Friday, October 10, 2003

Garfield Died in Vain

The current regime in Washington is busy increasing the size of government, a plain statistical fact that gets missed sometimes because many of the new personnel work for contractors—in Iraq, we’re even hiring mercenaries—and because conservative rhetoric is anti-government. In fact, the Republicans only object to government power when it benefits people who don’t count. What gets featured as privatization is actually a mechanism for increasing the arbitrary power of the administration by vastly increasing the scope of political patronage. The civil service puts a damper on the freedom of action of political operators because career bureaucrats don’t serve at the pleasure of White House fixers and may harbor obstructionist professional ideals involving the public good and scientific objectivity. In contrast, no-bid contracts help your friends and screw your enemies at the expense of the people at large. A wonderful arrangement.

President Garfield was assassinated by a disappointed office seeker who belonged to Grant’s faction of the Republican party. His death put Roscoe Conkling, the Karl Rowe of the old cabal, back in control of the party and the nation, but also resulted in the Federal Civil Service. A new and even more corrupt political combination is now attempting to close the parenthesis opened by Charles Guiteau’s revolver. I expect they’ll succeed.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Hysteron Proteron

I’m a great believer in progression in the service of the Id, but civilization and morality can’t be understood as complicated ways of fulfilling the purposes of Nature and not simply because Nature with a capital N is a theological rather than a scientific concept. Our persistence implies that our behavior hasn’t yet proven fatal to our species, but that’s all it implies. The biological reality principle is apparently a pretty loose constraint on the consistent perversity that defines our humanity. Nobody doubts that the desire for food, sex, or power were originally adaptive; but we have long since made the old means into new goals. Moralists have bewailed this reversal for a very long time, but the cultivation of virtue and the love of God are just as artificial as gastronomy or the art of love. In every case, to state the matter in an old fashioned way, the signifiers—taste, pleasure, self-righteousness, hatred, piety, ecstasy—have displaced the things signified and become ends in themselves. For good or ill, we make up our purposes as we go along, and our history is a mass of postdated checks.

The inversion of means and ends occurs in small things as well as large. There is a considerable body of evidence that common spices such as red and black pepper, mustard, garlic, horseradish, many others have a bacteriostatic effect. It has also been established that the use of these condiments correlates with latitude. The warmer the climate, the hotter the food, presumably because spoilage and food poisoning are a bigger problem in India than Lapland. People have to learn how to like the bitterness, sharpness, and pungency that betoken the hygienic effects of these substances—children certainly don’t like them—but it is also possible to come to love them for their own sake even in a world of refrigerators and expiration dates. Indeed, modern world cooking is utterly dependent on them—these days they eat Szechwan in Stockholm and rijsttabel in Reykjavik. For details, see Sherman/Flaxman, American Scientist March-April 2000.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Sprocket Science

Long before the Jazz Singer, philosophers and scientists tried to figure out how the human mind gets the music to go along with the pictures. We experience the world as a talkie, but it is exceedingly hard to understand how the brain manages to synthesize the inputs of the various senses into a more or less coherent display, especially since the several modalities of information are not processed at the same speed. Like a fan at a track meet, the mind should routinely see the smoke from the starter’s pistol before it hears the shot; but for the most part we dwell in a seamless, in-synch I-Max presentation. The occasional moments when this illusion breaks down are uncanny—the one that spooks me most is when I find myself half way out of the chair before I hear the phone ring—but these nerve-jangling exceptions are rare. Why they are rare, how the neural apparatus maintains the waking dream that is conscious experience are the questions that fall under the rubric of the binding problem.

It’s mysterious enough that a single consciousness can simultaneously register two inputs of the same type—the “I” and the “t” of the first word of this sentence, for example. As the now forgotten Hermann Lotze pointed out back in the 19th Century, the parts of a mental image belong together in a much stronger sense than the merely geometrical; and being together in the same brain isn’t obviously the same thing as being together in the same mind. Getting drastically different kinds of inputs to register together is even harder to figure out. The original, Aristotelian notion of Common Sense, known in the tradition as Sensus Communis, addressed this problem or, more accurately, begged this question, by postulating a special faculty that was able to synthesize everything, presumably by virtue of a virtue. Our everyday concept of common sense, however, does relate to the binding problem because experience is eminently social. A whole series of linguistic and cultural filters masticate the inputs of the senses before we are aware of them; and, even before that, civilization has always already simplified the things we encounter to match our limited abilities to cope with novel stimuli by expedients ranging from labels on canned goods to the painting of lines on highways.

I have no useful ideas whatsoever about the binding problem as an issue—the issue—of neurophysiology, but the problem is an existential one for me because I’ve allowed rather more content into my mind than some others. Like everybody else, I mostly restrict my attention to the names of the categories into which things are divided, an exercise that is not too daunting even when the list comes from a very old Chinese encyclopedia. Where I get in trouble or at least lose my audience is in breaking open the packaged goods and mingling the contents instead of the labels in my thoughts. Then I feel myself becoming a cheerful monster like one of those renaissance portraits where the face of the subject is made out of a jumble of fruits and vegetables. Of course I don’t do justice to the various areas of experience I attempt to relate together in my practice of life—if your nose is a pickle, you can’t expect it to be a very good pickle—and to play all the notes of all the scales on one not-too-well-tuned clavier requires more fraud than virtuosity. It is necessarily a comic performance, but perhaps a laugh is the only way that an important but essentially negative truth can be perceived.

Monday, September 29, 2003

In a Glass Snarkly

Today’s Bizarro cartoon takes place in the Garden of Eden. God tells Adam, “Try to keep in mind this is an allegory & you’re actually off evolving from apes somewhere else right now.” I don’t know if that’s particularly funny, but at least it has the virtue of explaining something. Most of the folks who tell themselves and us that the myths and dogmas of the revealed religions are merely allegories of higher truths aren’t in a hurry to identify just which higher truths they are allegories of. Their reticence is understandable. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy Bible stories as stories–I certainly do—but it is rather harder to extract a benign or plausible message from them—Shut up and obey? Curiosity is a great evil? Women are weak and treacherous? Kill all of them including the children? Of course earlier readers of scripture detected or imagined other, more acceptable meanings in the old stories. These days the lukewarm faithful find it enough to assume that an acceptable decoding is possible. Meanwhile, the true believers reject interpretation itself.

Christians have attempted to read scripture allegorically for a long time, of course; but it eventually became heterodox to acknowledge that the stories about the Garden and the Ark were fables. The allegorical interpretation, however edifying or important, was something added to an underlying literally true narrative of the creation of animals and people and the early history of mankind. If anything, the Christian Fundamentalism of the last century or so is a radicalization of this anti-alchemical transmutation of a golden mythology into leaden science fiction, and the atheists owe them one for turning a once elusive quarry into a sitting duck, i.e. a set of demonstrably false statements about matters of fact.

Monday, September 22, 2003

This is What I Really Call a Message

I’ve frequently had elaborate dreams whose apparent purpose was nothing more than to set up a punch line. For example I had a flying dream in which I took off from my backyard and laboriously winged my way to L.A. where I swooped into Shrine Auditorium to make a speech. Barely catching my breath as I approached the podium, I began, “I just flew in from San Francisco; and, boy, are my arms tired!” As I recall, I woke up laughing. Two nights ago I had another such dream but more in the style of David Lynch. At the end of a dream in which people started disappearing one after another as in a serial version of the Rapture, I finally encountered the Special Effect that Created the Heavens and Earth. Oddly, instead inquiring why everybody was being snatched up or what was the meaning of life, I asked the transparent, amoeboid deity a more practical question: “I’ve been invited to a formal dance at a nudist colony. So where do I put the boutonnière?” Well, even that was an improvement on last spring when I had dream after dream in which children kept asking me the riddle, “Why did the Invisible Man stop using rubbers?” It took me several nights to figure out the answer: Because he wanted to become a parent.

The Russian formalists claimed, with good reason, that much of literature is, to use their expression, motivated by the device. Writers don’t employ rhetorical schemes and figures to make a point or express an emotion. Just the reverse. The purpose of the writing—the recital of true facts, the expression of deep emotion, the conveyance of profound wisdom—is the real contrivance, a pretext in the most literal sense. However well the motivation of the device explains, say, A Tale of Two Cities, it certainly fits with the observed logic or illogic of dreams and jokes or, in my case, joke-dreams. It also occurs importantly in religious thinking where, so to speak, the spirit is often postulated to excuse all the fuss about the letter. According to Cicero, for example, the Etruscans believed that important events happened so thunderbolts, wayward birds, or lumpy livers could foretell them. The prophetic signs are more fundamental than the history they signify. Similarly, the Mimasa school of Vedanta maintains that the only really primal things in the universe are the eternal sounds of the Vedas whose meaning is contingent on the particular world cycle in which they manifest themselves and how and why they are chanted by Gods, demons, or men. The same inversion occurs in Jewish mysticism, no doubt inspired by the establishment of a ne veritur text of the scriptures in which even the obvious scribal errors are sacred and canonical. In this line of thought, the Torah predates by thousands of years the creation of the world and everything else except Yahweh himself who, like a teenager writing a phone number on his hand, inscribed it on his arm since no other surface yet existed. The meaning of this sempiternal Torah depends not only on the hermeneutic capabilities of the interpreters who number at least 600,000—one for each of the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai–or even on the combinatorial permutations of the letters that make it up and the alternative ways of adding vowel signs to the consonantal text, but on the actions of all men, which, free and therefore unpredictable, give the signs their referents after the fact. In this vein, Sabbatai Sevi, the 17th century mystic and would-be messiah, claimed that universal repentance would make the Bible read as a Torah of Mercy rather than a Torah of Judgment. Which is rather like my fantasy of a book which, read out loud in a certain fashion, is a brief guide to bookkeeping on collective farms and read in a different way is a translation of one of Karl May’s novels about cowboys.

