Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Relativistic Ptolemaic Astronomy

If the earth is at rest at the center of the universe, the maximum diameter of the sphere of fixed stars can be calculated from Einstein’s theory of relativity. The maximum circumference of the sphere is one light day since a larger sphere would have to travel faster than the speed of light to carry the stars around the earth in 24 hours. It follows that the diameter of the universe is at most about .318 light days or a bit more than five billion miles. Since Neptune is, at its closest, 2.67 billion miles from earth and its orbit is therefore over 5 billion miles across, we can conclude that Ptolemaic astronomy has serious problems. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Political Correctness Rebuked

As part of my long patrol of the Universe, I recently spent a few days reading various posts at the right-wing site Pajamas Media. I responded to one piece by Michael Ledeen that complained that the Obama administration was engaging in censorship, although the evidence he educed was rather vague and actually dealt with “attempting to eliminate certain words and phrases from American policy documents and statements concerning Islam,” i.e. with a government controlling its own speech rather than the speech of the people. Ledeen did link to a segment from a Christian broadcast network that claimed that high school kids were being indoctrinated to think favorably about Muslims, though the sum total of the case was the testimony of a single Jewish lady, who, it must be admitted, was obviously very earnest. I responded:

Right wing Jews and fundamentalist Christians must have a highly developed sense of humor to complain about controlling discourse in the U.S. One can only imagine what would happen if high school textbooks objectively conveyed the bad as well as the good things about Christianity and Judaism, especially if accounts of the founding and subsequent behavior of Israel were even handed.

Note that I’m not applauding the kind of political trimming and calculation that routinely goes into the construction of the curricula in the U.S., though American history texts have always been political footballs and its absurd to suddenly get excited about it. There’s a substantial Muslim population is the United States and if it doesn’t have anything like the political pop of the ADL or the Christian groups, it’s hardly surprising if it works to promote its side. The only people who really give a damn about scholarly values such as objectivity are a handful of despised intellectuals. Everybody else just wants “Hurrah for us!”

One note: Ledeen takes Milbank’s quote out of context (of course). Milbank was complaining, with some justice, that the press was not given adequate opportunity to ask questions at a recent international meeting. The piece wasn’t about political correctness and the line about the Soviet Era referred to the intense security. Ironically, one of Milbank’s specific complaints is that Obama would not answer a question about Israel’s nuclear program. I doubt if Ledeen really wants people to start thinking about Israel’s non-membership in the nonproliferation treaty, but then his defense of political free speech doesn’t extend to anybody who might criticize his side. Ask Mearsheimer and Walt or Juan Cole about the Jewish lobby’s passion for open debate and plain speaking.

Here’s the fun part. Comments at Pajamas Media are moderated, but my comments in other threads have almost always posted after a minimal delay. Twenty-four hours later, though, the above paragraphs are still “under moderation.” Now I know that Ledeen reads the comments: he actually responded to me on a remark I had made on an earlier post of his. I don’t know whether he personally moderates the comments or not, and maybe it was just some intern’s night off. Still, it is amusing (though hardly surprising) to think that this defender of free speech is apparently willing to be so transparently hypocritical.

One note on Ledeen. He’s a prominent neocon whose career goes back to the Reagan era when he was one of the guys involved in the Iran Contra. More recently, he played a somewhat unclear role in the Plame affair. His vita features quite a few colorful passages, but what’s more interesting about him to me than the various intrigues is his notable defense or semi-defense of Italian fascism, a theme that began with his doctoral dissertation and has apparently continued since. I’ve long thought of neo-conservatism, at least in its Israeli-lobby component, as fascism for Jews; but that judgment was based on the similarities between the political philosophy and even more the rhetoric of the neocons and the outlook of the various movements of integral nationalism that swirled around in the first half of the 20th Century. Until I did a little research yesterday, I wasn’t aware of Ledeen’s writings on the subject. I’m reminded of the discovery of Uranus: one could predict the existence of documents like Universal Fascism: The Theory and Practice of the Fascist International, 1928-1936 by extrapolation from the speech of living right-wingers. One knew where to point the telescope. But I’m not bringing up Ledeen’s interest in Mussolini et. al. in order to discredit him. Fascist ideas are highly appealing to many people and are not going to go away just because we don’t know or don’t want to admit their historical connections. After World War II, no one wanted to be associated with fascism because fascism = Nazism, at least in the popular mind. As my Dad used to joke, Hitler was so bad he gave fascism a bad name, but German fascism was an outlier in a great many ways. There was a reason that Mussolini had admirers on the left as well as the right, and his movement wasn’t so different from others such the ideology of the Young Turks in his era or Netanyahu’s version of Zionism in ours. So I admire Ledeen’s willingness to associate himself with the fascist thinkers. The heck with political correctness. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Addendum: A day and half later, Ledeen let my comment appear and followed it with a brief paragraph complaining that I was stereotyping him. A guy like Ledeen who goes around accusing people of anti-Semitism at the drop of a hat has a lot of nerve complaining about that.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Rest of the Annotated Flummeries

