The Long View 2004-05-04: Crimes & Mistakes

Institutional stupidity

Institutional stupidity

While John was a booster of the Iraq War and George W. Bush, he didn't waste any words condemning Abu Ghraib in 2004.


Crimes & Mistakes

Here is what Victor Davis Hanson had to say yesterday about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Graib Prison:

The guards' alleged crimes are not only repugnant but stupid as well. At a time when it is critical to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a few renegade corrections officers have endangered the lives of thousands of their fellow soldiers in the field...Yet without minimizing the seriousness of these apparent transgressions, we need to take a breath, get a grip, and put the sordid incident in some perspective beyond its initial 24-hour news cycle.

No, let us not put it in perspective. This incident shows that, down in the sightless ooze where military police couple with military intelligence, it is taken for granted that the best way to prepare detainees for questioning is to put them through the hazing rituals of some nightmare fraternity. Maybe that is the best way, but I doubt it. More likely, what we have here is a manifestation of a deeply stupid institutional culture. Is it any wonder that US military intelligence fails and fails and fails?

* * *

Speaking of stupidity, note today's feature article in Opinion Journal condemning Senator John Kerry's anti-war activism. Entitled "Unfit for Office," by another Vietnam veteran, one John O'Neill, who identifies himself thus:

Like John Kerry, I served in Vietnam as a Swift Boat commander. Ironically, John Kerry and I served much of our time, a full 12 months in my case and a controversial four months in his, commanding the exact same six-man boat, PCF-94, which I took over after he requested early departure.

The piece criticizes Kerry's record as an anti-war activist; O'Neill also criticized Kerry 30 years ago, when Kerry was the chief national spokesman for anti-war vets. Whatever merit O'Neill's accusations may have are immediately undermined by the subtitle for the article:

I was on Mr. Kerry's boat in Vietnam. He doesn't deserve to be commander in chief.

That sounds as if O'Neill had served with Kerry, but readers need only glance down to the body of the text to see that is not true. The Opinion Journal editors may be responsible for that. Editors can be even stupider than intelligence officers.

* * *

Here's a tip for real estate speculators who want to get in on the ground floor of an overlooked market:

Antarctica is likely to be the world's only habitable continent by the end of this century if global warming remains unchecked, the Government's chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, said last week...Sir David said that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - the main "green- house gas" causing climate change - were already 50 per cent higher than at any time in the past 420,000 years. The last time they were at this level - 379 parts per million - was 60 million years ago during a rapid period of global warming, he said. Levels soared to 1,000 parts per million, causing a massive reduction of life..."No ice was left on Earth. Antarctica was the best place for mammals to live, and the rest of the world would not sustain human life," he said...Sir David warned that if the world did not curb its burning of fossil fuels "we will reach that level by 2100."

Again, I'm as fascinated by climate change as the next guy: global warming is popular, in the sense that people find it intuitively plausible. Still, projections like this tend to discredit the whole subject.

* * *

As for discrediting things, a correspondent sends this link to a long essay by Lyle Burkhead, entitled squelch:

Mariane Pearl was widowed after terrorists likely linked to Al Qaeda murdered her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, in February 2002...But unlike the thousands of family members of victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Pearl is ineligible for the funds set aside in the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund...Now she is taking her case to Capitol Hill, arguing that a new law should be passed so that she and her son Adam, 2, can receive compensation. Pearl is not alone as some families of victims of other terror attacks also make the case that the fund should be broader...Applications to the fund from families of non-Sept. 11 terrorism victims, including Pearl's, have been rejected. Families of victims in the USS Cole, Khobar Towers and Oklahoma City bombings have all asked about their eligibility.

The Victim Compensation Fund was created to preserve (1) the entire airline industry; (2) everyone who ever had anything to do with building or operating the World Trade Center; [3] the world's re-insurance market; and (4) the high-rise construction industry, which would have closed down if tall buildings could no longer be insured.

Yes, it was about money. The tort system had to be closed down, because the disaster was too big. The question of responsibility for the disaster is irrelevant. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2004-04-30: Some Protests

I find myself sympathetic to John's advocacy for English spelling reform, but this is one of those ideas that just cannot gain any traction at all.


Some Protests

With suitable adjustment for local topography, every child has been asked some version of my father's oft-repeated question: "And if your friends jumped off the top of the Empire State Building, would you do that too?" And any reasonable child would answer that question with a "yes." What brings this to mind is the publicity for two upcoming disaster films. Film producers seem willing to keep each other company, no matter the genre.

One actually takes the form of a miniseries about a West Coast earthquake, to begin airing on NBC on May 2. It has attracted some unfavorable comment, such as Scientists, Government Decry NBC Miniseries '10.5'. Several major quakes are likely in various parts of the West Coast at no distant future, but not even all together would they do the Godzilla-level damage that this series depicts.

Actually, I have already seen some of the promos for the series. The special effects are good of their kind; the landmarks collapse quite balletically. There are two problems, though. The first is that the destruction will have to be interrupted now and again by acting, which is unlikely to be as interesting. Second, I saw quite enough surreal destruction on 911. I marvel that anyone would make a film built around images of collapsing buildings.

Earthquakes are one thing; floods and blizzards are another. The special effects and premise are far more clever in the climate-disaster film that premiers on May 28, The Day After Tomorrow (which is not to be confused with The Day After, the 1983 TV movie about a nuclear war). The film features a climate flip that goes from explosive global warming to sudden glaciation. The film has been portrayed as a political issue, because the mere mention of global warming is supposed to cast the Bush Administration in a bad light. I suspect, though, that it would be easier to make a political point by portraying a less catastrophic future. People can identify with a weirdly hot summer. In contrast, a picture of snow up to the 20th floor of the Chrysler Building is just art.

I noticed an odd point about the film's website. There are language options in Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, and Portuguese. However, for English, there are two choices: "English" and "English Outside North America." This was, presumably, intended to accommodate the minor spelling differences between American and British English. (Those Canadians who prefer the British conventions must shift for themselves, I suppose.) There are also two options for Spanish. The odd thing is that there is only one option for "Chinese," which really does have two orthographies. The choice between them is a political and cultural signal.

* * *

Speaking of orthographic reform, readers will be pleased to know that this year's Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee will be picketed by the Simplified Spelling Society and the American Literacy Council. (I am actually a member of the board of the latter organization, but I am chickening out on the picketing.)

This has been done before. It's not so much picketing as gentle lobbying for spelling reform. Again, I find the argument for reform unanswerable. There is something deeply flawed with an orthographic system that's whimsical enough to be a competitive sport. The protesters take care not to discourage the kids. The spelling-bee participants have a working knowledge of etymology and phonetics that would be a credit to any philologist. The problem is that kids should not have to know a lot of implicit philology to write their own language.

* * *

Why do we still read The New York Times? Well, you have to read some national paper every day. Major newspapers are important because they tell you things would not have thought to ask. The modern habit of focusing your news intake with agents and filters is stultifying. The Times is still a useful source of general information. However, the fact is that, these days, I read it for much the reason I used to listen to Radio Moscow in the 1960s: to see what the Politburo wants you to think.

In the April 29th issue, for instance, there were two stories, one under the other, on Page E1. One was about a television documentary that dealt, in the tone of revealing a scandal, with the role of religion in President Bush's administration. The caption was "Understanding the President and His God." The other story, the same size and immediately beneath the first one, was captioned "A Flimmaker Inspired by Lobotomy."

That is funny, but I don't think the Times understands who the joke is on.

* * *

This is not to say that religion does not merit a little razzing. Here's a good place to start: a coffee-table book about the the film, The Passion of the Christ, with Mel Gibson himself listed as the author. How long until the action figures are on the market, I wonder?

* * *

Readers have emailed me to ask what I mean by saying that nanotechnology is a category mistake. An example is this recent story about a "chemical computer." Actually, it's an enzyme-DNA ensemble that shows promise as a way to deliver anti-cancer drugs very precisely. This looks like an important development. However, I don't quite see how it makes things clearer to call these molecules "computers." This is chemistry, not mechanical engineering. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2004-04-27: The Darwin Award Ceremonies

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote just this week that the birth rate in the United States now stands at lowest level ever recorded. It turns out the anti-natalist political program branded as reproductive rights has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its creators. Like many such things, it has also taken on a life of its own, following its inexorable logic to its end. As much as proponents of cognitive bias would like to say that humans are largely irrational, we have an alarming tendency to follow ideas to their logical conclusions, even if said ideas have only been adopted as a measure of political expediency.

The interaction here is particularly interesting. The process by which ideas take hold of us and make us their own isn't often rational, in the sense commonly meant, but the process is rather predictable for all that. Scott Adams has made a name for himself outside of Dilbert in the recent presidential campaign by looking at the ways in which polls turn on matters that turn out to be quite persuasive, despite not necessarily making any sense.

The thing that gets me is that Adams is resolutely uninterested in things like Plato's Republic, which is the textbook for this. 


The Darwin Award Ceremonies

I have yet to find a non-partisan account of Sunday's (April 25) March for Women's Lives in Washington. Estimates of the turnout run from 300K to 750K, depending on whether the source was hostile or favorable. It seems safe to say that, for a march that was supposedly in support of reproductive rights, an awfully large percentage of the marchers were far beyond the age of reproduction. Many accounts, and not just the hostile ones, stress the large gay turnout. Despite the perhaps ancillary nature of reproductive issues to gay organizations, this was not surprising: gay groups in large metropolitan areas are now the Usual Suspects who turn up for every demonstration.

One could go on about the merits of what these people were interested in. However, might I suggest here that the march represents a cultural moment that is becoming simply anachronistic? As a matter of history, the reproductive rights movement began during the late Baby Boom as a strategy to encourage population control. Progressive opinion had it that some degree of coercion would eventually be needed, as we see from the first edition of Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb (1968). The foundations concerned with these questions were as surprised as the public at large when the courts proved amenable to constitutionalizing the issue.

The origins of institutional feminism and of the attempt to normalize homosexuality are complicated, of course. Nonetheless, it is not a complete distortion of the record to say that they are both based on "anti-natalism," which seeks to separate sex as far as possible from reproduction. Gay marriage might, in fact, be considered the final flower of a cultural complex of which abortion is the root.

Frankly, this whole business has become a luxury that the developed world can no longer afford. Readers will know that I am not unduly put out by demographic trends that predict the death of the West. Reversal is the movement of Tao. It's a sure as anything can be that those trends will turn around. It's just as sure that the ideologies that promoted them will evaporate. They will not be refuted. They will be forgotten.

* * *

Speaking of ideologies that will be forgotten, there is an interesting article in the May issue of First Things, entitled "How Richard Rorty Found Religion." I can't say that I have read much by Richard Rorty. In the few items I have read, he seemed to be one of those people who will never, under any circumstances, allow a line of thought to take him someplace unexpected. To me, at least, this misses the point of thinking. The article, by Jason Boffetti of the Catholic University of America, records yet another of Rorty's philosophical conversions.

Rorty was once a Platonist, who turned to analytic philosophy, but then emerged from that cocoon as a postmodernist. In that incarnation, he was a cheerful pragmatist. He spent a lot of effort arguing that the good society and the moral life do not require a metaphysical foundation, and especially not a religious foundation. Rorty is a Red Diaper Baby, and like many such people, the fear of religion has been one of the constants of his career. However, for pragmatic reasons, he has come to realize that it is true that America is a "nation with the soul of a church," and that there is no hope for the progressive left if it does not appropriate America's "civil religion."