I presume this book-length pun does not exist; but there is a book, Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames: The d’Antin Manuscript, that consists of French symbolist poems that sound exactly like English-language nursery rhymes. Many of the works of Raymond Roussel take the reader on a similar wild goose chase. Their first and last sentences are phonetically identical but semantically unrelated. It sometimes takes hundreds of pages of convoluted plot to set up this gimmick. Grendel Briarton’s Ferdinand Feghoot tales, published long ago in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, offer a homelier equivalent. Feghoots are complicated shaggy dog stories that set up ghastly but desperately ingenious puns—one of the classics ends with the titles, in German, of all four of the Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen opera. One can find hundreds of amateur examples of the genre at the Tarzan’s Tripes Forever web site and highfalutin, professional versions in Thomas Pynchon’s books, e.g. the Hobbesian law firm of Salitieri, Poore, Nash, De Brutus, and Short that appears in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Of course, I eschew these exercises of false wit, except as a way of illuminating the Statistical Mechanics of the Word or in the exceedingly rare cases where I encounter a naturally occurring linguistic miracle. So far that’s only happened once. While looking something up in the index of a volkish and somewhat anti-Semetic treatise on Baltic antiquities, I encountered an entry that read: Mid-Gulf Jew znak, q.v. borscht pyx. It took some effort to decode this cryptic phrase, which refers to the black legend that Jewish faith healers in the vicinity of Riga identified themselves by wearing a tiny badge or znak in the shape of one of the boxes for the transportation of consecrated Eucharist wafers they used to steal from churches and use in the preparation of potent medicinal beet soup. That’s routine enough, though sufficiently obscure. The amazing thing is that this 26-letter phrase—quite a bit shorter than the bit around the quick brown fox—uses all 26 letters of the alphabet. Having stumbled on this wonder, I’ve begun to reconsider my former skepticism about the Bible Code, which, after all, is not that much more unbelievable…

Saturday, September 20, 2003

A Kind of Defeat

In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, a great many people, including me, joked that the real victor in the Cold War had been Japan. That was before Japan fell into a long lasting slump and the United States, led by a government that adopted unremarkable but sane policies, enjoyed a massive boom. In longer retrospect, however, we are learning that the capitalist political economy really did lose the Cold War, not capitalism as the ideological bugbear of the left or the shining ideal of the Chamber of Commerce, but the capitalism that actually functioned during the years of American greatness. That capitalism was a mixed system of predominately private ownership balanced by strong labor unions; independent scientists and academics partly financed by public money, a sometimes principled Press; an activist government supported by votes as well as dollars; and, above all, by the egalitarian sentiments of both owners and workers. That system is dead.

The old system depended an organization of production—mass production employing huge numbers of interchangeable, semiskilled workers—now obsolete; but it also emerged and persisted because governing elites recognized that only a system seen to benefit a majority of the people could compete with Communism or enforce universal conscription in an age of mass armies. As the objective need for popular support eroded, policy intellectuals, whose enthusiasm for democracy had always been guarded, became outspoken in support of an oligarchy consisting of the magnates best able to pay for their services. The word Democracy was kept around for propaganda purposes, but every effort was made to suppress political participation and otherwise ensure that elections had nothing to do with the meaningful consent of the governed. Where the old system redistributed income to counterbalance the relentless tendency of the corporate economy to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the new system actively promoted a deeper and deeper divide between the haves and have nots even at the cost of hindering aggregate growth. It remains to be seen whether this New Domestic Order can persist for very long—if nothing else, the running up huge deficits and the buying off or shushing inconvenient scientific advice about ecological problems isn’t a permanent solution unless, as some of these folks apparently believe or hope, the end of the world really is near.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Feng Shui (Sweet Chariot?)

As near as I can remember, I encountered the very first idea I ever recognized as an idea in my sister’s paperback copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology book. Hamilton began by explaining that the Greeks didn’t think the Gods made the Universe, they believed the Universe made the Gods. That struck me as news and made a lasting impression. For most of my life, I’ve treated the belatedness of mind and form as an axiom, which is not to say I ever thought it was self-evident but simply that I chose to make it the foundation of my thinking. It was the bet I made. I look at things of special value—plants, animals, the human race, even divinities (as I understand them)—as instances, not of emergence from some pre-existing chamber of souls, but of a fortunate and unprecedented coming together. In this respect I am a pagan of sorts, though, contrary to Edith Hamilton, not even all the ancient pagans made the same wager and thinkers from other traditions adhere to an analogous (non) creation myth—I’m thinking of the sublimely prosaic Taoist notion of the Great Clod, a primal but homely entity traditionally symbolized by the won ton in the soup on Chinese New Year.

My view of life, or at least its Hellenic prototype, is sometimes dismissed as animism, but animism it is not if by animism you mean the belief that the surprising liveliness of the world is the result of the action of pre-existing spirits. Things may be full of Gods, as Thales remarked one fateful night at some Ionian bar; but such postulated entities—seminal reasons, divine sparks, entelechies, bacteria on meteorites—merely postpone the question of how one accounts for order. Indeed, like traditional theism, belief that life and sentience can only result from the actions of something already alive and sentient is just another way of saying that the important things are and will always be inexplicable. An explanation, after all, requires that something depend upon something different—you can’t properly explain why an object is green by pointing out that it is made of little green parts. Of course it may be that the appearance of intelligence in the world really is inexplicable. I certainly don’t know that it isn’t; and, in any case, I agree with Wittgenstein that explanations have to have an end, if only at the point where we lose interest. It seems to me, however, that for some centuries now the evidence has been piling up on my side of the issue.

I was reminded of these questions by a scholarly monograph on Greek Nymphs I recently found on a remainder table. The book reminded me on the aesthetic appeal of the old paganism, its sensitivity to the magical qualities of special places. Nymphs, associated with groves, mountains, caves, fountains, and other beguiling locations, figure numinous powers, neither immortal nor human, that arise from the accidents of land and water. The Greeks were exceedingly sensitive to such phenomena—Vincent Scully’s work on the relationship of Greek temples to their geographical settings is very revealing on this score—and so am I. I feel the lay of the land in my own body and in fact respond to certain places as to a beautiful woman, thus suffering or enjoying the peculiar inspiration the Greeks called nympholepsy. The supposedly disenchanted have their own piety.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Cui Bono

The 9/11 attacks were enormously beneficial to Mr. Bush, who probably would have been tarred and feathered for his disastrous economic record by now were it not for the hysteria about terrorism. Noting this fact, many people around the world think that Bush actually signed up Ben Laden to destroy the Twin Towers or at least looked the other way so that the desired outcome could come to pass. I certainly don’t buy into this conspiracy theory. After all, if we reason on the basis of who benefits most, the logical suspicion would be that it was Ben Laden who hired Bush since Bush has furthered the aims of Ben Laden, i.e. the decline of America, even more than Ben Laden has benefited Bush. If this supposition is true—and we know that mysterious Saudi money bailed out Bush during at least one of his failed business adventures—Ben Laden certainly bet smart. America is now diplomatically isolated, widely hated, militarily weak, and financially stretched— far less powerful now than we were three years ago.


I write that America is militarily weak. That runs against the premise of umpteen op-ed pieces that we have unprecedented military superiority. But that meme is getting a tad shopworn and was always a bit dodgy because military power is not a scalar quantity. In some respects we are powerful indeed. In others, not particularly. A nation isn’t militarily strong simpliciter but only in relationship to particular political purposes. As a defensive force, the U.S. military is fantastically strong and our almost complete ownership of the world’s oceans pretty much precludes any other nation from projecting power offshore. As an offensive force, on the contrary, our strength was always vastly overrated. We had and perhaps have the power to beat any other armed force in a given battle. As the Conquest of Iraq demonstrates, however, we simply don’t have the manpower to occupy much territory without leveraging our power with willing allies. Now that we’re bogged down in Mesopotamia, even the hapless North Koreans are feeling cocky.
Truth and Lie in Extramoral Sense

Because I prefer debates and elections to assassinations and civil wars, I have a considerable tolerance for political equivocation. Where bare metal rubs against bare metal, oily characters come in handy. With this in mind, I’ve never uttered the joke, already stale during the ostracism of Aristides the Just, about how you can tell when a politician is lying. Even in politics, however, there are lies and then there are lies: white lies and black lies, public lies and private lies, trivial lies and consequential lies, opportunistic lies and programmatic lies, lies we can forgive because they create an illusion of community between groups that in fact hate one another and lies we cannot forgive because they fundamentally misrepresent the purposes of the speakers in order to harm the interests of the listeners.

