“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, November 27, 2004

“Attempts to reconcile science and religion are usually doomed to failure … because nearly all religions make claims about the real world - the domain of science - that don't stand up to scientific scrutiny. Faced with these difficulties, advocates resort to circumlocution, sophistry or absurd speculations that offend both scientists and believers.” -- Coyne

Saturday – time for a backlog selection.

On May 16, 2002, LI wrote about a conference at Yale concerning the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The NYT reported on the conference with the faux infantile credulity that newspapers always give to the religious (as long, that is, as they aren’t Moslem). LI, at the time, obviously found the mental pap being purveyed in this conference a little hard to stomach.

We talked, this week, with a friend of ours who teaches at a well known university in Dixie. She complained about the young-earthers in her class, a term that was new to us. She explained: young-earthers actually believe that the earth has been around for 6,000 years. Give or take a divine day. This startling fact comes from that gorgeous relic of barbarism, the Bible.

My friend was thinking of going to the physics department and asking about how to handle these children, who come equipped with various stories about the unreliability of radioactive decay datings and such.

We didn’t take this too seriously until we read the latest Gallup poll on the subject. Now, LI has a healthy mistrust of polls on topics of deep belief, since we don’t believe that these beliefs can be successfully articulated in a narrow Q and A format. Nevertheless, there is something startling about the fact that only one third of the American public believes in evolution, and half believe that God created humans 10,000 years ago.

Well. We think that there is something lukewarm about rejecting Darwin and not going whole hog. Surely, if we are going with the Bible, the universe was created five days before those human beings, which means that the universe is about 10,000 years old. LI is distressed that the consequences of this are not enough known among those who would be bold for Christ. As it says in Revelations, "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."

Yes, friends, you risk hellfire by overlooking the Satanic component of Newtonian physics.

Consider: it wasn’t until around 1680 that the speed of light was calculated to be a finite number. A Danish astronomer, Ole Roemer, calculated the speed of light by noticing a discrepancy in the orbit of Io around Jupiter – a discrepancy according to the calculations that depend on the Newtonian science of gravitation – and using that discrepancy to calculate the time the light took to go from Io to the earth.

Roemer’s calculations have been refined since, so that we know that light travels at 186,000 miles per second.

Now, according to the astronomers, the stars we see in the heavens are not as we see them in the heavens, for precisely the reason that light isn’t instantaneous. Big setback, actually, to the astrologers. But if the universe was created 10,000 years ago, than the oldest stars we see in the heavens are merely 10,000 light years away.

We can make inferences from this about the closeness of those stars – a closeness which, by Newton’s laws, and by the magnitude of these stars, would result in a veritable fireworks display each night, as stars would be drawn into each others orbits. Furthermore, the kind of radiation that would result from these supernovas would surely have long wiped out life on earth.

Meaning – that Newton and Roemer are the children of the Deceiver. Boldness in Christ surely requires us to believe that light is instantaneous, or we might as well burn the Bible for trash. Heaven and earth might pass away, but if light was instantaneous for Moses, that's good enough for me.

It is time to put stickers on our high school science text books reminding our students that Newton’s laws are just theories.

Another note about this post – the philosopher we mention, Richard Swinburne, should really be cleaning up in Crusader America. To get a taste for just how bad a philosopher he is, go to this article. It is a tissue, from beginning to end, of dumb assumptions Christmas giftwrapped in the language of analytic philosophy (the better to impress the gulls). Notice in particular how he accedes to science in certain crucial ways – for instance, on the pesky speed of light issue – but then shoehorns in data from a collection of texts, the Bible, in which the whole picture of the universe was different – essentially different. We would have much less reason to believe Darwin if, in the Origin of the Species, he devoted a chapter to the inhabitants of Atlantis, who all lived to be nine hundred years old. Of course, the Bible is full of nonsense of that variety.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

A couple of days ago LI indulged in that infantile positivism that makes our fair readership grimace and pretend not to know us. We made fun, that is, of the Yale Philosophy department's "probability theory and Jesus is my fave philosopher" conference. Or whatever it was called. We might have even implied that, between the News of the World's interviews with the Alien that advised Clinton, and Yale's faculty's attempts to prove the verity of the gospels, integrity, honesty, and science are all on the News of the World's side. As a followup, we recommend Jerry Coyne's mugging of a soft focus book by Michael Ruse that attempts to meld Darwinism and Christianity into the cutest little choir of Christmas decorations you ever saw.

