Culture

Anderson, Brian C. South Park Conservatives. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-019-0.
Who would have imagined that the advent of “new media”—not just the Internet, but also AM radio after having been freed of the shackles of the “fairness doctrine”, cable television, with its proliferation of channels and the advent of “narrowcasting”, along with the venerable old media of stand-up comedy, cartoon series, and square old books would end up being dominated by conservatives and libertarians? Certainly not the greybeards atop the media pyramid who believed they set the agenda for public discourse and are now aghast to discover that the “people power” they always gave lip service to means just that—the people, not they, actually have the power, and there's nothing they can do to get it back into their own hands.

This book chronicles the conservative new media revolution of the past decade. There's nothing about the new media in themselves which has made it a conservative revolution—it's simply that it occurred in a society in which, at the outset, the media were dominated by an elite which were in the thrall of a collectivist ideology which had little or no traction outside the imperial districts from which they declaimed, while the audience they were haranguing had different beliefs entirely which, when they found media which spoke to them, immediately started to listen and tuned out the well-groomed, dulcet-voiced, insipid propagandists of the conventional wisdom.

One need only glance at the cratering audience figures for the old media—left-wing urban newspapers, television network news, and “mainstream” news-magazines to see the extent to which they are being shunned. The audience abandoning them is discovering the new media: Web sites, blogs, cable news, talk radio, which (if one follows a broad enough selection), gives a sense of what is actually going on in the world, as opposed to what the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post decide merits appearing on the front page.

Of course, the new media aren't perfect, but they are diverse—which is doubtless why collectivist partisans of coercive consensus so detest them. Some conservatives may be dismayed by the vulgarity of “South Park” (I'll confess; I'm a big fan), but we partisans of civilisation would be well advised to party down together under a broad and expansive tent. Otherwise, the bastards might kill Kenny with a rocket widget ball.

January 2006 Permalink

Anderson, Brian C. and Adam D. Thierer. A Manifesto for Media Freedom. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59403-228-8.
In the last decade, the explosive growth of the Internet has allowed a proliferation of sources of information and opinion unprecedented in the human experience. As humanity's first ever many-to-many mass medium, the Internet has essentially eliminated the barriers to entry for anybody who wishes to address an audience of any size in any medium whatsoever. What does it cost to start your own worldwide television or talk radio show? Nothing—and the more print-inclined can join the more than a hundred million blogs competing for the global audience's attention. In the United States, the decade prior to the great mass-market pile-on to the Internet saw an impressive (by pre-Internet standards) broadening of radio and television offerings as cable and satellite distribution removed the constraints of over-the-air bandwidth and limited transmission range, and abolition of the “Fairness Doctrine” freed broadcasters to air political and religious programming of every kind.

Fervent believers in free speech found these developments exhilarating and, if they had any regrets, they were only that it didn't happen more quickly or go as far as it might. One of the most instructive lessons of this epoch has been that prominent among the malcontents of the new media age have been politicians who mouth their allegiance to free speech while trying to muzzle it, and legacy media outlets who wrap themselves in the First Amendment while trying to construe it as a privilege reserved for themselves, not a right to which the general populace is endowed as individuals.

Unfortunately for the cause of liberty, while technologists, entrepreneurs, and new media innovators strive to level the mass communication playing field, it's the politicians who make the laws and write the regulations under which everybody plays, and the legacy media which support politicians inclined to tilt the balance back in their favour, reversing (or at least slowing) the death spiral in their audience and revenue figures. This thin volume (just 128 pages: even the authors describe it as a “brief polemic”) sketches the four principal threats they see to the democratisation of speech we have enjoyed so far and hope to see broadened in unimagined ways in the future. Three have suitably Orwellian names: the “Fairness Doctrine” (content-based censorship of broadcast media), “Network Neutrality” (allowing the FCC's camel nose into the tent of the Internet, with who knows what consequences as Fox Charlie sweeps Internet traffic into the regulatory regime it used to stifle innovation in broadcasting for half a century), and “Campaign Finance Reform” (government regulation of political speech, often implemented in such a way as to protect incumbents from challengers and shut out insurgent political movements from access to the electorate). The fourth threat to new media is what the authors call “neophobia”: fear of the new. To the neophobe, the very fact of a medium's being innovative is presumptive proof that it is dangerous and should be subjected to regulation from which pre-existing media are exempt. Just look at the political entrepreneurs salivating over regulating video games, social networking sites, and even enforcing “balance” in blogs and Web news sources to see how powerful a force this is. And we have a venerable precedent in broadcasting being subjected, almost from its inception unto the present, to regulation unthinkable for print media.

The actual manifesto presented here occupies all of a page and a half, and can be summarised as “Don't touch! It's working fine and will evolve naturally to get better and better.” As I agree with that 100%, my quibbles with the book are entirely minor items of presentation and emphasis. The chapter on network neutrality doesn't completely close the sale, in my estimation, on how something as innocent-sounding as “no packet left behind” can open the door to intrusive content regulation of the Internet and the end of privacy, but then it's hard to explain concisely: when I tried five years ago, more than 25,000 words spilt onto the page. Also, perhaps because the authors' focus is on political speech, I think they've underestimated the extent to which, in regulation of the Internet, ginned up fear of what I call the unholy trinity: terrorists, drug dealers, and money launderers, can be exploited by politicians to put in place content regulation which they can then turn to their own partisan advantage.

This is a timely book, especially for readers in the U.S., as the incoming government seems more inclined to these kinds of regulations than that it supplants. (I am on record as of July 10th, 2008, as predicting that an Obama administration would re-impose the “fairness doctrine”, enact “network neutrality”, and [an issue not given the attention I think it merits in this book] adopt “hate speech” legislation, all with the effect of stifling [mostly due to precautionary prior restraint] free speech in all new media.) For a work of advocacy, this book is way too expensive given its length: it would reach far more of the people who need to be apprised of these threats to their freedom of expression and to access to information were it available as an inexpensive paperback pamphlet or on-line download.

A podcast interview with one of the authors is available.

November 2008 Permalink

Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58542-639-3.
The generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000, sometimes dubbed “Generation Y” or the “Millennial Generation”, now entering the workforce, the public arena, and exerting an ever-increasing influence in electoral politics, is the first generation in human history to mature in an era of ubiquitous computing, mobile communications, boundless choice in entertainment delivered by cable and satellite, virtual environments in video games, and the global connectivity and instant access to the human patrimony of knowledge afforded by the Internet. In the United States, it is the largest generational cohort ever, outnumbering the Baby Boomers who are now beginning to scroll off the screen. Generation Y is the richest (in terms of disposable income), most ethnically diverse, best educated (measured by years of schooling), and the most comfortable with new technologies and the innovative forms of social interactions they facilitate. Books like Millennials Rising sing the praises of this emerging, plugged-in, globally wired generation, and Millennial Makeover (May 2008) eagerly anticipates the influence they will have on politics and the culture.

To those of us who interact with members of this generation regularly through E-mail, Web logs, comments on Web sites, and personal Web pages, there seems to be a dissonant chord in this symphony of technophilic optimism. To be blunt, the kids are clueless. They may be able to multi-task, juggling mobile phones, SMS text messages, instant Internet messages (E-mail is so Mom and Dad!), social networking sites, Twitter, search engines, peer-to-peer downloads, surfing six hundred cable channels with nothing on while listening to an iPod and playing a video game, but when you scratch beneath the monomolecular layer of frantic media consumption and social interaction with their peers, there's, as we say on the Web, no content—they appear to be almost entirely ignorant of history, culture, the fine arts, civics, politics, science, economics, mathematics, and all of the other difficult yet rewarding aspects of life which distinguish a productive and intellectually engaged adult from a superannuated child. But then one worries that one's just muttering the perennial complaints of curmudgeonly old fogies and that, after all, the kids are all right. There are, indeed, those who argue that Everything Bad Is Good for You: that video games and pop culture are refining the cognitive, decision-making, and moral skills of youth immersed in them to never before attained levels.

But why are they so clueless, then? Well, maybe they aren't really, and Burgess Shale relics like me have simply forgotten how little we knew about the real world at that age. Errr…actually, no—this book, written by a professor of English at Emory University and former director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts, who experiences first-hand the cognitive capacities and intellectual endowment of those Millennials who arrive in his classroom every year, draws upon a wealth of recent research (the bibliography is 18 pages long) by government agencies, foundations, and market research organisations, all without any apparent agenda to promote, which documents the abysmal levels of knowledge and the ability to apply it among present-day teenagers and young adults in the U.S. If there is good news, it is that the new media technologies have not caused a precipitous collapse in objective measures of outcomes overall (although there are disturbing statistics in some regards, including book reading and attendance at performing arts events). But, on the other hand, the unprecedented explosion in technology and the maturing generation's affinity for it and facility in using it have produced absolutely no objective improvement in their intellectual performance on a wide spectrum of metrics. Further, absorption in these new technologies has further squeezed out time which youth of earlier generations spent in activities which furthered intellectual development such as reading for enjoyment, visiting museums and historical sites, attending and participating in the performing arts, and tinkering in the garage or basement. This was compounded by the dumbing down and evisceration of traditional content in the secondary school curriculum.

The sixties generation's leaders didn't anticipate how their claim of exceptionalism would affect the next generation, and the next, but the sequence was entirely logical. Informed rejection of the past became uninformed rejection of the past, and then complete and unworried ignorance of it. (p. 228)
And it is the latter which is particularly disturbing: as documented extensively, Generation Y knows they're clueless and they're cool with it! In fact, their expectations for success in their careers are entirely discordant with the qualifications they're packing as they venture out to slide down the razor blade of life (pp. 193–198). Or not: on pp. 169–173 we meet the “Twixters”, urban and suburban middle class college graduates between 22 and 30 years old who are still living with their parents and engaging in an essentially adolescent lifestyle: bouncing between service jobs with no career advancement path and settling into no long-term relationship. These sad specimens who refuse to grow up even have their own term of derision: “KIPPERS” Kids In Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings.

In evaluating the objective data and arguments presented here, it's important to keep in mind that correlation does not imply causation. One cannot run controlled experiments on broad-based social trends: only try to infer from the evidence available what might be the cause of the objective outcomes one measures. Many of the characteristics of Generation Y described here might be explained in large part simply by the immersion and isolation of young people in the pernicious peer culture described by Robert Epstein in The Case Against Adolescence (July 2007), with digital technologies simply reinforcing a dynamic in effect well before their emergence, and visible to some extent in the Boomer and Generation X cohorts who matured earlier, without being plugged in 24/7. For another insightful view of Generation Y (by another professor at Emory!), see I'm the Teacher, You're the Student (January 2005).