The deceptions of the current administration, the carefully crafted output of countless committee meetings and focus groups, are anything but casual tactical shifts. They are what people used to call studied lies. In the context of the expensive and relentless disinformation campaigns of the administration on the budget, the environment, the connection between Iraq and Ben Laden, corrupt deals with Halliburton, the manufactured energy crisis in California, and nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the much mooted sixteen words are a trivial issue and not even characteristic of the overall Bush approach to lying, which is usually careful to avoid specific assertions. The duplicity of these folks doesn’t so much reflect moral weakness—well, not that moral weakness—as the correct perception that policies beneficial to a minority of people can only be floated in a democracy by systematic fraud.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Putting Lessons

Will Rogers famously admitted that all he knew was what he read in the papers; but in his era the print and broadcast press wasn’t controlled by seven or eight corporations; and the nation wasn’t perpetually marinated in a party line electronically amplified by computer effects. And that creates a problem even for those of us who are fortunate enough to have the time and resources to investigate just how much or how little gold backs up the immense credit operation of public propaganda. To an extent that is probably impossible to judge right now, even the most strident critics of the current system underestimate how far things have gone. Outrage by outrage we’re perfectly aware that media isn’t denouncing, Congress isn’t investigating, the government’s prosecutors aren’t prosecuting, and republican judges aren’t punishing the administration and its friends despite their obvious, massive corruption. It is nevertheless considered shrill to add up the bill and assert that the Crony-Industrial Complex is systematically looting the nation. Somewhat like a traditional cuckold, we know and we don’t know the true facts. For example I have yet to hear anybody on television wonder aloud why Mr. Bush, whose economic record is last only to Hoover’s, is still favored to win in 2004. The Press, at least, knows the fix is in, though it stands ready to jump ship quickly enough if the fix unravels.

Educated people may deride the crude techniques the administration uses to impress the natives, but then everybody’s a native. We’re all stuck with what we read in the papers. Anyhow, the right has learned how to buy elite as well as public opinion. Anybody who follows environmental, foreign affairs, and economic policy debates knows that hired guns, backed with serious money and unhindered by academic scruples, dominate debates that used to be the domain of objective scientists and scholars. Pay for conferences on C-SPAN and you set the agenda. Moderate, liberal, and even radical “personalities” will effectively endorse your program by willingly participating as hapless opponents in these professional wrestling matches. After all, a eunuch also has to eat.

Under the circumstances, we should recognize that the whole field of public discourse is strongly tilted to one side and allow for the break. Even if, like me, you are far more a Madisonian than a Marxist, you have to be willing to aim quite a way to the left if you want to hit the ball straight.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

They Moot Horses, Don’t They?

Handicappers evaluate the outcomes of horse races. In a similar sense and probably with results of comparable reliability, I’m a science handicapper. That is, although I’m not a scientist, I bet on various scientific disputes on the basis of the form of the competitors and whatever savvy I’ve picked up hanging around the track. Just as it doesn’t matter that the handicappers of thoroughbreds aren’t jockeys, trainers, or, for that matter, horses, I and my ilk are not necessarily disqualified because of our pig ignorance of div, curl, and grad and the Sonic Hedgehog gene. In any case, because the sciences really are empirical, which is to say they are games of chance, even the qualified participants need to understand them as sporting propositions as well as airless exercises of technical ingenuity. And just as in the handicapping of horse races, the great object is not to determine the most probable winner of the race—that’s often enough pretty obvious—but to identify those entries that are better than their reputations and will pay a good price if they win, place, or show. The ambitious scientist is on the lookout for surprising hypotheses that nevertheless have a worthwhile chance of panning out.

The pari-mutual system partly explains why famous scientists are often colorful characters even though scientists in general are not. The public only takes notice of the high rollers, but betting on the long shots is not normal behavior for cautious, methodical people whose most salient virtue is as an almost supernatural tolerance for boredom. Indeed, granted the intense competition that defines the scientific enterprise and the huge premium for coming in first, the winners in the contest are increasingly likely to be, if not simply unsound by the lights of traditional scientific ethics, truly dodgy types who are willing to cut corners, jump the gun, make exaggerated claims, cook results in order to “frame the guilty,” and, above all, play to the cameras, all of which will be taken for signs of genius in the winners. You don’t hear much about the much more numerous losers, but I’ve met hundreds of them, mostly teaching in state colleges. At least they don’t make glue out of ‘em.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Meanwhile the Will of Zeus was Being Accomplished

No religion won the European Wars of Religion. Some countries remained loyal to the Pope while others had become Lutheran or Calvinist. But there was one universal winner, the State. The kings and the politicians figured out how to aggrandize themselves either by promoting reform or adhering to tradition—Henry VIII, famously, first became more powerful by supporting the Pope and then became yet more powerful by breaking with him. Heads I win. Tails you lose. The great and passionate theological debates, for all their bitterness and homicidal pedantry, proved comically irrelevant in the long run as History, the true god of men, made dupes of the believers.

I think something similar is going on right now in the United States, with the additional irony that the party most vocal in promoting local rights and denouncing big government is busy increasing the power of the federal government. The Neoconservative and Nixonian segments of the Republican party preach free market ideology or religious revival but only as long as they promote a unitary, authoritarian American empire. If Yahweh or Adam Smith proves an obstacle to the growth of power, they will be dispensed with in short order.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Weird Zajonc

I’ve long been skeptical about elaborate theories of education, not because I’m an enemy of the subtle—I treasure complicated and devious concepts for their aesthetic value—but because only simple remedies have any prospect of every getting implemented in an enormous public system like ours. In a previous life I spent quite a few hundred hours listening to highfalutin theories of how to teach math and was persuaded that many of them would work just fine if elementary school teachers actually understood math, which of course they don’t and probably never will in our system. Unfortunately, simplicity, by itself, avails no more. I used to know John Saxon, a cult figure among the same kind of right-wingers for whom phonics is a panacea. Mr. Saxon promoted a system guaranteed to improve math skills by program of endless, relentless review. In this approach, every homework assignment and every test covers not only the most recent material but also everything that has already been covered in the whole sequence of math courses. The Saxon method appeals greatly to home schoolers because it requires almost no mathematical knowledge on the part of the instructor whose fundamental role is to hand out hand outs, score the results, and play drill sergeant—did I mention that Saxon once taught at West Point? Professional teachers and students generally despise the Saxon method because it is crushingly dull and discounts understanding in favor of mechanical proficiency but above all because it is very hard work for everybody. It is comfortable for math phobic parents, however; and it does work on its own terms. Which is to say, survivors of the program score very well on tests with the same kind of potted problems as the Saxon exercise sets. And that’s the joke about it. What Saxon has discovered is an instance of Harrison’s First Law of Instruction: If you teach ‘em more, they’ll learn more. Flogged through more hours of instruction, students learn more, but because of the hours, not the method.

In a way, even the Saxon approach isn’t crude enough. It assumes that the best way to improve education is to change a methodology. I think the available evidence suggests something quite different, namely that the crucial variable isn’t how adults interact with children but how much they interact and when. Robert Zajonc pointed out quite a long time ago that the observed higher intelligence of first born and only children had a ready explanation: such children usually spend more time with adults than later children who keep each other company. A more recent and rather tragic finding, which we owe to an incredibly strenuous research project conducted by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children), is that the greater verbal skills of the children of middle class and professional class can be accounted for by the number and quality of words the children hear in their preschool years. In the study, children of professional class people heard something on the order of 500 words an hour, mostly addressed to them, and mostly supportive, affectionate, and substantive. In poor households, the number was closer to 200, less often addressed to the children, and characterized by fewer nouns and adjectives. By age four, the professional class kids had heard a total of 45,000,000 words, working class kids had heard 26,000,000 and poor kids had heard 13,000,000, This difference in experience had significant results. The lower income children arrived at school with an average vocabulary of 3,000 words, the middle-income kids with an average of 20,000. Unsurprisingly, the lower income kids did far worse academically. Intervention after early childhood didn’t remedy this discrepancy; but in a related study, it was shown that intensive education of the parents of preschoolers, in this project mothers with an average IQ of 75, could prevent it. The kids in that pilot study performed at grade level through elementary school. If Hart and Risley are correct, the way to improve American education is pretty clear. Educate the parents and make it possible for them to spend more hours with their kids. And Hart and Risley are correct—their research merely confirms a series of huge studies conducted over the years in the United Kingdom by the discourse analysis folks on the relationship between class and language.

While it is perfectly sensible and often intensely interesting to develop better ways to teach the higher freebus to elite students, the endlessly debated educational problem is not about the Education of the Prince. The often-cited gap between the performance of our schools and those in Asia and Europe disappears when you disaggregate the statistics and remove the underclass kids. If you really want to improve the educational attainment of American kids as a whole, you’ll have to do something for the poor and minority segment and that will require educating their parents and making sure they have the time to teach their own kids at the early stage when it really counts. That’s not going to happen in our America. So we’ll go on trying to solve the problem in schools, where it can’t be solved, meanwhile punishing teachers and school districts for their mysterious inability to float lead.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

We’re Doomed

I’m sometimes amused and sometimes dismayed by the mesmerizing effects of cute little arguments, but that doesn’t discourage me from making up my own:

People normally model their opinions on those of authority figures since they are usually not in a position to make an independent judgment even if they were motivated enough to try. Unfortunately, different authorities say different things. One solution is to parrot a party line, but that solution is, as it were, energetically unfavorable. An unambiguous and stridently stated point of view may have to be defended, a most unwelcome cost. Another common option is to hold several inconsistent beliefs at once—self contradictory propositions, unlike matter and anti-matter, can and do coexist indefinitely so long as the brain is kept at a fairly low temperature. The most common dodge, however, is to assume that the truth always lies between. This strategy has several advantages. It assumes that all differences of opinion occur on a continuum between polar opposites, thus sweeping 99.9% of the unwanted complexity of the universe under a handy rhetorical rug. Above all it is sweet and reasonable and blessedly vague. It is also highly exploitable.