The first paragraph actually solves our problem with the probability argument for the resurrection. If you will recall -- or even if you won't -- the post was about a NYT story involving a man who seemingly combined all the charming physical characteristics of Santa Claus and Charles Manson -- a Mr. Swinburne -- dispensing this shaky, if not downright dishonest, argument:

"Mr. Swinburne, a commanding figure with snow-white hair and piercing blue eyes, proceeded to weigh evidence for and against the Resurrection, assigning values to factors like the probability that there is a God, the nature of Jesus' behavior during his lifetime and the quality of witness testimony after his death. Then, while his audience followed along on printed lecture notes, he plugged his numbers into a dense thicket of letters and symbols � using a probability formula known as Bayes's theorem � and did the math. "Given e and k, h is true if and only if c is true," he said. "The probability of h given e and k is .97"

Mr. Coyne's article gives us an even better argument for Jesus' resurrection -- that is, if we are truth table freaks. Coyne reports on a recent radio interview given by some pius geneticist. The talk got around to the virgin birth. Well, the geneticist rather unhappily conceded, that is an, uh, anomoly. So where, a questioner wanted to know, did Jesus' Y chromosome come from? The geneticist dug through his bag of tricks, and came up with the answer that maybe Mary's two X chromosomes carried a piece of a Y chromosome. He didn't, according to Coyne, go any further with this fascinating discussion. But Coyne reminds us that for this to have happened, Mary would have to be a sterile man.

Well, the Light (capitalize that Light, editor) flashed before my eyes. Because but bien sur! If Mary were a sterile man, there is no Jesus. If no Jesus, no crucifixion. If we simply put this in truth table terms, we have two falses. Well, two fs make a t, as we all know. So Jesus not only resurrected, he trailed fishes and breadsticks out of that gloomy tomb! Mr. Swinburne should definitely write an article about this, making the argument that if c is true, that is Mary is a bachelor living in New York, and d is true, the Y chromosome determined Jesus' sex, there is a .97 percent chance that Giuliani is Jesus's father. No wonder the late mayor hated it when artists kept making fun of his bundle of joy!

Limited Inc is contemplating making a pitch to Yale. Surely, bearing such truths, a tenured position is waiting for us. We could definitely use the money.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

LI has just listened to the lovely propaganda minute on NPR in which various voices tell us how thankful they are to live in the land of freedom and tinkerbell, the good old U.S.A. Oddly, there was no expression of thanks that one didn’t live in a city that freedom and tinkerbell had resolved to have disgorge its women and children and retain its young men in order to slaughter the latter, bomb its buildings into rubble, and leave behind a desert of disease, stray sniper fire, and chaos.

LI has been pondering the strategy in Iraq the last couple of days. Blowing up Fallujah, breaking into Baghdad’s most famous mosque and shooting randomly, clamping down in Mosul – what this amounts to, we think, is the American response to the dilemma it faces in the elections.

The dilemma is this: given the state of opinion imperfectly revealed by even those polls conducted by biased American agencies, Allawi is not the most popular Iraqi politician. In fact, Sadr could easily give him a run for his money. Other Iraqi figures who have no fame in the U.S., but who register positively with the Iraqi public, are more popular than Allawi. Having failed to create a united confederacy of parties to present to the voters at election time (peculiarly, the U.S., in its role as occupier-democratizer, wanted to make sure that the elections were pre-rigged, and offered no choice whatsoever to the voter), the U.S. does face the slight problem that an unacceptable choice might actually take the prize in the election. That is, some party or personage representing a slightly anti-occupation bent might displace Allawi. Although it is unclear whether that is possible – this is an election for a transitional congress, not for the executive branch of the government. Still, that is the kind of embarrassment that the Americans would prefer to avoid.

