The Long View 2007-03-12: Several Small Matters and a Large One

A common theme in theories [or future histories] that posit the formation of a universal state in the next hundred years or so is that they almost always also posit a re-unification of Christianity. Since the schisms between the apostolic churches are often at least related to jurisdictional differences in states, this makes some sense.

When Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven tried this idea, they also united the two national empires of the day, the United States and the Soviet Union. On Earth, that union led to eventual planet-destroying war, but the successor state did successfully blend American ideas with Russian ones.

Several Small Matters and a Large One

Second Amendment Rights advocates are pleased as punch about the decision of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Parker v. District of Columbia, which discovered a personal right to own firearms and consequently struck down the District of Columbia's highly restrictive gun laws. Frankly, gun control has never been high on my list of things to worry about, either for or against. I have looked only at summaries of the decision. Judging just from those, the court's reasoning seems possible but not required. One way to put it is that the court really did "discover" a right here; it not make just one up out of whole cloth in the manner of Griswold v. Connecticut (the template for Roe v. Wade).

However, though the DC Court of Appeals is by no means a tool of the Democratic Party, we should note that this decision advances the strategy set forth by political scientist Thomas Schaller in Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without The South. AS that author put it in another context:

Let's put the other nine Amendments of the Bill of Rights behind the ramparts of the Second Amendment and protect them all with equal vigor. That's smart politics.

We have discussed the Schaller strategy before. Essentially, it's a way of trading loose gun-laws to Libertarian-minded conservatives in the West in return for their acquiescence in the retention of Roe v. Wade. The strategy might or might not work, but it will be easy to implement if the Supreme Court follows the DC Circuit Court.

* * *

I am by no means a vegetarian, but I think twice about eating pate', because I am aware of the misery the goose from which the pate' came. Now this comment on National Public Radio has given me much the same thought about fresh fruit and vegetables:

All Things Considered, March 10, 2007 · American farmers depend on immigrant labor to cull their crops. Organic peach farmer David Mas Masumoto says it's time for Congress and the White House to enact real immigration reform. He says it will be better for the workers, and for his peach trees.

Essentially, the farmer wants an unlimited supply of cheap labor, because that will allow him to grow delicate and interesting fruit that can be harvested only by human hands, rather than fruit cultivated with an eye to mechanical harvesters. He tried to make the labor-intensive option sound humane and natural. In fact, he simply exposed the reality of his business: it relies on the perpetual existence of a population that can never be paid beyond subsistence level because the produce they gather is simply not worth very much.

There are elements of the agricultural industry that should be as disfavored as poppy-growers.

* * *

I am unimpressed by the alleged scandal about the use of National Security Letters by the FBI; these are administrative authorizations which allow the FBI to obtain information about individuals that would otherwise require a warrant. I am appalled by the theme, taken up my many members of Congress, that the FBI must be prevented from going on a fishing expedition. The term "fishing expedition" usually refers to a misuse of the pre-trial discovery process in which a prosecutor or civil plaintiff bombards the other party with questions and subpoenas in order to find a cause of action, rather than using discovery to gather information about a charge or complaint that already exists. "Fishing expeditions" are one of the abuses that the rules of discovery are designed to prevent. However, the concept has no application to national-security investigations. Of course the agencies assigned to prevent terrorist attacks are on a fishing expedition. Whether anyone is ever prosecuted, or whether a crime is ever actually committed: these things are beside the point.

Again: 911 happened in large part because the FBI treated terrorism as a criminal matter, and avoided going on "fishing expeditions." The members of Congress who are now taking about forcing the FBI to return to that policy also happen to work in the building that is likely to be the prime target for the next attack. You would think they would at least have a keener sense of self-preservation, but no.

* * *

Russia & the Salvation of Europe: This is not a new theme, and Asia Times Spengler takes it up again in his latest:

Europe existed before any of its constituent nations, and the unified Europe of Church and Empire created the nations along with their languages and cultures. As individual nations, Europe's constituent countries will die on the vine...To recapture Europe means re-creating the faith. It is hard to imagine that the Roman Catholic Church might re-emerge as Europe's defining institution. The European Church is enervated. But I do not think that is the end of the matter. As I argued last month, Russia has become the frontier between Europe and the Islamic world and, unlike Europe, is not prepared to dissolve quietly into the ummah...Pope Benedict's recent pilgrimage to Turkey, it must be remembered, only incidentally dealt with Catholic relations with Islam; first of all it was a gesture to Orthodoxy in the form of a visit to the former Byzantium, its spiritual home...If Europe has a future, it lies in an ecumenical alliance of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and at least some elements of Anglicanism.

Well, one thing is for sure: Danilevsky lives. It may also be significant that Spengler's remedy closely parallels that of Vladimir Solovyev, whose works were recently in the news as the basis for some of the presentations at the pope's Lenten retreat. To me, at least, it seems that Orthodoxy is not in a flourishing state, so much so that it is difficult to see how Orthodoxy itself could be the basis of a revival. On the other hand, we do note that Benedict XVI's understanding of the Mass tends toward the Orthodox understanding: the eucharist is eschatological, so the Mass reveals eternity in somewhat the way that the end of the world will. This view is not new in Catholicism, though it was more strongly emphasized in the old Latin liturgy than in the new vernacular ones. Is is entirely a coincidence that we hourly await Benedict's motu proprio that will restore the Latin liturgy to universal legitimacy, if not universal use?

We should also note that Spengler makes no mention of the role of American evangelicalism in this holy alliance. This is a mistake, caused no doubt by Spengler's misapprehension of the United States as a civilization separate from Europe (a mistake that the Real Spengler did not make, by the way).

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-03-09: Physics, Warrior Robots, Glottochronology, & Reforms Good and Bad

A small sample of the high-temperature superconductor  BSCCO -2223.  By James Slezak, Cornell Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

A small sample of the high-temperature superconductor BSCCO-2223.

By James Slezak, Cornell Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

High-temperature superconductors are much like nanotechnology: just another kind of vaporware that has gone nowhere. I should probably update my cocktail party theory of why science can’t seem to do anything cool anymore on this in light of an additional ten years of experience.

Also interesting to note that John J. Reilly was a fan of the national popular vote, and not a fan of daylight savings time, at least as implemented.

Physics, Warrior Robots, Glottochronology, & Reforms Good and Bad

It's about time, that's all I can say:

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli defense firm on Thursday unveiled a portable robot billed as being capable of entering most combat zones alone and engaging enemies with an onboard armory that includes a machine-pistol and grenades.

Click on this totally misleading image to see what the robot really looks like:

I am inclined to think that this is just a minor improvement in SWAT technology rather than the beginning of the end of infantry, but I could be wrong. In 1914, hardly anyone appreciated the implications of the machine gun. In any case, we have a way to go before we see the slinky Cylons of Battlestar Gallactica.

* * *

Why are there no flying cars in the early 21st century? In part because so little came of this:

Twenty years ago this month, nearly 2,000 physicists crammed into a New York Hilton ballroom to hear about a breakthrough class of materials called high-temperature superconductors, which promised amazing new technologies like magnetically levitated trains...But today the heady early promises have not yet been fully filled. High-temperature superconductors can be found in some trial high-capacity power cables, but they have not made any trains levitate. The rise in transition temperatures has stalled again, well below room temperature. Theorists have yet to find a convincing explanation for why high-temperature superconductors superconduct at all.

In those days, Chaos Theory had just recently been the flavor of the month, and was still supposed to be a new, culture-transforming model of causality. Room-temperature superconductors were supposed to provide the hardware component for the new world. Only the geekiest geeks and a few SF writers had a clue about the Internet, which really was an important technological development (and whose effect, as I have argued at tedious length, has been essentially conservative).

Let those of us take a lesson who think that neuroscience will make all things new.

* * *

The peoples of the British Isles are all pretty much cut from the same genetic cloth, according to a piece in The New York Times. For the most part, they have been there since the ice age, if not before, so we can forget about all that Saxon versus Celt business. Well, okay, but genetics is one thing; what are we to make of conclusions like this?

Dr. Oppenheimer has relied on work by Peter Forster, a geneticist at Anglia Ruskin University, to argue that Celtic is a much more ancient language than supposed, and that Celtic speakers could have brought knowledge of agriculture to Ireland, where it first appeared. He also adopts Dr. Forster’s argument, based on a statistical analysis of vocabulary, that English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language tree, and was spoken in England before the Roman invasion.

The hypothesis that Anglo-Saxon was spoken in England before the arrival of the Angles or the Saxons is, perhaps, counterintuitive, but no doubt the argument is more persuasive in detail. In any case, this attempt to date language change is based on glottochronology. That procedure is based on a reasonable notion for estimating how long one language has diverged from another with the same ancestral language: count the cognates in a list of 100 or 200 basic words in the daughter languages. Morris Swadesh estimated that 14% of that vocabulary would diverge in a millennium. That worked well for the Romance languages, but there were counter examples in different language groups. Sergei Starostin suggested that a count should be made only in "autonomous" changes in the basic wordlist, excluding loan words. With that stipulation, the rate of change falls to 5 or 6 native replacements per millennium.

