Thursday, October 07, 2004

Deus lo Volt!

In the Middle Ages, poorly informed people in northern Europe believed that the Muslims were pagan idolaters; but just as anybody with a modicum of education knew that the world was round, the well informed knew that Muhammad had actually been a monotheist. They understood Islam as a Christian heresy rather than an alien faith and treated Allah and God as names for one and the same Power. One of the alarming things about the current scene is the way in which many Fundamentalists seem to approach the Arab world with the rather tribal notion that what’s involved is a fight between our God and your God and that religious strife can only be settled World Wrestling Federation style Deo a Deo. The neo-cons know better. Following Aristotle’s advice on dealing with the masses, they regard their theological allies with light irony. But the cultured apologists for the Crusade in Mesopotamia operate with some fairly rustic notions of their own.

The justification of the invasion as a way to bring the light of the West to the benighted people of Asia is not so different from the line taken by many generations of intellectuals in the Latin West. The monks and bishops also believed that their ideology would be welcomed with open arms once the natives recognized its obvious superiority though I don’t know if any abbot of Cluny who ever actually suggested that the citizens of Babylon would name a square after the Pope. At all events, whether in 1095 or 2003, the respective publicists never seemed to have seriously entertained the question, “What gives us the right to decide what people in a foreign land should believe and/or how they should govern themselves?” In both cases, the obvious superiority of the Roman Faith or Democracy was beyond debate. The Saracens weren’t and aren’t entitled to an opinion on the matter since the truth of Christianity is proven by the Gospels and the inevitability of Democracy has been settled once and for all because a man named Francis Fukuyama wrote a book.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Blah, blah, blah, blah, REX, blah, blah, blah

Trying to figure out who won a political debate is a difficult cognitive feat because the point is not usually whether or not one side or the other was convincing to you but whether they were convincing to some other group of people—the only thing that mattered about the Vice Presidential debate, after all, was its effect on the mysterious undecided voters. Listening with somebody else’s ears is no mean feat, especially when their assumptions, values, and habits of thought are alien to your own. It’s quite possible to learn from experience that certain appeals will succeed with uninformed people, but that kind of constructed understanding is clumsy and slow. Many scientists have discovered, for example, that arguments about evolution decisive to biologists are utterly unconvincing to lay audiences; but this understanding doesn’t necessarily make them any more effective in public venues because it seldom becomes intuitive and requires indirection if not deviousness from individuals trained to be literal minded. Napoleon used to say the great talent commanders needed was the ability to guess how their subordinates would hear an order in the heat of battle, something not easy to acquire for those of us who were not born to the manner. Scoring a debate requires a similar skill, a kind of ventriloquism in reverse in which we cast not our voice but our hearing into another body.

I certainly don’t know what the undecideds thought they heard last night, though the CBS poll suggested they thought Edwards won by a fairly large margin. It may be that the messages that mattered were as simple as “Gee, maybe it’s permissible to have doubts about what the President says,” or “Now that you mention it, the economy is pretty punk,” or simply that there is a guy named Edwards whose running and he seems normal enough. If nothing else, the debate may have been the first time in a long time that the voters have heard a word about issues of any kind—I gather that discussion of substantial matters is pretty much taboo on the evening news. I wouldn’t know. I read the papers where such matters are sometimes discussed, though usually in the back along with the car ads.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

How the Irish Became Catholics

Left to their own devices people come to a bewildering array of conclusions on matters of religion. National religious uniformity doesn’t just happen. When it is not imposed by sheer force, it usually comes into being because a particular religion becomes a symbol of national unity in the face of foreign aggression. In the first century of the Reformation, for example, Poland was famous for its religious diversity and toleration. It was only after the repeated invasions of the Lutheran Swedes that the Poles became increasingly Catholic, an identity which was reinforced in our times by resistance to the atheistic Soviets. Similarly, it wasn’t some mysterious national piety that made the Irish so loyal to Rome. The Jesuits wouldn’t have been anything like so successful without Cromwell and King William.

Our activities in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East are underwriting the popularity of fundamentalist Islam in the region, an outcome by no means likely in the absence of our troops and bombs. Of course the Arabs would probably have called themselves Muslims in any case; but Islam, like Christianity, can be peaceable as well as fanatic. Indeed, because religions have no objective truth, they can become anything at all. Unfortunately we seem to be determined to reawaken what are precisely the most unpleasant elements of the Muslim tradition and to make skepticism or secularism into cultural treason.