If Millennial Makeover is correct, the culture and politics of the United States is soon to be redefined by the generation now coming of age. This book presents a disturbing picture of what that may entail: a generation with little or no knowledge of history or of the culture of the society they've inherited, and unconcerned with their ignorance, making decisions not in the context of tradition and their intellectual heritage, but of peer popular culture. Living in Europe, it is clear that things have not reached such a dire circumstance here, and in Asia the intergenerational intellectual continuity appears to remain strong. But then, the U.S. was the first adopter of the wired society, and hence may simply be the first to arrive at the scene of the accident. Observing what happens there in the near future may give the rest of the world a chance to change course before their own dumbest generations mature. Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, the author notes that “Knowledge is never more than one generation away from oblivion.” (p. 186) In an age where a large fraction of all human knowledge is freely accessible to anybody in a fraction of a second, what a tragedy it would be if the “digital natives” ended up, like the pejoratively denigrated “natives” of the colonial era, surrounded by a wealth of culture but ignorant of and uninterested in it.

The final chapter is a delightful and stirring defence of culture wars and culture warriors, which argues that only those grounded in knowledge of their culture and equipped with the intellectual tools to challenge accepted norms and conventional wisdom can (for better or worse) change society. Those who lack the knowledge and reasoning skills to be engaged culture warriors are putty in the hands of marketeers and manipulative politicians, which is perhaps why so many of them are salivating over the impending Millennial majority.

June 2008 Permalink

Bawer, Bruce. While Europe Slept. New York: Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 0-385-51472-7.
In 1997, the author visited the Netherlands for the first time and “thought I'd found the closest thing to heaven on earth”. Not long thereafter, he left his native New York for Europe, where he has lived ever since, most recently in Oslo, Norway. As an American in Europe, he has identified and pointed out many of the things which Europeans, whether out of politeness, deference to their ruling elites, or a “what-me-worry?” willingness to defer the apocalypse to their dwindling cohort of descendants, rarely speak of, at least in the public arena.

As the author sees it, Europe is going down, the victim of multiculturalism, disdain and guilt for their own Western civilisation, and “tolerance for [the] intolerance” of a fundamentalist Muslim immigrant population which, by its greater fertility, “fetching marriages”, and family reunification, may result in Muslim majorities in one or more European countries by mid-century.

This is a book which may open the eyes of U.S. readers who haven't spent much time in Europe to just how societally-suicidal many of the mainstream doctrines of Europe's ruling elites are, and how wide the gap is between this establishment (which is a genuine cultural phenomenon in Europe, encompassing academia, media, and the ruling class, far more so than in the U.S.) and the population, who are increasingly disenfranchised by the profoundly anti-democratic commissars of the odious European Union.

But this is, however, an unsatisfying book. The author, who has won several awards and been published in prestigious venues, seems more at home with essays than the long form. The book reads like a feature article from The New Yorker which grew to book length without revision or editorial input. The 237 page text is split into just three chapters, putatively chronologically arranged but, in fact, rambling all over the place, each mixing the author's anecdotal observations with stories from secondary sources, none of which are cited, neither in foot- or end-notes, nor in a bibliography.

If you're interested in these issues (and in the survival of Western civilisation and Enlightenment values), you'll get a better picture of the situation in Europe from Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe (July 2006). As a narrative of the experience of a contemporary American in Europe, or as an assessment of the cultural gap between Western (and particularly Northern) Europe and the U.S., this book may be useful for those who haven't experienced these cultures for themselves, but readers should not over-generalise the author's largely anecdotal reporting in a limited number of countries to Europe as a whole.

June 2007 Permalink

Beckerman, Marty. Generation S.L.U.T.. New York: MTV Books, 2004. ISBN 0-7434-7109-1.
I bought this book based on a recommendation by Hunter S. Thompson. I don't know what the good doctor was smoking—he rarely knows what he's smoking—but this is one messed up, incoherent, choppy, gratuitously obscene, utterly amoral mix of fiction, autobiography, cartoons, newspaper clippings, and statistical factoids seemingly aimed at an audience with an attention span measured in seconds. All together now, “Well, what did you expect from something published by MTV Books?” The “S.L.U.T.” in the title stands for “Sexually Liberated Urban Teens”, and the book purports to be a view from the inside (the author turned 20 while writing the book) of contemporary teenage culture in the United States. One can only consider the word “Liberated” here in a Newspeak sense—the picture painted is of a generation enslaved to hormones and hedonism so banal it brings no pleasure to those who so mindlessly pursue it. The cartoons which break up the fictional thread into blocks of text short enough for MTV zombies are cheaply produced—they re-use a few line drawings of the characters, scaled, mirrored, and with different backgrounds, changing only the text in the balloon. The Addendum by the author is a straight rip-off of Hunter Thompson's style, right down the signature capitalisation of nouns for emphasis. The reader is bludgeoned with a relentless vulgarity which ultimately leaves one numb (and I say this as a fan of both Thompson and South Park). I found myself saying, again and again, “Teenagers in the U.S. can't possibly be this vapid, dissolute, and depraved, can they? Can they?” Er, maybe so, if this Teenwire site, sponsored by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is any indication. (You may be shocked, dismayed, and disgusted by the content of this site. I would not normally link to such material, but seeing as how it's deliberately directed at teenagers, I do so in the interest of showing parents how their kids are are being indoctrinated. Note how the welcome page takes you into the main site even if you don't click “Enter”, and that there is no disclaimer whatsoever regarding the site's suitability for children of any age.)

August 2004 Permalink

Berlinski, Claire. Menace in Europe. New York: Crown Forum, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-9768-1.
This is a scary book. The author, who writes with a broad and deep comprehension of European history and its cultural roots, and a vocabulary which reminds one of William F. Buckley, argues that the deep divide which has emerged between the United States and Europe since the end of the cold war, and particularly in the last few years, is not a matter of misunderstanding, lack of sensitivity on the part of the U.S., or the personnel, policies, and style of the Bush administration, but deeply rooted in structural problems in Europe which are getting worse, not better. (That's not to say that there aren't dire problems in the U.S. as well, but that isn't the topic here.)

Surveying the contemporary scene in the Netherlands, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, and tracing the roots of nationalism, peasant revolts (of which “anti-globalisation” is the current manifestation), and anti-Semitism back through the centuries, she shows that what is happening in Europe today is simply Europe—the continent of too many kings and too many wars—being Europe, adapted to present-day circumstances. The impression you're left with is that Europe isn't just the “sick man of the world”, but rather a continent afflicted with half a dozen or more separate diseases, all terminal: a large, un-assimilated immigrant population concentrated in ghettos; an unsustainable welfare state; a sclerotic economy weighed down by social charges, high taxes, and ubiquitous and counterproductive regulation; a collapsing birth rate and aging population; a “culture crash” (my term), where the religions and ideologies which have structured the lives of Europeans for millennia have evaporated, leaving nothing in their place; a near-total disconnect between elites and the general population on the disastrous project of European integration, most recently manifested in the controversy over the so-called European constitution; and signs that the rabid nationalism which plunged Europe into two disastrous wars in the last century and dozens, if not hundreds of wars in the centuries before, is seeping back up through the cracks in the foundation of the dystopian, ill-conceived European Union.

In some regards, the author does seem to overstate the case, or generalise from evidence so narrow it lacks persuasiveness. The most egregious example is chapter 8, which infers an emerging nihilist neo-Nazi nationalism in Germany almost entirely based on the popularity of the band Rammstein. Well, yes, but whatever the lyrics, the message of the music, and the subliminal message of the music videos, there is a lot more going on in Germany, a nation of more than 80 million people, than the antics of a single heavy metal band, however atavistic.

U.S. readers inclined to gloat over the woes of the old continent should keep in mind the author's observation, a conclusion I had come to long before I ever opened this book, that the U.S. is heading directly for the same confluence of catastrophes as Europe, and, absent a fundamental change of course, will simply arrive at the scene of the accident somewhat later; and that's only taking into account the problems they have in common; the European economy, unlike the American, is able to function without borrowing on the order of two billion dollars a day from China and Japan.

If you live in Europe, as I have for the last fifteen years (thankfully outside, although now encircled by, the would-be empire that sprouted from Brussels), you'll probably find little here that's new, but you may get a better sense of how the problems interact with one another to make a real crisis somewhere in the future a genuine possibility. The target audience in the U.S., which is so often lectured by their elite that Europe is so much more sophisticated, nuanced, socially and environmentally aware, and rational, may find this book an eye opener; 344,955 American soldiers perished in European wars in the last century, and while it may be satisfying to say, “To Hell with Europe!”, the lesson of history is that saying so is most unwise.

An Instapundit podcast interview with the author is freely available on-line.

July 2006 Permalink

Bolton, Andrew. Bravehearts: Men in Skirts. London: V&A Publications, 2003. ISBN 0-8109-6558-5.

January 2004 Permalink

Bryson, Bill. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. London: Black Swan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-552-77254-9.
What could be better than growing up in the United States in the 1950s? Well, perhaps being a kid with super powers as the American dream reached its apogee and before the madness started! In this book, humorist, travel writer, and science populariser extraordinaire Bill Bryson provides a memoir of his childhood (and, to a lesser extent, coming of age) in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s and '60s. It is a thoroughly engaging and charming narrative which, if you were a kid there, then will bring back a flood of fond memories (as well as some acutely painful ones) and if you weren't, to appreciate, as the author closes the book, “What a wonderful world it was. We won't see its like again, I'm afraid.”

The 1950s were the golden age of comic books, and whilst shopping at the local supermarket, Bryson's mother would drop him in the (unsupervised) Kiddie Corral where he and other offspring could indulge for free to their heart's content. It's only natural a red-blooded Iowan boy would discover himself to be a superhero, The Thunderbolt Kid, endowed with ThunderVision, which enabled his withering gaze to vapourise morons. Regrettably, the power seemed to lack permanence, and the morons so dispersed into particles of the luminiferous æther had a tedious way of reassembling themselves and further vexing our hero and his long-suffering schoolmates. But still, more work for The Thunderbolt Kid!

This was a magic time in the United States—when prosperity not only returned after depression and war, but exploded to such an extent that mean family income more than doubled in the 1950s while most women still remained at home raising their families. What had been considered luxuries just a few years before: refrigerators and freezers, cars and even second cars, single family homes, air conditioning, television, all became commonplace (although kids would still gather in the yard of the neighbourhood plutocrat to squint through his window at the wonder of colour TV and chuckle at why he paid so much for it).

Although the transformation of the U.S. from an agrarian society to a predominantly urban and industrial nation was well underway, most families were no more than one generation removed from the land, and Bryson recounts his visits to his grandparents' farm which recall what was lost and gained as that pillar of American society went into eclipse.

There are relatively few factual errors, but from time to time Bryson's narrative swallows counterfactual left-wing conventional wisdom about the Fifties. For example, writing about atomic bomb testing:

Altogether between 1946 and 1962, the United States detonated just over a thousand nuclear warheads, including some three hundred in the open air, hurling numberless tons of radioactive dust into the atmosphere. The USSR, China, Britain, and France detonated scores more.

