Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Continuing Appeasement of China

     A piece by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post makes some excellent points about the foreign policy of China. Pat Buchanan takes a similar but harder line at Chronicles. Both have drawn a trend line through actual Chinese conduct, such as the recent trawler incident with Japan, and come to sobering conclusions. Not surprisingly, Buchanan even takes on the free traders, and he may be perfectly right to do so.

     Whatever the ultimate aims of the PRC, the rest of the world would do well to prepare for the worst (even as we hope for the best). Some people are so afraid of conflict that they refuse to look at evidence tending to prove an unpleasant claim. On the other hand, many are misled by inexperience into projecting their own harmlessness onto other people. This is a charming naïveté when it happens in college, but a serious danger when policy-makers (whether pacifists on the Left or free traders on the Right) make the same mistake with manifestly aggressive regimes. Appeasement is the name.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cyber Worm Cripples Iranian Nuclear Computers


     If you’ve not seen this item from The Atheist Conservative, take a look.  The story has now also appeared in the Wall Street Journal.  Apparently, Iranian computer systems are under silent attack from an unknown nation waging cyber war with a virus called Stuxnet.  The smart money appears to be on Israel and perhaps the U.S. as the virtual aggressors.  Whoever is responsible, the attack has crippled Iran’s drive to develop nuclear weapons.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Public Order

     Over on The Politics of Well-Being, Mr. Jules Evans has raised a question about a comment from your author.  His question deserves a longer reply than the ususal comment form allows, so it seems appropriate to answer him here.

     The discussion had been about what Mr. Evans described as “classical virtues.”  His point elicited this reply:  “…it’s somewhat syllogistic: (1) Public order comes from either government coercion or private virtue. (2) Government coercion is inconsistent with liberty. (3) Ergo, liberty requires private virtue. Naturally, the reality is not so purely exclusive. That is, public order always derives from a mixture of police action and private good conduct. But … the more we restrain ourselves the less government we need (the case of liberty), so naturally the less we restrain ourselves, the more we need government (the case of tyranny, whether hard or soft).”



     One virtue of the Internet is the ability to test ideas.  Another is the ability to test how those ideas are expressed.  In this case, there was apparently a defect in expression because while the point on public order should not be controversial, it nonetheless attracted the main disagreement.  Here is the reply in full:

     “Some points on your point 1: Is public order alone the goal? Are we looking just for order, or something greater than that - community, creativity, a flourishing society?

     “And whatever the ‘good society’ is, it doesn’t come just from public coercion or private virtue.

     “That is implying everything involving the state or public politics is coercive, and its impossible for there to be public virtue, or public agreement.

     “Thats an anarchist position, very much against the Greco-Roman idea of the importance of serving your country.

     “Thinkers like Aristotle or Cicero would say that politics involves engaging in the issues of your society, it involves opening up to broader concerns, and it involves finding compromises and engaging in civic and civil debate. It also involves courage, temperance and wisdom. So taking part in politics is, they would say, an important part of what makes up an individual ‘good life’.

     “Also, surely the state has some role to play in the creation of private virtue, at the very least through schools? And, arguably, through prisons - if you hope prisons are more than lock ups.

     “Thats what the Greeks thought, anyway - that the state should produce good citizens, through an education programme.”

     Public order is obviously not the only goal for society, but all the other goals of society depend on public order.  It is necessary, of course, but not sufficient (of course).  “Creativity,” “community,” and “flourishing” are impossible when criminal gangs rob, intimidate, and murder the population.  Likewise, of course the good society “doesn’t come just from public coercion,” but who would call an Ethiopian village plagued by rape squads a “good society”?  Even our modern terminology of international relations acknowledges that fact:  Ethiopia is a “failed state” precisely because there is no public order.

     Now consider Mr. Evans’s point more fully: “And whatever the ‘good society’ is, it doesn’t come just from public coercion or private virtue.  That is implying everything involving the state or public politics is coercive, and its impossible for there to be public virtue, or public agreement.”  Actually, public virtue and public agreement are clearly possible, but in their best forms they require private virtue.  There can be public agreement under tyranny, of course, as when we see unanimity of opinion among North Koreans on the value of their Dear Leader.  But the best kinds of public agreement are not motivated by fear, and clearly Mr. Evans means the best kinds.  This kind of public virtue positively requires private virtue as a necessary pre-condition. 

     When citizens accept the importance of serving their country, as Mr. Evans puts it, they are displaying private virtue.  They do not have to be drafted into military service (a coercive example) because they volunteer.  They do not have to be taxed to support welfare programs because they contribute willingly to aid the poor.  They give their time and abilities to the local fire department, or blood bank, or the animal shelter.  The more people serve the community in these ways, motivated by their own private virtue, the less the government has to step in and take over these functions.  These are all positive examples, but the negative ones are even more fundamental.  They involve restraint.  People must either refrain from mutual injury, through an exercise of private virtue, private good conduct, or they must be restrained.

