Friday, January 16, 2004


Politics has certain advantages for middle-aged people. For example, it gives them something else to be disappointed about besides the way their own lives turned out.
A Nicomachian Footnote

Wanting to do evil is perverse, at least in comparison to doing something wrong in order to attain some natural good. It is an error not wholly dissimilar from wanting to do good, though very few people seem to notice the perversity of that.
Felt Thought

Since science and technology are often advertised as an imperial expansion of hubristic human will, it is ironic that world has become steadily less explicable the more we understand it. Instead of subjecting the Nature of Things to categories congenial to our kind, we’ve learned to operate with notions radically foreign to our experience. The sphere of the True is a zone quite as hostile and forbidding as the surface of the Moon, an environment in which we can only survive by expensive and artificial means.

On their first encounter with Kant, undergraduates often speculate about what a world might be like outside the system of the categories. A partial answer can be found in the Physics building. Thus, for example, the functional relationship that define the behavior of things don’t obviously involve the once celebrated category of causality at all, which turns out to be a pretty parochial concept, something only suitable for mobile living thing with HOX genes and therefore a front and back, mouth and ass. Just as it makes no literal sense to ascribe gender or moral qualities to inanimate objects or cosmic principles, it is at best a metaphor to think that anything besides animals ever does anything. Even the paradigm case of causality, the cue ball knocking the eight into the corner pocket, actually reinforces the point, for people had to go to a great deal of trouble to invent billiards and contrive smooth, level surfaces and perfectly round balls to provide themselves with a miniature paradise in which things work—or can be imagined to work—as we wish.

Thursday, January 15, 2004


I'm gradually adding links to this site. Although a couple of the links are to political sites, my intention is to focus on sites that are useful references. The Merriam-Webster site, for example, is a dictionary with an audio feature that finally taught me how to pronounce lese-majeste. The Nature and Physical Review Focus sites are the best I've found for quick news about serious science. Suggestions for additional links are hereby solicited.

On an adjoining front, I'm working on my list of the best single volume references to various fields for people who are either serious about understanding things or too vain to give up trying—probably a distinction without a difference. I've got candidates for chemistry, physics, statistics, and set theory.
Solipsism in Company

Before the colossal distraction of 9/11, the Bush administration obsessed over China, which had pretty obviously become the enemy elect for a politics absolutely dependent on having enemies. Recently, this theme has begun to surface again. I tend to be less alarmist about the Chinese myself, both because I am very mindful of the huge internal problems faced by that nation and because China has no tradition of projecting power outside of its Eurasian sphere and, in any case, will lack the military power to do so for a long time. Even on the economic front, I tend to agree with Peter Drucker that the most significant rival for the U.S. is not China but India, a nation with hundreds of millions of well-educated people, many of them English speaking; enough nuclear weapons to deter the United States; and a rough and ready but authentic democracy. Because of the on-going drag of character-based literacy, it plain costs more to educate a Chinese kid than an Indian one. One also cannot count out the Europeans and Japanese as economic if not political rivals; for their supposed great economic disadvantage, a declining birth rate, may turn out to be a huge strength if they prove to be the first societies that learn how to persist and prosper on the other side of the demographic transition. They have also begun to wean themselves from petroleum while the U.S., like an oversized baby, still wallows in the cradle endlessly screaming for the bottle.

All of this handicapping is pleasant enough, but obscures the more important fact: the likelihood that the center of gravity of history over the next century will not be in North America. Of course there is nothing intrinsically surprising about this fact, if it is a fact, and nothing untoward either. Indeed, the only plausible outcome that would leave us as the protagonist of the story would be a vast tragedy. Declining nations sometimes protest against their loss of power by using military violence to preserve a preeminence that is no longer merited by superior population, wealth, growth, creativity, or culture. The Spanish, French, and German examples are not encouraging in this regard. At any event, it is very likely we’ll have a terrible time coming to terms with a transition to a less exalted status, ignorant as we are of the world and its history, addicted as we are to national vanity, subjected as we are to non-stop flattery by cynical politicians. After all many Americans actually believe that the Soviet Union fell because a nice old guy made some stirring speeches. The notion that the Russians have their own history is too great a reach. Fog in the channel. Continent cut off.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Quote of the Day

“A perceptive observer once said that fascist Italy was run like a great newspaper, and run—what is more—by a great journalist: one idea per day, competitions, sensational stories, a clever and pervasive drawing of the reader’s attention to certain facets of social life which have expanded beyond measure, a systematic distortion of the reader’s understanding in pursuit of certain practical goals. Truth to tell, fascist regimes are regimes based on publicity.” —Walter Benjamin
The Literacy Project

People tell me they have no time to read, what with the demands of work and family. I can readily sympathize with that. I’m well aware that my own very peculiar style of life, partly chosen, partly enforced by circumstances, gives me far more time to study the world than those who, to use the inevitable expression, have a life. On the other hand, Americans, who are said to be inordinately busy, nevertheless make enough time to spend several hours a day watching television.

As the lately late Neil Postman used to say, whatever Americans are, watching television is what they do. And whatever the entertainment value of this experience, it is a lousy substitute for literacy if the object is to understand what’s going on. For that, not even Cable suffices. One requires PaperView. Indeed, several research efforts have demonstrated that television news actually makes its viewers more ignorant. The more hours of exposure to the cheesy mix of entertainment and propaganda that is television news, the less one actually knows. But I don’t think that these stultifying effects result solely from the intentions of the corporations to deceive and cheat, although thinking of Fox or NBC as being in the information business is like thinking of Frito-Lay as being in the nutrition business. The root of the problem is that the medium itself, though admittedly a good way to discover how things look, is an extremely inefficient way to convey what they mean. As demonstrated by almost any PBS talkfest, thought and video are largely immiscible. The sauce always breaks. Much as there is no negation in dreams, there are no ideas on the tube. But these observations are not widely disputed. Everybody has nice things to say about reading. There is, however, a qualitative as well as a quantitative literacy deficit. Grown up Americans don’t read grown up books.