Sigh…where do we start? Well, the obvious subtext is that U.S. started the arms race and that other nuclear powers responded in a feeble manner. In fact, the U.S. conducted a total of 1030 nuclear tests, with a total of 215 detonated in the atmosphere, including all tests up until testing was suspended in 1992, with the balance conducted underground with no release of radioactivity. The Soviet Union (USSR) did, indeed, conduct “scores” of tests, to be precise 35.75 score with a total of 715 tests, with 219 in the atmosphere—more than the U.S.—including Tsar Bomba, with a yield of 50 megatons. “Scores” indeed—surely the arms race was entirely at the instigation of the U.S.

If you've grown up in he U.S. in the 1950s or wished you did, you'll want to read this book. I had totally forgotten the radioactive toilets you had to pay to use but kids could wiggle under the door to bask in their actinic glare, the glories of automobiles you could understand piece by piece and were your ticket to exploring a broad continent where every town, every city was completely different: not just another configuration of the same franchises and strip malls (and yet recall how exciting it was when they first arrived: “We're finally part of the great national adventure!”)

The 1950s, when privation gave way to prosperity, yet Leviathan had not yet supplanted family, community, and civil society, it was utopia to be a kid (although, having been there, then, I'd have deemed it boring, but if I'd been confined inside as present-day embryonic taxpayers in safetyland are I'd have probably blown things up. Oh wait—Willoughby already did that, twelve hours too early!). If you grew up in the '50s, enjoy spending a few pleasant hours back there; if you're a parent of the baby boomers, exult in the childhood and opportunities you entrusted to them. And if you're a parent of a child in this constrained century? Seek to give your child the unbounded opportunities and unsupervised freedom to explore the world which Bryson and this humble scribbler experienced as we grew up.

Vapourising morons with ThunderVision—we need you more than ever, Thunderbolt Kid!

A U.S. edition is available.

January 2010 Permalink

Buckley, Reid. USA Today: The Stunning Incoherence of American Civilization. Camden, SC: P.E.N. Press, 2002. ISBN 0-972-1000-0-8.

The author, brother of William F. Buckley, is founder of a school of public speaking and author of several books on public speaking and two novels. Here, however, we have Buckley's impassioned, idiosyncratic, and (as far as I can tell) self-published rant against the iniquities of contemporary U.S. morals, politics, and culture. Bottom line: he doesn't like it—the last two sentences are “The supine and swinish American public is the reason why our society has become so vile. We are vile.” This book would have been well served had the author enlisted brother Bill or his editor to red-pencil the manuscript. How the humble apostrophe causes self-published authors to stumble! On page 342 we trip over the “biography of John Quincy Adam's” among numerous other exemplars of proletarian mispunctuation. On page 395, Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box has his name given as “Rehe” (and in the index too). On page 143, he misquotes Alan Guth's Inflationary Universe as saying the grand unification energy is “1016 GeV”, thereby getting it wrong by thirteen orders of magnitude compared to the 1016 GeV a sharp-eyed proofreader would have caught. All of this, and Buckley's meandering off into anecdotes of his beloved hometown of Camden, South Carolina and philosophical disquisitions distract from the central question posed in the book which is both profound and disturbing: can a self-governing republic survive without a consensus moral code shared by a large majority of its citizens? This is a question stalwarts of Western civilisation need to be asking themselves in this non-judgemental, multi-cultural age, and I wish Buckley had posed it more clearly in this book, which despite the title, has nothing whatsoever to do with that regrettable yet prefixally-eponymous McNewspaper.

January 2004 Permalink

Cahill, Thomas. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-49553-6.

November 2003 Permalink

Chesterton, Gilbert K. What's Wrong with the World. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, [1910] 1994. ISBN 0-89870-489-8.
Writing in the first decade of the twentieth century in his inimitable riddle-like paradoxical style, Chesterton surveys the scene around him as Britain faced the new century and didn't find much to his satisfaction. A thorough traditionalist, he finds contemporary public figures, both Conservative and Progressive/Socialist, equally contemptible, essentially disagreeing only upon whether the common man should be enslaved and exploited in the interest of industry and commerce, or by an all-powerful monolithic state. He further deplores the modernist assumption, shared by both political tendencies, that once a change in society is undertaken, it must always be pursued: “You can't put the clock back”. But, as he asks, why not? “A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.” (p. 33). He urges us not to blindly believe in “progress” or “modernisation”, but rather to ask whether these changes have made things better or worse and, if worse, to undertake to reverse them.

In five sections, he surveys the impact of industrial society on the common man, of imperialism upon the colonisers and colonised, of feminism upon women and the family, of education upon children, and of collectivism upon individuality and the human spirit. In each he perceives the pernicious influence of an intellectual elite upon the general population who, he believes, are far more sensible about how to live their lives than those who style themselves their betters. For a book published almost a hundred years ago, this analysis frequently seems startlingly modern (although I'm not sure that's a word Chesterton would take as a compliment) and relevant to the present-day scene. While some of the specific issues (for example, women's suffrage, teaching of classical languages in the schools, and eugenics) may seem quaint, much of the last century has demonstrated the disagreeable consequences of the “progress” he discusses and accurately anticipated.

This reprint edition includes footnotes which explain Chesterton's many references to contemporary and historical figures and events which would have been familiar to his audience in 1910 but may be obscure to readers almost a century later. A free electronic edition (but without the explanatory footnotes) is available from Project Gutenberg.

October 2007 Permalink

Clarey, Aaron. Enjoy the Decline. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4802-8476-0.
Many readers may find this book deeply cynical, disturbing, and immoral. I found it cynical, disturbing, and immoral, but also important, especially for younger people who wish to make the most of their lives and find themselves in a United States in an epoch in which it is, with the consent of the majority, descending into a grey collectivist tyranny and surveillance state, where productive and creative people are seen as subjects to be exploited to benefit an ever-growing dependent class which supports the state which supports them.

I left the United States in 1991 and have only returned since for brief visits with family or to attend professional conferences. Since 2001, as the totalitarian vibe there has grown rapidly, I try to make these visits as infrequent as possible, my last being in 2011. Since the 1990s, I have been urging productive people in the U.S. to consider emigrating but, with only a couple of exceptions, nobody has taken this advice. I've always considered this somewhat odd, since most people in the U.S. are descended from those who left their countries of birth and came there to escape tyranny and seek opportunity. But most people in the U.S. seem to recoil from the idea of leaving, even as their own government becomes more repressive and exploits them to a greater extent than the regimes their ancestors fled.

This book is addressed to productive people (primarily young ones with few existing responsibilities) who have decided to remain in the United States. (Chapter 10 discusses emigration, and while it is a useful introduction to the topic, I'd suggest those pondering that option read Time to Emigrate? [January 2007], even though it is addressed to people in the United Kingdom.) The central message is that with the re-election of Obama in 2012, the U.S. electorate have explicitly endorsed a path which will lead to economic and geopolitical decline and ever-increasing exploitation of a shrinking productive class in favour of a growing dependent population. How is a productive person, what the author calls a “Real American”, to respond to this? One could dedicate oneself to struggling to reverse the trend through political activism, or grimly struggle to make the best of the situation while working hard even as more of the fruits of one's labour are confiscated. Alternatively, one can seek to “enjoy the decline”: face the reality that once a democratic society reaches the tipping point where more than half of the electorate receives more in government transfer payments than they pay in taxes it's game over and a new set of incentives have been put in place which those wishing to make the most of their lives must face forthrightly unless they wish to live in a delusional state.

In essence, the author argues, the definition of the “good life” is fundamentally transformed once a society begins the slide into collectivist tyranny. It is a fool's errand to seek to get an advanced education when that only burdens one with debt which will take most of a lifetime to repay and make capital formation in the most productive working years impossible. Home ownership, once the goal of young people and families, and their main financial asset, only indentures you to a state which can raise property taxes at any time and confiscate your property if you cannot pay. Marriage and children must be weighed, particularly by men, against the potential downside in case things don't work out, which is why, increasingly, men are going on strike. Scrimping and saving to contribute to a retirement plan is only piling up assets a cash-strapped government may seize when it can't pay its bills, as has already happened in Argentina and other countries.

What matters? Friends, family (if you can get along with them), having a good time, making the most of the years when you can hike, climb mountains, ride motorcycles way too fast, hunt, fish, read books that interest you, and share all of this and more with a compatible companion. And you're doing this while your contemporaries are putting in 60 hour weeks, seeing half or more of their income confiscated, and hoping to do these things at some distant time in the future, assuming their pensions don't default and their retirement funds aren't stolen or inflated away.

There are a number of things here which people may find off-putting, if not shocking. In chapter 7, the author discusses the “ ‘Smith and Wesson’ Retirement Plan”—not making any provision for retirement, living it up while you can, and putting a bullet in your head when you begin to fail. I suspect this sounds like a lot better idea when you're young (the author was 38 years old at the publication date of this book) than when you're getting closer to the checkered flag. In chapter 8, introduced by a quote from Ayn Rand, he discusses the strategy of minimising one's income and thereby qualifying for as many government assistance programs as possible. Hey, if the people have legitimately voted for them, why not be a beneficiary instead of the sucker who pays for them?

Whatever you think of the advice in this book (which comes across as sincere, not satirical), the thing to keep in mind is that it is an accurate description of the incentives which now exist in the U.S. While it's unlikely that many productive people will read this book and dial their ambitions back into slacker territory or become overt parasites, what's important is the decisions made on the margin by those unsure how to proceed in their lives. As the U.S. becomes poorer, weaker, and less free, perhaps the winners, at least on a relative basis, will be those who do not rage against the dying of the light or struggle to exist as they are progressively enslaved, but rather people who opt out to the extent possible and react rationally to the incentives as they exist. I would (and have) emigrated, but if that's not possible or thinkable, this book may provide a guide to making the best of a tragic situation.

The book contains numerous citations of resources on the Web, each of which is linked in the text: in the Kindle edition, clicking the link takes you to the cited Web page.

August 2013 Permalink

D'Souza, Dinesh. What's So Great About Christianity. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59698-517-9.
I would almost certainly never have picked up a book with this title had I not happened to listen to a podcast interview with the author last October. In it, he says that his goal in writing the book was to engage the contemporary intellectually militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger on their own turf, mounting a rational argument in favour of faith in general and Christianity in particular, demonstrating that there are no serious incompatibilities between the Bible and scientific theories such as evolution and the big bang, debunking overblown accounts of wrongs perpetrated in the name of religion such as the crusades, the inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, witch hunts, and religious wars in Europe, and arguing that the great mass murders of the twentieth century can be laid at the feet not of religion, but atheist regimes bent on building heaven on Earth. All this is a pretty tall order, especially for a book of just 304 pages of main text, but the author does a remarkably effective job of it. While I doubt the arguments presented here will sway those who have made a belligerent atheism central to their self esteem, many readers may be surprised to discover that the arguments of the atheists are nowhere near as one sided as their propaganda would suggest.

