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.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Why It’s OK to Eat Turkeys

The administrations own analysis of the tax cuts shows that the net effect is to increase the proportion of the tax burden paid by the middle class. No surprise there. Abusing the lower orders more than we already do is not rational, even for a plutocrat, since the earned income tax credit and other tax breaks to the working poor amount to a subsidy to the corporations who would otherwise have to pay a living wage to their more benighted employees just to allow them to live and reproduce. Meanwhile, the subsidy in question gets paid by the middling people, who are actually just working people with an expensive addiction to vanity. Well, you can’t blame a cannibal for preferring victims that have a little meat on their bones; and beasts that are easily herded as well as highly edible are the best of all.

By the way, to properly evaluate who really pays, it is necessary to take into account not only who pays what but who gets what. Thus the middling people only pay a slightly greater proportion than the rich under the tax plan, but they also get less and less for their money as the programs that benefit them die away while funding for the programs that benefit the wealthy increase.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Here Be Dragons

According to Jose Ortiz, my old anthropology professor, the Tewa Indians inhabit a rectangular sacred universe bounded by four mountain peaks. The finitude of their world, however, does not preclude them from dealing with outsiders; and Indian truck drivers routinely drive their rigs to Chicago and other nonplaces without being particularly impressed with the feat. Evidently a “world,” though perhaps emotively and cognitively more, is also something less, and worlds come into being not by some miraculous positive act but by a drastic truncation of experience.

The rabbis often spoke of creation in this negative way. God made the world by limiting his own omnipotence, by shrinking back and thus leaving room for lesser beings. That’s the sense of the “let” in “let there be light.” Whether this is an adequate explanation of the presence of things, it works very well as an explanation of the origin of Judaism and other religions. The canonical Jewish Bible, for example, is the result of a wholesale massacre of pre-existing texts, the domestication and emasculation of the remnant by arbitrary editing, and the policing of the pacified book by orthodox methods of interpretation. The parts of scripture are vastly greater than the whole, but they don’t add up to the foundations of a faith, which is to say they don’t subtract up.

A technical note: in the unread wastelands of the third part of the Critique of Pure Reason Kant attempted to define the concept of God. Leaving out the details, Kant’s account makes God the set of all sets, a being we conceptualize through the infinite disjunction “A or B or C or…” Kant’s notion is not untraditional, despite the terminological unfamiliarity. After all, the ancients engraved on the statute of the Goddess Isis, “I am all that is, or was, or will be; and no one has lifted my veil.” Same idea. And Kant’s God concept works very well in the context of Jewish thinking about creation as shrinking or even the Tewa view of the metaphysical status of Chicago. The only problem with this approach is that the set of all sets in a non-thing that cannot be. You can find the proof of this fact in any treatise on set theory—I recommend Na├»ve Set Theory by Paul Halmos, if you’re interested. Of course the mere fact that a thing cannot exist doesn’t prevent us from giving it a name or even from calling it the Name, ha Shem in Hebrew.

Monday, June 02, 2003

Something for Nothing

Neo-conservatives and other rightists with an authoritarian bent reject, or claim to reject, naturalistic theories of evolution such as natural selection. It is interesting to observe, however, that libertarians and Objectivists are, if anything, more Darwinian than Darwin. So Commentary features long articles extolling Intelligent Design proponents like Behe while Reason advertises the ideas of Stuart Kauffman, a University of Pennsylvania biologists and member of the Santa Fe Institute. Kauffman uses computer simulations to support the thesis that order—what he calls order for nothing—spontaneously arises from natural systems under a wide variety of circumstances. Authoritarians favor Intelligent Design because they like bosses. Libertarians favor Kauffman’s version of nature because they can read it as an allegory of the free market.

Unfortunately for the Libertarians, Kauffman’s vision of things really doesn’t offer any particular support for laissez faire economics. Kauffman’s arguments provide an explanation for how complicated and adapted organisms could have arisen without the intervention of an intelligent agent or rather, to take judicial notice of a very important nuance, Kauffman explains why no explanation is really necessary if, as he thinks his computer simulations demonstrate, the order exhibited in the natural world is in fact a minimum. It looks like there is something to explain because of a huge accident of sampling. For obvious reasons we only consider the showy outputs of evolution including, crucially, ourselves, the ones who are supposed to do the explaining. If we go back and for once count the innumerable number of failures along with the infinitesimal number of successes, we’ll recognize that there is no evolutionary mechanism at all—hard to get a patent on a method of chemical synthesis that takes billions of years to run and promises a yield of maybe .00000000000000001%. Now reverse the perspective. If you were standing a patch of cooled lava somewhere during the Hadean period of Earth history, what could you predict on Kauffman’s reasoning? The most you could say is that something complicated is likely to emerge because things can’t get more disordered on one respect without getting more ordered in another. And standing on the cooling patch of the floor of the stock exchange and using analogous statistical reasoning, we predict that a complicated economic structures will always emerge from trading but not that the results will be favorable to any particular human being or to human beings in general. To believe that the market will do us any favors is theological thinking even in an atheist.

Speaking of theology. I don’t know if Kauffman is right or not about self-organization, but his notions are congruent with one of my rare forays into Biblical exegesis. The first couple of verses of Genesis read “When God created heaven and earth, the earth was void and empty and darkness was on the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ ” Atheists have simply denied that God in fact created the world, but that’s a clumsy approach to the issue from my point of view. Logically, the prior question is whether the world every came into being at all. And of course it is my position that the earth is still void and empty. Which spares me the trouble of raising the second difficulty, namely, when God said, ‘Let there be light,’ who was he talking to?