     Mr. Evans is right when he says that Cicero and Aristotle considered taking part in politics part of the good life.  However, again, such activity requires that individual citizens govern themselves.  The free political life that Cicero enjoyed after Sulla’s death did not survive the First Triumvirate.  The degeneration of private virtue was a commonplace of Roman moralists, including Cicero, but a more empirical measure can be taken by the rise of the proxy gangs in the fifties BC.  Milo and Clodius turned the streets of Rome into a battleground because they sought personal advancement at the expense of the public good—the res publica, to use a favorite term.  Their commitment to restrain their own conduct had degenerated.  They, and others in the City, abandoned private virtue and with it the benevolent public order that comes from mutual restraint and respect for community.  In the end, when hardly anyone was left who was capable of private virtue, the legions of Augustus imposed tyrannical public order—and the Republic died.

     Regarding the role of the state in public education, Mr. Evans’s description is more a feature of Plato’s philosophy than of any real city.  At Athens, the law required citizens to provide education to their sons, but the city did not pay for that education.  At Sparta there was universal state education, which even included girls, but it would hardly be a model for any modern nation.  By contrast, there was little or no state-funded education during the entire period of the Roman Repubic.  Rome was the freest state of antiquity and she preserved her freedom longer than any other.  While the nature of Roman education may or may not have contributed to her long history of liberty, state-funded education was clearly not necessary for that liberty.

     The diffidence with which Conservatives approach state control over education arises from the historical examples that show how dangerous such control can be.  Once a state funds education it will soon control education.  Once a state controls education, there is a danger that it will begin to enforce one or another essentially political viewpoint.  Today, in American schools, that view is the received agenda of the political Left, which is why homeschooling is such a valuable counterweight.  No one here is advocating that all the public schools be closed.  But it is useful, healthy, to have lawful alternatives to those schools.

     The example of education is just one of many reasons for seeking public order through private rather than governmental effort.  Perhaps the most urgent reason, though, is that political entities absolutely abhor chaos and will give up liberty to obtain order.  Aristotle made this observation when he outlined the typical procession of constitutions from democracy to mob rule to tyranny.  In the final analysis, people prefer security and stability to liberty.  If limited government fails, as it did at Rome, people eventually will accept an Augustus who brings peace.  To cite modern examples, consider the shift toward authoritarianism in Russia after the disorderly 1990s, or the far more dangerous shift in Germany toward National Socialism after the chaos of the 1920s.  This tendency is natural in the human species, and it has profound implications for policy.

     We must rule ourselves, or we will surely be ruled.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An Intelligent Blog from the Left

     Here is The Politics of Well-Being, a blog worth noting for those who were interested in the discussion about the soul or self (Reports of my Death are Greatly Exaggerated).  The author, Jules Evans, has a serious interest in Stoic philosophy.  He also has come to some very un-Conservative conclusions, which he explains thoughtfully.  If you are interested in unconventional but rational ideas from the other side of the aisle, his blog is worth sampling.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Quintessence of Dust

Australopithecus afarensis (reconstruction).
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

     Last month in Nature, a team of scientists published findings on the use of stone tools securely dated to 3.4 million years ago.  The evidence is indirect, in the form of cut marks on bones that could only have been made by stone tools.  Apart from the age of the findings, which are the oldest known showing tool use, the other point of interest is that whatever tools made the marks were not held by human beings.  They were made and used by Australopithecus afarensis, a pre-human ancestor species.


     Australopithecus is a genus of primates that comprises several species.  While there is not yet consensus on which species of Australopithecus ultimately evolved into modern humans, afarensis appears to be the last common ancestor of all the hominids.  Until the discovery last month, we could not say for sure that they made tools.  We already knew they walked on two feet (see the famous Laetoli footprints), but tool use was unproven.  However, we know that chimpanzees today make tools from plant stems, and the autralopithecines already had slightly larger brains than chimps.  Brain size is a crude measure, but it is interesting that while the chimpanzee brain is about 300 cubic centimeters the afarensis brain was about 400 cubic centimeters.  For comparison, modern humans have brains of about 1350 cubic centimeters, but we are significantly larger than afarensis.  In any case, Australopithecus afarensis may have been the first species on Earth to make stone tools.