The problem is that, to apply these rules, we need to already know so much about the histories of the languages in question that the glottochronological estimate will usually be superfluous. Alas.

* * *

Friends of civil peace must regret the failure of the House of the Colorado legislature to pass the National Popular Vote bill, after the Senate had approved it. As the measure's proponents put it:

Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).

The most discouraging thing about the opposition to this necessary measure is the transparent nonsense of arguments like this:

Law professor Robert Hardaway from the University of Denver was equally critical.

He said problems with a candidate winning the popular vote but losing the electoral vote are rare, but result in cries for changing the system.

Without the electoral college, close votes would be a nightmare, Hardaway said.

"You think 2000 was bad? You’d have recounts in every precinct, in every state," he said.

In reality, of course, the NPV mechanism does not change the local rules about when a recount can be demanded. No matter how close the national vote, districts with 60% to 40% majorities for one candidate would not have a recount. Districts with electoral results that are close within the definition of local law would have recounts, just as they do today. The NPV does not abolish the Electoral College; the College would still turn pluralities into majorities.

And why is the NPV necessary? It's necessary because if George Bush had won an Electoral College victory in 2004 there would have been gunfire. It is necessary because the US cannot promote democracy abroad if its chief executive is chosen by gerrymander. It is necessary so that the rural populations of the big electoral-vote states are no longer disenfranchised in presidential elections. The last point is maddening: it's the Republican Party that is chiefly handicapped by the current system.

* * *

Brothers and sisters, I can no longer keep silent, since we are just days away from the fulfilment of this scripture:

And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws:

And what is Microsoft doing about it??

IT workers have been waiting three or four hours to get telephone support from Microsoft [regarding the start of Daylight Saving Time on March 11 under the new federal law], whose Exchange Server serves as the official calendar for many of the world's largest businesses.

Aiming to shorten that wait, Microsoft has boosted the number of people addressing the time change issue. Earlier Thursday, the company opened up a "situation room" devoted to monitoring customer issues and providing support to the software maker's largest customers.

Unlike Y2K, this change could be a real nuisance. Supposedly, businesses like this change, because it gives people more daylight in which to shop. Again, I can only ask: why not just institute spring and autumn schedules? If federal offices were directed to open at 8:00 A.M. in March and 9:00 A.M. in November the rest of society would follow suit and we would not need to reset the damn clocks.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-03-06: Various Book Reviews, and That Cranky Spengler

I will admit that I went through an Ayn Rand phase when I was young. Here a repeat of the best thing I ever said on the subject:

I like the late 90s idea that devotees of Ayn Rand might prove to be unusually resistant to the false religion of the Antichrist, because of how sweetly naive it is. Rand built up a formidable cult of personality around herself that is probably only limited by intentional eschewing of religious elements. Thank God.

I have some inkling of this, because I too felt the siren call of Rand's individualist philosophy as a teenager. The scholarship programs aimed at high school students that encourage them to read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged are persuasive genius. Intelligent high school students are the perfect targets for this kind of thing. Some small percentage are probably hooked forever.

As a teenager, I read everything I could find by and about Rand. And then I discovered how weird she really was. The best story [recounted by Greg Cochran in his recent interview] is how her adulterous lover Nathaniel Branden decided to end the affair they had been carrying on and marry a normal woman. In response, Rand required all remaining members of her inner circle [including future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan] to denounce Branden, and forsake all future association with him.

That incident, above all else, helped me see how batty it all was. I also fondly remember my parents, sweetly pooh-poohing this bosh.

Which is just as well. I think the Objectivists are about as likely to end the world as anyone.

This line from John J. Reilly recapitulates my opinions on writing:

Rugs should be richly textured; prose should be lucid.

Various Book Reviews, and That Cranky Spengler

Yes, it does seem like 50 years since Atlas Shrugged was published, for the excellent reason that 50 years seems like just enough time to read a book that long. In any case, Mark Skousen of the Christian Science Monitor has some useful comments about the great anniversary:

NEW YORK - When Ayn Rand finished writing "Atlas Shrugged" 50 years ago this month, she set off an intellectual shock wave that is still felt today. It's credited for helping to halt the communist tide and ushering in the currents of capitalism. Many readers say it transformed their lives. A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans...Rand articulates like no other writer the evils of totalitarianism, interventionism, corporate welfarism, and the socialist mindset.

Skousen says in that piece that "children do not appear" in Rand's world of Objectivist Capitalism. That's not quite true: I seem to recall that one of John Galt's colleagues, the Norwegian one, is described as having two kids. Nonetheless, Skousen does have a point if he means that Objectivism does not do a particularly good job of connecting the present to the future. The philosophy would work best for a race of immortals, which I suppose explains the Randian streak in Transhumanism.

Something else that I would argue Atlas Shrugged does not do particularly well is critique totalitarianism, or even describe it. The book is about the implosion of the welfare state, but a welfare state with no particular ideology, and certainly without any ideological connection to developments abroad. Atlas Shrugged is devoid of geopolitics. In the Objectivist perspective, perhaps, war is just another form of socialism. A military might exist in Rand's capitalist utopia, but as an anomaly: its ethos could have nothing to do with the larger society.

George Bush is by no means a Randian, but perhaps it is not an accident that his Administration's War on terror, especially in Iraq, has always been just such an anomaly in the context of his fiscal and immigration policies.

* * *

Asia Times Spengler also faults President Bush, this time for failing to coordinate the different branches of his foreign policy, as we see here:

Washington had the opportunity at the turn of 2007 to isolate and neutralize the Mahmud Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran, but through stupidity and arrogance has made war the most probable outcome.

Misreading Russia...may have been the irreparable blunder. Meddling in the Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union and expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prompt Russia to step on Washington's toes in the one place that hurts, namely West Asia...[T]his has an unintended consequence: it has led Iran to believe that without Russian support, the United States will be isolated and impotent to act against it. That is not true, for the US can and will act to forefend a nuclear-armed Iran, alone if need be.

For myself, I find it hard to believe that anyone could perceive NATO as threatening, though its expansion to the east does diminish Russia's ability to make costless threats to the rim of states on its western border. Russia's unhelpfulness with regard to Iran is, perhaps, overdetermined by many other considerations. I rather doubt that the Russian government is any better than the US at coordinating policy in Europe and the Near East.

* * *

There is another early online review (in addition to my own) of John Crowley's Endless Things, this one by Kestrell Rath at Green Man Review. Yes, that review is favorable, too, but perhaps more appreciative than I am of the complex structure of the tetralogy. Rugs should be richly textured; prose should be lucid.

* * *

Here is a brief reply to all reviewers, offered by Mark Steyn in The New Criterion:

In the BBC TV adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ 1986 novel The Old Devils, John Stride gives a gleeful, roaring performance as Alun Weaver, a celebrity novelist and professional Welshman recently returned from London to his native clime. There’s a scene set at a book-signing for mostly effusive customers, to whom Weaver responds with a glance up from the table and some labored demurring: “No, no, you are too kind. This is mere hack work.”

And then an intense young man appears. “I’m a great fan,” he begins, “but I didn’t think this book quite captured the lyrical freshness of Mumbles Boy.”

There is the briefest of pauses, just time for a malicious smile from the novelist. “Why, thank you very much,” he replies. “And what on earth makes you think I’m interested in the opinion of young shags like you? Bugger off now, and a very good afternoon to you.”

A word to the wise: it is best to devise comebacks to remarks like that before they happen.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-03-02: Restoration; McCain; Solar Warming

Detail from The Vision of the Cross by assistants of Raphael, depicting the vision of the cross and the Greek writing "Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα" in the sky, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  By, Public Domain,

Detail from The Vision of the Cross by assistants of Raphael, depicting the vision of the cross and the Greek writing "Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα" in the sky, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

By, Public Domain,

I still remember reading this post, and the associated First Things article, because it was where I learned that Episcopalians of the early American era shunned public display of the cross. It was much later I learned that the cross wasn’t a symbol of Christians in general until about the fourth century AD or so. Until the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the symbolism was a little too fresh.

Restoration; McCain; Solar Warming

My condominium association is tormented day and night by the municipal Historic Preservation Commission. They make us take down things on the facade of the buildings that are necessary for safety or security; they refuse to let us make necessary improvements or even repairs, because there is no way to do than at reasonable cost that would be consistent with the condition of the buildings in 1930.