So the task is: make Allawi popular in the next two months. How to do this? Taking a page from Milosevic’s book, the U.S. has evidently decided to take a wager on stirring up such ethnic/religious hatred as would inflate Allawi’s support. In the early stages of the occupation, there was a struggle in the Bush administration between those, mainly at the State department, who distrusted the Shi’ites, fearing Iraq’s becoming an Iran style theocracy, and those, mainly among the Pentagon Pump House gang, who urged the desuetude of this fear. The reality of the war against the occupiers has shifted the terms of the struggle, adjusting U.S. strategy not only to a pro-Shi’ite stance, but one that uses the revanchist tendency among the Shi’a, who have vivid memories of past oppression, to invigorate the flagging popularity of the American puppet government. They are doing this by associating Allawi with gross and powerful violence against the Sunnis. It was notable that Sadr himself did not protest, with his usual spirit, the razing of Fallujah. The Americans are favored here by the jihadist element in the war, with its face of comic book evil, Zarqawi. Zarqawi, from all that one gathers about him, is a trailer trash version of Osama bin. Al Qaeda has operated in Pakistan as, among other things, an on call death squad to effect anti-Shi’ite pograms. Zarqawi’s associates have the same program. Thus, there is a perfect demonic synergy between the horrors dreamt of by Zarqawi’s people and the horrors perpetrated by the Americans.

Still, it is not even the silence that greeted the displacement of 200,000 Iraqis by the Americans that is the strangest part of the recent episodes in the war. That honor goes to the raid on the Abu Hanifa Mosque in Baghdad. While the Mosque had been raided before, to raid it while Fallujah was being destroyed and to raid it in the manner reported could only amount to a provocation intended to send people out into the street. The better to shoot them down, my dear. These tactics have been so refined during the twentieth century among innumerable petty authoritarian states unti they have a dreary predictability. Resistance is many things -- a romance, a neurosis, a political program, a desperation -- but it is, under certain specific circumstances, a real opportunity for an uncertain governing power. The sudden crackdown on Sunni imams for committing “treason” by urging resistance to the Allawi government that is the real sign of the times in Iraq.

Allawi, with American assistance, is creating the usual authoritarian matrix: singling out some minority enemy, using that enemy to enforce censorship, using the recess from scrutiny produced by that censorship to imprison, torture and kill, and, finally, using the fear that emanates from that to reinforce his image as an impenetrable force. Also sprach Saddam, of whom Allawi is a dutiful pupil. As the election approaches, the conditions in which a free election has meaning are nullified one by one, ultimately to the gain of the current leadership. This, we think, is the ultimate meaning of the sudden American appetite for largescale violence in Iraq. It is a strategy that has worked in the past. We will see if it erodes the support of anti-occupation forces in Iraq in the next two months. We think Sadr, for one, definitely miscalculated by maintaining an unwonted silence in the midst of the latest round of violence. He, of all political figures, has the most to lose if Allawi identifies himself with a revanchist Shi’ite politics.

ps - This analysis of this Thanksgiving post is shored up by two items today: one is a post on Juan Cole’s site. The other is this WP story.

The upshot is this. One justification for the occupation that ran like a light fever through the apologies of the belligeranti was that Iraq needed a supervisory force to keep from slipping into civil war. Now that supervisory force are encouraging civil war. I mean, who would have thought that an insufficient force sent by an imperialist power into an oil rich region divided between different ethnic and religious groups would secure its fragile hegemony by using divide and conquer tactics? Such things are only done by nations, but as we know from the virtuous Mr. Blair, the coalition represents morality itself.
It is the intellectual misery of oppression to operate with a predictably few kinds of forms. It is the intellectual task of its apologists to disguise this fact, year in and year out.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

A.J. Liebling, in the Sweet Science, his collection of boxing pieces from the early fifties, complained that the onset of tv had ruined boxing. In those distant days the camera, hungry for anything, filmed a plenitude of bouts. This had the odd effect of culling the sport, since tv viewers naturally wanted spectacles and stars. The old fashioned code of pugilism, the beerhall flavor of ambitious nobodies slugging it out on the circuit until some nobody made that magic transition into celebrity, was impossibly speeded up.