He has a very minimal definition of religion: religion is our "final concern." He is willing to look for American civil religion in familiar places, such as the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, or the poetry of Walt Whitman. The one place he is not willing to look is to the doctrines of actual religions. His hostility to the transcendent remains unabated:

Whether or not one agrees with the earlier Rorty that metaphysics can be dispensed with entirely in the political sphere, the later Rorty has clearly brought metaphysics back into public discussion. He insists on a "fact of the matter" about the nature of our universe and our place in it -- that there is no God and that all we have is one another -- and he seeks to establish, in patently religious terms, a public-spiritedness that comports with this "fact."

In short, Rorty proposes to unify the public and private sphere under a metaphysical notion. The clear implications of Rorty's religious turn is that when orthodox theism conflicts with the American civil religion of democracy, traditional religious belief must yield or risk public approval and a range of possible, though as yet unnamed, threats.

Rorty's philosophy sounds a great deal like the air-head metaphysics that suffuses the majority opinions in Supreme Court decisions like Casey (abortion) and Lawrence (sodomy). One suspects it would have found wide acceptance among the gammers who turned out for the March for Women's Lives. The philosophy, like many of the marchers, has claimed to be new for 30 years. In fact, it's long past it's "Best Use" date.

* * *

Far be it from me to suggest that religion per se is a good thing; not when there is Islamicism to destroy. Some helpful hints about how to accomplish this can be found in the writings of a columnist for the Asia Times, who calls himself Spengler:

The West cannot endure without faith that a loving Father dwells beyond the clouds that obscure His throne. Horror - the perception that cruelty has no purpose and no end - is lethal to the West. Europe is dying slowly from the horror of the 20th century's world wars, ending the way T S Eliot foresaw.... "not with a bang but a whimper". Despite its intrinsic optimism, America is vulnerable as well.

The Islamic world cannot endure without confidence in victory, that to "come to prayer" is the same thing as to "come to success". Humiliation - the perception that the Ummah cannot reward those who submit to it - is beyond its capacity to endure

I think that analysis is right on the nose. I would add one qualifier: Islamism will destroy any region it comes to control. It's own victories will destroy it. 

On the subject of post-humanism and death cults, I got around to seeing Kill Bill, Volume 1, over the weekend. It was mesmerizing, but I'm not sure it was a movie.

You know Marshall McLuhan's old distinction, between "hot" media (which impose their messages on the audience) and "cold" media (which require a high level of audience engagement to make sense)? Print is a cold medium in this dichotomy, but then so is television. Movies, in contrast, are supposed to be hot. Well, that's as maybe, but it seems to me that characters in most stories are "cold," in the sense that you have to empathize with them to understand what they are doing.

Kill Bill, Volume I did something I would not have believed possible: the key characters radiate behavior like light bulbs, and so are impenetrable to the light of empathy. They aren't really people.

There are a few exceptions, such as Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba), the sword maker. Actually, the long anime sequence was more like a human story than were the scenes with live actors. Narrative animation consists of humanizing conventions, for the most part. Too much abstraction, and you're just watching a kaleidoscope.

C.S. Lewis sometimes speculated about entities that would be biologically homo sapiens, but that would not be human. Kill Bill, Volume I pulled it off. It was Animal Planet with people.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

 

The Long View 2004-04-23: Cracking Ice

Rumors of the demise of the North Korean system were clearly exaggerated. Kim Jong-il made it another 7 years after this 2004 news item.


Cracking Ice

Accounts of yesterday's train disaster in North Korea are proliferating and inconsistent. (So is the romanization of the place where it occurred: "Ryongchon" or "Yongchon.") Earlier accounts say that the trains in question contained LNG and petrol. Later ones say explosives. In the explosive-laden versions, the trains either collided, or the explosives were set off by overhead electrical wires while the explosives were moved from one train to another. Total fatalities may be about 50, or 150, or that may just be for the people in the rail yard, with the final total about 3,000. None of these accounts is authoritative, including the ones from the Red Cross.

President Kim Jong-il's movements are generally secret, but he is believed to have passed through the station in question about nine hours before the explosion, returning from his recent summit meeting in Beijing, which is not believed to have gone well for him. This occasioned speculation that the disaster may have been a failed assassination attempt. The New York Times, which favors the petrol & gas theory, suggested another possible connection:

The fuel trains may have been payment to Mr. Kim for traveling to Beijing last week to meet with Chinese officials. In recent years, South Korea and China have routinely made large gifts to North Korea: either fuel, fertilizer, food or cash to ensure that bilateral meetings take place.

This explosion of rumor in an vacuum of hard information is reminiscent of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986. Because the government of the USSR initially tried to cover up or minimize the event, there were rumors (as I recall) that 50,000 people could have received lethal doses of radiation. Immediate casualties seem to have been in the dozens rather than hundreds, but perhaps 200,000 had to be evacuated, and there was a chronic uptic in thyroid cancer rates.

The Chernobyl incident marked the beginning of the end of the USSR. It did not seem so at the time, however. Then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev used the occasion to reverse the USSR's traditional "bad news is no news" policy, as part of his larger program of glasnost ("openness") and market reform. These were universally seen as rational and humane policies. Some people predicted that the USSR would blow up if the level of repression decreased. Hardly anyone foresaw that the union would simply fall apart in five years.

This sequence of events is unlikely to recur in North Korea, but it's about time for something to happen.

* * *

Speaking of harbingers for the future, one notes this bit of unwelcome news from Capitol Hill:

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said it is time to think about compulsory military service again -- with American forces stretched thin by fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq -- but he stopped short of actually calling for resumption of the draft.

I am at a loss to understand what conscription would be supposed to accomplish at this point. Conscription made sense when "the army" meant masses of riflemen: the cannon-fodder military that appeared with the French Revolution. All specialties are so technical now that the brief training regimes of conscript militaries, as we know from the European countries that still have them, are little to the purpose. Moreover, combat arms is fairly selective. Even people who want a draft to make the military unusable would accomplish nothing more than to create a voluntary combat elite within a summer-camp system.

Regarding the argument that America's elite are shirking the risks of military service, who constitutes "the elite" in civilian life? Few Harvard graduates these days have military experience, perhaps, but businesses looking to hire executives are far more impressed by a military commission on a CV than they are by an MBA.

* * *

Meanwhile, Congress is thinking about what to do should a decapitation attack on Washington succeed:

[One] bill, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (search), R-Wis., would require the holding of special elections within 45 days of the speaker's announcement of "extraordinary circumstances" that include more than 100 vacant seats in the 435-seat House...Democrats who oppose the Sensenbrenner bill as inadequate are angered by what they say are GOP-imposed limits on their ability to present alternatives, such as constitutional amendments to recognize temporary appointments as a way of preventing congressional paralysis...Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., also has proposed amending the Constitution so that each general election candidate for the House or Senate would be authorized to name, in ranked order, three to five potential temporary successors.

To this I say (as perhaps I have said before): instead of special elections, why not draft ordinary citizens to sit in Congress until a special election can be held? We do it for trial juries and grand juries. That would be a more meaningful way for the political class to mix with ordinary citizens than would sending them all off to boot camp together. In ancient Greece, remember, elections were thought aristocratic; democrats preferred to select decision makers by lot.

* * *

Finally, on the subject of postmortem disposition, I have become a great fan of the Kingdom Hospital series on ABC. This is an adaptation by Stephen King of a Danish television series. King was inspired to write it by his own stay in a hospital: he was hit by an SUV while walking along a road in Maine, which is what happens to a character at beginning of the series, too. In real life, the driver of the car was later found horribly and mysteriously murdered in his trailer home. In the series, the driver just fell off a roof. I'm not making this up

The series has a cleverly understated website here. Actually, it is so understated that casual websurfers may not get the joke, which seems to be the problem with the series in general.

One quibble: did I mishear the television, or does the script confuse All Souls' Day (November 2) with all Saints' Day (November 1)? Maybe that's what you get for not just using Halloween as the date of the fire that killed those innocent children so many years ago. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2004-04-19: Delusions of Utility

I never liked the second and third Matrix movies much, but I did appreciate that the movies were sufficiently high concept to introduce a lot of otherwise uninterested people to philosophy. My main objection is the that the idea so many people were introduced to is Gnosticism.

Now that the Wachowski brothers have turned into the Wachowski sisters, the Matrix reminds me of Steve Sailer's idea that for some science fiction enthusiasts, the idea of changing your gender is less about feeling like a little girl on the inside, and more about bending nature to your will.


Delusions of Utility

 

Considering the UN's record in administering the Oil for Food program in Iraq, the organization's chief officials should probably be grateful they cannot be prosecuted by the state and federal district attorneys for Manhattan. Actually, mere corruption may be the least of the UN's problems. Consider this expression of self-delusion that appeared in yesterday's New York Times, under the headline Recast in Key Iraq Role, U.N. Envoys Are Wary:

Edward Mortimer, a senior aide to Secretary General Kofi Annan...contrasted the recent calls for assistance from President Bush with the disparagement he said the United Nations had become used to from the administration. "It's quite nice when you've been generally dissed about your irrelevancy and then suddenly have people coming on bended knee and saying, 'We need you to come back,' " he said. "On the other hand, it's quite unnerving to feel you're being projected into a very violent and volatile situation where you might be regarded as an agent or faithful servant of a power that has incurred great hostility."

In the buildup to the Iraq War, President Bush did not simply declare the UN irrelevant. He did say that it risked irrelevance, if it did not participate in the liberation and reconstruction of Iraq. The UN seems determined to take the president at his word.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the Times editorial page, Thomas Friedman was having this epiphany about the Bush Administration's approach to foreign policy:

 

At first, I thought I'd write a column that just ripped President Bush ...[but] I decided what I really wanted to say was this: I'm fed up with the Middle East, or more accurately, I'm fed up with the stalemate in the Middle East. All it has produced is death, destruction and endless "he hit me first" debates on cable television. Arabs, Israelis, Americans -- everyone is sick of it.

So now President Bush has stepped in and thrown the whole frozen Middle East chessboard up in the air. I don't like his style, but it's done. The status quo was no better.

Friedman was speaking in particular about Bush's declaration that the Israelis would retain some large settlements as part of a general agreement with the Palestinians, but the assessment refers to the the Middle East in general. Note that the column was written before the assassination of Hamas leader

I think that Friedman misunderstands the Bush Administration. The Bush people are not the sort who "roll the dice" and hope for improvement. These folks are not adventurous. Both on foreign and domestic issues, they generally have quite specific goals. The decisions that look like gambles are really steps in a larger strategy, steps that they take even if the strategy does not seem to be going well at the time. They may drive into a brick wall. On the other hand, this is the only way to pursue controversial projects that take years to complete.

* * *

Speaking of projects that take years to complete, over the weekend I rented the DVD to see The Matrix Revolutions (Widescreen Edition).

Probably I would have to be more of a student of film to properly appreciate this movie. Given the state of my knowledge, however, I was reminded chiefly of the Woody Allen film, Annie Hall. As in Annie Hall, it seemed as if there was just one conversation running through all the Matrix films, which different characters picked up and passed along.

Matrix Revolutions had much better special effects than Annie Hall, of course. The Matrix animations, in fact, can be compared to Richard Wagner's music, which is said to be much better than it sounds. The animators and computer people who were interviewed in the special features on Disk 2 succeeded in communicating their enthusiasm to me. The problem was that their masterpiece, the 17-minute robot-versus-human battle called "The Siege," was too complicated to see.

Actually, the movie's credits seemed to me to hint at a whole new genre. The entire population of Australia east of Alice Springs seem to have been involved in making this film. Their names clumped in patterns that hovered at the edge of intelligibility as they rolled down the screen. The serial-music score swelled and diminished in harmony with the density of the names. It was genuinely eerie.