The condominium consists of two slum apartment buildings that were restored at the end of the 1980s; the restoration was possible only because the Historic Preservation Commission had not yet been established. So, I know from personal experience that there is more to sane restoration than historical fidelity. Even so, however, I am not sure what to make of this restoration controversy to which Meredith Henne at First Things brings our attention:

In October of 2006, William & Mary’s new college president, Gene R. Nichol, ordered the altar cross removed from the university’s colonial-era Wren Chapel. His goal was to make the chapel “less of a faith-specific space, and to make it more welcoming to . . . visitors of all faiths.” The eighteen-inch-high brass cross, a gift from neighboring Bruton Parish Church in the 1930s, had been on display unless guests using the chapel requested its removal, according to previous policy....For more than two hundred of its 274 years, a cross was not displayed on the Wren Chapel’s communion table. Episcopal chapels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shunned crosses as “popish” trappings....This dilemma, faced by the staff at William & Mary, is a standard consideration in historical restoration projects. “Historically accurate” architecture often means that a building or interior reflects the time of founding or origin, the point at which the most illustrious tenant resided there, or the years when a particularly significant event occurred.

The fatuous multiculturalism that seems to have been the real reason for the removal of the cross needs to be combatted. However, it seems to me that a chapel that was not built with a cross in mind probably should not add one later: the room will lack a proper focus for it.

* * *

John McCain has been openly running for president in 2008 for some time. However, his latest announcement to that effect, this time on late-night television, did not go well:

Republican presidential contender John McCain...a staunch backer of the Iraq war but critic of how President Bush has waged it, said U.S. lives had been "wasted" in the four-year-old conflict...McCain, who repeated his assertion that U.S. troops must remain in Iraq rather than withdrawing early, made the "wasted" remark after confirming to Letterman what has been clear for at least a year or more — that he's in the running for the 2008 Republican nomination.

And what can one say of the prospects of a candidacy that has been discountenanced by such great statesfolk as former-senator Rick Santorum:

“The only one I wouldn't support is McCain,” Santorum said during an interview in his office at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, where he is a senior fellow.

“I don’t agree with him on hardly any issues,’’ Santorum said. “I don’t think he has the temperament and leadership ability to move the country in the right direction.”

Let him whose tongue has never been tied in public cast the first stone at the ambiguity of "don't agree...on hardly any..." The disturbing thing about that remark is this "anyone but" business. That smacks too much of the saying on the French Right during the 1930s about the socialist premier: "Better Hitler than Blum." Actually, it also sounds like a saying from the final generation of the Byzantine Empire: "Better the sultan's turban than the pope's tiara."

Even McCain's great supporter, Peggy Noonan, had some rather obituary comments today about McCain's candidacy:

But Americans don't elect résumés, they elect men. Here some aspects of Mr. McCain's highly individualistic nature hurt him. He is funny, quick, brave, colorful. He is emotional, has a temper, carries grudges, harbors resentments. If the latter set of traits were not true, the former set would have won the Washington political establishment. As it is he has a portion of it, but many were hired, for money, as political advisers. This is a traditional, but at this point old-fashioned, way to spend money.

Better the family retainers of the Bushes, I suppose, than the humorless (and usually idealess) governments-in-waiting that tend to collect around ambitious senators. McCain did not need those people in 2000, and neither did Bill Clinton in 1992. Both McCain and Hillary Clinton need them now because, though they both have fans, neither has enthusiasts.

Noonan puts her finger on what I think is the key to McCain's popularity:

I suspect Mr. McCain knew no one could question his life, that it showed who he was, and so he could do what he wanted in terms of policy and not jeopardize his support.

That was certainly my attitude in 2000, when I endorsed Senator McCain here. On that page I explained that I did not much care about his views on campaign-finance reform. If he had any ideas about education, I would have been content if he kept them to himself. As for why I did support him, my views may not have been prescient, but they do seem to have been relevant to subsequent events:

It is not enough just to examine each foreign affairs and defense issue as it comes up. Policy has to be set within a larger understanding of how the world works and of the position of the United States in the society of nations. John McCain has this understanding. He knows and respects the existing system of international institutions within which the United States must operate. He is familiar with the military, and can be trusted not to work it to death or to use it as a theater for the prosecution of the culture wars. More intangibly, he has a sense of geopolitics, of how one area of the world affects another. These are not the sort of qualifications that pollsters are looking for in 2000, but they are what the American president needs.

Would happy birds now be chirping in every tree if McCain had been elected in 2000? Perhaps not. McCain, like Colin Powell, belong to the conciliatory generation that lies between the Babyboomers and Gen-xers. They are given to compromise through the elaboration of new procedures: a fine instinct, most of the time, but they are less likely than Babyboomers to see when discontinuity with the past is necessary. The McCain Administration would have invaded Iraq after 911. We should recall that McCain was the neocon favorite, the apple of the eye of The Weekly Standard; George Bush was the anti-interventionist alternative. Nonetheless, I suspect that the McCain occupation policy would not have been as Wilsonian as Bush's. Rather, there would have been a rapid installation of a neo-Baathist regime. The US, withdrawing quickly to a few small bases, would have turned a blind eye to how that regime secured its position. Iran and the human-rights industry would have been outraged. By now, the American electorate would be asking if the war had been worth the effort.

Would some things have been different? Yes. We can be certain that the McCain Administration would not have confined its case for the war to a monotone repetition of the "weapons of mass destruction" talking-point. The federal budget would be balanced again by now. However, the collapse of immigration control would have been even worse. Similarly with the healthcare system: McCain's instinct would have been to bolster a system that should be dismantled. In a way, the Bush Administration's neglect has been better than that.

And what about 2008? McCain is my default candidate. However, I don't see how anyone now running could be elected.

* * *

Global warming is not confined to Earth, as many commentators (including me) have observed. In any case, here's the idea again. Instapundit reports that National Geographic reports that one Habibullo Abdussamatov, head of the St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory, reports:

[T]he Mars data is evidence that the current global warming on Earth is being caused by changes in the sun.

"The long-term increase in solar irradiance is heating both Earth and Mars," he said. Abdussamatov believes that changes in the sun's heat output can account for almost all the climate changes we see on both planets.

Maybe, though I had understood that the most recent climate models had been corrected for changes in solar output. In any case, even if all the changes in global temperature were explicable from astronomical causes, that does not let us completely off the hook. A warmer world means endangered beachfront property and shifting agricultural regions. The difference is that there would be less we could do alter the climate ourselves.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Twentieth Century The History of the World, 1901 to 2000 By J.M. Roberts

VNV Nation – Automatic

VNV Nation – Automatic

If I could pick a musical representation of the twentieth century, it might be VNV Nation’s album, Automatic. Ronan Harris has an ability to write lyrics that distill things to their essence, and the essence of this album is the twentieth century’s technological progress and scientific optimism. This isn’t the whole story of course, but we have plenty of pop culture about the nasty things. It is nice to remember the good parts too.

As for the book review, I didn’t actually get much out of it, probably because John J. Reilly didn’t either.

Here are the best two bits;

Roberts is probably correct that it is too early to write a history of the 20th century per se. It is also possible that my expectations for any book on this topic would be too novelistic, formed in large part from a century's worth of speculative writing about the future. Nonetheless, I cannot help but reflect that the century all those science fiction writers were so keen to describe is over, and what do we have to show for it? Maybe the narrative coherence of H.G. Wells's "Things to Come" is too much to expect of any history book.

There are three great stories that can be written involving the 20th century, only two of which could have been told as soon as the year 2000. One might be called "Grey's Twilight," after the British foreign minister who remarked, as the First World War broke out, that the lights were going out all over Europe. That story came to an end with the fall of communism in 1989. Another story might be The Decisive Lifetime. The theme in that period, running from roughly 1860 to 1945, would be about the triumph of liberalism within western civilization. The third story is about the place of the 20th century within modernity as a whole.

Twentieth Century
The History of the World, 1901 to 2000
By J.M. Roberts

Viking (Penguin Putnam), 1999
US$39.95, 905 pages
ISBN: 0-670-88456-1

Back in the 20th century, the US Department of Agriculture sometimes used to distribute slabs of surplus butter to old people. (I know this because, one way and another, my family came into possession of more than one of them. We had a large family, and they did us for a month.) These slabs were about the same size as this block of a book. They also had the same creamy, undifferentiated texture as its prose. Other similarities are that the butter and the book were both probably well meant, but neither was very nutritious.

J.M. (John Morris) Roberts is a former Warden of Oxford's Merton College. As his recent History of the World and History of Europe prove, he is neither a stupid man nor a bad writer. He reminds us on more than one occasion that it is really too early to be writing a history of the 20th century, since we will not have anything like a usable perspective for generations to come. (He also labored under the handicap that by no stretch of the imagination could the century be said to have been over by the time the book went to press, though he gets high marks for recording events quite late into 1999.) Certainly his "Twentieth Century" is very readable, and often insightful. Its failings are two: it is oddly factless, and it is too cautious about connecting the dots to make a sustained narrative.