The genre conventions of American journalism assure that every public issue will be presented as a conflict between two opposing positions. Under these circumstances, the more irrational of the two sides will always win no matter how idiotic its contention. Indeed, if you don’t give a damn about truth or fairness, you are well advised to strike the most extreme stance you can. The audience may not buy your thoroughly crazy ideas, but it they split the difference, you still win a partial victory and also make it possible to extend your success at the next occasion by further establishing the legitimacy of your zany ideology. Your opponent, handicapped by scruples, will not be able to counter your tactics by a countervailing exaggeration. His or her caution and good manners will simply be perceived as weakness.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The Rhetoric of the Anti-Masonic Party Revisited

The word fascism is useless rhetorically, but I sometimes wish it were still possible to use it analytically because the politics it names is not some historical curiosity but a recurring tendency with great appeal to many people. This fact was conveniently forgotten in the aftermath of the wars of the first half of the last century and not just in liberated France. It's as if we thought that thing itself could not come back if we didn't utter its name. As a result of this linguistic prohibition, still in force, we have no usable name for a political syndrome characterized by:

Coercive patriotism
Populist rhetoric
Non-stop, ubiquitous propaganda
Programmatic official deception
Contempt for individual rights
Demonization of foreign and domestic enemies
Machismo – the Cult of Attitude
Glorification of ignorance as a cultural value
Obsession with violence as a solution to problems
Fascination with weapons
Fear of sexuality
Disgust with parliamentary politics, non-stop calls for national unity
An interlocking directorate of big business and government officials
Cronyism on a vast scale
A politicized justice system
Hostility to labor unions
Regressive taxation
An aggressive, unilateral foreign policy

So what should we call this system now that Hitler has given fascism a bad name? I am keen to hear.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Si lingua non esset immortalis…

It’s an old percept of statecraft—or if it isn’t, it ought to be—that nations should not go to war unless losing the war is a better result than not fighting it at all. By that light, we owe the various Royal Academies and National Commissions a respite from the traditional sarcasm they endure for their doomed efforts to preserve the purity of their various native tongues. The point is apparently never made, but losing the war to create a stable language is a very useful futility. The professors and orthographers have, after all, succeeded in fashioning a whole series of literary languages from a local Babel of dialects and patois. It’s hard enough to understand human history or conduct its affairs when dealing with, reckoning from Sumerian to Tok Pisin, perhaps two hundred regularized languages. Absent the literary and sometimes political effort it required to cut the continuum of ever changing dialects into intelligible units and retard their mutation, human affairs would be illegible instead of merely chaotic. The language police always lose in the long run, but it makes all the difference in the world that it is a long run.

I am minded to make these remarks by the recent appearance of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, a whole series of modern Latin classics presented like Loeb editions of the Classics with an English translation on facing pages. Books written in neo-Latin have a difficult time finding readers, both because translations are often not available and because of the prejudice that even great writers like Petrarch and Boccaccio couldn’t write anything worthwhile in a dead language. This last notion is really quite peculiar since those of us who write in literary English are also writing in a dead language, even if we are working with a fresher corpse. Anyhow, there really are a great many fine books written in neo-Latin. The literary quality of writers like the original renaissance man, Leon Batista Alberti, and the Florentine historian Leonard Bruni is obvious in the high-quality I Tatti translations. The translations also help correct the record in other ways. I’ve just begun to read The Platonic Theology of Marsilio Ficino, but I’ve already discovered that he is a more a serious philosopher than I had ever realized.

I append a list of the current and forthcoming volumes in this series:

In print:

Biographical Writings


Platonic Theology, 3 Volumes


On Discovery


Volume 1, Books I-IV



Camaldulensian Disputations

Republics and Kingdoms Compared





Later Writings

Rome Restored



Philosophical Writings



Lamps of the Thirty Statues

History of the Popes
Worse than a Mistake

Military success is a handy cosmetic for a blemished foreign policy. Napoleon often sought battle as much for the domestic PR value of a victory as for its strategic consequences. The instance of Iraq shows how little changes. The triumphant march on Bagdad boosted Bush’s fortunes at home even though the scripted outcome, more lethal theater than dubious battle, was never in question and didn’t teach us anything about the wisdom or unwisdom of the war since it was always obvious that the high tech American military could easily dispose of the Iraqi government. But if the showy triumph of the spring ought to be discounted in evaluating our policy, the losses of the summer shouldn’t be decisive in judging it either. It could be, after all, that the costs we’re incurring are worth it. No 19th Century imperialist would trouble himself over a couple of casualties a day even if, as is quite possible in the present case, the sacrifice will have to be made every day of every year we occupy the mini-Raj. True, the notion that the terrorists are going to run out of personnel is worse than irrational wishful thinking—granted the birthrate in Muslim countries, it’s another right-wing abuse of arithmetic—but maybe a stable regime will nevertheless eventually emerge in Mesopotamia, probably led by a military strong man, another Bush family client like Noriega or Saddam Hussein. Obviously, one does not know.

Only a true prophet, which is to say somebody who’s lucky, can accurately predict the long-range outcome of a foreign policy action. My own great unhappiness with our attack on Iraq was not based on a judgment of its probable bad consequences, though I think a good case can be made from an unimpeachably cynical perspective that it was pretty unintelligent. I mean I thought it was a mistake, but maybe it wasn’t a mistake and, anyhow, governments make mistakes all the time in a desperately difficult game. What outraged me wasn’t that war was an error but that it was dishonorable. I simply didn’t want to be associated with a state that granted itself the right to make war on whoever it wished without immediate cause. I was also perfectly aware—who among the merely conscious wasn’t?—that Bush, Blair, and Powell were lying to everybody in a premeditated, indeed, systematic fashion and that important sectors of American civil society, especially the media, were complicit in these lies. That’s why I am less impressed than some others by the significance of the problems we’re facing in Iraq just now. If I thought we had any business being there, I wouldn’t find the cost excessive; and I won’t change my mind about the wrongness of what we did even if the triumph of Bagdad is followed by the triumph of Damascus as Jena followed Austerlitz.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Squaring the Circle

If all that it takes is to believe that your nation is God’s favorite, chosen peoples have always infested the Earth, though their hurrah-for-our-side ideologies have never had much more content or validity than a high-school football cheer. The historical novelty of the Jews is rather different. Like the Greeks, the Hebrews were late comers to a world that already had a long history behind it. They certainly tried to take their place among the ranks of the goyim, an impulse that has never gone away, but promoting legendary or mythical figures such as David or Solomon as local pharaohs didn’t quite come off despite the talk of chariots and mighty men. It was the Book and the tradition of reading it that set the Jews apart and allowed them to persist with a sense of their own identity in the aftermath of the destruction of their insignificant territorial states. Indeed, many of the exiles in Babylon and Egypt chose not to return to Palestine. There was something half-hearted about the rebuilding of the temple, a partially sensed irrelevance that perhaps accounts for the literary dullness of the Books of Nehemiah and Ezra. In any case the gradual establishment of a definitive canon and translation of the Torah into Greek by Jews in Alexandria were far more momentous than priestly squabbles in Jerusalem. To be sure, as I gather from people who actually know about these things, we have next to no reliable information about what actually took place in these crucial centuries. Even so, the salient event was presumably not the resettlement of the West Bank by Judeans of impeccable lineage but something spiritual or at least intellectual.

Being chosen means being set apart, but the terms of this separation are not, or were not, geographical and political so much as ritual and ethical. You some times read that during the Diaspora the Jews reverted to the situation before the monarchy during which the people had rallied around a portable symbol of identity except that in the later age the Torah took the place of the Tabernacle. In this respect, Zionism is a reversion of a reversion, a redefinition of Israel as a territorial unit. Granted the horrors of the last century, it’s easy to understand and sympathize with this desire for a secure homeland, an impulse similar to the frequently expressed wish of Russians and other East Europeans to live in a normal country in the aftermath of the Soviet era. In Israel’s case, unfortunately, the hoped for normalcy is impossible because the new state is not just a place where Jews live among others, but a Jewish state where only Jews have full citizenship. Only the presumption of some sort of special privilege can justify the mass expulsion of the Palestinians back in 1947, the gradual annexation of the West Bank, and the restrictions on intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews; but what’s special about the Jews is precisely that they aren’t just another nation. That’s why the Israeli flag shouldn’t feature the Star of David. The more appropriate emblem would be a square circle on a field of blue.

Monday, August 11, 2003

In the World of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is Under Arrest

We Americans have a right to mess up our own affairs, which is why I get more exercised by the foreign policy of the Bush administration than by its domestic program. The two are related, however; and the regime pursues its aims at home and abroad with the same characteristic combination of good conscience and studied dishonesty. While the State and Defense Departments, the CIA, and the FBI cheerfully jigger intelligence to support the Conquest of Iraq and other international adventures, the independence of the government’s various scientific advisory boards has been compromised by political intervention through the stocking of boards with ideologues and operatives and the censoring of supposedly objective reports as in the recent instance of the excision of inconvenient conclusions about global warming from an important EPA document. Apparently, the administration is also doctoring the economic information issued by various agencies. For example, for the last couple of years the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Analysis has stopped reporting the distributional effects of tax changes. This outfit previously issued formal reports addressing the question of who benefits and who pays for various policy changes. Since the last two tax bills were obviously crafted to benefit the wealthy, objective analysis could not be permitted. Unfortunately, the muzzling of the Office of Tax Analysis is hardly an aberration. Under the prevailing circumstances, government data on the budget, unemployment, and the balance of trade are probably all suspect.