All three films were chock-a-block with theology and philosophy. The image I most remember was the interface that Neo spoke to in the robot city. It looked very much like a "monstrance," a roughly cruciform display case that holds a consecrated Host at the intersection of the arms. One could go on.

On a philosophical level, I was struck by the answer that Neo gave to Agent Smith in the watery crater, when Smith demanded to know why Neo continued to fight in a meaningless reality. Smith was the avatar of analytical nihilism; he was asking Neo for a metaphysical foundation. The answer Neo gave, "Because I will to," or words to that effect, was Kant's answer. Kant said that only in the act of willing does the noumenal meet the phenomenal, and we know we are not deceived. Also: Neo, like Kant, believed that radical freedom is not formless freedom; Neo was free for something, not just from something. Nietzsche pointed out that Kant's ideas about the logical constraints on freedom have no power to bind, but that's another movie.

An interesting point: in any other film in the history of science fiction, the robot civilization would either have won (Colossus: The Forbin Project) or been defeated (to make an unreliable estimate: about 15% of all Star Trek episodes). In Matrix Revolutions, the humans and machines made peace. Essentially, the machine world was accepted as a supernatural.

Frankly, I had wondered how all those millions of pod people were going to manage if they all woke up in their vats with tubes sticking into them. Now we see that "only those who want to" will leave the Matrix. This does smack of Gnosticism: and worse; a sequel. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hegemony and the Left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

 

The Long View 2004-04-14: Failed Campaign

Actually, al-Mahdi is like Jesus in Christian eschatology, in that he is the one who will reorder the world in complete justice.


Failed Campaign

The events on the ground in Iraq are progressing as well as can be expected for that difficult enterprise. The long-expected Islamist attempts to foment civil war have occurred. The situation could change within hours, but it looks as if the Coalition has successfully called the bluff of the anti-democratic opposition. That does not mean that the anarchy will suddenly stop, but that the opposition to the Coalition program for Iraq will abandon it as their chief political tool.

The campaign that seems to be unraveling is the one to use foreign policy to undermine the Bush Administration. Consider this editorial in today's New York Times:

Happily, President Bush finally held a prime-time news conference last night. Unhappily, he failed to address either of the questions uppermost in Americans' minds: how to move Iraq from its current chaos, and what he has learned from the 9/11 investigations...But his rhetoric, including the repetition of the phrase "stay the course," did not seem to indicate any fresh or clear thinking about Iraq, despite the many disturbing events of recent weeks...The second issue that has overwhelmed the nation in recent days is the 9/11 investigating commission.

There is a serious disconnect from reality here. The nation was not "overwhelmed" in recent days by testimony before the 911 Commission. The press coverage was overwhelming, but the public took little note. Despite the generally anti-Administration reporting slant, the hearings seem to have helped Bush rather than otherwise. There are several reasons for this, but the upshot is that Richard Clarke is the most unsuccessful media creation since Ja Ja Binks.

As for the Times editorial complaint that the president merely declared that he would stay the course, you wonder whether the editorial editors read their paper's own news analysis in the same issue:

He could have simply talked Tuesday evening about the crimes of Saddam Hussein or the fear that chaos in Iraq would breed terror in one of the most volatile corners of the world.

But he did far more, reaching for the kind of language about America's moral mission in the world that seemed drawn from the era of Teddy Roosevelt, whose speeches he keeps on the coffee table of his ranch in Texas. He described an America chosen by God to spread freedom. He never used the word "crusade," which touched off a firestorm of criticism in the Muslim world when he uttered it soon after Sept. 11, 2001. But he described one.

Lyndon Johnson used to declare crusades, too. George Bush, however, is willing to actually conduct one. The political class should be giving thought to what would happen if the Bush plan for the Middle East succeeds.

* * *

Meanwhile, my opinion of Democratic challenger John Kerry has gone up. He has scrupulously avoided giving aid and comfort to the surrender wing of the Democratic Party. No one, reading his prudently sparse comments about the current situation in Iraq, would gain the impression that he plans a withdrawal. Nonetheless, whether because of political necessity or conviction, much of what he does have to say about Iraq is manifest nonsense:

DURHAM, N.H. (Reuters) - Democratic challenger John Kerry said on Monday Washington needed to "de-Americanize" the transformation of Iraq by replacing U.S. administrator Paul Bremer with someone like top U.N. aide Lakhdar Brahimi...

"He's one of the most skilled and capable people with respect to Iraq and the Middle East," Kerry said. "He can talk to all the parties. He would be a perfect example of somebody whom you could ask to really take over what Paul Bremer's doing, de-Americanize the effort and begin to put it under the United Nations' umbrella."

President Bush, in last night's press conference, mentioned the role of the UN in Iraq, too, but only as an arbitrator. Kofi Anan has pointed out that the country is too violent for the UN to administer. In a situation like this, for the US to ask the UN to take a larger role would be like leaving a message for help on your own answering machine. To put it another way: the US and the UN are both international utilities. The US sometimes represents the world in a more realistic sense than the UN could.

* * *

Also, the UN, or elements of the UN system, display symptoms of chronic delusions of grandeur beyond anything that emanates from Washington. God knows why anyone would want to know the religious opinions of the transnational class, but these people persist in organizing conferences to foment global religious unity. Maurice Strong and Ted Turner make a particular nuisance of themselves by funding and organizing these events.

I mention this because I recently reviewed a book, The Coming World Civilization, written by William Ernest Hocking about 50 years ago. The theological reasoning was all worked out, even then. I am still trying to figure out why I had not run across Hocking before.

* * *

Speaking of the political appropriation of religion, one of the things to keep in mind about Moqtada al-Sadr is that he is leading an apocalyptic movement. Here's what a couple of Usual Suspects had to say about the matter on last night's PBS News Hour:

JUAN COLE: Muqtada al-Sadr leads a sectarian group within the Iraqi Shia who expect the end of the world, the coming of the promised one any moment...

REUEL GERECHT: I'm a little bit skeptical that you can buy out some of those folks. I think particularly with the Dawa Party and the Islamic -- and the Sadriyyun I'm not sure poverty is the driving force behind them. I do believe they in fact do have a millenarian impulse. Eventually we may have to deal with them in a fairly forceful way.

Al-Sadr's militia is called the Mahdi's Army, and of course the Mahdi is an endtime figure. The name means, "the divinely led one" or "the inspired one." The Mahdi is more a figure of Shia than of Sunni Islam. Being the Mahdi is not like being Jesus (Who, by the way, is expected in most Muslim eschatological scenarios to be the Judge of the Last Judgment). In more accounts, the Mahdi's career is interrupted by the eruption of ad-Dajjal, an Antichrist-like character. Ad-Dajjal is normally expected to be an apostate Muslim, but apocalyptic scenarios tend to accommodate themselves to events.

By the way: Najaf is repeatedly compared by commentators to the Vatican, at least as far as the Shia are concerned. May I point out that, back when the pope had armies, the Vatican was frequently attacked and occupied, generally by Catholics?    

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

 

The Long View: The Coming World Civilization

William Ernest Hocking

William Ernest Hocking

The most interesting idea to come out of this book by William Ernest Hocking is the 'unlosables', those aspects of a culture that persist even when the society that created them falls into decay. It the unlosables that we speak of when we refer to the Greek or Roman heritage of the West. In many ways, Western Civilization has very little in common with Classical Greece or Rome. The Roman ideal of justice, for example, would be seen as unspeakably brutal by nearly everyone in the United States or Western Europe. Yet, there is a certain something that we do share, that has outlived its creators by millennia.

Hocking wanted to sift out what is unlosable in our civilization. John wasn't entirely sure he got there, but it is much harder to evaluate our own selves in such a way.

There are a couple of really striking paragraphs here:

First, from Hocking:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.
“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

And next, from John Reilly:

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

These two ideas have stuck with me for a very long time. Perhaps not unlosable, but pretty good. I shan't speculate what might fit that requirement; the only way I know to identify them is after the fact. If you could identify these ideas in advance, that Golden Age scifi conceit of truly scientific social science might become a reality.

Richard Dawkins' memes have not proven to be particularly useful as scientific concepts, but Hocking's unlosables seem to share a family resemblance to memes. In an analogous way to how genes outlast the species in which they evolved, unlosables can persist when a culture has been entirely eliminated from the Earth.  More's the pity that Dawkins never read anything by a real philosopher, it might have helped him shore up his most distinctive idea.


The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking
Harper & Brothers, 1956
210 Pages

 

 

This book is about just one feature of the hypothetical coming world civilization: the nature of the religion that civilization will need to undergird it. The gist of the answer is that Christianity is best suited for that role, but a Christianity stripped of mythology, and reconceptualized in existential terms. The book's argument has many similarities to esoteric Tradition, but is devoid of reference to the modern esoteric writers.

William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) chaired the philosophy department at Harvard University around 1940; Alfred North Whitehead was a colleague. This book is influenced by the Harvard pragmatists friendly to theism, William James and Josiah Royce, whose careers at Harvard ended about the time Hocking's began in 1914. However, Hocking wrote “The Coming World Civilization” when Toynbee was in flower. That was the last time, before the 1990s, when people were inclined to speculate about universal states, the role of religion in world order, and the conflicts among civilizations. Already in 1956, Hocking was trying to view the modern era as a whole, and to imagine what would come after it.

Hocking does not trouble to argue for the inevitability of a world civilization. He simply notes that, though civilizations rise and fall, they never fall below the starting point of the last rise. Civilizations create “unlosables,” technologies and ideas and ethical principles, which become part of the ever-increasing common heritage of the race. Mechanically, the world was already unified by the middle of the 20th century. The problem Hocking addresses here is that a world civilization, like any other civilization, needs something more than a common technology, or even a common politics:

“[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art – the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command.”

Hocking's description of the limits of the competence of the state is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that he takes propositions as self-evident that neoconservatives were just beginning to articulate thirty years later:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Many Traditionalists, however defined, foresee that the modern age will not last forever. Often they see it as a total loss, and they cannot wait for it to be over. Hocking, too, looks for the end of modernity at no very distant date. (The nearly 50 years since the writing of this book are still no great distance in history.) His endeavor, though, is to discern the “unlosables” that modernity has achieved, and to separate them from the characteristic faults of the era.

Modern individualism, in Hocking's estimation, is one such advance. Unfortunately, it is tinged by the malady of meaninglessness. Because of Kant and Descartes, it has a subjective base, which serves to separate the individual from any greater whole from which meaning might descend.

The problem of modern individuality is solipsism. It cannot be remedied by a retreat to pre-modern religion, not if we are to preserve the depth of modern subjectivity. (The loss of which would mean what? A world without autobiographical novels?) Rather, we must pass straight through modernity, to the other side. The key to that is the recognition that each subject has a common experience: the Thou-art relationship.

The “thou” here is not just other people, but also the experience of a world. A world is far more than a mere collection of experiences. It is coherent in the way that our experience of other people is personal. In fact, the world is personal, if not quite a person. As for the “selves” in this world, we must recognize that we know other selves in much the way we known our own thinking self: the self is a concept, never a matter of direct perception.

The experience of the Thou is the foundation of science, which is identical to the intuition of the existence of God:

“All this is wrapped up in the spontaneous impulsive summoning of one's will to think, the simplest and most general response to the presence in experience of the universal Other-mind.

“The strength and persistence of that response is seen in the corporate and historic edifice we call 'science,' a building surely not made with hands.”

