The Long View 2007-04-10: 2035; God & the Left

Hong Kong protesters attacked by Triads

Hong Kong protesters attacked by Triads

John uses this 2007 report from the British Ministry of Defence to riff on some of his favorite themes. In particular, he seems to have well understood that communications technology could be used to surveil and manipulate just as much as it can be used to enrage mobs, and this was well before social media’s peak.

I’m intrigued by the idea that we might have a better set of transnational institutions if we stopped trying to solve the last century’s problems. John here asserts that most of the features of the international system were created to mitigate the scale of industrialized total war between nation states. Now that we are starting to lose the capacity to mobilize citizens in grand projects, the kind of wars we saw in the twentieth century is becoming less likely. Which isn’t quite the same as saying that we couldn’t have massively destructive wars in our future. It is just that the destruction will be because of violence and chaos spilling out of control because state capacity is on the wane.

While in general, I think John’s thoughts are pretty interesting, at least in the short term, here is one he got wrong:

No, immigration is not going to increase, or even continue at current levels. No, the European demographic dearth is not going to continue until the last Belgian turns out the lights.

After the well-intentioned Angele Merkel invited the world to settle in Germany, lots and lots of migrants took her up on the offer, setting off a populist reaction. The likelihood of lots of people leaving Africa in the 21st century is pretty high too. Lots of people make fun of Steve for talking about the UN demographic predictions that say there will be 4 billion people in Africa by 2100, saying that this is clearly ridiculous.

Maybe. Trends have a way of not continuing forever. One way is that the future people of Africa will find their homes poor and crowded and relatively undeveloped, and they will move elsewhere. This will change everything, as lots and lots of people move into new places. This happened before, in fact. We should expect future demographic transformations to be just as unsettled as the previous ones.

2035; God & the Left

The British Ministry of Defence is entertaining some unhappy thoughts about the year 2035:

Information chips implanted in the brain. Electromagnetic pulse weapons. The middle classes becoming revolutionary, taking on the role of Marx's proletariat. The population of countries in the Middle East increasing by 132%, while Europe's drops as fertility falls. "Flashmobs" - groups rapidly mobilised by criminal gangs or terrorists groups. This is the world in 30 years' time envisaged by a Ministry of Defence [report]... ....

"The middle classes could become a revolutionary class, taking the role envisaged for the proletariat by Marx," says the report. The thesis is based on a growing gap between the middle classes and the super-rich on one hand and an urban under-class threatening social order: "The world's middle classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest". ...

Migration will increase. Globalisation may lead to levels of international integration that effectively bring inter-state warfare to an end. But it may lead to "inter-communal conflict" - communities with shared interests transcending national boundaries and resorting to the use of violence.

There is a tradition of making retrospective fun of predictions made in sober reports written by committees of the great and the good. Nonetheless, reports like this are not as ridiculous as we pretend. In contrast to popular forecasts, they rarely mention flying cars. I remember the early reports from the Trilateral Commission in the 1970s. They forecast, quite correctly, that first the United States, and then Europe, and then Japan, would go through periods of difficult economic restructuring, with each region going into a relative eclipse that would last about a decade. That was pretty much what happened through the 1990s. As for the famous "Soylent Green" future projected by the likes of Paul Ehrlich and The Club of Rome, they do seem to have been attended by an unusually high level of self-delusion, but even they were really just variations on the theme that certain trends can't continue. Well, the trends did not continue, in part because of reactions to the hysterical forecasts. Judging from the press report quoted above, the MOD-UK does not seem to aspire to prophecy. Let me make a few comments about the issues I excerpted:

Flashmobs: We'll take this as a synecdoche for the security-downside of communications technology.

I suspect that most of these problems create their own remedies. For instance, there is likely to be some way that mass political activity organized through a cell-network could be detected and monitored. Technologies like this should actually facilitate the construction of unprecedentedly powerful tools of surveillance.

And if that does not turn out to be true? Prune back the capabilities of the systems. Information may want to be free, but the infrastructure to support all this subversive chatter is licensed public utilities. Mobile personal communications devices could be as highly regulated as handguns, with the difference that the restrictions on these devices could be made to work.

Brain chips: We should be so lucky.

The end of warfare between states: I think we might distinguish between the end of warfare between states and between nation-states.

We must remember that the state preceded the nation-state and will out last it. The scariest aspect of the nineteenth century and the first half of the 20th was the ability of states to mobilize their populations. This was possible because "the nation" became the chief way that people defined themselves politically. The basic machinery of global governance was designed to mitigate the catastrophic scale of total war, of war between populations, and to smooth down the economic instabilities caused by the efforts of states to manage all economic activity within their borders. However, we may see a world where few states can mobilize their populations because "the nation" has evaporated through demographic changes or has become post-democratically non-political. In such a situation, what the state does with the very limited military force it can deploy becomes less important.

Europe in the 18th century, before the period of mass politics, was a continent where war as almost continual because it was limited enough to be tolerable. It is hardly likely that post-political Europe will return to that condition. However, we should not exclude the possibility of a revival of interstate warfare, for the simple reason it will be for limited objectives.

The revolutionary bourgeoisie: Actually, most revolutionaries have always been middle class.

Classical Marxism was in some ways a modest affair. It married the Hegelian model of history to a not wholly misleading theory of economic cycles. The idea was that history would end with the last economic bust, the one that was so severe that it could not be recovered from. The problem was that the economic crashes were largely an effect of inadequate communication of prices; the severity of the crashes were eminently fixable by regulatory oversight (especially oversight to ensure transparency) and better technology. By the end of the 20th century, the hypothesis that capitalism must be mechanically mortal had been as thoroughly refuted as this kind of question can be. Since then, Marxism itself has been moving in an ever more meta trajectory: consider Hardt & Negri's attempt to redefine production as culture.

That sort of analysis has an audience, but such ideas have nothing to do with politics. Indeed, the fashion for such notions is itself a symptom of the retreat of politics.

On a more general level, there were other projections by the MOD about which we can say with some assurance "reversal is the movement of the Tao." No, immigration is not going to increase, or even continue at current levels. No, the European demographic dearth is not going to continue until the last Belgian turns out the lights. And climate change is likely to take care of itself. The scary futures it conjures up bear more than a slight resemblance to the Soylent Green future, and seem likely to produce a similar overreaction (not in promoting an economy of scarcity, but in new presumptions about what constitutes good engineering). The adaptation of societies to climate change will become invisible as time goes on.

* * *

Speaking of ancient futures, PBS last night broadcast a documentary entitled Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, about the origins of the mass suicide of 1978. With no disrespect intended to people like Jim Wallis, I could not help but be reminded of the project in the Democratic Party to rescue religion from the right-wing fundamentalists. The fact is that the return of religion to American politics started from the Left. Here's a quote from the Jonestown cult's founder, Reverend Jim Jones, in his salad days:

"I represent divine principle, total equality, a society where people own all things in common, where there's no rich or poor, where there are no races. Wherever there are people struggling for justice and righteousness, there I am."

And here's what he said after he shot the visiting congressman and had started passing out the Cool Aid:

In an audiotape that was recovered from the disaster site, Jones declares, "We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."

Jones was by no means a marginal figure. He was important on the Left of the Democratic Party in California because he could deliver a respectable-looking crowd within minutes should a national politician come to visit. There is at least one embarrassing picture of him on the same stage as Marilyn Carter, the wife of Jimmy Carter. And about Jimmy Carter, we should remember that it was he who brought evangelical protestantism to the forefront of national politics, as an expansion of the New Deal Coalition.

There are problems with politically conservative religion, just as there are problems with any attempt to define religion in political terms. Nonetheless, at least in the American context, the most catastrophic association between throne and altar has been on the Left.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-08-15: Spelling, Genealogy, Lebanon, Tradition, Ham

In the mid 2000s, John Reilly often defended President George W. Bush, for partisan reasons. I have to hold him to account for this. However, I do try to balance it out with things like his assessment of the capacity of Islamic transnational movements to found a state:

Transnationalism has a stratosphere, a troposphere, a sea level, and even an ocean floor. Islamist transnationalism flows through those murky depths, to which it is specially adapted. In part for that reason, it is not so much incompetent as incapable. The things it can do, such as blowing up airplanes and running neighborhood medical clinics, it can do very well. What it can't do, no more than a shark can tap dance, is provide decent civil administration for a territory, or even a legal environment predictable enough for a market economy to operate above the level of small shops. The acme of its political role is to refrain from destroying the state structures of societies that serve as its hosts. Even then, it's a debilitating parasite.
Thus, simply by nature of what it is, Islamism cannot "win," in the sense of destroying and replacing an adversary, or forcing a defeated opponent to do its will. It has no organ with which to receive a surrender. Deprived of the pressure of an external enemy, it bursts into factional fighting.

