Saturday, May 11, 2002


Carnap once complained that the talk in the philosophy lounge in the University of Chicago reminded him less of the talk of scientists than of the talk of health food cranks. Carnap, of course, had the view that philosophy, if it wasn't a science, should be ashamed of itself. Unfortunately, post Carnap, philosophy regained its shamelessness. Witness this article about faith and logic in the NYT. Emily Eakins' article reports on a conference at Yale honoring Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne. When, years ago, there was a conference at Harvard that seriously considered UFO abduction stories, the university itself came in for considerable criticism for basically condoning tripe. And it should have. But what to make of a major university sponsoring a conference that includes things like this:

"For someone dead for 36 hours to come to life again is, according to the laws of nature, extremely improbable," Mr. Swinburne told an audience of more than 100 philosophers who had convened at Yale University in April for a conference on ethics and belief. "But if there is a God of the traditional kind, natural laws only operate because he makes them operate."

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"

Given the probability that there was a Carnap, and assigning values to the probability that, in life, he would have reacted to this crapola with a violence ranging between x and z, the probability of him rolling in his grave right now must be around .993. The mindblowing nature of this mumbo-jumbo (we especially like the "factor" of Jesus' behavior during his lifetime -- does this mean Jesus was a nice guy, or that he didn't smoke?) is highlighted by the fact that that it can be tolerated at a school which, at least once upon a time, did have a respectable philosophy department. We know the glory days have long departed for Yale, but this is more than sad -- this is the sort of intellectual activity one expects to encounter at a Peshawar medresse. Alvin Plantinga is the mullah at the center of this particular intellectual decline and fall.

"More influential at the moment, however, are the "reformed epistemologists" led by Mr. Plantinga and Mr. Wolterstorff, who are Calvinists. These scholars reject the evidentialist insistence on independent proofs. After all, they point out, the ability to distinguish good evidence from bad requires reason, but why trust our ability to reason? Where's the proof that our reason is any good? For the evidentialists, reason is considered a "basic belief," one that doesn't require additional evidence to be true. But if reason can be considered a basic belief, then so, too, say the reformed epistemologists, can faith in God."

Plantinga's giant contribution to the world is a philosophical defense of intelligent design.

"Mr. Plantinga has devoted three thick volumes and the last 20 years to the effort [to distinguish between justified true belief and illegitimate belief], stressing, among other things, that for a belief to be justified, it must be held by a person whose mental faculties are functioning properly.

More aggressively, he has suggested that our capacity for true beliefs is proof that a divine creator � rather than Darwinian natural selection � is behind evolution: if human beings evolved by random process from mentally primitive creatures, how could we be sure that any of our beliefs � including our belief in evolution � are true?"

That Ms. Eakins was impressed that theologians could do math and spout nonsense at the same time is not incomprehensible -- it is a little like an idiot savant being able to simultaneoulsy play with a yoyo and multiply. In other words, there's a respectable place in traveling carnivals and Midwestern Christian academies for this kind of thing. But she is a little too, uh, tolerant at this point. Surely a reporter for the NYT who'd hotfooted back to the paper iwth news of the teachings of, say, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, would probably have to deal with some editorial collaging -- the compare and contrast editing that conditions the outrageous claims of one's source with the moderating citations of other, countering sources. LI would recommend subjecting the perfervid lucubrations of Plantinga to a similar treatment.