The religion of the coming civilization will mend the link between the modern soul and the Absolute. At any rate, it better. Modern subjectivity and science are among the unlosables. They will become universals. The problem is that, in the West, these advances were predicated on specific motivations and a characteristic morale; the advances meant specific things, and Western civilization developed the reflexes to deal with them. These predicates are not found in other civilizations. If subjectivity and science are not incorporated into a spirituality, the result will be incalculable. That is why Christianity is most likely to play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era: the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

Consider, for instance, the most extreme view of 19th-century science, that the world is nothing but dead matter. Hocking calls that “the Night Vision.” He also argues that it is a great moral achievement. Western science is based on the virtues of humility and austerity: humility before the facts, and the rejection of extravagance in the making of hypotheses. Francis Bacon said: “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” Science is the willful suppression of self-will. Only thus could the will of God be known, as manifest in the created world.

Hocking also points out that only the purposeless physical world revealed by science could morally become the object of human purpose. Opening the world to human exploitation is another real advance.

The science of Christendom naturally pushed toward autonomy, toward a system of the physical world in which God does not interfere. The tension between this science and the religion that created it haunts modern man, but it is a fruitful tension. Religion rests on a broad empiricism, which understands that the world transcends scientific questions, but which does not challenge science within its own sphere. Much of the modern malaise comes from false science, which tries to put forward metaphysical propositions about meaning and truth for which science offers no warrant.

In Western history, as the arts and sciences were freed from religion, they curbed and instructed Christianity. By removing the historical and cultural excrescences that had made Christianity specifically Western, free thought is making Christianity universal. Christianity is not going to lose its particularity, or the marks of its history. However, if it is to play a universal role, it must be purged and purified and simplified enough to represent universals to the whole world.

Christianity, Hocking assures us, is a religion of induction. This is how Jesus could say that love of God and love of neighbor are the whole of the Law and the Prophets. There are, of course, particulars of Christian ethics, which are often paralleled in other traditions: kindness to enemies; the need for rebirth; the injunctions, not just to do certain things, but also to feel in a certain way. However, this can all be summed up in the Great Induction: “He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

Christianity is not a sacrifice, then, but the will to create through suffering. Its moral code is inseparable from a worldview in which the most real is the all-loving.

Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. Thus, the will, particularly the will to futurity, is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer. Similarly, the sense of sin is direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand.

Assume that the Christian movement succeeds in purifying itself to its simple essence. It would thereby cease to be specifically Western, and so more fitted for a universal role. But what would the religious system of the coming world civilization look like?

The key is that a universal system can affirm some things without necessarily rejecting everything else. Hocking assures us there is an intuitive recognition of mystic by mystic across the boundaries of the great religions. Thus, the great religions are already united at their summits. This is far from saying that every religion is essentially the same, or that one is no better than another. Indifferentism, relativism, and syncretism betray the search for truth.

The historic faiths will survive in the world civilization, but will not seek to displace each other. Rather, they will share a “reverence for reverence.” The struggle against idolatry will continue, but within each religious tradition, not between them. In much the same way, nations in the coming civilization will retain their value and historical mission. A spiritually and culturally homogenous world would be a nightmare.

* * *

Readers will have gathered that, to some extent, this book is a period piece. At least in the field of religion, I have encountered few other works that appealed so strongly to the authority of experience, while insisting so hard that experience must behave itself. Quite aside from Hocking's unconsidered dismissal of the supernatural as conventionally understood, there is something odd about his tendency to equate “mysticism” with the existentialist's intuition of Being. Agony and ecstasy, much less flaming chariots and the dread of Hell, seem to play no part in the spirituality of the world civilization. Hocking is aware of this himself. He expresses the hope that the East might add healthy fanaticism to the West's maturity. The problem is that all this rather misses what religion means to people at all levels of sophistication.

Hocking's account of Christianity as a system of inductions is fascinating, but it's not Christianity. People bother with Jesus because of the Atonement; Christian ethics is simply a radiation from that core. The ethics is not, frankly, all that interesting. In the early 21st century, a stripped-down form of Christianity does in fact bid fair to become a universal religion, but it has less to do with existentialism than with Pentecostalism.

Nonetheless, this book is full of wisdom. It gives a satisfactory, if not wholly unchallengeable, answer to the problem of solipsism. That “quiet music in the back of the mind” (I think of it as a prosaic hum) that William James described as the everyday sense of the presence of God may not be the Beatific Vision, but it is not a bad place to begin theological inquiry. There is nothing wrong with a phenomenological approach to the spiritual life. That is what John Paul II has been up to all these years.

And what about the central questions of the book? Does a world civilization require a world religion? Can this religion be unified at the top, in the sphere of religious genius, while the spiritual life of ordinary mankind continues in its colorful variety? No, not if the religion is God's doing. God doesn't start at the top. You can look it up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking

The Long View 2004-04-09: Good Friday

The best thing I can say about this post from twelve years ago is that almost nothing has changed in that time.


Good Friday

Let us begin with the Stations of the Cross. For our meditations, we will use the lyrics to Fires (Which Burned Brightly), by the old art-rock group, Procol Harum (all rights reserved):

This war we are waging is already lost
The cause for the fighting has long been a ghost
Malice and habit have now won the day
The honours we fought for are lost in the fray
Standards and bugles are trod in the dust
Wounds have burst open, and corridors rust
Once proud and truthful, now humbled and bent
Fires which burnt brightly, now energies spent
Let down the curtain, and exit the play
The crowds have gone home and the cast sailed away
Our flowers and feathers as scarring as weapons
Our poems and letters have turned to deceptions

Now snap out of it. Pull yourself together. In a few days, we will see that the tomb is empty.

What we are seeing in Iraq now is not a general uprising, or even a coup d'etat, though the latter seems to be what Moqtada al-Sadr intended. What we are seeing is another eruption of the lawlessness that met the Coalition forces when they arrived in Iraq. No alternative to the Provisional Government is on offer. Neither is there much prospect of a national guerrilla underground. Casualties in the current disturbances are more like those from a riot than from a war. That includes Falluja, where damage and casualties do not compare with the urban fighting during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. It will be seen, presently, that the opponents of the Coalition and of the nascent Iraqi government have done their worst, and their worst is no great shakes.

One could argue that the same was true of the Tet Offensive, which began on January 31, 1968. In that case, too, the offensive was a military failure. The Viet Cong never entirely recovered from it. However, public morale in the United States collapsed in the aftermath. That was partly because of the way the offensive was presented by the news media, but chiefly because the US government itself was shaken. Lyndon Johnson soon announced he would not seek reelection. The US theater commander was fired. American policy thereafter was to fight for a draw, and the North Vietnamese knew it.

George Bush and their Administration have their faults, but lack of resolve is not among them. They have a virtue: they won't try to compromise with people who can't be trusted to keep an agreement. Those are the essentials.

This is not to say that victory in the Terror War is assured. Only the tried-and-true method of assuring civil peace in the Middle East could do that: slaughter civilians in their thousands and tens of thousands, until the feuding communities are stunned with horror. The great Islamist bombings of civilians in the West are simply another expression of that political culture. That is not all there is to the societies of the Middle East, however. Shia Islam in particular has resources that could support a humane politics, if only a space is available where those resources can develop. That space can and will be created. Whether anything will grow in it in the long run remains to be seen.

* * *

Another factor is that patience with Islam is wearing thin in the West, even in the most unlikely places:

[In March], the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, formerly a preacher of multiculti boilerplate and now morphed into a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy...said in a speech in Rome that Islam is "authoritarian, inflexible and under-achieving". Taking no prisoners, he drew attention to the "glaring absence" of democracy in most Muslim countries and suggested that they had "contributed little of major significance to world culture for centuries."

This could be part of a larger trend in Britain toward, well, Britishness:

Britain's race relations chief Trevor Phillips was attacked by politicians, community leaders and commentators yesterday after he called for the country to abandon its attempts to be more multicultural. In a newspaper interview the head of the Commission for Racial Equality said that 'multiculturalism suggests separateness' and added that the UK should strive towards a more homogeneous culture with 'common values ... the common currency of the English language, honouring the culture of these islands, like Shakespeare and Dickens'.

The interesting thing is that the man who said this was not actually lynched, or at least not by the time of this writing.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the US, the engines of social deconstruction grind on. There is, for instance, a serious move afoot to allow non-citizen aliens to vote in New York City elections:

At first glance, it may seem a long shot in an era of orange alerts and stepped-up border patrols. But quietly and carefully, elected officials, labor unions and community groups are starting to push the notion of allowing legal immigrants who are not United States citizens to vote in New York City elections....

A stumbling block was removed this year when lawyers for the City Council reviewed state election law and decided that the city could alter its voting statutes without the approval of the State Legislature, where noncitizen voting measures were introduced without success three times during the 1990's...

"In many ways, this prepares people," said Gouri Sadhwani, the executive director of the New York Civic Participation Project, one of the groups pressing the issue. "They start local, and then they become citizens and vote in national elections."

That last comment is, of course, simply wrong. An alien franchise would not prepare resident aliens for participation in national life. It would make it possible for them to forgo participation in national life entirely. It would be fatal to assimilation, since the local institutions that have traditionally Americanized immigrants would be controlled in part by people with no interest in assimilation. For three decades, the opponents of assimilation have busied themselves institutionalizing multiculturalism. Except for the scandal of bilingual education, these efforts have for the most part been harmless rackets. We can no longer take that attitude, however. Multiculturalism has become a national security threat.

New York City politics is a universe unto itself; though I live just across the Hudson, I cannot gauge what chance this measure has. If it became the law in New York City, it would quickly become a national issue. Once that happens, America as a whole will shout it down. If the state government does not forbid alien voting, then Congress will. The text of the Constitution may suggest that this sort of thing is a state matter, but the area of voting rights has been federalized so extensively that such an objection can no longer stand. God help the Supreme Court if it finds otherwise.

* * *

The citizenship issue could follow a trajectory like that of the gay-marriage campaign: both involve basic institutions that were being successfully undermined, until the underminers broke into daylight. It is, perhaps, no accident that the most honest proposal to abolish marriage also comes from New York City:

The same-sex marriage controversy took a new and dramatic turn [in early April] as one of the state Legislature's few openly gay members proposed abolishing marriage altogether in New York. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) said she would introduce legislation today to remove all references to marriage from the state Domestic Relations Law and replace them with the term "civil unions."

This is the direction in which progressive family law has been moving for years. The program has been effectively implemented in parts of Europe, the dying continent. It's more a symptom than a cause of morbidity, but it does make recovery more difficult.

* * *

Speaking of Good Friday, I was greatly surprised to see that expert opinion on the Shroud of Turin has undergone another revolution. According to the PBS series Secrets of the Dead, the Shroud probably is a first-century Palestinian artifact. That unpleasantness with the radio-carbon dating a few years ago was the consequence of choosing a dirty corner to test.

I would still want to see another carbon-14 test on the Shroud. I also want to see a test on the Sudarium, another supposed piece of burial clothes. It has stains that allegedly match those on the Shroud, and it is reliably known to be at least as old as the eighth century.

In any case, the question now appears in a different light.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

LinkFest 2016-07-29

Man Who Doxxed Dozens Of People, Engaged In Nineteen 'Swattings', Nets Only One Year In Prison

I don't think I know enough to really have an opinion about appropriate sentencing for this, but it does *seem* a little light.

A Reason for Optimism

Source: Meyer and Sullivan (forthcoming)

Source: Meyer and Sullivan (forthcoming)

This is a fascinating look at patterns in consumption over the past 50 years, and how the gap between rich and poor looks a little different when you look at consumption measures instead of income. I looked at the draft paper in order to understand exactly what was being measured. To my outsider's eye, consumption is primarily spending, with some adjustments like amortizing the value of a car over its lifetime instead of accounting for it all when it is purchased, to reflect the value gained by using the car. When you look at it this way, the difference between the spending habits of the top 10% and everyone else in the US has not really changed much in the last 30 years or so. Part of the reason for this is transfers and subsidies from safety-net programs are not usually reflected in income measures.