As an assessment of ISIS, this is spot on, ten years before it even existed. The ability to predict what will happen is the only yardstick that should matter in things like this.

Spelling, Genealogy, Lebanon, Tradition, Ham


Why did spelling reform miscarry in the early 20th century? If we may believe these videos. it was because the movement was supported by prominent persons such as Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. Roosevelt politicized the issue with his order to the Government Printing Office, and Carnegie was suspected of plotting to make a fortune in textbook publishing once a reform was underway. If the Gates Foundation offered us at the American Literacy Council a large grant, I might argue to turn it down. Unless the money could be delivered in brown paper-bags, of course.

Incidentally, I am working on reprints of various public-domain texts using Soundspel, the teaching orthography that the ALC software uses. Here is the cover art for the first experiment. More details soon.


* * *

Genealogy is bunk, at least for purposes of disclosing the secret noble bloodlines so beloved by conspiracy theorists. The Washington Post explains the obvious:

Even without a documented connection to a notable forebear, experts say, the odds are virtually 100 percent that every person on Earth is descended from one royal personage or another...It works the other way, too. Anybody who had children more than a few hundred years ago is likely to have millions of descendants today, quite a few of them famous.

Everyone of Western European extraction is about equally related to Charlemagne. Maybe everyone, everywhere, is somehow related to Mohammed and Gengis Khan.

At the eschaton, of course, we will all be famous or infamous.

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn waxes apocalyptic about the eclipse of the sovereign state:

Lebanon is a sovereign state. It has an executive and a military. But its military has less sophisticated weaponry than Hezbollah and its executive wields less authority over its jurisdiction than Hezbollah. In the old days, the Lebanese government would have fallen and Hezbollah would have formally supplanted the state. But non-state actors like the Hezbollah crowd and al-Qaida have no interest in graduating to statehood. They've got bigger fish to fry. If you're interested in establishing a global caliphate, getting a U.N. seat and an Olympic team only gets in the way. ...And that indifference to the state can be contagious. ...What if entire populations are being transformed into "non-state actors"? Not terrorists, by any means, but at the very minimum entirely indifferent to the state of which they're nominally citizens....Hence that statistic: Seven percent of British Muslims consider their primary identity to be British, 81 percent consider it to be Muslim....Modern multicultural man disdains to be bound by the nation state, too; he prides himself on being un citoyen du monde. The difference is that, for Western do-gooders, it's mostly a pose:...Absent a determination to throttle the ideology, we're about to witness the unraveling of the world.

I take his point, but I question whether the de-nationalization of the world's transnationalists is just a mere pose. I am echoing Patrick Kennon in this regard. Certainly it is the case that the Davos People don't want to live under a universal caliphate, or even to stay at the sort of hotels that cater to people who might have inclinations along those lines.

Transnationalism has a stratosphere, a troposphere, a sea level, and even an ocean floor. Islamist transnationalism flows through those murky depths, to which it is specially adapted. In part for that reason, it is not so much incompetent as incapable. The things it can do, such as blowing up airplanes and running neighborhood medical clinics, it can do very well. What it can't do, no more than a shark can tap dance, is provide decent civil administration for a territory, or even a legal environment predictable enough for a market economy to operate above the level of small shops. The acme of its political role is to refrain from destroying the state structures of societies that serve as its hosts. Even then, it's a debilitating parasite.

Thus, simply by nature of what it is, Islamism cannot "win," in the sense of destroying and replacing an adversary, or forcing a defeated opponent to do its will. It has no organ with which to receive a surrender. Deprived of the pressure of an external enemy, it bursts into factional fighting.

* * *

Was President Bush correct yesterday when he characterized the cease fire in Lebanon as a victory for Israel, or possibly in the war against terror? Perhaps he was right in the sense that Hezbollah's Lebanese hosts will no longer willingly acquiesce in actions by Hezbollah that threaten to bring Israeli retaliation. On the other hand, tactically, the war turned out to be a fair fight. The prospect of another fair fight makes the threat of retaliation less credible.

* * *

What does Tradition have to say about Israel? Very little good, to judge from Voxnr a French-language site where Yockey and Evola make merry with Islamists and Eurasianists. Actually, one of the more moderate pieces, in that it does not advocate the immediate extermination of Israel and everyone in it, comes from Alexander Dugin (aka Alexandre Dougine). In the brief essay Palestine et Tradition, notre solution, Dugin praises President Putin for reasserting Russia's historical interest in the Levant (remember the Russian proposal for an immediate cease fire?). He also characterizes Israel as laicist and fundamentally illegitimate. Nonetheless, he also notes that, under the Traditional divine monarchy of the Ottoman Empire, the three confessional millets of Christian, Jew, and Muslim were able to live in Palestine without too much friction. He notes with approval the growing theological dimension among the Muslim enemies of Israel, but also remarks with hope on the increasingly Orthodox nature of Israel. Surely peace would come if Palestine were reconstituted as a Traditional land.

Is it over-extrapolating to say that Dugin is implying that what Palestine really needs is to become a Russian protectorate?

* * *

Not everything traditional is creepy (well, not lethally creepy) as we see from this description (hat tip to First Things) of that continuing institution, The Dunmow Flitch:

A common claim of the origin of the Dunmow Flitch dates back to 1104 and the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow, founded by Lady Juga Baynard. Lord of the Manor, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife dressed themselves as humble folk and begged blessing of the Prior a year and a day after marriage. The Prior, impressed by their devotion bestowed upon them a Flitch of Bacon. Upon revealing his true identity, Fitzwalter gave his land to the Priory on the condition a Flitch should be awarded to any couple who could claim they were similarly devoted.

The priory that once conducted the Flitch trials has long since lapsed, and so has the interest of the local aristocrats who conducted the trials thereafter. The trials are still held, however, with volunteer married couples trying to prove to a jury their faithfulness; opposing counsel represents the owner of the flitch.

This Flitch business immediately reminded me of the 1973 film, The Wicker Man, about a policeman who investigates a Scottish island where human sacrifice is a beloved local custom. It's an odd film, essentially a horror story with no gore, and indeed little direct depiction of the supernatural. A remake starring Nicholas Cage will soon be playing in a theatre near you.

The story has been relocated to the coast of Maine. My blood runs cold already.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-05-24: Manicheanism & World Order

Ed West noted recently that progressives have been becoming more and more globalist as times goes on, since this is seen as nationalism, the root of all evil. I call it globalism instead of pro-empire, because the the Empire is a socially conservative place, but I know what Ed means.

Manicheanism & World Order


The great debate continues about whether The Revenge of the Sith is anti-Bush propaganda. The most intelligent comments I have seen so far come from Constantly Risking Absurdity, such as this:

No, this wasn't a Bush-bashing film. Lucas couldn't have made one even if he tried--he can’t escape his own universe. If anything, this film is an argument against Richard Rorty and his school of "ironists," because it favors moral absolutism, objective standards, and a metaphysical foundation for society. Those who blame Bush for being an absolutist who clings to outdated notions of "good" and "evil" should find no support from this film.

If you will recall, Lucas was originally criticized for fostering a Manichean view of the world among Youth. Well, the Youth who lined up in multiplex parking lots to see the original Star Wars in 1977 are all grown up now. They are pretty much running the country; or, like the Manichees of the Michael Moore Left, would very much like to.

In any case, CRA also makes this useful observation:

Footnote: (1) [A.O.] Scott [of the New York Times] got the line wrong. It's not "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes," but, "Only a Sith deals with absolutes." I wonder if the future bumper-sticker manufacturers will take note.

Let us nip this misquote in the bud.

* * *

There is some merit to the works of Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and another book I actually read, Lullaby. Certainly they have ingenious story premises. However, as Tom Shone argues in his review in the New York Times Palahniuk's latest (Haunted: A Novel of Stories), ingenuity isn't everything:

The curious weakness of Palahniuk's neo-brutalist aesthetic is how hermetically sealed it must remain from anything that might challenge it: the air of hard-core debauch must be wall to wall or else crumble to nothing.

Is that a principle of general application? Does it apply to moral example, or just to esthetics?

