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.