     It is irresistible to wonder whether they realized they were the most advanced creatures on Earth at that time.  Lawyers object to speculation in court, but this is not court.  How much did they think?  How much did they reason?  Would they have had their own poets?  Their own Shakespeare?  Their own Hamlet?  “What a piece of work is [afarensis]! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! … And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”  Perhaps not exactly like that.  Still, we should encounter our ancestors with a mixture of wonder at their technology, which was supreme at the time, and humility for our own advances.  After all, are we not merely human?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Man Up, Already

     Last month in Northern Afghanistan, the Taliban stoned an adulterous couple to death. It was the first stoning in Afghanistan since the U.S. occupation. Certainly the brutality of the act was part of the reason many people in the United States and Europe have such a problem with Islam. Another part is the difference between Western and Islamic views of the sexes. Majority opinion in Islam and the West diverges on this issue, but both cultures tend to be defined by their extremes—and the extremes are true opposites. There could not be more difference between the sexual orthodoxy of the Taliban or al-Shebab, who occupy one extreme, and Western radical feminists, who occupy the other. Radical feminists assert that all sexual intercourse is rape, while al-Shebab stone rape victims for committing adultery. The challenge to the West is to reject both extremes and allow natural masculinity and femininity to flourish.

     As with many other segments of the progressive agenda, feminism has outlived the conditions that originally made it necessary in America. Originally, the great-grandmothers of the feminists campaigned for the right to vote. Now, the big causes are equal funding for women’s sports and the unfair advantages enjoyed by attractive women (“lookism”). Even the most zealous feminists would surely agree that voting rights were more important than sports and beauty. The tendency among movements is toward self-perpetuation. When a movement has succeeded as utterly as feminism, it can only justify its continuing existence by manufacturing new crises to overcome. Since genuine crises are not in unlimited supply, this technique inevitably cheapens the moral force of the original cause. It is wholly right to say that women are not the property of men or that women must be allowed to vote. Any other position is morally bankrupt. However, sometimes feminists launch indignation appropriate for such moral bankrupts against people who do not agree that women’s sports and men’s sports must be funded the same at public colleges. Never mind that the markets for the two are vastly different in size, the point is to retain the moral high ground by remaining in high dudgeon. Ironically, the effect is to sacrifice the moral high ground by sacrificing credibility. Like a witness in court who protests too much, the feminist who takes such positions is hardly compelling.

     Or would be, but for Title IX. Written without mentioning athletics, the 1972 law prohibited the preclusion, based on sex, of any person from participating in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance….” In the years since, multiple presidential executive orders and court opinions have wrangled over the meaning of the law. A new round of such wrangling began last April, and the matter remains undecided. The fact that our country remains in debate over the worthiness of this notion—essentially, that the law should enforce absolute equality between the sexes—is strong evidence of how far we have come from female servitude like that of the Taliban. While there is comfort in knowing how far removed we are from that group, nonetheless we ought to be able to see that there is danger in pursuing absolute sexual equality throughout society.

     The danger of radical feminism arises because it is unnatural. Nothing could be plainer than the anatomical differences between men and women. The physical differences range from average upper body strength to the presence of the womb in only one of the two sexes. Radical feminists tend to discount such differences, sometimes arguing that the advent of a fully mechanized economy made the superior strength of males irrelevant. There is some truth in that claim. Consider that although arguments for sexual equality go back to the Greek Stoics, female emancipation did not occur in history until after the industrial revolution. On the other hand, there is no evidence to suggest that men and women have fundamentally changed since pre-history. If they have not done so physically, why should we expect they have done so psychologically?

     For the psychological differences between men and women are real and important. Moreover, these differences are hard to suppress, despite the effort to establish radical feminist claims of absolute equality as the compelling norm in the West. In 1992, just at the point when the feminist project seemed to have rooted out all contrary opinion, the relationship coach John Gray published a best-selling book on the differences between the sexes. Astoundingly popular among women, the book and its successors proceeded from the premise that acknowledging the psychological differences between men and women leads to better communication within a relationship. Perhaps because Gray’s mission was essentially to improve romance, the idea that some psychological differences do exist between the sexes has returned to the public consciousness without too much opposition. On the other hand, the radical feminist agenda is still active, as we see from the decision last spring by the Department of Defense to allow women to serve on submarines.

     The problems of women in the military will be for a later post, but the point today is that despite the well-accepted differences between the sexes, the radical feminist agenda is still trying to crush all official acknowledgement of such differences. Given the evidence, it is apparent that radical feminism is promoting a lie. The costs of that lie have been serious, and among the most serious casualties have been traditional masculinity and femininity.

     Feminist orthodoxy calls the traditional roles oppressive. The idea is that forcing women to stay home and raise children, rather than allowing them to go out in the world and compete in the job market, is unjust. The problem for the feminists is that far too many women remain more interested in hearth and home than in a career. They are happy to work, but many of them find less satisfaction in work than men. To their credit, women often need more than just a job in their lives. For instance, single women are far more likely than single men to be custodial parents, either after divorce or having never married. Indeed, single women are significantly more likely than single men to adopt children. Nothing about these trends should surprise anyone who understands natural male and female psychology, but it is explicable to feminists only as an artifact of patriarchal oppression. Of course, insisting on this orthodoxy leads some radical feminists to deny women the choice they most want.

