Saturday, January 24, 2004

Big Hinges

The historian Niall, too-bad-the-Germans-didn’t-win-World War I, Ferguson has sponsored a couple of books of essays on alternative history. His “What If” books are more interesting than many others of that genre if only because the contributors identify some pretty recherch√© crises in human history instead of the inevitable “What if somebody had shot Hitler in 1920?” For example, Ferguson himself wrote a piece in the first What If book exploring what would have happened if Charles the First had managed to govern without calling parliament back in the 17th Century. How often I’ve found myself pondering that one!* I have a general problem with “what if” essays, however, though I certainly take Ferguson’s point that events don’t travel smoothly forward on invisible rails. I agree that the future is not determined by material or spiritual laws. But while Ferguson emphasizes decisive events, I see the great contingencies taking place over long stretches of time. I believe it was an instance of human freedom, for example, when the people of the American South decided to preserve slavery come hell or high water, even though that decision involved years of debate and struggle before it was fatally confirmed on the battlefield. Similarly, the Germans didn’t opt for unspeakable barbarism all at once. They spent the better part of the 19th Century taking the path of authoritarian nationalism, willfully coarsening their sensibilities and celebrating the manliness of brutality.

* Like many another contemporary intellectual, Ferguson seems to find Catholicism as alluring as he finds representative government otiose and dangerous. The sorrow and the pity of the English Civil War, the eventual consequence of calling parliament, seems to have been that it set the English against the Roman church. I can well understand why somebody might find the bigotry of English Protestantism unattractive—think of the strutting hatefulness of some of the Orange politicians in Northern Ireland—but why anybody wants to promote a decrepit system of superstition escapes me. Without revisiting the Kulturkampf, if I were presented with no alternatives but the Kaiser and the Pope, I’m not sure I’d prefer the Pope. Ferguson, apparently, wants both. I would very much like to understand why

Friday, January 23, 2004

And Now for the Nonfacts Behind the News

Whatever value differences lie behind people’s politics, sheer misinformation explains a great deal. If you listen to AM radio, you’ll discover that a large portion of the electorate believes:

1. The progressivity of the tax code is what makes it complicated.

2. Foreign aid is a major part of the Federal budget.

3. The health care system of the United States is second to none.

4. Millions of unwed mothers live high on the hog off welfare.

5. Affirmative action in education and business is one of the main reasons for high levels of unemployment among white men.

6. The Federal government is primarily responsible for zoning, gun control, and family law, even on a local level.

7. Judges frequently release violent criminals on technicalities. Lots of murders get off on insanity pleas.

8. Many reputable scientists doubt the truth of evolution and the reality of global warming.

9. Bill Clinton raised everybody’s income taxes.

10. Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.

11. The liberals are in charge.

Of course people tend to believe what they want to believe—many environmentalists have gravely informed me that the cancer rate is much higher around nuclear power plants—but I suspect mere ignorance does explain a lot, even over and beyond the cultural despair, gnawing envy, and injured narcissism that feeds the anger of so many American white men. Which is a hopeful thought, really. We can work to inform. It’s harder to deal with the we-won-the-Cold-War-and-all-I-got-was-this-lousy-tee-shirt dynamic.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

A Bayesian Consideration

Dullards come off badly in histories. That’s because histories focus on times of change when habitual responses to problems fail and people have to fall back on intelligence. Under more normal circumstances, stupidity has a lot going for it. It hasn’t prevailed by accident.

We often think of intelligence in terms of speed. A quick study is somebody who can learn rapidly. But learning rapidly is frequently disadvantageous in stable situations. In poker—to use the most banal possible example because it has always worked for me before—it is a disastrous mistake to learn to draw to an inside straight because on one occasion you drew the 9. Since the underlying probabilities inherent in the game don’t change, good poker players have to be careful not to learn from experience. Of course in poker one can have insight into the laws of the game because the game is an artificial system, which has been contrived for our delectation and therefore makes sense. One can understand when and why the odds are unfavorable. In real world situations, unfortunately, we can only judge probabilities a posteriori since we’re not pulling stones out of an urn or rolling fair dice and it’s quite easy to be too clever. Which may be why nature took its own sweet time in devising an animal that could survive its own intelligence.

I’m just thinking out loud in these amateur reflections, of course. What inspires me is something serious observers of the contemporary scene should be wary of, namely the triumphant advance of the Bayesian concept of probability and its application to statistical inference, economics, psychology, and many other things. The cover story of a recent issue of Nature, that grand old British science journal, featured a Bayesian analysis of how the nervous system contrives to hit a tennis ball, for example, and analogous examples turn up all over the place. It’s going retail.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Clutching at Straws that might Break the Camel's Back

In the era of liberal consensus plenty of pubic intellectuals went along received wisdom with their fingers crossed, and it wasn’t just racist Southern Democrats who defected from the New Deal coalition over the last couple of decades. I think the reverse phenomenon is occurring now. Lots of writers are supporting the new orthodoxy out of career considerations even though their temperaments and values are a poor match for conservatism. If nothing else, right wing ideas don’t offer a very inspiring prospect for an ambitious person. Free market ideology is just a hypertrophied version of a Rotary Club speech, and the notions of the religious right are literally false when they aren’t simply incoherent. A lot of folks have and will make a living as camp followers of Halliburton and Boeing, but cheer leading for empire gets old pretty fast

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Time’s Forced March

In common with many others, I find it had to get interested in certain scientific controversies, not because I’m not interested in the topic in question but because the outcome that matters is not going to reflect the debating prowess of the contending researchers but the results of a long social and technical process completely out of the control of any individual. “They are going to figure that out eventually,” I think to myself, roll over, and go back to sleep. In some cases—issues related to climate change, for example—even lay people like me have a civic responsibility to make guesses based on the current state of the evidence, but for the most part, the only question is whether or not we’ll live long enough to read the answer in a textbook.

