Saturday, September 02, 2006


Today’s videotape from Al Qaeda may be something more than business as usual, not because the spokesman is Adam Gadahn, AKA Azzam the American, but because the message contains a formal invitation to convert or submit: “We invite all Americans and believers to Islam, whatever their role and status in Bush and Blair’s world order. Decide today, because today could be your last day.”

I happen to be reading Wahhabi Islam by Natana J. Delong-Bas and found a footnote that informs me that not only Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, eponymous founder of the school of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, but a consensus of Islamic scholars insist that the enemy must be summoned to Islam before the initiation of war. In this context, the Gadahn statement strikes me as just the kind of formal nicety that zealots somehow think will have the same meaning for non-believers as it does for them. Since it is now September and two obvious days for an attack are approaching, Labor Day and 9/11, I’m waiting with some trepidation for what happens next.

By the way, just in case the world doesn’t come to an end, let me say a word about Wahhabism because so many people have been influenced by works like Stephen Schwartz’ Two Faces of Islam that trace contemporary militant Islam back to Abd al-Wahhab, a late 18th Century religious leader, even though, as Delong-Bas notes, Wahhab’s uncompromising and rather austere version of Islam does not emphasize holy war on the infidels for the unsurprising reason that the Arabia of his day wasn’t threatened by non-Muslim outsiders. Wahhabism in its later incarnations may have become identified with more fire-breathing versions of the faith—the ferocious Islam of medieval Ibn Taymiyya and the modern Siyyid Qutb, both of whom were responding to external threats—but the original movement was rather like one of the Protestant Great Awakenings, a movement of internal reform, not a call for aggressive war. That doesn’t mean that Wahhabism, even in its early form, wasn’t rather alarming. It was. It just wasn’t more alarming than the contemporary competition and, more to the point, Wahhab’s opinions don’t have very much to do with what people do in his name in 2006. As I never tire of repeating, religions don’t have any bones. They can become anything.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Narcissus, Unimpressed

“Know before whom you stand” is inscribed on the top of the Torah case in many synagogues. I’ve written the same message on the top of my bathroom mirror, though hardly as an exercise in megalomania.

Most of us don’t get ourselves crucified, but the path of even a more or less satisfactory life is marked off by such stations of the cross as the moment when you realize that your plans have failed and you’ll have to make do with fantasies, and the moment when you discover that you have to imagine that you still have desires in order to go on dreaming, and the moment when you recognize that dreaming is as much of a chore as doing the dishes.

I’m anything but a good person, and yet I have a certain automatic generosity. I don’t much care who enjoys something as long as somebody does. It’s as if I believed that there was only one actor behind every part in the play, the self-same crazy hunger chanting “I am the eater, I am the eater, I am the eater!” through its innumerable ravenous mouths. (Or “Feed me!” if you prefer the Little Shop of Horrors to the Upanishads.)

The sad fact that a question isn’t necessarily profound just because it doesn’t have an answer.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Fifth Rerun of Wagon Train

It is gradually dawning on quite a few people that last week’s terror plot probably wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Indeed, since none of the villains of the piece had made any bombs or bought airline tickets and many of them didn’t even have passports, it’s not clear that they were ever ready to even rehearse, let alone pull off a massive attack. The charges against the group depend on the testimony, probably extracted under torture, of a man in Pakistani custody. Meanwhile, both Bush and Blair stood in urgent need of a renewal of public panic; and both have a long track record of exaggerating and misrepresenting facts for political gain. Now it is true that even the most relentless bluffer is sometimes dealt good cards. There may indeed have been some sort of plot. Chances are, however, that our boys are just blowing smoke again. Granted the extreme incompetence of these administrations, a real plot would have most likely have been revealed by planes plummeting to the ground. If these guys are able to thwart it, the threat can’t be too serious.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Murphy Bed

People who love books are advised not to open bookstores on the same reasoning that suggests that the perfect spouse is somebody you don’t hate but don’t particularly like either. I once contemplated a career in the ministry on this basis, figuring that a passionless disbeliever would make a well-nigh ideal Episcopalian priest. Besides, I rather looked the part. As a trial run, I once conducted a service at Pomona College, which went OK, although the congregation was puzzled why I had them sing the hymn about “those in peril on the sea”—I had written the wrong number down in my notes. The clerical theme crops up later in my story as well, though these days, I’ve given up impersonating a Protestant preacher in favor of being mistaken for a local Hassidic rabbi. The rumor that I’m actually Pope Benedict blogging under an assumed name is unsupported by credible evidence, however.

The point is—there must be a point around here someplace—the point is I don’t have any dislike of churches or theologies. I don’t think there is a particle of truth in the articles of anybody’s faith, but that’s not much of an argument against religion. Human life needs a ritual dimension; or, to be more accurate, we prefer not to leave dead family members out in the trash, even if we don’t believe in the prospect of recycling. It’s only humane and decent to frame the facts of our existence with due ceremony. Literal belief in Gods and spirits is unnecessary and, in any case, largely irrelevant even to most believers because modern religiosity is like a Murphy bed. It folds away when not in use.

You often encounter biologists who vigorously oppose the thesis of intelligent design on the unimpeachable grounds that it isn’t science and yet maintain their own Sunday-morning version of divine design. Nature shows no trace of the workings of an extraneous intelligence—the VIN numbers having been filed off the mitochondria—but one can certainly claim that the entire system of the world was created with just the right characteristics to produce intelligent life. Conway Morris, in his otherwise very impressive book Life’s Devices, makes this argument; and is obviously proud of it, too, even though it is very little more than a restatement of the rather basic theorem of modal logic that everything actual was formerly possible. Even the fact, if it is a fact, that the constants of physics have to be almost exactly what they are in order to make life possible, doesn’t provide any evidence of “fine tuning.” Indeed, the expression “fine tuning” is itself an instance of question begging since the whole issue is whether there ever was any tuning or any tuner in the first place. Anyhow, if it is miraculous that our emergence was, like the Battle of Waterloo, a close run thing, adding a second miracle to explain the first won’t lessen the peculiarity of the situation. But if Morris’ argument is a non-starter from a philosophical point of view, it is also a completely harmless one since it has been carefully crafted to have no consequences whatsoever for the conduct of the sciences or for our understating of nature. A perfect Murphy bed.

Incidentally, I was reminded of the Morris book recently when I encountered a somewhat similar line of reasoning in R.J.P. Williams and J.J.R. Frausto de Silva’s “the Chemistry of Evolution,” which, while carefully avoiding theological overtones, attempts to understand the evolution of living things as the more or less inevitable unfolding of the potentialities of elements under the conditions that obtained in early Earth history. Williams and de Silva speak about the emergence of general ways of processing energy and matter such as anaerobic prokaryotes or unicellular eukaryotes or animals with nervous systems and brains rather than of particular taxa while Morris argues, much less plausibly, for the inevitability of something recognizably human, down to bipedal locomotion. Even so, I expect that Williams and de Silva have overstated their case, but I’m inclined to think that the table of Mendeleev does explain rather more than the tablets of Moses. The Chemistry of Evolution book also has the virtue of underling the role of inorganic chemistry in the development and functioning of living things, something rather lost in many popular accounts of living things, reflecting as such accounts do the prejudices of the organic chemists and the journalists’ obsession with DNA.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Democratic Deficits

I mostly hear the term “democratic deficit” used in relation to the situation in the European Union where the bureaucrats in Brussels are largely independent of any control by elected bodies; but the EU case, whose consequences have mostly been benign, is hardly anomalous. Worldwide, the will of the people only matters when it happens to coincide with the desires of some ruling group. Thus, most citizens of the United Kingdom didn’t support British participation in the Iraq invasion and want the troops brought home. Opinion in the United States has trended strongly in the same direction. That doesn’t seem to matter. Indeed, bringing up the disconnect between the wishes of the public and the government may be counterproductive since it is demonstrates to the operators of the system how little they have to fear from below. Every defeat of the people reinforces the arrogance of the elites. Having lost their inhibitions, the politicians and technocrats cheerfully fix elections, corrupt judicial systems, intimidate the press, and—if necessary—overturn the occasional inconvenient electoral result by simply murdering their opponents, Israeli style. I’m reminded of the Don Larson cartoon where the trained bears suddenly discover how easy it is to tear off their muzzles.

I’m not a proponent of universal populism. My political philosophy is banal indeed, a barely updated version of Aristotle’s theory of mixed government; and I believe that the will of the people is only one element in a happily constituted state. Private property and the economic inequality that goes with it require that society be maintained in a condition of perpetual tension; and science and many other cultural institutions are also anti-popular institutions that have to be maintained against the ignorance and superstition normal to our species. Nevertheless, when the level of exploitation of the many by the few becomes greater than the level at which it promotes a higher general level of welfare, it becomes morally problematic; and when it rises without moderation, it becomes practically unsustainable. Of course, it may be that advances in military technology and propaganda techniques will allow elites to maintain or increase their control; but I think it is more likely that the end of the era of economic and demographic expansion will eventually destroy the dynamic equilibrium as the haves fall out among themselves and the have-nots figure out how to get even. This set of contradictions has already resulted in at least one casualty: the word Democracy, which, like Lenin’s body, has been reeking of formaldehyde for some time now.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Sexually Based Offenses are Considered Particularly Marketable

Television is often a victimless crime. When some cable channel talking head makes a few bucks by hosting a special on an alien autopsy or the Shroud of Turin, the willful misrepresentation of the facts is no more objectionable than the net stockings on a hooker. It’s just something the johns like; and the second-rate celebrities that host these shows probably figure that the work, inglorious as it is, still beats opening strip malls. The calculated promotion of public ignorance is far harder to excuse when real human beings are hurt in the process. I’m not just thinking of the way the corporate shills on CNBS encourages stock market speculation or Fox stokes the natural cowardice of the American people in order to justify war and torture. The entertainment shows also spread false and misleading ideas and do so far more effectively than any blond harpy on CNN.