According to a story in Monday’s Independent, the same thing, improbably enough, is happening to Egyptology. The article is about the controversy surrounding the proposal of two French amateurs to sink a small hole in the floor of the great pyramid, send down a small camera, and look at a chamber under the floor that radar has revealed. The French guys claim that Cheops himself, in mummy attire, is stashed down there somewhere. The head of Egypt’s department of archaelogical matters, Zahi Hawass, has compared this to a proposal to drill a hole in the floor of the Chartres cathedral. Hawass claims that he wants to return Egyptology to the Egyptians. The French say that he is really in the back pocket of National Geographic. Indeed, he seems to have made some deal with NG for an exploration of the Cheops pyramid.

“Today, Egyptology is a worldwide science and there are almost 300 digs under way by archaeologists from 12 countries. These range from the hot- spots of Thebes and Giza - where scientists from half a dozen countries are at work - to Deir-el-Medina, where French archaeologists believe they have found an artisans' commune that, under Rameses III, staged the first-ever strike for better working conditions. "There is so much here that there is room for everyone," said Jean-Pierre Corteggiani of the French Institute for Oriental Studies, one of the academics supporting M. Dormion and M. Verd'hurt.

The French amateur team say Dr Hawass's hostility towards them is principally motivated by his links to National Geographic, which has funded several of his digs and to which they believe he may have offered filming rights to high-profile digs. "I don't care if he is funded by National Geographic or even by the Pope," said M. Verd'hurt. "He should not stop other people doing their work."
We like the finding of the first strikers – not something they are going to be publicizing on Fox, for sure. But the article’s author, Alex Duval Smith, has his hands on the television theme.

“Television has changed the face of Egyptology through its funding of digs and ability to raise the profile of individual scientists. Jean- Pierre Adam, an architect who specialises in Egypt at the French National Science Research Centre, says television has been bad for archaeology. "These days many researchers, even good ones, need to find a `scoop' and raise money for their work by signing contracts with television companies. The real graft of research - the anonymous hard work - has been bastardised."
Smith uses the example of Nefertiti – elevated to stardom in the States:

“One of the dreams of Egyptologists is to find Nefertiti's mummified remains. Last year Discovery Channel announced that Joanne Fletcher, a mummification expert from the University of York, had located Nefertiti among three female mummies found in 1898 by Victor Loret in Amenhotep II's tomb. Dr Hawass has rejected Fletcher's research as "pure fiction" and the work of "a new PhD recipient". Rivals suggest she rushed into the claim because Discovery Channel wanted a selling-point for its film.”

LI could, but will refuse, to draw parallels between this dispute and the conference over Iraq that Egypt just sponsored. Suffice it to say, the Bushies wanted a selling point for their own film.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

November is flood season in Austin. This year the rain has bucketed down with the startling abandonment the skies took to in Noah’s day. Punishment for electing Darth Vader president – or at least v.p. – of a highly armed and dangerous hyperpower? You decide. LI went for a walk, the day before yesterday, around the Lake, and discovered the water was well above the pedestrian path in many instances. The radio and newspapers go on with a professional air about low water crossings, a term you never hear except in flood season, and one which the newcomer to town, trucking around in his Ford Explorer, is probably going to have no familiarity with.

If this were a Live Journal, I’d have one of the gloom icons turned on next to mood.

However, we at LI have found that gloom has a limit. Really. A monetary limit. According to Slate’s review of Richard Posner’s new book, the upper limit for gloom is priced at 600 trillion dollars.

Posner’s book is about massive catastrophes, like the earth being nudged by an asteroid. Here’s the graf that caught our eye:

“Consider the possibility that atomic particles, colliding in a powerful accelerator such as Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, could reassemble themselves into a compressed object called a stranglet that would destroy the world. Posner sets out to "monetize" the costs and benefits of this "extremely unlikely" disaster. He estimates "the cost of extinction of the human race" at $600 trillion and the annual probability of such a disaster at 1 in 10 million.”

600 trillion sounds rather jolly. Obviously Posner isn’t including lawyer costs, partly because, if the human race disappears, one assumes that lawyers will have nobody to sue. Of course, on one interpretation of the human race, it even includes lawyers. Which would mean nobody could sue anybody. Still, the sum is what? only one three hundredth of what has disappeared in terms of the U.S. budget over the last three years. It gives the accident a can-do air, doesn’t it?