     Ironic though it is, this denial of choice is not the worst artifact of feminist orthodoxy. Feminist rhetoric has not been able to suppress the natural interest of many women in family over career. However, feminist rhetoric has succeeded in destroying the traditional sexual roles, such that men are no longer expected to support their families. In many other ways, feminism has destroyed the obligations of each sex toward the other, to the detriment of both.

     Since women are to be the equals of men in the workplace, what intellectual justification exists for them to receive financial support from men? Isn’t such support demeaning? Isn’t it actually oppressive? The purist has to say that it is, and men have been selfishly good at reading the logic of that proposition. Why should they marry and support the women with whom they have sexual relations? Any children that may result are her problem, and the new sexual equality means that he need not even be ashamed. This loss of masculine shame has been the worst effect of radical feminism on American society.

     When men are free to have all the sexual intercourse they want without making any commitment to their partners, too many of them naturally choose that irresponsible course. In taking away the traditional obligations of manhood, feminism has removed much of the social pressure on males to become men. In effect, we are left with large, self-indulgent adolescents who have no particular reason to mature. Why should they, since women now give them everything they want before marriage? Feminist orthodoxy protects them from having to support a wife, but in doing so it also removes one of the main ways by which young males have traditionally become responsible men.

     When there is no accepted moral content in the term “man,” males are free to define the term however they want. Indeed, this point is part of another Leftist agenda item, radical individualism. Who are you to tell me how to live my life? But the whole point of social norms is to protect the community from selfish indulgence. The male who rejects the traditional obligations of manhood is able to avoid the burden of supporting an unlimited string of illegitimate children. He effectively preys on the women who raise his bastards and on the society that provides such women the welfare they require. Moreover, society will pay again when the boys he has abandoned grow up and imprint on the nearest example of a dominant male figure available. If boys do not have responsible fathers, they will find a role model wherever they can, even if that role model is the criminal gang leader down the street.

     All this used to be common sense. Radical feminism has destroyed this consensus, with the connivance of both sexes. Each seems to have gotten something from the feminist revolution, but each has also lost a great deal. It is not discrimination or oppression to expect both sexes to live up to certain norms, certain traditional sets of obligations toward one another. We can start by allowing the natural sexual differences to reassert themselves despite feminist doctrine, for instance by not demanding exactly equal funding for men’s and women’s sports at college. However, society also requires positive norms for sexual roles. These roles must be sufficiently well accepted that males will experience some quantum of shame when they fail to act like men. In effect, we need an entire generation to man up.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Facing the Obvious

     If he does not burn a Koran today, Pastor Terry Jones will have proven himself more reasonable, in the end, than the Muslim extremists he reviles.  Of course, it took pressure from the entire civilized world to dissuade him, including (reportedly) a personal phone call from the Secretary of Defense.  No doubt he also very much believed the assurances he claims to have received, (via an intermediary) from Imam Rauf in New York, that the Park51 Islamic center (“Ground Zero Mosque”) would be moved.  Now that it appears those assurances were either lies or wishful thinking, Pastor Jones has still said the Koran burning is “suspended,” despite the threats, violence, and flag-burning by Muslim radicals across the Islamic world.  What could be a clearer illustration of the differences between the two faiths?  In confronting this challenge, Americans must acknowledge that difference or our plans will be grounded in fantasy.  We must answer violence with overwhelming force, and simultaneously use soft power to detach moderate Muslims from their brutal brethren.


     The nature of the Islamic reaction to the pointless provocation by Pastor Jones has been instructive.  If nothing else, he has smoked out the essence of radical Islam for anyone who may have missed it so far.  Every religion has its hot-heads, but where Christians have united in loud opposition to Pastor Jones, any Muslim opposition to Islamic provocateurs—such as Imam Rauf—has been disturbingly quiet.  Moreover, the violence of the Islamic response to Pastor Jones, who after all did not plan to hurt anyone physically, is grotesquely disproportionate to the provocation.  It is also widespread, from Afghanistan to Indonesia.  In the study of logic, there is a fallacy called hasty generalization.  In the study of national security, there ought to be a balancing rule against refusing to face the obvious.

     Historically, all religions have been more or less dangerous, more or less tolerant, depending on the era.  In the fourteen hundred year conflict between Islam and Christianity, each side has accumulated its own record of atrocity.  At this point in the conflict, however, Islam is the more blameworthy.  The central tenets of the faith are barbaric, including as they do the subjugation of women and the suppression of free inquiry.  Of course, the Bible contains its own examples of barbarity, including death by stoning for taking the Lord’s name in vain and for working on Sunday.  There are no modern Christians (or Jews, for that matter) who follow such rules literally.  The civilized conduct of the faithful repudiates the barbarity of the law.  By contrast, while the majority of Muslims also repudiates the most barbaric laws in the Koran, an enormous minority actually carries them out.  In some Islamic countries, stonings for such religious “crimes” as adultery, marriage without parental permission, and homosexuality remain common.  Of course, the real crime is the barbaric infliction of pain and death for religious reasons, and the real name for the people who do so is “barbarian.”