It is the premise of countless television shows that sex offenders are impossible to rehabilitate and should be locked up forever. For Law and Order Special Victims Unit and the others, once a molester, always a molester is a genre convention like the well-known fact that you can’t see vampires in the mirror. Now it is very hard to come by reliable statistics on recidivism, but the biggest meta-statistical study I’ve encountered suggests that the recidivism rate for sex crimes is approximately 13.4%, notably lower than the 40+% recidivism rate for other crimes. Apparently the guy you really, really don’t want moving in next door isn’t Ernie the perv, but a garden-variety mugger.

Granted that it is childishly easy and highly profitable to get people hysterical about sexual offenses, don’t television producers, writers, and actors have some responsibility for riling up the lynch mob? The real justification for permanently stigmatizing sexual offenders is not that their crimes are especially harmful—a lot of these guys are hapless flashers and voyeurs, after all, and some of them are sixteen year old boys caught groping their fifteen year old girlfriends—but that the public can be made to believe that the rare cases of homicidal child-abusers are somehow typical and that people who like child pornography are very likely to feel up the next kid they meet. To speak like an anthropologist, sex crimes are sacred. One has to believe that they are qualitatively different than other crimes since they are a real but much smaller problem quantitatively.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

An Iliad of Woes

In the third book of the Iliad, the Greeks and Trojans get the brilliant idea of settling their ten-year long war by a single combat between Paris, the abductor of Helen, and Menelaus, the outraged cuckold. For thousands of years now, students have been asking why this solution didn’t occur to anybody before so many warriors had already become a feast for the vultures. I have a similar question as I read about the Iraqi government’s proposal to end the civil war by trading an agreement for the withdrawal of all foreign troops for a general cessation of hostilities. After all, in the immediate aftermath of our invasion, the United States could have promised to leave at a time certain and thus preempted the main motive of the insurrection.

One knows the answer to the Homeric riddle. Troy was doomed. A reasonable composition of the quarrel would have thwarted the will of the Gods, and even a postponed duel between the aggrieved parties could not be allowed to resolve things until every drop of fated blood had been shed. Aphrodite duly intervenes to save Paris before Menelaus can finish him off. Things are much the same in Mesopotamia. In the Iraqi instance, our own Zeus can be counted on to guarantee the continued misery of all concerned, though it may be a challenge to figure out how to twist the arms of our erstwhile local allies and ensure that all five acts of the tragedy be performed before the curtain.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Gummed to Death by Gabby Hayes

One of the most persistent and mysterious myths about political blogging is the notion that the average blogger is young, poor, and badly educated. In fact, to judge by recent surveys, most bloggers and most readers of blogs are down-right long in the tooth—in a study of those whippersnapper Kos people, the most overrepresented age bracket was the over 65 set. Bloggers also tend to be both better educated than the average American, which is hardly surprising since people who are comfortable with writing are likely to more highly literate than the norm. They are also relatively well-off.

I’m skeptical of the political potential of the Blogosphere, at least as a medium for mass mobilization. Communicating in whole sentences is just too demanding for most people, especially since even people with the requisite English skills are often too busy or too distracted to relish an activity as high-energy as writing or even reading blog posts. For the common reader, the seriousness, novelty, and complexity of the arguments one finds on many sites are far more apotropaic than the often bewailed tendency of some bloggers to operate at a level of obscenity reminiscent of Deadwood. Because they are highly articulate, however, the bloggers may exert an indirect effect on future politics by working on the minds of members of political elites. And because they and their readers have considerable disposable income, they do have the wherewithal to get politicians to listen to them.

A character in one of my old science fiction stories notices that the headline on Time magazine cover reads “The Baby Boomers Turn 80 This Year!” Well, we aren’t 80 yet, but maybe the true secret meaning of the Blogging vogue is the advent of a generational geezer attack, something rather like what takes place in a zombie movie except that the web’s shambling monsters make a lot more editorial comments than the traditional brain-eaters.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Looming Threat

As many people have pointed out, it is more than a little ironic that so many established journalists are currently publishing attacks on the blogosphere on the theory that it is under the control of puppet masters like Marcos, the founder of the Daily Kos. After all, the pundit counter-offensive appears to be far more coordinated than the normal activities of the anarchistic net. Indeed, when the Op-ed writers aren’t calling the bloggers on their groupthink, they are complaining about net-based opinion precisely because it is uncontrollable. Nothing on the net corresponds to the editorial section of the New York Times. There is no permanent high ground. Anybody is liable to say anything, including, for example, pointing out that the defining feature of American elite journalism is its startling lack of talent.

Like most people who actually blog, I doubt if blogging is going to bring the millennium or even turn out to be politically important except at the margins. Indeed, the greatest the new modality’s most significant impact may be to accelerate the tempo of serious debate in academic and scientific disciplines. Participation in the electronic conversation is rather too strenuous to attract mass participation, which partly explains why so many bloggers are in their 50s and 60s. There just aren’t that many younger people who are willing or able to write paragraphs in the dead of night. But I doubt if the Swift Boating of the bloggers is motivated as much by the realistic political threat they represent to conservative and liberal orthodoxy as by the pundits’ anger at the recognition of their own increasing marginalization. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and the rest are steadily losing readers and credibility. The blogosphere—as opposed to the Internet as a whole—may have little to do with the downfall of the traditional media and the declining status of the talking heads; but it is a convenient scapegoat. As usual, the defense of privilege is more fervent than the defense of principle.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

I’m Not Interested in Figuring Out Whether I’m Leaning Left or Right—I Have a Hard Enough Time Remaining Vertical

The notion that netroot Democrats are a radical protest group may be politically useful spin, but it is analytically inaccurate. The center of gravity of the dissident bloggers is located in the middle, not the periphery—Kos, Atrios, Brad DeLong, Marshall and many others are liberals, not leftists. The occasional old guard types that do surface in the comment sections from time to time stand out as a bit quaint, blue-dog Marxists among the irritated pragmatists. Remarkably few commentators are dreaming about nationalizing the toilet paper factories. The funny thing is that many of the bloggers think of themselves as more leftist than they actually are, perhaps unconsciously buying into the right-wing way of conceptualizing things. For the right, after all, Eisenhower was a pinko.

You also read that the Democrats on the web have no positive program. This too is spin. Precisely because the developing consensus of the netroots is anything but radical, its values and policy preferences are bound to be less dramatic than the revolutionists on the right. If you don’t want to repeal the Bill of Rights and you aren’t proposing an invasion of yet another foreign country or attempting to establish a national church, you’re bound to have more trouble making headlines than your photogenic opponents with their amusing pathologies. Even universal health care, a traditional Democratic goal sometimes featured as radical, obviously is anything but groundbreaking. It’s catch-up—Indoor plumbing! What will they think of next! Taking the energy crisis and global warming seriously isn’t daring innovation either. It’s what we obviously ought to do.

Unfortunately, a manifesto composed almost entirely of sensible proposals aimed at managing real problems is not going to make very inspiring reading. Maybe I’ll take a whack at composing one. I’m told I’m good at dull.
On the Advantages of Maintaining a Sense of Humor about Human Sexuality, a Not Exactly Pindaric Ode inspired by an Internet Debate on the Impropriety of Certain Amorous Proclivities

All our games are coarse and rude,
Unless, of course, you’re in the mood.
Besides, when you come down to it,
Both girls and boys are full of shit
As was delivered by the Saint
Commenting on the human taint
Betwixt the boudoir and the loo
And number one and number two
Where we beget and were begot
And go to get and to be got.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Academics and Politics

Profs often complain that they are ineffective politically because people resent their intellectual level. No doubt that occurs, but I think the main reason that academics have trouble reaching large audiences is not that they are smarter than their potential listeners, but that their way of speaking conforms to specialized rules of scholarly discourse. A lot of the complexity of professorial language consists of rhetorical Masonic Handshakes that verify the guild membership and status of the speaker to his colleagues; and both habit and humility guarantee that a learned person will make unreasonable assumptions about what the listener already knows about a subject. Meanwhile, academics spend their whole careers trying to come up with something new to say or at least some new way to say something old. This requirement alone guarantees that no simple truth will be uttered, even if it is news to the actual recipient, without a elaborate garnish of ifs, ands, and buts. There is always the suspicion that the plain facts plainly enunciated will not suffice either to maintain one’s own dignity or respect the capacity of the other person, even when the plain facts are already damned hard to explain and nobody knows anything without having learned about it.
The Most Apt Analogy

Commentators consistently impute more rationality to the Bush foreign policy than the record warrants. They write as if the goal of our occupation of Iraq was to set up a stable regime and then leave, even though the administration is on the record that it plans to remain in the area and the military is constructing elaborate installations with room for 50,000 or 60,000 troops. It is hard to believe that even the fantasists that run our government imagine that the U.S. has the political will or the economic and military resources to turn Mesopotamia into a permanent entrenched camp in the midst of a hostile region. Stupidity, however, is a great enabler of optimism.

Snow and other administration spokesmen have recently taken to likening the current impasse in Iraq to the Battle of the Bulge as if the activities of the insurgents were the last, desperate counterattack of a strategically defeated enemy. The problem with the analogy is that we are not contending against a single organized power like Hitler’s Germany. With remarkably few exceptions, everybody in the neighborhood hates us, including most of our current allies in the ersatz People’s Republic of Iraq. It’s possible that we can defeat any particular group, but so long as we insist on continuing our occupation, there will always be new groups, armed and financed by public and private sources in the surrounding nations. We simply don’t have the armed forces required to pacify the entire Middle East, and we don’t have the economic resources necessary to bribe the Iraqis into willing submission.

