The Long View 2003-11-20: Incongruous Elements

John guessed correctly in 2003 that the War on Terror postponed culture war issues like gay marriage for the duration of the emergency.

Incongruous Elements

President Bush gave another one of his remarkable set-speeches at White Hall in London yesterday. As he has been doing since 911, he put the war on terror in the context of a strategy to bring democracy and the rule of law to the Middle East, a strategy in which the war in Iraq is only a campaign. As with his other major addresses, the speech was nuanced and historically informed. As is also typical, the style was entirely unlike the way the man normally talks, except for the humor. Nonetheless, the Whitehall address really does represent what George Bush believes and what he is trying to do. Few of his critics, I notice, spend much time analyzing what he actually says.

What struck me on this occasion was the collision of Bush's moral and farsighted foreign policy with the quite different approach to public life being expressed by influential groups in the US at about the same time. Consider this snipet from Bush's speech, regarding what he hopes are shared features of the political cultures of the UK and US:

The deepest beliefs of our nations set the direction of our foreign policy. We value our own civil rights, so we stand for the human rights of others. We affirm the God-given dignity of every person, so we're moved to action by poverty and oppression and famine and disease.

Contrast that with this excerpt from the majority opinion of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in the case which determined that marriage defined in heterosexual terms violates the state constitution:

We are mindful that our decision marks a change in the history of our marriage law. Many people hold deep-seated religious, moral, and ethical convictions that marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman, and that homosexual conduct is immoral. Many hold equally strong religious, moral, and ethical convictions that same-sex couples are entitled to be married, and that homosexual persons should be treated no differently than their heterosexual neighbors. Neither view answers the question before us. Our concern is with the Massachusetts Constitution as a charter of governance for every person properly within its reach.

Note that the Court here does not argue that the content of human rights is different from what we thought formerly, and that we now know human rights must include marriage between purposes of the same sex. Rather, the Court says that all questions of morality and religion are irrelevant to the interpretation of the state constitution. Now try to square that with a national foreign policy framed in moral terms. If you don't like the Iraq War, try to square it with money to control AIDS in Africa, or the promotion of education for Muslim women.

What we have here is not a conflict between religion and the disinterested rule of law, but between two moralities. The reality is that the Massachusetts Court was disingenuous. Of course there is a moral system behind their decision; the cultural Left is an order of magnitude more moralizing than the Right. As with slavery and democracy in the 19th century, these moralities really cannot exist indefinitely in the same body politic. The Terror War has so far had the effect of putting this implicit civil war on hold, but that will not be the case forever.

* * *

The final proposals for the 911 memorial at the World Trade Center site were presented to the public this week. The public was unimpressed, for good reason. Some were too sentimental, marking each victim with a separate little sculpture. Some were too high-concept: Zen gardens with turf. Altogether, as one critic noted, they generally relied too much on elaborate lighting and complicated fountains. Frankly, I thought this was one occasion where the Minimalist Version of Occam's Law should have been applied: "If you don't have anything to say, don't say it."

For that reason, my choice among the proposals would be Toshio Sasaki's Inversion of Light. For one thing, the artist has the sense to commemorate the dead with only their names. These are arranged by where the people lived, thus avoiding the problem of multiple "John Smiths." Inversion of Light would be a quiet, contemplative place in the city, where people can touch a little of the foundations of the great buildings. That's all that anyone can ask.

In contrast, consider Michael Arad's Reflecting Absence. Among other things, it features a vortex of water that disappears into apparent nothingness. The commentary also says:

The names of the deceased appear to be in no discernible order. The apparent randomness reflects the haphazard brutality of the deaths and allows for flexibility in the placement of names of friends and relatives in ways that permit for meaningful adjacencies; for example, siblings who perished together at the site could have their names listed side by side. Family members seeking out the name of a loved one are guided by on-site staff or a printed directory to their specific location. The location of the name marks a spot that is their own.

This reminded me of a proposal for a memorial to the whole of Earth in Joe Haldeman's story, "For White Hill," which appears in the anthology, Far Futures. In that deeply depressing tale, the premise is that Earth had been sterilized by nanobots created by hostile aliens. Some centuries later, surviving human beings decide to hold a contest for a memorial. Here is the description of one entry:

My mental processes always turn things inside out. Find the terror and hopelessness in that comfort. I had in mind a massive but delicately balanced assemblage that would be viewed by small groups; their presence would cause it to teeter and turn ponderously. It would seem both fragile and huge (though of course the fragility would be an illusion), like the ecosystem that the Fwndyrosi abruptly destroyed.

The assemblage would be mounted in such a way that it would seem always in danger of toppling off its base, but hidden weights would make that impossible. The sound of the rolling weights ought to produce a nice anxiety. Whenever a part tapped the floor, the tap would be amplified to a hollow boom.

If the viewers stood absolutely still, it would swing to a halt. As they left, they would disturb it again. I hoped it would disturb them as well.

No: I think that, considering the purpose of the memorial, the visitors would have been disturbed enough already.

* * *

Speaking of sterilizing Earth, PBS recently aired a Nova program that seemed designed to cause public unrest on this score. The program, entitled Magnetic Storm, notes the well-known fact that the Earth's magnetic field occasionally weakens and reverses polarity. As far as I know, these events have never been accompanied by any great disaster, even though background radiation on the Earth's surface would almost certainly increase during such times. The show did say something I had not known: Earth's magnetic field has been weakening dramatically in just the last three centuries. There is some reason to suppose it will fall to zero by the fourth millennium, and then probably reverse. Fair enough.

The mischief is that the show linked the disappearance of the Martian atmosphere with that planet's lack of an intrinsic magnetic field for most of its history. This is not a new idea. At NASA, apparently, the party line is that Mars's atmosphere was eroded away over time by the solar wind, something that did not happen to Earth because Earth's magnetic field deflected the wind.

To give Nova credit, they did say that the coming collapse of Earth's magnetic field is not likely to last long enough to do the atmosphere much harm. However, they did not point out that the whole idea of solar-wind erosion is problematical. Venus is a third of the distance from the sun that Mars is, and its atmosphere is 100 times as dense as Earth's, yet Venus has no intrinsic magnet field.

How can that be, I ask you?

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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