One has to be both naïve and ignorant of the moral history of the last thirty years to think that significant numbers of contemporary bureaucrats, scientists, and economists are going to be willing to risk their incomes to blow the whistle on the politicization of technical information. Ranked by its bad effects, the great vice of the age is not a fondness for child pornography, after all, but plain old careerism. These guys agree with Tim Russert that integrity is for paupers. Meanwhile, it’s easy to understand why the rightists think that they can get away with corrupting the sources of information even though they blind themselves in the process. The administration is a faith-based institution; prophecy doesn’t require eyes.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Make It So

I don’t doubt there are things that are what they are because of the way we think about them, which is to say, because of the will or whim of a sovereign community. Famously, it is consensus not connubium that makes a marriage; and imaginary medical facts can send you off to real jails and madhouses or, thanks to a show of hands at some hotel in Toronto, turn a disease into a life style choice or vice versa. There is nothing new about such astonishing feats of creation from nothing. We read in the Talmud that the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disputed for two and a half years whether the creation of man had been a good thing. Eventually they took a vote. I guess that settled that. But even admitting that it is indeed possible to do things with words, one has to ask why anybody is especially impressed with these somewhat less than earth-shattering miracles, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” he asked earnestly. “Yes, I’ve seen it done.”

May I suggest that what has been novel and remarkable about the last couple of centuries is a partial escape from the tyranny of the illocutionary? In the near total absence of reliable knowledge, truth was bound to be an act of social will, a set of sacred, obligatory clichés. These days, having figured out how to let reality get a word in edgewise, we actually do understand a thing or two including our location relative to the Sun and the other stars, the nature of the chemical bond, and how living things work. Even granting that the objectivity of the various sciences is to some extent inversely proportional to their human relevance, you’d think we’d be impressed if not relieved to encounter at least a few examples of facts that remain the case whether or not you believe in them. But, of course, it is quite possible that the obsession of retail Postmodernism with the relativity of knowledge is actually an indirect recognition of the new state of affairs, just as the Fundamentalist’s newly found interest in radical skepticism is pretty obviously a response to the practical impossibility of doubting the reality of the evolution of life.

Friday, August 08, 2003

Going Ted Postol

The trouble is, the evil part is so much easier than the genius part. Every three-year old dreams of conquest and empire, but then they kick the wrong uncle in the shins. Unfortunately, the current crop of would-be masters of the universe disposes of a lot more firepower than a toddler and their comeuppance is likely to involve blood rather than tears. In either case, however, wishful thinking leads to a drastic overestimation of real capabilities.

In theory, disciplined but unscrupulous individuals can exploit the power of fantasy to move masses of people without falling for their own line. In practice, even technically sophisticated people don’t seem to be able to keep the two sets of books straight. Back in the 80s, for example, the rational reason to promote antiballistic missile defense was to outmaneuver the Soviets. In the context of that strategy, it made sense to tout the prospects of a successful system even in the face of a near-total scientific consensus that the whole idea was nonsense. The Reds are long gone and the prospects of a working system remain essentially zero, but the dream of perfect safety lives on, recruiting new threats—North Korea, terrorists, perhaps China—to justify what is really a childish and extremely aggressive dream of irresponsible power. By now, it is pretty clear that many in the current regime actually believe in ABMs despite the simultaneous recognition that tests results must be faked to keep the project going.

This sort of thing has happened a lot in the last hundred years. Alfred von Schlieffen could never make his famous plan work even in a map exercise, and the grand dreams of the even more feckless Austrian Franz Conrad von Huetzendorff were similarly dead before arrival. The logistical experts of Hitler’s Wehrmacht calculated that the panzers would run out of gas before they reached Moscow. That didn’t matter to the high command for whom, as usual, hope was indeed the plan. Similarly, the Japanese discounted the results of the war games they conducted in the run up to the Battle of Midway. The umpires ruled that the result of the simulation, the loss of four aircraft carriers, was simply impossible. Authoritarian regimes appear to be especially prone to this pathology. The absence of a free press and serious political opposition makes it easy to fool the populace and therefore yourself. As America becomes steadily more authoritarian, we can expect its leaders to believe their own propaganda more and more.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Unmodern Library

I know a biology professor who draws a chemical structure in front of his class and asks what it is. The students are always familiar with that one, and immediately tell him it’s DNA. “No!” he thunders—well, I imagine he thunders—“It’s chalk on blackboard!” thus producing a new cover of the Buddhist number about the finger and the moon, though as far as I know Ralph hasn’t cut off anybody’s finger yet. There is a philological version of this riff.

Encountering some nice modern translation of an old book or, more likely, a few well-chosen paragraphs from a translation, it is very easy to think you are encountering the word of Dante or Sophocles instead of a thoroughly synthetic surrogate for the postulated original. I recently encountered a photo of a crumbling Babylonian tablet of an episode from the Gilgamesh epic along with a transliteration of its contents (Introduction to Gilgamesh, A Reader, edited by John Meier). What we read as “Why, Enkidu, do you curse the love priestess, the woman?” was vocalized, leaving out the diacritical marks and brackets for conjectures, as “am-me-ni en-ki-du ha-rim-ti sam-hat ta-na-an-za-ar.” Except the tablet is in pretty bad shape, in several pieces in fact, and the scribe’s handwriting, though rather better than mine, is not perfect. And the text is in Akkadian, a Semitic language, but the epic was originally in Sumerian so a literate Mesopotamian would actually have read the characters for Enkidu as something like Heabani. (Apparently, it’s just a convention to call the hero by his Sumerian name Gilgamesh [Bilgamesh?] since the Akkadian is something like Izdubar and everyone knew him as Nancy.) There are other difficulties also. For example, George Smith, who originally translated the passage back in the 1870s, didn’t realize that Samhat means sacred prostitute. He thought it was a proper name for a lady called “Delightful.” It goes on.

I don’t mean to belabor the point, both because it is preposterous for me to talk about the finer points of Assyriology at all granted my well-known imbecility with languages but also because you don’t have to go back to the Dawn of History to find examples of the illusion of transparency. Anyhow, my point is not so much a matter of instances as generalities. Everything we read from other languages, indeed most of what we read in our own language, is highly mediated. Like baby sea gulls we never feed on an actual herring, though in the human case, mommy chews our food for us our whole life long. Intellectually speaking, we subsist on pasteurized, homogenized, and bowdlerized texts, a processed cheese product but one without nutrition information on the label. That’s why I like very literal translations and even more bilingual editions of books. You don’t learn how to make conversation in Assyrian, but at least you preserve some sense of the distance between yourself and the past and the sheer difficulty of understanding.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Hiring the Handicapped

Integrity in a politician is like the tail of the peacock, an extravagance that advertises that its possessor is so vigorous he can afford a superfluous expense. That’s why I usually support the better man even when, as a practical matter, what is most needed is the better politician.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Sunday School

I’ve frequently cited the Book of Daniel for polemical purposes as an example of prophesy after the fact (ex eventu). Obviously put together around 165 BC during the despotic reign of Antilochus IV Epiphanes, the book represents the legendary Daniel as “foretelling” history that had long sense taken place—until very recently Daniel was seven times more fraudulent than any other document ever forged in the land of Mesopotamia. The fortunetelling doesn’t occupy the entire text, however; and I still fondly remember its tales of the handwriting on the wall and the fiery furnace from a picture book I had as a child. Both for old time sake and to see if I had been representing the historical status of the book accurately all these years, I reread Daniel this weekend with the help of the translation and commentary of Hartman and Di Lella. I still like the folkloric parts, and the apocalyptic predictions are still a transparent fiction; but I did learn a few things.

1. The pious commentators treat “the book’s supposed historical setting and dates as merely literary conventions and nothing more,” but they educe no evidence that Daniel’s authors are winking at the reader. It is true, however, that the rabbis, who in this as in other matters demonstrate considerable integrity, eventually put the Book of Daniel in the third part of Scripture, Kehuvim or writings, instead of in the second part, Nevi’im or prophets. The writings contain a number of works such as Job, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes that are of considerable literary merit but theologically problematic. The Christians were less cautious. St. Jerome followed the Hellenistic Greek translation of the Jewish Bible in placing Daniel among the prophets.

2. The clumsiness of a fraud is no evidence of the innocence of the perpetrators, but it does testify to the remarkable credulity of the faithful. One speaks of a will to believe, but that’s surely a misnomer if the word “will” implies a process of deliberation leading to a decision instead of automatism, group think, and wishful thinking. One believes in the good news much as one believes that it’s you can eat awesome blossoms on a regular basis without bad consequences. One hardly needs to sift the archaeological evidence or to become an expert on Oriental languages to notice that the accounts in the Book of Daniel are incoherent and self-contradictory—on internal evidence alone, the pagan philosopher Porphyry correctly dated the composition of the book back in the 3rd Century.

3. The prophesies in Daniel are indeed ex eventu, but they are also erroneous despite the advantage of predicting the past. The authors of the work simply didn’t understand the history of the Near East—not surprising when you recall that they were talking about things that had happened four hundred years before their own time. How many people today would get the wars and rulers of 16th Century right? Thus the famous allegory of the statue with feet of clay confuses Medes and Persians and generally makes a hash of chronology and king’s names.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex by Judith Levine

Harmful to Minors is an expose of the craziness of American attitudes towards sex and children, including our hysteria about pedophilia and child pornography, our dotty notion that there’s something pathological or criminal about nine year olds playing doctor, and the official promotion of abstinence as a panacea. From a statistical point of view, children aren’t at much risk of sexual attack from strangers—family members are another matter—and notion that sex offenders are a homogenous population of incorrigible monsters is not so much a psychological generalization as a rule of genre fiction like the convention that you can’t see vampires in a mirror. Levine usefully reminds us that these received truths hurt a lot of actual people. Minor offenders are branded for life and subjected to vigilante justice, and children get stigmatized by pointless psychiatric interventions backed by the force of law. Meanwhile, the obsession with real or imagined sexual misbehavior opens up vast prospects of blackmail and political extortion to public and private sex police and other entrepreneurs.