Tyler Cowen's Great Stagnation

A nice summary of the idea that economic progress in the West has stalled.

The Terror of Sierra Leone

I came across this while reading a story about the trainer jets Nigeria uses to bomb Boko Haram. War is hell, and especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This is as horrible as war gets.

 

The Long View 2004-04-05: Mullah John Belushi

Muqtada al-Sadr

Muqtada al-Sadr

I don't know enough about Muqtada al-Sadr to have a real opinion, other than to say he is still influential twelve years later. I do know that Shia clerics like al-Sadr often study Aristotle and Plato, and that gives us something in common.

I also picked the first reasonable looking picture that came up on Google image search. The poor guy isn't always angry.


Mullah John Belushi

Moqtada al-Sadr is the sort of fellow who gives mad mullahs a bad name. He's pudgy; he glares at cameras from under a beetling brow; he reminds everyone of these characteristics by encouraging his followers to carry oversize pictures of him. He also seems to be fatally stupid. He's holed up in a major mosque, surround by an army of fanatics sworn to defend him to the death. Doesn't this guy know that extracting people like him from situations like that is what Special Forces were created to do?

I am sure you can follow the news as well as I can, so I won't clutter this comment with links. No doubt you have seen this note from the Iraqi blogger, Zeyad, which mentions, among other things, that Sunni hardliners are resisting al-Sadr's Army of the Mahdi. One hopes that this incident will concentrate the Sunnis' minds about what would actually happen to then if the US leaves prematurely. Dan Rather just looked earnestly into my eyes from the television screen and repeated unconfirmed reports that the uprising is being aided from Iran. If that's true, and the US makes a fuss about it, it could could backfire on the Persian reactionaries. There is also this bit of encouraging news: Dan Schorr on NPR's "All Things Considered" this evening used the term "quagmire." He has a history with that word, but maybe he has become so venerable that his editors hesitate to remind him of it.

The thing to keep in mind is that the uprising is happening at more or less a time of the Coalition's choosing. Al-Sadr would have done more to prevent a democratic transition than could the Sunni-based insurgency. Despite the fact the Shia establishment wants him gone, it would have been too much to ask of a transitional government to arrest him or to control his cult. It's never good when a situation arises in which hundreds of people could he killed. Still, what is happening now is by no means the worst that could have happened.

* * *

As we see from the Spanish experiment, surrender doesn't help. Despite having just elected a Quisling (or dhimmi?) government, the country is now met with fresh demands from the terrorists. An offensive planned for Holy Week-Easter Week by the terrorists may have been blunted by the explosion of a bomb factory; it's a shame that a Spanish policemen was killed in the incident.

Nonetheless, I see that anti-terrorism demonstrations in Spain still often have a "No Blood for Oil" theme. It still hasn't sunk in: the blood will flow whether the oil does or not.

* * *

Let no one be in any doubt about the superiority of American stupidity, however. Consider these excerpts from an Op Ed in USA Today: U.N. record in Iraq is strong:

There has been much discussion lately about the "scandal" of the U.N.-run oil-for-food program. The Iraqi Governing Council charges that hundreds of Iraqi officials, foreign companies and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein skimmed 10% or so from the humanitarian contracts...But let's be realistic. Iraq's economy plummeted from $60 billion a year in output to $13 billion. That's what brought about the terrible impoverishment...Though the U.N. is not yet involved in rebuilding Iraq, the U.S. is. But is its track record so much better? Have we forgotten that massive no-bid contracts were handed out to U.S. corporations such as Bechtel and Halliburton?...The U.N. is the better choice for nation-building with integrity and competence.

For some people, the UN is becoming what socialism used to be: not an institution, but a desire. Like the desire for ice cream, there is no argument against it. In fact, it's worse than ice cream, since there is no international equivalent of frozen yoghurt.

* * *

Does anyone keep track of the exotic weapons that may be headed for Iraq? There's the laser-armed humvee, for instance. That's for engineers to explode mines from a distance; it's not artillery. It sounds like a good idea, but it seems stuck in development.

Closer to being used is a horrible screaming-banshee machine called the Long Range Acoustic Device. It is supposed to be nonlethal. That's an improvement, I suppose, but I would not want to be in the first crowd on which it is used. I would say the same of the pain-inducing directed energy weapon, which is known to be in the works. I can't find links to it, oddly enough.

* * *

Much nonsense has been written about the role of religion in the current Bush Administration. George W. is more religious than his own father, perhaps, but not more than Bill Clinton, who goes through life with the manipulative, but real, piety of an Elmer Gantry. Be that as it may, some hostile critics say that Bush is motivated by the Armageddon scenario of the Left Behind series; others accuse him of aiming to legislate Biblical law, after the manner of the Reconstructionist movement.

Such gossip has enlivened many a wine-and-cheese party. However, as Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College recently noted, these imaginary horribles are mutually exclusive:

But there are major disagreements between [the Left Behind series and Reconstructionism], especially about eschatology -- that is, what the Bible teaches about the way human history will end. And those differences lead to very different ideas about how politics works and what it is for.

[Premillennialist] eschatology is, generally speaking, the default position for those who occupy the fundamentalist corner of the evangelical world. To be sure, many readers of the "Left Behind" books may enjoy the story without believing that LaHaye and Jenkins have rightly calculated every detail. But they will probably share the premillennialist view that human societies will not exhibit moral progress, but will deteriorate until the only option for redemption is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory, which will usher in the Millennium, the "thousand-year reign" of God. (What happens after that is disputed and complicated. Let's just say that eventually God wins.)

Reconstructionists...by contrast, generally don't believe in a Millennium in LaHaye's sense, and are pretty confident that Jesus isn't going to show up any time soon to rescue us. In fact, it is precisely because they don't believe in an imminent Second Coming that Reconstructionists are so determined to use Biblical law as the foundation for civilization. They'd like to build a world that Jesus would want to return to.

These comments are correct, but I would add something. Apocalyptic eschatologies often do describe history as a tale of degeneration, but there is a history of them adding brief periods of hope before the final crisis comes. That happened in the Middle Ages with the evolution of the legend of the Emperor of the Last Days. The Mahdi doctrine, found in some schools of Islam, is remarkably similar. Structurally, the Pretribulation Rapture itself fits in just this place on the timeline.

There is zero evidence of any of this in the Bush Administration. However, some such thought does seem to have occurred to Pat Robertson. The classification of eschatological ideas is necessary, but misleading. The end of the world is a felt necessity, like the the return to the tonic in music; but the music is jazz.   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2004-04-02: Innoculation

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment trends in newspaper publishing and other media

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment trends in newspaper publishing and other media

The process, predicted by Glenn Reynolds in National Interest in 1994, of altering the nature of journalism is now quite advanced. The prevalence of both still and motion cameras in nearly everyone's hands has certainly altered content production, since nearly every news item is now accompanied by cellphone video. From the BLS data in the chart above, newspapers have experienced a considerable drop in employment since 1994, almost 300,000 jobs. 

Reynolds prediction that the gatekeeper role of television and newspapers would disappear is probably half true. Lots of people get most of their news from the Internet now, but the survivors of the brutal consolidation process seen in the chart still are pretty influential. In the US, this would certainly include The New York Times, and NPR. Each of these organizations still produces a lot of news, and are still seen as authorities. Each one has a liberal flavor in US terms, but on the whole they both maintain their integrity, although at least in NY Times you need to get pretty deep into the article before anything interesting comes out.

A downside to the fracturing of the media market and consolidation among the survivors is you have fewer and fewer people doing the same work. According to John Schindler, foreign bureaus have often been cut, leaving only a few reporters on site to pass news into the system, which is then passed around by the Associated Press or other news sharing organizations.


Inoculation

You have to wonder: if the Madrid bombings had not just happened, would the American public have been so willing to take the desecration of the merceneries' bodies in Falluja so much in stride? Those video images from Iraq were far worse than anything that came from the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. When pictures of the Black Hawk pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu appeared on television, the morale of the media immediately collapsed, along with whatever support remained for the humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Today, some commentators seem eager to collapse again, but most don't, and neither does the general public. This is partly because a consensus has quickly developed that the fall of the Aznar government in Spain was a new Munich. Even public figures who were not very keen on the Iraq War to begin with accepted this view. What happened to those contract guards was just as gruesome as what happened to the Spanish commuters, but few people seem willing to suggest that now America should do what Spain did.

Something else that the public seems to be taking in stride is the 911 Commission testimony of Richard Clarke. Though his memoir, Against All Enemies, has become a must-read (or at least a must-own) among the political class, by most accounts it contains almost no new material. The politically informed public understands this. The politically uninformed public, for their part, recognize a hypocritical campaign tactic when they see one. In fact, one suspects that it is cable-news shenanigans like this that persuades so many people that politics does not merit their full attention.

* * *

But what about the people who watch only entertainment programs, you ask?. The New York Times reports today that the scripts of ordinary television shows increasingly incorporate anti-Bush material:

I have never, ever seen this community more united than right now, never," said Laurie David [wife of Larry David, the star of an HOBO comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm"], who has been active in organizing the creative community against Mr. Bush. "Not a day goes by when I'm not getting a dozen calls from people saying to me, `What can I do?' And it's all with one goal: to change the course of what's going on in this country and get rid of this administration."

I can't confirm this from my own experience; my TV watching is shrinking to programs of the sort that feature Eliza Dushku. Even if it is true, though, this could turn out to be yet another case of the Entertainment Establishment being humiliated in public, as it usually is when it tries to influence politics. The Times article points out that much the same thing happened in 1992, when the entertainment industry gave its product a conspicuous spin in favor of Bill Clinton. That was a close election, and every little bit helped. However, the 1990s saws the explosion of talk radio, the Internet, and politically right-wing outlets on cable. Whatever happened in 1992 will not happen in 2004, at least not in the same way or to the same degree.

* * *

As for politics on the Internet, it has manifested a mischievous tendency to work not at all in the way that was expected. Glenn Reynolds, a.k.a. Instapundit, has this to say on the subject the the Spring 1994 National Interest, in the essay The Blogs of War

But it seems safe to say that prewar predictions that the Internet would be a force against war, and in favor of lefty, EU-style moral equivalency human rights advocates, turn out to have been partly right, but not in the way advocates seem to have thought. The Internet turned out to be a stronger force for human rights properly understood than for peace at any price, and the ability of people to use the Internet to bypass traditional organizations with different priorities has made a significant difference. This effect will probably grow larger over time. With the growing ubiquity of digital cameras (including digital video cameras) and broadband Internet access, the gatekeeper role of traditional news media, and other international organizations, is likely to disappear.

Many analyses of the cultural implications of the Internet, such as Erik Davis's Techgnosis and Michael Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy, have focused on the ability of the Internet to host what are almost parallel universes. Paranoids and conspiracy theorists have never had it so good. On the other hand, it does not seem to be true that the Internet is without a hierarchy of credibility. Every worldview may have started equal on the Internet, but webs of criticism and shared information soon developed. Instapundit in particular is one of the key nodes of a network of analysis and reporting that is, if anything, at least as intelligently critical as the world of major newspapers and public-affairs television.

That seems to be the real axis of evolution on the non-commercial Internet. Those parallel universes of conspiracy theorists increasingly look like isolated ecological niches. Strange creatures flourish in them, and the Internet allows many more people to visit them than would otherwise be the case. Still, those niches show little capacity to grow, or even change. When the creatures in them wander onto the main highways of cyberspace, they quickly become road kill.