Terry Eagleton begins his review of Michael Moore's book -- the one about White Men, or that has White Men in the title, or something like that -- with a few choice kicks at the US of A. Now, LI enjoys kicking Uncle Sam ourselves. It is a pity that Eagelton's kicks are so lackluster and lacking, beginning with a silly exaggeration, going on to make a valid point about Saddam Hussein (although the point should be qualified, since France and the Soviet Union were Hussein's main arms suppliers), but damning it with the lukewarm phrase, "backing" (instead of specifying the real wickedness of US policy -- namely, tilt towards Iraq during the first phase of the war, supplying the country with a four hundred million dollar loan and taking it off the blacklist of terrorist states and all that jazz, and then tilting towards Iran when it appeared Iraq had reconciled with the evil empire, as this Z Mag article documents). Finally, and most pathetically, Eagelton a leftist in editorial heat, decides to ecrasez l'infame that is oppressing high school students everywhere by making them, shockingly, change their politically charged t shirts for more neutral gear. Is this swallowing a camel and straining at a gnat, or what? In his lather at such nazi like tactics, he overlooks the imprisonment without cause or trial of some 3,000 persons of middle eastern origin. This, however, is sadly typical of the left in high dudgeon. There should be courses taught, somewhere, in how to get in high dudgeon without making a fool of yourself.

It is a pity that the Land of the Free lacks a free press and media. CBS and the Wall Street Journal are not in the business of reminding their customers that Osama bin Laden was a creation of the CIA, or that the USA once backed Saddam Hussein in a war which left one million Muslims dead.They are not given to trumpeting the truth that the US is a democracy with a fraudulently elected president, or that it turned a blind eye to Indonesia's genocidal invasion of East Timor while pummelling Iraq for moving non-genocidally into Kuwait. It is not every evening that Fox TV, in denouncing Iraqi weapons of mass slaughter, castigates in the same breath the nuclear weaponry of an increasingly state-terrorist Israel.Since September 11th, political dissent in the USA has become not only muted but positively perilous. Radical academics have been threatened with dismissal for sounding less than gung-ho about the Afghanistan adventure, while a schoolgirl who sported a T-shirt reading "Neither Bush nor Bin Laden" was ejected from her school for fear of contaminating her fellows.

It is this kind of shopping list that exasperates LI. When Marx thundered against Louis Napoleon, he did not consider Louis' oppression of lycee couture. He had a grasp of the macro features of oppression, and was able to convey them. Eagleton, on the other hand, whines like a ponce in the hands of the cops. Is it any wonder the left is becoming a sideshow cult?

We can only hope some of those radical academics are dismissed, thereby taking their anger to the street, instead of distributing it, over cheese on crackers, at the English faculty party.

Thursday, May 09, 2002


The Washington Post reports on the Colombian Civil war today. The article is very impressed with the derring do that went into its making:

"With the U.S.-backed military apparently powerless to intervene, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary forces staged a major battle over several days without interference from the government.

A two-day visit to this remote jungle region -- reached after six hours of river travel -- revealed a civilian population abandoned to its fate. Despite warnings that a battle was imminent, the Colombian military did not arrive in the area until Tuesday, after Mirage jets and Black Hawk helicopters fired on rebel positions on the banks of the muddy Atrato River and two of the jets dropped bombs in the jungle to clear landing zones. The army's first ground troops arrived in the town today."

Six hours of river travel! You know Scott Wilson, the man who presumably traveled down river in such exciting style, will be bragging about this in Foggy Bottom bars for the rest of his natural born days. Probably had indian scouts, too.

Of course, there is something a little suspicious about the apparent "powerlessness" of the US backed military. Because those right wing paramilitary forces, where do they come from? How are they armed?

Think: Plan Colombia. Think: how were the Contras armed?

Michelle Lescure reports, in the World Press Review , on one of the biggest arms shipments to Colombia -- biggest illegal arms shipment, I should say. Although its illegality is shrouded in beach and jungle night, just as its source is:

"The biggest illegal arms shipment known to have arrived in Colombia landed in Turbo, a port on the Gulf of Urab�, on Colombia's Atlantic coast, last November. The weapons, enough to equip a lethal paramilitary offensive, were unloaded into trucks at the port, which has been controlled for several years by the right-wing United Colombian Self-Defense (AUC) militia. What happened to the weapons after they disappeared inland is still, officially, a mystery. But an unidentified "member of the AUC high command" boasted in the April 25 edition of Bogot�s centrist El Tiempo that "we have fooled the authorities of four countries," and claimed his paramilitary force has the arms. A belated Colombian investigation into the matter has sparked a many-headed international scandal."