The accurate analogy here is not the Battle of the Bulge. It’s an ingrown toenail.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Every Cow is Driven to Pasture by a Blow

The usual thing to say is that the foreign policy of a national leader becomes less effective as he loses political power at home. In Bush’s case, the reverse may be true. Lacking the strength to mount a military attack on Iran, the Administration is falling back on diplomacy and actually getting somewhere, in part because a manufactured crisis rapidly becomes less threatening when you stop manufacturing it. If the president’s poll numbers continue to decline, his State Department may be compelled to take additional intelligent steps.

This morning’s killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi provides an opportunity for another retreat to rationality. It’s not just that eliminating the principal bogie man allows Bush to declare victory while preparing a strategic withdrawal from Iraq. It gives both the Republicans and the liberal hawks a chance to wean themselves from their dependence on bogie men. So long as the conflict in Mesopotamia is defined as a struggle of radical good against radical evil, cutting deals is impossible even though any semblance of a resolution of the problem in the region will require the cutting of a huge number of deals. Bush could—and may well—replace Zarqawi with another papier-mache monster as Zarqawi once stepped into the shoes of Saddam and Bloefeld succeeded to Dr. No but that won’t help because the supply of candidate terrorists is not the rate-limiting factor in this reaction. Short of literally grinding the contending factions to dust, we’ll eventually have to recognize that our opponents aren’t mindless henchmen directed by Hitler-clones but political, ethnic, and religious groups that regard their own interests as legitimate. So how about singing just one more chorus of “Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead” and then setting up some meetings with the Sunnis?

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Default, Dear Brutus, Is Not in Our Stars

Unless you’re listening to your relatives, you have a right to expect something new in every declarative sentence, some hint of surprise, since a perfectly predictable utterance conveys no information. This pragmatic rule is presumably more rigorously enforced in written language since print costs more, at least in bother, than idle conversation. Unfortunately, this net effect of this imperative can create a misleading impression of what people actually believe at any given time in history since what is written is written against a set of assumptions that seldom get stated except by mathematicians and sociologists. Statistically considered, the Zeitgeist described by the intellectual historians is not the default position of the educated people of an Age but some sort of measure of the typical forms of dissent to the mysterious dark matter of the real consensus. This problem isn’t just academic. I may not care very much about what they really thought during the Scottish Enlightenment, but I’d very much like to know what I myself am thinking right now. To figure that out, I’d have to dare to be dull; and, appearances to the contrary, I’m not sure that I’m that audacious.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Private Property is like Ketchup

The classic route to staggering wealth begins with the assumption of a huge mountain of debt. I like to use the same technique in writing essays, beginning with some peculiar sentence that makes no sense at all on its face and saddles me with an obligation to explain my way out of a fix I've willingly put myself into. The best example I know of this sort of thing and the inspiration of my title is the first sentence of one of Levi-Strauss’ books: “Totemism is like hysteria.”

If you haven’t already guessed, private property is like ketchup because both are homely items, which, though far too familiar to be taken much note of, would be sensational inventions were they to appear for the first time in the year 2006. One can easily imagine the rapturous reception the zesty new condiment would earn on the cooking shows. Similarly, the discovery of a way to ensure that cars get washed and shops get opened on time would amaze and delight the public. It’s too late to experience either frisson now, except, perhaps, to the extent that the disappearance of a thing rhymes sadly with the memory of its debut. Of course ketchup isn’t actually going away. Private property, on the other hand, is under serious attack as corporate capitalism, at last poised to fulfill the dream of Henri Saint-Simon, pursues the Wal-Mart route to socialism.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Look and See

In a public debate, those with the facts are at a serious disadvantage because their listeners have to learn something in order to understand arguments supported by evidence. Inertia favors appeals based on platitudes and commonplaces since these notions are already well known and people tend to think that ideas are true simply because they are familiar. In debates about religion, for example, it is taken as a given that belief in the supernatural promotes morality and prevents social breakdown while even a cursory examination of the historical record suggests that things are far more complex. Sometimes religious institutions have maintained order in the aftermath of military defeat and general demoralization as when the bishops of Western Europe, often members of the senatorial class, stepped in to manage as best they could the ruined provinces of a fallen empire. In these instances, as perhaps in the case of some of the successor states of the USSR, religion was important by default. On the other hand, where societies are doing well, as in contemporary Scandinavia, or manage to organize themselves around nationalism or secular ideologies, religion is often largely irrelevant. And there are also cases such as Mongolia and Tibet where a mania for religion appears to have led to national decadence. Historical sociology does not yield simple conclusions, which is not to say that it doesn’t yield any conclusions at all. The point is, you have to look and see.

By the way, the atheists are as fond of coarse answers as any believer. Every time I encounter some villager waving the bloody shirt of the Crusades or the Inquisition, I find myself wondering if any of these worthies has bothered to assess the historical record. As a cause of mortality, getting burnt at the stake is pretty insignificant compared to brain tumors or probably even lightening, not to mention really serious killers like spousal jealousy. Similarly, though there have certainly been times of terrible religious wars, there have also been long eras during which people found other reasons to kill one another. It is trivially true that every kind of villainy correlates with religiosity; but that just reflects the fact that a proclivity to superstition and fanaticism, if not part of the essence of humanity, is at least a universal accident like original sin. Indeed, on balance, it may have been a good thing that organized churches have managed and channeled our potentially dangerous spiritual impulses over the centuries. Thus even the Spanish Inquisition, terrifying as it undoubtedly was, did serve to curb the homicidal prejudices of the Spanish people, for whom being a Christian had become a matter of blood, not belief, If you think Torquemada was bad, wait until you face a Castilian mob.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On the Hoof

There’s a joke in the Pooh Perplex about the professor who published “All Previous Thought, a rather large freshman casebook.” The notion that even an elephant folio could contain that much content is pretty funny, but I have several volumes on my shelves that purport to be only marginally less capacious—the closest in view is Wing-Tsit Chan’s Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, clocking in a comparatively modest 856 pages. Sourcebooks are an improvement on the potted summaries one encounters in surveys since even translations convey something of the voice of the real thinkers instead of reducing them to a set of opinions rephrased in the conceptually impoverished pidgin language of all-to-much intellectual history. That doesn’t evade the problem of selection, however. It isn’t just a choice must be made between particular thinkers—that subtraction is often part of the value added by the editor. What is problematic is the almost inevitable systematic bias in favor of representatives of traditions whose activities come down to defending definable points of view as opposed, for example, to those for whom a philosophy is more a methodical practice than a body of results. But if the tendency of anthologies to focus on doxa misrepresents the history of philosophy, something similar has a far worse effect when it comes to compilations that survey the world’s religions.

Perhaps because in modern times having a religion is often more like having a hobby than anything else, it’s not surprising that one thinks that adherence to Christianity or Buddhism is definable as belief in a series of propositions. One can easily decide to believe this rather than that. Adapting a total manner of living and feeling is quite a different matter, especially considering the very onerous obligations that go along with the traditional practice of religions. Are you really going to give 10% of your income to the church? Are you really going to sit on a mat two hours a day? Are you really only going to have sex with your wife when you intend to reproduce? And that’s not the worst of it. The theologies of the various religions, having typically been elaborated by extremely intelligent and sophisticated men engaged in a long-range debate with other extremely intelligent and sophisticated men, are intellectually respectable while the ritual, devotional, ethical, and magical elements of the same faiths are often rather embarrassing. Small wonder if a comprehensible belief system presented in a scriptural anthology seems more congenially than the Howl’s Moving Castle of a real religion.

If, for some reason, you really want to know something about the religions of the world, you have to find a way to go beyond accounts that focus on the intellectual rationalizations of the several traditions and take a series of soundings of their daily substance. Donald S. Lopez, Jr.’s Princeton Readings in Religions series is a good place to start since these volumes focus on practice. Reading them conveys a very different picture of the reality of the world religions than the usual accounts, which, in contrast, often seem to be apologetics by proxy, appreciations of alien cultural institutions that accept the accuracy of the self-definitions of the religions they describe. The contemporary scholars who introduce the selections in the Lopez anthologies demonstrate something largely missing from popular discussions of religion: a combination of sympathetic understanding and critical distance.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

When the Man on the Horse Won’t Get Off His Ass

Like many others, I’ve taken comfort over the years from the reluctance of American military men to intervene in politics—two hundred and thirty years without a coup. George Washington’s decision not to seize power by force is perhaps an even more defining moment in our history than the Declaration of Independence, which, after all, would read as pretty feckless exercise in enthusiasm had the revolution resulted in a dictatorship. The willing subordination of military to civilian authority is not without its ambiguities, however. It certainly doesn’t mean that the generals and the admirals, inhabitants of an authoritarian world of obedience and deference, respect democratic politics. Indeed, many of them find the give and take of free institutions distasteful and avoid partisan involvement as much out of fastidiousness as principle. Which has a good side and a bad side. The prospect of some future Colin Powell riding a tank onto the Whitehouse lawn is remote, but it’s easy to imagine the Joint Chiefs of Staff looking the other way in the event of a violent seizure of power. “We don’t want to be involved.” The precedents are not favorable. It wasn’t the Italian army that marched on Rome back in 1922, but the fascist seizure of power was made possible by passivity of the generals. The aristocratic German General Staff certainly looked down on the hysterical corporal; but they were too proud to get political and, anyhow, the new party promised to respect their prerogatives and increase their budget allotments. Historically, right-wing craziness is ineffectual without the willingness of military men to sit on their hands. Of course Bush hardly measures up to Mussolini or Hitler and he lacks (for now) the requisite army of street thugs; but the acquiescence of high-ranking officers to torture and illegal wiretapping shows how little effective resistance to extra-constitutional behavior we can expect from a supposedly apolitical military. That’s especially serious because the American military has enormous prestige right now, not only because of its technical competence but because it is perceived, probably inaccurately, as less corrupt than such despised institutions as Congress and the Press. If Bush turns out to have been the John the Baptist to some really malevolent messiah, can we expect the Generals to defend the republic?