Posner, apparently, began thinking along these lines after reading Margaret Atwood’s Orynx and Crax. We highly recommend that novel – in fact, in some review, we already have. Was that for the Chicago Sun Times? We forget.

LI always finds it puzzling that even smart weblogs, like Crooked Timber, seem to have a fan’s claustrophobic penchant for science fiction. Sci fi is fine, but it is sci fi, and the more it is recommended, the more we feel as though we were being transported back into the bedroom of some very smart fifteen year old boy. This kind of time travel we can do without. If that sounds snobby – well, you don’t get aesthetic criteria without snobbiness. We do not look down upon the idea that a story should revolve around a neat puzzle, but we prefer puzzles like: how is Raskolnikov going to free his mother from the burden of supporting him in St. Petersburg? Or how is Cousine Bette going to revenge herself on the Baron Hulot’s family? Or even, why does the map of Slothrop’s erections, plotted against London, exactly fit the map of the hits of the V2 rocket?

The latter is arguably science fiction-ish. However, it is also written. What we do not like about sci-fi is how it isn’t written – it is, rather, day dreamed, with writing being, at best, the accompanying mood music.

This is not, of course, universally true. Atwood’s book is an exception. And its distant precursor, H.G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods, is an exception, too. In fact, we think Wells’ sci fi work has been undeservedly neglected by critics who are scared off by the male adolescent rep of sci fi. Wells is one of the great English comic writers. He likes nothing better than to set some futuristic disaster in one of those shires of England where the merrie olde culture still belatedly lingers, poking its nose into everybody's business, and observe the consequences. His masterpiece on this theme is Invisible Man. In Food of the Gods, he imagines the kind of organic engineering that would lead to larger, much larger, Grade X larger, animals. The premise is that a mild mannered, bachelor scientist, Bensington, discovers a food supplement (“the food of the gods”) which he believes to have some extraordinary effect on the chemistry of organic growth.

This is how Bensington is stymied, at the beginning of chapter two:

“Mr. Bensington proposed originally to try this stuff, so soon as he was really able to prepare it, upon tadpoles. One always does try this sort of thing upon tadpoles to begin with; this being what tadpoles are for. And it was agreed that he should conduct the experiments and not Redwood, because Redwood’s laboratory was occupied with the ballistic apparatus and animals necessary for an investigation into the Diurnal Variation in the Butting Frequency of the Young Bull Calf, an investigation that was yielding curves of an abnormal and very perplexing sort, and the presence of glass globes of tadpoles was extremely undesirable while this particular research was in progress.

But when Mr. Bensington conveyed to his cousin Jane something of what he had in mind, she put a prompt veto upon the importation of any considerable number of tadpoles, or any such experimental creatures, into their flat. She had no objection whatever to his use of one of the rooms of the flat for the purposes of a non-explosive chemistry that, so far as she was concerned, came to nothing; she let him have a gas furnace and a sink and a dust-tight cupboard of refuge from the weekly storm of cleaning she would not forego. And having known people addicted to drink, she regarded his solicitude for distinction in learned societies as an excellent substitute for the coarser form of depravity. But any sort of living things in quantity, “wriggly” as they were bound to be alive and “smelly” dead, she could not and would not abide. She said these things were certain to be unhealthy, and Bensington was notoriously a delicate man—it was nonsense to say he wasn’t. And when Bensington tried to make the enormous importance of this possible discovery clear, she said that it was all very well, but if she consented to his making everything nasty and unwholesome in the place (and that was what it all came to) then she was certain he would be the first to complain.”

“One always does try this sort of thing upon tadpoles to begin with; this being what tadpoles are for.” This is what I mean by written. It is a simple sentence, a generalization that ends in a funny twist for a statement about biologists (it being, by this time, established that biology begins as a science just by excluding the idea of what something is “for”). However, the effect of “one” and “this sort of thing” is to give an airy familiarity to the generalization – as though the reader, too, was much engaged with tadpoles. Which sets us up for the come down in the second paragraph – for her Bensington meets the world, in the person of his Cousin Jane, and the world has distinct reservations about tadpoles, and would rather they stay where they were put by nature.

