Saturday, July 10, 2004

Back in that Forking Garden

I’m skeptical of meditations on history that appeal to the now familiar butterfly effect. As a matter of mathematics, arbitrarily small differences in the starting points of certain dynamic systems have huge consequences. If the world and therefore history is a chaotic system, however, that just means that any alteration of boundary conditions whatsoever suffices to change everything after a while. But this notion is perfectly empty, first, because one can never test or exploit the sensitivity of the system because no one can change anything at all, and, second, because all changes, meaningful or meaningless, are equivalently potent in this hypothesis. So far as I can see, chaos theory has nothing to tell us about what makes historical events decisive. It can never help us figure out what would have happened if Grant had been drinking at Appomattox.

Counterfactual historians like to underline the quirkiness of history by suggesting that plausible alternative decisions would have led to vastly different outcomes. I have no quarrel with this procedure as a way of thinking about what’s at stake in history, though in many cases I think it is employed mostly as a prophylactic or postphylactic against the apparently unbustable ghost of Marxism. But counterfactual history, as practiced, actually presumes a high degree of rationality in human affairs. It is anything but a celebration of the sovereignty of chance. Only in a highly organized world is it possible for an individual or a few individuals to make a decision that has recognizable, if not entirely predictable consequences. The paths fork—the government of Italy chooses to invade France or it doesn’t—but the options don’t splinter into thousands or billions of outcomes at every moment. If Croesus crosses the river Halys, he doesn’t know whose kingdom will be put at hazard, but somebody’s will. Atoms, molecules, rocks, and animals just don’t have that kind of leverage.

Counterfactual history only makes sense if human affairs mostly make sense. Niall Ferguson may not be a Hegelian, but his methodology strongly implies that the “Real is pretty rational: the pretty rational is real.” That’s not a small matter, and raises the preliminary question of how a region of reality got predictable enough to be uncertain in a game-like way.

Friday, July 09, 2004

That Time of Year

Reading through Stephen Owen’s Anthology of Chinese Literature I was struck again by how few themes dominate poetry, especially lyric poetry, and how few genuinely novel sentiments ever appear. According to the ancient Classic of Documents, “The Poem articulates what is on the mind intently.” Apparently nothing makes the mind more intent than the bloodshot dawn of old age, though there really isn’t more to say about it than there is to do about it; and the master plot of all those poems can be provided all too easily as in my contribution to the genre:

The Poet’s Keen Awareness of his Approaching Decrepitude


Of course it could be that Chinese were wrong about what poetry is about and that “what’s on the mind intently” is just another formal element like rhyme or meter. Or maybe it is an instance of a deeper artifice to deny a really depressing fact by concentrating on it in a patterned way.

The Japanese poet Michizane’s line about the failure of the light: “It was not the wind—the oil is gone.” Let us consider the extent to which this loveliness helps and the extent to which it does not.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Difficulty of Figuring Out Who’s Really on the Top in Wrestling and Religion or Mort Saul Among the Prophets

In my village atheist phase, I’m concerned by the influence of religion on politics because bigotry and irrationalism are catching. Religion is a very mixed bag, however; and though all faiths are obviously false if construed as systems of propositions, religious values are certainly not all malevolent or anti-democratic. The very notion of the separation of church and state originated on the church side of the line, for example. Indeed, it could be argued that the worst thing about the current confluence of politics and religion is the bad effect that politics is having on religion.

If slavery is the Punic curse of American history, imperial patronage plays the same role in history of every church. Preachers sometimes claim that Christianity triumphed because of the many miracles wrought by the saints and apostles; but, from a real politik point of view, the only miracle that mattered was the miracle of the Milvian Bridge in which Constantine saw a cross in the sky, won a battle, and became emperor. In one respect, of course, that cross was a good sign for the faithful since Christianity needed the coercive power of the state to become a universal religion, but it was a bad sign also since the empire provided its services at a high price. To this day, for example, the monarchical mummery, obsessive secrecy, and authoritarianism of the Catholic church derive from the imperial model; and it is these political characteristics much more than the doctrines of the faith that make abuse and corruption inevitable.

George Bush isn’t exactly Constantine, but he and his cohorts are offering the modern churches a new version of the imperial bargain. In return for votes and money, churches will get tax breaks, federal funds, and support for some but not all their cultural concerns. Go along with aggressive wars and your leader will endlessly profess his faith. Soft-pedal your opposition to the death penalty and we’ll recriminalize abortion and pester the pornographers. Rome has been making these kind of deals for centuries and will probably go along—it’s only the first moral compromise that keep you awake at night, the ten thousandth is easy—but some of the more traditional Protestant groups, especially the Baptists, are having second thoughts about making their services into pep rallies for the President or acknowledging that the Reverend Moon really is the Messiah.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Democratic Vistas

It’s rather like the joke in which a clerical error results in a world where the cooks are English and the cops are French. America circa 2004 has all the bad features of a democracy with few of its redeeming qualities. As the vice president would put it, right wing populism stokes class resentment and envy big time. Even though the Republicans are far wealthier as a group than the Democrats, it’s John Kerry’s class standing that’s somehow the issue in a campaign where the other guy comes from the bluest blood in America. More generally, the people are encouraged to believe that majorities should rule in the sciences (Creationism) but not in economics or even politics where the interests of the contributing classes trump, as if by rule, the concerns of lower and middle class people. Meanwhile our billionaires have become just plain folks, at least in the Dogville sense. While 19th Century economic elites felt an obligation to get cultured, modern money parades its coarseness and ignorance. Noblesse oblige really is problematic attitude, of course, but dispensing with it altogether is not necessarily better. And it’s not just that our nouveau riche have learned how to have nouveau riche children. The grandchildren of Connecticut bankers have learned how to munch on pork rinds in public, and their great grand children have learned how to like ‘em. Mr. Bush would feel perfectly at home in a house trailer. Indeed, if anybody ever belonged in a trailer…

What’s missing from our ersatz democracy is a first of all the sense of responsibility that should accompany popular sovereignty. Many of the people I speak with act as if they would be doing somebody a favor if they voted. Perhaps because they realize that they have little or no voice in public life, they don’t think of themselves as actors but victims. If, as is unfortunately very likely, America’s arrogant foreign policy eventually results in domestic disaster, it’s a good bet everyone will look around the next day and blame “them” for what happened. “Why didn’t you tell us?” they’ll ask, though they certainly never tried to find out.

Of course it is arguably true that no nation was ever very democratic in the sense of having a truly well-informed and vigilant electorate—I mostly believe in the iron law of oligarchy myself—but in any case, the anti-democratic tendencies of the last thirty years are not just a matter of process. Whether our politics are by the people or of the people, they surely aren’t for the people. The last three Republican administrations have been dedicated to lowering wages and cutting benefits for the majority of the population with predictable results.