As the Bush administration becomes odious even to its erstwhile ideological supporters, many conservatives are defecting. In a parliamentary system, the result would be a vote of no confidence and a new government. Our constitution prevents that sensible outcome. An American President is like a king, albeit a king with a legally established term of rule. Baring impeachment—an exceedingly unlikely event even if the Democrats regain the House—Bush will occupy the Whitehouse for more than two more years. Of course he might have better luck or try better policies in that period. He might follow the precedent set by Reagan, whose last years in office were rescued by a set of moderate Republicans. Bush, however, is not Reagan. The “new” people he is bringing on board are, if anything, even more ideological than their predecessors. Meanwhile, since the people who are leaving are more principled or at least more cautious than the ones who stay, the administration will probably become more erratic and incompetent. The tarry remains of the distillation will be characterized above all by blind loyalty. Not a comfortable prospect, especially since the better people are not just being driven out of political jobs. The CIA, the armed forces, the civil service, and the science advisory bodies are also affected.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Swinging Door Policy

Even the most consistent demagoguery becomes self-defeating in the face of a divided people. When illegal immigration wasn’t a particularly salient issue and the prospect of picking up a significant proportion of Hispanic votes outweighed the danger of irritating the nativists, Bush cheerfully sang the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish—in those days, as his publicists were eager to inform us, he was fluent in the language. With his base in revolt, both Bush’s bilingualism and his enthusiasm for La Bandera aren’t what they used to be. The President can’t solve the underlying political problem with this simple PR adjustment, but PR is all he has. A serious crackdown on illegal immigration would harm the interests of his moneyed backers. Indeed, it would put them in legal jeopardy. Meanwhile, the mass part of his support is afraid of all those brown faces. Anyhow, as true Americans, they’d rather face a thousand deaths than actually learn a second language; and you can’t simply point out to these folks that imprisoning or even deporting twelve million hard-working people isn’t going to happen. So it’s a guest worker program to appease the Chamber of Commerce on the plane of the real and three cheers for a culturally white America on the plane of the imaginary.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

You’ll Miss It When It’s Gone

You don’t have to exhibit the piety of a Sister Wendy to appreciate the renaissance’s wealth of religious art. Indeed, indifference to religion makes it easier to view these images as art instead of objects of use. I expect that something similar will eventually occur in the evaluation of the enormous mass of commercial art produced in our era. Once nobody gives a damn what the picture was an ad for, when the corporate sponsor has become as forgotten as the various “my honey lords” of Elizabethan prefaces, when the political purpose of the poster is simply quaint, it will be noticed that the 20th and 21st Centuries were ages of staggering creativity.

Contrary to the presumption that excellence is hard to winnow from the dreck, the challenge for the art historian will be how to deal with a volume of highly accomplished work that dwarfs the capacities of any possible human appreciator. The currently available technical means of preservation make it likely that a far higher proportion of artifacts will persist, at least in virtual form, even in the wake of a serious contraction of human civilization. Classicism is a very pleasant form of scholarship in part because the paucity of the surviving evidence makes it possible to take a synoptic view of the field. The humanists owe something to the monks who didn’t chose to copy everything and the Goths who thinned out the statuary garden. No guarantee that the next round of barbarians will prove as helpful to the savants who try to comprehend the American Centuries. Too many DVDs. Too many deleted scenes.

Monday, May 01, 2006

All in the Family

Just as liberal non-believers are constantly admonished to keep quiet about their atheism so as not to offend the credulous majority that decides elections, people skeptical about American exceptionalism are shushed when they dare to criticize the sacred nation, not only by those who ask without irony, “Why do you hate America?” but also by erstwhile progressives whose political courage—or prudence—doesn’t extend to challenging our national vanity. One can talk about “true patriotism” but the notion that there is might be something problematic about any kind of patriotism is a non-starter.

I don’t know whether Americans are more thin-skinned about their country than the citizens of other nations. They–we—seem to be, though you might expect that the inhabitants of so dominant a nation wouldn’t have to be so touchy, not only when foreigners criticize us but also and especially when one of our own dares to suggest that we aren’t all that wonderful after all. I have a different take on things. I’m an American whether or not we’re perfect and lovely in every way just as, for better or worse, I’ll go on belonging to my family even if there really is something alarming about Uncle Ernie. Which is why, while I much prefer the “May she always be in the right” part, I also buy into the “my country, right or wrong” part of Stephen Decatur’s toast. But if I’m going to sign on to stick with the ship, I’d very much prefer if the ship didn’t actually go down; and I propose to go on reading the riot act to the other sailors and even the captain if I think they’re steering towards the rocks.
The Gettysburg Address of Stand Up?

Not quite. In fact, I expect that Steven Colbert feels a certain amount of regret about his delivery, which wasn’t very smooth. On the other hand, the predictable absence of audience response must have made it difficult to maintain the timing, guaranteeing that the level of the performance wouldn’t match the excellence of the script or the significance of the occasion considered as a political act.

As Garry Wills points out in his wonderful book on the Gettysburg Address, the idea that Lincoln’s speech fell on deaf ears is a myth. The official journalistic reaction to Colbert, on the other hand, really is silence. Nothing surprising about that: under certain circumstances, the Press Corps may be willing to turn on Bush, but they certainly aren’t going to give any airtime to a deadly attack on themselves. They certainly can’t answer the charge implied by his jokes. They aren’t living up to their own narrative about themselves and they know it. Supposedly a band of heroes that speaks truth to power, they act like a bunch of well-paid whores.

Colbert violated a sacred rule of corporate funfests. When the employees make the ritual jokes about managers, they can, indeed they must, say outrageous things; but the daring cracks have to be completely irrelevant. You can rib the boss for his golf game or even his waistline, intimate that he can’t pronounce nuclear and suggest that he isn’t very bright. Remarks that actually hit the target, no matter how witty, are forbidden. The point of the reversals of roles during Saturnalia is to make it easier for the slaves to go on being slaves, not to suggest that there is anything problematic about servitude.

(transcript of Colbert's performance)

Saturday, April 29, 2006


I recall a science fiction story in which an astronaut freezes to death in his malfunctioning spacesuit during an expedition to sample the blazing surface of the Sun. That particular prefabricated irony is fictional. Another paradoxical misfortune, claustrophobia in the middle of a mostly deserted agora, is apparently all too real. I suffer it whenever I visit the comment’s sections of various blogs and find the participants in desperate rhetorical combat like maniacs with fire axes locked in a closet. Or maybe the better analogy would be an arm wrestling tournament in view of the limited number of strategic options available to the contestants. Granted the enormous number of points of view that can reasonably be taken about almost any public issue, it ought to be amazing that strangers have no trouble getting close enough to disagree. It ought to be amazing, but of course it isn’t. The meeting of minds, the butting of heads, is not a miracle. It’s an illusion. Which is also why the sands of the electronic arena are not soaked with even metaphorical blood, except by the rarest of accidents, because each combatant aims his blows not at the ideas of another person but at his idea of those ideas.

Looking up at the night sky, we often see a star near the moon; but we don’t brace for the shock of their imminent collision because we know that the objects never actually approach one another since the moon is next door to us while the star is hundreds of light years away. By the same token, we eventually learn that the protozoans or organelles that appear to be adjacent on the slide may not be in the same plane: the microscope’s shallowness of field squashes everything together. In these instances, a three-dimensional array is projected onto two dimensions. Discourse is like that. What’s called the public sphere is really a flat screen, a surface that distorts the proportions of the represented objects and creates shadow constellations on the walls of the cave.
The Few, the Proud, the Blogsites

I’ve added a few new links. Real Climate is a clearinghouse for climate research. It appears to me managed by climatologists for climatologists. The Oil Drum is the best site I know for information and debate about liquid fuels issues—it reflects a range of views and in this respect is very different than Peak Oil rant venues like Clusterfuck Nation (shorter James Kunstler: “Suburbia delinda est.”) Arms and Influence covers military affairs. I’ve also added Economist’s View, mostly because it somehow gets away with reprinting Paul Krugman’s columns from the New York Times.

Daily Kos replaces Eschaton, which has become increasingly perfunctory and predictable over the years.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Gas Attack

Nonpartisanship lives. For example, both Democrats and the Republicans are supporting investigations into price gouging at the pump. Even Bush, who is an oilman himself, found it impossible to resist the urge to deflect criticism onto the traditional villains. Just as every candidate, of every party, ideology, and hairdo, eventually calls for an end to government waste as an answer to the deficit, they all automatically blame market crises on unscrupulous manipulators—the term used to be “malefactors of great wealth”—as if unnamed sheiks and Texans had suddenly decided to cut off the spigot to run up prices. Now it’s not that the aforementioned sheiks and Texans don’t bear considerable responsibility for the current energy problem. They do. The trouble is that the relevant bad behavior isn’t price fixing in the present. Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer understand this fact as well as any economist—it’s not exactly a nuance—but they can’t resist the political advantage of rounding up the usual suspects. The trick is to get the upper hand without actually putting into effect the really stupid policies implied by the rhetoric—the very last thing we need, after all, is a cut in gasoline taxes at a time when government finances are shaky and there is an obvious need to allow higher prices to restrain demand.

