Laughing if it always weeps, weeping if it cannot weep."

In a mysterious way, Falin embodies the lesser angel of Russia. In a wrap-around story set in a conference at St. Petersburg after the end of the Cold War, really a sort of Judgment Day in an afterlife, one of Falin's old friends expresses the real significance of Falin's exile:

"[The] worst thing such a corrupted great angel could do would be to send away into exile the lesser angel who is paired with him."

In some way that is not clearly explained, Falin intrudes himself into the attention of the idiot angels at just the right time to distract them from their work of mutual destruction. He dies, or returns to Russia, or otherwise vanishes, with only a car sunk ambiguously in a river to hint at his fate. The balance of the world begins to right itself, and we are given to understand that John Kennedy's assassination a year later was a compensating sacrifice.

The Translator reworks a notion that Crowley has been using for years. It is clearly set out in his famous story, The Great Work of Time, in which a disconcerted time traveler has this to say about an early 21st century world whose past has been unduly tinkered with:

"It was not simply a world inhabited by intelligent races of different kinds: it was a harder thing to grasp than that. The lives of the races constituted different universes of meaning, different constructions of reality; it was as though four or five different novels, novels of different kinds by different and differently limited writers, were to become interpenetrated and conflated: inside a gigantic Russian thing a stark and violent policier, inside that something Dickensian, full of plots, humor, and eccentricity. Such an interlacing of mutually exclusive universes might be comical, like a sketch in Punch; it might be tragic, too. And it might be neither: it might simply be what is the given against which all airy imaginings might finally be measured: reality."

This is not a bad way to put a story together, though we usually find it only in very long novels. The conceit of alternative realities lets us see the box-in-a-box structure. However, The Translator shows that this kind of structure is not necessarily a good way to think about history, or at any rate to write about it. If we can see the alternative worlds, we are outside them and can judge between them. The problem is that, in Crowley's telling, the view from eternity is awfully parochial. We get the first hint of this when Falin the Lesser Angel expresses reservations about a commencement speech that called on the graduates to simply "stick to your dream":

"Some dreams we do not wish that people stick to: we hope that they are weak, and do not cling to these dreams, that they fail to hold on. A dream that one day this world will be free of Jews. That Soviet Union will be destroyed. That all enemies of the state will be crushed. That only one God prevail everywhere."

One might plausibly object that these four aspirations do not belong on the same list. Indeed, it could be that anyone who thinks them morally equivalent is not unusually broadminded, but suffers from blinkered vision. In fact, as the story moves through the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we see that the view from eternity is essentially that of the early New Left. Kit learns that the sepia undergraduate world of the Kennedy years is a front for cruel and secret powers, as if the Land of Oz were really ruled by the East German Stasi. She even meets America's own lesser angel, in the person of an "intelligence agent" who could have walked out of an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. (He could not have come from The X-Files: Crowley does get the period right.) This discovery changes her life, even causing her to leave the country for a while. Eventually, though, she comes to grips with the powers that be:

"It was only when others who were braver than she was stood up to it - to them, to the secret power - gave a name to it, spoke truth to it; only when they came out in thousands and then tens of thousands singing Dona nobis pacem, that she found she could too."

It is perhaps some evidence that people really do live in different realities that I found this transformation so shocking. Could it really be the case that, even today, there are people who think that conversion to the New Left was a kind of enlightenment? Evidently, there is a world in which the victory of the West in the Cold War was an event without a rhyme.

Even so, it would be a mistake to miss this book because you might not find the political subtext congenial. The Translator succeeds in portraying the days of "The New Frontier" as the haunted time it actually was, as full of premonition in its way as the years before 1914. One need not be metaphysically inclined to accept that there may be more to history than meets the eye. For those who are so inclined, this book has good and bad angels for all.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-01-09: Anti-Freeze Life; Ethical Racket; Charles Fort Lives; Towards Universal Health Care; Steyn on Russia

John Reilly had a minor sideline in Fortean phenomena, named after Charles Fort, strange and uncanny events sometimes described as being outside of what science can explain, but often better seen as low frequency events that are difficult to describe. In that vein, the recent juvenile humpback whale found in a mangrove swamp in Brazil is an excellent example. Not quite far enough from the water to be truly inexplicable, but strange nonetheless.

Small whale in Mangrove forest

Small whale in Mangrove forest

There is also a line in this post which I’ve thought about for a long time, and I think I finally understand what is going on.