Roberts is predictably good when he discusses ordinary diplomatic history. He notes, acutely, that the historiographical fashion for "history from below" has little application to the final years before the First World War, since the outbreak of the war really was the work of Europe's foreign ministries and general staffs. Regarding that war, Roberts suggests that the outcome of the Dardanelles campaign, when the Allies failed to take Constantinople and so relieve Russia through the Black Sea, was the decisive event of the whole century. It was largely for that reason that both the Czarist and the ephemeral social-democratic Kerensky regimes in Russia collapsed, to be followed by 70 years of Bolshevism. Without the menace and lure of the Soviet Union, it is hard to see how either fascism or the Second World War could have occurred in anything like the forms they did, much less the Cold War.

There are two great trends that Roberts sees as characteristic of the 20th century. The first was the end of European history as a largely autonomous story. In 1901, most of the world was ruled by white people from a small number of European capitals. Within fifty years, this was no longer the case, and Europe itself was divided between two power-blocks whose centers lay outside it. (As always, Roberts cannot quite decide whether Russia is a European country, but then neither can the Russians.) The century as a whole, Roberts notes, falls rather neatly into two halves defined by this "end of European history." The most important thing about the 20th century, however, is that it was the time when all the planet's local histories finally merged into a universal history. This is new, and it is reason enough to accord the period something like the sense of unique importance that the people who lived in it claimed for themselves at the time.

The previous two paragraphs give you all the conceptual structure that "Twentieth Century" has. This might have provided the backbone for a good, extended essay. In fact, there are several good essays in "Twentieth Century" that can stand on their own. What they cannot do is stand together. Far too much of the book is page after page of dateless explanations about trends in economics or Chinese politics or what not. There are memorable truisms, such as, "To extend the idea of what is possible is to change the way people think as well as the way they act," and "What this means for organized religion, except that it means something, is almost impossible to say." Writing like this might be understandable in a book with a title like "Neanderthal Culture: 300,000 to 100,000 BC." To use this level of abstraction is writing about a carnival of a century, especially when you have lived through most of it yourself, is to indulge an unnecessary austerity.

Judging from this book, there don't seem to have been many people in the 20th century. There were no interesting ones, aside from Winston Churchill. The names of usual-suspect politicians are given, as well as, awkwardly, those of a small circle of scientists. That just about exhausts 20th century biography. As far as I can tell, there were no artists or philosophers after 1901. There were also no influential philosophical ideas, except for the great gasbags of Marxism and Freudianism and Darwinism. It may or may not be significant that the century seems to have had a singular dearth of notable historians.

Even within his narrow parameters, Roberts has odd notions about who merits a mention. Maybe only American chauvinism makes me wonder how anyone could write an essay on the origins of rocket technology and not mention Robert Goddard. It is simply mystifying, however, to read an extended discussion of the influence of Cuban Marxism in Latin America, a discussion that, moreover, alludes to the failed Bolivian insurgency in the 1960s, and still not find any mention of Che Guevara, who died in the Bolivian uprising.

Roberts is probably correct that it is too early to write a history of the 20th century per se. It is also possible that my expectations for any book on this topic would be too novelistic, formed in large part from a century's worth of speculative writing about the future. Nonetheless, I cannot help but reflect that the century all those science fiction writers were so keen to describe is over, and what do we have to show for it? Maybe the narrative coherence of H.G. Wells's "Things to Come" is too much to expect of any history book. Still, surely something along the lines of Paul Johnson's "Modern Times" is not too much to ask for? (The original edition, which covered only the 1920s to the 1980s, is still the best.)

There are three great stories that can be written involving the 20th century, only two of which could have been told as soon as the year 2000. One might be called "Grey's Twilight," after the British foreign minister who remarked, as the First World War broke out, that the lights were going out all over Europe. That story came to an end with the fall of communism in 1989. Another story might be The Decisive Lifetime. The theme in that period, running from roughly 1860 to 1945, would be about the triumph of liberalism within western civilization. The third story is about the place of the 20th century within modernity as a whole. That story may not be writable for another 100 years, though publishers may well be tempted to jump the gun so as to get it on the market first.

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-27: The Bush & Jesus Dynasties; D'Souza's Consistency; Big Easy Eloi

Dinesh D’Souza’s reputation hasn’t improved in the last twelve years, but I am intrigued by John’s comment here that now makes me think D’Souza was a populist ahead of the curve.

The Bush & Jesus Dynasties; D'Souza's Consistency; Big Easy Eloi

Hostile reviews of Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home continue to pour in, including this one by Scott W. Johnson, which appears in the March New Criterion and in today's Opinion Journal:

Whatever [D'Souza's] earlier attainments, he established himself as a writer of substance with his 1991 book "Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus," a critique of political correctness and multiculturalism...."The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11"--Mr. D'Souza's new book--is something else entirely. The book works a strange metamorphosis. Whereas "Illiberal Education" and "The End of Racism" proved Mr. D'Souza a precocious commentator and gifted polemicist, the new book is crude and sophomoric. Worse than its sophomoric treatment of serious issues is its presentation of a blinkered and politically correct version of the Muslim world. It is a presentation that the young Mr. D'Souza would have scorned. It is as though, having arrived on the scene as Franz Kafka, he has turned himself into Gregor Samsa.

I find fault with the book on critical points, too, but I disagree that The Enemy at Home is discontinuous with Illiberal Education. Rather the opposite: The Enemy at Home simply applies to the international arena the domestic culture-war analysis of Illiberal Education. This is not an idea that libertarian-conservatives find congenial.

* * *

Nobody wants Jeb Bush to get the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Certainly Quin Hillyer of The American Spectator does not want that, as he tells us in this piece, which is not a Jeb-candidacy trial balloon about how Jeb could be nominated. The gist of it is that the redesign of the primary schedule to decide the nomination early could have a perverse effect:

RATHER THAN PROVIDING UNSTOPPABLE momentum to any one candidate, in other words, the widespread voting on Feb. 5 could serve to keep all three "major" candidates and even a couple of minor ones alive. Nobody could claim a mandate, the vitriol would continue to grow, and the dissatisfaction already being..voiced by conservatives might take on pandemic proportions...Meanwhile, a number of states may have qualifying dates for candidates or delegates that post-date Feb. 5. Nine states still won't vote until May. A white night with a big enough name could conceivably jump in the race, sweep all the later contests, and lay claim to be the candidate of consensus and unity. Think of another president's brother, Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and you get the idea...BUT WHY WOULD HE RUN when the name Bush is so unpopular these days?...Perhaps because a lot can change in a year. ...In actuality, though, 2008 may be the best year possible to overcome the argument against dynasties. After all, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, the anti-dynasticism argument will cut both ways. What better time for Jeb Bush to argue that a political inheritance should not be a disqualifier than when his opponent's entire career as an elected official is seen as a political inheritance?

I rarely quote Dick Morris, but I thought he had a point when he said over the weekend that we are already paying the price of dynastic politics, in which people achieve high office because their family ties have made their names familiar and provided them with political alliances they did not have to make themselves. The electorate is aware of this. I doubt that Senator Clinton can overcome the presumption against dynasty. I am sure that Jeb could not, even were he so inclined. Nonetheless, his name continues to be mentioned.

Of course, it is true that a lot can change in a year. If any of the changes are good, especially in Iraq, the one thing we can be sure of is that President Bush will not get credit for them. General Petraeus might, however. And just what is his party affiliation?

* * *

Here's a tale of Eloi and Morlocks, cruelly told by Mark Steyn:

This was the story of Paul Gailiunas, raised in Edmonton, and his wife Helen Hill, whom he met at Harvard. On January 4th, at their home in the Big Easy's Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood, Ms. Hill was shot and killed, and Dr. Gailiunas was wounded by four bullets while shielding their two-year-old son. The couple had moved to New Orleans from Dalhousie in 2001 because the doctor, according to the Globe, "wanted to work in a Third World environment." His wife was a filmmaker who showed her work at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center. Dr. Gailiunas also has his artistic side, as a vocalist and guitarist with a band called the New Orleans Troublemakers. According to the paper, "his lyrics explore universal health care, flag burning and early anarchist Emma Goldman." One gets the strong impression the doctor was in favour of all three...[A]lthough the population has halved, the number of murders in the city each month has stayed pretty much the same. Which means, in effect, the murder rate has doubled. ...Some suggest the National Guard be sent in, or that the Justice Department take over the city's police department. But it's hard to believe Dr. Gailiunas or his late wife would have endorsed such proposals. They ran a charitable enterprise called "Food Not Bombs," and Ms. Hill led "filmmaking bees" in agitprop documentary production.

I rather doubt that there is an essential connection between bohemian neighborhoods and high crime. Such connection as there is comes from the fact that bad neighborhoods have low-cost housing for artists to starve in. In the case of New Orleans, however, it has become an article of faith in progressive circles that jazz will never be the same again until every slum is rebuilt, down to the shot-out streetlights in the public housing projects.