Only the most gifted of politicians are able to persuade the general public with arguments that are relevant and valid. In the intervals between these miracles, it’s the bad arguments that win the debates. Insisting on straight talk and good logic is suicidal. Which is why I try not to be upset as I watch the Democrats winning through the use of tactics similar in kind, if not degree, to those used by the Republicans in the previous cycle. There is simply no reason to be surprised at a disconnect between the means and the ends, even if the perils of even a virtuous Machievellianism are obvious.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

One Teeny-Weensy Little Mint

Say what you will, the economic journalists do learn from their mistakes. A year ago they were saying that the world economy would be harmed if oil prices stayed above $50 a barrel. They’ve certainly learned not to say that anymore. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they were wrong the first time, even though oil at $72 a barrel hasn’t resulted in an obvious slow down. It may just mean that the law of overshoot is in operation and that everybody will have lost interest in the catastrophe before it arrives and surprises their exhausted expectations. Even then, the temptation will be to ascribe the crisis to dramatic world events in Iran or Venezuela rather than to unsupportable underlying trends.

Everything happens at once, which is certainly inconvenient. Out here in California, for example, you still hear people insisting that our power crisis was the result of market manipulation rather than of a lack of generating capacity. Indeed, there would have been no blackouts had the power companies been staffed by angels. On the other hand, the narrowness of the reserve margins is what made it possible for Enron and the others to ravage the state. By the same token, when things go to hell over oil, some particular set of events will punctuate the transition to a new energy regime; but the fact that a civil war in Nigeria or an attack on Iran or another hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico could upset everything will have been a result of the advanced state of the game of Jenga in which we are currently engaged.

You need both the shit and the fan. Unfortunately, there isn’t any shortage of either.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Fallacies of Composition

If I climb up on a soapbox to see the parade, I’ll get a better view; but that doesn’t mean that if everybody climbs on a soapbox, they’ll all get a better view. While many people understand that, many people don’t notice that something similar obtains in education. If a child gets an elite education, they’ll do better than the others; but that doesn’t mean that if every child gets an elite evolution, they’ll all do better than the others. They just can’t: the whole point of privilege is to get more than an equal share. The magic of technology (it says here) may be able to universalize wealth, but not even nanotechnology can universalize prestige. Which is why the baby boomers went bad. In 1945, a college diploma was still a relatively rare accomplishment and acquiring one normally led to greater income, social status, and security. By 1965, millions were getting degrees, but the economic and cultural value of a college education had been drastically diluted and the country was full of young people who had nowhere to take their sense of entitlement. When the revolution didn’t materialize, the disappointed students turned utopian, seeking imaginary solutions to equations that had no real roots. And then they became very, very interested in money—at least I did. Meanwhile, American higher education, faced with the same realities, underwent an analogous set of adjustments, including vastly increased enrollments in professional and B School programs and a corresponding crash in the liberal arts.

Apportioning privilege is, of course, not the only function of education. For example teachers spend an enormous amount of time attempting to keep children from learning too much from their older peers—values education, sensu latu, is a rearguard action waged to decelerate cultural change—and part of the curriculum really does teach skills that everyone can use. People with higher levels of literacy and numeracy are more productive, which means skills education doesn’t fall prey to the fallacy of composition: it makes the whole society wealthier. The fun result of education remains the prospect of looking down on the others, however; and that’s a goal that cannot be generalized.

Friday, April 14, 2006


The inevitable villains of thriller movies are unregenerate Nazis in nice suits who scheme to bring back the Reich. This cartoon has its uses. Since it would be simply eccentric to want to reprise an obsolete variety of mischief, the impression is created that radical political evil is now safely in the realm of fantasy as if a new, improved system of malevolence with its own peculiarities and stylistics were not a distinct possibility or actuality. The traditional figure of the Southern bigot has analogous functionality. Since modern right wingers don’t go around calling people niggers, they can tell themselves and others that what they are retailing isn’t a racist ideology. Which is rather like a contemporary girl-gone-wild who assures her father she’s not a floozy because, after all, she doesn’t dress like Betty Boop.

The question that these thoughts are leading to is this: circa 2006, has the figure of the anti-Semite also become for the most part an imaginary bugbear? I’m sure there are some people around who harbor a traditional hatred for Jews just as there really are American Nazis who wear retro uniforms and go around Heil Hitlering each other. In the America I grew up in, however, these coelacanths were already both scarce and old and bore very little resemblance to the international relations professors and leftist agitators who are routinely denounced as anti-Semitic by Alan Dershowitz. Exactly why are Jews supposed to be hated as Jews in a country where one is free to pick and choose one’s religion like a hobby and Jewish ethnicity is utterly unremarkable? Even in the early 60s, when I was in high school in L.A., being Jewish was about as exciting as being Scottish or Slovenian. It was a mere subdivision in a racial taxonomy whose only significant categories were white, black, Mexican, and oriental.

I freely admit that I may be utterly wrong about this. Maybe the population of the nation harbors mysterious reservoirs of paranoid rage towards the People of Moses—if we’re really anti-Semitic, I guess we’ll have to start talking like that again. Or maybe my indifference to Catskill shtick is a symptom of a hidden spiritual canker. On the other hand, it could be that anti-Semitism really is obsolete and that criticism of Israel has a range of other motivations, some good, some bad.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Political Theology

Marxism was supposed to be a synthesis of German philosophy, French politics, and English economics. The list of ingredients for mainstream Christianity is the Jewish prophetic tradition, Greek philosophy, and Roman politics, but mostly Roman politics. The crucial moment in the evolution of the religion was not the crucifixion, but Constantine’s religio-political coup. Before Constantine, the various Christian groups represented a challenge to the unity of an Empire that had come to insist on an ideological conformity alien to the traditional tolerance of pagan societies. Adopting—and adapting—Christianity as the state religion resolved this conflict. But what triumphed was quite distinct from the Christianity of the sects. It was a chimera that combined some of the elements of the old faith with the persecuting machinery of the Roman state. Many people have pointed out that the theological mysteries defined as orthodoxy at Nicaea and other early councils were simply frozen political compromises; but the true mysterium was not that Christ was all man and all god, but that the faith would henceforth be simultaneously all spirituality and all politics.

Christianity was merely a large minority before the emperors began to patronize it. The emperors made Europe Christian, not only by directly imposing the religion on the Romans but by providing an example to the princes that created the new states in barbarian lands. While individuals were certainly susceptible to the appeal of the new faith, the wholesale conversion of the pagans was accomplished from above by ambitious kings when it wasn’t simply enforced at the point of Frankish swords. The one exception I’m aware of is Medieval Iceland, where there were no kings; but even there the decision to convert to Christianity was made for overtly political reasons at a memorable meeting of the Althing in the year 1000.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Skank Eye

Eric R. Pianka, whose webpage photo reminds me of a famous painting of John Brown, is the University of Texas ecology professor under attack for suggesting in a public lecture that there were just too many human beings on the planet. His accusers claimed he was actively rooting for a super-Ebola virus that could kill off 90% of the population—one of his critics, William Dembski, actually reported him to the Department of Homeland Security. In fact Pianka wasn’t saying very much that isn’t a commonplace. One hardly has to be a votary of the Earth Mother to recognize the anomaly of a single species absorbing so huge a proportion of the primary productivity of an entire planet or to expect exponential growth of any kind to result eventually in exponential decline. But Pianka wasn’t attacked because he voiced a prohibited idea. He was charged under suspicion of harboring an impermissible wish. A pattern that should be familiar by now: how often have critics of the Iraq War been accused of wishing the deaths of American soldiers? A similar thought crime.

I doubt if Eric Pianka wants anybody dead. As he wrote on his website, he certainly doesn’t want his grandchildren to die. And the propaganda theme of murderous-minded lefties is surely a projection, coming as it does from folks whose homicidal dreams are easy to document. The more important point here, however, is far simpler: Wishing just doesn’t make it so. Having the Urge to Kill is not quite the same thing as attempted murder except for the terminally superstitious who have trouble distinguishing fantasy and reality. Old-fashion totalitarians of both the Christian and the Stalinist dispensations used to police thought. That doesn’t suffice for the American theocratic right. They want to police dreams and feelings as well. The state, the party, and the church must be protected against the evil eye.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

He Said, He Said

Critics, including me, complain that the mass media acts irresponsibly when it reports both sides of every issue as if the Tobacco Institute really has the same credibility as the National Institute of Health. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Where received wisdom coincides with corporate interests, the networks don’t bother with the balance business. In coverage of the current crisis in France over labor practices, for example, it is simply taken for granted that the protestors are obviously wrong and that their point of view need not be aired—that something like two-thirds of the French population agrees with the protestors is seldom mentioned either. That last fact is apparently irrelevant since CNN, like Bush and Brezhnev, believes that the people have no right to be wrong.

