The Long View 2005-02-16: Later Spengler Syndrome

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator

Whichever Pentagon flack provided the anonymous quote from this 2005 NY Times article probably had Terminator in mind, but we got Predator drones instead. We also got a large number of robots for ordinance disposal, but that technology had been under development for a while. In a strange twist, the Dallas police used a ordinance disposal robot to kill a man who was shooting cops in July of 2016. A robot designed to remove explosives ended up delivering them instead.

Later Spengler Syndrome

Mark Steyn is normally a sanguine soul, but every so often he sounds like the Later Spengler. We see an example of this in a column entitled, "On the Culture Front, We're Losing the War":

I'm not worried about Iraq. As they demonstrated on Jan. 30, they'll be just fine. The western front is the important one in this war, the point of intersection between Islam and a liberal democratic tradition so mired in self-loathing it would rather destroy our civilization just to demonstrate its multicultural bona fides...It's an open question whether the West will survive this twilight struggle: Europe almost certainly won't, America might; on the other hand, the psychosis to which much of the culture is in thrall may eventually reach a tipping point into mass civilizational suicide.

My impression these days is that multiculturalism, like Marxism by the 1980s, has no power left but inertia. It's not the kind of thing anyone believes anymore. The number of actual, conscious traitors to the West grows daily, of course, but the supply of useful idiots is in decline. There is such a thing as progress.

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People who do think that the West is committing suicide are also often of the opinion that the project could not have been undertaken without the the assistance of Alfred Kinsey, whose life and works were recently examined on the PBS history series, The American Experience.

I have never been much interested in where people like Alfred Kinsey stand in the great scheme of things, so maybe it was not mere prejudice that caused me to see a weird disconnect in the PBS show. All of the people whose interviews appeared had worked as sex researchers for Kinsey. They were hale, merry men and women in early old age, and they had not a harsh word to say about their former employer. The disconnect is that the story the invisible narrator told was plainly about a self-mutilating masochist who ran a sexual cult dedicated to evangelizing for some basically Edwardian notions of free love.

The editors must have had ferocious fights about the script. They did not disguise the fact that Kinsey's statistical portrait of sexual behavior in America was mathematical nonsense. On the other hand, no voice questioned Kinsey's basic "insight," supposedly based on his earlier study as an entomologist of the gall wasp, that the fundamental characteristic of living species is the variability among individuals. Essentially, what Kinsey did was abolish the category of pathology and announce the abolition as a discovery.

Did Kinsey do no good? No doubt there was some merit in publicizing the medical information that had been accumulating over the previous 100 years. As far as I can tell, however, everything that Kinsey added to this knowledge was either misleading or flatly false. The bottom line on Kinsey is that he tried to derive a new "ought" from a new picture of "is," but not before he took care to falsify the picture.

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Not everyone is suffering from the Later Spengler Syndrome. Certainly David Brooks isn't, to judge by his column the the New York Times, "Back From Battle." The piece describes a stopover at Shannon Airport that Brooks made on the way home with the US delegation to a security conference in Munich. While they were waiting, some US Marines on their way back from Iraq wandered into the bar, where they and the United States senators got along famously. Brooks has high praise for all, but especially for one:

The second thing I'd tell [the Marines about the conference he had just left] is that the politicians were willing to talk bluntly to the tyrants. McCain sat on a panel with officials from Russia, Egypt and Iran. He began his talk with suggestions on how to use NATO troops in the Middle East. Then it was time for a little straight talk. He ripped the Egyptians for arresting opposition leaders. (The Egyptian foreign minister held his brow, as if in grief.) He condemned the Iranians for supporting terror. (The Iranian hunched over like someone in a hailstorm.) He criticized Russia for embracing electoral fraud in Ukraine. In the land of the summiteers, this was in-your-face behavior.

One notes that John McCain in 2000 was the apple of the eye of the Weekly Standard, the magazine that is Brooks's principal employer. Perhaps it was only the close relationship between the Bush campaign and Fred Barnes, another Weekly Standard writer, that allowed the magazine and the Bush Administration to remain on speaking terms. In any case, no Bush will be running for president in 2008, unless brother Jeb is a complete fool. McCain will be old then, but he won't be too old.

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There are much scarier scenarios for the future than are dreamt of even in Spengler's latest philosophy. I am sure that the term "robot overlord" came into the mind of many people who read today's New York Times story, A New Model Army Soldier Rolls Closer to the Battlefield:

The Pentagon predicts that robots will be a major fighting force in the American military in less than a decade, hunting and killing enemies in combat...Already, however, several hundred robots are digging up roadside bombs in Iraq, scouring caves in Afghanistan and serving as armed sentries at weapons depots.

As with most stories about cybernetics, there is less here than meets the eye. The robots under development, like the deployed ones, are equipment for human units. They can no more operate on their own than can any other kind of weapon. That is why the most interesting comment in the article is this:

The technology still runs ahead of robot rules of engagement. "There is a lag between technology and doctrine," said Mr. Finkelstein of Robotic Technology, who has been in the military robotics field for 28 years. "If you could invade other countries bloodlessly, would this lead to a greater temptation to invade?"

Robots will be equalizers. The analogy is to machine guns at the beginning of the 20th century, and to strategic nuclear weapons at midcentury. They are cheap, and they work as well for corrupt and unpopular regimes as for liberal democracies with high morale.

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On a note less different than you might suppose, Peggy Noonan recently speculated in Opinion Journal [Victim Soul, February 10] about what the end of the papacy of John Paul II will mean:

An explosion of joy and sadness will mark his passing. Joy because it is time now for a younger man to put his stamp upon the age. Sadness because he is a giant, the last pope of the old age. And something else. After him the real modern world begins, the new one, the post-9/11 one, and all will be in play. He was the last fruit of the old world. His presence was definite and dense as the Vatican itself.

This has it upside down. John Paul II is the last great Modern. After him begins the transitional period of two generations from Modernity to the High Empire.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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