     When dealing with barbarians, civilized nations have historically had some advantages.  Technology has usually been on the side of civilization, and it is so today (for now).  On the other hand, civilized people have also suffered from some disadvantages, among which has been, frankly, an enervating hedonism.  When the chief concern of a people is obtaining more leisure at government expense, like those Europeans who are demonstrating against a rise in the retirement age, we should immediately question whether that people possesses the wherewithal to confront the energy of barbarism.  Hedonism breeds a lethargic, willful blindness to unpleasant facts.  How much easier to hope that pacifism and tolerance will show the barbarians we mean them no harm.  In fact, barbarians have historically found such responses to be proof of weakness, and weakness has always invited pillage.  We must acknowledge the barbarity in much of the Muslim world and give the barbarians no reason to doubt our resolve.

     At the same time, the vast majority of Muslims in their daily lives are no more violent or barbaric than anyone else.  They are behaviorally moderate, whatever is in their hearts, and we must do what we can to encourage them.  The math is simple:  We have to live with Muslims in the world.  This conclusion, in turn, makes it obvious that we must be active in distinguishing between radical and moderate Muslims.  We cannot yield to the radicals, but we cannot ignore the moderates.  Only a moderate imam is likely to talk a radical out of suicide bombing or the like.  Moderates must carry our messages of reconciliation to the radicals.

     The worst approach, however, would be to combine military irresolution (see this post) with pointless provocation.  Unfortunately, that is very close to what we are doing at present.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Burn a Koran Day

     Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, plans to hold a provocative event on Saturday, September 11, 2010.  Pastor Jones plans to burn one or more copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, in remembrance of the attacks by Muslim terrorists on America nine years ago.  His decision to do so has been rightly deplored by nearly everyone, including General David Petraeus, Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  General Petraeus has pointed out that going through with the plan will likely make things more difficult for American troops, who could face a population enraged by images of the burning.  Even the State Department has weighed in:  “While it may well be within someone’s rights to take this action, we hope cooler heads will prevail,” said P.J. Crowley, State Department spokesman.  This is exactly the position most Conservatives have taken on another planned provocation, the building of a victory mosque within two blocks of Ground Zero.  How ironic that the Left is condemning Pastor Jones while defending the imam who is organizing the building of the mosque.


     Another irony is the difference in reaction by the groups with the most right to take offense to the two events.  Muslim organizations around the world have condemned the proposed Koran burning, which is fine.  On the other hand, many groups have gone further and threatened violence if Pastor Jones exercises his free-speech rights and goes through with the burning.  Indeed, the Huffington Post reports that he has received over 100 death threats.

     What a contrast with the reaction of the 9/11 families to Imam Rauf’s proposed victory mosque.  The level of provocation is arguably worse with the victory mosque, which would be the most recent example of an old Islamic tradition:  the building of Islamic temples on sites of victory or conquest (see this post for more on the victory mosque).  In any case, the worst that the 9/11 families did was to contribute to respectful messages in the media urging that the mosque not be built.  Their response is exactly what was required of a civilized people making a rational case for respecting their sensibilities.  It is also the response of the majority of Americans.  Indeed, the words of the State Department against the Koran burning could—and should—have been applied equally to the Ground Zero Mosque.  But for some on the Left, there is no moral equivalence between their favored groups and, well, any others.

Leaving Iraq

A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

—John Stuart Mill

     A week ago Sunday, five days after the official “end of combat operations” in Iraq, insurgent gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the Iraqi Army’s headquarters in Eastern Baghdad. Eighteen Iraqis died, and thirty-nine were injured in the midday fighting, in which, the Los Angeles Times reported, elements of the 50,000 U.S. “non-combat” troops remaining in Iraq, took part. No Americans died in the urban battle, but the idea that the U.S. has finished with Iraq perished, along with rational hope for a resolution that will not squander the success bought with lives already given. The astonishment of some on the Left at this development, which was an easy prediction for most of us, is itself astonishing. There is apparently no limit to the power of wishful thinking.


     Who could really have thought the departure of the bulk of American troops, which have been the only guarantors of security in Iraq, would not unleash new conflict? Such a view bespeaks an ignorance of history that is shameful in any who would make policy. Either that, or a criminal indifference to the people of Iraq, whose fate now seems confirmed. Setting aside the propriety of the original invasion, which CONSVLTVS thought was unjustified at the time, we must now take the facts as they are. In the most volatile region of the world, America has toppled a tyrant, freed a people, and planted a slim sapling of democracy. If all the countries of the world were democracies, warfare would become blessedly rare. But democracy is difficult to nurture in the dry sand of nations that have never known any government apart from tyranny.