As the ancient psychology had it, one is intelligent by contact with the intelligible. Unfortunately, the opposite also obtains. The stupid stultifies, while serious prose is a prosthetic that temporarily augments our normally feeble mental powers. It is an unremarkable aspect of the natural history of our species that a small caste does the thinking for the others, much as the queen does all the egg laying in the hive; but it is very important that the higher workers don’t shirk their responsibility to process serious ideas on a regular basis.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004


In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt maintained that political activity is an intrinsically valuable dimension of human life, not just an unavoidable duty or mere practical necessity. A more muscular—or visceral—celebration of politics appears in Carlin Barton’s recent Roman Honor: the Fire in the Bones. Both books look back with more or less overt nostalgia to the political culture of pre-Alexandrian Greece and pre-imperial Rome, an irony, really, since the choicer spirits of those periods became fed up with politics themselves, repelled by its mendacity, brutality, and sheer noise, and opted instead for art, philosophy, or religion. For my part, I feel I certain sympathy for those involved in this internal migration, though I don’t think that disengagement was any more moral defensible then than it is now. Besides, I don’t think the flight from the public life was motivated solely by a hatred for politics. The alternatives were simply more attractive.

It is very, very easy to mutter, “Politics, we hates it!” and turn to more rewarding pursuits, and that’s all the more the case because so many of us have rather limited expectations for the possibilities of politics. We’re not the ones who thought that it is desirable or even possible to impose a New World Order on the unwilling or bring the Millennium through cultural war. We weren’t trying to make water run uphill. We were handicapped by a certain optimism, believing that commonsense measures at home and abroad could suffice because underlying trends really weren’t unfavorable. Domestically, we saw no challenges that could not be met by pragmatic measures well within the American political tradition. Wealth, we understood, is never created by ideological formulas but by human effort and technological progress. In foreign affairs, we recognized that American hegemony would be temporary, but we believed that the inevitable relative decline of our power didn’t have to involve either military defeat or national decadence, that our time of responsible and honorable stewardship could lead to a more lawful and humane world if we could only avoid arrogance and paranoia. We thought we could have been a blessing, and that that would have been an altogether better outcome than a ten-year stint as suzerain of Uzbekistan.

On a personal level, it is hard for individuals who already possess a sense of their own identity to pursue politics with passionate intensity. Unwounded in the tender places of our self-regard, we just aren’t interested in seeking solace in the pornography of patriotism. It isn’t exactly original to point this out, but the folks who dream of Universal Dominion, Magic Fortresses, Invincible Weapons, and even War in Heaven are the weak and powerless. If you are at least partly content with your merely human, but real capabilities, fantasy politics has little appeal.

In a rational world, the important things would be playing with your kids, reading Ovid, improving your short game—anything but politics. In the real world, unfortunately, fantasy rules and therefore politics.

Sunday, January 11, 2004


By the rules of statistical inference, the judgment of particular cases must be modified to reflect underlying probabilities. Where circumstances are abnormal, estimates must be altered. In 1980, for example, it might have been reasonable to assume that Senator Wellstone was the victim of an accidental airplane crash. In 2002, it is much more likely that he was murdered to ensure that the Republicans would regain control of the Senate—since the right controls the CIA, the FAA, and the Justice Department, the findings of official commissions aren’t relevant one way or the other to guessing what really happened. Similarly, we are justified in thinking it was the government that spread sexual innuendoes about Scott Ritter in the run up to the Second Iraq War at a time when he was correctly asserting that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. We know, after all, that the right celebrates the heroism of those who break laws in the name of higher purposes or mere personal loyalty—the Bush administration is full of people who demonstrated their love of intrigue during earlier tours of duty under Nixon and Reagan. Why should anybody expect better of such people at a time when the Courts and the Press are in the bag?
The $64 Question Answered

Politics is about hating; and grownups understand how easy it is to become addicted to the pleasures of anger, especially during elections. Precisely because we all understand this, it’s easy to represent a perception of real danger as mere hysteria. In the current conjuncture, the pundits deploy this meme every time somebody raises their voice against the regime in Washington. Hence the numerous denunciations of Bush hating, mostly emitted by voices still squeaky from eight years of Clinton hating. But are these guys right? Is the situation of 2004 the same as the situation of 1992 with signs reversed? The short answer is No.

I’m perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that I’m wrong in everything I see about me, but at some point self-doubt is simply self-indulgent. In normal times it makes sense to hold your own beliefs lightly because in normal times politics is about ways and means, not about fundamental values. We live in a revolutionary situation. The current regime holds both international and constitutional law in contempt as a matter of policy. As every nation on earth has learned, America’s word is worthless since we do not honor treaty obligations if we find them inconvenient. The Bush administration is obviously quite willing to lie and kill for principles conveniently indistinguishable from private interests, and it certainly has no shame in manipulating a cowardly and ignorant population by fear and propaganda. The world despises us for very good reasons, and one of these days it is going to find a way to get even with us for our arrogance and unintelligent selfishness.

In retrospect it’s all going to be very clear, I’m afraid, though the increasingly anguished complaints of “hysterics” such as Chalmers Johnson, Arthur Schlesinger, Paul Krugman, George Soros, Immanuel Wallerstein, Joseph Steglitz, Kevin Phillips, and Hans Blix are unlikely to be heard for the time being by a nation of frogs who are already, if not completely boiled, at least al dente.