Friday, July 23, 2004

Something for the Koan Brothers to Make a Movie About

The critique of nationalism associated with Eric Hobsbawm can be pushed too far. Kilts and tartans and other patriotic clich├ęs are commonly cooked up by the marketing department; but nationalities do possess distinct and identifiable folkways and mentalities. After all this time, it really does mean something to be a Frenchman. The important point, however, is that what Volkish philosophers and entrepreneurs of Fundamentalism pick up as the basis for their constructions are seldom still living traditions. It is only by chance that the beliefs and practices of real people will be appropriate to a program designed to address specifically contemporary concerns. The universal demand for particularism so characteristic of the 20th Century and very much with us in the endlessly attacks on liberalism are obviously rooted in the international culture of universities, not the parochial world of peasants. Indeed, if the genuine institutions and values of a people conflict with what the conservatives want, so much the worst for tradition. The requirements of ideology come first, as when the Enlightenment ideals of the American Revolution, still very much alive in many hearts, are denounced in the name of patriotism.

If you meet Thomas Jefferson on the road, kill him.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Silence of the Oracles

When Stephen Hawking proposed that black holes give off radiation some years ago, the idea wasn’t very surprising to me. No physicist, obviously, I did have a liberal artsy appreciation of quantum mechanical tunneling, the principle behind Hawking radiation. Hawking’s new claim about black holes is much more opaque. He now says that he can solve an old paradox—a paradox he himself created, as it happens—by showing that black holes do not violate a basic rule of quantum physics by destroying all information about the particles that fall into them. But while information may indeed escape from black holes, damned little of it escaped from the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation. Apparently the argument’s got something to do with what actually occurs at the event horizon of a black hole—reports on scientific websites are very vague.

What amuses me about all this has nothing to do with the physics of it, about which I’m certainly not competent to comment, but about the popular presumption that Hawking’s change of heart on the issue is somehow decisive, presumably because he will once play poker with Newton, Einstein, and Data. Unfortunately, very bright and accomplished scientists make claims all the time that turn out to be false or, worse, foolish. Hawking, after all, is 61, an age at which famous scientists, their previous triumphs having grown stale, get enthusiastic about Vitamin C or Grand Unification or the Implicate Order or the successor to the Duotronic Brain. But maybe Hawking did solve the problem. I understand he managed to cheat on his wife despite being confined in a wheelchair with ALS. In comparison to that, psyching out black holes is trifling.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Rebels without a Cause

I don’t know what a 21st Century American theocracy would look like and I certainly hope neither I nor my heirs will ever find out, but I doubt if most conservatives would really like the reality of a no-fooling-around American Crusader state. The German conservatives from whom our rightists derive many of their ideas didn’t necessarily want the gangster regime that emerged from the last great defeat of liberalism, either, though their support was essential to the triumph of the Nazis. People like Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Hans Freyer were far clearer on what they hated about soulless modernity and parliamentary government than on what kind of new dispensation could underlie a new and unified Germany. People whose political program amounts to waiting for a miracle aren’t likely to be very choosy. Which is probably also accounts for the surprising enthusiasm so many conservatives evince for authoritarian forms of traditional religion. It isn’t that any of these decrepit belief systems have become even slightly more plausible over the last decades—if anything, just the reverse. What has changed is the level of cultural anxiety. The right doesn’t know what it wants. It just knows that it wants it very badly. If you’re impatient enough for the Second Coming, you can even manage to be rapturous about the Reverend Moon.

For a long period after the end of the Second World War, conservatives in America and Europe accepted that welfare state capitalism and the extension of human rights to minorities were irresistible and that a meaningful conservatism should dedicate itself to preserving what remained valid in tradition while countering the utopian and potentially despotic tendencies of the dogmatic Left. That’s not enough any more.

Unfortunately, the real enemy of these folks is not the political ideology of liberalism, but social, economic, and cultural trends that are far more stubborn than a few Democrats. Religious enthusiasm can perhaps cow the feminists, but it doesn’t change the fact that the economy depends on everybody working. One can resist gay marriage and call for family values, but the demographic fact that most people aren’t going to have more than a kid or two isn’t going to change. Kansas may not teach evolution to high school kids, but using religious politics to squelch the autonomy of the sciences gets self-defeating very quickly. Does anybody really think that the spiritual situation of the age is going to be fundamentally altered by outlawing condoms and stem-cell research?

Monday, July 19, 2004

Jus Fetiales

By ancient Roman law, the state was forbidden to engage in aggressive war. A college of 20 priests, the fetiales, had to establish in each case that some king or other had offended the senate and people before war could properly begin by casting a bloody spear into the territory of the enemy or, when that wasn’t convenient, from the Temple of Bellona to the ager hostilis. Amazingly, this scrupulosity did not prevent Rome from expanding from a hilltop refuge for horse thieves to the greatest empire the History Channel has ever known and thus demonstrated once and for all that counterpunchers can be champs. The Etruscans, Samnites, Carthaginians, Greeks, Macedonians, Illyrians, Spaniards, Gauls, Thracians, Egyptians, Numidians, Arabs, Persians, and Britons probably had a different take on things, but all Roman wars were officially defensive.

Granted the durable success of Roman hypocrisy, Bush may be right in invoking in his doctrine of Preventative War an American version of the Jus Fetiales. If, on the other hand, we really don’t have the resources or the will to enforce universal empire, we might be better off with attitudes that suit a powerful but not all-powerful nation in its dealings with other nations. It used to be possible for a country to assert its interests in an international dispute without claiming that its foreign policy echoed the obvious principles of Natural Law if not the will of Almighty God. Before the first Gulf war, for example, Bush the First could and should have informed Hussein that the United States had a vital interest in the independence of Kuwait, an interest that didn’t have to be defended theologically but would be defended with guns and bombs. We didn’t need to represent ourselves as Pure and Good in every way in order to act decently. Indeed, absent the interminable rhetoric about how wonderful we are, other countries and their people would probably find it easier to accommodate our wishes. Even being recognized as a non-equal is an improvement on not being recognized at all except as a law-breaker.

They finally got Bush to stop talking about crusades, but his policy is remains “Love me, love my Sun God,” an interminable exercise in self-righteousness and national egotism. Unfortunately, Bush the Second didn’t invent American highhandedness; and the notion that we are always and obviously the offended party has been intoned on many previous occasions by the journalists who make up the local Fetial College. Too bad. I think we’d be less dangerous if we didn’t always have to be right.