Another main theme of the book is identifying how many of the central components of Western civilisation: limited government, religious toleration, individualism, separation of church and state, respect for individual human rights, and the scientific method, all have their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and how atheism and materialism can corrode these pillars supporting the culture which (rightly) allows the atheists the freedom to attack it. The author is neither a fundamentalist nor one who believes the Bible is true in a literal sense: he argues that when the scriptures are read, as most Christian scholars have understood them over two millennia, as using a variety of literary techniques to convey their message, there is no conflict between biblical accounts and modern science and, in some cases, the Bible seems to have anticipated recent discoveries. D'Souza believes that Darwinian evolution is not in conflict with the Bible and, while respectful of supporters of intelligent design, sees no need to invoke it. He zeroes in precisely on the key issue: that evolution cannot explain the origin of life since evolution can only operate on already living organisms upon which variation and selection can occur.

A good deal of the book can be read as a defence of religion in general against the arguments of atheism. Only in the last two chapters does he specifically make the case for the exceptionalism of Christianity. While polemicists such as Dawkins and Hitchens come across as angry, this book is written in a calm, self-confident tone and with such a limpid clarity that it is a joy to read. As one who has spent a good deal of time pondering the possibility that we may be living in a simulation created by an intelligent designer (“it isn't a universe; it's a science fair project”), this book surprised me as being 100% compatible with that view and provided several additional insights to expand my work in progress on the topic.

March 2008 Permalink

Day, Vox [Theodore Beale]. SJWs Always Lie. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2015. ASIN B014GMBUR4.
Vox Day is the nom de plume and now nom de guerre of Theodore Beale, a musician with three Billboard Top 40 credits, video game designer, author of science fiction and fantasy and three-time Hugo Award nominee, and non-fiction author and editor.

If you're not involved in the subcultures of computer gaming or science fiction and fantasy, you may not be acquainted with terms such as SJW (Social Justice Warrior), GamerGate, or Sad Puppies. You may conclude that such matters are arcana relating to subcultures of not-particularly-socially-adept people which have little bearing on the larger culture. In this, you would be wrong. For almost fifty years, collectivists and authoritarians have been infiltrating cultural institutions, and now occupy the high ground in institutions such as education, the administrative state, media, and large corporations. This is the “long march through the institutions” foreseen by Antonio Gramsci, and it has, so far, been an extraordinary success, not only advancing its own agenda with a slow, inexorable ratchet, but intimidating opponents into silence for fear of having their careers or reputations destroyed. Nobody is immune: two Nobel Prize winners, James Watson and Tim Hunt, have been declared anathema because of remarks deemed offensive by SJWs. Nominally conservative publications such as National Review, headquartered in hives of collectivist corruption such as New York and Washington, were intimidated into a reflexive cringe at the slightest sign of outrage by SJWs, jettisoning superb writers such as Ann Coulter and John Derbyshire in an attempt to appease the unappeasable.

Then, just as the SJWs were feeling triumphant, GamerGate came along, and the first serious push-back began. Few expected the gamer community to become a hotbed of resistance, since gamers are all over the map in their political views (if they have any at all), and are a diverse bunch, although a majority are younger males. But they have a strong sense of right and wrong, and are accustomed to immediate and decisive negative feedback when they choose unwisely in the games they play. What they came to perceive was that the journalists writing about games were applauding objectively terrible games, such as Depression Quest, due to bias and collusion among the gaming media.

Much the same had been going on in the world of science fiction. SJWs had infiltrated the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to such an extent that they directed their Nebula Awards to others of their ilk, and awarded them based upon “diversity” rather than merit. The same rot had corrupted fandom and its Hugo Awards.

Vox Day was near the centre of the cyclone in the revolt against all of this. The campaign to advance a slate of science fiction worthy of the Hugos rather than the pap selected by the SJWs resulted in the 2015 Hugos being blown up, demonstrating that SJWs would rather destroy a venerable institution than cede territory.

This book is a superbly written history of GamerGate and the revolt against SJWs in science fiction and fantasy writers' associations and fandom, but also provides deep insight into the seriously dysfunctional world of the SJW and advice about how to deal with them and what to do if you find yourself a target. The tactics of the SJWs are laid bare, and practical advice is given as to how to identify SJWs before they enter your organisation and how to get rid of them if they're already hired. (And get rid of them you must; they're like communists in the 1930s–1950s: once in place they will hire others and promote their kind within the organisation. You have to do your homework, and the Internet is your friend—the most innocuous co-worker or prospective employee may have a long digital trail you can find quickly with a search engine.)

There is no compromising with these people. That has been the key mistake of those who have found themselves targeted by SJWs. Any apology will be immediately trumpeted as an admission of culpability, and nothing less than the complete destruction of the career and life of the target will suffice. They are not well-meaning adversaries; they are enemies, and you must, if they attack you, seek to destroy them just as they seek to destroy you. Read Alinsky; they have. I'm not suggesting you call in SWAT raids on their residences, dig up and release damaging personal information on them, or make anonymous bomb threats when they gather. But be aware that they have used these tactics repeatedly against their opponents.

You must also learn that SJWs have no concern for objective facts. You can neither persuade nor dissuade them from advancing their arguments by citing facts that falsify their claims. They will repeat their objectively false talking points until they tire you out or drown out your voice. You are engaging in dialectic while they are employing rhetoric. To defeat them, you must counter their rhetoric with your own rhetoric, even when the facts are on your side.

Vox Day was in the middle of these early battles of the counter-revolution, both in GamerGate and the science fiction insurrection, and he provides a wealth of practical advice for those either attacked by SJWs or actively fighting back. This is a battle, and somebody is going to win and somebody else will lose. As he notes, “There can be no reconciliation between the observant and the delusional.” But those who perceive reality as it is, not as interpreted through a “narrative” in which they have been indoctrinated, have an advantage in this struggle. It may seem odd to find gamers and science fiction fans in the vanguard of the assault against this insanity but, as the author notes, “Gamers conquer Dragons and fight Gods for a hobby.”

October 2015 Permalink

Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy. New York: Spiegel & Grau, [2009] 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-52391-2.
The last decade or so I lived in California, I spent a good deal of my time being angry—so much so that I didn't really perceive the extent that anger had become part of who I was and how I lived my life. It was only after I'd gotten out of California and the U.S. in 1991 and lived a couple of years in Switzerland that I discovered that the absence of driving on crumbling roads overcrowded with aggressive and incompetent drivers, a government bent on destroying productive enterprise, and a culture collapsing into vulgarity and decadence had changed who I was: in short, only after leaving Marin County California, had I become that thing which its denizens delude themselves into believing they are—mellow.

What, you might be asking yourself, does this have to do with a book about the lives of ordinary people in North Korea? Well, after a couple of decades in Switzerland, it takes quite a bit of provocation to bring back the old hair-on-fire white flash, like passing through a U.S. airport or…reading this book. I do not mean that this book angered me; it is a superb work of reportage on a society so hermetically closed that obtaining even the slightest details on what is really going on there is near-impossible, as tourists and journalists are rarely permitted to travel outside North Korea's capital of Pyongyang, a Stalinist Potemkin village built to deceive them as to the situation in other cities and the countryside. What angered me is the horrible, pointless, and needless waste of the lives of tens of millions of people, generation after generation, at the hands of a tyranny so abject it seems to have read Orwell's 1984 not as a dystopian warning, but an instruction manual. The victims of this tragedy are not just the millions who have died in the famines, ended their lives in the sprawling complex of prisons and forced labour camps, or were executed for “crimes” such as trying to communicate with relatives outside the country; but the tens of millions forced to live in a society which seems to have been engineered to extinguish every single pleasure which makes human life worth living. Stunted due to lack of food, indoctrinated with the fantasy that the horror which is their lives is the best for which they can hope, and deprived of any contact with the human intellectual heritage which does not serve the interests of their rulers, they live in an environment which a medieval serf would view as a huge step down from their lot in life, all while the rulers at the top of the pyramid live in grand style and are treated as legitimate actors on the international stage by diplomatic crapweasels from countries that should be shamed by their behaviour.

In this book the author tackles the formidable task of penetrating the barrier of secrecy and lies which hides the reality of life in North Korea from the rest of the world by recounting the lives of six defectors all of whom originated in Chongjin, the third largest city in North Korea, off limits to almost all foreign visitors. The names of the witnesses to this horror have been changed to protect relatives still within the slave state, but their testimony is quoted at length and provides a chilling view of what faces the 24 million who have so far been unable to escape. Now, clearly, if you're relying exclusively on the testimony of those who have managed to escape an oppressive regime, you're going to get a different picture than if you'd interviewed those who remain—just as you'd get a different view of California and the U.S. from somebody who got out of there twenty years ago compared to a current resident—but the author takes pains to corroborate the accounts of defectors against one another and the sparse information available from international aid workers who have been infrequently allowed to visit Chongjin. The accounts of the culture shock escapees from North Korea experience not just in 21st century South Korea but even in rural China are heartrending: Kim Ji-eun, a medical doctor who escaped to China after seeing the children in her care succumb to starvation without anything she could do, describes her first memory of China as discovering a dog's bowl filled with white rice and bits of meat and realising that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

As Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Taking on board the information in this narrative may cause you to question many of what appear to be sound approaches to bringing an end to this horror. For, according to the accounts of the defectors, tyranny of the North Korean style actually works quite well: escapees are minuscule compared to the population which remains behind, many of whom actually appear to believe the lies of the regime that they are a superior race and have it better than the balance of humanity, even as they see members of their family starve to death or disappear into the gulag. For some years I have been thinking about “freedom flights”. This is where a bunch of liberty-loving philanthropists hire a fleet of cargo aircraft to scatter several million single-shot pistols, each with its own individual parachute and accompanied by a translation of Major von Dach's book, across the territory of tyrannical Hell-holes and “let the people rule”. After reading this book, I'm not sure that would suffice. So effectively has the population been brainwashed that it seems a substantial fraction believe the lies of the regime and accept their sorry lot as the normal state of human existence. Perhaps we'll also need to drop solar-powered or hand-cranked satellite radio receivers to provide a window into the outside world—along with the guns, of course, to take care of snitches who try to turn in those who choose to widen their perspective and the minions of the state who come to arrest them.

By almost any measure, North Korea is an extreme outlier. By comparison, Iran is almost a paradise. Even Zimbabwe, while Hell on earth for those unfortunate enough to live there, is relatively transparent to outsiders who document what is going on and much easier to escape. But studying the end point of trends which seem to be relatively benign when they get going can be enlightening, and this book provides a chilling view of what awaits at the final off-ramp of the road to serfdom.

September 2011 Permalink

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. ISBN 0-374-52221-9.