     Such nations lack experience with the rule of law. Under tyranny, people submit to the power of the dictator out of fear. At every level the government is rich with corruption. Nothing gets done except by graft, influence, or intimidation. Once the dictator is overthrown, the lid is off, and all the subordinate thugs battle to succeed the dead strongman. The ensuing period of violence can only end when a new dictator finally overcomes his rivals and renews the tyranny. In Iraq, however, the American army interrupted this natural process. The presence of overwhelming force, after the 2007 surge, suppressed the internal power struggle. Now, with the American drawdown and the promise of total withdrawal next year, the violence will inevitably return until the power vacuum is filled. Who could have seriously thought that democracy could take root in such a place?

     Had our troops remained, year after year, there was a chance that a generation of stability would have fostered a viable democracy. We only needed to remain, as we did in Germany and Japan, to give the Iraqi people the chance to learn the rule of law and the habits of representative government. Now, they will never get that chance. Even with 50,000 Americans left in country, the violence has re-ignited a mere five days after the departure of the main body of our army. The attack last Sunday confirmed that Iraq is not sufficiently different from other countries to escape the precedents of history. Likewise, our Republic follows its own precedents, to the ruin of Iraq. For we depart with the job undone because public opinion requires it.

     Modern democratic states yearn for quick success in war. In Vietnam, the U.S. began a record of irresolution. Whatever the wisdom of our entering that conflict, our exit left our allies, the people of South Vietnam, victims of the Communists. After the fall of Saigon, the North Vietnamese murdered them by thousands. Thousands more died as refugees on the sea. With our departure, the Communists in Vietnam were free to march into Laos and Cambodia, where eventually Pol Pot accomplished the death of millions. Had we not gone to Vietnam in the first place, some of these atrocities might have happened anyway—but we would not have been involved. Instead, our involvement blurs the moral picture, leaving our complicity at issue. When the deluge comes in Iraq, however, we will bear more dishonor as the ones who started the fight.

     As always, history puts us in perspective. We are certainly not the first democratic state to falter in the face of military challenge. We are not the first to wish away trouble. The appeasement of Germany in the 1930s by England and France is part of the same syndrome of democratic irresolution and wishful thinking. In fact, apart from Vietnam, we have had a better record than many democratic nations in this regard. But if we abandon both Iraq and Afghanistan, we will confirm the record of shameful irresolution begun in Vietnam.

     The hallmark of naïveté in foreign policy is the belief that peace will come from pacifism. Only strength and resolve can possibly confront the manifest challenges of the world with success. When a nation possesses strength without resolve, it will make a poor ally—as the Iraqis have begun to see. And knowing this about ourselves, we would have done better to stay home.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Life on Mars?

Viking lander in 1976. Credit: NASA
In the summer of 1976, the American Bicentennial celebration gave a red, white, and blue tincture to many other events.  When NASA’s two Viking landers touched down on Mars, the event seemed proof of American exceptionalism and the triumph of science.  The landers, for those who do not remember, carried robot laboratories that conducted experiments to find evidence of life on Mars.  Word soon came, however, that the robots found no such evidence.  Today, NASA has announced that the original results may have been a false negative.  There may indeed be life on Mars, or at least there may be the organic molecules from which life is assembled.  Once more we contemplate a universe in which the uniquely reassuring message of religion may have to account for evidence inconsistent with sacred tradition.

Assume for the moment that this latest palm slap to NASA’s brow means we eventually will find life on Mars.  If science confirms life anywhere but Earth, religion will face the problem of assimilating the new evidence into an already rich, complete theology.  It is not the first time science has brought such a challenge to the faithful.  Galileo, whom the Catholic Church placed under house arrest in 1633 for his support of the Copernican system,  eventually found his way back to respectability in 1992 when Pope John Paul II declared the affair a tragic mistake.  Copernicus had theorized—and Galileo had proven with his telescope—that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of the solar system.  While this demotion of humanity’s home from the center of everything to just one planet among many is thoroughly accepted among the faithful today, it is unclear what effect the discovery of extraterrestrial life would have on belief.

For the advances of scientific understanding often require concessions from religion.  To the extent religious people have accepted such concessions, they have also accepted changes in their creed.  Sometimes religious organizations have modified their dogma, sometimes just the accompanying theory.  In the Galileo affair, for instance, the theory that the Sun and the planets moved around the Earth was not part of Church dogma per se, but it was part of the Aristotelian model of the Cosmos accepted by the Church at that time.  This point may explain why Galileo was never excommunicated, despite popular belief to the contrary.  Of course, Galileo formally recanted his opinions, and his recantation may fully explain Church leniency in his case.  In any event, the Church eventually abandoned Aristotle’s cosmology, and in doing so assimilated new evidence into its traditions.