* * *

Speaking of strategies to defeat Evil, Joseph Bottum's piece in the June/July issue of First Things, "The New Fusionism," tries to puzzle out just what the Kantians-in-Arms and the Pro-Lifers are doing in the same political coalition. The piece points out that this strange alliance has proven remarkably durable, but comes no closer to a satisfactory general theory of the matter:

The abolition of abortion and the active advance of democracy have more in common, I believe than is usually thought. But even if they are utterly separate philosophically, this much is true: They both require reversing the failure that has lingered in America since at least the 1970s, and success in one may well feed success in the other.

The goal in either case is to restore confidence--in what, exactly? Not our own infallible rightness, surely. But neither can we live any longer with the notion of our own infallible wrongness. We need to restore belief in the possibility of being right.

To that I might quote what the protagonist of C. S. Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress says to the Three Pale Men when they react inadequately to his report of the barbarian threat from the North:

Do you think you can rout a million armed dwarves by being "not romantic"?

Again, Walter Russell Mead's Power, Terror, Peace, and War offers a persuasive geopolitical rationale for the re-moralization of America: the US can never legitimize its place in the world if it is chiefly thought of as the world capital of atheism and debauchery. So, that is why the Kantians need the Evangelicals. But why do the Evangelicals need the Kantians? Dante, of course, proposed a class of solution to this question. By different logic, the Roman Catholic Church's social teaching has acquired a parallel trajectory. It may be some time before anyone really wants to connect the dots. Except me, of course.

* * *

Like millions of other Americans, I have sat motionless before my television set as the debate in the Senate about the filibuster has proceeded, chiefly because I had fallen asleep. Yes, there are important issues at stake, but following this is like watching...oh, I don't know: pick your favorite boring sport, maybe one of those events they include in the Olympics that no one has ever heard of.

Most distressing of all is that I could not find a comment from Ambrose Bierce about the filibuster, not even in the heterodox editions of The Devil's Dictionary (unless the definition "filibuster, n. Throwing your weight around" is from him). Attempts to expand the canon of Bierce's definitions have rarely proven happy. For this emergency, though, let me suggest this:

filibuster, n The only inert gas known to be generated by living organisms.

That is not brilliant commentary, but it is short.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-10-05: Art & Empire

In the years since this was written, the shifting of politics from a left/right axis to a globalist/nationalist axis has continued. 

In the last paragraph, John noted that the attempt of the US to continue to function as a sovereign nation in the Great Power/Treaty of Westphalia sense probably wouldn't work, since only the US was capable of really doing that at the time. In the years since, I think we have seen an increasing attempt by other nations to do just that. Most of these players are still the "Great Powers" of the twentieth century, the parties to the Second World War.

By NuclearVacuum - File:BlankMap-World6.svgi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By NuclearVacuum - File:BlankMap-World6.svgi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was common on the American Right to make fun of the French, but then as now the French continue to project power into it's former colonies and current overseas departments. The United Kingdom does the same.

Art & Empire

I see that the candidates for the American presidency are still up to their tomfoolery. I will, of course, make further remarks on the matter in the future, but the fact is that the Kerry Campaign is impervious to good luck. Is there really much more to say?

* * *

Meanwhile, the New York Times Magazine had an article by Arthur Lubow in its October 3 issue on a really important subject:

Defined for so long as the arbiter and guardian of progressive art, [New York's Museum of Modern Art, a.k.a. "MOMA"] reopens on Nov. 20 -- its 75th birthday -- at a time when even its own curators no longer believe that art progresses like science.

This insight is not new. However, the institutions that have supported modern art for a century were designed with a teleological view of cultural history.

[Alfred H. Barr Jr. was MOMA's director at its founding in 1929.] The who is credited or vilified as the Great Codifier is Barr's successor at managing the collection, William Rubin. Unlike Barr, Rubin -- who was chief curator of P&S for 20 years -- had few scruples about sidelining work that he deemed minor. Along with many art scholars of the time, he had been heavily influenced by the critic Clement Greenberg, a lapsed Marxist who transposed his old political faith (in the inexorable evolution of capitalist society toward socialism) into a formalist canon marked by a similarly inevitable progress (from the Post-Impressionism of Cézanne to the Cubism of Braque and Picasso and onward to the Abstract Expressionism of Pollock, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still). Although Barr also had an evolutionary way of thinking, he conscientiously kept his mind open. Because he was operating at a time when modernism was still fresh, that was easier to do. Under Rubin, the creed became dogma. Cerebral and increasingly abstract art was the mainstream, and the subordinate currents, if shown, were to be displayed off to the side.

The rhetoric of arts funding continues to speak in terms of novelty and exploration. And there is no consensus on a substitute language:

The concept of modernism is famously difficult to define. Unquestionably, though, one of the basic tenets of modernist art is a subordination of the putative subject matter (the person in a portrait or the mountain in a landscape) to the peculiarities of the medium (the application of paint to a flat canvas or the relationship between a sculpture and its pedestal). For MOMA to present its modernist masterpieces thematically was as shocking to some as it would be if the Catholic Church were to classify its relics by blood type.

Perhaps I have read The Glass Bead Game too many times, but I wonder that anyone should find this turn of events surprising. The interesting question is whether anything like the 20th-century art industry will long survive in the 21st. No doubt fashion objects will continue to be produced. They will not command anything like the residual religious deference that art commanded early in the modern era.

* * *

Along with art, the international system is continuing its transition from modernity, as we see in John O'Sullivan's piece in The New Criterion of October 2004, Gulliver's travails: The U.S. in the post-Cold-War world.

One of the pleasures of global political theory is that the subject's colorful nomenclature proliferates almost as fast as nuclear weapons. O'Sullivan gives us a brief vocabulary drill:

Kenneth Minogue calls this structure of governance "Acronymia" after the UNOs and NGOs that constitute it. He credits the present author with giving the name "Olympians," after the gods of Antiquity, to those who administer it. Ancient gods used to "kill us for their sport," but modern Olympians are content to regulate and preach at us. John Fonte has defined the common ideology they preach as "transnational progressivism": national sovereignty and the nation-state are disappearing in favor of a new structure of international organizations and rules that goes by the slippery name of "global governance."

O'Sullivan's premise is not entirely novel. After the Cold War, the United States was like the unconscious Gulliver on the beach of Lilliput. Gulliver was systematically tied down by the Lilliputians as he slept. Similarly, for a decade the US was being entwined in the devices and conventions of the transnationalists. Then, on 911, the US woke up. The purpose of O'Sullivan's article is to assess the situation during the Iraq War, which is not going frictionlessly:

Here was where the Tranzis began to make a comeback from their slide into irrelevance after September 11. The rest of the world wanted to see the sole remaining superpower subject to some other authority when it intervened elsewhere. As a practical matter the United States was unable to confer legitimacy upon its own actions. But the Tranzis are partly in the business of conferring it on international actions from their various legal, charitable, and political perches in Acronymia.

To this I would remark that the tranzi attempt to commandeer the situation has not gone frictionlessly, either. The Olympians can shower all the legitimacy they please upon their favorites: the fact remains that their edicts have no effect in areas without the basic police and administrative machinery that, so far, only states can provide. The tranzis are aware of this, which explains the amount of hope they place in the model tranzi institution, the European Union:

If, however, a giant inhabitant of Brobdingnag were to come to [the Lilliputians'] assistance, Gulliver would be defeated. Can the Tranzis hope for similar assistance?...If the United States is to defeat the terrorists in war or the Tranzis in international politics, it will have to take on the E.U. first. It is likely that this clash will occur most substantially over the war on terror.

This looks like a recipe for a low-intensity civil war within the West:

If, however, Mr. [Mark] Steyn is right in his pessimism -- and that's the way to bet -- then the United States will face a difficult future as a military superpower continually frustrated in middling matters by the resistance of international bodies. Europe and America will divide into two separate civilizations -- the Anglosphere (minus England, plus India) and the Holy Secular Empire -- uncomfortably housing a growing Muslim minority. Even in America, liberal democracy will be gradually transformed into a politically correct judicial oligarchy on Tranzi lines.

That might be a plausible future, if the transnational machinery worked. However, as we see in the UN's reaction to the genocide in Dafur, global governance remains what Kurt Vonnegut called a "granfalloon." And as O'Sullivan points out, "American" attitudes toward security issues are not hard to find in Europe. Similarly, tranzi notions have long been at home in the US. If there is convergence, it may not be to a tranzi Omega Point:

But there is another possibility rooted in the fact that the first reactions of most people to a violent but distant revolution are generally appeasing -- vide the reactions of almost everyone except Burke and Churchill to the French and Nazi revolutions respectively. Only when it becomes clear that the terrorists’ aims are limitless and that nobody is safe does opinion turn harsher and more realistic.