January 2004 Permalink

Dworkin, Ronald W. Artificial Happiness. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006. ISBN 0-78671-714-9.
Western societies, with the United States in the lead, appear to be embarked on a grand scale social engineering experiment with little consideration of the potentially disastrous consequences both for individuals and the society at large. Over the last two decades “minor depression”, often no more than what, in less clinical nomenclature one would term unhappiness, has become seen as a medical condition treatable with pharmaceuticals, and prescription of these medications, mostly by general practitioners, not psychiatrists or psychologists, has skyrocketed, with drugs such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft regularly appearing on lists of the most frequently prescribed. Tens of million of people in the United States take these pills, which are being prescribed to children and adolescents as well as adults.

Now, there's no question that these medications have been a Godsend for individuals suffering from severe clinical depression, which is now understood in many cases to be an organic disease caused by imbalances in the metabolism of neurotransmitters in the brain. But this vast public health experiment in medicating unhappiness is another thing altogether. Unhappiness, like pain, is a signal that something's wrong, and a motivator to change things for the better. But if unhappiness is seen as a disease which is treated by swallowing pills, this signal is removed, and people are numbed or stupefied out of taking action to eliminate the cause of their unhappiness: changing jobs or careers, reducing stress, escaping from abusive personal relationships, or embarking on some activity which they find personally rewarding. Self esteem used to be thought of as something you earned from accomplishing difficult things; once it becomes a state of mind you get from a bottle of pills, then what will become of all the accomplishments the happily medicated no longer feel motivated to achieve?

These are serious questions, and deserve serious investigation and a book-length treatment of the contemporary scene and trends. This is not, however, that book. The author is an M.D. anæsthesiologist with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute—impressive credentials. Notwithstanding them, the present work reads like something written by somebody who learned Marxism from a comic book. Individuals, entire professions, and groups as heterogeneous as clergy of organised religions are portrayed like cardboard cutouts—with stick figures drawn on them—in crayon. Each group the author identifies is seen as acting monolithically toward a specific goal, which is always nefarious in some way, advancing an agenda based solely on its own interest. The possibility that a family doctor might prescribe antidepressants for an unhappy patient in the belief that he or she is solving a problem for the patient is scarcely considered. No, the doctor is part of a grand conspiracy of “primary care physicians” advancing an agenda to usurp the “turf” (a term he uses incessantly) of first psychiatrists, and finally organised religion.

After reading this entire book, I still can't decide whether the author is really as stupid as he seems, or simply writes so poorly that he comes across that way. Each chapter starts out lurching toward a goal, loses its way and rambles off in various directions until the requisite number of pages have been filled, and then states a conclusion which is not justified by the content of the chapter. There are few cliches in the English language which are not used here—again and again. Here is an example of one of hundreds of paragraphs to which the only rational reaction is “Huh?”.

So long as spirituality was an idea, such as believing in God, it fell under religious control. However, if doctors redefined spirituality to mean a sensual phenomenon—a feeling—then doctors would control it, since feelings had long since passed into the medical profession's hands, the best example being unhappiness. Turning spirituality into a feeling would also help doctors square the phenomenon with their own ideology. If spirituality were redefined to mean a feeling rather than an idea, then doctors could group spirituality with all the other feelings, including unhappiness, thereby preserving their ideology's integrity. Spirituality, like unhappiness, would become a problem of neurotransmitters and a subclause of their ideology. (Page 226.)
A reader opening this book is confronted with 293 pages of this. This paragraph appears in chapter nine, “The Last Battle”, which describes the Manichean struggle between doctors and organised religion in the 1990s for the custody of the souls of Americans, ending in a total rout of religion. Oh, you missed that? Me too.

Mass medication with psychotropic drugs is a topic which cries out for a statistical examination of its public health dimensions, but Dworkin relates only anecdotes of individuals he has known personally, all of whose minds he seems to be able to read, diagnosing their true motivations which even they don't perceive, and discerning their true destiny in life, which he believes they are failing to follow due to medication for unhappiness.

And if things weren't muddled enough, he drags in “alternative medicine” (the modern, polite term for what used to be called “quackery”) and ”obsessive exercise” as other sources of Artificial Happiness (which he capitalises everywhere), which is rather odd since he doesn't believe either works except through the placebo effect. Isn't it just a little bit possible that some of those people working out at the gym are doing so because it makes them feel better and likely to live longer? Dworkin tries to envision the future for the Happy American, decoupled from the traditional trajectory through life by the ability to experience chemically induced happiness at any stage. Here, he seems to simultaneously admire and ridicule the culture of the 1950s, of which his knowledge seems to be drawn from re-runs of “Leave it to Beaver”. In the conclusion, he modestly proposes a solution to the problem which requires completely restructuring medical education for general practitioners and redefining the mission of all organised religions. At least he doesn't seem to have a problem with self-esteem!

October 2006 Permalink

Edwards-Jones, Imogen. Fashion Babylon. London: Corgi Books, 2006. ISBN 0-552-15443-1.
This is a hard-to-classify but interesting and enjoyable book. I'm not sure even whether to call it fiction or nonfiction: the author has invented a notional co-author, “Anonymous”, who relates, condensed into a single six-month fashion season, anecdotes from a large collection of sources within the British fashion industry, all of which the author vouches for as authentic. Celebrities appear under their own names, and the stories involving them (often bizarre) are claimed to be genuine.

If you're looking for snark, cynicism, cocaine, cigarettes, champagne, anorexia, and other decadence and dissipation, you'll find it, but you'll also take away a thorough grounding in the economics of a business fully as bizarre as the software industry. The gross margin is almost as high and, except for the brand name and associated logos, there is essentially zero protection of intellectual property (as long as you don't counterfeit the brand, you can knock-off any design, just as you can create a work-alike for almost any non-patent-protected software product and sell it for a tiny fraction of the price of the prototype). The vertiginous plunge from the gross margin to the meagre bottom line is mostly promotional hype: blow-outs to “build the brand”. So it may increasingly become in the software business as increases in functionality in products appeal to a smaller and smaller fraction of the customer base, or even reduce usability (Windows Vista, anybody?).

A U.S. Edition will be published in February 2008.

December 2007 Permalink

Epstein, Robert. The Case Against Adolescence. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2007. ISBN 1-884956-70-X.
What's the matter with kids today? In this exhaustively documented breakthrough book, the author argues that adolescence, as it is presently understood in developed Western countries, is a social construct which was created between 1880 and 1920 by well-intentioned social reformers responding to excesses of the industrial revolution and mass immigration to the United States. Their remedies—compulsory education, child labour laws, the juvenile justice system, and the proliferation of age-specific restrictions on “adult” activities such as driving, drinking alcohol, and smoking—had the unintended consequence of almost completely segregating teenagers from adults, trapping them in a vacuous peer culture and prolonging childhood up to a decade beyond the age at which young people begin to assume the responsibilities of adulthood in traditional societies.

Examining anthropological research on other cultures and historical evidence from past centuries, the author concludes that the “storm and stress” which characterises modern adolescence is the consequence of the infantilisation of teens, and their confinement in a peer culture with little contact with adults. In societies and historical periods where the young became integrated into adult society shortly after puberty and began to shoulder adult responsibilities, there is no evidence whatsoever for anything like the dysfunctional adolescence so often observed in the modern West—in fact, a majority of preindustrial cultures have no word in their language for the concept of adolescence.

Epstein, a psychologist who did his Ph.D. under B. F. Skinner at Harvard, and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine, presents results of a comprehensive test of adultness he developed along with Diane Dumas which demonstrate that in most cases the competencies of people in the 13 to 17 year range do not differ from those of adults between twenty and seventy-one by a statistically significant margin. (I should note that the groups surveyed, as described on pp. 154–155, differed wildly in ethnic and geographic composition from the U.S. population as a whole; I'd love to see the cross-tabulations.) An abridged version of the test is included in the book; you can take the complete test online. (My score was 98%, with most of the demerits due to placing less trust in figures of authority than the author deems wise.)

So, if there is little difference in the basic competences of teens and adults, why are so many adolescents such vapid, messed-up, apathetic losers? Well, consider this: primates learn by observing (monkey see) and by emulating (monkey do). For millions of years our ancestors have lived in bands in which the young had most of their contact with adults, and began to do the work of adults as soon as they were physically and mentally capable of doing so. This was the near-universal model of human societies until the late 19th century and remains so in many non-Western cultures. But in the West, this pattern has been replaced by warehousing teenagers in government schools which effectively confine them with others of their age. Their only adult contacts apart from (increasingly absent) parents are teachers, who are inevitably seen as jailors. How are young people to be expected to turn their inherent competencies into adult behaviour if they spend almost all of their time only with their peers?

Now, the author doesn't claim that everybody between the ages of 13 and 17 has the ability to function as an adult. Just as with physical development, different individuals mature at different rates, and one may have superb competence in one area and remain childish in another. But, on the other hand, simply turning 18 or 21 or whatever doesn't magically endow someone with those competencies either—many adults (defined by age) perform poorly as well.

In two breathtaking final chapters, the author argues for the replacement of virtually all age-based discrimination in the law with competence testing in the specific area involved. For example, a 13 year old could entirely skip high school by passing the equivalency examination available to those 18 or older. There's already a precedent for this—we don't automatically allow somebody to drive, fly an airplane, or operate an amateur radio station when they reach a certain age: they have to pass a comprehensive examination on theory, practice, and law. Why couldn't this basic concept be extended to most of the rights and responsibilities we currently grant based purely upon age? Think of the incentive such a system would create for teens to acquire adult knowledge and behaviour as early as possible, knowing that it would be rewarded with adult rights and respect, instead of being treated like children for what could be some of the most productive years of their lives.

Boxes throughout the text highlight the real-world achievements of young people in history and the present day. (Did you know that Sergey Karjakin became a chess grandmaster at the age of 12 years and 7 months? He is among seven who achieved grandmaster ranking at an age younger than Bobby Fischer's 15 years and 6 months.) There are more than 75 pages of end notes and bibliography. (I wonder if the author is aware that note 68 to chapter 5 [p. 424] cites a publication of the Lyndon LaRouche organisation.)

It isn't often you pick up a book with laudatory blurbs by a collection of people including Albert Ellis, Deepak Chopra, Joyce Brothers, Alvin Toffler, George Will, John Taylor Gatto, Suzanne Somers, and Buzz Aldrin. I concur with them that the author has put his finger precisely on the cause of a major problem in modern society, and laid out a challenging yet plausible course for remedying it. I discovered this book via an excellent podcast interview with the author on “The Glenn and Helen Show”.