* * *

This year's Easter Hoax is a listless enterprise. You can see for yourself Cameron and Jacobovici's case for having found the burial cave of the Jesus Family: go to the website of the Discovery Channel. Again, we are dealing here with an archeological find, made in 1980, of an unremarkable tomb in Jerusalem containing one of several ossuaries known to archeology inscribed "Jesus Son of Joseph." The tomb also contained several other inscribed ossuaries, some with names one might expect to find in the tomb of Jesus's family, and some with names there would be no reason to expect: it lacks several names one would expect to find. Cameron presents a statistical estimate that the particular set of names in the tomb had a likelihood of 600-to-1 of occurring by chance. No doubt that's true, but it would also be true of other combinations of names, and in fact there is nothing particularly suggestive in the set at issue here.

So what has changed since the tomb was discovered in 1980? The Da Vinci Code was published. Still, this is the kind of stunt about which one may not neglect to state the obvious, one element of which was well put by Mark Goldblatt in The New York Post:

Cameron and Jacobovici will mortally offend many Christians. Some critics will personally vilify them, while others question their motives and integrity.

But prominent Christian clergymen won't issue any death warrants, and the Vatican won't call upon "all believing Christians" to avenge the insult. Neither Cameron nor Jacobovici will have to spend the next decade or so in hiding.

Now imagine if they'd gone after Mohammad instead of Jesus . . .

Actually, there is an Islamic angle that is not hypothetical. The Islamic view of Jesus is of just another prophet, whose bones one might well expect to find in a tomb. Indeed, there is more than one "tomb of Jesus" in the Islamic world. We may expect the Cameron and Jacobovici film to become a feature of Islamic evangelization.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-23: Goracle Redux; War & Sovereignty; Dan Brown Copycat


This is an interesting idea.

The serious long-term point here is that debellicized states (states that have lost the capacity to wage war) are renouncing a key feature of modern sovereignty: not the right to self-defense, but the right to be consulted about the use of force elsewhere.

If anything, the intervening twelve years have seen a decrease in debellicization, since the world has mostly gotten to be a less stable and friendly place.

Goracle Redux; War & Sovereignty; Dan Brown Copycat

The ecoSanity site on whose credibility I cast aspersions yesterday has reappeared, again displaying its Heed the Goracle banner:


There now: what could be fairer than that?

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has some cutting things to say about the withdrawal of Coalition troops from Iraq:

Thus, even for reliable allies with capable militaries, the political price of marching into battle alongside the Great Satan is steep and getting steeper. This does not bode well for the general health of the planet. When the wilier Democrats berate Bush for not maintaining an adequate military, they have a sort of crude point, albeit not the one they think they're making: if the time, money and energy expended in getting pseudo-allies to make pseudo-contributions were to be spent instead on the Vermont National Guard, you'd get more troops more quickly with more capability. Yet for wealthy countries to deny Washington even the figleaf of token multilateralism is, in the end, to gamble with their own futures....[Australian Prime Minister] Howard is perhaps the last Western leader to understand this.

In this connection Pat Buchanan counsels the shortest way with dissenters:

Only the Americans are going deeper in. Aussies excepted, the "coalition of the willing" is no longer willing..... There is a larger meaning to all this, and Americans must come to terms with it. NATO is packing it in as a world power. NATO is little more than a U.S. guarantee to pull Europe's chestnuts out of the fire if Europeans encounter a fight they cannot handle, like an insurgency in Bosnia or Kosovo. NATO has one breadwinner, and 25 dependents. ...This isn't an alliance. This isn't a partnership. Time to split the blanket. If they won't defend themselves, let them, as weaker nations have done to stronger states down through the ages, pay tribute.

Well, perhaps he does not exactly counsel this. Buchanan wants the whole post-World War II alliance system dismantled. Making NATO a tribute-levying organization would just break it up all the sooner. (Also, perhaps, like many Americans, he never took on board the fact that Japan and the NATO countries cover all or most of the costs of the American bases on their territories.)

The serious long-term point here is that debellicized states (states that have lost the capacity to wage war) are renouncing a key feature of modern sovereignty: not the right to self-defense, but the right to be consulted about the use of force elsewhere.

* * *

Just in time for Lent, wouldn't you know, a documentary is about to be broadcast called The Burial Cave of Jesus:

The cave in which Jesus Christ was buried has been found in Jerusalem, claim the makers of a new documentary film. ...Jointly produced by Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and Oscar winning director James Cameron, the film tells the exciting and tortuous story of the archeological discovery.

The story starts in 1980 in Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighborhood, with the discovery of a 2,000 year old cave containing ten coffins. Six of the ten coffins were carved with inscriptions reading the names: Jesua son of Joseph, Mary, Mary, Matthew, Jofa (Joseph, identified as Jesus’ brother), Judah son of Jesua (Jesus’ son - the filmmakers claim).

The team of Jacobovici and Cameron are no strangers to edgy Biblical speculation. In this case, though, the evidence is less than overwhelming:

But the senior Israeli archaeologist who thoroughly researched the tombs after their discovery, and at the time deciphered the inscriptions, cast serious doubt on it.

"It's a beautiful story but without any proof whatsoever," Professor Amos Kloner, who had published the findings of his research in the Israeli periodical Atiqot in 1996, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa Friday.

"The names that are found on the tombs are names that are similar to the names of the family of Jesus," he conceded.

"But those were the most common names found among Jews in the first centuries BCE and CE," he added.

Will Time magazine make this their Easter Week cover story? I would not bet against it.

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The Long View 2007-02-22: Dry Jovians; Goracle; Endless Things

Spitzer Space Telescope  By NASA/JPL-Caltech -, Public Domain,

Spitzer Space Telescope

By NASA/JPL-Caltech -, Public Domain,

I too would like to find some way to colonize space, but damned if I know how to make it economically possible. Tech billionaires are making it possible to reach space more cheaply, but it still isn’t clear what people could do in orbit or on other astronomical bodies that would be useful.

Dry Jovians; Goracle; Endless Things

How is manned space exploration different from astronomical space exploration? The chief difference so far seems to be that the only things the manned flights discover are appalling design flaws in the spacecraft, while space-based astronomy is always coming up with scientific surprises. A good example of the latter is the recent report, based on results from the Spitzer Space Telescope, that the atmospheres of two superhot, Jovian, extrasolar planets have no detectable water:

The discovery was also in keeping with the history of planets orbiting other stars, or extrasolar planets, which has been nothing but a series of surprises over the last 10 years as planetary systems out there have so far looked nothing like our own. Alan Boss, a theorist at the Carnegie Institution who was not involved in the work, said: “This is a field where observers are leading the way. The scorecard should read, ‘Observers 200, Theorists 0.’ ”

Indeed, these results are an insult to the new scientific method, which is more about tweaking computer models than uncovering mere facts. But be that as it may, these discoveries are yet another illustration of the fact we are in space for two reasons. One is scientific exploration; the other is a public works program that should be, ultimately, aimed at human settlement.

I am not one of those people who think that only private entrepreneurs have a role to play in the development of space. However, I do think that there should be two, separate, federal agencies to manage these different functions. They need different hardware and they have distinct constituencies.

* * *

Evil spambots have been making ever bolder attacks on this site's forum. Deleting them has become a daily chore. Therefore, I would like to thank Clan Orb for making public an easily accessible list of the ISPs of those damnable entities that have been banned from its own forum. Clan Orb is a World of Warcraft site. I can't say that I am greatly familiar with WoW, but I admire the graphics.

* * *

The notion that climate-change environmentalism is a religion has become so common that even the newspapers have heard of it. At any rate, the Globe & Mail has:

They came in their hundreds to hear him speak, and even those left standing outside the crowded hall would not be deterred from lingering in the proximity of the Baptist prophet from Tennessee.

It wasn't any old-time religion that drew these believers to Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, but a concept they feel is every bit as crucial to humanity -- global warming -- that made them want to get close to Al Gore, the impassioned former U.S. vice-president, as he delivered his now famous Inconvenient Truth about climate change.

Like many a bygone leader who happened along at a key moment in history, Mr. Gore -- who has been sounding the environmental warning bell for years -- has suddenly inspired the kind of faith and fervour in others that he insists will be needed to overcome such a monumental problem.

"From my perspective, it is a form of religion," said Bruce Crofts, 69, as he held a banner aloft for the East Toronto Climate Action Group amid a lively prelecture crowd outside the old hall....Across the driveway in front of the hall, a large banner exhorted the crowd to "Heed the Goracle." Belonging to a fledgling group called ecoSanity, it was still there hours later, as Mr. Gore enjoyed a reception at the adjacent Simcoe Hall and the dispersing crowd voiced its praise.