Philosophers spend their lives trying to develop a consistent view of the world. They fail. But anthropologists and cultural historians sometimes assume that primitive tribes somehow manage this feat.

From time to time, I get the idea of writing a general account of all the world’s great ideas as they are generally misunderstood. And then I remember that such an enterprise has been long in the works under the heading of intellectual history.

Realities are preferred because in the end they are cheaper than dreams and often require less talent to create.

The object of the game is not part of the rules since there's no penalty for ignoring it except losing, which is no real penalty if you aren’t trying to win.

Information sickness is like constipation since for the most part it only affects those who worry about suffering from it.

The self-sufficiency of the virtuous Stoic (or libertarian) is a consequence of a human world that makes meaningful individuality possible in the first place.

I don't believe in blaming the tyrants for tyranny—not because I want to let the tyrants off the hook, but because the usual demonization of the Stalins and Hitlers gives them too much credit as if a single person could create an entire world of malevolence by themselves.

Science advanced when discovery became the precondition for a new form of social climbing.

Where there really isn't anything very important to discover, the quest for truth tends to become a cleverness contest.

A dream in which I was involved in a debate as to whether Orthodox pigs are permitted to eat Jews.

The assumption is that the difficult philosophers are hiding a secret in their tortuous phrases. But I'm inclined to think the complexity of the surface is necessary precisely because the content is so simple.

We don't live under the gaze of an infinitely solicitous God, but we are embedded in a temporarily forgiving body.

Mystical philosophers have a problem analogous to avant-garde artists, but the content they have for sale— states of mind that are much the same everywhere and at all times— do not adequately differentiate their brand. Hence the need for another kind of transcendence, a rhetorical one pursued by the elaboration of paradoxes and hieroglyphics.

I could have been a successful married man in the old days when you weren't supposed to talk to your wife anyhow and marriage was just another kind of solitude.

Everything is here in this poem, having been left out on purpose.

When I found out that I had been cloned, I was beside myself.

The Encyclopedia turns up in nature even before man's arrival on the scene, for example in the sensory homunculus, which, after all, was a little possum or lizard before it was an inward man.

Intelligence is like a category five hurricane that can't keep its strength when it makes landfall over reality.

I’d rather believe I was a criminal than that my activities were the consequence of some brain dysfunction. Responsibility can also be a useful dodge, romancing the lesion instead of acknowledging it.

Like certain Romans who wanted to command armies so that they'd eventually be better historians.

Just as the planned death of certain cells is an integral part of the development of the adult animal, certain reasonable ideas have to die in order to yield a fully developed theory.

Just as it is very difficult to erase the hard disk without leaving a trace, cultural messages persist through history, though like old files, they often lose their names.

In every generation young intellectuals discover some often repeated idea in one of its recent appearances and proclaim it a great novelty. They are like someone who buys a new comb even though there are plenty of them under the sofa.

Preaching to the laity was a dubious innovation pioneered by urban heretics in the Middle Ages before it was taken up by their enemies. Just as the cops are our criminals, the preaching friars were the church’s heretics.

Reverting once again to weed
To put the chronic in fatigue

No sensible conservative encourages intense belief in anything since principles are most vulnerable when they are taken seriously.

The suspicion that being utterly clear about something might actually be clever, at least if you used the tactic sparingly and didn’t go overboard.

An apple strudel could, after all, be considered the kind of metamorphic rock that results from the application of heat at low pressure to sedimentary deposits of phyllo dough. Granted we don’t usually think of bakers as geological agents like erosion or volcanic eruptions, but the geology textbooks do consider bacteria and diatoms in this way and, under the hood, a macrobe isn’t much different than a microbe.

As was once said of a crucial moment in a badly played chess match, “I don’t see how either side can save the game.”