About halfway through this book, I had one of the most chilling visions of the future I've experienced in many years. One of the things I've puzzled over for ages is what, precisely, is the end state of the vision of those who call themselves “progressives”—progress toward what, anyway? What would society look like if they had their way across the board? And then suddenly it hit me like a brick. If you want to see what the “progressive” utopia looks like, just take a glance at the lives of teenagers today, who are deprived of a broad spectrum of rights and denied responsibilities “for their own good”. Do-gooders always justify their do-badding “for the children”, and their paternalistic policies, by eviscerating individualism and autonomous judgement, continually create ever more “children”. The nineteenth century reformers, responding to genuine excesses of the industrial revolution, extended childhood from puberty to years later, inventing what we call adolescence. The agenda of today's “progressives” is inexorably extending adolescence to create a society of eternal adolescents, unworthy of the responsibilities of adults, and hence forever the childlike wards of an all-intrusive state and the elites which govern it. If you want a vision of the “progressive” future, imagine being back in high school—forever.

July 2007 Permalink

Florey, Kitty Burns. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House, 2006. ISBN 1-933633-10-7.
In 1877, Alonzo Reed and and Brainerd Kellogg published Higher Lessons in English, which introduced their system for the grammatical diagramming of English sentences. For example, the sentence “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up” (an example from Lesson 63 of their book) would be diagrammed as:
Diagrammed sentence
Diagram by Bruce D. Despain.
in the Reed and Kellogg system.

The idea was to make the grammatical structure of the sentence immediately evident, sharpening students' skills in parsing sentences and rendering grammatical errors apparent. This seems to have been one of those cases when an idea springs upon a world which has, without knowing it, been waiting for just such a thing. Sentence diagramming spread through U.S. schools like wildfire—within a few years Higher Lessons and the five other books on which Reed and Kellogg collaborated were selling at the astonishing rate of half a million copies a year, and diagramming was firmly established in the English classes of children across the country and remained so until the 1960s, when it evaporated almost as rapidly as it had appeared.

The author and I are both members of the last generation who were taught sentence diagramming at school. She remembers it as having been “fun” (p. 15), something which was not otherwise much in evidence in Sister Bernadette's sixth grade classroom. I learnt diagramming in the seventh grade, and it's the only part of English class that I recall having enjoyed. (Gertrude Stein once said [p. 73], “I really do not know anything that has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” I don't think I'd go quite that far myself.) In retrospect, it seems an odd part of the curriculum: we spent about a month furiously parsing and diagramming, then dropped the whole thing and never took it up again that year or afterwards; I can't recall ever diagramming a sentence since.

This book, written by an author and professional copy editor, charmingly recounts the origin, practice, curiosities, and decline of sentence diagramming, and introduces the reader to stalwarts who are keeping it alive today. There are a wealth of examples from literature, including the 93 word concluding sentence of Proust's Time Regained, which appears as a two-page spread (pp. 94–95). (The author describes seeing a poster from the 1970s which diagrams a 958 word Proust sentence without an explicit subject.)

Does diagramming make one a better writer? The general consensus, which the author shares, is that it doesn't, which may explain why it is rarely taught today. While a diagram shows the grammatical structure of a sentence, you already have to understand the rules of grammar in order to diagram it, and you can make perfectly fine looking diagrams of barbarisms such as “Me and him gone out.” Also, as a programmer, it disturbs me that one cannot always unambiguously recover the word order of the original sentence from a diagram; this is not a problem with the tree diagrams used by linguists today. But something doesn't have to be useful to be fun (even if not, as it was to Gertrude Stein, exciting), and the structure of a complex sentence graphically elucidated on a page is marvellous to behold and rewarding to create. I'm sure some may disdain those of us who find entertainment in such arcane intellectual endeavours; after all, the first name of the co-inventor of diagramming, Brainerd Kellogg, includes both the words “brain” and “nerd”!

The author's remark on p. 120, “…I must confess that I like editing my own work more than I do writing it. I find first drafts painful; what I love is to revise and polish. Sometimes I think I write simply to have the fun of editing what I've written.” is one I share, as Gertrude Stein put it (p. 76), “completely entirely completely”—and it's a sentiment I don't ever recall seeing in print before. I think the fact that students aren't taught that a first draft is simply the raw material of a cogent, comprehensible document is why we encounter so many hideously poorly written documents on the Web.

The complete text of the 1896 Revised Edition of Reed and Kellogg's Higher Lessons in English is available from Project Gutenberg; the diagrams are rendered as ASCII art and a little difficult to read until you get used to them. Eugene R. Moutoux, who constructed the diagrams for the complicated sentences in Florey's book has a wealth of information about sentence diagramming on his Web site, including diagrams of famous first-page sentences from literature such as this beauty from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

January 2007 Permalink

Fussell, Paul. BAD. New York: Summit Books, 1991. ISBN 0-671-67652-0.

May 2003 Permalink

Fussell, Paul. Uniforms. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. ISBN 0-618-06746-9.

May 2003 Permalink

Gelernter, David. America-Lite. New York: Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59403-606-4.
At the end of World War II, the United States bestrode the world like a colossus. All of its industrial competitors had been devastated by the war; it was self-sufficient in most essential resources; it was the unquestioned leader in science, technology, and medicine; its cultural influence was spread around the world by Hollywood movies; and the centre of the artistic and literary world had migrated from Paris to New York. The generation which had won the war, enabled by the G.I. Bill, veterans swarmed into institutions of higher learning formerly reserved for scions of the wealthy and privileged—by 1947, fully 49% of college admissions were veterans.

By 1965, two decades after the end of the war, it was pretty clear to anybody with open eyes that it all had begun to go seriously wrong. The United States was becoming ever more deeply embroiled in a land war in Asia without a rationale comprehensible to those who paid for it and were conscripted to fight there; the centres of once-great cities were beginning a death spiral in which a culture of dependency spawned a poisonous culture of crime, drugs, and the collapse of the family; the humiliatingly defeated and shamefully former Nazi collaborator French were draining the U.S. Treasury of its gold reserves, and the U.S. mint had replaced its silver coins with cheap counterfeit replacements. In August of 1965, the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles exploded in riots, and the unthinkable—U.S. citizens battling one another with deadly force in a major city, became the prototype for violent incidents to come. What happened?

In this short book (just 200 pages in the print edition), the author argues that it was what I have been calling the “culture crash” for the last decade. Here, this event is described as the “cultural revolution”: not a violent upheaval as happened in China, but a steady process through which the keys to the élite institutions which transmit the culture from generation to generation were handed over, without a struggle, from the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) patricians which had controlled them since Colonial days, to a new intellectual class, influenced by ideas from Continental Europe, which the author calls PORGIs (post-religious globalist intellectuals). Now, this is not to say that there were not intellectuals at top-tier institutions of higher learning before the cultural revolution; but they were not in charge: those who were saw their mission in a fundamentally conservative way—to conserve the grand tradition of Western civilisation by transmitting it to each successive generation, while inculcating in them the moral compass which would make them worthy leaders in business, the military, and public affairs.

The PORGIs had no use for this. They had theory, and if the facts weren't consistent with the theory and the consequences of implementing it disastrously different from those intended, well then the facts must be faulty because the theory was crystalline perfection in itself. (And all of this became manifest well before the cognitive dissonance between academic fantasy and the real world became so great that the intellectuals had to invent postmodernism, denying the very existence of objective reality.)

The PORGIs (Well, I suppose we can at least take comfort that the intellectual high ground wasn't taken over by Corgis; imagine the chaos that would have engendered!) quickly moved to eliminate the core curricula in higher learning which taught Western history, culture, and moral tradition. This was replaced (theory being supreme, and unchallenged), with indoctrination in an ideology unmoored to the facts. Rather than individuals able to think and learn on their own, those educated by the PORGIs became servomechanisms who, stimulated by this or that keyword, would spit out a rote response: “Jefferson?” “White slaveowner!”

These, the generation educated by the PORGIs, starting around the mid 1960s, the author calls PORGI airheads. We all have our own “mental furniture” which we've accumulated over our lives—the way we make sense of the bewildering flow of information from the outside world: sorting it into categories, prioritising it, and deciding how to act upon it. Those with a traditional (pre-PORGI) education, or those like myself and the vast majority of people my age or older who figured it out on their own by reading books and talking to other people, have painfully built our own mental furniture, re-arranged it as facts came in which didn't fit with the ways we'd come to understand things, and sometimes heaved the old Barcalounger out the window when something completely contradicted our previous assumptions. With PORGI airheads, none of this obtains. They do not have the historical or cultural context to evaluate how well their pre-programmed responses fit the unforgiving real world. They are like parrots: you wave a French fry at them and they say, “Hello!” Another French fry, “Hello!” You wave a titanium billet painted to look like a French fry, “Hello!” Beak notched from the attempt to peel a titanium ingot, you try it once again.

“Hello!”

Is there anybody who has been visible on the Internet for more than a few years who has not experienced interactions with these people? Here is my own personal collection of greatest hits.

Gelernter argues that Barack Obama is the first PORGI airhead to be elected to the presidency. What some see as ideology may be better explained as servomechanism “Hello!” response to stimuli for which his mentors have pre-programmed him. He knows nothing of World War II, or the Cold War, or of colonialism in Africa, or of the rôle of the British Empire in eradicating the slave trade. All of these were deemed irrelevant by the PORGIs and PORGI airheads who trained him. And the 53% who voted for him were made a majority by the PORGI airheads cranked out every year and injected into the bloodstream of the dying civil society by an educational system almost entirely in the hands of the enemy.

What is to be done? The author's prescription is much the same as my own. We need to break the back of the higher education (and for that matter, the union-dominated primary and secondary education) system and replace it with an Internet-based educational delivery system where students will have access to courses taught by the best pedagogues in the world (ranked in real time not just by student thumbs up and down, but by objectively measured outcomes, such as third-party test scores and employment results). Then we need independent certification agencies, operating in competition with one another much like bond rating agencies, which issue “e-diplomas” based on examinations (not just like the SAT and bar exams, but also in-person and gnarly like a Ph.D. defence for the higher ranks). The pyramid of prestige would remain, as well as the cost structure: a Doctorate in Russian Literature from Harvard would open more doors at the local parking garage or fast food joint than one from Bob's Discount Degrees, but you get what you pay for. And, in any case, the certification would cost a tiny fraction of spending your prime intellectually productive years listening to tedious lectures given by graduate students marginally proficient in your own language.

The PORGIs correctly perceived the U.S. educational system to be the “keys to the kingdom”. They began, in Gramsci's long march through the institutions, to put in place the mechanisms which would tilt the electorate toward their tyrannical agenda. It is too late to reverse it; the educational establishment must be destroyed. “Destroyed?”, you ask—“These are strong words! Do you really mean it? Is it possible?” Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational global data network! Record stores…gone! Book stores…gone! Universities….

In the Kindle edition (which costs almost as much as the hardcover), the end-notes are properly bidirectionally linked to citations in the text, but the index is just a useless list of terms without links to references in the text. I'm sorry if I come across as a tedious “index hawk”, but especially when reviewing a book about declining intellectual standards, somebody has to do it.

August 2012 Permalink

Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51184-1.
This is a book which has been sorely needed for a long, long time, and the author has done a masterful job of identifying, disentangling, and dismantling the mountain of disinformation and obfuscation which has poisoned so much of the political discourse of the last half century.