* * *

On the subject of things that seem to alter very little, I got a sense of deja vu from this recent report about the Martian atmosphere:

A trio of research teams independently probing the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane have found it, a combined discovery that opens the door for a host of theories as to how the gas got there...Since methane has a relatively short lifetime on Mars for atmospheric gases, about 300 years or so, scientists believe there must be some process at work to keep replenishing its concentration in the atmosphere.

As we know, life stinks. The presence of highly reactive gasses, such as methane or oxygen, in a planetary atmosphere is good evidence for biology, if there is no geological explanation for it. There are other possible explanations for Martian methane. Inconspicuous vulcanism is one. Another would be carboniferous meteorites. I suspect, though I don't know, that the isotopic signatures of the carbon from these sources would be distinguishable. However, they can't be distinguished by using orbiters or terrestrial telescopes, which provided the data for these studies. We need a sample of the atmosphere.

The deja vu comes in because NASA announced, during one of the early Mariner missions I believe, that it had discovered methane on Mars, and that there was no explanation for it but organic decomposition. This discovery lasted only a few days; soon someone figured out that the instrument readings could also have been produced by dry ice and CO2, or something of that sort.

Again: are we really much further along than we were in 1970?

* * *

Not all precedents are unhopeful, however. Consider this rather hostile report, from The Washington Times, about the State of Maine's new health care system:

Other states have tried -- and failed -- to create universal health care. Now, Maine intends to show them how it's done. This summer, the state will begin enrolling people in its health care program, called Dirigo -- the state motto and Latin for "I lead." It is aimed at ensuring health care access for all 1.3 million residents.

It occurs to me that this is pretty much what happened with deposit insurance for banks. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states experimented with insuring the savings of depositors, but without much success. The insurance pools were not big enough, and the existence of insured and uninsured banks created a "moral hazard," whereby speculators put their money in insured banks with irresponsibly high returns. When the banking system collapsed nationwide during the Depression in the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration created national deposit insurance reluctantly, and almost as an afterthought. To everyone's surprise, a national system solved the century-old problem of unreliable financial institutions. I would not be at all surprised if something similar happened with health insurance.

* * *

And now for Art:

Easter is almost upon us, so I was asked to do yet another poster for the local Latin Mass group. You can find it here. Anyone is welcome, of course. There's coffee in the church basement afterwards.

Speaking of welcoming, I have made this animation using the picture on my website's top page. That's a 1.2 mb file, so be patient.

That animation will probably stay on my site, but the Easter poster will come down after a while: I need the storage space. Another item I am going to take down in the near future is this animated thank-you note I sent to a friend who sent me a Hellboy comic. No, I'm not interested in comics, but I may well see the movie.    

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: TechGnosis

Cyberspace, as envisioned in the 1990s

Cyberspace, as envisioned in the 1990s

I kind of miss the nineties cyberspace speculations like the book John reviews here. The Internet turned out to be far more tawdry and commercial than anyone thought twenty years ago. 


  TechGnosis:
Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
by Erik Davis
Harmony Books, 1998
$25.00, 368 Pages
ISBN: 0-517-70415-3

Hypertext occasions more than its share of hype. Even this excellent book, by an author who has written for a number of journals (“Wired” inevitably heads the list) on cyberculture and religion, contains this dismaying self-description:

“You may think you are holding a conventional book, a solid and familiar chunk of infotech with chapters and endnotes and a linear argument about the mythical roots of technoculture. But that is really just a clever disguise. Once dissolved in your mindstream, TechGnosis will become a resonating hypertext, one whose links leap between machines and dreams, information and spirit, the dustbin of history and the alembics of the soul.”

Mindstream indeed. However, once you get past occasional passages like this (as well as such subcultural oddities as “hack” for “invent” and “meat-space” for “the real world”), you will find that “TechGnosis” really does provide a fairly cogent account of the cultural effects of information theory. The Internet is only the most conspicuous such effect, and the author notes many other ways in which the “triumph of technique,” so deplored by Jacques Ellul, both antedated the Internet and provides the context in which it now operates. Nevertheless, the book may be most valuable for explaining why the wired world is so permeated by the weird triumvirate of libertarianism, neopaganism and paranoia.

“Gnosticism” has become a cussword, and the author is alive to the need to distinguish the capitalized “Gnosis” of late antiquity from the gnostic-like movements of the spirit that have appeared in more recent times. Still, on the Internet, this is surprisingly hard to do. Researchers into modern occultism have been astonished by the high percentage of their subjects who work in computer-related industries. More significant, though, is the fact that the Internet is a peculiarly apt medium for the expression of the gnostic impulse. Three things that gnostics have always desired is freedom from the constraints of matter, absolute personal autonomy and some species of immortality. Computers and the Internet provide a hope or a simulacrum of all these things.

The relation of the Internet to pure capitalism probably does not need a great deal of explanation. There, and maybe there alone, money really is nothing but pure numbers. However, the Internet also hosts its own peculiar ontology. For instance, extropians and transhumanists, the most enthusiastic supporters of artificial intelligence, are working on ways to upload the structure of their brains into computer networks when they die, thus becoming ghosts in the world machine. More prosaically, fantasy-game players and even casual websurfers often create durable online personalities for themselves. These “avatars,” as they are called, can interact in virtual worlds presided over by demiurge-like systems-operators (sysops). These worlds are normally constructed with an eye to sword-and-sorcery fiction, but they are also “magical” for the simple reason that language there really is performative: typing in a “spell” will invoke some “law” of the virtual world. This is the essence of magic, which the technology merely facilitates. Serious gamers, and the numerous serious ritual magicians (“chaos wizards”) who communicate online, do not strongly differentiate the online worlds from their own carefully-cultivated imaginations.

This degree of freedom from the human condition has its price. When matter and social norms become fetters that can be cast aside for brief periods, the question arises of who forged them in the first place and who maintains them now. This paranoia was characteristic of ancient Gnosticism, and it is typical of much of the Internet today. Rumors of all sorts spread instantly and universally, each depicting some yet more subtle strategy of oppression deployed by the dark controllers. In a purely mental world, after all, all control is thought control, so the conspiracy theories most characteristic of online culture tend to smack of the blackest spiritual wickedness.

Among the archetypical themes to which information culture gives new body, not least is the apocalypse. Teilhard de Chardin has become the patron saint of philosophers of the virtual world, for the excellent reason that his notion of a “noosphere” really does bear a striking resemblance to the Internet. (The fact that he shared Henri Bergson's doubts about the possibility of artificial intelligence is often overlooked.) Teilhard's theology of history has more than a little to do with the widespread belief that the virtual world is moving toward a Singularity in the next century that will absorb the material world and end history as we have known it. There are also many less cheerful apocalypses involving aliens and the traditional international cabals. On the other hand, of course, the online world is host to quite traditional forms of premillennialism. Indeed, though every variety of radical thought can be found on the Internet, I for one have long been struck by how conservative most of its content really is.

Erik Davis may be right in describing his book as “nonlinear”: certainly it does not have much of a thesis beyond the observation that information theory has provided yet another opportunity for perennial myths and ideas to manifest themselves. Still, although he gives reasonable play to postmodern analysis in his discussion, he also suggests, with evident relief, that its “biting half-truths” have about outlived their usefulness. While he anticipates some sort of historical discontinuity in the near future, TechGnosis is hardly a compendium of impending disasters. The theory of alchemy seems to serve the author as a theory of progress. Human souls, human societies, and of course the Internet itself are alembics of the Great Work of spiritual transformation. While not yet post-postmodern enough to predict a happy outcome, the book does end with this engaging if not wholly comforting image: “Prometheus is hell-bent in the cockpit, but Hermes has snuck into Mission Control, and the matrix is ablaze with entangling tongues.” 

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly
This review first appeared in the May, 1999, issue of First Things. 

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2004-03-29: Unexpected Storms

Richard Clarke comes in again for more aspersions from John. I'm not Clarke deserved this, but I suppose it doesn't matter much now, even though it would seem that Clarke was probably more in the right.

Of vastly more interest [to me] is John's reference to Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning. John was interested in models of history, as am I, and this work comes up again and again. I find John's review of the book endlessly fascinating, even as subsequent experience demonstrates that Strauss and Howe's generational model is far from perfect. Yet, for all that, it really does seem like they are on to something. [if recent events distress you, Strauss and Howe's model suggests the Crisis will not be fully resolved until 2025, so buckle up. We have another decade of this.]

It is easy to think of this as a really bad week, with racial unrest in the US from the killing first of blacks by police, and then the killing of police by blacks, followed by vehicular terrorism in Nice and a coup in Turkey. Probably it just is the way in which social media has only amplified and exaggerated the process by which rumors and bad news now spread. For example, look at this data collected by Gallup on American blacks' perceptions of police:

I honestly would have expected a bigger difference, with the focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, but this data highlights for me the way in which it is easy to exaggerate trends based on the news. More American blacks feel the police treat them unfairly than American whites, but there hasn't been a huge shift in that feeling in the last year. The linked Gallup article also contains a longer term data set, which does show a recent short term improvement in perceived fairness of police interactions with blacks, but also shows that American blacks are pretty dissatisfied with how the police treat them. If you hadn't already noticed that.

It is always worth looking at the data[and also worth making sure you know enough to interpret the data], which is why I follow an increasing number of quantitative social scientists on Twitter. There are parts of science suffering a replication crisis, and there are also parts that are not. I haven't yet delved into Peter Turchin's more quantitative take on models of history, but I think this is about the perfect time to start looking. 


Unexpected Storms

I have less and less patience with the Richard Clark[e] campaign against the Bush Administration. What we have here is a man who rose to national prominence overnight by accusing the Bush people, and Bush himself, of neglect of duty and even personal intimidation, but who now complains that the White House is trying to deflect attention from policy issues by attempting to assassinate his character. Clarke defines character assassination as comparing statements that he made in different forums. So does the Kerry campaign, which probably isn't a coincidence.

Nonetheless, one can still sympathize with Clarke's stint as a counterterrorism expert in the Clinton and Bush Administrations, both of which came into office with a pledge to think about foreign affairs as little as possible. That does not change the fact there is something terribly wrongheaded about what Clarke now represents. Barbara Amiel, writing in The Daily Telegraph, put it this way in a piece called Those Who Predicted Jihad Run Against the Wind:

If 9/11 can be reduced to being Washington's fault, the irrational hate and destruction becomes almost manageable. Change administrations, and the Islamists will go away. Such a seductive, comforting thought echoes in most political battles and elections today. The wind from the east blows gritty grains of fear and delusion into the West's eyes. One wonders apprehensively, which way the zeitgeist of this new millennium will turn. Worse, one fears the calamity that will really turn it hasn't happened yet.

That last point dovetails nicely with the argument recently made on Angst Dei, that Strauss & Howe's "Fourth Turning" has not even begun yet. That argument is, of course, a heretical departure from the one, true, interpretation of the Two Witnesses, but it is true that the will to self-delusion is no less strong today than it was on September 10, 2001. There really are people, lots of them, who think that the fundamental problem is the existence of criminal terrorist networks, rather than the ideological and political milieu from which they arise. Yes, you have to swat the mosquitoes, but there will be no peace until the swamp is drained.

* * *

That is not to say that the swamp is confined to the Middle East. Far from it, if you believe what Reuel Marc Gerecht had to say in the March 29 issue of The Weekly Standard, in the article "Holy War in Europe":

These young men are part of what the Iranian-French scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar has called the "neo-umma guerriere -- "the new holy-war community of believers" that recognizes neither national nor ethnic identity nor traditional Islamic values. Their Islam is "a new type of Nietzscheanism" where suicide and murder become sacred acts of an elite, a self-made race of believers who want to bring on a purifying Apocalypse.