In most respects, Harmful to Minors is an unremarkable effort. Levine, a journalist, is neither a remarkably good or remarkably inept writer, and her book features the mix of anecdote and generalization usual in general nonfiction. In any case, making a case for the obvious isn’t all that difficult. What makes the book notable is that it was published at all, even by a minor university press. Indeed, I expect that the University of Minnesota Press wishes it had stuck to learned treatises on phenomenology since the publication of Harmful to Minors was greeted with gouts of venom from the usual spitting cobras. Levine is not a pamphleteer for NAMBLA or a promoter of sexual liberation ala Reich; but she was nevertheless denounced, and not just on AM radio, as a debaucher of children and an agent of the Prince of Darkness. The dogmas of American sexual politics are far too fragile to be defended without fanaticism.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

An Unfortunate Consideration

A good many people seem to think that only God can establish moral rules and that without supernatural fiat and sanction we wouldn’t be able to figure out what we should do or bring ourselves to do the right thing if we somehow managed to guess what that might be. This belief is problematic in a practical way. If a theological irrationalist gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and decides he can no longer hypnotize himself into believing he believes, a potential psychopath is born. Unfortunately, one has to be very optimistic indeed to think this is only a theoretical possibility.
Has Anybody Pointed Out

Conservatives continue to insist that the observed warming of the Earth has a natural rather than a human cause. To judge from the tendency of articles I’ve read in various journals, the consensus against this proposition is pretty strong and getting stronger—the most recent issue of SCIENCE included a paper reporting evidence that the troposphere, the lowest level of the atmosphere, is swelling, a phenomenon consistent with anthropogenic warming—but the issue of why the Earth is warming may be less important than the more imperious fact that it is warming. Mankind may have to take collective action to deal with the consequences of global warming whatever its cause. And even if, contrary to the current evidence, greenhouse gases aren’t responsible for the warming the Earth, reducing emissions of such gases would remain an obvious way to counter a rise in average temperatures.
What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Without any particular strain or great expense, I drove more than 5,000 miles in the last month; but I was able to move so effortlessly only because I stayed to well-beaten paths like a marble rolling in a groove. At right angles to the Interstates, I could barely have traveled at all. The freedom of the open road is freedom in much the same way and to the same degree that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is an adventure—keep your hands inside the car at all times.

Technical Note: Accounts of the “inner” history of mankind sometimes leave the impression that what has changed in the last couple of centuries is an affair of worldviews or mentalities. What made parts of the Earth into Our World is not something primarily psychological but a real physical process. Dasein really is a clearing in the woods, often enough a clear cut; and our experience is a communal fantasy structured by a physical network of narrow but well-greased pathways paved with concrete and lined with Quality Inns and Burger Kings.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Report from the Heartland

On my recent inspection tour of the continental United States, I mostly inspected the mile or so on either side of various Interstates. I sampled the airwaves more adequately, however, even though with the car in drive and my mind in neutral, what was actually being said in the broadcasts didn’t stick with me. I listened as dogs listen, not to the words but to the tone of the voice. Clear Channel D.J.’s sound a trademark note on every station even when it isn’t literally the same person celebrating the vibrant personality of Amarillo, the Athens of Potter county, on Wednesday and the pioneer spirit of the old Northwest in Terre Haute two days later. On Clear Channel stations, however, it often is the same person.I could also usually tell I had tuned into right-winger talk show by the perpetual snarl. Similarly, NPR announcers almost always sound like psychiatric nurses trying to calm excitable patients. There are exceptions. The musical segues on NPR seem to feature Mongolian throat singing with remarkable frequency, and conservative commentators spend a certain part of every hour flattering their listeners as if the entire middle of the country was suffering from a perpetual crisis of low self esteem.

Travelers to this country often remark on the monotony of its commercial landscapes, the identical strip of brand name stores and restaurants plunked down in an astonishing variety of physical settings; but, to judge by the radio, anyway, America’s feelings are as franchised as the burger joints.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out, edited by Ibn Warraq

[Note] I tell myself that the best thing is to be satisfied with your fate and get on with it. For example, if you’re a Superhero, it doesn’t do to bitch that you are an off-brand superhero. True, I’m not as strong as the Hulk, as mysterious as the Shadow, or even as stretchy as Plasticman, but I do read a lot. Think of me as what would have happened if the guy in the Twilight Zone episode hadn’t broken his glasses. In that spirit, the first of innumerable very brief notices of mostly unnoticed books:

Ibn Warraq is probably the most prominent anti-Muslim writer who comes from the Muslim world. Leaving Islam and his earlier book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, are effective if unoriginal polemic. You don’t have to be a great shot when you’re shooting an elephant at close range but you do have to keep your nerve—Ibn Warraq, whose real identity is understandably kept secret, is under a death sentence for apostasy as are all male apostates under Muslim law as interpreted by all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. In any case, as the narratives in Leaving Islam make clear, criticisms of religion that have been commonplace in the West since the Enlightenment are still news in Pakistan and Egypt. Indeed, one of the benefits of reading these first-person accounts is to recover the force of the old arguments. Other themes are perhaps more surprising: many male and female apostates cite the deep hostility of traditional Islam to women and many non-Arabs see Islam as an Arabic imperial ideology. I was also interested to read that many ex-Muslims are as unimpressed with the literary quality of the Koran as I am.

While works like Leaving Islam may have a more immediate impact, I expect that Ibn Warraq’s more academic books will turn out to more important in the long haul. In his What the Koran Really Says, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and The Origins of the Koran, all anthologies of serious scholarship, Ibn Warraq examines the remarkably thin evidence that lies behind the official story of how Islam and the Koran came to be. Sympathetic Western accounts of Islam have left many people with the impression that, unlike Moses or Jesus, Muhammad’s career unfolded in the light of history. In fact, contemporary Byzantine accounts of the Arab invasion of Syria and Egypt don’t even mention Muhammad, and the familiar just-so story of his activities is based on biographies and histories written down two centuries after the death of the Prophet. It is also quite impossible to squeeze a coherent narrative out of the Koran itself, surely the worst edited as well as the worst written of the major scriptures. In any case, while Jewish and Christian writings have been subjected to four hundred years of serious philological research, the corresponding process has barely been initiated for the Koran. Ibn Warraq’s own conjectures about the origins of Islam may not prove to be accurate or even on the right track—he is perfectly well aware of how tentative all such reconstructions must be given the state of the evidence—but the effort itself is a vital precedent and a huge improvement on the thinly disguised apologetics (Watt!) that often pass for serious scholarship on Islam.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Putting Lessons

Golf is supposed to be a cruel game, but it is also capriciously merciful. No matter how badly you play, some of your shots will go in the hole because the idiot optimism of your club selection and the mere stupidity of your course management will sometimes combine in one golden moment with a feeble swing and geriatric nerves to produce a brilliant result. This occurs surprisingly often. If you both misread and miss hit all your putts, for example, half of them will go wildly off line but half will move in the general direction of the target because the errors counteract one another. An analogue of this mechanism operates in the occasional cases in which journalists get something right. The universal corruption of our Press is sometimes moderated by an incompetence that is equally chronic but much more erratic in its effects. Thus, as Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler website ( points out, the pundits routinely get the facts wrong when they report on the current WMD scandal. They rightly attack a deeply dishonest regime but with misunderstood particulars. Unfortunately, the golf analogy quickly breaks down, because even the worst golfer really is trying to get the ball in the hole, whereas telling the truth about the public world is not the object of the sport of journalism.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

A Memorable Fancy or Phylum and Forget ‘Em

I used to have a recurrent dream that recast the Oedipus legend in modern dress, rather in the style of the Brazilian movie about Orpheus. The only scene I remember with some clarity involved the encounter with the Sphinx, who in this version is a very cool but somewhat sinister jazz pianist, a demonic Ray Charles. The sphinx/hipster registers my approach somehow and, flashing the exaggerated grin of a blind man, lays the riddle on me, “Say, babe, at what temperature does meat keep best?” I answer instantly, “98.6°!” and win, though only for the time being.

Meat can keep for quite a while, several billion years in my case, though temperature isn’t necessarily the most critical parameter, some of my ancestors having been pretty cold fish long before they were really cool cats. The fundamental thing is the unbroken maintenance of a definable chemical tension between what is inside and what is outside. Thus life persists only so long as cells contain a lot more adenosine triphosphate than adenosine diphosphate—8 to 10 times more, I’m told. Since ATP spontaneously breaks down into ADP, only the perpetual uphill synthesis of ATP keeps everybody going. The treadmill must never be allowed to stop. It’s like the children’s pastime of seeing how long you can bounce a ball on a paddle. “A zillion and one. A zillion and two. A zillion and three. Oops!” Life also depends on a continuity of genetic information, of course; but the thermodynamic imperative is even more despotic since it rules every moment of every life.

