Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Dikes are Perfectly Adequate so Long as it Doesn’t Rain

Contemporary discussions of the value or irrelevance of economic equality have an 18th Century flavor. Apparently serious people speak about the issue as if it could be reasonably addressed without a dynamic historical context. Hence those who discount equality point out that poor people enjoy high levels of consumption while those who try to find a modern version of egalitarianism highlight the human costs of even relative (positional) poverty. I’m still waiting for somebody to point out that this academic debate, conducted in impeccably abstract faux-Enlightenment style, is premised on the highly dubious proposition than general wealth and, indeed, economic progress is a given. Unfortunately, real human beings are not embedded in a reliably benign eternity of peace and prosperity like cherries in a jello salad. What feels like equilibrium is more likely the motionlessness of the apogee. In bad times, the true cost of poverty will be quite apparent without complicated theoretical explications by PhD economists. What the wealthy have and the others lack is a margin of safety during emergencies. When things go wrong, it won’t be a case of having to do without plasma screen televisions or having your feelings hurt because your neighbor’s swimming pool is bigger than yours, but genuine deprivation and the stark reality of becoming déclassé. Oddly, both the rich and the poor understand this perfectly, even that part of the poor that thinks of itself as middle class. Somebody should tell the profs, though.

Friday, January 05, 2007


I had thought about writing a review of a Unmaking the West, yet another book on counterfactual history; but I find it hard to take the practice seriously enough to make the exercise worthwhile. Historians sometimes use the literary conceit of alternative histories to illustrate worthwhile ideas about what actually happened; but when they imagine that their scenarios have probative as opposed to rhetorical or illustrative value, they lose me.

Counterfactual methods are usually deployed in an attempt to underline the role of contingency in history and to discredit thereby the grand theories that claim that history has an overall logic and destiny—over the last 150 years, for example, counterfactual arguments have been a reliable bludgeon in the interminable scholarly war on Marxism. Unfortunately, counterfactual history itself depends upon the presumption of a certain level of predictability in history; for once some plausible variation is postulated—William of Orange gets shot at the Battle of the Boyne or the wind blows the wrong way in 1588—the consequences of the surprise get worked out on the assumption that nothing else surprising takes place and that the predictable consequences of events play out as scheduled. A history made out of non-stop surprises is just as useless to counterfactual history as a history that runs on rails.

In fact, if history really were an incredibly detailed geology of the surface of the earth, a natural science that treated men as mobile rock formations, I expect that we would conclude that the predictions of historical events would be no more trustworthy than weather reports, especially when the forecasts ventured to tell us what happens after next week. Which is why, by the way, the practitioners of counterfactual history routinely sneak the notion of fate back into their tales—a careful sociological analysis of the economic consequences of a lasting French superiority in Europe will not fail to include the bit about a young Corsican who becomes a successful general in Louis XVI’s triumphant armies as if Napoleon would even be born in an alternative future. They really don’t come to terms with the contingencies of the world at all as anybody who really took seriously the physics or even the biology of the issue would have to do.

If individual human beings and their particular talents and foibles are critical to the outcome of history, as many a counterfactual historian has insisted, it doesn’t much matter what historical event you imagine altering in your imaginary parallel world. The non-linearity built into human reproduction guarantees that a total different cast of characters will soon begin to appear in the sequel even if we imagine that nothing much else takes place. Natural selection has decreed that the genetic cards will be very thoroughly shuffled before and, indeed, during each deal. It may take a cannonball to take off William’s head, but it takes the distant reverberation of a gnat’s fart to result in an Albertine instead of an Albert or to turn a hero into a weakling or nothing at all. Absent some mystic law of destiny, mere mechanics pretty much guarantees that any macroscopic or even microscopic perturbation will suffice to alter the outcome of every future conception in utterly unpredictable ways and, if the premise that individuals matter is correct, result in a drastically different history. Counterfactual history proves too much.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Necessity of Atheism

The public debate about evolution, like every battle in a culture war, is and always will be conducted by guys in clown suits bopping each other with pig bladders. That's just the way things are. Serious science and serious philosophy are and will remain the business of a tiny and largely invisible minority. The culture wars are not politically unimportant, however, and it behooves us to don our own clown suits from time to time. Sometimes the appropriate clown suit is a village atheist outfit.

Philosophically speaking, atheism is a very uninteresting position since it amounts to making a big fuss about something obvious, i.e. that traditional religious ideas are fatuous. As Diderot pointed out long ago, "It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but to believe or not believe in God is not important at all." Atheism, at least the sort of atheism one encounters on public access television, also promotes a version of history which is factually dubious since it endlessly recycles the same banal anthology of religious excesses (Crusades, witch hunts, inquisitions) to somehow prove that organized religion is the root of all evil, a proposition that probably gives the churches too much credit. All that admitted, however, loud and obnoxious atheism is still necessary in a country like the United States, if only to assert the right of people to dissent from the totalitarian conformism to which we are so susceptible.

