The Long View 2002-09-26: Strange Forms of Life

The internal politics of the Right in the United States have been strange. For most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Right has struggled for respectability without achieving it. Or at least that is how it seems now. It is worth remembering that this has not always been true in living memory. What has been true is that some have sought to sacrifice others for the public good [or their own benefit]. At least in principle, the struggle session has been a thing of the far Left. However, in practice, it has been rather bi-partisan.

During the middle of the twentieth century, American conservative thought was thought to be moribund, and was famously caricatured by Lionel Trilling as nothing but a series of irritable mental gestures. Whittaker Chambers felt the Left was going win, but he threw in with the losing side because of Stalin's purges and genocides. This trend reached its apotheosis in the Kennedy Enlightenment, but the failures of the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty resulted in the victory of the Reagan coalition and a resurgence of the Right. This is the period that gave us the birth of the neo-conservative movement, when a number of prominent liberals such as Irving Kristol publicly defected to the Republicans.

Thirty years ago, it was fashionable to be conservative, as I was reminded upon reading Paul Fussell's Class. If you want a visual reminder of this time, look at the movie PCU, which memorably lampooned early PC while illustrating the early nineties glamour of New England preppies. With the passage of time, the tides have turned against the Right again, and now all the cool kids want to be on the Left again. However, this is the New Left, the winner of the succession wars that followed the self-destruction of the liberal consensus. So far, neither Right nor Left in America has been able to produce an enduring political settlement to match the longevity of the New Deal, with repeated swings back and forth in national politics as fortunes rise and fall.

Part of this cycle is a continual churn in the staffs and the very existence of the little magazines that provide the national conversation on political topics. Most of these journals never really make money, and are kept alive by the financing and egos of wealthy men who choose to dabble in politics in the hopes of leaving a legacy. Over time, some of these magazines pass into the American mainstream, providing a source of stable jobs and political influence, and they cast off their less-respectable elements as they seek legitimacy. On the Right, this manifests as a search for anti-Semitism and racism. On the Left, this is the ever expanding search for those who are not sufficiently politically correct.

John mentions the American Conversative in this vein. In 2002, Taki Theodorocopulos was the financial angel who kept this magazine alive, and Patrick Buchanan provided the brand name. Ron Unz was also involved. Taki and Buchanan are still listed as founders on the masthead, but they no longer are editors or publish articles, having long since been forced out for crimes against respectability.

As it turns out, John was very wrong about the Second Iraq War. There are some I respect who still think that a different policy in Iraq could have preserved the peace. It isn't hard to find people who think no good was possible, and Taki and Unz and Buchanan are foremost in funding that on the Right; some things never change.

Among those things is the interest in extraterrestial life.  Many of the hopes of Golden Age sci-fi were dashed by actual exploration of Mars and Venus. Since I grew up reading Heinlein juvenile, the idea of settling Mars or Venus seems inexpressibly romantic to me.

Strange Forms of Life
Although I live on the wrong side of the Atlantic, I followed with keen interest the giant march of rural protestors in London on Sunday. 400,000 people? Isn't that ten times as many who turned out for the Charterist Movement marches in the 1830s? And all to protest a bill before Parliament to ban fox hunting?
I realize that these foxes are just carrying water to a basket of grievances. (That's a mixed metaphor, but a cool image.) The Countryside Alliance, which organized the march, seems to be like the umbrella groups that form from time to time in the rural US. Some rural protesters are pig-greedy agricultural entrepreneurs who think the state owes them a living. Still, as in the US, what we also have here is a movement against ecological ideology by people who actually know something about the land.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this is that none of the the marchers, as far as I can tell, were the Usual Suspects. In fact, judging by the reaction on the Web (which may be a poor barometer), radical Britain reacted to the appearance of a genuine populist movement with singular disinterest. Whenever a large number of people march for any purpose, political, economic or even religious, you can usually count on some pack of neo-Trotskyites trying to hijack the movement for their own squirrel-brained purposes. The closest I could find was a few feeble attempts to redirect Web searches away from the march's organizers.
The march seems to have been a genial parody of the typical climax to a G.K. Chesterton novel, in which the People rise up to overthrow the establishment, especially when the establishment is socialist. Chesterton was not a great admirer of aristocracy (though he was of monarchy, so he would have been pleased by Prince Charles's open support for the Countryside Alliance). Among the aristocrats he numbered what would later be called cultural liberals, whom he also associated with plutocracy. That is not how Prime Minister Tony Blair's New Labour government looks to me, but that is how it seems to look to at least 400,000 Britons.
The fact that one of Britain's rare earthquakes occurred about the same time as the march might have given an earlier generation pause.
* * *
Some forms of populism are past due. Among them I would include the kind represented by Patrick J. Buchanan's new magazine, The American Conservative. I just got a complimentary copy of the October 7 issue. There is nothing to complain about in terms of layout or editorial quality. It is printed on the sort of cheap paper-stock that denotes the traditional seriousness of the Little Magazine. It further maintains tradition by being subsidized by a financial angel of whom the less said the better, in this case one Taki Theodorocopulos.
This issue is almost wholly devoted to arguing against an American invasion of Iraq. This is reasonable thing to argue for, but the magazine's opposition seems to be, well, overdetermined. One gathers that the invasion will be a bloody mess, or that the occupation will be a bloody mess, or that the next Iraqi government will be no better than the current one, or that control of the Middle East would create imperial overreach. The one possibility that the issue does not allow for is that the war will be a resounding success.
At risk of jinxing the operation, a happy outcome is by far the most likely. The fighting will be short. The country will not break up; it will be cantonized and demilitarized. The Iraqis will sing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" and get back to business, which is good: the country's GDP grew 15% last year. The democratic movement in Iran will be bolstered and the Syrians will stop funding terrorist organizations.
If these good things happen, the magazine will have nothing to talk about but illegal Mexican immigration. That is an important issue, but it does not merit its own magazine.
* * *
When things go badly in this world, we can always turn our attention to another. I was particularly pleased to see that a new analysis of the atmosphere of Venus is consistent with biology in the middle layers. I recognize that this sort of announcement has a history of not being verified, but I still think it worth noting. As far as I know, it is the first application of an important principle of planetary astronomy: any feature of an atmosphere that cannot be explained by geology is probably caused by biology.
James Lovelock, better known for formulating the Gaia Hypothesis, came up with this idea when NASA asked him how they could determine from a distance whether life was present. His answer ran like this: It would be obvious from a distance that Earth has life on it, because of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Oxygen is an explosive. If it is not continuously replenished, it will soon bond with other elements. The same would be true of, say, methane, which breaks down easily. If something inherently unstable is a persistent feature of an atmosphere, then there is a good chance that some metabolic process is maintaining it.
Venus has been explored, even by landers. The surface is covered by superheated CO2 at almost 100 times sealevel pressure on Earth. However, it has long been known that there are mysterious dark regions that sometimes form at the middle altitudes, where temperatures are below the boiling point of water, and where there is in fact some vapor available. It now also appears that there are unstable acids at those levels. They sound pretty horrible in themselves, but the best explanation for them is biology.
There are doubtful points here. There are non-biological ways to produce the substances in question. And is the proper adjective for things related to Venus "Venusian" or "Venerian"?
A zeppelin should be dispatched at once to clarify these matters. If his magazine folds, Pat Buchanan might be persuaded to serve as ship's lexicographer.
Copyright © 2002 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