Physicists describe the motion of things as world lines in space-time. The careers of living things form world tubes, cylinders enclosing small regions rich in energetic molecules. If we could view the Earth and its history from a fifth dimension, we would see trillions and trillions of these mostly microscopic tubes emerging from what was, presumably, a single primal mass. Many of the tubes ramify; but the overwhelming majority dead end almost immediately; and, in all probability, all the tubes end eventually. If you look very closely, you can just make out exceedingly thin tubes branching out from the rare thicker sections. A tiny fraction of these very tiny tubes connect with other tiny tubes and themselves grow into thick tubes. Despite these rare instances of joining, the overall shape of life is, as Darwin recognized, a rather bushy shrub. Topologically, the whole assembly appears to be a single volume in space-time but, because of sex, is actually multiply connected when you look at it closely.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Non-Prophet Organizations

It is a commonplace of Biblical studies that prophets are not fortunetellers and should not be graded by how often their predictions are fulfilled—their calling, presumably, having been something rather different and more important than a gig as a night club card reader or political pundit. I’m merely a gypsy nabi (on the analogy with a gypsy taxi driver), but these days even an unlicensed prophet knows better than to foretell elections or forecast wars. The prudential reason for my reticence is the embarrassment of guessing wrong. Afflicted as I am with a reasonably good memory and random fits of integrity, I’m liable to admit I’m wrong and suffer the consequences to my self-esteem. But the likelihood of error is not the main thing. After all, I might also be right once and a while. I oppose the enterprise of fortunetelling because, finally, I believe in the reality of time and the freedom of the will. History is a surpassingly exciting adventure because not even God knows how it will turn out. So if, for example, I excoriate George Bush, it isn’t because I know whether his face will end up on a stamp or his head on a pole. Good actions turn out badly. Bad actions turn out well. Meanwhile the guy who insists on drawing to an inside strait is still an idiot.

All of this was supposed to be a brief preface to a couple of remarks about Nonprofit Organizations—I guess as a person with a philosophical education, I couldn’t resist the temptation to begin at the beginning and work backwards. The introduction was also meant to display a note of piquant irony, for having rejected the notion of making predictions, I was going to make one, namely that there will be a whole series of scandals involving NPOs in the next few years.

As prophesies go, that one isn’t very thrilling, I suppose. It is also largely ex eventu, that is, there have already been quite a few scandals involving NPOs. Just as the fabricator of the Book of Daniel could accurately predict the downfall of the Babylonians and Persians because these events had already occurred when he wrote the book, I can confidently assert the increasing prevalence of serious dishonesty in the non profits because high officials of Goodwill, the Red Cross, and various church groups have recently been caught with their hands in the till. More than that, however, my prediction is based on the increasing reliance our society places on charitable foundations to the wake of the retreat of the welfare state. NPOs offer a magic or at least very convenient solution to the problems of the world or at least to the problems of the compassionate conservatives. For reasons never exactly explained, the managers of NPOs are supposed to be morally better than government officials and the inefficiency of their bureaucracies somehow a nonissue to the same people who otherwise can’t type the word “bureaucracy” without putting the word “bloated” in front of it. While everybody complains that the CEOs of unsuccessful companies shouldn’t be rewarded with enormous salaries and bonuses, at least CEOs can be judged by the profits of their firms. What constitutes good performance in a top NPOs manager is much more difficult to define. The potential for abuse is enormous.

Oddly, the only general criticism of NPOs I have heard lately comes from the Right. The American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society recently held an all-day conference entitled NGOs: The Growing Power of an Un-elected Few. Why these two organizations should be unhappy about un-elected power is not clear, but you don’t succeed in the world of foundations by being consistent or intellectually honest. Characteristically, the conference turned into a day long attack on precisely those NPOs — Amnesty International, CARE, Oxfam, and Friends of the Earth—whose activities interfere with the prerogatives of the corporations and America’s imperial foreign policy. The political irresponsibility of the NPOs was just a convenient stick to beat up hated greens and internationalists. That it was an available line of attack, however, is telling. The AEI critique applies far more to the deeply corrupt religious organizations and propaganda mills on their own side than Amnesty International or Doctors without Borders, but it is a valid in principle.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Separating Out

Ian Hacking remarks in one of the essays in his Historical Ontology that the “renaissance medical, alchemical, and astrological doctrines of resemblance and simultude are well nigh incomprehensible. One does not find our modern notions of evidence deployed in these arcane pursuits.” That’s not exactly wrong, but only if the “our” in “our modern notions” is defined narrowly enough. In fact a great many people, even people who don’t live in Taos, still practice these “arcane pursuits” as evidenced by the large Metaphysics sections in bookstores. Indeed, if folks addicted to resemblence and simultude don’t constitute an actual majority of the population, it’s only because so many of the rest haven’t got as far as Paracelsus. The Medieval lies far ahead of most of mankind, especially in America where, even for elites, the gains of the Enlightenment were mostly given back in the succeeding Enmerdement, so that a nation founded by cosmopolitan philosophers is now ruled by superstitious dullards.

What we (but which we?) count as general cultural advance is more often just a separating out of a tiny self-conscious minority who only think they typify the others. Just as the world of living things started out as a bunch of bacteria and mostly remains a bunch of bacteria after three and a half billion years of evolution, intellectual progress hasn’t moved the average very much either. Well-educated people are often upbraided for their sense of superiority, but in my experience they tend to offend more often by giving their fellow man too much credit than too little. They are certainly ignorant about ignorance, mistakenly taking their idea of the human mean from the highly untypical sample of people with whom they themselves interact. Indeed, with this background, encountering a truly typical human being can be quite a shock. Nothing is quite so painful as listening to an honorable, good-natured biologist getting destroyed in a pubic debate over Darwinism because his cynical opponent has a much more realistic understanding of the mentality of a lay audience whose common sense is decidedly prescientific and utterly lacking in “our modern notions of evidence.”
Ends and Means

When I hear people criticize politicians for letting the ends justify the means, I find myself wondering what else is supposed to justify the means. In my experience, the graver errors and crimes of leaders stem from an infatuation with the means themselves for which the purported end of the action simply provides an excuse or occasion. The use of torture to extract information, for example, is commonly defended by an appeal to necessity, as in the current war on terror during which we have promoted the use of torture by our allies when we haven’t practiced it ourselves under various euphemisms. Historical experience suggests, however, that torture is not a very useful technique for gathering information precisely because it is all too effective at eliciting the desired answer. Thus if what you need to do is convince yourselves of the rightness of some crazy theory, for example that old women are powerful agents of the devil or that a wrecked Middle Eastern country is a deadly immediate threat, torture works. More generally, torture makes sense, at least to its devotees, as a way of asserting power through the moral annihilation of a hated enemy. Forcing the bad guy to disclose where he planted the bomb, a very rare occurrence, is treated as the paradigm case for apologetic purposes; but, for the most part, the powerful electrocute a captive’s balls for the same reason a dog licks his—because he can.

Terrible things must sometimes be done by decent people, though even in the most defensible instances, the good can only do what they must my waking their own dark impulses. Thus in the inevitable example—though the case of Roosevelt is probably more illuminating—Churchill waged pitiless war on Hitler because it was the necessary thing to do, but he was able to act ruthlessly, as he himself understood perfectly, because he loved war and destruction for itself. Hitler was a godsend to Churchill, just as the tragedy of the Civil War was a gift to Lincoln, something Lincoln also acknowledged. But in these cases the ends really did justify the means. The great objection to America’s behavior in the world over the last couple of years is not that we have used violent and coercive means, but that we have used them despite the absence of a great national emergency and with a vehemence all out of proportion to any real threat. Bin Laden and Saddam are just excuses for the arrogant and highly pleasurable exercise of sheer power. And the proof of this will be that when these hyped and misidentified villains are gone, there will be others.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Most Dreaded Nation Status

In a recent exchange with Christopher Hitchens, Eric Alterman referred to surveys showing that Europeans think Mr. Bush is more dangerous than Osama Ben Laden. Alterman criticized the administration policies that had led to this perception but was quick to assure everybody that he didn’t share the opinion himself. I presume he was observing the current taboo that mandates piety about American leaders, but I suppose it’s just possible he was sincere. In that case, one has to ask how anybody could doubt that George Bush is not more dangerous than Ben Laden?

My point is not polemical. I’m not looking for new ways to deplore Mr. Bush. I have plenty of those already. What’s at stake is the need for some clarity about obvious realities. Whatever the personal characteristics of Ben Laden or Castro or even the poufy-haired supreme leader of the North Koreans, their actual power to harm is sharply limited by the poverty and military weakness of the organizations they lead. Mr. Bush, by contrast, could incinerate five continents in half an hour. Since the dangerousness of a regime is the product of its capacity to inflict harm and the malevolence or stupidity of its policies and our country is a thousand times more capable than its enemies, our leaders would have to me a thousand times wiser or more moral just to break even. QED.

It is an undisputed maxim of sound strategy that we should prepare to deal with what the enemy can do, not what we think he wants to do. I apply this principle to my own country and its current master. Intentions are not facts of the same order as capabilities; they are often inscrutable and can always be dissembled. Besides, to say that America would never play the bully is to ignore a great deal of historical experience, especially the parts relating to the business end of the Monroe Doctrine. To date, America’s reputation, especially in America, owes a lot to the general ignorance of history and the fact that we’ve mostly played the villain to marginal and despised people and inflicte horrors on nations that had previously acted horribly themselves. I am particularly skeptical of the seldom-articulated but frequently reasoned from premise that America has an especially virtuous national character that guarantees it will not act as badly as all the other empires of history. National character is not unchanging. The Italians used to be Romans; and two hundred years ago it was the French who the military beasts, the Germans who were the people of the poets and thinkers. Unless you believe in divine providence, why should you think that the Americans, whose culture and germplasm is an amalgam of every people on the planet, are somehow above falling into the normal sins of the Nations? The only thing beyond dispute is this: if we go on a rampage, it will be some rampage.