Inevitably, every such step involves a greater or lesser shift in how we understand religious texts.  The Bible, for example, is fairly clear on the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth.  Joshua X, 12-13, takes it as given that the Sun and Moon are in motion around the stationary Earth:  “12:  Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.  13: And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.”  These days, such passages are taken as metaphorical.  CONSVLTVS is no scholar of the Bible, but he suspects that long ago they were not.  Why?  In part because there is still a residue of unaltered geocentrism even in the Internet age.

To return to the latest news from NASA, today’s story falls far short of announcing life on Mars.  It is only that a few experiments years ago, which seemed to rule out organics in Martian soil, may very well have destroyed the substances for which they were looking.  So, Mars may contain organic compounds after all.  If we eventually do discover life there, then we will have to confront seriously the idea that life is common in the universe.  Given the immensity of the universe, we may someday have to accept that Earth’s living species are an insignificant fraction of perhaps googols of created beings.  In such a universe, how can we interpret stories like Noah and the Ark?

In the face of such supra-Biblical enormities, religion remains vigorous.  Some adherents simply deny the findings of science, such as those linked above who insist the Sun goes around the Earth.  While this approach has the advantages of clarity and energy, those who take it are fewer than those who expand the number of verses in the Bible they are prepared to take as metaphor.  Besides, doctrinal consistency is not the hallmark of many people who attend church.  We all know divorced Catholics, to pick one example out of legions offered by all denominations, who take their theology as if it were served on a buffet.  So, in the end, extraterrestrial life might be accommodated without much fuss.

Still, it would ever so slightly weaken the force behind religious prohibitions.  The more provisionally we take religious texts, the less emphatically we are likely to follow their commandments.  We see this effect clearly today, when growing pluralities of the American population are behaving in ways absolutely (and effectively) forbidden in the very same Republic two generations ago.  Apologists for moral decline insist that the apparent rise in conduct that was once considered sinful is an artifact of the new openness.  That is, people misbehaved just as much in the past, it’s only that back then they hid it better.  Such claims are interesting when applied to previously closeted behavior, such as adultery, but utterly fatuous when applied to conduct we can quantify.  For example, however much hidden adultery there may have been in 1955, it could hardly approach the free-love behavior of 1975 and after.  Still, the nature of old fashioned adultery does make it hard to measure.  For illegitimacy, on the other hand, birth and marriage records tell an empirical account.  We can compare the number of babies born to unmarried mothers in 1955 and today, and the results are astonishing.  As reported in the New York Times, even as late as the 1980s the overall illegitimacy rate was around 11%; by 2007, it had climbed to 40%.  During the same period, there was certainly not a fourfold decline in religious belief, so we can at least conclude that religious prohibitions are functioning with less force than heretofore.

These facts present a true conundrum.  On the one hand, science has beneficially stripped away many old beliefs and traditions.  On the other hand, we do not know how to live without them.  The more religion assimilates new evidence, the less force it retains with which to bolster our better impulses and contain our worser selves.  Internet geocentrists excepted, almost anyone reading these words on an electronic device would surely reject the rejection of science.  At the same time, where human conduct is not governed by moral force it will be governed by political force.  The most obvious example of this priniciple is to be found in our prisons.  As the nuclear family died in Black America, the crime rate soared.  (All serious evidence supports the immediate intuition that these facts are causally related—more on that another time.)  The rest of the population responded with mandatory sentencing rules, some of them crystallized in such laws as the California “three-strikes” legislation.  Today, there is good news about the crime rate, which is in decline, but shameful news about our overcrowded prisons.

Whether we control our own conduct through our own religious and moral precepts, or whether the state intervenes to enforce the lowest common denominator of socially acceptable behavior, we cannot live under anarchy.  Order is essential to civilization.  For most of history, this order has come from external forces like police and kings.  In a few cases a few people have maintained their freedom through liberty under law.  This ordered liberty has only existed where religious principles restrained the natural barbarity of Man.  Such priniciples need not be Christian to be socially effective, but their content must approximate the Ten Commandments.  Moreover, they must be held with fervor by the majority of citizens.  Otherwise, history teaches us that we are unlikely to remain free.

Friday, September 3, 2010

James Lee, Antihumanist

Yesterday, James Lee strapped bombs to himself, entered the headquarters of the Discovery Channel, took hostages, and was finally felled by excellent police marksmanship.  Lee was an environmental terrorist, a self-conceived martyr who told police he was “ready to die” for his cause.  That cause was the elimination, or at least serious diminution, of humanity.  Lee published a manifesto on the Internet, as part of which he said, “[a]ll programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants and…programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility must be pushed.”  Sentiments like these seem to arise from a pathological loathing of the very species to which Lee belonged.  Literally suicidal, such views are a triple-distillation of so-called mainstream environmentalism.  They represent the torture and abuse of a philosophy that was one of the loveliest flowers of the Renaissance, the creation of cultivated, principled Christians like Erasmus of Rotterdam and St. Thomas More:  humanism.


