Friday, April 16, 2004

French Commonsense

In my last post I mentioned the name of Emmanuel Todd. He’s a French anthropologist and demographer whose book, After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order, was a best seller in Europe and recently appeared here in translation without eliciting much of a response. To judge from the vehement denunciations of some of the reader reviews at Amazon, he certainly strikes a nerve with right-wingers, who are amazed that anybody can gainsay American righteousness and—more to the point—American might. But Todd, who is neither a leftist nor a retailer of conspiracy theories, hasn’t been much noticed by Bush’s domestic critics except for angry moderates like Michael Lind and me. Todd, however, is not angry. Observing the scene from across the ocean, he is not personally upset about American foreign policy because he believes it will mostly harm us and not the Europeans or Asians.

Todd is no philosopher. He is an observer of big trends such as the rapid spread of literacy and lower birth rates throughout much of the world. In lieu of ideological fine points, he tends to pay attention to coarse facts like the huge American foreign trade deficit and the increasing gap between rich and poor in America and Europe. It says a great deal about the false consciousness of many Americans than such a perspective upsets them so much. I don’t agree with Todd’s particular takes on the renewed importance of Russia, the future of the EU, and the potential dangers of our aggressive foreign policy, but I think his perception of American weakness and vulnerability is essentially indisputable. He also makes a couple of specific points that are well worth considering:

1. Todd buys into a modified version of Fukuyama’s theory of the inevitability of democracy because he believes that general literacy more or less automatically leads to democratic institutions. He does insist that there are very significant differences between democracies, however—it matters that parties alternate dominance in America and the U.K while in Japan the same coalition rules year in, year out. He also accepts Michael Doyle’s claim that war between liberal democracies is impossible. But Todd disputes the notion that the triumph of democracy is the end of history or, for that matter, of the realistic possibility of serious war between developed countries. Nations may tend towards democracy as their citizens learn to read, but there is no guarantee that the process stops with democracy. Indeed, both the United States and Western Europe are currently evolving into a high-tech oligarchies with declining levels of political participation and drastically higher levels of economic inequality. Perhaps Fukuyama will have to indulge us with a sequel: Son of the End of History: the Thousand Year Rule of the Optimates.

2. Many people understand that the huge imbalance of trade between the United States and the rest of the world will eventually be redressed by a lowering in the American standard of living. Todd suggests some ways in which this readjustment could occur sooner rather than later. For example, part of the reason that the rest of the world is willing to finance American power is the dominant role of the dollar. The Euro has already challenged the status of the dollar. If the British do decide to opt for the continent and the still very considerable financial clout of London goes Euro, it’s very easy to imagine a drastic realignment of currency rates.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004


We Americans don’t have much of an army. What we do have is an expensive but rather fragile SWAT team. Which is probably a sufficient explanation of our choice of enemies. We noisily engage the small fry while carefully avoiding anybody with real power, a pattern of behavior the French writer Emmanuel Todd calls theatrical micromilitarism. But it would be more accurate to say that we don’t fight wars at all, even miniature ones. We police.

It takes a tremendous amount of self-righteousness to invade other countries and arrest their leaders. The practice presumes that our law has a universal or at least undefined jurisdiction and that we possess a monopoly of force so absolute as to allows us to treat the citizens of Panama or Iraq like the hapless drunks and junkies on Cops. We don’t simply kill our enemies. We infantilize and degrade them. We’re like the LAPD in other ways that are certainly not lost on the rest of the world. For example, we treat Muslims, Hispanics, and Blacks (Iraq, Palestine, Panama, Venezuela, Haiti) with special contempt and yet imagine we aren’t racists because we’re quite willing to treat over class Arabs, Hispanics, and Blacks as equals.