Unfortunately, complacency about the sciences, though based on a plausible induction from a couple of hundred years of historical experience, is problematic in a couple of ways. In particular, it reflects a fundamentally misleading metaphor: human action as simple physical process. Perhaps nothing is less like an advancing glacier or an onrushing swarm of army ants than scientific research, which has to be the very type specimen of free cooperative rational action in the universe. There simply is no old automatic in this particular sport. Nothing occurs without the determined efforts of very intelligent people supported by a bogglingly complicated web of institutions that themselves only persist because of the determined efforts of many other people. If you insist on a metaphor to describe the situation, science is more like a spermatozoon than a freight train. Viscosity, not inertia, rules, Stokes, not Newton. Science only advances so long as it wiggles its tail.

Thinking of scientific progress as an automatic process is not only an error from a theoretical point of view. It also underlies the attitudes of many politicians and culture critics who take the continuing fruitfulness of science for granted while working to undermine the systems that make it possible. They want the benefits of technology, especially the weapons and consumer goods, but they don’t want to pay for the underlying science and they certainly don’t want to endorse the ethical values that go along with science, for the excellent reason that free inquiry really is dangerous to established hierarchies and traditional beliefs. Some of this is undoubtedly just cynicism. Protecting industries that pollute, promoting hysteria about stem cells, engaging in denial about global warming, defunding serious space research in favor of meaningless technological stunts, introducing Creationism and Intelligent Design into pubic education—all these retail irrationalities may turn out to have an insignificant effect in the long run. But there is nothing automatic about scientific progress. If we take the batteries out of the flashlight, it isn’t going to go on shinning out of sheer habit.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Oil Alone

The government announced last week that our military mission to Georgia will continue. We have no intention of leaving Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, or Tajikistan, either; and while the State Department recently made some mild noises about the appalling civil rights situation in Uzbekistan, it is unlikely that President Islam Karimov needs to take that threat very seriously–consider the source. The Tenth Mountain Division will undoubtedly continue to bolster his regime from its Halliburton-built base in sunny Khanabad until and unless a once or future American Petropresident, hard up for useful enemy, decides to promote another one of its clients to regional Hitler, a Karimov being, as it were, the larval form of a Saddam Hussein.

Now it is perfectly true that the U.S. maintains garrisons and bases all over the place so that it would be an error to claim that our deployments are all simply a function of our national addiction to liquid fuels. In part, our presence reflects other specific, limited national interests as well as generalized imperial momentum. The domination of oil over our foreign policy is quite extraordinary, however. Which partly explains why everybody seems so determined to deny it.

I don’t doubt that a considerable range of motives lay behind the Conquest of Iraq. For example, while I expect the sentient members of the regime were well aware that Hussein had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 and represented no plausible threat whatsoever, I can well believe that many of them were sincere about exporting Democracy. They certainly didn’t want to leave any of it lying around here. Preoccupation with Israel also played a role in maintaining a focus on the Near East. The Fundamentalist are hung up on screwy apocalyptic dreams while the Neocons, whether Jewish or not, feel a powerful affinity for the voluntarist strain in Zionism. Nevertheless, neither idealism or religious fanaticism can explain why we were willing to spent $200 billion and utterly outrage international law to squash Iraq; and we aren’t dug in in Bharain, Diego Garcia, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Azerbaijan, Georgian, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan out of the goodness of our heart. We are there for the oil. Unfortunately, this monomania expresses far more than the quirky fact that American politics has come to be utterly dominated by current and former oil executives. Behind the American government is an unsupportable form of life dependent on cheap gas. Bush is the blister, not the virus.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Hail, Hail, Fredonia!

I lived in Pittsburgh during the glory years of the Steelers and then moved to San Francisco a couple of months before for the first 49er Superbowl win. I recall sitting on packing case in my new apartment watching a Monday night game between the reigning champs and the 49ers. By halftime, if I remember rightly, the 49ers were ahead and I was cursing under my breath. And then I had an epiphany. I looked out the window, saw the Golden Gate Bridge, and started yelling, “Go Niners!”

Like everything else in this country, loyalty to the team is just another form of entertainment. You don’t root, root for the home team because the players or owners have anything to do with your home town or even because it is your hometown except in the most notional sense. The identity to which you swear allegiance is like a decal that can be slapped on your luggage and just as easily removed. One acquires it along with the lease the same way General Stanley got his ancestors. Hooting and screaming at the stadium along with the rest of the rented Mannerbund is another one of those civilized practices like prostitution in which a natural pleasure—baying in packs—is detached from its original biological context and made an end in itself. I have no objection. But things can get dicey when enthusiasm for genuine blood sports is cultivated artificially.

It is probably rash of me to suggest that patriotism in its modern American form is more a pastime than a virtue. After all, thoughtful people hesitate to criticize patriotism if only because they may want to urge other people to die for their country at some point. Anyhow, there was a time in our history when patriotism was more than a conditioned response to bunting and fireworks. The patriotism of the founders was fervent and sometimes distinctly adolescent but it was also rational in a way that would now be denounced as merely liberal. America was worth fighting for because it represented a really good idea. But that kind of patriotism was less a pleasure than a duty. To dwell in the City on the Hill was not to inhabit a Penthouse; and to belong to a Chosen People was not to be tapped for Skull and Bones.