The argument against public assertions of anti-religious ideas is that such language is politically unwise and will only elicit more intolerance from the religious right. In fact, however, the anguish of the believers is good evidence of the effectiveness of such polemics. It makes a huge difference that skeptical ideas are in circulation. They wouldn't be so loudly denounced if they didn't resonate—there may be more Cotton Mather than Mark Twain in the American character, but there is some Mark Twain. In any case, ideas have to be publicized in order to persist since the vast majority of mankind will never find an idea in their heads that somebody didn't go to the trouble of putting there first.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Who the Heck is Jamil Hussein?

The obsessions of others are sometimes so alien to our own way of thinking that we aren’t even aware of the issues that have set their hair ablaze. Many evangelicals were less concerned about the activities of the U.S.S.R. than the formation of the E.U., for example, because they believed that the unity of Europe was one of the signs of the end of days foretold in the Book of Revelations. A more recent example is the attempt of the right-wing blogosphere to get everybody upset about the case of somebody named Jamil Hussein, who the AP apparently claimed as a source for a story about the burning alive of some Iraqis. The bloggers in question deny the existence of the aforementioned Hussein and insist that the AP story is a fraud. Fraud it may have been—who knows?—but the remarkable thing about the question is that anybody thinks it’s very interesting. Obviously most people’s personal understanding of conditions in Baghdad has nothing to do with an incident very few of them ever heard about. Of course, if the Hussein story were fraudulent and also symptomatic of coverage of Iraq, somebody could claim that it had some importance as a telling example. Unfortunately, however, what has really been typical about media behavior during this affair has been a tendency to act as the propaganda arm of the military: for example, the reporters who brought us the faux-iconic image of the toppling of Saddam’s statue were perfectly aware that the event was a staged photo-op but kept quiet about it since they apparently thought of themselves as part of the war effort. To this day, the newscasters treat official pronouncements as if there were somehow credible: I guess they don’t know the phrase from the Napoleonic Wars: to lie like a bulletin.

Since art is long and time is short, I’m reluctant to come up with new arguments to prove that evolution is a reality, Iraq is a mess, and anvils don’t float. I recognize, however, that a great many people actually think that anecdotes are better evidence than statistics. In that spirit, let me venture a rhetorical bomb of my own. Consider this: three years after the end of World War II, American service men were chatting up frauleins and quaffing beer in taverns all over Germany. In Japan, they were going on sightseeing trips to Mount Fuji. Even during the Vietnam War, marines could go out on the town in Saigon. Does anybody believe that an off-duty American soldier could wander around Ramadi without getting shot, beheaded, or kidnapped? Or is that just what the AP wants you to think?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Federalists for Jefferson

You can always tell when a minority political position is gaining ground. The scratchy voices crying out in the wilderness are supplemented and then drowned out by far more unctuous tones as the movement begins to attract supporters who smell new opportunities. Back in the 90s, those of us who publicly attacked the emerging right-wing machine may have suffered from loneliness but the company we did enjoy was very agreeable, at least by our lights. Since we had no political prospects and weren’t operators, we had little incentive to dissemble and mostly didn’t. Perhaps because nobody was offering to buy ‘em, we weren’t much tempted to sell our souls. Anyhow, since the facts were very much on our side, integrity offered a modest but more or less automatic rhetorical advantage at a time when the other rhetorical edges belonged to our enemies. Who knows if the scrupulousness of people such as Joe Conason or Duncan Black or Kos was an expression of character or the product of a situation? Maybe we shouldn’t complain about the journalistic sins of the op/ed writers until we’ve walked a mile in their wingtips. It was easy to be honest when there wasn’t a better option. Things are different now and the newly converted and perhaps some of the old hands, too, will have many new opportunities to lie, cheat, and steal in print.

I certainly don’t expect public debate to be conducted on a very high level under any circumstances and the object of the game in any case is not to preserve a prissy purity but to promote better policies. Scrupulousness is not an art form or an end in itself. Nevertheless, as I emerge from a silence enforced by the twin evils of seasonal affective disorder and full-time employment, I find myself distinctly uncomfortable with some of the new company I’m keeping, including, especially, people like Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post borrows so many of the propaganda techniques of the right-wing press. Her blog assembles many news items from the AP and various newspapers but presents them under headlines that drastically spin their contents, often in astonishingly misleading directions. Huffington herself engages in the kind of personal attacks based on pop psychology that the mainstream press used to sink Al Gore—as you’ll recall, that’s how they got all that blood on their hands—but her favorite target seems to be Hillary Clinton, who she portrays as a scheming harridan as if ambition were a sin in womankind. The point isn’t that Clinton shouldn’t be criticized or even that misogynists should shut up, but that Arianna uses her tactics with such obvious cynicism. She’s not an Neanderthal like Chris Matthews whose hatred of female politicians is an authentic expression of inherited prejudice and personal stupidity. She’s just an opportunist, for whom activating poisonous stereotypes is unobjectionable as long as it happens to be useful at the moment, just as not too long ago, she had no compunction about portraying the rather conservative Diana Feinstein as a raving radical leftist in order to promote the senatorial campaign of her then husband, who was running under false colors as a right-wing Republican. Arianna surely understands the bit about strange bedfellows in politics, and I do too; but I find it difficult to feel comfortable with this particular ally even though, for the time being, her very real talents are mostly being used in favor of causes dear to me.