Bensington eventually hires an imbecile couple to feed his supplement to chicks. The results are disastrous, not only because giganticism within a avid and dimwitted creature like a chicken can lead to the endangerment of such edible critters as human babies if said chicken escapes the henhouse, but also because the couple have no neatness, and slop around the supplement – leading to its being eaten by rats, and sipped by wasps, etc., etc.

Wells, too, unlike most sci fi writers, has a sense of scientists outside of their dramatic role as the mouthpieces that must monologue on about conceptual puzzles. Wells shows them always bitching. And he shows them, mostly, concentrating upon the same trivialities that form the object of labor of most humankind. He has no mystifying respect for scientists whatsoever, which is nice. This is Bensington interviewing a couple to raise his experimental chicks:

“The eligible couple who were destined under Mr. Bensington to be the first almoners on earth of the Food of the Gods, were not only very perceptibly aged, but also extremely dirty. This latter point Mr. Bensington did not observe, because nothing destroys the powers of general observation quite so much as a life of experimental science.”

Of course, their dirtiness is the thing that leads to the first Food of the Gods disaster. Again, however, notice the attachment of the particular and the general in the last sentence. It is easy to see that Wells and P.G. Wodehouse come from the same generation.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Voltaire’s history of the reign of Louis XV begins with a study of the system of John Law, seen from the point of view of the civilizing process – or at least the domesticating process. Voltaire is at pains to put Law’s bubble in the context of the “habit of obedience” ingrained in the French under the reign of Louis XIV, comparing the troubles that the latter Louis faced, in his regency, from an upstart aristocracy, with the mildness faced by the regent, the Duc D’Orleans, even in the exercise of truly autocratic power.

We wanted to discuss this partly because of the neo-con meme about the supposed merits of the English enlightenment as opposed to the French enlightenment. There’s been a bit of a splash gathered around Gertrude Himmelfarb’s last book, which designs an intellectual history of the 18th century, absurdly enough, to reflect the anti-Gallic bias of the neo-con cabal. We thought the review of the book by Alan Ryan was oddly deficient. For one thing, Ryan confuses the Edinburgh Enlightenment with the English Enlightenment. This is unusual. For another thing, I didn’t feel his defense of the philosophes was very heartfelt. Yet it is obvious to me – as it was, in fact, to the Victorian liberals, like John Stuart Mill – that the French Revolution overthrew a system that was endemically unreformable, and that the philosophes did achieve the spreading of the enlightenment with profoundly good results. It is pretty easy to see this. Compare Czarist Russia or Prussia, before 1848, to the rest of Europe. Or simply read Conrad’s Secret Agent, a pretty profound reflection on the politics of a non-enlightened power – again, Czarist Russia.

Moreover, the root of what twentieth century liberalism has grasped centrally – the failure of central planning to forestall unexpected results, and its increasing confusion in dealing with them – is there, in nuce, in Voltaire. Consider this passage:

Finally, Law’s famous system, which seemed that it must ruin the regency and the state, actually sustained, in effect, both one and the other by consequences nobody had foreseen. The cupidity that it awoke in all conditions of the population, from the basest upt to magistrates, bishops and princes, turned away the attention of all minds from the public welfare, and from all political and ambitious views, in filling them with the fear of losing and the avidity of gaining. It was a new and prodigious game, where all citizens wagered one against the other. The obsessed players hardly quit their cards in order to trouble the government. And so it happened, by a prestige of which the hidden mechanisms could not be seen except by the finest and most practiced eyes, that a chimerical system gave birth to a real commerce, and played the midwife to the rebirth of the Indian company, established in the past by the celebrated Colbert, and ruined by the wars. In the end, if there were many private fortunes destroyed, at least the nation become more commercial and richer. This system enlightened minds, as the civil wars, in the past, had sharpened braveries. It was an epidemic sickness which spread itself in France, Holland and England. It merits the attention of posterity, for here it was not a question of the political interest of one or two princes that sent shockwaves through the nations; rather, the people themselves hurried into this madness which enriched some families, and reduced others to beggary.”

According to Ryan’s review, and the review of a few others, Himmelfarb’s big move is to replace reason, in the age of reason, with virtue – and make virtue the central theme of the English enlightenment, and the English enlightement the central national enlightenment. Reading this, a student of French history can’t help but be confused. Virtue was, of course, the central, and rather sinister, theme of the most radical French revolutionaries. The atheistic, Voltairian enlightment did, it was true, have an idea of virtue, but that idea was markedly heir to the old Aristotelian idea of virtue – it was pre-eminently social.