As early as 1946, George Orwell observed in his essay “Politics and the English Language” that “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. This situation has only worsened in the succeeding decades, and finally we have here a book which thoroughly documents the origins of fascism as a leftist, collectivist ideology, grounded in Rousseau's (typically mistaken and pernicious) notion of the “general will”, and the direct descendant of the God-state first incarnated in the French Revolution and manifested in the Terror.

I'd have structured this book somewhat differently, but then when you've spent the last fifteen years not far from the French border, you may adopt a more top-down rationalist view of things; call it “geographical hazard”. There is a great deal of discussion here about the definitions and boundaries among the categories “progressive”, “fascist”, “Nazi”, “socialist”, “communist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “reactionary”, “social Darwinist”, and others, but it seems to me there's a top-level taxonomic divide which sorts out much of the confusion: collectivism versus individualism. Collectivists—socialists, communists, fascists—believe the individual to be subordinate to the state and subject to its will and collective goals, while individualists believe the state, to the limited extent it exists, is legitimate only as it protects the rights of the sovereign citizens who delegate to it their common defence and provision of public goods.

The whole question of what constitutes conservatism is ill-defined until we get to the Afterword where, on p. 403, there is a beautiful definition which would far better have appeared in the Introduction: that conservatism consists in conserving what is, and that consequently conservatives in different societies may have nothing whatsoever in common among what they wish to conserve. The fact that conservatives in the United States wish to conserve “private property, free markets, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and the rights of communities to determine for themselves how they will live within these guidelines” in no way identifies them with conservatives in other societies bent on conserving monarchy, a class system, or a discredited collectivist regime.

Although this is a popular work, the historical scholarship is thorough and impressive: there are 54 pages of endnotes and an excellent index. Readers accustomed to the author's flamboyant humorous style from his writings on National Review Online will find this a much more subdued read, appropriate to the serious subject matter.

Perhaps the most important message of this book is that, while collectivists hurl imprecations of “fascist” or “Nazi” at defenders of individual liberty, it is the latter who have carefully examined the pedigree of their beliefs and renounced those tainted by racism, authoritarianism, or other nostrums accepted uncritically in the past. Meanwhile, the self-described progressives (well, yes, but progress toward what?) have yet to subject their own intellectual heritage to a similar scrutiny. If and when they do so, they'll discover that both Mussolini's Fascist and Hitler's Nazi parties were considered movements of the left by almost all of their contemporaries before Stalin deemed them “right wing”. (But then Stalin called everybody who opposed him “right wing”, even Trotsky.) Woodrow Wilson's World War I socialism was, in many ways, the prototype of fascist governance and a major inspiration of the New Deal and Great Society. Admiration for Mussolini in the United States was widespread, and H. G. Wells, the socialist's socialist and one of the most influential figures in collectivist politics in the first half of the twentieth century said in a speech at Oxford in 1932, “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis.”

If you're interested in understanding the back-story of the words and concepts in the contemporary political discourse which are hurled back and forth without any of their historical context, this is a book you should read. Fortunately, lots of people seem to be doing so: it's been in the top ten on Amazon.com for the last week. My only quibble may actually be a contributor to its success: there are many references to current events, in particular the 2008 electoral campaign for the U.S. presidency; these will cause the book to be dated when the page is turned on these ephemeral events, and it shouldn't be—the historical message is essential to anybody who wishes to decode the language and subtexts of today's politics, and this book should be read by those who've long forgotten the runners-up and issues of the moment.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

January 2008 Permalink

Goldman, David P. How Civilizations Die. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-596-98273-4.
I am writing this review in the final days of July 2013. A century ago, in 1913, there was a broad consensus as to how the 20th century would play out, at least in Europe. A balance of power had been established among the great powers, locked into alliances and linked with trade relationships which made it seem to most observers that large-scale conflict was so contrary to the self-interest of nations that it was unthinkable. And yet, within a year, the irrevocable first steps toward what would be the most sanguinary conflict in human history so far would be underway, a global conflict which would result in more than 37 million casualties, with 16 million dead. The remainder of the 20th century was nothing like the conventional wisdom of 1913, with an even more costly global war to come, the great powers of 1913 reduced to second rank, and a bipolar world emerging stabilised only by the mutual threat of annihilation by weapons which could destroy entire cities within a half hour of being launched.

What if our expectations for the 21st century are just as wrong as those of confident observers in 1913?

The author writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online. It is commonplace to say “demographics is destiny”, yet Goldman is one a very few observers who really takes this to heart and projects the consequences of demographic trends which are visible to everybody but rarely projected to their logical conclusions. Those conclusions portend a very different 21st century than most anticipate. Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and increasingly, the so-called developing world are dying: they have fertility rates not just below replacement (around 2.1 children per woman), but in many cases deep into “demographic death spiral” territory from which no recovery is possible. At present fertility rates, by 2100 the population of Japan will have fallen by 55%, Russia 53%, Germany 46%, and Italy 39%. For a social welfare state, whose financial viability presumes a large population of young workers who will pay for the pensions and medical care of a smaller cohort of retirees, these numbers are simply catastrophic. The inverted age pyramid places an impossible tax burden upon workers, which further compounds the demographic collapse since they cannot afford to raise families large enough to arrest it.

Some in the Islamic world have noted this trend and interpreted it as meaning ultimate triumph for the ummah. To this, Goldman replies, “not so fast”—the book is subtitled “And Why Islam is Dying Too”. In fact, the Islamic world is in the process of undergoing a demographic transition as great as that of the Western nations, but on a time scale so short as to be unprecedented in human history. And while Western countries will face imposing problems coping with their aging populations, at least they have sufficient wealth to make addressing the problem, however painful, possible. Islamic countries without oil (which is where the overwhelming majority of Muslims live) have no such financial or human resources. Egypt, for example, imports about half its food calories and has a functional illiteracy rate of around 40%. These countries not only lack a social safety net, they cannot afford to feed their current population, not to mention a growing fraction of retirees.

When societies are humiliated (as Islam has been in its confrontation with modernity), they not only lose faith in the future, but lose their faith, as has happened in post-Christian Europe, and then they cease to have children. Further, as the author observes, while in traditional society children were an asset who would care for their parents in old age, “In the modern welfare state, child rearing is an act of altruism.” (p. 194) This altruism becomes increasingly difficult to justify when, increasingly, children are viewed as the property of the state, to be indoctrinated, medicated, and used to its ends and, should the parents object, abducted by an organ of the state. Why bother? Fewer and fewer couples of childbearing age make that choice. Nothing about this is new: Athens, Sparta, and Rome all experienced the same collapse in fertility when they ceased to believe in their future—and each one eventually fell.

This makes for an extraordinarily dangerous situation. The history of warfare shows that in many conflicts the majority of casualties on the losing side occur after it was clear to those in political and military leadership that defeat was inevitable. As trends forecaster Gerald Celente says, “When people have nothing to lose, they lose it.” Societies which become aware of their own impending demographic extinction or shrinking position on the geopolitical stage will be tempted to go for the main prize before they scroll off the screen. This means that calculations based upon rational self-interest may not predict the behaviour of dying countries, any more than all of the arguments in 1913 about a European war being irrational kept one from erupting a year later.

There is much, much more in this book, with some of which I agree and some of which I find dubious, but it is all worthy of your consideration. The author sees the United States and Israel as exceptional states, as both have largely kept their faith and maintained a sustainable birthrate to carry them into the future. He ultimately agrees with me (p. 264) that “It is cheaper to seal off the failed states from the rest of the world than to attempt to occupy them and control the travel of their citizens.”

The twenty-first century may be nothing like what the conventional wisdom crowd assume. Here is a provocative alternative view which will get you thinking about how different things may be, as trends already in progress, difficult or impossible to reverse, continue in the coming years.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are properly linked to the text and in notes which cite a document on the Web, the URL is linked to the on-line document. The index, however, is simply a useless list of terms without links to references in the text.

July 2013 Permalink

Hanson, Victor Davis. Mexifornia. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003. ISBN 1-893554-73-2.

August 2003 Permalink

Harsanyi, David. Nanny State. New York: Broadway Books, 2007. ISBN 0-7679-2432-0.
In my earlier review of The Case Against Adolescence (July 2007), I concluded by observing that perhaps the end state of the “progressive” vision of the future is “being back in high school—forever”. Reading this short book (just 234 pages of main text, with 55 pages of end notes, bibliography, and index) may lead you to conclude that view was unduly optimistic. As the author documents, seemingly well-justified mandatory seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws in the 1980s punched through the barrier which used to deflect earnest (or ambitious) politicians urging “We have to do something”. That barrier, the once near-universal consensus that “It isn't the government's business”, had been eroded to a paper-thin membrane by earlier encroachments upon individual liberty and autonomy. Once breached, a torrent of infantilising laws, regulations, and litigation was unleashed, much of it promoted by single-issue advocacy groups and trial lawyers with a direct financial interest in the outcome, and often backed by nonexistent or junk science. The consequence, as the slippery slope became a vertical descent in the nineties and oughties, is the emergence of a society which seems to be evolving into a giant kindergarten, where children never have the opportunity to learn to be responsible adults, and nominal adults are treated as production and consumption modules, wards of a state which regulates every aspect of their behaviour, and surveils their every action.

It seems to me that the author has precisely diagnosed the fundamental problem: that once you accept the premise that the government can intrude into the sphere of private actions for an individual's own good (or, Heaven help us, “for the children”), then there is no limit whatsoever on how far it can go. Why, you might have security cameras going up on every street corner, cities banning smoking in the outdoors, and police ticketing people for listening to their iPods while crossing the street—oh, wait. Having left the U.S. in 1991, I was unaware of the extent of the present madness and the lack of push-back by reasonable people and the citizens who are seeing their scope of individual autonomy shrink with every session of the legislature. Another enlightening observation is that this is not, as some might think, entirely a phenomenon promoted by paternalist collectivists and manifest primarily in moonbat caves such as Seattle, San Francisco, and New York. The puritanical authoritarians of the right are just as willing to get into the act, as egregious examples from “red states” such as Texas and Alabama illustrate.

Just imagine how many more intrusions upon individual choice and lifestyle will be coming if the U.S. opts for socialised medicine. It's enough to make you go out and order a Hamdog!