We pass over in silence the anomaly of god-fearing conservatives using the word "religion" as a term of invective. We do not, however, pass over the term, "The Goracle," which sounds too good to be true for the political opponents of global-warming activism. Here is the sign mentioned in the story above; it links to the ecoSanity website:

This had been an
image of the 
"Heed the Goracle" 
banner mentioned above, 
but it has 
been removed, 
along with the 
ecoSanity site on 
which it was

Were we dealing here with agents-provocateurs? My suspicions only increased when I came across this review by John A. Baden at the Acton Institute of Eco-Sanity, by Joseph L. Blast, Peter J. Hill, & Richard C. Rue:

In addition to providing brief but reasonably complete treatments of the various "crisis of the month-club" events, Eco-Sanity helps unmask the attorneys, MBAs and "scientists" who posture as selfless defenders of the public interest. These opportunists use the perceived importance and legitimacy of their mission as a cloak to conceal the pursuit of personal gain. Decency and the canons of science are ignored as laws and politics are twisted for private ends.

Perhaps I should have confined myself to the latest scientific method by simply speculating about the elegances suggested by the data. However, I spoiled a perfectly good conspiracy theory by emailing ecoSanity about whether they had any connection with the book of similar name. Here is their reply (I delete the name of the writer, though I don't think he would mind being mentioned):

Thanks for writing! Nope, no connection. However, we did become aware of the existence of the book after the name occurred to us and we began the title search process. As it was the only match we found and written a good while ago, we proceeded to embrace it. And we have not read the book, just summaries, etc. We're an impassioned, Grassroots effort that also does a lot of volunteer work with Greenpeace in Toronto and we're working hard (with little funds) to get phase one of the full website up in a couple of weeks. Please don't hesitate to be in touch further about this or any other concerns you may have. Hope you feel supportive.

Frankly, I don't think I would be all that supportive, but they do seem to be on the up-and-up [or so I thought until the site disappeared a few hours after I mentioned it]. That does have a downside from their point of view, however, since it means that ill-disposed persons may now use "Goracle" in good conscience. [The matter has grown ambiguous.]

* * *

Fans of John Crowley will have noted that my site now has a review of his upcoming novel, Endless things, the conclusion of the Aegypt series. (I had been told the publication date was May; now the publisher is talking about June.) In any case, interested parties may order now, if they are so inclined. Note, too, that the other three volumes in the series are soon to be reissued.

Fans will also be interested to learn that the author has his own blog, Crowley Crow.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-20: The Deluge; School Stories; Hyperinflation; Murtha Plan

Cardinal Pell

Cardinal Pell

This blog post from 2007 is kind of eerie in how it could almost be current:

  • Cardinal Pell

  • Harry Potter

  • The implosion of Venezula

Apparently nothing new ever happens.

The Deluge; School Stories; Hyperinflation; Murtha Plan

Disturbed by charges in the press of religious obscurantism in connection with global warming, George Cardinal Pell of Sydney had some cutting remarks of his own about the cult of climate change:

What we were seeing from the doomsayers was an induced dose of mild hysteria -- semi-religious if you like, but dangerously close to superstition...I'm deeply sceptical about man-made catastrophic global warming, but still open to further evidence...I would be surprised if industrial pollution and carbon emissions had no ill-effects at all...But enough is enough...We know that enormous climate changes have occurred in world history -- for example, the ice ages and Noah's flood, when human causation could only have been negligible.

Actually, Genesis says that it was precisely human misbehavior that occasioned the Flood, though the narrative suggests that the causation was final rather than efficient. However, is that so different from the rhetoric of the Climate Cult? (I am more convinced of global warming than the cardinal appears to be, but yes, the idea has spawned a cult with dynamics independent of the science.) Civilization is in danger, we are told, because the human race has been bad. The excessive production of CO2 is just one of the manifestations of the badness of capitalist industrialism, or something. The big difference is that the cultists propose to save God the trouble of promulgating a new Covenant by correcting the badness themselves.

* * *

Just how conservative of genre is the Harry Potter series? It is conservative to a high degree, if you believe Mark Steyn:

Contemplating the rise of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to the top of the hit parade six months ahead of publication, those of us toiling in the literary foothills can only marvel. Who would have thought an English boarding-school story would be the global hit of the 21st century? ...

Hogwarts is certainly a boarding school (a VoTech school, as more than one commentator has noted), but is it really like the boarding schools of juvenile fiction? I think it makes a difference that Hogwarts is co-ed, which was true of none of the classic stories. Stories and screenplays about traditional boarding schools are still written, of course, but they tend to be murder-mysteries.

On the other hand, Steyn suggests that the key element is the setting and not the demographics of the characters.

Rather, as J. K. Rowling is only the latest to demonstrate, boarding school is the perfect structure for almost any narrative: it enables you to create a self-contained world free of parents, with its own codes and conventions, yet constrained in both place (a world that ends at the school grounds) and time (a three-term year instantly divides your story into the perfect three-act play).

To be a really perfect setting, the school has to be snowed in.

* * *

Speaking of traditions, the implosion of Venezuela is following a scenario that has become venerable:

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's plan to curb inflation by lopping three zeros from the currency may backfire because the move fails to address production bottlenecks that are pushing prices higher, economists said. ...The annual inflation rate rose to 18.4 percent last month, the highest in Latin America, from 10.4 percent in May...

Government officials blame private businesses and citizens who buy dollars outside government channels for accelerating inflation. Chavez said those found guilty of "hoarding" and "speculating" may receive prison terms of two-to-six years.

And a bit more:

Faced with an accelerating inflation rate and shortages of basic foods like beef, chicken and milk, President Hugo Chávez has threatened to jail grocery store owners and nationalize their businesses if they violate the country's expanding price controls....The economy grew by more than 10 percent last year...Entering a supermarket here is a bizarre experience. Shelves are fully stocked with Scotch whiskey, Argentine wines and imported cheeses like brie and Camembert, but basic staples like black beans and desirable cuts of beef like sirloin are often absent. Customers, even those in the government's own Mercal chain of subsidized grocery stores, are left with choices like pork neck bones, rabbit and unusual cuts of lamb.

20% inflation is annoying but manageable. However, when you get to 60%, it becomes difficult for private persons to plan because it is no longer clear what prices mean. However, when you get to the zero-lopping stage and begin to criminalize retail, the situation is usually terminal: you are on your way to hyperinflation.

The question is how the Venezuelan government has managed to make such a hash of the situation. Russia and Saudi Arabia are petrolist states, too, but at least they have reasonably sound currencies.

* * *

But what does Mark Steyn think of the recent antiwar resolutions in Congress? Not much, it would appear:

So "the Murtha plan" is to deny the president the possibility of victory while making sure Democrats don't have to share the blame for the defeat. But of course he's a great American! He's a patriot! He supports the troops! He doesn't support them in the mission, but he'd like them to continue failing at it for a couple more years. As John Kerry wondered during Vietnam, how do you ask a soldier to be the last man to die for a mistake? By nominally "fully funding" a war you don't believe in but "limiting his ability to use the money." Or as the endearingly honest anti-war group put it, in an e-mail preview of an exclusive interview with the wise old Murtha:

"Chairman Murtha will describe his strategy for not only limiting the deployment of troops to Iraq but undermining other aspects of the president's foreign and national security policy."

What struck me about the debates in both Houses of Congress was that the proponents of the resolutions did not seem to understand that they were not just handicapping the diplomacy of the United States; they were also putting themselves in physical danger. There was, for instance, a fairly direct connection between the precipitous American withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 and the attacks on US targets on September 11, 2001. However the matter appeared from the United States, the withdrawal was read in the Middle East as evidence that the United States was fairly easy to intimidate; it made sense to raise the stakes with an assault on the American mainland. The US Capitol building seems to have survived that attack by accident. If the Murtha Plan has its intended effect, it's not likely to survive the next one.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-16: 911 & the Failure of Imagination; Warmed-Over Cold War; The Fate of the Unworthy

2007 was about the point when even John J. Reilly started to get tired of the administration of President George W. Bush.

911 & the Failure of Imagination; Warmed-Over Cold War; The Fate of the Unworthy

There is more than one history of the world, as John Crowley never tires of reminding his readers. This comes through very strongly in an excellent review by James Meek in The London Review of Books of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida’s Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright. The book was published last year. I have not read it, but apparently I should have. Anyone interested can order it here. This is how the review ends:

Long before [911], the US intelligence establishment (together with the British) deafened itself to revolutionary Islam’s loud message that it intended to change the world. Two prevailing narratives – of the West v. Soviet Communism, and of Israel v. the Arab world – overwhelmed understanding of another emerging one, in which most of Europe and most of America, together with the Soviet bloc and the secular intelligentsia of developing countries, were on the same side. Although this is not what it explicitly sets out to do, Wright’s book supports the conclusion that the direct struggle between revolutionary, counter-Enlightenment Islam and the post-Enlightenment world began some time before the Cold War ended – specifically, in 1979. That was the year of Iran’s revolution, in which, significantly, Islamic revolutionaries overcame not only the pro-American Shah but also their leftist counterparts; the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan to protect its leftist regime against Islamic rebels; and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, was seized by a band of Islamic fundamentalists. It took Saudi forces more than two weeks to overcome the four to five hundred insurgents involved, who had demanded that Saudi Arabia isolate itself culturally and politically from the West, remove the royal family, expel all Westerners and stop selling oil to the US. Before the battle ended, women among the insurgents shot the faces off their dead male comrades to stop them being recognised. It was the first fortnight of the new Islamic year, the year 1400, the dawn of Islam’s 15th century. The rest of the world was still operating according to a different calendar.