Renaissance humanism was starkly different from its modern, capitalized namesake.  Unlike the 20th century Humanists, in Renaissance Europe the humanists were sincere Christians.  More, who was Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, even died for his faith.  Unwilling to belie his Roman Catholicism, More stoically submitted to execution rather than sign an oath supporting Henry’s divorce of his first wife, Catherine.  In his genuine martyrdom, More stands today in nonviolent relief against the montage of Islamic killer-suicides, and now also as a silent rebuke to James Lee.  More and Erasmus and their colleagues also remind us how far the humanistic stream has traveled from its wellspring.

In 1453, Moslem Turks finally sacked the ancient city of Constantinople.  Originally founded by the first Christian emperor of Rome, the city had withstood over a thousand years of attacks and invasions.  During that time, the territory ruled by the Christian emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire dwindled to little more than the environs of the walled city itself.  However, behind those walls, Christian scholars preserved the ancient wisdom of pagan Greece and Rome.  When the Turks finally conquered the city, or more likely just before, refugee librarians escaped with precious scrolls containing Plato, Homer, and the rest of the classical canon.  These refugees traveled to Italy, where knowledge of pagan literature, history, and philosophy had vanished in the European Dark Ages.  In about 50 years after the fall of Constantinople, all Europe would blossom in a rebirth of scholarship and confidence in the human ability to prevail in this world.

Among the early champions of the new-old wisdom were the humanists.  Learning the old languages and reading the classics in the original Greek or Latin, the humanists believed that human institutions should be tested by reason.  Originally, the idea was an electrifying challenge to the medieval orthodoxy.  After centuries of unlettered faith, Europe entered a period of learned speculation on all matters under Heaven.  Animated by a spirit of reverence for humanity itself, though often balanced by a wise understanding of how far most humans fall short of the ideal, these educated, humane men advanced the moral culture of Western Civilization by maintaining a creative balance between tradition and reason.

Modern secular Humanists could not be more different from the sainted Thomas More.  In the 20th century, the Humanist movement discarded some crucial elements of its Renaissance ancestor.  Chief among those elements was, of course, belief in God.  A skeptic about religion himself, CONSVLTVS would have to be blind not to see the utility of religious faith.  As a case in point, in abandoning religious faith Humanism also abandoned traditional morality.  However, as we should know by now, human beings positively demand a moral order by which to structure their lives.  In the absence of traditional morality, Humanism has simply taken on the orthodoxy of the Left, including feminism, Marxism, and—significantly for James Lee—environmentalism.

He was not the first environmentalist radical.  That movement has often straddled the line between civil disobedience and vandalism.  Still, comparatively few environmentalists have taken direct action like Greenpeace.  Thankfully, and unlike radical Islamists, violent environmentalists are extremely rare.  The Unabomber was one such, and James Lee was another.  Whatever we may think of the movement as a whole, it is likely that we will hear in the near future denunciations of Lee’s crimes from the high priests of the Green faith.  Conservatives should welcome these denunciations and refuse to impute Lee’s violent impulses to the rest of the Greens.  However, Conservatives should also confront the anti-human philosophy of Lee and identify it for what it is:  the ultimate fruit of abandoning tradition in favor of uncorrected reason.

Though a wonderful tonic in 1500 A.D., reason is easily abused.  When not corrected by an understanding of history and tradition, reason can produce abhorrent conclusions such as those of James Lee.  Like his Islamist counterparts, Lee had no reverence for humanity.  The ancient Greeks expressed through their art a reverence for the human form.  The physical perfection of their bronze and marble statuary was an assertion of spiritual beauty as well.  This celebration of the best in humanity, conveyed to Europe through the manuscripts rescued from Constantinople and the heroic art left in ruins all over the Mediterranean, was for centuries a hallmark of Western Civilization.  Now, James Lee has struck against that tradition, having lost his way in the labyrinth of reason uncorrected by the empirical lessons of history.  His legacy, thus, is yet another cautionary tale, another warning against the rejection of tradition.

This is not to say that the medicine for our ailing body politic is a return to unlettered, medieval faith, or to inflexible social norms.  We cannot return to the past, and any attempt to worship it will yield the kind of stasis that eventually gripped Constantinople.  Just as it is a mistake to reject tradition in favor of radical innovation, at the promptings of uncorrected reason, it is likewise a mistake to abandon reason altogether.  We require a balance between reason and faith, between custom and innovation.  This balance has persisted throughout most of the past five centuries in Europe, as well as the majority of our own Republic’s history.  However, for the past five decades, we have accelerated the pace at which we are discarding traditions.  Today, to return to the creative equilibrium that has characterized Western Civilization, we must reawaken the Conservative instinct and renew those traditions that represent the experience of our people.  If James Lee in some way helps to startle a few on the Left into questioning their fundamental assumptions, we may find some meaning in his death.