My point is not that it is necessarily a good idea for the French to continue current restrictions on the firing of young workers—I have no opinion on that since in the absence of any real understanding of what’s going on, I don’t have a right to an opinion. I do know enough to recognize that more is going on than lazy slackers in berets idiotically resisting the immutable laws of economics. For example, the law that has so outraged the French population was evidently passed by what might be called semi-extra- constitutional maneuvers, which is why the whole affair is going into the courts. After all, the current French government, like our own, has a well-earned reputation for sleazy dealings. A change in the law may or may not benefit the mass of the populations–who knows?—but it is of immediate benefit to the big companies that bankroll the right. Anyhow, although you’d never guess it to hear the anchormen pumping out the party line, it is not a given that the inability to freely fire workers is a major cause of French economic problems. It’s just a commonplace.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Privy Secrets of the Heart

I understand why John McCain supports the administration even though the Bush’s people have repeatedly treated him with contempt. A man harboring presidential ambitions can’t afford too much self-respect and can only murmur, like Wonder Warthog in an old head Comix, “Fortunately, my superpowers don’t include pride.” The spectacle of Arlen Specter defending Bush is harder to stomach. What kind of creature is so benighted as to not be inspired to a little integrity by the approach of his own death?
A Job Opening for Philistines

The assumption is that the difficult philosophers are hiding a secret in all those tortured phrases, but I’m inclined to think that the complexity of the presentation is necessary because of the simplicity of the content. That doesn’t mean that a Foucault or a Heidegger has nothing important to tell us—far from it—or that their jargon was just a marketing device, though it was certainly that too. Mystification is evidence of a lack of self-confidence as if just blurting it out would reveal that one had nothing worthwhile to say. But such doubts are inevitable. We normally judge the worth of an idea by comparing it to other ideas we already value. A radically new thought cannot be recognized at all, even or especially by the one who thinks it first.
Just as Bush is learning that it’s not enough to nail the evil part to count as an evil genius, I have to admit that I’m not a secular humanist because, though I’m certainly secular, I’m no humanist. It’s not that I think that very much of great interest is going on without human participation, but that’s a bit like admitting that phone calls wouldn’t amount to much without the switchboard. The attempt to imagine that the whole drama of reality is staged in the intimate theater of the private mind strikes me as the fundamental error of the last couple of centuries, and the materialist version of the mistake is no improvement. You can’t cram the cosmos in a cranium anymore than you shoehorn heaven and earth in a sensorium. The world is not in MAN (note the caps). Men and women are in the world, a rather elementary fact, you’d think; but people still persist in thinking that psychology is somehow the master science and that everything takes place two inches behind their right eye. Au contraire, as William Blake never said, where nature (and history) is not, man is barren.

It may be that the anthropological prejudice is changing. That the Dewey Decimal System shelves books on psychology in the same subdivision with philosophy already seems a little quaint and 19th Century. Why not lump philosophy in with mechanical engineering or taxidermy instead? What does the investigation of fundamental truths have to do with a ragged bundle of therapeutic cults and orphaned research traditions? People with Ph.D.s in psychology may do all sorts of worthwhile things; but to go on claiming that any of them are of great theoretical or strategic importance would be simply hobbyhorsical, a quirk comparable to that of the dentist in V who understood everything in terms of root canal. I also take it as a good sign that Psychology Today, which was a highly visible and influential magazine in the 60s and 70s, is utterly obscure these days—I was amazed to discover they still bother to print it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Naked Reverse

I’m not saying that observant believers are all immoral, but I do note that traditional Christianity treats people as career criminals who are barely restrained from violence and fraud by human or supernatural sanction. You have to wonder if the folks who subscribe to this understanding of the human condition aren’t generalizing from their own case. Do you really want somebody who thinks of themselves like that taking care of your children? It’s one thing to be realistic about your own failings, quite another to cast oneself as the protagonist of an endless soapbox opera of sin and repentance. Maybe you really are more loathsome than a spider. If so, speak for yourself.

For the record, talk about morality doesn’t have to be addressed to the transgressor. Secular ethics, which recognizes human fallibility and weakness but assumes that the moral actor is responsible for his or her own actions, is a very different enterprise than pop religious ethics. Instead of focusing on “how do I keep from doing wrong?”—a question that assumes that we already know what to do—it addresses the more fundamental question of “what should I do?” because in a world without oracles we are responsible for deciding that, too. While the religious identify with the role of the servant, whose virtue comes down at last to obedience, the upright unbelievers think of themselves as authorities, individuals whose moral burden is all the greater precisely because, if only by default, they actually are responsible.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Put Not Your Faith in Princes…

Isn’t necessarily a dig at princes. Like everything else, treachery and triangulation can be overdone; but politics isn’t about noble gestures. Indeed, in the context of a struggle for power, the noble gesture is just another P.R. tactic; and principled leaders sometimes have to be trimmers in order to accomplish what needs to be done. Which is why I haven’t been automatically hostile when the Congressional Democrats have spoken with exaggerated moderation about the Bush Administration. Whether or not it is a good idea to push for censure now, it probably wouldn’t have been politic in 2002, though the unwisdom if not the illegality of Republican policies was already perfectly clear. Fact was, it wasn’t clear to a frightened and passive population. And even when I think that the public is ready to hear some plain talk for a change, I remind myself that it might actual happen that somebody else’s judgment about these things is better that my own. All that said, the continuing timidity of the Democrats no longer makes strategic sense to me. Or rather, it is perfectly sensible, but only on the assumption that it is a strategy pursued for aims I do not share in a game I wish our leaders weren’t playing.

I don’t blame the politicians for attempting to put together a winning coalition, but it pains me to recognize yet again that Congress’ real constituents are not the voters but the individuals, families, and organizations that pay them off with bribes and campaign contributions. The true constitution of our state is rather similar to the charter of a corporation in which one has as many votes as shares. It doesn’t matter very often what the citizens as a whole think—and Bush and his policies are vastly unpopular—so long as there is no consensus among the real electorate, the boni homines of what may soon be referred to as the Late Republic in more ways than one. The mealy-mouthed calls for an investigation of the President’s wiretapping exploits makes no legal sense—since he admitted his crimes, there’s nothing to investigate—but the interests that count, though not necessarily happy about what’s going on, are terrified of rocking the boat. The Democrat’s craven excess of caution is aimed at winning them over, not the public. The public is very ready to listen. Indeed, that’s what scares the political classes most.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Evasion of Responsibility

Any number of Law and Order episodes end with the DA explaining why the murderer can’t be let off the hook because of an unhappy childhood/genetic defect/the bad influence of television shows/whatever because to allow such excuses would destroy all personal responsibility. I’m still waiting for the show in which it is pointed out how often the infliction of heavy penalties on individuals is itself an evasion of responsibility. The semi-moronic monsters routinely put to death in Texas may deserve what they get, but their executions have an added advantage. These grim ceremonies of self-righteousness deflect attention from the fact that the authorities couldn’t be bothered by the abuse and neglect so many of these criminals suffered as children.

The recent efforts of the Federal government to put Zacarias Moussaoui to death have an analogous logic. A number of people have complained about the procedural abuses of the prosecutors in the case—reasonably enough since in an ordinary trial or before a judge with a modicum of integrity, the death penalty would have been taken off the table in the face of such behavior—but I haven’t encountered very many people who recognize the essential dishonesty of the entire proceeding. Moussaoui admitted to planning a terror attack and certainly belongs in prison, but holding him responsible for the 9/11 attacks, which nobody seems to think he had anything to do with, is simply a way for the administration to shift the blame for its own negligence. Moussaoui may not have provided an indirect warning of the possibility of an aerial attack but lots of other warnings were indeed given without effect. 9/11 wasn’t Moussaoui’s fault. It was the fault of Bush, Rice, Ashcroft, and Chaney. Indeed, if you’re in the market for complicated and far-fetched theories to justify prosecutions, it would be marginally more reasonable to execute the five Supreme Court justices who put Bush in office than the bumling, clownish Moussaouoi. Since the competent and vigilant Gore was intensely aware of the danger posed by Ben Laden, et. al, it is extremely unlikely that 9/11 would have occurred under his watch.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Sugar Water

Mystical philosophers have a problem analogous to the challenges that face the marketers of soft drinks. The content they have for sale—states of mind that are same everywhere and at all times—do not differentiate their brands. Coke is too much like Pepsi, Atman is too much like the Urgrund. Hence the need for escalating rhetoric and a huge budget for advertising. Since use and custom dull the appreciation of any insight, it is endlessly necessary to improvise fresh depths of spiritual understanding, not because the world really is infinitely deep, but for the same reason the even baking soda comes in a box labeled “New and Improved!”
Thoughts on the Ludendorf Complex

Intellectuals who desire power but understand their own lack of nerve and charisma are always cruising for a glamorous thug. Of course they tell themselves they’ll be able to steer the beast in the right direction. Unfortunately, the beasts routinely turn out to have their own ideas, and the users end up being used. We know what happened to Plato in Sicily: the bright young man types in the Bible apparently fared better with the kings and the pharaohs; but it should be kept in mind that the successes of the Josephs and the Daniels are more than legendary. They’re mythical.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Recent studies suggest that the gradual warming of the oceans brought about by increasing greenhouse gases will result in more powerful hurricanes. That hardly seems unlikely, granted that hotter water means more energy is available to power up storms; but even if global warming doesn’t result in Hurricane Gimel bearing down on Biloxi one fine autumn morning, the enormous increase in the population of people living in areas subject to catastrophic floods guarantees that the next century will be the golden age of (semi-)natural disasters. As Mike Davis points out in his incredibly depressing book, Planet of Slums, “With the majority of the world’s urban population now concentrated on or near active tectonic plate margins, especially along Indian and Pacific Ocean littorals, several billion people are at risks from earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, as well as from storm surges and typhoons.” If Davis had been writing copy for CNN, he would have added, “Even worse, upper middle class Americans may not be able to buy flood insurance for their second homes along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts…”

Speaking about reality’s irritating habit of letting more than one thing happen at once: it has been occasionally noticed that technological progress is proving far better at lowering the cost and increasing the performance of electronics than at supplying safe drinking water, affordable transportation, or decent health care. The inhabitants of the reeking slums of Mumbai may indeed be able to watch the irresistible advance of the ultimate tsunami on a HDTV, even if they have literally no place to go to deposit the bowel movements inspired by the brilliant visuals. What is less often noticed are the military implications of the unevenness of technological progress. I don’t know if SONY has a line of affordable IEDs in the works, but it’s a good bet that the wretched of the earth are going to be able to adapt the universally available consumer electronics to the work of vengeance. The presumption is that the Malthusian die back of the next hundred years will not discommode the First World very much because the poorer countries and peoples don’t have access to the means to so anything about it. Aside from the fact that the haves are vastly outnumbered by the have nots, it is far from clear that even the enormous investment in armaments of the U.S. can defeat the military potential of cheap electronics in the hands of sufficiently determined enemies. Does anybody know?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Joss in Translation

When somebody in these parts says that an act is good or bad karma, they aren’t usually implying much more than the belief that “that sort of thing usually ends well or badly.” What’s invoked is not an iron law of causality as ineluctable as arithmetic but a statistical tendency, a rule of thumb rather than the Dharma. Users of this language certainly aren’t signing on to the dubious hypothesis of rebirth. There is, however, a Sanskrit word that answers to the California usage of karma pretty closely. The term is mangala, which is generally translated rather grandly as auspicious—a reasonable equivalent if you think of such sentences as “If you find yourself constantly lying to your girlfriend, it’s a bad sign.” The terminological niceties are meaningful. Eliding the difference between karma and mangala makes it easy to think that Buddhism is a straightforward elaboration of commonsense that radically differs from other religions by avoiding the assertion of astonishing counterfactual claims. After all, we all eventually learn that actions have consequences. But Buddhism is a religion—a family of religions—after all, which is to say it is a system of false propositions. Taken seriously, dependent origination, the spiritual physics that underlies Karmic law, is as fantastic as transubstantiation.