I can only repeat that what has been going on since the end of the Cold War is the search for the focus of legitimacy within the international system. The US insistence on sovereignty in its 19th-century Great Power form is not going to work, since the US is the only power in the world capable of functioning in that fashion. On the other hand, Acronymia unites hypocrisy with incompetence most wonderfully. The synthesis of this dialectic, when it occurs, is going to have to combine legitimacy with capability.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The System of Antichrist

Here is an excellent example of why I still think John J. Reilly has something to say all these years later. This book review is a synthesis of ideas he had been working on for nearly ten years, nicely summarized by the links he put in to his earlier work. And also, this paragraph:

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Reminds me of this current controversy in the Catholic Church. These ideas haven't gone away, or even changed very much.

The System of Antichrist

Truth & Falsehood in
Postmodernism & the
New Age

By Charles Upton
Sophia Perennis, 2001
562 Pages, US$27.95
ISBN 0-900588-30-6

A Review by
John J. Reilly


Globalization, the New Age Movement, and postmodernism did not merely arise at about the same time, according to The System of Antichrist. Rather, they are all manifestations of a common impulse, one that is not entirely of human origin. They are in fact symptoms of the impending end of the world. As is the way with eschatological analysis, much of the book's argument is best taken metaphorically. However, these are the sort of metaphors you neglect at your peril.

The author, Charles Upton, began life as a conventional Catholic. He experienced the 1960's Counter Culture and subsequent New Age spiritualities, which he now views as pathologies that have been marketed to a mass audience. Eventually, he washed up on the shores of Tradition, and became a Muslim Sufi. Upton's book is largely a synthesis of the theological metaphysics of Frithjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions with the eschatology of Rene Guenon's The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.

The System of Antichrist does not attempt to summarize Tradition systematically, so neither will this review. Suffice it to say that Tradition is a curious blend of neoplatonism and comparative religion that was devised in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Tradition, or corruptions of it, crops up in the most extraordinary places, from Black Metal music to the writings of Robertson Davies. As a matter of intellectual history, it belongs in the same class as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy, Jung's psychology, and the comparative mythology of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell.

Additionally, I think it important to point out that Tradition is also closely related to the reaction against speculative philosophy that we see in Heidegger, with the vital difference that Traditionalists find that the Transcendent, rather than Being, is inescapably "thrown" to them.

As we will see, Traditionalists tend to believe that the state of the world is very unsatisfactory, and fated to get worse. Wicked Traditionalists not only believe that the world is ending, but are keen to help it along. (One of the most puzzling features of this book is the failure to engage directly the esoteric fascism of Julius Evola.) In the sense in which Upton uses the term, however, "Tradition" means almost the opposite of world-hating Gnosticism. Gnostics deny the value of the world; Traditionalists see eternal value in the world. For Tradition, the creation of the world was not a mistake, but an act of divine mercy. Everything in it tells us something about God. These things include the human institutions ordained by God, the most important of which are the world's revealed religions.

This is where Tradition differs from ordinary syncretism. Tradition is a spiritual practice that needs a revealed matrix. Traditionalists can be Muslims, or Jews, or Christians, or Buddhists, or even shamanists, but they cannot mix and match. These traditional religions, at least according to the Traditionalists, are united by the transcendent object toward which they look. Each represents a revelation of the divine nature; the differences between them can be resolved only eschatologically. The attempt to create a world spirituality, in fact, is one of the satanic counterfeits of these latter days.

Although The System of Antichrist has its biases, it is not religiously partisan. Many of its theological points are perfectly orthodox. For one thing, Upton never departs from the principle that eschatology is fundamentally personal. Creation and apocalypse are always present. Eschatological history is only a symbol of the death of the ego and its replacement by God. In one sense, you are the Antichrist, and in your own latter day that tyrant will be overthrown. On the other hand, there is no denying that eschatology also has a universal dimension. The book usually works on the assumption that a personal Antichrist will appear in the penultimate stage of world history; several of the world's religious traditions say as much, and personification facilitates the discussion. However, Upton reminds us repeatedly that the concept of Antichrist can also be taken to refer to a collectivity, one that has existed as long as Christianity itself. That collectivity becomes coherent and visible as the end nears.

Admirers of C.S. Lewis will be happy to know that they may have already read some fictionalized Traditional metaphysics, in the form of Lewis's novel, That Hideous Strength, which deals with a conspiracy of scientific magicians to open a branch office of Hell in central England. In The System of Antichrist, Upton seeks to make explicit the suppositions behind that story:

"[A]s this cycle of manifestation draws to a close, the cosmic environment first solidifies – this being the result and the cause of modern materialism – after which it simply fractures, because a materialist reality absolutely cut off from the subtle planes is metaphysically impossible. These cracks in the 'great wall' separating the physical universe from the subtle or etheric plane initially open in a 'downward' direction, toward the 'infra-psychic' or demonic realm (cf. Rev. 9:1-3); 'magical realism' replaces 'ordinary life.' It is only at the final moment that a great crack appears in the 'upward' direction..."

If you don't like esoteric metaphysics, this would still be an interesting statement about the history of philosophy. The rejection of the transcendent resulted in materialism, which, like all monisms, is at best incomplete. By the middle of the 20th century the materialist edifice was riven by skepticism toward scientific and historical knowledge. With the coming of postmodernism, very strange substitutes for metaphysics began to appear. Upton means much more than this, but this is one way to look at it.

The Intellect is the faculty of the mind by which we perceive "self-evident truths." During the 19th century, the Intellect could no longer look to a transcendent God; even metaphysical first principles were rejected after Kant. In consequence, emotion became divorced from the truth. The affective part of human nature was expressed, for a while, as the irrational sentiments of Romanticism. The postmodern declension from Romanticism is emotional numbness, enlivened by atrocity and sinister fascination. There is such a thing as emotional intelligence, and the trajectory of the postmodern world is to stultify it. Postmodernism removes the possibility of romantic heterosexual love as a spiritual exercise. Worse yet, it makes God inaccessible.

The New Age might be called "folk postmodernism," except that folk religion is better structured. In traditional civilizations, there is a hierarchy of the religious life: popular practice, an institutional church, and esoteric tradition. The New Age collapses these layers, so that the transcendent element that had been the object of esoteric spirituality is lost. All that remains is the psychic, meaning both ordinary psychology and the shadowy realm that surrounds the material world but is not necessarily superior to it. The result is people who channel extraterrestrials, or embrace psychological management techniques, or are attracted to some of the less-grounded forms of Pentecostalism. The forgetting of the distinction between psyche and spirit makes Antichrist's counterfeit of the spiritual possible.

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Anti-historicism is central to Tradition. The school arose in opposition to that other tradition, the one that proceeds from the French Revolution. Tradition denies the possibility of historical progress. It is resolutely anti-Hegelian. Also, largely in response to the evolution-based postmillennialism of the Theosophical Society, it will have nothing to do with the concept of evolution. Even if new forms of life appeared over time, they were simply the instantiation of preexisting archetypes. The only historical change is decay:

"It is certainly true, according to esoteric philosophy, that the created order returns to its Divine Source through the conscious spiritual unfolding of individual sentient beings. But this 'evolution,' this unfolding of the individual through a transcendence of the self-identified ego, is not a continuance of the cosmogonic process, but a reversal of the process..."

One could expand at length on the misapprehensions in this book about evolution. The chief one is the common error that the Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids local increases in order. As a corrective, one might refer to Robert Wright's "non-zero-sum" model of evolution, which gives a persuasive explanation for why history must be, in some sense, both progressive and teleological. Actually, the idea that evolution may be a process by which "ideal forms" incarnate is not so far off the scientific reservation, according to Simon Conway Morris. However, even a Platonic approach to evolution requires that higher forms appear with the passage of time.

Be this as it may, the point Tradition tries to make is that religious novelty is never for the better. This has proven to be the case with the New Age. There is such a thing as a New Age agenda, one with a long pedigree. New Agers suppose that belief in anything beyond the psychic is patriarchic oppression. The major New Age writers usually envisage the end of Christianity, and particularly of the Catholic Church.

Upton gives us a selective tour of some of the fashionable New Age belief systems of the past three decades. James Redfield's Celestine Prophecies gets a rather more thorough critique than the matter merits. (Upton does hit the nail on the head by calling the cult of the books a manifestation of "New Age singles culture.") Deepak Chopra comes in for measured criticism for seeming to equate enlightenment with material well-being. Some of these writers have always been obscure and have become only more so with the passage of time. Still, their ideas have permanently affected the popular imagination.