Mass movements sometimes take place and there have been tremendously influential individuals, but I tend to favor the theory that the activities of small groups explain most of what happens.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Proverbs of Heck, Anti-Pensées, Fragments of Heraclitus of Aphasia

In an effort to train a dictation program for my computer, I’ve been reading out assorted sentences from the copybook I keep next to my bed. A lot of these lines come more or less directly from dreams. The exercise has taught me a lot, for example that I mumble dreadfully.

The monuments sloth builds to her own glory are not likely to challenge the heavens.

We Americans should make good classicists since we have no great literature of our own to obsess about.

You are perfectly entitled to be skeptical about the Enlightenment. But why do you have to embrace such ripe and stinking superstitions in order to express your disappointment with reason?

It shouldn't bother you to be accused of elitism. It ought to bother you not to be elite.

As with other serious conditions, apotheosis often has an insidious onset. Strokes of luck occur with suspicious frequency. Old women with startling blue eyes fall on their knees in spontaneous adoration, an occurrence that is always embarrassing and often quite inconvenient for everybody, especially on crowded buses.

Nanotechnology has been under way for hundreds of years under the title of chemistry.

It was late winter and the vampires were tapping the diabetics to make syrup.

Reading Marsden's life of Jonathan Edwards, I was struck by the practical similarity of the Christian quest for conversion and a Zen Buddhist quest for enlightenment. Both enterprises are deeply irrational. Both promote the power of religious teachers. Both have a distinct flavor of sadism—which is not to deny either their due as spiritual adventures highly meaningful to the participants. Religion would make a lot more sense if its goal were temporary spiritual thrills instead of permanent beatitude or definitive insight.

Despite its greater rationality, science is much more dispersed than common sense because it addresses the real diversity of the world while the popular mind is fixed on a tiny subset of topics. The people talk a lot, but they don't talk about much.

Like would-be novelists, philosophers think their ideas are shocking, but both the daring sex scenes and the revolutionary concepts generally put the readers to sleep.

"Being" is the Maginot line of the theologians, impregnable but easy to go around.

I've encountered so many grand theories of everything that I've become quite indifferent to them. Explaining anything is so much harder than explaining everything.

The quirkiness of dreams is like the diction of people writing in a foreign language. The combinations don't outrage logic or probability so much as usage.

Culture is a subgroup of nature, not its opposite or rival.

I have to remind myself that most people have never followed a complicated proof or the argument of the serious novel. Forget about what it is to be like a bat. Do philosophers know what it is to be a normal man?

In tightly argued scholarly books, every footnote is like a piton driven into the granite face of a sheer cliff.

Life really is too short to worry about extremely unlikely hypotheses just because they are sacred to the majority of human beings.

Thinking is much easier once you accept the unlikelihood of reaching definitive results just as soldiers fight better when they assume they won't survive the war.

The affairs of men are much simpler than the doings of atoms. We call them complex, but they are really just more interesting to us.

The Republicans fear we will become too much like Europe, but much of what they fear from Europe is what Europe learned from us.

As frequently happens, their love affair ended in marriage.

Self-education is highly problematic, but every original thinker has to turn autodidact for the same reason you can't become the valedictorian by copying the other guy’s answers.

Any detailed passage of history has to be normalized to fit in with the rest. It isn't enough to simplify what happened or merely summarize it as one reduces a body of data to the mean and variance. The events have to be systematically distorted so they will play for a single mind just as the notes are tempered so they can be sounded on a single piano. In my experience, however, historians do a lot more cheating than piano tuners.

The secret principle that explains cosmic inflation: every word deserves its commentary, but once that's admitted there is no place to stop even if in the beginning there was only a single word. Eventually you wind up with the world of glossed glosses and glossing glosses expanding to infinity. What would really be comforting is the assurance that there'll eventually be a reader at the end, a God of love, which is to say, a celestial pedant (for whose love surpasses the pedant’s who cherishes every detail long after the others have closed the book in scorn or mere boredom).

Basic problem: the absence of a large class of people who can afford to tell the rest of us to fuck off.

It says a great deal about our situation that one of the greatest corporations created in the last 10 years is dedicated to answering the old man's question, "where the hell are my keys?"