Actually, an Arabist explained to me the significance of 1400 AH well before 911, as well as the fact that century years are often felt to be pregnant with meaning in Islamic culture in a way that Christian century-years typically have not been. My recollection is that I then turned the discussion to the eschatology of Tim McVeigh.

What I gather from this review is that the proposals for disengagement and accommodation made by people as different as Patrick Buchanan and Michael Scheuer are not so much misguided as irrelevant. Surrender is impossible, not because the terms would be so onerous, but because they are incomprehensible.

* * *

More than one old Cold Warrior felt rejuvenated by Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent performance at the Wehrkunde (Defense Study) Conference in Munich, an annual event for NATO diplomats to which the Russian president had been invited as a further step in the integration of Europe. Tod Lindberg of The Washington Times has this account of what Putin actually accomplished:

He clearly relished the platform, and with a little prelude in which he said he welcomed the opportunity to speak without "excessive politeness," he launched zestily into a denunciation of the United States and the Atlantic alliance... by the time he finished, an audience that was largely prepared, [despite] misgivings [about civil liberties in Russia], to welcome him warmly and to embrace his unprecedented accession to participation in the Western security dialogue was instead knocked back and reeling....[it] brought a troubled partnership back together, not in opposition to him, but in support of common values that he quite flamboyantly doesn't share.

The Realist School of foreign policy is composed of people who yearn for diplomacy to be about ordinary big-power deterence again; they want the UN to be taken seriously as the chief public forum (though not the ultimate arbiter) of international disputes; they never want to hear the terms "religion" and "geopolitics" in the same sentence again. The Realists are not delusional; there really are aspects of the international system that can still be thought of in this way. Events like the Wehrkunde Conference must give them hope that reality is reasserting itself. I fear, though, that the conference may have been rather like the funeral of Edward VII in 1910: a fine display of monarchy at the last moment before the institution was revealed to be an anachronism.

* * *

Speaking of anachronisms, Mark Steyn might agree with the view that the American political class has joined their number:

[Hugh Hewitt]:...Let’s turn to the debate in Congress. First of all, the news this afternoon, Mark Steyn, is that the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq was wounded, his name is Abu Ayub al-Masri, and his second in command, Abu Adawa al-Majahami was killed today. Muqtada al Sadr has bugged out to Iran, and the security situation in Baghdad appears to be calming.

[Mark Steyn]: Well you know, this is the stuff that matters if you’re in Iraq. The President gets no credit for it over here, because the war has in effect departed the physical constraints of Iraq, and is essentially now being waged for political considerations in Washington. And no news is good news, and sadder news is badder news, basically. I mean, the New York Times had this ludicrous piece yesterday arguing that the departure of Muqtada al Sadr for Iran could leave a power vacuum in Iraq that would be filled by even more extreme forces.

As I have said before, no outcome in Iraq will be counted as a success by the mainstream media and elements of the political class if the Bush Administration would get the credit for it. If the situation in Iraq finally crystalizes in a positive way, the issue will be methodically forgotten.

In any case, Steyn has further harsh words: :

This is simply a political class that is unworthy of a serious power. And it is difficult to see how this idea of discussing Iraq as if it’s some kind of board game about…it’s like the McGuffin in a Hitchcock movie, it’s merely the pretext for a lot of domestic political positioning. It’s not. It’s a real country, and it’s a real war, and it ought to be discussed in those terms.

If they are unworthy of it, then they will lose it. Already, I think, they have jumped the shark. The problem is that President Bush jumped the shark long since, with the attempted appointment of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. He will not benefit from Congress's impending discomfiture, or even from his government's increasingly effective diplomacy.

I would not have thought it possible, but the late Bush Administration is starting to look like the crepuscular last two years of the Hoover Administration.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-14: Happy Non-Existence; Who Lost Britain; AH Mag; The Longer Boom; Carl Sagan; God & Logos


I would have definitely read this magazine.

Happy Non-Existence; Who Lost Britain; AH Mag; The Longer Boom; Carl Sagan; God & Logos

This study may have implications as unnerving as a trapdoor, if you think about it:

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is the worst country in the industrialized world in which to be a child, the United Nations Children's Fund ( UNICEF) said on Wednesday...Britain lagged behind on key measures of poverty and deprivation, happiness, relationships, and risky or bad behavior, the study showed.

It scored a little better for education but languished in the bottom third for all other measures, giving it the lowest overall placing, along with the United States.

Children's happiness was rated highest in northern Europe, with the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark leading the list. ...The study found there was no consistent relationship between a country's wealth, as measured in gross domestic product per capita, and a child's quality of life.

The Czech Republic, for example, achieved a higher overall ranking than economically wealthier France....

Colette Marshall, UK director of charity Save the Children...said "drastic action," including an injection of 4.5 billion pounds, was needed to meet a government target of halving the number of children in poverty by 2010.

I am as opposed to neglecting children as the next guy is, but may I point out that this ranking of child welfare correlates inversely with fertility rates? It does not do so perfectly: France has a somewhat higher fertility rate than Britain does, for instance. Nonetheless, the countries singled out for the best treatment of children all seem to be on a glide-path to extinction. Could it be that one effect of "halving the number of children in poverty" would be halving the number of children?

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has broadened his area of concern to include the zombie menace. "Who lost Britain?" Indeed.

* * *

Is the United States no longer a status quo power? That is one way to read this assessment from Spengler at Asia Times:

Some years ago I suggested that option theory offered insights into geopolitics. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the spoiler, seeking advantage from instability, while the United States sought to maintain stability. In financial parlance, the Russians were long volatility; they stood to exercise their political options opportunistically, and the more chaotic and uncertain the state of the world, the better for Moscow. For the past 20 years, though, it is Washington that is long volatility; in the absence of a contending superpower, instability frightens all contending parties into seeking help from Washington. The more unstable and uncertain the world, the stronger the position of the United States. Whether or not the US recognizes this is beside the point; the fact that President George W Bush has made a dog's breakfast of Iraq makes America's world position stronger.

If so, then what are we to make of these further observations?

A friend in financial markets observes that the world appears to be safer than at any time on record, judging by the cost of insurance against economic disaster...

Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard observes that world markets anticipated the outbreak of neither World War I nor II.

This is just another example of the return of the Long Boom mentality. Regarding the most recent Davos meeting, for instance, Richard Landes quotes a report on the many meetings about climate change, but notes this:

And apparently, no one mentioned global Jihad, which puts “real war” in the shade for its wide range of fronts and tactics.

The Eloi never know what the Morlochs are up to, until dinner time.

* * *

Sometimes I think it would be more fun to publish a little magazine than to write articles for one, but look at the kind of ideas I come up with. [see the post header for JJR’s magazine cover -BE]

* * *

I was always a great fan of Carl Sagan. I was never put of by his occasional effusions of agnosticism. Like many agnostics of high general intelligence, he did not realize that he did not know enough theology to make a serious critique of it. Unfortunately, his widow has seen fit to publish a compendium of this weakest aspect of his legacy:

“The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God” (Penguin). The book is based on a series of lectures exploring the boundary between science and religion that Dr. Sagan gave in Glasgow in 1985, and it was edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and collaborator....

It was Ms. Druyan’s impatience with religious fundamentalism that led her to resurrect Dr. Sagan’s lectures, which were part of the Gifford Lectures, a prestigious series about natural theology that has been going on since the 19th century.....

Ever the questioner, Dr. Sagan asks at one point in his lectures why the God of the Scriptures seems to betray no apparent knowledge of the wider universe that “He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is” allegedly created. Why not a commandment, for instance, that thou shalt not exceed the speed of light? Or why not engrave the Ten Commandments on the Moon in such a way that they would not be discovered until now, à la the slab in “2001: A Space Odyssey”?

There are many reasons why religious people in recent decades have tried to edit the physical science taught in the schools, but one of the chief reasons was the efforts of popular-science writers to present their own metaphysical views as the results of modern science. Creationism is nonsense, but no greater nonsense than Stephen Jay Gould's postmodern biology.

The late Cold War did not always see Sagan at his best. His Nuclear Winter hypothesis has not held up very well, either.

* * *

Vox Day does know enough theology to rise to the level of refutable error, or so I would characterize this exercise in walking the plank:

If I am correct that my God is the Creator God, that we are all his creations, then killing every child under two on the planet is no more inherently significant than a programmer unilaterally wiping out his AI-bots in a game universe. He alone has the right to define right and wrong, and as the Biblical example of King Saul and the Amalekites demonstrates, He has occasionally deemed it a moral duty to wipe out a people.