Many practicing Buddhists, like many practicing Christians, regard doctrinal formulations with a sense of humor. Just as liberal Protestants aren’t scouring Mt. Ararat for the anchor of the ark, undogmatic Buddhists don’t really think that Buddha had a headache because as a child in a former life he hit a fish over the head. Promoting the notion that a comprehensive and implacable system of moral bookkeeping governs the actions of all conscious beings is an edifying claim useful in dealing with the lay people, but such skillful methods (upaya) should be taken with a grain of salt. The question for both contemporary Christians and Buddhists is how much of the fantastic element of their religious traditions they can jettison without jettisoning the tradition itself. In the Buddhist instance, for example, it’s one thing to admit that universe isn’t a despotic retribution and reward machine, but if there is no dharma at all, if some kind of moral law isn’t built into the machine language of the cosmos, karma really is just mangala. But maybe that’s not such a terrible thing to realize. The fact that quite a few Buddhists do seem to realize it is part of the reason the Buddhist tradition continues to appeal to me even though I’m well aware that it comes festooned with the same assortment of warts and boils as the other religions. It isn’t true, but maybe it’s mangala.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Take Home Exam

1. Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson write: “To get the benefits of social learning, human beings have to be credulous, for the most part accepting the ways that they observe in their society as sensible and proper, but such credulity opens human minds to the spread of maladaptive beliefs. The problem is one of information costs. The advantage of culture is that individuals don’t have to invent everything for themselves. We get wondrous adaptations like kayaks and blowguns on the cheap. The trouble is that a greed for easy adaptive traditions easily leads to perpetuating maladaptions that somehow arise.” Discuss.

2. It has been suggested* that dada is to Surrealism what Theravada is Mahayana. To what extent is this analogy accurate? Your answer can be in either Pali or Sanskrit.

*In this sentence.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Reaction Norms

Biologists know that a given gene can only be said to be adaptive or maladaptive in the context of the other genes and in a particular environment. In the absence of malaria, the sickle cell trait, even in the heterozygous case, is a drag on the organism. Similarly, the mutation responsible for the paleness of Caucasians is simply a genetic defect in Australia where everybody’s hide is menaced by too much sun. The value of political principles is similarly situational. It isn’t just cases that are altered by circumstances.

If a presumptive prejudice in favor of civil rights made sense in the era of breeches and wigs and was even more important when bureaucrats and cops keep track of dissidents with human informants and file cabinets full of manila folders, it stands to reason that the advent of computers and omnipresent electronic surveillance makes such quaint taboos absolutely critical. Everybody talks about the Internet as if it were obviously an invention that promotes individual freedom, but it is actually the answer to the secret policeman’s dearest dream, the nearest thing yet to the TV’s in Orwell’s 1984 that watch the watchers. Every intemperate word written on every blog, every irritated comment typed into a comment section in the dead of night, every visit to a racy website gives the prosecutor and the political publicist another way to control the citizenry through the traditional combination of extortion and selective prosecution. In the face of such a drastic increase in the technical capability of oppression, a correspondingly absolute and uncompromising defense of individual rights is critical. The ACLU needs the bomb.
Generosity and Spite: A Linear Programming Problem

As an ideal, equality has little appeal for me. I’m not morally offended if some people are better off than others, at least if everyone can live decently. I don’t doubt that measures that artificially level wealth tend to result in lower or negative growth rates since it is the prospect of doing better than the others that fuels effort and enterprise. Insisting on equality of outcome amounts to adding an expensive constraint to the problem of maximizing the performance of an economy. The point is often missed, however, that an ideological insistence on a high level of inequality is just as artificial and perhaps just as likely to lower the overall outcome. In this connection, I note that the wealthiest Americans are currently rich beyond all measure, but the economy isn’t performing very well. With this much inequality, everybody–not just the contemporary Croesuses–should be rich as Croesus.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Divine Right Monarchy, the Worst Form of Government Except for All the Others

Does anybody actually believe in democracy? It’s easy to make fun of the Bush administration’s version of popular sovereignty, the Breshnevian doctrine that people have the absolute right to vote for candidates of the government’s choosing; but American politicians of all stripes have repeatedly found democracy inconvenient and have repeatedly amended the people’s errors by invasions, coups, and assassinations—recall Mexico, Haiti, Nicaragua, Iran, Chile, and Cuba. When you bring up this track record, people regularly respond not by admitting that they don’t seriously believe in democracy, but by explaining why it was such a good idea to bump off Allende or prevent the Algerians from voting in an Islamic government. This is an evasion that becomes all the more problematic as the real power of voters declines at home as well as abroad. It isn’t just third-world wogs who are bombed if they do something foolish that hurts American interests, after all. Our domestic political arrangements, the contrivance of both Republicans and Democrats, are mostly a series of barricades and fortifications against the public will. In the first hundred or so years of our national history, government became more democratic in this country with the expansion of the franchise, the deepening of civil rights, and the direct election of senators. For a hundred years or more, however, the tide has been flowing in the other direction.

I’m not suggesting that the majority rule ought to be absolute. I directed my initial question as much at myself as at anybody else because I’m as distrustful of the people as any Conservative. Anybody who reads these pages knows that I could care less what the man in the street thinks about scientific or philosophical issues. Indeed, I don’t think that anybody has a right to an opinion about matters they know nothing about. What offends me is the Orwellian doublespeak of politicians who claim to promote democracy with high tech terror weapons while working tirelessly to ensure that the liberated masses, appropriately grateful, shut the fuck up and do what we want. And I have also come to believe as a matter of prudence that states in which the people have a real ability to influence policy are likely to be more stable, less corrupt, and less dangerous to the peace of the world than oligarchic republics like the contemporary United States. I got to thinking. Since democracy isn’t sacred, maybe it’s sometimes worthwhile.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

We Had to Destroy the Civilization to Save It

Unlike Groucho, I’m willing to belong to a club that will have me as a member. On the other hand, like other readers of my vintage, I do tend to distrust the seriousness of any idea I can actually understand. Since the object of the game—an object of the game—is to know things that the others don’t, one is as likely to have sour grapes about low hanging fruit as about the unattainable varieties. Writers know that, of course, so one of the characteristic cons of our age is to find complicated and rebarbative ways to phrase rather simple ideas, a perversity all the more deplorable when, as does happen, the mystified content is actually important. I’m struggling through such an exercise right now, Alan Cole’s Text as Father, an attempt to read the most important Mahayana sutras without the usual irrelevant reverence. Cole’s chapters probably ought to be paragraphs, but that doesn’t mean the paragraphs wouldn’t be worth it. Heck, there might also be something to Lacan if we only knew what it was.

I used to think there were only two ways to excel in prose: a writer can say something simple in a complicated way or say something complicated in a simple way. For what are basically sociological reasons, the first alternative was dominant in the recent past and practitioners of the second way were likely to be dismissed as superficial. That’s changing, but I think the lingering prejudice explains the reception of the writings of the Amartya Sen. Since anybody can follow his arguments, how important can they be? He won the Nobel Prize in economics but his works aren’t crammed with equations. He is a determined critic of the reigning system of political economy but his radicalism doesn’t sound radical and he isn’t retailing a grand and intellectually challenging synthesis about hegemony or EMPIRE.

I picked up Sen’s most recent book without any particular expectations. If I hadn’t chanced upon a cheap review copy I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Since the Argumentative Indian is an essay collection, I expected it would have the usual unevenness and repetitiveness of such compilations, but I persevered because of my interests in the prospects of India. One hundred and fifty years ago, history looked like it was going to revolve around a confrontation between the United States and Russia. Today, it might be reasonable guess that the world’s axle will run from Peking to Dehli while we ride in the trunk and the Russians grumble in the glove compartment. It isn’t just that the demographic center of gravity of the human race is in South and East Asia or even that the Chinese and Indian economies have much more dynamism than the economies of Europe or America. India and China possess civilizations with values and traditions with the potential to stand on their own against the continuing prestige of Western ideas.

Sen deals with several important issues about India’s role in the world and its relationship with the West, but I was most impressed by his polemic against the nationalism of the Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) and its promotion of Hindutva, a narrowly Hindu view of Indian civilization. Sen, who is at home with the classic literature of India—his grandfather was a professional sanskritist—protests a politically convenient, Clash-of-Civilization version of Indian civilization that, like the other ersatz cultural nationalisms of the last century or so, ignores the internal diversity of the traditions it purports to defend and glorify. The subcontinent has been home to rationalists as well as mystics, and its civilization is anything but autochthonous. Indian philosophy, for example, obviously developed in a long-range dialogue of equals with the Greeks, which is why, incidentally, people with a serious education in Western philosophy find themselves very much at home in classical Sanskrit texts on logic and metaphysics. One is accustomed to thinking of the impact of Indian Buddhism on China, but recent scholarship suggests that the development of the Mahayana in India owed a great deal to Chinese ideas, practices, and images. And one easily forgets that India is the second largest Muslim country on the face of the Earth—the nationalists who would like to claim that Islamic inhabitants aren’t real Indians simply evince a bias for old invaders since the Vedic fathers were interlopers themselves.