It was the historians who taught me the strategy of willful stupidity, and I am sincerely grateful to them for that.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest

I imagine a mad mathematician, suffering from the effects of some atypical stroke or perhaps just an extremely severe case of OCD, who could derive the most amazing results except that he kept going back to make sure that his earlier proofs worked. “Did I really prove the bit about the square on the hypotenuse? Maybe I should go over it just one more time…” If your understanding of modern biology depends upon the popular press, you may think that we’re stuck in the same fix. No matter how much evidence piles up for the gold-standard validity of natural selection and evolution in general, somebody is always on hand to insist that we need to re-examine the evidence. Of course, the public debate, like so much else in America, is queered by ideology and religion—the Creationist calling for a fresh look at old fossils is exactly as honest as a Republican insisting that we ought to start over again with health care reform. However, in biology, at least, the PR efforts of the cultural conservatives have an ironic effect. By endlessly focusing attention on the issues related to traditional Darwinism, they ensure that most people won’t notice that much of the most important new work in evolution doesn’t have much to do with the preoccupations of what is often called the New Synthesis—natural selection and speciation among multi-cellular animals and plants. I’m not just referring to the work done under the heading of Evo-Devo: that the development of individual organisms would shed light on the historical relationships between species and vice versa was already bruited in the 19th Century, though the advance of biochemistry means that the current version of ontology and phylogeny is less talk and more HOX. I’m also not talking about attempts to rethink evolution in the light of Odling-smee’s concept of niche selection, the various ways that the activities of organisms determine the selection pressures on their offspring—I think that idea is very important, but I recognize that we’re talking about a reversal in perspective here, vases and faces, rather than a new assertion about how things work. What has changed most drastically, it seems to me, is our understanding of what there is to explain.

The famous names of evolutionary biology in the last century were mostly zoologists, botanists, and paleontologists who shared a preoccupation with large and showy organisms, even if large and showy sometimes meant nematodes and fruit flies. For the most part, the makers of the synthesis demonstrated a disdain for the microorganisms that represent so much of the biomass and biochemical diversity of life on earth. While these bird watchers and entomologists weren’t paying all that much attention, the microbiologists decided to get evolutionary and in the process discovered that life on earth is rather different than we imagined. When I first began to read biology books, there were two and only two kingdoms of living things, animals and plants. Subsequently, it was noticed that the more salient division was between organisms with and without nuclei, the eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Circa 1960, you got points for knowing about that. A little later, things were broken down more finely with Robert Whittaker’s five-kingdom system (bacteria, protists, fungi, plants, and animals), but that didn’t last very long either. The analysis of ribosomal RNA led Woese and his allies to the discovery that some of the erstwhile bacteria were as genetically different from bacteria as they were from animals, plants, and fungi, indeed, that these organisms, which eventually came to be classified under the new taxon Archaea, were, if anything, more similar to us than to E. coli. These newly discovered creatures obviously had a history, and their existence also put the possible origins of already familiar organism in a new light that evidently demanded rather different kinds of explanations than what had been dreamed of in Ernst Mayr’s hundred years, including, for example, the dramatic episodes of symbiosis that apparently gave rise to the eukaryotes by endowing them with vital organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts and, more generally, the possibility that a much greater degree of genetic interchange occurs between organisms, thus not simply making it much harder to discover the true tree of life but raising the possibility that it wasn’t always a tree at all.

Much as modern literature is sometimes successful in making the reader aware of the strangeness of experience, recent discoveries have revealed how little we understand of the living things around us, how down right weird the biosphere actually is. Cthulu isn’t lurking in an adjoining dimension: half a mile underground, in boiling hot springs, in chemical spills, at the bottom of the sea, and—it’s a good bet—in your large intestines, microbes are exploiting every energetic chemical bond on the planet in ways more exotic than any brain-eating alien. Genetic probes inform us that thousands and thousands of such beings exist, though we don’t know how to culture many of them yet or identify them under a microscope—one coccus looks much like another—but their modes of life, metabolisms, and chemistries mark them off as more radically diverse than the all the animals, plants, and fungi put together. And that’s what a complete theory of evolution would have to explain.

The people at Panda Thumb and other venues who fight the good but thankless fight against the Creationists and Intelligent Design devotees have to repeatedly point out to their theologically inspired opponents that the theory of evolution is not the same thing as a theory of the origin of life. Nobody is claiming that Darwin had an explanation for biogenesis—at most he had a few odd thoughts on the topic. It is also the case that no knowledgeable person would suggest that any consensus has formed since Darwin as to how life began on this planet. Granted that the primary evidence is probably 4 billion years old, that problem may not be insoluble but it is definitely a cold case. Distinguishing theories of the origin of life from theories of the origin of species thus makes excellent sense. Thing is, I wonder if it goes far enough. Granted what we’re learning about the deeper diversity of existing life, especially the wide range of ways that energy flows in living things, shouldn’t we expect that an adequate and truly general theory of evolution is likely to require us to intercalate several stages between biogenesis and the era when life began to evolve according to the familiar rules and patterns of the modern synthesis?

