Friday, January 20, 2006

No Thinking Please

The right-wingers who make random denunciations of their ideological enemies as Stalinists or fellow travelers live in an aboriginal dreamtime in which the political obsessions of 1935 are suspended eternally like the grapes and cherries in a jello salad. But not even Stalin would be a Stalinist at this stage of the game, any more than a resurrected Genghis Khan would be more alarming than any other guy on a horse in the suburbs of Ulan Batur. As late as the 50s, there were still a fair number of intellectuals making excuses for the Great Purges—I date back to that period and encountered some of them—but even the radicals of the next generation had given up that game. Indeed, the remaining traditional communists tended to look down on them for that very reason, and the sympathies of susceptible cultural lefties accrued to Black Panthers rather than candidate apparatchiks.

Only pinheaded pedants remember historical dates, I suppose; but it does matter when things actually happened. For example, when Truman and Marshall thwarted the Soviets in Berlin in 1947 or Kennedy went head-to-head against Khrushchev in 1962, they were exercising genuine courage against a veritable threat; but when Reagan made the Evil Empire speech in 1982, he was like a hunter’s kid exalting over an expiring bear as if he were the one who shot the animal. The ideological mojo of communism dissipated long before the regime’s military and economic power; and by Brezhnev’s era, the empire wasn’t even particularly evil as empires go—the aging bureaucrats who ran the show lacked the ruthlessness of their predecessors. The Commissar class had been among the victims of Stalin’s purges. They weren’t interested in reverting to a system of terror; and they were no longer true believers themselves. Their system was indeed authoritarian and repressive, but it was also utterly lacking in dynamism. Critics of the redoubtable Communism of the 30’s wrote tragic novels like Darkness at Noon. The favored genre of great age of Samzdat was satire that made rueful fun of a decaying social system and the moral and intellectual mediocrity that went with it.

I danced with delight as the Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe and the various republics regained their independence; but I have since come to wonder whether the Fall of Communism, or more accurately, the way that Communism fell, made things better or worse. Certainly the Russian people have paid an enormous biological cost for the collapse of the old order—the life expectancy and infant mortality statistics are quite dismaying—but it isn’t even clear that the end of the Cold War was good for the West since America without a credible rival may itself turn out to be an evil empire.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The BS in the BA

Children are able to do many things with the help of parents and teachers that they would be quite incapable of managing on their own, but all the coaxing and encouragement is a bit mendacious like the ads for miracle golf equipment that promise to give us all a brilliant short game. At some point, the learner needs to get the bad news; and that’s especially true in formal education. Unfortunately, the message is seldom delivered until grad school unless the students themselves figures it out and the country is full of college-educated people who think they have a right to an opinion about all sorts of things because they have little understanding of what would be involved in seriously coming to terms with real questions. The writers of non-fiction books, magazine articles, and op/eds don’t provide much of a remedy. We have no tradition of what the French call haute vulgarisation—the non-technical but otherwise uncompromising explanation of scholarly, philosophical, and scientific ideas—so the popularizers simply continue the hand holding and the hand waving of retail higher education.

Children flourish in the famous zone of proximal development, but eventually they have to learn to fly solo. Or, to vary the metaphor, eventually you throw the kid in the pool. Since our educational system is so indulgent, however, the kids are going to have to jump in themselves. We grownups need to resume our educations if we really want to know what was going on; and that requires, among other things, that we start reading grownup books.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

No Risk, No Reward

Congress has declined in legitimacy and power for many reasons but above all because most of its members no longer win their seats in real elections against credible opponents. The situation has many analogies to the old soviet political system, though our current arrangement is impeccably American, deriving as it does from the one-party politics of the South, where filigrees of democratic forms decorated the metallic surface of the oligarchic machine. Of course it is true that some districts are safe for the Republicans, others for the Democrats, but that does not mean we have a genuine two-party system because in most districts there is only one party. Under this circumstance, congressional elections are mere plebiscites; and the pols they consecrate are, as it were, structurally contemptible since whatever they represent, it certainly isn’t the Will of the People.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Simper Fidelis

It is a commonplace that women outlive men, but this demographic factoid only holds under modern conditions of sanitation and medicine. In most of history, the husbands buried the wives because of the high mortality associated with childbirth. The physiological advantages of femininity, like many another natural fact, is a function of context. The same can be said of the relative abilities of the genders. We know from anthropology and the historical record that in the vast majority of instances the men lord it over the women—the relative equality of the sexes in modern times is very much an outlier in a statistical sense. In a peaceful world where competition is based on intelligence and social skill rather than violence and sheer strength, women may be superior to men. Under more normal conditions, the females can be easily intimidated by the larger and more aggressive males, especially where a higher birth rate guarantees that they will be a vulnerable state for much of the time. Indeed, in many contemporary situations, women still live in fear from their menfolk; and we’re not that far in time from the era when beating your wife was as legal as paddling your kids, permissible when not obligatory.