At the risk of repeating myself yet again, this mix of ideas parallels point for point the ideology that Julius Evola put forward in Men Among the Ruins.

* * *

Speaking of the purifying apocalypse, fans of the Y2K bug will remember Gary North, a proponent of what is variously called Theonomy, Dominion Theology, or Reconstructionism. These models of history hold that the the world will be converted and reformed during the Millennium, at the end of which the Second Coming will occur. As with other forms of postmillennialism, North held that the millennial age will be more continuous than not with the current age. There may be disruptive events, but not necessarily "apocalypse" in the colloquial sense. North argued that there would be massive, but survivable, social disruption around the world because of the Y2K bug, which would be just the ticket to get the Millennium proper under way.

After the beginning of the new century, we heard rather less of Gary North. Now he's back, however, with a quickie ebook about the reception and social implications of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion. If you hurry, you can download The War Against Mel Gibson for yourself. Here's a bit of the Preface:

The Passion of the Christ is the most important recent event in the history of the American culture war. The Left went after Gibson and the movie early, but their efforts have backfired. The extent of that backfire is huge. It is possible – I believe highly probable – that this movie will mark a turning point in the culture war...Is The Passion the first step in a systematic, comprehensive counter-attack by Christians in a cultural war that Christians have been losing for almost a century? I think this is the case. So does Hollywood and Hollywood's cheerleaders in the media. This is why they are horrified.

I suspect that The Passion could be an important film, too, both culturally and religiously. It is, however, not the beginning of the Millennium. Trust me on this; I know these things.

* * *

As another example of misplaced enthusiasm, consider another article that appeared in the March 29 Weekly Standard, Maggie Gallagher's "Latter Day Federalists (Why we need a national definition of marriage)." In that piece, she argues that the definition of marriage was federalized long ago, particularly in connection with the campaign against polygamy in the Utah Territory, which was settled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Utah began petitioning for statehood as early as 1859, but Congress would have none of it until the Territory put its family law in order. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which criminalized bigamy in Utah. Harsher federal acts continued until 1890, when the Church relented on the polygamy question. The Utah Territory was admitted as a state six years later.

Readers of this site will know that I support a federal, constitutional definition of marriage. Nonetheless, I must point out that this particular argument won't fly. Congress has almost plenary power over the territories in the US that have not been admitted to the Union. The same is true of Congress's power over the District of Columbia. Congress generally does not exercise that power, once a local government has been established, but there is no constitutional novelty in Congress doing so.

There really will be some novelty in a federal definition of marriage. The question is whether there will be a novel judicial extension of Griswald (yes, that is where all this comes from) to create gay marriage, or a bit of honest new text to exclude it.

* * *

Did you know that hurricanes were supposed to occur only in the northern half of the Atlantic? Well, if you did, you are due for an update. It seems that Something Strange Is Happening:

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Florida estimated the storm was a full-fledged, Category I hurricane with central winds of between 75 and 80 mph, making it the first hurricane ever spotted in the South Atlantic. AccuWeather, Inc., a private forecasting company, said it also considered the storm a hurricane.

Brazilian scientists disagreed, saying the storm had top winds of 50 to 56 mph, far below the 75 mph threshold of a hurricane...

All sides said they were basing their estimates on satellite data, since the United States has no hurricane hunter airplanes in the area and Brazil doesn't own any.

When the storm struck land in Brazil over the weekend, it did considerable property damage. Last I heard, though, the Brazilian weather-people were sticking to their guns about the nature of the storm. This could be embarrassing. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

LinkFest 2016-07-15

The death cult of environmentalism

I remember once an ardent environmentalist told me he would rather see my city burn to the ground rather than allow thinning of the forest. I've never forgotten that.

Slaughter at the bridge: Uncovering a colossal Bronze age battle

I can't imagine why anyone thought the Bronze age was peaceful, but people tell me this is world-shattering for some.

It's time to talk about alcohol and sex

This article mostly makes me sad, both for what American sexual culture has become, and the unwillingness to see it for what it is.

Undead: The Rabies Virus Remains a Medical Mystery

Greg Cochran often says physicians are terrible scientists. After reading this, I tend agree with him.

Economic History Reading List

I'm chronically behind on reading, and this doesn't help.

The Coming Christian Collapse

I'm not sure I believe this, Dreher has been predicting doom for a long time now. 

How Trumpism hid in plain sight for 15 years

Willful blindness, it turns out. A nice shout-out to Steve Sailer's shadow influence on pretty much everyone.

LinkFest 2016-07-05

England's Hour: A Review of 'The English and their History' by Robert Tombs

An idea I've seen from writers across the political and ideological spectrum is that England developed a distinctive culture and position in the world due to *just enough* isolation. This book review delves into the latest exploration of that idea.

Can we survive technology?

A 1955 essay from John von Neumann, the most remarkable intellect of the twentieth century. This is an exploration of the first episode of globalization, and its relation to the development of science and technology. Regrettably, this article on the Fortune website appears to be incomplete.

Why Brexit voters are the world's financial losers

When libertarian economists like Tyler Cowen say that open borders and free trade are worth it, this graph is the best evidence I can find for their position:

Clearly the modern world is doing something right for the world's poorest. I'm not certain that it had to involve the relative pain of the working classes in the developed world, but it did, and I am definitely certain that it is a bad idea to just write them off.

What kind of driverless cars do people want?

Apparently, not the kind that will drive you into a brick wall to avoid a jaywalker.

Looking behind the Brexit anger

One story about Brexit was the relative immiseration of the working classes in the developed world. Another story is the degree to which Labor voters in England [and white Democrats in America] remain socially conservative, and are increasingly ill-served by their parties.

Debuncification

An aside in the previous article led me to this investigation of the economic effects of better management and more effective-theft prevention measures: mostly more profits for business owners and improved economic statistics as underground economic activities were re-directed into official channels. I find this idea plausible, although I would want to look into it a lot more before investing too much in it. 

How Brexit shattered progressives' dearest illusions

And finally, a political look at how Brexit is intertwined with various global political projects, including what John J. Reilly used to call "transnationalism".

Zootopia deleted scene would have made the racial allegory a lot more disturbing

Steve Sailer helpfully points to more evidence that Zootopia is far more than the straightforward diversity tale it appears on the surface. I'll admit to a bit of schadenfreude at the linked article's annoyance that Zootopia doesn't map cleanly to current American racial problems.

 

LinkFest 2016-06-24

The War on Stupid People

This has been clear [to me] for a very long time: most Americans confuse intelligence, a biological fact like height, with human importance. This is why being called stupid is an insult, and part of the reason why IQ research is so contentious.

Barry Latzer on Why Crime Rises and Falls

Time series analysis is really tricky, and this is a good article on crime that gets into why. 

Did Japan actually lose any decades?

Short answer: no. Eamonn Fingleton sometimes comes across as a crank, so I appreciate finding others who corroborate his views. Japan's economy is doing exactly what you would expect from a First World country with a static population. However, a lot of models at present assume a continuously growing population, so you get a mismatch between modeled expectations and reality.

Paul Allen's space company nears debut of world's biggest plane

I'm glad Internet billionaires put their money where their mouth is. I assume most of them take the common complaint, "where's my flying car?", and do something about it.

Hacker's Toolbox: The Handheld Screwdriver

When I was a locksmith in college, we all used the 4-in-1 combination screw driver much like the one shown here.

There are now more bureaucrats with guns than there are US Marines

Once I considered working for the fraud investigative division of HHS. These are the "bureaucrats with guns", really more like FBI Special Agents who only work on certain crimes. I do have a bit of misgiving about the trend of each Federal agency feeling the need to train and equip their agents like SWAT teams, and about the militarization of the police in general. However, this is precisely the appeal of these forces as jobs; they are relatively safe, quite well-paid, and you get good equipment and training. A dream job, for a cop.

The Middle Class is Shrinking Because Many People Are Getting Richer

The decline of the middle is actually the rise of the upper middle class. 

The Long View 2004-03-26: Other Paths to Power

When it comes to energy, I am as interested as the next guy in new technologies, but I have boundless skepticism, nay cynicism, about them all. As it turns out, the oil market predictions John copied here from the National Interest seemed pretty plausible for most of the last 15 years, and then fracking finally dropped the bottom out of the market. However, it sure didn't look that way for a long time.


Other Paths to Power

Once again, I want to thank those readers who are buying books through this site. I maintain the blog, and the rest of the site, in large part for the intelligent feedback. Nonetheless, the commission fees from Amazon are also good evidence that someone is listening.

* * *

Speaking of gratuities, The National Interest recently sent its readers a "Special Energy Supplement." The National Interest are the folks who gave us Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, which many people disagreed with, but which no one concerned with foreign affairs escaped talking about. It could quickly be the same with the issues raised by the four articles in this supplementary pamphlet. There are three points you should keep in mind:

(1) For the first time, the demand for oil soon really will exceed supply;

(2) The chief sources of new oil that we know about are in Russia;

(3) The chief market for new oil, and the reason for point (1), is the explosive economic growth of China.

The rise of the Chinese economy means that the US and associated developed countries will lose leverage over the suppliers. The US and Saudi Arabia, for instance, traditionally had each other over a barrel. The US and Europe needed the Kingdom as a supplier, but then the Saudis needed the US and Europe as customers. The same has been true of Russia since the mid-1980s: the supplier-consumer relationship ensured a measure of cooperation on all issues. However, China (and soon India) are enormous alternative consumers. This will give the suppliers much more room to maneuver on other issues.

* * *

Perhaps you think that fossil fuels are just too tacky for words. Well, somewhat to my surprise, I recently had occasion to link to a legitimate story about cold fusion. At the time, I did not know the half of the continuing research in this area. Now The New York Times reports that the US Department of Energy is giving the question a second look:

Despite being pushed to the fringes of physics, cold fusion has continued to be worked on by a small group of scientists, and they say their figures unambiguously verify the original report, that energy can be generated simply by running an electrical current through a jar of water.

Last fall, cold fusion scientists asked the Energy Department to take a second look at the process, and last week, the department agreed...

Some cold fusion scientists now say they can produce as much as two to three times more energy than in the electric current. The results are also more reproducible, they say. They add that they have definitely seen fusion byproducts, particularly helium in quantities proportional to the heat generated.

Things have reached the point where there is even a language issue. Some people prefer the term "low-energy fusion," since these table-top reactions are not really cold. If you ask me, though, "cold fusion" should be used if we can get away with it. Cold fusion sounds like it has something to do with wrap-around sunglasses. Low-energy fusion smacks of malingering.

The place to start if you want to familiarize yourself with all this is Infinite Energy magazine. I would be more reassured, however, if the top page on that site did not also mention anti-gravity.

* * *

There is an old theory on the reactionary right (the real reactionary right, not to be confused with conservatives or libertarians). It holds that liberal democracies are doomed, because, in international affairs, they necessarily lacked the persistence and focus of autocracies. Sometimes, when I listen to John Kerry or Howard Dean, I start to think this too, but it's nonsense: the historical record is clear that liberal societies beat every other kind of society hollow. A clue to why this should be may be found in Peggy Noonan's March 25 column on the recent 911 hearings:

One summer day in the late 1990s I had a long talk with an elected official who was a friend and longtime political supporter of President Clinton. I asked him why, if Bill Clinton cared so much about his legacy, he didn't take steps to make America safer from terrorism. Why didn't he make it one of his big issues? We were at lunch in a New York restaurant, and I gestured toward the tables of happy people drinking golden-colored wine in gleaming glasses. They're all going to get sick when we get nuked, I said; they'd honor your guy for having warned and prepared. Yes, the official said, but you have to understand that Clinton is purely a poll driven politician, and if the numbers aren't there he won't move.