For the record, these thoughts were inspired by Jan Sapp’s recent book The New Foundations of Evolution, which provides a detailed history of the advent of the new understandings of phylogeny inspired by microbiological research. Reading his book was rather like listening to a golden oldies CDs since so many of the important discoveries have taken place during my lifetime and, as something of a scientific fellow traveler or male groupie, I remember what I was doing when caught wind of them even if I didn’t really understand their importance.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Citizens United

The recent Supreme Court decision that gives corporations the right to make unlimited campaign contributions has been defended by some people, including, notably, Glenn Greenwald, who take an absolutist view of the First Amendment. On their view, the issue is not whether corporations are persons since the amendment merely states that Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech and does not refer to who does the speaking. I find this argument utterly unconvincing and not just because it seems to imply that Congress can’t limit the rights of tarot decks, Ouija boards, and Urim and Thummim to protected speech. Governments make corporations and grant them privileges and immunities that natural human persons do not possess. It is settled law, as I understand, that the speech of military officers, teachers, and doctors in clinics receiving federal funds can be limited so long as they are acting in their official capacity, so the rights of corporations, which are creatures of the state in an even more fundamental way, should not be sacrosanct either, especially since corporations aggregate money in ways that living human individuals cannot. Precisely because they surpass the citizens in actual power, it is wise and right to limit their legal status to prevent them from being more than persons under the law.

It has been suggested that the practical effect of Citizens United has been overestimated and that corporations will either not choose to or not be able to control elections by throwing around huge sums of money or, more plausibly, that the newly discovered rights of the corporate superpersons will turn out to be superfluous since they already own the political process. More optimistically, it might be also be pointed out that a vigilant public could find ways to get around the ruling: it is hard, after all, to write checks while hanging from a lamppost. The actual effects of legal rulings are always hard to predict, and ironic outcomes are quite likely. Unfortunately, ironic is not a reliable synonym for good.

I note in passing that I do agree with the majority of the Court in one respect. Neither one of us take the words or the meaning of the Constitution as sacred and inviolate. The majority bases its opinions on what it thinks is best for the Republican party at a given time while I read the fundamental documents by the light of what I find enduringly moral and defensible in them. I would probably try to respect precedent more than the Roger’s court because I perceive a huge practical value in the predictability of the law, but I recognize that you can’t dispense with special pleading just because you think you’re sincere. On some fundamental level, it isn’t the methodology but the ethics of these jurists that I find vicious.
Princes of Peace

Ecumenicalism, at least in Europe and the Americas, is largely a reaction to the threat of unbelief. Atheists are the only people that the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Calvinists, Lutherans, Pentacostals, Muslims, and Jews hate more than each other; and this hatred draws them together. I think of Gregg Easterbrook as the anti-Aristotle of our age, the master of those who don’t know, but even Easterbrook seems to understand the essentially defensive character of the current vogue for a shared faith in merely having some sort of faith.

Momentary controversies over Islam aside, in America's contemporary spiritual landscape, the dividing line is not between Christians and non-Christians, nor drawn along any religious perimeter. It is between believers and nonbelievers. Persons of faith of almost any stripe have begun to embrace each other as allies against the encroachment of pure secularism, philosophical positivism, and legal hostility toward belief in the public square.

Now despising atheists is nothing new—John Locke thought atheism should be illegal and the public affirmation of disbelief in God has long been a capital crime in Muslim nations—but apparently the atheist menace had not seemed sufficiently urgent to compose religious divides that are centuries or millennia old and make priests, bonzes, and imams conveniently ignore the plain contradictions among their respective doctrines. The Enlightenment wasn’t quite enough, apparently, or even Marxism; but the New Atheism has at last done the trick and brought a truce to the religious wars. So let us give thanks to Dawkins and Hitchens and P.Z. Myers and the other princes of peace who have brought this blessing on mankind. I have often been critical of the New Atheists if only because I couldn’t detect anything new in what they had to say, but neither I nor anybody else should claim that they are not a force. Of course it may be that the effectiveness of their message is more a reflection of the startling fragility of religion than the intrinsic merit of their own point of view, which is often little more than unreflective positivism that seems to think the only thing besides science is some sort of theology. Thing is, though, pricks don’t have to be especially sharp to puncture a balloon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reality, What a Concept!