Later on in her article, Lescure finds hints that the arms might have originated, or at least been purchased by, some of the dribs and drabs money Congress has been shuffling to the Colombian military (that "powerless" force in the WP article):

"Investigators are following a trail of documents and financial records. According to one source close to the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the trail appears to lead directly back to the coffers of Plan Colombia, a sweeping Colombian program designed to end the civil war, curtail narcotics production and trafficking, and stimulate the economy. On July 13, 2000, former U.S. President Bill Clinton approved a US$1.3-billion assistance package for the plan. On Oct. 24, 2001, the U.S. Congress approved an additional US$698 million, US$106 million less than U.S. President George W. Bush had requested, for the Andean Regional Initiative, which seeks to prevent the conflict in Colombia from spilling over into surrounding countries.

Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso has assured journalists that "the police never arranged to acquire these arms." But the Israeli arms dealers, Oris Zoller and Uzi Kisslevich, who---acting as co-owners of the Guatemalan company Grupo Internacional de Representaciones (GIR, S.A.), allegedly on Panama's behalf---bought the weapons that eventually made it to Colombia, insist that the import license by which they acquired the weapons was authorized by Panama's Minister of Government and Justice, Alex Vergara. "We had an understanding that the document pertained to the Panamanian police," Zoller told Guatemala City�s independent Siglo XXI (April 24)."

Admittedly, the trail of these particular weapons, as Lescure uncovers it, is an obscure affair that seems to confound Lescure's ability to clarify it, as Israeli arms dealers and Nicaraguan middle men pullulate at an astonishing rate in the course of the Otterloo, the boat that was loaded with weaponry for one of Colombia's mercenary forces.


The Judge�s skin

�Cambyses was a great emperor, such another as our master is. He had many lord-deputies, lord-presidents, and lieutenants under him. It is a great while ago since I read the history. It chanced he had under him, in one of his dominions, a briber, a gift-taker, a gratifier of rich men; he followed gifts as fast
as he that followed the pudding, a hand-maker in his office to make his son a great man, as the old saying is: Happy is the child whose father goeth to the devil. The cry of the poor widow came to
the emperor�s ear, and caused him to flay the judge quick, and laid his skin in the chair of judgment, that all judges that should give judgment afterwards should sit in the same skin. Surely it was a
goodly sign, a goodly monument, the sign of the judge�s skin. I pray God we may once see the skin in England.�

This is Hugh Latimer, quoted for splendid, bloody effect by Macaulay as he reaches his butcher�s hand in and takes hold of the last little sweetmeats that are left to Francis Bacon�s immortal moral character. Macaulay has a very meat eater�s joy in attacking his prey. His prose assumes this wonderful sahib drollery, which you can tell he used to roll out when some heathen was brought to his office in Calcutta and he had to �straighten the boy out.� There�s a phrase in one of Shaw�s plays, Heartbreak House, in which Lady Utterwood explains what her husband does in the colonies:

LADY UTTERWORD. There is Hastings. Get rid of your ridiculous sham democracy; and give Hastings the necessary powers, and a good supply of bamboo to bring the British native to his senses: he will save the country with the greatest ease.

I should say that Lady Utterword belongs to a latter period of the governing classes, when they were in decay. Still, that bamboo sometimes obviously tempts our Mac.

There must be, there is, more to say about Latimer's vivid, wild, frightening image. If Limited Inc had world and time, we would dive into the numerous literary uses of the flayed human skin � from the Nazi lampshade to this marvelous judge�s chair. Judges, of course, ask for it. Daumier saw it � how costume essentially gives them away, how the faces assume, over the years, a Polichinello cast. But to see
the sign of the skin in England � ah, that is harsh, harsh. Yet doesn�t LI wish, sometimes, to see some (not all, a select few) congressmen and Senators flayed in just this way? The insufferable Billy Tauzin, for instance, presiding right now, with appropriate outbursts of righteousness, over the Enron scandal, who previously shilled shamelessly for the auditor giants and against Levitt.