Again, according to Ryan, Himmelfarb, like many a neo-con, works to revive religion as a central and progressive bulwark and friend to the enlightenment cause. It is an oddity of this historiography that it drops a central Enlightenment term: fanatic. Whether it is Hume or Voltaire, the fanatic is that figure against which the enlightenment finds its tone. It is no accident that satire was the preferred form of the Enlightenment thinker, since it is by satire that the fanatic is disarmed. Voltaire’s ability to see the benefits of Law’s system, even as he accounts it a disaster, is just the proof that here is a perspective that has been cleansed of fanaticism – that attributes social virtue not to the virtue of individuals, but to their mix of virtues and vices, suitably ameliorated by those activities that would take them away from the sharpening bravery of civil war and religious strife. And how does one get to this point? By satire - by understanding both the humor of the discrepency between self-interest and moral claims, but that one understands the further humor of a pietistic horror that this is so -- the Misanthrope will always be the reference for this second level of vision for French Enlightenment figures. It is the same spirit that animates Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

"Believe me, we thought a magic thing would happen" with the fall of Hussein and the start of the U.S.-led occupation, said an administrator at Baghdad's Central Teaching Hospital for Pediatrics. "So we're surprised that nothing has been done. And people talk now about how the days of Saddam were very nice," the official said.”

Pangloss enseignait la métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie. Il prouvait admirablement qu'il n'y a point d'effet sans cause, et que, dans ce meilleur des mondes possibles, le château de monseigneur le baron était le plus beau des châteaux et madame la meilleure des baronnes possibles.

« Il est démontré, disait-il, que les choses ne peuvent être autrement : car, tout étant fait pour une fin, tout est nécessairement pour la meilleure fin. Remarquez bien que les nez ont été faits pour porter des lunettes, aussi avons-nous des lunettes. Les jambes sont visiblement instituées pour être chaussées, et nous avons des chausses. Les pierres ont été formées pour être taillées, et pour en faire des châteaux, aussi monseigneur a un très beau château ; le plus grand baron de la province doit être le mieux logé ; et, les cochons étant faits pour être mangés, nous mangeons du porc toute l'année : par conséquent, ceux qui ont avancé que tout est bien ont dit une sottise ; il fallait dire que tout est au mieux. »
-- Docteur Pangloss

There must be a certain quiet pride pervading the intellectual godfathers of Iraq’s Liberation this Thanksgiving week. So much has been accomplished! A freemarket mindset has been launched; a grateful people applaud the humane and just American army, as they secure mosques at prayer time and engage in massive urban renewal projects; and, as Doctor Pangloss might say, it has been demonstrated metaphysically that, since Iraqi leaders are necessarily made to subserve American interests, the best Iraqi leader has been put in place, and will be swept into office by the best combination of parties available to offer the best lack of competition in the best of all possible elections, coming up in January!

One’s heart thrills.

That malnutrition has now almost doubled since the invasion according to Iraq’s own freedom loving government, the best in the whole Middle East, is also, as we know, for the best. This will cull out those infants that might grow up to doubt the beneficence of having a low tax, laissez faire, low tariff economy, or one that is organized specifically to give the best price possible on the best gasoline available to the best SUVs driven by the planet’s premier human beings, the ever Christian, ever loving homo americanus.

We looked around at the metaphysico-cosmologico-theologists and their thoughts on the magnificent situation in Iraq. Here’s Johann Hari on the wonderful job the Americans did in dislodging the evil Sunnis en masse from their city of Fallujah – and I hasten to say that the evil of these Sunnis is only apparent, since they made the best possible target for the best possible firepower in the whole wide world, made in, or at least for, America!

I began to write a response [to a letter from a man whose parents live in Fallujah] - from the safety of my nice cosy flat - when the news came through that the military assault on Fallujah had begun. No matter what I wrote in my reply to Abdul, I couldn't shake off the memory of that American who ended up declaring during the Vietnam War: "We must destroy the village in order to save the village." Am I saying we must destroy Fallujah in order to save Fallujah? Is that the liberal-hawk position now? Have we sunk so far, so fast?