If the California system is implemented, we can expect it to work better than the plans in the New England states, for the simple reason that California has a younger population. There are more workers to support the system. Still, I do not expect any of the state plans to be altogether satisfactory. As I have remarked before, health insurance may follow the pattern of bank-deposit insurance. That had been tried in a few states in the early 20th century, but the insurance systems kept collapsing because the the risk pools were not big enough. As an afterthought, Franklin Roosevelt included mandatory national deposit insurance among the bank reforms at the beginning of his administration. To everyone's surprise, the insurance restored popular confidence in the banks immediately.

John thought that the difficulty with universal healthcare systems in the United States was that the risk pool wasn’t big enough. That never seemed quite right to me, but it took a long time to figure out why. There are plenty of healthcare systems in the world that cover smaller and older populations than many US states. For example, in 2005, Sweden had just over 9 million resident. Massachusetts at the time had about 6.4 million. It is at least conceivable that the extra 2.5 million people would make the difference, until you look at the population pyramids.

Massachusetts population pyramid 2000  By No machine-readable author provided. WarX assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=973229

Massachusetts population pyramid 2000

By No machine-readable author provided. WarX assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=973229

Population Pyramid of Sweden 2016  By Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). - CIA World Factbook, 2017., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64345478

Population Pyramid of Sweden 2016

By Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). - CIA World Factbook, 2017., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64345478

Massachusetts is relatively younger, even though smaller. In theory, this should make your healthcare system, especially if seen in the insurance model, work better. However, universal healthcare didn’t work out as well in Massachusetts as it does in Sweden, because it cost more than expected. Pseudonymous blogger Random Critical Analysis provided me with the reason why: Americans spend much more on health care than Swedes because we are a lot richer, and people don’t understand this and keep being surprised.

John Reilly always insisted that healthcare wasn’t a right, but rather a matter of public order, but I think he was missing some critical quantitative details that would have really made his case better.


Anti-Freeze Life; Ethical Racket; Charles Fort Lives; Towards Universal Health Care; Steyn on Russia


We can probably bet against this ingenious speculation:

Two NASA space probes that visited Mars 30 years ago may have stumbled upon alien microbes on the Red Planet and inadvertently killed them, a scientist theorizes in a paper released Sunday....Dirk Schulze-Makuch...a geology professor at Washington State University. ...In the '70s, the Viking mission found no signs of life. But it was looking for Earth-like life, in which salt water is the internal liquid of living cells. Given the cold dry conditions of Mars, that life could have evolved on Mars with the key internal fluid consisting of a mix of water and hydrogen peroxide, said Dirk Schulze-Makuch, author of the new research.

Perhaps the paper addresses this issue, but there are many places on Earth where an anti-freeze biochemistry would be very useful, yet we do not find it here. That strongly suggests it is not possible.

* * *

When I see this kind of story (from the LA Times, in this case), I think "racket:"

Dark cloud over good works of Gates Foundation:

Ebocha, Nigeria — Justice Eta, 14 months old, held out his tiny thumb.

An ink spot certified that he had been immunized against polio and measles, thanks to a vaccination drive supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But polio is not the only threat Justice faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it "the cough." People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Could someone be gingering up a law suit against the foundation, or are we dealing here with honest idiocy?

* * *

Fortean phenomena should stay off the frontpages, but we have had a flurry of prominent ones in the past few days. Yesterday we had the Manhattan gas incident that interrupted some underground train service and caused buildings to be evacuated, plus the bird die-off that closed much of Houston. That brazen (as in "bold," not "made of bronze") UFO actually visited O'Hare in November, but we heard about only last week. The odds are that all these things, including the UFO, probably were caused by weather conditions that really are unique in our not-very-extensive records.

Regarding the gas smell, I could hear the fire department vehicles looking for the source here in Jersey City, but I could not smell it: I'm getting over a cold.

On the other hand, National Public Radio saw fit to advise its listeners of this development:

Poems, songs, and stories praising Saddam and lamenting his death are popping up all over Arab Internet sites. A few mosques in Baghdad announced that an image of his face could be seen on the moon, and people spilled into the streets this week for a glimpse of their former leader in the night skies.

It's much too early in the year for Silly Season stories.

* * *

In the realm of sober public policy, we see that Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed a state health-care system that would add California to Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont as states that require universal coverage. The plan looks plausible, but I note that almost half the funding would come from new federal money to which the state believes it would be entitled under existing federal rules. I am not pleased that at least some of the funding would also come from new payroll taxes, but that could be a wash in terms of the business climate, since a state with universal coverage is going to be a more attractive place to work. The great red herring in the debate over the Schwarzenegger Plan is going to be its coverage of illegals. The objections to that rather miss the point of the exercise: this is a matter of public order, not social generosity.