Too bad, I thought, because the numbers will someday be there.

The strength of democracy is that sometimes the numbers are there. That is more than even the most fearsome totalitarian state can say. The Soviet Union collapsed because its rulers never really thought of themselves as legitimate, and so never dared asked their people for anything more than submission. Nazi Germany lost the Second World War because the leadership feared to risk unpopularity by putting the economy on a war footing. Britain, in contrast, was the most thoroughly mobilized of all the combatants; even more so than Stalin's USSR. The very qualities that enabled Britain to do that, however, also made it possible for the country to entertain the self-delusion and evasion that prevailed in the 1930s. Sometimes, what looks like a fatal weakness is really a latent strength.

* * *

Through the miracle of quantum tunneling, I have obtained the following excerpt from a parallel-universe edition of The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, March 24--President Bush's former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, testified on Wednesday to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that the Bush administration systematically discounted long-standing evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda in order to pursue a fast, politically popular war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. "It was a case of the drunk looking for his lost wallet under the street lamp," Mr. Clarke told the commission. "The drunk has no reason to believe what he seeks is there. He looks there because that's the only place he can see."

The accusations come in the wake of Monday's suicide bombing against the US Air Force base at Al Hila, Saudi Arabia, in which the bomber and 20 Air Force personnel were killed. The number of deaths of US military personnel from terrorist acts in the Middle East since the invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 have now reached 150.

Mr. Clarke's dramatic testimony overshadowed the earlier appearance of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, who emphasized the continuity of the Clinton and Bush administrations' policy. "Both the presidents I have served recognize the greatest danger threatening the American homeland today to be the confluence of the development of weapons of mass destruction by hostile states and the existence of terrorist groups willing to deliver them," Mr. Tenet remarked. "However, we can do only so much at once."

Mr. Tenet could not confirm reports that Iran and Libya had secretly developed a nuclear capability, but rejected the assertion that those countries' nuclear programs might have been encouraged by the failure of the US to take decisive action against Iraq.

The hearings are being held in at atmosphere dominated by Democratic complaints that the Bush administration has taken the path of least resistence against the terrorist threat. Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry told the annual meeting of the National Psycho-Social Service Workers Union yesterday, "When I am president, you can be sure, I will not allow dangers to gather until they pose an imminent threat."

At the hearings, Mr. Clarke had this to say about whether the Bush team had enough new information about Iraq after the September 11 attacks to justify an attempt to remove the government by force:

"We haven't known what has been happening in Iraq since the UN inspectors left in 1998. All we know for sure is that it's worse."   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

LinkFest 2016-06-18

The All-American iPhone

The amount of money you save by going overseas is smaller than you might think. More than enough to make it worth it, but small enough that different circumstances could alter the pattern of trade.

Zootopia review

This is pretty much the review I wanted to write. On the surface, Zootopia seems like a straightforward diversity-related morality tale, but this movie has many more levels than that.

The Mercenary book review

A nice review of one of Jerry Pournelle's older books. My review of the omnibus edition containing this work is here.

Terrorism is not Hate

You know something is up when Jerry Coyne, noted atheist, and R. R. Reno, editor of a prominent religious magazine, are making the same argument.

Mongolian Post Office adopts what3words as national addressing system

This seems clever, I hope it works out.

Britain will never have a Mediterranean drinking culture

Ed West points out that the English, as well as other northern Europeans, like to go on benders when they drink, and this is likely related to alcohol laws. Compare with this

Secrets and lies: Faked data and lack of transparency plague global drug manufacturing

Some parts of the global supply chain for pharmaceuticals are murky and suspicious.

Bill Gates: The Rolling Stone Interview

This is a couple of years old, but a fascinating look at Bill Gates. I didn't know his family attended a Catholic Church, but I find the careful phrasing of his participation very intriguing.

The Long View 2004-03-23: Clarke; Pledge; Theocracy

Richard A. Clarke has long fallen off the national public radar, or at least mine. In retrospect, it seems he may have had a point about the Iraq War, but no one now is interested in keeping score about that, except perhaps me.

Then Senator Joe Biden also gets bonus points for making sense in 2004. John, regrettably, thought the spectacular 9/11 attacks meant terrorists would just keep getting better and better. In 2016, it looks like that was a mistake. 9/11 was the high point of al-Qaeda's operations, and everything since has been far more limited in scope.

To be fair, al-Qaeda has probably been trying to mastermind more 9/11s, but in reality they just got lucky. Better intelligence and better security are probably why terrorists now bomb and shoot civilians in businesses and public places; those are easier targets at this point. We are fortunate only so far as our enemies lack the capacity to pursue this more vigorously. We are protected not only by rough men ready in the night, but by the incompetence of those who mean us harm.


Persons more low-minded than I have begun to cast aspersions on the motives and consistency of Richard A. Clarke, the Clinton-era White House anti-terror advisor who was retained by the Bush II Administration, and who has now published a tell-all book, Against All Enemies. The effective launch for the book was a long report that aired on CBS's 60 Minutes on March 21. I did not see that show, but Drudge reports that there was no mention that CBS's parent, Viacom, also owns Simon & Shuster, which owns the book's publisher, The Free Press.

I am not particularly impressed by such a link. Media conglomerates rarely have common editorial policies. More damaging to Clarke, if it turns out to be true, is the report that the US government thought there was a WMD terrorist link between Al Qaeda and Iraq because Clarke said so. This was in connection with the Clinton Administration's cruise missile attack in 1998 against the factory at El Shifa in the Sudan. His opinion on the matter is supposed to have appeared in the press: "Embassy Attacks Thwarted, U.S. Says; Official Cites Gains Against Bin Laden; Clinton Seeks $10 Billion to Fight Terrorism," Vernon Loeb, Washington Post, A02, January 23, 1999. If that story says what summaries of it say, then Clarke's surprise that the Bush Administration would immediately suspect an Iraqi link to 911 becomes mysterious.

Something I did see for myself was Clarke's appearance last night on PBS's News Hour. When asked whether the publication of his book was timed to affect the presidential election, he said that publication had been delayed by three months, because the White House held the manuscript for review that long. If that's true, then the book was supposed to appear at the beginning of the year, which would have been an even better time to influence the election, because that was the beginning of primary season.

More substantively, he complains that the Bush Administration did not follow the Clinton Administration's practice of holding frequent meetings of the heads of the principal agencies concerned with national security. Considering the scale of successful terrorist attacks, foreign and domestic, that the US suffered during the Clinton Administration, it's not obvious why that Administration's procedures should be taken as a model. (The Clinton people notoriously held meetings all day long about everything.) Nonetheless, Clarke attributes the foiling of the Millennium bomb plot directly to a regimen of really full meeting schedules.

A White House flack appeared on The New Hour immediately after Clarke said these things. The flack asserted that the bomb plot was discovered by a conscientious customs agent on the Canadian border, before there was a state of heightened alert. Again, damaging if true. 

 The fact that the Clarke book is a transparent election-year ploy should not distract us from the fact that there is a real policy dispute at issue. The usually responsible Senator Joe Biden (D. Del.) put it like this:

"I am much more concerned about the safety of my granddaughter in school here in Washington because of Al Qaeda than I am with 10 Saddam Husseins," Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said on ABC. "And we took our eye off the ball because of a preoccupation with Iraq."

There are two things wrong with this. The first is that the resources of the terror networks are limited; Iraq as great a distraction for them as it is for the United States. The other is that terrorism is about to change its nature. The fact is that traditional terrorism was tolerable. The US, frankly, could have suffered the loss of the World Trade Center. If attacks of that magnitude were all that was at stake, then the US could have simply strengthened ordinary law enforcement and endured any attacks that slipped through the net in the future. Future successful attacks, however, could mean the loss of whole cities. The key to preventing that is to prevent the establishment of sovereign-host suppliers of WMDs. If anything, playing cops-and-robbers with Al Qaeda is the distraction. Maybe that's what the Islamists intended all along.

* * *

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will add a bit more spice to the electoral season by hearing arguments in the Newdow case, the one about whether the words "one nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional, at least when used in the public schools.

As I have remarked previously, the inclusion of those words in the Pledge was a bit of bad drafting. The passage sounds like it says, "one nation, under God's protection." In fact, when Abraham Lincoln or George Washington used that phrase, they meant "God willing," or "with the understanding that God is more important." An example of the latter use might be, "I love my country, under God." Far from theocratizing the citizen's loyalty to the United States, the phrase in the Pledge might be taken as a reminder that citizenship is not the ultimate loyalty. However, man or boy, I have never heard the Pledge so interpreted.

* * *

Those of you who are really keen for a theocracy will be interested in this passage by my favorite New Ager, William Irwin Thompson, from his essay, From Nation to Emanation (1982):

[R]edemption through the primitive...is part of our political heritage as far back as the Old Testament. When Saul inflates, and the war lord tries to become a king and kill the servant of the Lord, Samuel, then Samuel goes to the lowest of the tribes, the tribe of Benjamin, and anoints David. The humble shepherd becomes the future king. When society is not attuned to divinity, then divinity works outside society. Moses was an outlaw.

For centuries in America we have been accustomed to the pattern that Empire is evil and that virtue resides with the humble, the primitive, the outlaw. Through the principle of redemption through the primitive, we have tried to redeem all decaying theocracies. But that is only half the truth. Moral tribe against decadent Empire is one profound truth, but another profound truth is the act of creation of a new sacred civilisation, when in the words of the ancient Sumerians, 'Kingship descends from heaven.' For the last two hundred years we have become habituated to the pattern of fighting against Empire, but now as we enter a new age we may be called upon to work at the other end of history, to create a civilisation suffused with divinity. Will it become simply another decadent empire, following the familiar Weberian pattern of the routinisation of charisma? Of course it will...

Readers may amuse themselves by ascertaining just how garbled that first paragraph is (a reader emailed me to point out that the tribal affiliations of David and Saul are switched, for instance). Still, I find myself meditating on this passage when I think about Frank Herbert's Dune, or I hear that Mel Gibson is considering making a film about the Maccabees. The model of history it implies is structurally similar to the one in Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics, but the sentiment is the polar opposite. Kaplan says that world order is possible only if we prescind from religious questions. Thompson says that order is a religious question.

Another difference is that Thompson, at the time he wrote this, thought that the way to the holy empire was through the strengthening of international institutions. Kaplan, of course, thinks the UN is a Kantian chaos-machine, and that the power of the United States is the predicate for a livable world. For a slightly different take on the matter, you might consider this assessment from Cutting Edge Ministries:

AMERICA DETERMINES THE REAL FLOW OF HISTORY The major focus of [this] study is the reality that the Illuminati created the United States as a New Atlantis, an occult nation that would lead the rest of the world into the New World Order, defined as the Kingdom of the Christ [Biblical Antichrist]. The United States was planned to secretly work behind the scenes for about two centuries to quietly and surreptitiously guide unfolding history in such a way that the world would gradually coalesce into the One World Government, Economy, and Religion of the New Age Christ...

Symbolically, our Masonic Founding Fathers intended to communicate that part of the New World Order Plan which stipulates that, at the right moment in our history, the America that has faithfully led the rest of the world for so long into the new global system of Antichrist, will suddenly burst into flames and be totally consumed by fire. However, out of the ashes of the old America will rise the new global system of Antichrist. We cover how we think this scenario will play out, and will fulfill the Biblical prophecies of Daniel 2 and 7, and Revelation 18.

Probably no one will submit any of this analysis to the Supreme Court. It would just make them nervous and unhappy. 

* * *

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly 

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site