Upton believes that "A Course in Miracles" is the acme of New Age thought. It is based on the channeling of the "Seth Material" by Jane Roberts. As you might expect, this is a lengthy revelation that is supposed to come from a supernatural entity named Seth. The resulting doctrine does, at least, accept the existence of a divine absolute. The problem is that the absolute is so absolute that God does not even know this world exists. "A Course in Miracles" purports to go beyond the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence by saying that this ego-generated world is too unreal for God to be immanent in.

I was previously unfamiliar with "A Course in Miracles." It seems to be almost classically Gnostic, complete with a dying and senescent demiurge in the form of the Christian God. Remarkably, "A Course in Miracles" adapts the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as the basis of a theory of simultaneous incarnation. That is unlikely to be true, but it is very ingenious.

Upton is so impressed by the Seth material that he wonders whether it may have been designed to lead astray the metaphysically inclined. He has particularly harsh words for its treatment of the question of whether God is personal: "The tendency to use the Impersonal Absolute to deny the Personal God, all-too-common among many people shallowly interested in mysticism and metaphysics, is simply another form of the ego's desire to be God." Depersonalizing God distorts the divine essence into a mere cosmic potentiality. We may use it, but it can make no demands on us. In Christianity, Upton points out, the meaning of the incarnation of the Second Person is that no one may approach the Godhead except through personality.

There is a larger metaphysical point here that is worth a little attention: the distinction between transcendence and abstraction. An abstract idea is merely a selection of common features. Upton's notion of a transcendent idea, in contrast, sounds like a "phase space." It encompasses all that something can be. Archetypal ideas are ideas of this order. In Upton's system, an entity of this sort is just what we mean by a "person." God is more than personal, but he is also personal in this way.

If great archetypal ideas are personal, it by no means follows that they are necessarily friendly. The powers of darkness appear as unconscious belief systems and social mores. An unconscious false belief on the psychological level is a demon at the psychic or spiritual level. The world is misled by fallen entities of a high order: cherubim, demons of the Intellect rather than of the will. In Upton's estimation, these shadows of the Four about the Throne can be characterized as Law, Fate, Chaos, and Self. These false alternatives war among themselves, and foment war on Earth. Self-deluded, they delude us.

The postmodern world presents a greater peril than merely a disordered cultural climate:

"Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'Be careful: while you are looking into the abyss, the abyss is looking into you.' This is why I caution the reader not to open this section while in a state of depression, anxiety, or morbid curiosity. Whoever already knows how bad UFOs are, and is not required by his or her duties to investigate them, should skip this chapter."

Despite the warning, Upton's account of extraterrestrials as a postmodern demonology is not without a certain morbid fascination. The growth of the popular cult of UFOs means that the blackest kind of black magic has gone mainstream; an assessment that, oddly enough, echoes Michael Barkun's conclusion that the UFO mythology have served to distribute "stigmatized knowledge" throughout the whole culture.

Upton relies heavily on the UFO researcher Jacque Vallee, who is best-known for arguing that the reports of UFO encounters closely resemble folkloric accounts of meetings with faeries, incubi, and (Upton's favorite spooks) jinn. Vallee does not limit the phenomenon to folklore. In the more than fifty years of UFO reports, there are real physical effects, instances of mass psychological phenomena, and human manipulation. About this Upton says: "The critical mind tries to make sense of this, fails, and then shuts down. It is meant to."

Upton sketches a history for us. The earliest accounts of meetings with extraterrestrials, which date from the mid-20th century, come from people with connections to the occult underground. Black magicians, who earlier in the Occult Revival had been able to invoke demons only for themselves, had been searching since the beginning of the century to invoke them for the masses. This was not entirely the magicians' idea. The Jinn, or at least the malicious ones, are seeking a stable incarnation in this world. They induce people to welcome and worship them. They also, perhaps, inspire computer technology and genetic engineering. These technologies undermine the human image. They also could be media through which the jinn achieve bodily form. They would then either displace the human race, or corrupt it to their purposes.

I would say that little of this is likely to be literally true. Still, it is true that there is a deep connection between flying-saucer cults and transhumanism. In any case, these dark desires, whether human or demonic, interpenetrate seamlessly with the spirituality of what has been called "the transnational class," but which Upton calls simply "the global elite":

"The characteristic 'religion' of some (but not all) sectors of this global elite is a kind of 'world fusion spirituality' – which, however, is essentially psychic, not spiritual – made up of texts, music, ritual objects, yogic and magical practices, and even shamanic initiations from around the world."

The spiritual disorders that arise from the denial of the personal God are important precisely because they are integral to the drive toward world unification. Neither side of the globalization struggle is strictly on the side of the Antichrist, but then neither is necessarily opposed to him.

Postmodernism is one of the reasons what a united world would be intolerable. Upton correctly notes that pluralism and the subjectivity on which postmodernism is based are incompatible. Postmodernist globalism, under the cover of multiculturalism, creates unity by denying its possibility. Metaphysical unity is a reality, always and everywhere. When it is denied, it reasserts itself as power rather than as cognizance. On the other hand, the multiplicity of cultures is metaphysically necessary, because each reflects some aspect of the divine. Suppress that multiplicity, and the result will be inter-ethnic chaos, which only force can control.

As is so often the case in this book, one notes that Tradition comes in different forms, and that all of them use the cultural resources of historical societies in a selective fashion. Other writers influenced by Tradition emphasize the archetype of the "empire," of the necessary unity of humanity, which is found in many civilizations. Even Islam, which makes a point of officially tolerating the existence of other confessions, contemplates that this toleration should occur in the context of a universal Caliphate. Upton's critique echoes the common anti-globalist complaint that both the unity and the diversity offered by globalization are disingenuous.

In any case, Upton asserts that today we live in a world that has moved from "the revolt of the masses" (which old-style conservatives like Guenon worried about) to "revolt of the elites" (which troubled another of Upton's favorites, Christopher Lasch). For the first time in history, it is the wealthy and educated who want to remake the world. As a critique of globalization, The System of Antichrist is in many ways a more lucid version of Hardt & Negri's "Empire." (That book, despite it postmodern Marxist rhetoric, expresses many Traditional themes.) Actually, for a book that is supposed to reflect the viewpoint of primordial truth, Upton's seems to accept uncritically the "litany" of the anarchist left, from alleged environmental collapse to corporate malfeasance. Fundamentally, however, politics and economics are epiphenomenal to what is really happening.

The Antichrist appeals to the best in us; therefore he is at his worst when he most closely approximates the truth. Beyond the vulgar New Age, we learn, there is a long-running tradition of "counter-initiation." The people engaged in this project do not seek to destroy the revealed religions, but to subvert them in all their forms, exoteric and esoteric. The Theosophical Society is the best–known example, but Upton is most alarmed by those he calls the "false traditionalists." Most famous of these is Carl Gustav Jung, who is a well known inspiration for the world's proto-global elites. The object of Upton's peculiar ire, however, is one William W. Quinn, Jr., author of The Only Tradition. While sometimes deploring the dissolution of traditional cultures and religions, Quinn sees it as a necessary step toward the creation of a Traditional Planetary Culture, one that will be simultaneously scientific and religious, a post-democratic world ruled by a hierarchy of adepts. This is very much what the system of Antichrist would look like in its maturity.

Upton admits he was strongly tempted by the prospect of a Traditional Planetary Culture, but overcame the glamour. False Tradition of this kind is a mere "higher empiricism." It views revelation, not as the word of God, but only as data. The result is metaphysics without religion; in other words, a sort of psychic engineering. Again, God becomes a resource, not a person.

As for the apocalypse itself, we are given a comparative tour of mythologies as they relate to the endtime. (I once attempted such a study myself, by the way, in a book called "The Perennial Apocalypse.") Upton's survey includes aspects of the eschatological ideas found in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity (chiefly in its Orthodox version), Islam, and the religions of the Hopi and the Lakota. As you might expect, the survey finds a high incidence of Antichrist-like figures who deceive the world in the latter days, and Messianic figures who briefly restore Tradition before the end.