If the California system is implemented, we can expect it to work better than the plans in the New England states, for the simple reason that California has a younger population. There are more workers to support the system. Still, I do not expect any of the state plans to be altogether satisfactory. As I have remarked before, health insurance may follow the pattern of bank-deposit insurance. That had been tried in a few states in the early 20th century, but the insurance systems kept collapsing because the the risk pools were not big enough. As an afterthought, Franklin Roosevelt included mandatory national deposit insurance among the bank reforms at the beginning of his administration. To everyone's surprise, the insurance restored popular confidence in the banks immediately.

* * *

Even the House of the Seven Gables demographics of New England looks perky compared to that of Russia, as Mark Steyn recently noted:

The Toronto Star (which is Canada’s biggest-selling newspaper and impeccably liberal) recently noted that by 2015 Muslims will make up a majority of Russia’s army...

The Litvinenko murder is only the first of many stories in which Islam, nuclear materials and Russian decline will intersect in novel ways.

Which brings me, alas, to the Iraq Study Group. This silly shallow report, of which James Baker, Lee Hamilton and the rest should be ashamed, betrays no understanding of how fast events are moving. It falls back on the usual multilateral mood music....By 2050, Russia will be the umpteenth Muslim nuclear power, but the first with a permanent seat on the UNSC. Or maybe the second, if France gets there first....forget the extrapolations: already, domestic Muslim constituencies are an important factor in the foreign policy thinking of three out of the big five. Are Baker and Hamilton even aware of that?

I suspect that France will be the first European country to pull out of the deathspiral. The question is how much discontinuity there will be with mid-20th century liberal modernity. In Russia the problem is more serious, but Russia has fewer inhibitions to overcome in order to solve them.

Now that was a scary sentence.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-01-05: Goddard, Mahdi, Climate, Anti-McCain

John J. Reilly proposed this scheme of immigration reform once before:

(1) Physical control of the borders;

(2) Legal immigration restricted to family reunification and political asylum;

(3) Amnesty with parallel tracks for repatriation or naturalization

He intended it as a compromise in the name of domestic peace, even knowing that 1) and 2) would be opposed from the Left, and 2) and 3) from the Right, but he hoped that a broad enough centrist coalition might go for all three. John was of the opinion that America was almost unique in the world in its ability to accept and assimilate new arrivals, but thought it worked best when you took the pressure of continual change away. I suspect this is not the moment for such a thing, based upon poll data.


Goddard, Mahdi, Climate, Anti-McCain

Jeff Bezos is a member of the class of optimates who aspire to become The Man Who Sold the Moon, an ambition that has, perhaps, been advanced by last year's successful testflight of the Goddard -- a first development vehicle in the New Shepard program of his Blue Origin spaceflight company.

The you can find a video of the brief flight by following the link above. For me, at least, the bluntly conical Goddard does not inspire confidence: it's more like an unusually dangerous helicopter than a spaceship. Nonetheless, my hopes for Blue Origin rose when I saw its logo:

The Latin motto, Gradatim Ferociter, lends its self to whimsical translations, such as "Madly Methodical," but the party-line version is "Courageously Step-by-Step," and that will do fine. I am a great fan of tortoises, and here we have two of them.

* * *

Persons who need to add Doomsday to their datebook will be interested to learn that the Mahdi will reveal himself around the time of the spring equinox (though not necessarily this spring's equinox), if we believe this information from Iran:

In our discussion of the world in the last days of the earth we had said in our previous editions of this programme that no source has pointed to the exact date when the Savior will appear and only God knows about the exact timing of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (AS). The Prophet had said: He will certainly appear and if only a day were to be left to the end of the world God will make that day so long for Mahdi to appear and rise. There are various versions of the exact day of his reappearance. Some say it would be Friday and the date will be Ashura or the 10th of Moharram, the heart-rending martyrdom anniversary of his illustrious ancestor, Imam Husain (AS). Others say the date will be the 25th of the month of Zil-Qa’dah and may coincide with the Spring Equinox or Nowrooz as the Iranians call. A saying attributed to the Prophet’s 6th infallible heir, Imam Ja’far Sadeq (PBUH) says the Mahdi will appear on the Spring Equinox and God will make him defeat Dajjal the Impostor or the anti-Christ as the Christians say, who will be hanged near the dump of Kufa. The 6th Imam goes on to add: There will be no Nowrooz when we will not be waiting for him.