The argument about whether God is arbitrary is not new, but it is currently topical. Benedict XVI took the other side of the question in the Regensburg Address:

Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the [logos]". This is the very word used by the [Byzantine] emperor [Manuel II]: God acts, [su 'n logos], with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist.

Actually, I am inclined to think that Benedict is wrong when he says that the rationality of the logos is incompatible with violence under any circumstances. (And yes, anyone can disagree with the address, since Benedict was speaking as a speculative theologian, not ex cathedra.) However, the point is that reason belongs to the divine substance; it is not a mere creation of the divine.

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The Long View 2007-02-09: Steyn on D'Souza; Hillary v. Rudolph; Climate Crimes; Mystery History

Mette Frederiksen, attacking immigration from the Left

Mette Frederiksen, attacking immigration from the Left

It is a real pity that John J. Reilly didn’t live long enough to see President Trump. As a longtime Jersey resident, I’m sure he would have had opinions. Here is a funny bit on Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton:

My own suspicion is that Senator Clinton's candidacy is a media artifact that will disintegrate on take-off; about that we will see. As for Rudolph Giuliani, I am pretty sure that he is too much the New York exotic to succeed nationally. Certainly he is an unusually bad fit for the Republican Party.

Rudolph Giuliani did not save New York City singlehandedly, but he was the most effective big-city mayor during the second half of the 20th century. However, the sort of infrastructure and institutional collapse that Giuliani set himself to reverse is precisely the sort of thing that the post-Reagan Republican Party is designed not to see. Today, on the national level, both the unravelling of the health-insurance system and the loss of control of the borders are issues of the sort that New York City faced when Giuliani became mayor, and both health care and immigration are losers for the Republicans. Why is this? Because the expensive, labor-intensive, highly detailed governance that Giuliani provided is what is needed to address those issues, and that sort of governance has been declared impossible by modern conservatism.

What appeal the Trump campaign in 2016 had was achieved by making inarticulate noises in the direction of what John suggested here: pick a couple of issues that could be popular and propose a big government solution. Populist-style campaigns all over the Western world have been going in this direction. Some of them are more successful than others.

Steyn on D'Souza; Hillary v. Rudolph; Climate Crimes; Mystery History

Mark Steyn has reviewed Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home. The remarks that I quote here more or less match some observations in my own review of that book, which I promise readers will see as soon as I am at liberty to post it. In any case, Steyn here takes issue with the proposition that the Islamists were incited to attack the United States by recent American debaucheries:

Where I part company is in his belief that this will make any difference to the war on terror. In what feels like a slightly dishonest passage, the author devotes considerable space to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual progenitor of what passes for modern Islamist “thought”. “Qutb became fiercely anti-American after living in the United States,” writes D’Souza without once mentioning where or when this occurred: New York in the disco era? San Francisco in the summer of love? No. It was 1949 – the year when America’s lascivious debauched popular culture produced Doris Day, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and South Pacific. ...The reality is that Islam sees our decadence not as a threat but as an opportunity. For the west to reverse the gains of the cultural left would not endear us to Islam but would make us better suited to resisting its depredations. We should reject Britney because she’s rubbish not as a geopolitical strategy.

D'Souza's argument has the most force in the context of the use of transnational institutions to impose a cultural revolution for which there is no global consensus. Nonetheless, I think that the more transgressive features of American popular culture really are a strategic liability.

* * *

Speaking of things that children should not see, Peggy Noonan's latest column meditates on the prospect that the 2008 presidential race will be between Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate and Rudolph Giuliani as the republican. Given that choice, Noonan clearly prefers the latter:

But it is significant that in Mrs. Clinton's case, for the past 30 years, from 1978 through 2007--which is to say throughout most, almost all, of her adulthood--her view of America, and of American life, came through the tinted window of a limousine. (Now the view is, mostly, through the tinted window of an SUV.)

From first lady of Arkansas through first lady of the United States to U.S. senator, her life has been eased and cosseted by staff--by aides, drivers, cooks, Secret Service, etc. Her life has been lived within a motorcade. And so she didn't have to worry about crime, the cost of things, the culture. Status incubates. Rudy Giuliani was fighting a deterioration she didn't have to face. That's a big difference. It's the difference between the New Yorker in the subway and the Wall Street titan in the town car.

My own suspicion is that Senator Clinton's candidacy is a media artifact that will disintegrate on take-off; about that we will see. As for Rudolph Giuliani, I am pretty sure that he is too much the New York exotic to succeed nationally. Certainly he is an unusually bad fit for the Republican Party.

Rudolph Giuliani did not save New York City singlehandedly, but he was the most effective big-city mayor during the second half of the 20th century. However, the sort of infrastructure and institutional collapse that Giuliani set himself to reverse is precisely the sort of thing that the post-Reagan Republican Party is designed not to see. Today, on the national level, both the unravelling of the health-insurance system and the loss of control of the borders are issues of the sort that New York City faced when Giuliani became mayor, and both health care and immigration are losers for the Republicans. Why is this? Because the expensive, labor-intensive, highly detailed governance that Giuliani provided is what is needed to address those issues, and that sort of governance has been declared impossible by modern conservatism.

* * *

What fun the era of Climate Dread promises to be, if we may judge by this retort from Jonah Goldberg to Ellen Goodman:

[Stupid, illogical, disgusting] are just some of the words that come to mind from this passage by Ellen Goodman:

I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.

No, Ellen. Let's not just say that. Denying that the industrialized mass-murder of millions actually happened isn't really quite the same thing as refusing to believe global warming is real....I know people who don't believe global warming is happening and let me just say they aren't the same people and to equate them with Holocaust deniers is a reprehensible attempt to dehumanize opponents in an argument.

It is a mistake to attribute the collapse in the last few weeks of all political resistance to the idea of anthropogenic global warming to the triumph of pseudoscience among the elites. For one thing, the science is not all that pseudo; the burden of proof really has flipped. The interesting point, though, is that global warming is popular, in the sense that people find the idea intuitive. In that it resembles global nuclear war, which was blowing up Earth and many other planets in science fiction for decades before the politicians finally bowed to popular demand and built the necessary infrastructure.

Nonetheless, I view these events with a measure of frustration. As I have no doubt mentioned before, in the late 1980s I tried to sell the management of Warren, Gorham & Lamont on a new publication dedicated to reporting on new laws and regulations related to climate change. The audience would have been local environmental agencies and the environmental bar. The reporter would have covered debates on the subject at the national and international levels, of course, but until laws were passed at those levels, the reporter would focus on local environmental initiatives, with a view to encouraging the standardization of local regulation. I acknowledged that this was all a little speculative at the time, but the market was certain to grow, and it would be an advantage to be first in the field. The weather itself would sell it for us.

That reporter was a good idea. It was just 20 years too early, if indeed it is not too early still. This has been typical of my experience of prescience. People are often right about what will happen, eventually. Getting the clock-time right is another matter. Perhaps it's one of those quantum-nonlocality things: you can send information as fast as you like, provided it doesn't mean anything.

* * *

And why am I waxing mystical? I just finished reading a review copy of Endless Things, the final book in John Crowley's Aegypt series. Actually, I just finished a review; that is another which I am not at the moment at liberty to upload. Until I can, here are some thoughts from a Crowley character on historical causality. They occur to him in Prague in 1969, as he looks up at the window from which the famous Defenestration of Prague occurred in 1618, and from which a Czech patriot was martyred in 1948:

Defenestration. Kraft looked up with the others. It was as though the sources of certain events lay not in their antecedent causes but in mirror or shadow events that lay far in the past or in the future; as though by chance a secret lever on a clockwork could be pressed that made it go after being long still, or as though a wind blowing up in one age could tear off leaves from trees and bring down steeples in another.

Is this helpful? Possibly not, but it's a lot of fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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

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

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

Max Beckmann – Descent from the Cross 1917

Public domain in the US

Otto Dix – The Trench 1923  Public domain in the US

Otto Dix – The Trench 1923

Public domain in the US

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

George Grosz – The City 1916 -1917

Public domain in the US

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

Glitter & Doom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Admit it - you really hate modern art

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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

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

Groundhog's Day

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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

The High Altar survived the fire just fine

The High Altar survived the fire just fine

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

  1. A Culture Worth Dying For

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

  2. Culture War and Foreign Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Auster is of similar mind:

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Medieval indeed.

* * *

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

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

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

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

The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust

The Vril Society

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

PuR * PrR = Kt

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

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

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

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: We All Fall Down

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

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

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

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

Pierre Téqui‏ @Pierretequi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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

The end of low mass stars

The end of low mass stars

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

  1. It is often confused, at best

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about the moon, you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Bush Pushes Health Care Plan

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

This is beyond satire.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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

Senator James Webb  By United States Senate -, Public Domain,

Senator James Webb

By United States Senate -, Public Domain,

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

The State of the Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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