These things work both ways. Creating a huge and permanent enemy in the Middle East has certain advantages from a rightist perspective because a hostile Islamic world automatically provides America with a unifying other that has been lacking since the Reds wimped out on us. Many Neocons accept the thesis of Carl Schmitt that real politics absolutely requires an enemy. If you really want to have a nation that amounts to more than a contemptible mutual aid society, you simply must pick a fight with someone. Unfortunately, the obvious bogyman, China, is already too formidable to challenge. In this respect, the terrorists are a godsend. True, they had nothing at all to do with the fascist regime in Iraq; but they can be made to have something to do with Iraq retroactively. And the prospect that conflict in the region will be interminable is actually a selling point since what is needed is a reliable, permanent foe to discipline the Americans and justify an authoritarian, one-party state at home.

Monday, October 04, 2004

You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em

The player with the most chips can win a lot of hands by betting on everything, but eventually the table gets wise and the bluffs have to be larger and larger to be impressive. Once and a while, the cowboy will get very lucky indeed and survive his recklessness; but most nights end predictably with a ridiculous showdown where we learn once again that a pair of sevens isn’t a very good hand. I’ve played against macho types who kept raising me in a stud game even though no possible hole card would beat what my hand was already showing. “I guess you weren’t buyin’ it,” says Tex and one politely allows that you can’t beat Lady Luck.

The poker example is a pretty good allegory for a common historical pattern. A nation frustrated by its inability to secure a military victory against an elusive or inaccessible foe reacts by intensifying or widening the conflict as when Germany invaded Russia because it couldn’t invade England and France and later the United States invaded Cambodia because they couldn’t win in Vietnam. Sometimes the bluster and bluff involves an increase in barbarity rather than a geographical extension of the conflict as when the French became increasingly brutal as they lost ground to the insurgents in Algeria or we lose more and more of our inhibitions about bombing civilians in rebel-controlled cities in Iraq. All these moves have the flavor of the last despairing raise in a losing game. In the present case, unfortunately, there may be cards left to play. You often read that the administration will not be able to repeat its strategy of preventative war against Iran or even Syria because the cost of such an action has gone up drastically and our military resources are already dangerously drained. That optimistic thought ignores the routine irrationality of desperate militarists for whom folding is unmanly. Of course it would be dumb to pick a new fight. How smart do you think these guys are?

By the way, the best advice about international politics doesn’t come from poker but from chess. The fundamental error of the Bush administration was to ignore that cardinal Tartakowerism, “A threat is more powerful than its execution.”

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Peel Me a Grape

Debates about the bias of the media universally misidentify the problem, which is not whether a range of opinions and ideas are available but whether one side has a decisive advantage in promoting its own interest by propagandistic means. If voters were intelligent agents who made reasonable efforts to figure things out, there would be no problem. Books and magazines of all persuasions are far more readily available now than in the past, and the Internet makes it possible to read most of the world’s newspapers. For the most part, however, the public is neither intelligent nor active. They don’t read and they certainly don’t think. One can make utopian suggestions about how to lift them out of their normal condition of sloth and ignorance—an excellent idea if you can do it and have lots and lots of time—but in the meanwhile, an objective observer has to be realistic about the boundary conditions of political life that guarantee that emotional appeals and sheer repetition are vastly more important than logic or accurate information.

As thoughtful rightists know very well, political rhetoric is about training, not education. The Neocons are quite correct in this, and it behooves anybody who cares about the preservation a free society to recognize the fact and prevent one group from seizing control of the means of propaganda. Thousands of hours of chest thumping chauvinism are not counteracted by a couple of sound bytes from the editor of Nation.

In my more curmudgeonly moments I grumble about the stupidity of people of normal intelligence as if it were part of the natural history of the human species, but the susceptibility of the public to propaganda is less a function of intellect than sheer inertia. The big political issues are not rocket science, after all. Recent studies show that the population is divided between a minority who draw their own conclusions and a majority who do not. The former are politically active, the later reactive. To move them, it is not enough to present the premises of an argument. No matter how simple the inference, they will not make it. It follows that the political operators who supply the answers will always beat out those who provide the evidence because the evidence only matters to a tiny group. The public, let us remember, is overwhelmingly made up of the kids who only cared about what was going to be on the test.