We learn quite a lot about the Shiite idea of the "occultation": messianic figures disappear for centuries, until they are ready to play their endtime role. Despite the high incidence of millenarian hopes throughout history, we are given to understand that a literal Millennium, of a perfected earthly society, is not Traditional. However, Upton intriguingly parses the possibility of a "short Millennium." This might be consistent with the reign of the Mahdi, or the period alluded to in Revelation that occurs immediately after the Second Coming. This period is variously described as lasting a few days, or months, or years; in one Shiite version, it lasts 309 years.

Our destiny is the New Jerusalem, the perfection and crystallization of our world. Though Upton is no more clear than his sources, one gathers that will occur Elsewhere. There may be some continuity of our physical world with a following one. It is possible that Earth will not be destroyed, and even that there may be a few human survivors. That next world, however, will be another creation. Our business is with salvation in this one.

Upton suggests some spiritual possibilities unique to the endtime. The latter days allow for detachment, since at last we know enough not to place our hopes in history or "the future." There is also a unique opportunity to acquire encyclopedic spiritual knowledge from around the world. Indeed, the very advent of the Traditionalist school is a providential "sign of the times." Finally, we may hope for the spread of serenity like that which accompanies the old age of just persons, through whom eternity begins to shine.

On a practical level, we must not forget that the forces of globalization and those opposed to it are equally apt to the hand of Antichrist. He might even come to power to overthrow a previously established world system. The System of Antichrist suggests that we deal with this situation in the way that Jesus did when he was asked whether it was licit to pay taxes to the Romans. To that he answered that we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. We must avoid being trapped in crooked choices. Our goal in the latter days is not to save our lives, but our souls. Even politics can be a "liturgy," in which we play the role we are assigned.

* * *

Upton's analysis merits comment. So does the doctrine of Tradition itself.

No doubt it is true that God forgives even theologians for their theology. Nonetheless, the principle of the transcendental unity of religions is open to question. The doctrine holds that the revealed religions are more similar to the degree that they approach their Object. This is not obviously so. Regarding personal eschatology, for instance, the Buddhist "moksa" is not equivalent to the Christian Beatific Vision; neither is self-evidently identical to the model of collective immortality that Upton himself seems to favor. The latter's best known exponent is the Muslim mystic Ibn al-Arabi. That is an important point.

In addition to Western Hermeticism, Tradition exhibits quite a lot of Sufism. The primordial Traditionalist, Rene Guenon, famously became a Muslim, and Upton followed suit. There are Christians, indeed Latin Christians, who consider themselves Traditionalists. Still, sometimes I can't help but wonder whether Tradition is just a very refined form of Sufism. This suspicion is probably misplaced, but Tradition is nonetheless parochial in a more fundamental way.

Sufism is a wisdom that crystallized from an age of skepticism and heresy. So, for the most part, are the other civilized esoteric traditions from which Tradition was composed. Tradition is not primordial. It's like the music of Solesmes, which was created at almost the same time as Tradition, and for much the same reasons. The Traditionalists are right, surely, when they say that it is mere bigotry to look on the past as inferior simply because it is past. We have a duty to extend the same sort of imaginative sympathy to the modern era that we do to distant times and places. The West is still going through its own centuries of skepticism. Someday, modernity could appear as primordial as Atlantis.


Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-06-28: Disaffected Persons

Here is a good example of the things that John ended being very, very wrong about. First, in his criticism of Tom Friedman, John says:

The problem is not that the US exports fear. It's that the US has so far failed to rouse the thanatophilic international class from what may be a terminal coma.

It turned out that the international class became extremely enthusiastic about the War on Terror, and was willing to open new fronts worldwide. In part, this is because you could marry the transnational [John's term] or globalist [current term] agenda to exporting war under the rubric of human rights and free trade. It probably also helped that President Obama was a leader more to their tastes, although the Bush family business interests align them pretty strongly to globalism as well.

Also, John thought that Michael Moore's style of popular political documentary would flop. It turned to be quite successful, and widely imitated.

Disaffected Persons

Does today's unscheduled transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi Provisional Government seem a little on the low-key side? Yes it does, but it represents a commendable understanding on the part of the Iraqis and the US that they are in a war, which means that they have to react to events. Imagine the transfer taking place amidst brass bands and fireworks, but with a dozen police stations being attacked at the same time. Low-key was better

No doubt the police stations will blow up eventually, but now the explosions will not be part of a war of independence, but of an insurgency against a popular government. As I have remarked before, few images could have overcome the visual impact of the Abu Ghraib pictures, but Zarqawi seems to have done the trick with his televised beheadings and infomercials in which hostages plead for their lives. For the last generation in Iraq, political authority was gained by horrifying the opposition into submission. With a plausible alternative to hand, it is possible, even likely, that the tactic will fail this time, but that is by no means certain.

* * *

For instance, it seems to have worked so well on Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that he is taking three months off to get a grip on himself. In a summer farewell column on June 27, he listed the following among the wish-list items he would like to see in the news while he is away:

Bush Administration Calls an End to the "War on Terrorism." No, I haven't taken leave of my senses on the way out the door. I realize that we have enemies and they need to be confronted. But I do not want this to be all that America is about in the world anymore, and that is what has happened under this administration. I don't want the rest of my career to be about an America that exports fear, not hope, and ends up importing everyone else's fears as a result. I don't want it to be about explaining to young Chinese why my government can't give them student visas anymore. I don't want it to be about visiting U.S. Embassies around the world and finding them so isolated behind barbed wire, they might as well not be there at all. Defeating "them" has begun to define "us" in too many ways.

One wonders what Friedman would say if President Bush issued a proclamation declaring that global warming had ended and calling on the nation to move on to things that Bush would prefer to talk about. The United States did not declare the Terror War; the jihadis did. The problem is not that the US exports fear. It's that the US has so far failed to rouse the thanatophilic international class from what may be a terminal coma. It is beyond the power of the United States to end the assault on the West, or at least to end it by declaration. That bit of reality seems too much for Friedman to bear. Certainly it is a bad sign when he tells us: "I'm taking a sabbatical to finish a book about geopolitics, called 'The World Is Flat.'

* * *

In the same issue of the Times, we see a metaphysically more rarified version of Friedman's attitude in a piece by Michael Ignatieff, Mirage in the Desert. The article is a long wail by a liberal supporter of the war. He says that his human-rights arguments for the war were exploded by the Abu Ghraib scandal, which is false but plausible. However, he goes on to express his outrage that anything unexpected or even difficult happened in the course of the occupation. He reaches this conclusion:

The signal illusion from which America has to awake in Iraq and everywhere else is that it serves God's providence or (for those with more secular beliefs) that it is the engine of history. In Iraq, America is not the maker of history but its plaything. In the region at large, America is not the hegemon but the hesitant shaper of forces it barely understands.

Do you think? War and statecraft are always improvised. We work with imperfect information, and at least some results are always unexpected. Frankly, compared to occupied Japan and the trainwreck-that-was-Europe between 1945 and 1948, US reconstruction efforts in Iraq have been made with singular dispatch and success. The big difference from World War II is that the overthrow of the Baathist government was not the end of the Terror War, but only the beginning of a new phase. The Bush Administration never said otherwise.

For Ignatieff, the null hypothesis was American omnipotence; he experienced the shortfall from that standard as failure. In reality, if America were omnipotent, it would not need a defense policy at all. The fact is, though, the United States is vulnerable. Sometimes it has to act, even when success is uncertain, even when imperfectly prepared. As for the role of the US in history, it certainly is not the case that history is an American artifact. The US does have a special place in the world system, and that, I think, is real reason for the disaffection of the transnationalists.

* * *

Yes, I did do other things on Sunday, June 27, desides read New York Times editorials, but permit me to note one more example of the Times confronting reality and defeating it. In this case, the Op Ed writer is Garry ("Two Rs") Willis, a disaffected Catholic who pretends to orthodoxy by reducing its substance to a nearly perfect vacuum. In The Bishops vs. the Bible he tells us:

Catholic bishops recently met and sought the best way to enforce "church teaching" with Catholic politicians who fail to oppose laws that allow abortion. Some critics of the bishops see this as a violation of the separation of church and state. Both sides are working from misconceptions. Abortion is not a church issue, so what the bishops have to say about it cannot be an intrusion of the church into state concerns. Abortion is, admittedly, a moral issue -- but not one that can be settled by theology or by religious authority.

One might argue that the natural-law arguments against abortion are unpersuasive. (Willis account of the scriptural arguments is unpersuasive, in the sense he does not state key evidence contrary to his position, but there's Willis for you.) Nonetheless, the prohibition of abortion is part of the Magisterium. That is the Catholic position. You really don't get to make this stuff up.