Off track, (CHARACTER WITH MOUSTACHE SAYS), we are getting off track...

Macaulay�s assault on Francis Bacon chose an object of enduring, and mysterious, interest. Francis Bacon has a knack for attracting attention -- or at least he does dead.. There is the famous McGuffin of claiming Bacon wrote Shakespeare�s plays. There are also claims that he was Queen Elizabeth�s bastard son, that he was one of the avatars, like Buddha and whoever the guru of the day is, and so on. The Macaulay attack, for these people, is a perennial source of infinite indignation. It is the devil�s view of the gospels. For a nice point by point in this direction, click this link.

Where to start with Francis Bacon? We aren't going for the whole bio. A few facts is all. Francis Bacon and his brother Anthony were born to one of the Tudor�s political families. Like the Cecils, the Bacons flourished in office, had that peculiar ability to administer. This was no mean thing � the Tudors, unlike the clan monarchs before them, or the Stuarts that succeeded them, survived by administering.

Francis Bacon rose very high in Elizabeth�s court. Lord Essex was, Macaulay points out, his patron. Elizabeth had an incredible number of very sinister figures working for her. If you read about the infighting that characterized her reign, you soon get the feeling that there was something very ... Stalinistic about the whole thing. Not that she was Stalin. Rather, it is the way the odor of the secret police seems to scent the air of her counselor's confabs.

Lord Essex is one of her great courtiers. We all associate him with Shakespeare. Macaulay emphasizes the relationship between the rising Francis B. and Essex, leaving out Anthony B., who was even more attached to the man. It is an invidious elision -- much of what went down when Essex conspired against Elizabeth, and Francis made his move against Essex, has to do with loyalties to Anthony.

But the worst is that Macaulay sentimentalizes Essex. Bacon�s most recent biographers, Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, emphasize the homoerotic culture of Essex�s entourage. Macaulay doesn�t even mention Anthony Bacon, but, J and S have painstakingly discovered, Anthony was in trouble with the authorities over a little bit of sodomy... in his time. And Francis, too, was inclined to is it AC or DC? I always forget. Until, at forty, he married some thirteen year old girl.

Well, we can�t expect the Victorians to be as endlessly fascinated with sex as we are, so these are the
unmentioned in Macaulay�s essay. That doesn�t mean he is unaware of at least the rumor that Bacon was AC (or DC). Macaulay�s first accusation against Bacon is that he betrayed Essex. It is a very interesting accusation, considering how Macaulay is considered the epitome of philistinism, because it echoes something very deep in English culture � one hear�s in this boorish gentleman�s creed the distant tintinnabulation of the Bloomsbury credo, phrased, in this century, by E.M. Forster�s �if I had to betray my friend or my country, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country.�

Those who defend Bacon make the point that Macaulay abbreviates episodes, distorts the meaning of the
justification of Essex�s execution that Bacon, under Elizabeth�s order, was obliged to grind out, and quotes
selectively from the trial. J. and S., however, come down gingerly on Macaulay�s side. It seems that Coke, that
idiot, was messing up the hearing on Essex, when Bacon straightened the case out with a well chosen
comparison to recent events in France. Macaulay is horrified by the coolness of Bacon�s move.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

Auguste Dupin once traced the course of his companion�s thoughts by a series of inductions that attached to the dumbshow of his companion�s expressions - the microworld of steps, frowns, glances, and furrows that, in the nineteenth century, was being explored with absurd confidence by German physiognomists -- until, interrupting that silent monologue, he made some magically relevant comment. The nineteenth century motif: detective as magician, consciousness as a rather easily demystified magic trick � we love it, we love it. LI (and the century we escaped from) has only a broken faith in the coherence and topical unity of the consciousness, even our own; still, we find it worth while (infinitely narcissistic as we are) to navigate the branches of our thought on the bateau ivre until we come to the source of our sudden interest in Macaulay.