Tony Blair, Christopher Hitchens and most other liberal hawks have a firm answer to this anxiety. Look, they say, there are two forces at work here. On one side, you have a town - Fallujah - seized by Sunni militants who rally to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They speak only for the alienated 20 per cent of the Iraqi population who cannot bear the fact that the "stupid" and "dirty" Shia are about to assume power in a free election. They have imposed sharia law and Sunni supremacy within Fallujah; they bind women in burqas and stone them if they dare to walk the streets unveiled. They stand for the most barbaric and extreme of fundamentalisms and - in their clear public statements - dismiss democracy as a form of prostitution. On the other side, you have the US and Britain who - however imperfectly - are trying to hold a free and open election in just three months. How can anybody who believes in democracy throw up their hands and declare themselves neutral between them?”

Hari, who is a wobbly creature, finally comes down for killing a couple thousand Iraqis in Fallujah. And he has a marvelous metaphysico-cosmological reason to buck up his spirits, which droop, a bit, at the pix of limbless children, rather like Candide’s did in the aftermath of the Lisbon Earthquake:

“And, for me, there's another proviso. I backed this war because I believed most Iraqis would rather take their chances with an American occupation for a while than with Saddam and his sons forever. (This turned out to be right, unless you think that every Iraqi opinion poll has been mysteriously and inexplicably wrong).”

The idea of taking an opinion poll to justify razing a town is something new in the world. We wish we had thought of it!

Christopher Hitchens, who recognizes, when others don’t, that the war in Iraq is a perfect war in which every day perfection is piled on top of perfection, has not, so far as LI’s search has gone, commented yet on the splendors of Fallujah, or – and one can’t expect that this will ever be commented on – the stunning success of the occupation in getting rid of excess Iraqi children. But he did comment on Najaf in a debate a while back with Tariq Ali:

“At any rate, Mr. Sadr has now been isolated, discredited; his forces have been killed in very large numbers, without pity or compunction, I'm glad to say, by American and British forces.”

Like any metaphysico-cosmologico theologian, Hitchens has moments in which his prophetic vision seems to be less than perfect -- especially in consigning Mr. Sadr to oblivion (which means, for Mr. Hitchens, never being on tv again -- imagine! a fate worse than death). However, this is a mere triviality. The main point remains. Gratifyingly, the lack of pity or compunction has spread to all American and British military operations in the Iraqi paradise. Mr. Hitchens must be well pleased. Perhaps on his next tour in Iraq, he could get some souvenir – some tiny torn off hand, some terrorist’s foot – and bring it back with him. Pickled, these things make marvelous conversation pieces for D.C. dinner parties. Won't Sally Quinn be tickled!

Via Jim Henly, where there is a discussion of what “without compunction” means, there is a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that describes how the best of all possible armies is using the best of all possible weapons:

“Some of the heaviest damage apparently was incurred Monday night by air and artillery attacks that coincided with the entry of ground troops into the city. U.S. warplanes dropped eight 2,000-pound bombs on the city overnight, and artillery boomed throughout the night and into the morning.

"Usually we keep the gloves on," said Army Capt. Erik Krivda, of Gaithersburg, Md., the senior officer in charge of the 1st Infantry Division's Task Force 2-2 tactical operations command center. "For this operation, we took the gloves off."

Some artillery guns fired white phosphorous rounds that create a screen of fire that cannot be extinguished with water. Insurgents reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction consistent with white phosphorous burns.

Kamal Hadeethi, a physician at a regional hospital, said, "The corpses of the mujahedeen which we received were burned, and some corpses were melted."

Smells like Saddam’s own way of waging war! Showing that the occupying forces are truly adapting themselves to local customs. As we suggested in another post, surely the U.S. has contracted with the same mass grave diggers to get rid of the detritus that Saddam used. And propagandists suggest that the U.S. is not cooperating with local Iraqi enterprises! Shameful.

Yes, we all have much to be thankful for as we did into our turkeys this Thanksgiving. Oh, for a special treat – try using white phosphorus on the turkey! Yum yum, fries it in minutes! For best results, use a live turkey.