My impression—and it’s only that—is that women, at least in this country, are losing much of the ground they won over the last century. Walking about in the cloak of invisibility that is late middle age, I eavesdrop on the conversations of young women in coffee bars and on busses; and I hear America simpering. Women do not dress and act like amateur trollops in eras of sexual freedom and gender equality. Playing up to men flourishes on in times when fewer girls aspire to their own power and place in the world and more calculate that latching on to a useful male is the way to go. Of course, even if my admittedly anecdotal impression is correct, it may be that what’s going on is merely a cultural fluctuation—after all, women were also trying out for Stepford wife during the Eisenhower administration—but I suspect that the fluctuation is embedded in a wider trend with far more serious consequences than the proliferation of girls-gone-wild videos.

In many countries, the fall of Marxist regimes was accompanied by a decline in the political and social standing of women. Muslim fundamentalism is deeply anti-feminist and the status of women is also at risk in non-Muslim developing countries as evidenced by the widespread practice of aborting female offspring. In the rapidly emerging Post-post-industrial world, the largest fraction of the population is made up of what Pierre Bourdieu called the subproletariat. These peasants and the offspring of peasants, displaced factory workers, and underemployed college grads depend for their survival and sense of identity upon membership in non-economic groups such as clans, religious sects, mafias, and political parties—just the kind of organizations in which testosterone counts much more than brains. Small wonder that women, like drugs and guns, have become a major trade good in the underside of the global economy.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Inspired by a Niall Ferguson OpEd

What needs to be understood is that the think-tank military philosophers and counterfactual historians who dream up scenarios are no more likely to be right than the hack novelists who concoct the plots for the novels you buy in airports, which is to say, they all can be counted upon to come up with eventualities that are as sensational as they are wrong. One can indeed speak about the future in a meaningful way, but only to the extent that general trends indicate a class of outcomes. As in thermodynamics, the most likely future state can be described, but not the path that leads to it. Thus it’s a pretty good bet that the history of the next hundred years will revolve around overpopulation, environmental degradation, and energy shortages; but the human response to these challenges is literally incalculable. Or, to pick an example resolved at a slightly finer grain, it’s very likely that the State of Israel will be destroyed, not because one can devise some plausible just-so story about its downfall, but simply because it is such an impossible outlier. What nobody seems to notice is that there is something highly peculiar about a country that has a population roughly the same as Burundi or El Salvador, which somehow maintains the third largest nuclear arsenal on the planet crammed into a cultural and religious enclave surrounded by sworn enemies. When a bunch of 4th graders are playing with a live hand grenade, who knows (or much cares) if it will be Ernie or Alice who pulls the pin?

Sunday, January 15, 2006


I am a dreadful housekeeper and keep losing things like combs and scissors. I rummage around for them until I get frustrated and simply buy replacements. Of course once I have the new comb or scissors, all the old ones magically reappear. History has a similar logic. Philosophical questions get asked anew from time to time, for example, not only because they were never fully answered, but in some cases because perfectly adequate answers got lost someplace in the back of the library—a classic instance being the 20th Century debate over metaethics that took about fifty years to catch up with Aristotle. Unfortunately, when the misplaced truth is not a set of academic propositions, but hard won historical experience, the political consequences do more than waste the ample time available to Oxford dons. At present a great many low-level intellectuals and journalists are treading the once well-worn but now mostly overgrown path that led so many liberals and leftists to authoritarian populism at the beginning of the 20th Century. The same themes—integral nationalism, cultural destiny, the moral beauty of violence, the need for external and internal enemies, premeditated political myth, the superiority of will to reason and the leader to the constraints of law—that one finds in Sorel or Gentile or Schmitt are reappearing in new variations, elaborated or, more often, coarsened by assorted op-ed writing profs and television personalities. I don’t know how many of these deep thinkers are aware that what they are proposing is a reprise of a set of proposals that didn’t turn out too well on their first try out. Maybe some of them figure that they’ll do fascism right this time, but I expect that most of them have forgotten or never learned the sad lesson, which, after all, costs more to replace than a comb or a pair of sox.