Monday, June 09, 2003

One Hundred Views of Clement Street

The Elizabethans loved finery and display, but their world, like that of practically all human beings for most of history, was very poor in images. Aside from public religious art and a few paintings in the homes of the rich or at court, the only representative art a Londoner regularly encountered were a few black and white figures in books and the crude woodcuts used to decorate humble walls. Artists were scarce, the choice of media limited, and means of reproduction rudimentary. Even the subject matter of pictures was constrained by tradition to a small number of types. The contrast with our experience is stark. We are absolutely awash in images: drawings, paintings, cartoons, prints, movies, videos, photographs, micrographs, charts, clip art, computer displays, even iconic road signs and identification badges. A large proportion of the surfaces of things now bear the likeness of something. The cumulative effect can be overwhelming or at least wearying, but under the circumstances, you’d think we at least know what the world looks like.

It was once a commonplace of Freudian dream analysis that the multiplication of phalluses or phallic symbols such as digits or swords actually figured castration, the lack of even one phallus. Art historians refer to something similar under the rubric of horror vacui. The same logic obtains in the original Matrix movie in which the spectral unreality of the projected world is made clear by the gratuitous multiplication of images–remember the scene where the hero asks for weapons and gets a universe of Uzis that noisily materialize in infinite parallel racks? The effect was subsequently plagiarized in a TV ad for an Internet company that sells cars; and, for that matter, was anticipated in Eastern art where infinite arrays of identical selfless Buddhas are regularly depicted appearing in a golden sky. If we have expanded on these motifs and now fill our entire lives with representations, part of the reason is surely the simple fact that we have the technical means to do so; but the ubiquity of picturing, a sort of objective neurosis of the age, also obsessively stages the inescapable fact that the world remains essentially invisible.

Were there absolutely no light in the Platonic Cave, we would not even be aware of the darkness. What disturbs complacency is not the impossibility of knowing but the implications of what we know and can’t doubt in good faith. Authentic but indirect knowledge allows us to gauge our massive, constitutive ignorance. I’ve lived in these parts for almost a quarter of a century, for example, but I have only recently admitted that I don’t know what Clement Street looks like. I have acquired this insight through a thought experiment. Let there be hundred representations of Clement Street, but let them be truly representative for once, which is to say, let them be random perspectives that reflect the objective reality of Clement Street rather than the customary iconography. A photographer would probably pick a vantage point from which the interesting features of the scene could be observed, but that choice imposes a human principle of selection and drastically reduces the possible images. For our purposes, the view from underneath a dead pigeon or looking straight down from a light post must have equal rights. Indeed, since the nearly universal practice of holding the camera level is also hugely arbitrary, we also have to expect images shot at every angle. Pictures should be made at every focus, at every magnification, at every shutter speed, and with film sensitive to every possible set of frequencies. Like a bee, we should see the street in the ultraviolet. Like a sniper, we should see it in the infrared. It should appear as an X-ray, a spectrogram; and, atom-by-atom, as an image formed by scanning tunneling microscopy—and that’s just to consider mechanical forms of representation. The complete set of views of Clement Street would also include paintings and models produced not only in every known style of art from cave painting to Peter Max but in every possible style of art and executed with every degree of virtuosity at every scale from the microminiature to the monumental, including full-scale duplications of the street made out of everything from bricks and wood to play dough or cottage cheese. Baring miraculous chance, none of the hundred representations selected at random from this thinkable but unimaginable ensemble would look like anything at all we could recognize or interpret but they would be views of Clement Street for all that and representive of what the world looks like in general.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Never Asked by Charlie Rose

I was interested to learn from a recent public service ad that marijuana is a major cause of unwanted pregnancy. For some reason, I was under the impression that beer and tequila shooters often had something to do with that. I don’t discount the deleterious side effects of cannabis, however. For example, pot causes politicians to lie on television and incites police officers and judges to ruin the lives of total strangers—a powerful drug, indeed, especially considering that it isn’t a powerful drug at all.

I was going to write that American society is hung up about pot and drugs in general, not because of their public health significance, which is small potatoes relative to the medical significance of tobacco, cheeseburgers, and even computer games, but because drug use symbolizes the hugely menacing because hugely attractive appeal of consciousness itself, the master addiction. That may be so, but I can’t claim to know why we inflict such terrible grief on each other over what should be trivialities. The anti-drug mania, after all, is not the only witch-hunt under way in this country. Why have we turned the sexual abuse of children into a crime so horrible, so sacred that people have to apologize in advance for speaking about it without hysteria? Even stating the obvious statistical fact that children are far more harmed by poverty than by child abuse can land you in trouble. The level headed Ian Hacking has shown that “child abuse,” far from naming an eternal evil, assumed in current absolute form around 1960. So why are we suddenly so obsessed with what was, not so long ago, more often an occasion for gossip and sniggering than inquisition and judicial condemnation?

My usual procedure is the reverse of Jeopardy. I regularly phrase my questions in the form of an answer. But in this case I’ll break with my own tradition and ask the plain question: “What accounts for our crazy public behavior about drugs and juvenile sex?” Of course it is possible that there is no natural class composed of irrational public obsessions and that the persecution of potheads, short eyes, and wicked old women has no common measure. It is also possible that the explanation or explanations will be rather disappointing since in human affairs there is no proportion between cause and effect.

Saturday, June 07, 2003

Is Democracy Finished?

Charlie Rangel, the New York democrat, raised a minor ruckus a few months ago by suggesting that we ought to reinstate the draft. His comments may have been effective as rhetorical brickbats, but even he probably knew that the era of mass armies is over with. Even were the reinstatement of universal service politically possible, it would be militarily absurd. Low-tech soldiers have no earthly purpose except to serve as victims to high tech soldiers, like the hapless Iraqi orcs in the recent Mesopotamian Dungeon Siege episode. But properly trained and equipped soldiers are extraordinarily expensive. The rate-limiting variable in military power is, for the time being anyhow, money, not manpower. This fact cannot be changed by a political decision, but it has enormous political consequences.

It has been plausibly argued that developments in military technology are the single most powerful cause of structural political change. Thus the military revolution of the 16th Century made political absolutism more or less inevitable because only powerful, centralized states could field and finance effective armies and fleets while the mass armies of the 19th and 20th Centuries required rulers to redefine themselves as national leaders and to pay attention to the welfare of their citizens in order to mobilize entire populations. I don’t know to what extent I subscribe to this account of history; but, like everybody else who lived through the Vietnam era, I remember the end of the draft in the United States as the day the world changed, when the air went out of the tires to use a metaphor all the more apropos because it is as flat and stale as the event it describes.

Friday, June 06, 2003

New World Order
Almost universally, philosophers are or try to be nominalists. People at large, however, are realists and think that words name essences. They imagine, for example, that it makes sense to talk about the human consequences of Capitalism without specifying the which, when, and where of the capitalism in question. That’s unfortunately because it is especially important to check the expiration dates on the concepts we use to think about the world. We’re just now entering an unprecedented period of economic and political history, not only or perhaps not even especially because of drastic changes in technology, but because for the first time we’re going to see what Capitalism is like without the moderating force of effective opposing powers. In the long 19th Century, business interests were opposed by landed money, assorted dynasts, labor unions, socialists, anarchists, and populists. In the short 20th Century, the threat and appeal of Communism and the necessity of mobilizing the populace at large for war likewise limited aggrandizement by corporate interests. As of the current juncture, though mopping up operations may continue for some time, there is no effective organized opposition to corporate power—rioting in Davos doesn’t count.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Unlikely Justice

When NYPD isn’t teaching every cop in the country when and how to beat up suspects, it’s advertising the therapeutic value of vengeance. The detectives never fail to assure family members devastated by personal loss that they’ll get the bastards as if jailing or executing some marginal human wreck is a sovereign remedy for human tragedy or even necessarily very relevant. Politicians also endlessly cultivate the theme of revenge—“ we’ll ever rest until we get Osama or Saddam or Castro or the drug dealers, or…” Psychiatrists speak about people who are trying to be mad. As a culture, it sometimes seems that we’re engaged in an analogous effort to turn ourselves into spiteful Balkan peasants. Turning the other cheek is definitely out and the much better thing is apparently preventative face slapping. That said, it is ironic that so much of our troubles stems from a failure of retribution.

For the past thirty-five years American politics has been dominated not by a class of people but by a group of people who got their start with Richard Nixon. From that time to this, as has been proven not merely in books or public opinion but in actual courtrooms, these individuals have ceaselessly plotted against free government, committing break-ins, illegal wiretaps, show trials, extortion, perjury, war crimes in Central America and the Middle East, obstruction of justice, and theft of an election. The Nixonians are thugs who have never paid any real price for their actions and have drawn from their experience the apparently correct lesson that the more they get away with the more they will be able to get away with.

It is probably whistling past the graveyard to make the suggestion; but if we ever manage to bring down the Bush regime, there really must be a reckoning this time, not primarily to inflict pain on the guilty but to rectify the record and, above all, to drive the Nixonians out of public life once and for all. Justice is the point, not the self-indulgence of payback. The recent South African example shows that such an accounting is both feasible and deeply helpful.