America appears to be paralyzed by discord; but a closer look at the evidence, for example, an hour or two reading comment threads on Internet discussion sites, will set you straight. There is plenty of conflict, obviously, but few actual differences of opinion, that is, if disagreement means I assert P and you assert non-P, there is almost none to be found. We don’t agree enough to meaningfully disagree. What one encounters instead of dialogue are fistfights and simultaneous monologues. Now by my lights, that’s exactly what we should expect granted the true volume of possible ideas—in that immensity actually encountering another is quite improbable, though the illusion of contact is not. If you think that all-that-is is a big room with stuff in it, you won’t agree, assuming, that is, I’ve correctly guessed what’s going on over there in the adjoining monads.

Consider the interminable struggle over abortion. One could construe the issue as revolving around whether or not one wishes there to be fewer abortions, but that is pretty clearly not the case since even those who, like me, don’t consider abortions an evil don’t consider them a good either while those who wave around the pictures of bloody fetuses seldom argue that outlawing abortion will actually reduce the number of abortions. They may assume that criminalization will have that result, but they mostly simply ignore the question of its real world consequences. What matters, apparently, is maintaining an attitude of official abhorrence towards the act. When pro-choice people argue that a policy of legalized abortion and free family planning services would probably make abortions less common, they are missing the point. Pro-lifers make the corresponding error in assuming that their opponents share their overwhelming concern about meanings. What is an argument about attitudes for one side is an argument about facts for the other. Sorting out the debate doesn’t call for moral philosophy but a better understanding of data types.

Something similar takes place in arguments about drug legalization. Drug warriors are not very interested in evidence that the criminalization of drugs may not decrease drug use, and they are especially not interested in weighing the bad consequences of drug use against the bad consequences of the legal efforts to suppress it. After all, it would be pretty hard to argue that the unfavorable health and economic consequences of smoking pot or even using heroin are remotely comparable to the obvious expense, suffering, and death that result from their legal suppression. One would have to be a moral monster to throw people in vile jails, destroy families, promote organize crime, subvert civil rights, and raise taxes in the name of what is obviously a futile effort to avoid the rather notional evils of marijuana use. But anti-drug people aren’t moral monsters; they simply put a tremendously high value on attitudes. Those of us who throw statistics at the crusaders are suffering from our own illusion.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Continuous Fulgurations

The Karabogazköl is a huge supersalty lagoon that protrudes like a hernia from the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. Water from the Caspian rushes through a narrow straight and spreads out into the desert where it evaporates under the Turkmenistan sun, thus maintaining the difference in level between the lagoon and the sea. Only the steady input of new water allows it to persist. Some years ago, in fact, when the straight was dammed up to protect the Caspian during a drought, the lagoon dried up completely. I was fascinated by this geographic quirk when I read about it in a Scientific American article that made it seem as if the entrance to the Karabogazköl was practically a waterfall—I gather it is really more like a rapids, at least these days, but the photo in the article created a more spectacular impression. Somehow the place became a visible symbol for me of the theological idea, perhaps more characteristic of Islam than in of Christianity or Judaism, that the cosmos itself is utterly dependent on a Godhead that not only created it but maintains it in existence from moment to moment. In this view, all that is is much like this wretched gulf, except that the universe depends on a steady influx of being rather than of water to maintain its evanescent reality under the black sun of nothingness. I don’t accept this metaphysical picture these days, if I ever did, but I’ve retained it as a useful way to stage a thought. In particular, I find it has a number of applications to politics.

One would very much like to think that human institutions, once created, possess the power to persist by themselves and are only destroyed by some external force or perhaps by the ripening of an internal contradiction. One dreams of a political machinery that runs by itself, keeping its balance like a gyroscope, maintaining its internal environment like a thermostat. Entranced by this illusion, propounders of constitutions are often merely projectors of perpetual motion machines of the third kind. The more sober of the old thinkers knew better. There is no destination, telos, or simple basin of attraction, no stable utopia at the end of history or even, for that matter, a permanent state of collapse short of the end of days. Monarchies become aristocracies; aristocracies coarsen into oligarchies; oligarchies are overthrown by democracies; democracies degenerate into mobocracies, idiocracies, tyrannies, or maybe fresh monarchies. The founders of states can at most set a precedent for a form of government because willful intelligent action is required in every generation to constantly recreate what can never persist by its own inertia any more than a living thing can subsist without a continuous metabolism. Persistence, in history as well as organisms, is not stasis but the degree zero of reproduction.