The civilizations that matter have the capacity to assimilate external challenges. Cultural conservatives who insist on shutting out the world in the name of national purity are undergoing a crisis of confidence. Kids with functioning immune systems don’t have to live in bubbles. Besides, a defensive obsession with identity automatically perverts philosophy, piety, and art. A real rain dance is supposed to bring rain, not ethnic pride. A real science aims to figure out the world, not express a national essence.

You don’t have to be a Hegelian to note the dialectical irony involved in the various versions of Hindutva currently abroad in the world. The invariable consequence of trying to achieve identity by insisting on cultural particularity is yet another xeroxed nativism, which, because it is motivated by exactly the same aim as the other nativisms, invariably harms the richness and specificity of live tradition—one is reminded of the cartoon penguin singing "I've got to be me!" Something similar is going on right now in this country where flags are endlessly waved in honor of an American outlook that represents a drastically truncated version of our cultural traditions. Just as the Hindu nationalist don’t want to talk about the many atheists, skeptics, and free thinkers of their past, our pundits dispense with the deists, radicals, and eccentrics so characteristic of our history—America but without Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Ingersoll, William James, H.L.Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller, Truman Capote, Alfred Kinsey, Henry Adams, B.F. Skinner, Ezra Pound, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, or Thorsten Veblen. Indeed, it is hard to say exactly what names will be left in the rump pantheon after the cultural purge. On the evidence, the talking heads on Fox aren’t big fans of the Library of America.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

If a Tree Falls in a Forest and Only the Squirrels Hear It….

In suspense movies and the thrillers you buy at airport bookshops, the discovery of one single significant piece of evidence—an incriminating letter, a tape recording, a computer disk—suffices to bring down the government. In the real world, the state of the evidence is apparently quite irrelevant. We know perfectly well that the current administration conducts aggressive wars on the basis of fudged intelligence, tortures suspects, taps phones without a warrant in direct violation of black letter law, engages in endless character assassination, buys television personalities, suppresses scientific information from public agencies, helps energy companies rip off states, and winks as its corporate supporters rip off the treasury through sweetheart contracts. Only a tobacco lobbyist could raise doubts about the reality of this pattern of wrongdoing. We’re not talking about vague allegations that the President was once seen with a dubious character. Ken Lay isn’t somebody Bush met once. Kenny Boy was Bush’s number one political supporter. And Ken Lay was only one of a host of felonious corporation capos who collectively make up Bush’s social circle. By the same token, DeLay didn’t just happen to drop in on an Albramoff family bar mitzvah once as a courtesy. The men are joined at the hip—I use a cliché to reflect the banality of a criminal association central to the success of the Republican Party over the last couple of years. And that’s not to bring up the cesspool that is Ohio politics or the election rigging in Florida or many other things. Corruption deluxe, currently holding the World and Olympic records.

We would be better off if the Republicans operated in secret. As it is, the demonstration that a political party with enough control over the courts, prosecutors, and media can get away with anything must surely encourage further excesses. Is there any behavior that would outrage Chris Matthews or Teddy Russert? The precedents are not encouraging. Meanwhile, like dogs, most people only hear the tone of their master’s voice. In the absence of audible signs of a guilty conscience, they won’t dare to draw any conclusions, at least publicly and all the more so because an appropriate proportionate response to the crimes of this administration would be drastic. In a rational world these guys die in prison.

I suppose one could be charitable and claim that something so enormous as this enormity is hard to identify because no one can’t fit its boggling bulk into a single eyegulp. Like the sailors in an old story, we can’t find the whale because we’ve beached our rowboat on its back. I don’t believe that for a minute. There are plenty of people who have seen the whale, excuse me, the elephant; but they apparently aren’t the ones that matter.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Strange Rendezvous

One of the first jokes I can remember is the bit about the guy who is skeptical about Carter’s Little Liver Pills because he doesn’t understand how the pills could figure out how to get to his liver. Similar issues come up in earnest in molecular biology. There are thousands of chemical species afloat in every eukaryotic cell. How do the various enzymes find that special substrate? You’d think that all those star-crossed proteins would usually suffer the ships-that-pass-in-the-night destiny of the separated lovers in Evangeline. Well, a lot of ‘em do, but the persistence of metabolism demonstrates that cute meets don’t just occur in light comedies. In both cases, of course, something is going on besides blind luck, thanks to the script in the later case, the compartmentalization of the cell into in the former.

The statistical mechanics of scholarly reference presents related problems. Serious books are supposed to be hard to read, but the real surprise is that they are possible to read at all since nobody’s intellectual formation could keep up with very much in a brief introduction to everything if the contents were as various as the world. Yet we can read books of philosophy, literary criticism, general science, politics, and theology whose subject matters are potentially limitless. The rather disappointing secret, of course, is that the “Everything” part of the Theory of Everything is actually an infinitesimal selection, a toy immensity suitable for children.

Any reader of grand syntheses quickly learns that the same titles endlessly resurface as nodes in the tangled bank of footnotes and bibliographies in such works. From decade to decade, the hubs change. The old Atlanta used to be de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics; the Old O’Hare was Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A lot of traffic still stages through these cites as well as through key works (or paragraphs) of Braudel, Gould, Cavalli-Sforza and a few of older vintage that come in and out of common use like D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form, Victor Shklovsky’s A Theory of Prose, and Michael Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. I haven’t run across an allusion to Sartre or even The 18th Brumaire for a while, though, or the First Critique for that matter. What gets you on the short list is apparently something other than sheer quality. Another very general characteristic of the collection, however, is that with a few exceptions the cited works are probably quite unknown to the general-purpose educated reader. Like the protagonist of To Be or Not to Be, they are world-famous in Poland.

I was reminded about all this as I read Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, a little book that manages to reference most of the texts I’ve identified. To judge by the rapidity with which Moretti’s book has been identified as a significant work by various websites including my favorite DEW line, Crooked Timber, and perhaps more tellingly, by less visited switchboards such as Pseudopodium, the book may eventually turn up on one of the short lists. (Heck, the fact that it has even turned up here in Ultima Thule tells you something.) The subject matter of the book also recalls the topic of the general shape of the Universe of Writing—it’s subtitled Abstract Models for a Literary Theory. Moretti figures that one way of finding out something important about the history of the word is to stand back from the particulars, to look at the whole scene through a blurry statistical glass for the same reason that artists squint at their models in order to see general configurations without the distraction of the details. His writings are very far away indeed from those “Relative Pronouns in the Later Movie Reviews of Pauline Keel” epics. For example, he uses graphs to compare the rise of the novel in Britain, Japan, Italy, Spain, and Nigeria thus finding a common pattern thanks to a drastic process of abstraction where other researchers had to rely on their own obtuseness to achieve the coarseness of perception necessary to discover really big facts—that’s why it formerly took an oaf like Auguste Comte to notice the Industrial Revolution. While I will probably continue to rely on my own native gifts to attempt similar feats, I see the methodological advantages of Moretti’s approach.

A lot of Moretti’s book deals with the life cycle of genres—he identifies 44 genres of the British novel between 1740 and 1900—and finds that their average duration, roughly 30 years, matches up pretty well with the length a human generation, thus allowing him to hook up with some notions about generations via the Karl Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge node. One would like to have an internalist explanation of the turn over of genre, something analogous to the old biological notion of racial senescence. It is certainly not implausible to think that a certain kind of novel becomes decadent when all the changes have been wrung on its fundamental premises, but that wouldn’t explain why so many genres peter out or begin at the same time. “The causal mechanism must thus be external to the genres, and common to all: like a sudden, total change of the ecosystem. Which is to say, a change of their audience.” Of course appealing to the succession of generations creates its own puzzle. “Since people are born every day, not every twenty-five years, on what basis can the biological continuum be segmented into discrete units?” That’s where Mannheim comes in. It is external events that punctuate the sequence of the generations through “dynamic destabilization.” Mannetti is thinking of 1968—1776, 1789, 1848, 1914 are other examples. I think he misses a connection here. The procession of the genres finds an obvious analogy in the way that the circadian and circum annual clocks of animals and plants, internal but imperfect mechanisms, are reset by the external inputs of the astronomical day and year. The system still cycles in the absence of external events, but the periodicity gradually drifts, just as the activities of lab animals kept in a coal mine get out of synch with the sun. Thus, because the bell hasn’t been struck very forcibly for a while, Generations X through Z are looking increasingly like cheap knockoffs.

These considerations aside, I’m very much in sympathy with the style of Moretti’s approach, his way of laying out in extenso the mechanical operations of the spirit. For example, my own amateur thoughts about genre, though aimed at a different set of questions, are similarly abstract. Rather than considering the life span or timing of the appearance of genres, I’m interested in considering their cognitive psychology. It seems to me that genres are the practical answer to the problem of how it is possible to read a book, let alone write one, granted that human beings aren’t really all that smart. If the words we read were not already largely predictable, we wouldn’t have the memory and power of attention to make sense of them. Indeed, even though most of the conventions remain the same from one type of narrative to another, learning how to read a new genre takes considerable effort—which is why it was once such a terrible chore to read Silas Marner and why even adults resort to science fiction and mysteries at their leisure.

One last note on Morretti. I found an excellent essay on his book at the Valve. You really should read it in lieu of my vaporings. Oops! Too late.