As I have noted previously, there was a medieval opinion that the Second Coming of Jesus would occur on March 25. The Second Coming of Jesus, by the way, is also a feature of Islamic eschatology, even in those versions that do not include the Mahdi.

Be that as it may, I find the notion of the world ending in early spring terribly counter-intuitive. In contrast, for the end to come on a blazing summer afternoon, as in On the Beach, would make perfect dramatic sense, but no one consults me about these things.

* * *

Speaking of dubious Doomsdays, I note with grave displeasure the recent reports that Monsoon records link demise of the Tang in China and Maya in Mexico:

They lived in resplendence, half a world apart, before meeting their respective downfalls within decades of one another. Now a new theory suggests that the decline of the Tang Dynasty in China and that of the Mayan civilization in Mexico may both have been due to the same worldwide drought.

Sediments collected from Lake Huguang Maar in southeastern China suggest that Asian summer monsoon rains were weaker during the eighth and ninth centuries AD, the time during which the Tang Dynasty faded from glory. And intriguingly, the same pattern is seen in sediments from Cariaco basin off the Venezuelan coast, suggesting that a similar drought might have been occurring in nearby Mexico...

The events may both be the result of a southward shift in rain patterns that deprived the entire northern tropics of summer rains, suggest researchers led by Gerald Haug of Germany's National Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. The hardship caused by this drought could have been a key factor in the declines of the two cultures, they suggest.

I have been reading conjectures like this for as long as I can remember. With very few exceptions, the climatic explanation has proven to be a dead end. As a rule, within the era of civilizations, climate explains nothing.

Consider the vast disparity between the events that are "explained" by this particular determinist pastorale. The Mayan Classical civilization disappeared like Cinderella's coach, leaving only six white mice and a library of creeper-covered glyphs. In China, there was a change of regime, but Chinese civilization was not threatened. The weather while these things were going on became part of the material of history, in rather the way that theatrical directors take up current events and fashions when they stage a production of a classic. These features do not, however, determine the plot.

* * *

Regarding 2008: Mark Steyn bids fair to become the ideologist for a new kind of conservatism. However, we see that he has set his face against the candidacy of Senator John McCain:

MS: Well, I think he's very thin-skinned. I think that is what was clear to me in 2000. I actually regard him as a very unpleasant man, and I don't say that lightly. There's a lot of politicians who are sort of angry and slightly deranged. Al Gore, for example, when you see him campaign, certainly the last couple of years, seems to have pretty much flown the coop. And when I saw Al Gore at close quarters campaigning, one could recognize the sort of human side to him. McCain, I think, is a very different kettle of fish. I think he is someone who is very thin-skinned, very vain, and has a sort of cavalier attitude to big questions, particularly Constitutional questions. So I think he is someone who in fact, the more you know him, the less you warm to the idea of having him...I said rather, I said at one point, you know, he'd be our version of President Ahmadinejad, the crazy guy with his finger on the nuclear button. And I think there's actually quite a bit of truth in that.

The gravamen of Steyn's complaint is plainly false: we know what looney senators look like, and nothing in McCain's history fits that description. The bit about Ahmadinejad is particularly excessive: readers will be reminded of the "diagnosis" published in 1964 and signed by numerous psychiatrists which said that Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was insane. Steyn's chief problem with McCain seems to be that McCain is, more or less, an open-borders Republican. Actually, considering McCain's background in the restaurant business, his attitude toward cheap labor is not surprising. If he wants to be president, he will have to not just receive the memo on this issue, but also initial it.

At this writing, it does look as if immigration is going to be the issue on which both sides of the political establishment will founder. The new Democratic Congress is likely to abandon plans for the border wall, a dereliction in which they will be abetted by their Republican minority colleagues, even as the region on the other side of the border slides into infectious chaos. Meanwhile, some state governments seem intent on suppressing local enforcement of the existing immigration laws.

What are the elements of a workable immigration policy? One more time:

(1) Physical control of the borders;

(2) Legal immigration restricted to family reunification and political asylum;

(3) Amnesty with parallel tracks for repatriation or naturalization

None of this is hard, but does anyone consult me?

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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

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


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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Long View: 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.

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

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


The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

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

"Hey, this is a good movie!"

The other goat replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Syria and Iran are talking, but are we listening?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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