It doesn’t matter if you are the most conservative of conservatives. Since history’s default case is change, staying in place requires ceaseless activity. Indeed, because the same formal institutions have a different meaning in different circumstances, the human world must be remade all the more thoroughly if there are going to be any enduring values. The history of the last thirty years in America shows how easily the meaning of a nation can be lost through political paralysis. Everyone wishes that the horse-trading and hard feelings would go away, that some sort of expert commission will absolve us of responsibility, that we don’t have to take any chances. There are two great problems with this wish to renounce politics: First, as Hannah Arendt frequently insisted—and granted the drastic foreshortening of our current sense of history these days, she practically counts as a contemporary of Aristotle—there is simply no nonpolitical way to do politics; and second, even after you give up on making the omelet, the eggs are going to go on getting broken.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In Defense of Pat Robertson

Pat Robertson, the televangelist, is getting a lot of grief for claiming that the sufferings of the Haitians was a consequence of a deal they struck with the devil to win their independence in Napoleon’s time. A little research revealed that Robertson was referring to an old, not very credible legend about a revolutionary general who supposedly sacrificed a pig to a Voodoo spirit. Now I’m humorless enough to complain about the dubiousness of this tale—in the throes of early Alzheimer’s Pat has come to think that every implausible story he wants to believe is true, even the ones that aren’t two thousand years old—but I have to disagree with those who attack Robertson’s remark because they don’t think it’s fair that a whole nation should suffer because of something one or even many of their ancestors supposedly did long ago. One can complain, as I have, about the man’s astonishing credulity; but his theology is impeccable from a formal perspective. The plot pattern of communal guilt and its consequences is utterly central to his religion: to reject the structure of the tale is to reject Christianity itself.

People usually speak about religious faith as if it is a matter of believing in some amazing fact such as the resurrection of Christ, but the more essential element is belief in the admissibility of the theory that lies behind the fact. You not only have to believe that Jesus died to save your soul; you have to believe that it makes sense that the suffering and death of an innocent man can somehow change the spiritual state of another. It’s not just that the idea of vicarious atonement is harder to swallow than the idea of a particular instance of vicarious atonement and logically prior to it. It’s also more important. The world is full of people who don’t believe in the resurrection but remain enthralled by the Christian story because they go on hanging on its armature as witness the continuing allure and power of Christ substitutes in politics and literature. But here’s the thing. Vicarious atonement is simply the obverse of communal guilt, which is why the old theology regarded Adam as a type of Christ. “In Adam’s fall we sinned all,” just as Christ died for our sins. Reject the negative instance of moral action at a distance involved in the doctrine of original sin and you put in question the positive instance of salvation by the self-sacrifice of a divine figure. No wonder so many barrels of ink were spilt trying to make sense of the transmission of guilt from Adam to the whole human race. Better to raise this problematic issue some distance away from Jesus, especially since two thousand years of desperate ingenuity have already been squandered trying to explain these things.

Now it seems to me that it is a moral error to blame or punish the children for the sins of their parents; but I’m aware that Christians, at least those who cleave to the traditional faith, are pretty much stuck with accepting that God works in this fashion because the whole pathos of the cross is wrapped up in this belief and makes no sense without it. That’s why I’m inclined to forgive Robertson a little, not only in view of his obvious senility but because it’s hard not to be corrupted by an essentially immoral religion. Listening to him, though, I find myself thanking heaven that most Christians are better than their God, the God of Port au Prince.

Friday, January 08, 2010

O What an Angled Web We Weave

On Good Morning America, Rudy Giuliani claimed there were no terror attacks under Bush. This sort of comment is not new: Dana Perino had earlier asserted that the Bush administration inherited 9/11. Which points to an important general truth: liars don’t need a good memory so long as they can count on listeners who can’t remember anything very well and interviewers who will never call them on their premeditated falsehoods. Giuliani knew that the chronology of events in the distant past, i.e. eight years ago, was already becoming murky in the public mind and rightly calculated that George Stephanopolos, master of the convenient scruple, would find it in his own interest to let this studied lie pass on air and only correct the record later in the relative privacy of a blog.