* * *

And on the subject of making things up, one notes this:

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" took in a whopping $21.8 million in its first three days, becoming the first documentary ever to debut as Hollywood's top weekend film.

That is pretty whopping for a documentary, however tendentious. Let me make two predictions:

First, very soon we will see, not just bootlegged copies of the film, but versions in which the sound track has been modified to better reflect the political views of the bootlegger.

Second, real producers will now start to greenlight activist political documentaries. All of them will flop. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-06-07: Ronald Reagan; Ecumenical Americanism; UN Transnationalism

As I've said before, John wasn't a fan of Ronald Reagan, but John did think Reagan had some success as a chief executive. In fact, John saw him as embodying a bit of the archetype of the king [or the Emperor], the still center around which the world turns,. This is a bit odd for a late-twentieth century American president, because what we usually call the Imperial Presidency is a whirlwind of energy and rapid-fire decision-making, immortalized in Teddy Roosevelt.

The mental space filled by traditional kingship is an old, old idea, one that runs through the West and the East alike. In politics, few take this idea seriously, but artistically it is just as potent as it ever has been. Take this passage from the Return of the King, which I think of everytime the concept of the king comes up:

Standing there for a moment filled with dread Frodo became aware that a light was shining; he saw it glowing on Sam's face beside him. Turning towards it, he saw, beyond an arch of boughs, the road to Osgiliath running almost as straight as a stretched ribbon down, down into the West. There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towards the yet unsullied Sea. The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.
Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king's head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. 'Look Sam!' he cried, startled into speech. 'Look! The king has got a crown again!'
The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
'They cannot conquer forever!' said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.

John mentions David Warren in passing in this blog entry. Warren wrote a column for the Ottowa Citizen until 2012, mostly about the war on terror, but sometimes about his travels around the world, or Catholicism, or whatever struck his fancy. I was a regular reader for years, and then I just dropped off after a while. Like John J. Reilly, Warren was a defender of the Iraq War in the early 2000s, but when I have dipped into his new website on occasion, I get the impression that he is penitent for this, and for anything else he might have done.

The quoted passage from 2004 strikes me as especially relevant today. In part, you can cast the current political turmoil across the United States and Europe as a contest of localism versus globalism. I certainly have. Yet, in a curious way, the localists [or nationalists, as they are usually called by their opponents], have quite a bit in common with each other. John certainly isn't the first to notice that ordinary patriotism and Western identity are starting to converge

Ronald Reagan; Ecumenical Americanism; UN Transnationalism

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, Radio Moscow loved to air commemorative stories. They were essentially documentaries that consisted half of commentary and half of historical revisionism. For whatever reason, National Public Radio in the US has the same predilections. It would be unfair to say that they were delighted with the death of Ronald Reagan last Saturday, but they did rise to the event with singular enthusiasm. They actually cancelled regular programming for a while, so they could offer "continuous coverage." How do you offer continuous coverage of a wake? Hourly bulletins to say the deceased is still dead?

For myself, I cannot say that I was ever a great fan of Ronald Reagan. I actually voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980. I did vote for Reagan in 1984, however; there's no point in arguing with success. Much nonsense has been written about Reagan's alleged divorce from the ordinary operations of government. In fact, he was an effective manager of a familiar type. Still, his chief abilities as a leader where charismatic, mimetic, symbolic. The traditional king, it has been said, is not an executive, but he "subdues opposition through the rumor of his imperturbability." There's the Reagan presidency for you.

* * *

David Warren, that invaluably gloomy Canadian, had this to say on the occasion of President Bush's trip to Europe for the D-Day commemorations:

The extraordinary thing about the West that was exposed, in the lightning of 9/11/01, is that it is one country, in an advanced state of decadence, turned against itself. And for one of the parties to this spiritual and intellectual civil war (not a battle of ideas, but a battle of "ideas against anti-ideas"), it is more important to defeat their internal enemy than to confront any threat from abroad. The loyalties are no longer to nations. Instead, an Italian who votes for Berlusconi has more in common with an American who votes for Bush, than either of them has with his own countrymen who vote the other way.

The idea that the Left is becoming transnational is now commonplace; Michael Moore wins awards in France for propaganda films that are praised from Berlin to Berkeley. However, as I have been arguing for a few years, there has been a corresponding internationalization elsewhere on the political spectrum. This sentiment, nowhere a movement, reconceives patriotism as an aspect of a broader sense of Western identity. The speech that Aragorn gives to the Host of the West in The Return of the King film might stand as an expression of it for the time being, until life starts to imitate art.

* * *

Speaking of art, a professor of political science at the Naval War College, one Thomas P. M. Barnett, is credited with providing the Pentagon with a new geopolitical map of the world. His model uses terms like "core" and "periphery," but this is not your father's World System's Theory. For Barnett, India and Russia and South Africa are as much in the core as Japan or Great Britain. A core state is any state that abides by international trade rules, which permanently demilitarize its relationship with other core states, or so Barnett hopes. That is far from saying that universal peace is about to break out: beyond "the functioning core" is the "nonintegrating gap." Michael Barone summarizes the strategic implications:

Barnett says we need two kinds of military forces. One he calls "leviathan"...a relatively small body of fierce warriors, heavily weighted to special-forces teams -- the kind of forces that achieved such speedy victories in Afghanistan and Iraq...But we need very much larger forces, set apart from the warriors, of what Barnett calls system administrators or sys admins. "The sys admin force will be civil affairs-oriented and network-centric," Barnett writes, "an always-on, always-nearby, always-approachable resource for allies and friends in need." They will be doing most of the things our military forces have been doing or have been trying to do in Iraq since May 1, 2003.

This is precisely what the Pentagon does not want to do. The Clinton Administration, through timidity, let the Pentagon get away with preparing to fight a high-tech version of World War II. The Bush Administration, in its first few months, let the Pentagon carry on the same way, but not through timidity: they had a theory about it.

* * *

One might reasonably suppose that the United Nations is the proper body to organize the "sys admin" forces that Barnett talks about. The problem is that UN peacekeeping is becoming a planetary laughingstock. Consider this recent report from Africa:

June 3 BUKAVU, Congo -- Renegade commanders captured this strategic Congolese town Wednesday, setting off a crisis that threatened the fragile transitional government and a peace process that ended five years of war....U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the capture of the eastern Congo city and called on the region's warring parties to abide by an earlier cease-fire. The United Nations defended its troops' inaction against the factions that took Bukavu, saying the mandate of its 10,800-strong Congo force did not extend to battles... Hundreds of people rioted outside U.N. headquarters in Kinshasa and in the main northeast city of Kisangani, blaming U.N. forces for failing to stop Bukavu's fall. The crowds in Kinshasa threw stones at U.N. headquarters and set vehicles afire, while protesters in Kisangani burned U.N. vehicles and a U.N. office.

Yes, you read that right: the mandate of the UN's army (an overwhelming force in that context) dids not extend to battles. International forces of neutrals and NGOs really should be keeping the peace in places like the Balkans and the Congo. However, it is becoming clear that some constitutional feature of the UN prevents it from doing this effectively.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-04-16: Hegemony and the Left

Thanks to a South Asian history professor I had, I always hear the word 'hegemony' with an British accent in my head. I also remember dropping my coffee into my favorite hat in that class, but the TA was teaching that day.

Unlike a lot of John's post-9/11 writing about the intersection of war, terrorism, the Middle East, and American domestic politics, I find this blog post interesting. At this point, I find a lot of the things John said in 2003 and 2004 embarrassing, but I try to stick to the program of reposting everything because I believed those things too, at the time. I also think John was a better man than his advocacy of the Iraq War might imply. But we have to face what we have said, and what we have thought; what we have done, and what we failed to do.

John first references a very old essay of his, Permanent Interests, written in 1996. After twenty years, I think that essay has aged pretty well. Especially as politics in the Western world has started to pivot to the globalism/nationalism axis instead of the Left/Right axis, it is good to remember that the current state of international politics is a creation of the United States of America. The UN Security Council represents the coalition that won the Second World War, and things like the World Trade Organization represent the later United States that had won the Cold War too.

John goes on to suggest there is a kind of historical inevitability to this, insofar as the peculiar madness the Soviet Union represented may not have been the primary factor resulting in the world we see today. I am not entirely convinced, but this kind of argument relies on counterfactuals, and is hard to make. 