Our highhandedness is cowardly and cruel. Granted the national impotence it conceals, it is also ridiculous.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Relativistic Effects

Huge old institutions distort logic in their vicinity much as massive bodies warp nearby space-time. As the 1919 poem had it, “This much is certain and the rest debate: Light rays near the sun do not go straight.” Similarly, the rules of evidence don’t apply in the normal way when applied near the event horizon of ideologies or religions. How else explain complicated philological arguments summoned up to buttress or dispute the historicity of religious figures who were said to be able to walk on water or rise from the dead? Absent the political and cultural power of Christianity, no rational man would entertain the reality of Christ for a minute anymore than he would suppose that Hercules was once a real baby that strangled snakes in his crib. Truth told, nobody would give much credence to the mere existence of a natural man named Jesus either if it weren’t for the people who make such a fuss about it. If you were snoozing your way through a treatise on Sumerian history, you wouldn’t waste two seconds rejecting the historicity of a name so feebly attested by reliable sources. In the twisted metric of religious polemic, however, the fact that a thesis is not impossible is taken as evidence of its truth. It would hardly surprise anybody, after all, if there turned out to have really been an itinerant preacher named Jesus. But there’s always room for one more obscure Mesopotamian nobleman, too, and that doesn’t make Smargil of Ur a real guy. By the same peculiar rationale, a certain very common kind of rare spirit will triumphantly explain that we can trust the literal truth of Exodus because the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea during a wind storm and not the Red Sea during a special effect. But there is no better evidence for the non miracle than for the miracle, which is to say there is no credible evidence for either.

None of this matters a great deal to the people. Even if there really was a King Arthur, the cultural significance of his story would reside in the grandeur of the fictions that accumulated around some dimly remembered Celt. It’s the mythic figure, not the postulated barbarian that moves us. By the same token, all the detail and pathos of the Christ story belongs to its elaboration—all the good stuff is embroidery on what may already by a fiction. People are obviously genuinely moved by the Passion of Christ movie, but they also get upset about how Scarlet O’Hara treated Rhett Butler. Whether the film offers three or four handkerchiefs worth of catharsis has nothing whatsoever to do with the extent to which it is a true story. It obviously isn’t. But over and beyond the political power of myth, which no one can safely ignore, the halo of goofiness that surrounds religious issues has a definite effect on educated folks who should know better. Besides creating the fly-paper-like presumption that these questions have two sides, the piety, good manners, or mere prudence of the impious makes it hard to figure out how Christianity really did get started.

Lately I’ve been pursuing the implications of a largely uncontroverted philological conclusion, the fact that the letters of Paul were all written before the first gospel and make almost no references to any biographical facts about Christ over and beyond the bare assertion that he was crucified at some indeterminate time in the past. This information is highly relevant to a debate about the veracity of the gospels or rather, would be, if that were still a meaningful argument. What I’m interested in is Paul himself and his utterly Gnostic, indeed docetic, Christology. Apparently, in the history of Christianity, the heresy is older than the orthodoxy.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Thinking Out Loud

Nietzsche made fun of people who strain and struggle to stay 15 minutes ahead of the Zeitgeist. I heard him loud and clear and resolved to do what ever it took to get stretch out my lead to a half hour. In that spirit, may I reiterate my request for a little thinking that looks beyond this election year to a future that won’t be a lot easier without George Bush than with him—and that’s assuming we do get rid of the current gang. In particular:

1. How do we break up the media monopoly or counteract its anti-democratic tendencies? If the journalists could stand by and let a major party run an obvious incompetent on an incoherent platform, they can and surely will do it again.

2. What steps can we take to prepare for the economic shock of increasing oil prices? We probably waited too long to avoid a difficult transition from the SUV era to something more sustainable. Whoever is in the White House is going to have trouble explaining to Americans why gas costs $4 a gallon.

3. How do we address global warming or at least get ready for its consequences?

4. How do we deal with such structural inefficiencies in the American economy as its heavily bureaucratic and wasteful health system?

5. How do we accommodate millions of immigrants in a listless economy?

6. How do we lessen our international obligations to a sustainable level without destabilizing the world?

7. How do we manage the transition from an economy powered by demographic growth to one that depends on technology to grow?

8. How do we reverse the trend towards a society divided into rich and poor or at least ameliorate the degradation of the mass of people?