Because in the last post we lied. Our readers haven�t been clamoring for explication de texte; they�ve been clamoring for naked pictures of Britney Spears.

But patience, one day, perhaps....
In the meantime -- our more faithful readers will remember that lately, we have been fascinated with Burke. At least, we have been quoting him a lot. And we have been reading Burke�s most ardent current defender, Conor Cruise O�Brien. O�Brien�s spirited attack on Burke�s critics prompted us to pick up Jeremy Bernstein�s biography of Warren Hastings, the East Indian company�s governor in Calcutta after Clive, and the victim of an impeachment process in the 1780s that never succeeded completely in impugning his character, but did succeed in giving Burke a reputation for madness. Even in the 18th century, when there was a patience for extended, hypoglycemic oratory that can only be compared to the curious stoner enthusiasm of the of the sixties and the seventies for 15 minute guitar solos of extreme monotony, Burke�s rants got on the nerve of the governing classes. They liked to see an orator collapse in tears and sweat, but they were less thrilled when these effects were more generally present in the audience, and the audience had gambling to do.

Bernstein convinced me that Hastings was a much better man than Burke and O�Brien painted him; there's an essay about the nostalgic imperialism of the new conservative crowd in the New Statesman that bears quoting on this point. It is by Maria Misra, and it conflates, without ironic intention, I think, the programs of Hastings and Burke:

"It would be anachronistic to identify these tolerant 18th-century attitudes to race and culture with those of modern liberal opinion. Hastings and his colleagues were certainly not bien-pensant radicals. Colour prejudice was common, not just among the British. Many Indians, then as now, favoured the "wheaten" complexion (the Indian word for caste is varna, meaning "colour").

But what made Hastings and his peers different from the pith-helmeted empire-builders of the Raj lay in their adherence to a kind of Burkean conservatism, which, with its concern for tradition, its respect for the authority of custom and practice, and hostility to the new, nurtured a kind of 18th-century cultural relativism. As Hastings himself observed: "Bengal is already a great nation and has no need of the supposedly superior wisdom of the English." It may dismay modern liberals, but this tolerant era was to be swept aside by their early Victorian avatars, the utilitarians.

For utilitarians, relativism of any kind was anathema. Good government, to them, consisted in the application of universal principles of law. From this universalising liberalism emerged the more extreme examples of Victorian imperial arrogance; 19th-century liberalism may have been liberating at home, but abroad it was a weapon in the armoury of the cultural imperialist. Without the iron-clad confidence of the ideological zealot, the utilitarian James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill), a man who had never set foot in India, could not have written a multi-volume history of the subcontinent, denouncing manners, culture and practices of which he was almost wholly ignorant. Likewise, it was the liberal polemicist and historian Thomas Macaulay who confidently claimed that a single shelf of books in a good European library was worth more than the entire written corpus of India and Arabia put together."

Misra's Macaulay is the common type, the one I have some passing acquaintance with. However, there�s a passage that intrigued me in Bernstein. Macaulay, Bernstein said, has a style like champagne, so that one sometimes forgets how bogus his points are in one�s appreciation of how he is making them.

These disjunct fragments can't be shored against Macaulay's ruin. They simply have to be sorted through.
Since Macaulay lived in Calcutta, and must have had some gossipy knowledge of Hastings himself, I wonder if Bernstein is being wholly fair. O�Brien is a fierce twit about Burke�s detractors, yet the politics of Burke�s objection to Hastings seems sound to LI. However, do we really want to turn in the gyre of the
Hastings story? No. We got more interested in the long essay on Bacon, for the reasons we gave
in the last post.

Meaning � sorry, but the next post will be about Macaulay and Bacon. Those looking for the usual trenchant missiles we hike at the NYT, or Sharonophiles, or Enron apologists, will just have to come back here in a couple of days, when we have found our mind. Right now, we simply want to lose it.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...