Despite Gordan Chang still being wrong, I remain more sympathetic to the idea that China may not fully realize the potential of its vast population and surging economy in the coming decades. One of the greatest points in favor of the metahistorical theories of Spengler and Toynbee and their ilk is that is makes it easier to understand why Europe happened to eclipse the older and more advanced Chinese and Ottoman Empires; they were just in different phases of their civilizations, and it is hard to overcome the inertia built up over nearly a thousand years. 

Of course, this theory may be wrong, so I would like to wait and see what happens.

John's more narrow point about the trajectory of American politics seems to have been largely borne out by subsequent events. The foreign policy of President Barack Obama, or the likely foreign policy of Hillary Clinton, bear a strong family resemblance to the foreign policy of the hated George W. Bush, minus the American casualties, plus a strong dose of drones and special forces. 

You can see the adumbration of this in the cited opinion article in the New York Times

The only long-term hope for tamping down the terrorist impulse was to turn America's traditional policies upside down, and come out for once in favor of the liberal democrats of the Muslim world. This would mean promoting a counter-wave of liberal and rational ideas to combat the allure of paranoia and apocalypse....
As for the results — well, in one respect, these have turned out to be, in spite of everything, almost comically successful. Baathism's super-weapons may have been a figment of the universal imagination; but as soon as the United States elevated this figment into a world crisis, astonishing progress was made in tracking down weapons programs and trafficking in Libya, Iran, Dubai and Pakistan... 

In the bitter aftermath of the Arab Spring, we can see the fruit of this idea, now enacted by both Right and Left in America.

Socialism in the sense of caring deeply for your citizens, has been effectively buried by Hillary Clinton [in the form of Bernie Sanders]; instead she represents the international community precisely as John defined it in 1996. The twist that John missed is that the identity politics of the Left have been used as a cover for the economic politics of the Right. The economic inequality of the robber barons has been successfully fused with the most radical individualism of the flower children.

In my opinion, this is the culmination of long-standing American policy. For example, consider the allegation that the CIA funded modern art as a tactic in the Cold War. Even now, Americans on the right often consider modern art a sign of decadence and decline. Yet, for all that, modern art is as expensive as ever. The reason is that rich capitalists keep buying it

Hegemony and the Left

Is there anything more annoying than when a writer quotes one of his old pieces to say "I told you so?" Why, yes, quite a few things are more annoying, which is I why I can dredge up this bit of analysis I wrote in the innocent days of 1996:

Finally, we may note one other way in which the state of the world has not changed with the end of the Cold War. The Left in the U.S. throughout that period saw its role as more or less the defense of socialism. Thus, they sought to limit the influence and power of the United States. Even with no more Fatherland of Socialism to defend, they still continue the same policy, like a missile defense system that keeps working even after the civilization that built it has died out. When they finally realize that anything they want to achieve in the world will have to be achieved through the United States, we will have a different politics.

There is some evidence that the Kerry campaign has gotten the memo about the role of the United States in the world. At any rate, we know for a fact that some people on the Left have been trying to deliver it. A prime example is this Op Ed by Paul Berman, which appeared in The New York Times of April 15 under the title, "Will the Opposition Lead?" Consider these excerpts:

The Sept. 11 attacks came from a relatively small organization. But Al Qaeda was a kind of foam thrown up by the larger extremist wave. The police and special forces were never going to be able to stamp out the Qaeda cells so long as millions of people around the world accepted the paranoid and apocalyptic views and revered suicide terror. The only long-term hope for tamping down the terrorist impulse was to turn America's traditional policies upside down, and come out for once in favor of the liberal democrats of the Muslim world. This would mean promoting a counter-wave of liberal and rational ideas to combat the allure of paranoia and apocalypse....

As for the results — well, in one respect, these have turned out to be, in spite of everything, almost comically successful. Baathism's super-weapons may have been a figment of the universal imagination; but as soon as the United States elevated this figment into a world crisis, astonishing progress was made in tracking down weapons programs and trafficking in Libya, Iran, Dubai and Pakistan...

[However, entire] populations around the world feel a personal dislike for America's president, which makes it difficult for even the friendliest of political leaders in some countries to take pro-American positions.

But the bigger problem has to do with public understandings of the war...

Somebody else will have to straighten out these confusions, then. I think it will have to be the Democrats -- at least those Democrats who accept the anti-totalitarian logic. And why shouldn't they show a bit of leadership?...

The gist of the argument here is that the Bush Administration's foreign policy is both correct and feasible. The problem is that too many people around the world feel about Bush the way that Danny Devito's character in one of his comedies felt about his ex-wife:

I hate, I hate that woman. I hate everything about her. I hate the way she licks stamps.

There is something to be said for this assessment, as well as for the historical analogies that Berman's prescription conjures up. It's often the case that the opposition implements the policies of its discredited predecessor. FDR's economic policies were different in degree rather than kind from Herbert Hoover's. Poor, damned Richard Nixon spent his years in office enacting the wishlist of the progressive Democrats. So why might John Kerry not complete what George W. Bush has begun?

For one thing, the foreign policy wing of the Democratic Party is the American avatar of progressive transnationalism. Today, at least, Tranzie World is a morbid, unhelpful phenomenon. It's the European malady writ large. There is actually something of a bait-and-switch in the Berman article. There really are "liberal democrats" in the Muslim world. There are, however, few if any "liberal democrats" in the domestic American sense. This can never be repeated often enough: if "liberal democracy" means things like defining marriage out of existence, then the world will reject it. The Culture War is a national security issue, and the Democrats are on the wrong side.

Then there is personality. George Bush is not Lyndon Johnson. I suspect that John Kerry may well be.

* * *

There are three interesting points about Osama bin Laden's recent offer of a truce to Europe. The first is that the text makes a conditional offer at all. Usually, his messages are along the lines of "This is why I am killing you." It's something of a novelty for him to ask his enemies to do anything but die.

The second point is that he apparently follows the anti-war literature. The military supplier, Halliburton, has become one of the objects of his especial ire. It's hard to believe that this condemnation has anything to do with events on the ground. He is reaching out to Western opponents of the war (as the hapless Moqtada al-Sadr has attempted to do, too, now that I think of it).

Finally, and most important for the people muttering about exit strategies, he links the US and the UN in a way that leaves no room for compromise with either. He is onto something if he thinks that the UN does not mean much without the US in the context of an actual war. It's a pity that the UN's advocates have never taken this on board.

* * *

This is not to say that the UN does no good. Its agencies, often older international bodies that the UN has absorbed, continue to carry on the unseen maintenance functions on which civilization depends. The International Telecommunications Union, for instance, has recently seen fit to update Morse Code. Hereafter, the "@" symbol found in email addresses is supposed to be rendered as "dit-dah-dah-dit-dah-dit." Many of the hobbyists who use the code will continue to just write "at," of course, but I for one am pleased to see that anyone is still using Morse at all.

* * *

On the subject of private contractors in Iraq, it was only the recent mutilation of four contract guards that alerted many people to just how privatized the military function is becoming. This has led to the observation that, in the 21st century, the world seems to be getting back to normal:

Before the 20th Century, private armies were as common as government-backed militaries; maybe more so. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used arrows-for-hire. "Contract armies fighting contract armies, led by contract generals," is how Singer describes the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

This all has a fine Spenglerian ring; Spengler was predicting the end of mass, national armies even as the build-up to World War II started. However, this does not seem to be what is happening in Iraq. There are no armies of mercenaries there conducting large-scale operations. In a situation where the state does not exist, a few rent-a-cops are not enough; hence the rent-a-paratrooper.

* * *

Headlines like this are multiplying: Newest Export Out of China: Inflation Fears. Domestic inflation in the US also seems to be reviving; at least it is no longer negligible. This is important for a number of reasons, but among the most important is that it makes the Bush Republican Party obsolete. Whatever its other elements, the glue that held his coalition together was the promise of lower taxes. It was possible to deliver on that platform, so long as the fiscal deficit was costless. However, we are now moving to a situation like the 1970s, when people will associate deficits with ever-rising prices. It will be possible to portray tax cuts as a form of theft: government by inflationary expropriation.

Again, there is no safe alternative to reelecting George W. Bush in 2004. That is necessary for the successful prosecution of the Terror War. Then, however, it will be necessary to change partners. For the longer term, there has to be a coalition of fiscal conservatives, military realists, and sober Culture Warriors. All these were features, oddly enough, of the New Deal. The trend is away from libertarianism, and toward public order, which will have to be seen to encompass features like a national health system. The existing political parties may have to dissolve to provide components for the mix.

* * *

Finally, thanks again to those of you who have been using the Amazon search buttons. The commissions are nice, but I appreciate the thought more. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site