October 2007 Permalink

Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Liberty. London: Atlantic Books, [2003] 2004. ISBN 1-84354-149-1.
This is a revised edition of the hardcover published in 2003 as A Brief History of Crime. Unlike the police of most other countries (including most of the U.S.), since the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, police in England and Wales focused primarily on the prevention of crime through a regular, visible presence and constant contact with the community, as opposed to responding after the commission of a crime to investigate and apprehend those responsible. Certainly, detection was among the missions of the police, but crime was viewed as a failure of policing, not an inevitable circumstance to which one could only react. Hitchens argues that it is this approach which, for more than a century, made these lands among the safest, civil, and free on Earth, with police integrated in the society as uniformed citizens, not a privileged arm of the state set above the people. Starting in the 1960s, all of this began to change, motivated by a mix of utopian visions and the hope of cutting costs. The bobby on the beat was replaced by police in squad cars with sirens and flashing lights, inevitably arriving after a crime was committed and able to do little more than comfort the victims and report yet another crime unlikely to be solved. Predictably, crime in Britain exploded to the upside, with far more police and police spending per capita than before the “reforms” unable to even reduce its rate of growth. The response of the government elite has not been to return to preventive policing, but rather to progressively infringe the fundamental liberties of citizens, trending toward the third world model of a police state with high crime. None of this would have surprised Hayek, who foresaw it all The Road to Serfdom (May 2002). Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom (September 2002) provides a view from the streets surrendered to savagery, and the prisons and hospitals occupied by the perpetrators and their victims. In this edition, Hitchens deleted two chapters from the hardcover which questioned Britain's abolition of capital punishment and fanatic program of victim disarmament (“gun control”). He did so “with some sadness” because “the only way to affect politics in this country is to influence the left”, and these issues are “articles of faith with the modern left”. As “People do not like to be made to think about their faith”, he felt the case better put by their exclusion. I have cited these quotes from pp. xi–xii of the Preface without ellipses but, I believe, fairly.

May 2004 Permalink

Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Britain. 2nd. ed. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-39-2.
History records many examples of the collapse of once great and long-established cultures. Usually, such events are the consequence of military defeat, occupation or colonisation by a foreign power, violent revolution and its totalitarian aftermath, natural disasters, or other dramatic and destructive events. In this book, Peter Hitchens chronicles the collapse, within the span of a single human lifetime (bracketed by the funerals of Winston Churchill in 1965 and Princess Diana in 1997), of the culture which made Britain British, and maintained domestic peace in England and Wales since 1685 (and Scotland since Culloden in 1746) while the Continent was repeatedly convulsed by war and revolution. The collapse in Britain, however, occurred following victory in a global conflict in which, at the start, Britain stood alone against tyranny and barbarism, and although rooted in a time of postwar privation, demotion from great power status, and loss of empire, ran its course as the nation experienced unprecedented and broadly-based prosperity.

Hitchens argues that the British cultural collapse was almost entirely the result of well-intentioned “reform” and “modernisation” knocking out the highly evolved and subtly interconnected pillars which supported the culture, set in motion, perhaps, by immersion in American culture during World War II (see chapter 16—this argument seems rather dubious to me, since many of the postwar changes in Britain also occurred in the U.S., but afterward), and reinforced and accelerated by television broadcasting, the perils of which were prophetically sketched by T.S. Eliot in 1950 (p. 128). When the pillars of a culture: historical memory, national identity and pride, religion and morality, family, language, community, landscape and architecture, decency, and education are dislodged, even slightly, what ensues is much like the “controlled implosion” demolition of a building, with the Hobbesian forces of “every man for himself” taking the place of gravity in pulling down the structure and creating the essential preconditions for the replacement of bottom-up self-government by self-reliant citizens with authoritarian rule by élite such as Tony Blair's ambition of U.S.-style presidential power and, the leviathan where the road to serfdom leads, the emerging anti-democratic Continental super-state.

This U.S second edition includes notes which explain British terms and personalities unlikely to be familiar to readers abroad, a preface addressed to American readers, and an afterword discussing the 2001 general election and subsequent events.

November 2005 Permalink

Houston, Keith. Shady Characters. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. ISBN 978-0-393-06442-1.
The earliest written languages seem mostly to have been mnemonic tools for recording and reciting spoken text. As such, they had little need for punctuation and many managed to get along withoutevenspacesbetweenwords. If you read it out loud, it's pretty easy to sound out (although words written without spaces can be used to create deliciously ambiguous text). As the written language evolved to encompass scholarly and sacred texts, commentaries upon other texts, fiction, drama, and law, the structural complexity of the text grew apace, and it became increasingly difficult to express this in words alone. Punctuation was born.

In the third century B.C. Aristophanes of Byzantium (not to be confused with the other fellow), librarian at Alexandria, invented a system of dots to denote logical breaks in Greek texts of classical rhetoric, which were placed after units called the komma, kolon, and periodos. In a different graphical form, they are with us still.

Until the introduction of movable type printing in Europe in the 15th century, books were hand-copied by scribes, each of whom was free, within the constraints of their institutions, to innovate in the presentation of the texts they copied. In the interest of conserving rare and expensive writing materials such as papyrus and parchment, abbreviations came into common use. The humble ampersand (the derivation of whose English name is delightfully presented here) dates to the shorthand invented by Cicero's personal secretary/slave Tiro, who invented a mark to quickly write “et” as his master spoke.

Other punctuation marks co-evolved with textual criticism: quotation marks allowed writers to distinguish text from other sources included within their works, and asterisks, daggers, and other symbols were introduced to denote commentary upon text. Once bound books (codices) printed with wide margins became common, readers would annotate them as they read, often pointing out key passages. Even a symbol as with-it as the now-ubiquitous “@” (which I recall around 1997 being called “the Internet logo”) is documented as having been used in 1536 as an abbreviation for amphorae of wine. And the ever-more-trending symbol prefixing #hashtags? Isaac Newton used it in the 17th century, and the story of how it came to be called an “octothorpe” is worthy of modern myth.

This is much more than a history of obscure punctuation. It traces how we communicate in writing over the millennia, and how technologies such as movable type printing, mechanical type composition, typewriting, phototypesetting, and computer text composition have both enriched and impoverished our written language. Impoverished? Indeed—I compose this on a computer able to display in excess of 64,000 characters from the written languages used by most people since the dawn of civilisation. And yet, thanks to the poisonous legacy of the typewriter, only a few people seem to be aware of the distinction, known to everybody setting type in the 19th century, among the em-dash—used to set off a phrase; the en-dash, denoting “to” in constructions like “1914–1918”; the hyphen, separating compound words such as “anarcho-libertarian” or words split at the end of a line; the minus sign, as in −4.221; and the figure dash, with the same width as numbers in a font where all numbers have the same width, which permits setting tables of numbers separated by dashes in even columns. People who appreciate typography and use TeX are acutely aware of this and grind their teeth when reading documents produced by demotic software tools such as Microsoft Word or reading postings on the Web which, although they could be so much better, would have made Mencken storm the Linotype floor of the Sunpapers had any of his writing been so poorly set.

Pilcrows, octothorpes, interrobangs, manicules, and the centuries-long quest for a typographical mark for irony (Like, we really need that¡)—this is a pure typographical delight: enjoy!

In the Kindle edition end of chapter notes are bidirectionally linked (albeit with inconsistent and duplicate reference marks), but end notes are not linked to their references in the text—you must manually flip to the notes and find the number. The end notes contain many references to Web URLs, but these are not active links, just text: to follow them you must copy and paste them into a browser address bar. The index is just a list of terms, not linked to references in the text. There is no way to distinguish examples of typographic symbols which are set in red type from chapter note reference links set in an identical red font.

October 2013 Permalink

Huntington, Samuel P. Who Are We? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. ISBN 0-684-87053-3.
The author, whose 1996 The Clash of Civilisations anticipated the conflicts of the early 21st century, here turns his attention inward toward the national identity of his own society. Huntington (who is, justifiably, accorded such respect by his colleagues that you might think his full name is “Eminent Scholar Samuel P. Huntington”) has written a book few others could have gotten away with without being villified in academia. His scholarship, lack of partisan agenda, thoroughness, and meticulous documentation make his argument here, that the United States were founded as what he calls an “Anglo-Protestant” culture by their overwhelmingly English Protestant settlers, difficult to refute. In his view, the U.S. were not a “melting pot” of immigrants, but rather a nation where successive waves of immigrants accepted and were assimilated into the pre-existing Anglo-Protestant culture, regardless of, and without renouncing, their ethnic origin and religion. The essentials of this culture—individualism, the work ethic, the English language, English common law, high moral standards, and individual responsibility—are not universals but were what immigrants had to buy into in order to “make it in America”. In fact, as Huntington points out, in the great waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of those who came to America were self-selected for those qualities before they boarded the boat. All of this has changed, he argues, with the mass immigration which began in the 1960s. For the first time, a large percentage of immigrants share a common language (Spanish) and hail from a common culture (Mexico), with which it is easy to retain contact. At the same time, U.S. national identity has been eroded among the elite (but not the population as a whole) in favour of transnational (U.N., multinational corporation, NGO) and subnational (race, gender) identities. So wise is Huntington that I found myself exclaiming every few pages at some throw-away insight I'd never otherwise have had, such as that most of the examples offered up of successful multi-cultural societies (Belgium, Canada, Switzerland) owe their stability to fear of powerful neighbours (p. 159). This book is long on analysis but almost devoid of policy prescriptions. Fair enough: the list of viable options with any probability of being implemented may well be the null set, but even so, it's worthwhile knowing what's coming. While the focus of this book is almost entirely on the U.S., Europeans whose countries are admitting large numbers of difficult to assimilate immigrants will find much to ponder here. One stylistic point—Huntington is as fond of enumerations as even the most fanatic of the French encyclopédistes: on page 27 he indulges in one with forty-eight items and two levels of hierarchy! The enumerations form kind of a basso continuo to the main text.

September 2004 Permalink

Jacobs, Jane. Dark Age Ahead. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-6232-2.
The reaction of a reader who chooses this book solely based on its title or the dust-jacket blurb is quite likely to be, “Huh?” The first chapter vividly evokes the squalor and mass cultural amnesia which followed the fall of Western Rome, the collapse of the Chinese global exploration and trade in the Ming dynasty, and the extinction of indigenous cultures in North America and elsewhere. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves talking about urban traffic planning, the merits of trolley buses vs. light rail systems, Toronto metropolitan government, accounting scandals, revenue sharing with municipalities, and a host of other issues which, however important, few would rank as high on the list of probable causes of an incipient dark age. These are issues near and dear to the author, who has been writing about them ever since her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jacobs was born in 1916 and wrote this book at the age of 87). If you're unfamiliar with her earlier work, the extensive discussion of “city import replacement” in the present volume will go right over your head as she never defines it here. Further, she uses the word “neoconservative” at variance with its usual meaning in the U.S. and Europe. It's only on page 113 (of 175 pages of main text) that we discover this is a uniquely Canadian definition. Fine, she's been a resident of Toronto since 1969, but this book is published in New York and addressed to an audience of “North Americans” (another Canadian usage), so it's unnecessarily confusing. I find little in this book to disagree with, but as a discussion of the genuine risks which face Western civilisation, it's superficial and largely irrelevant.

October 2004 Permalink

Kimball, Roger. Tenured Radicals. 3rd. ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, [1990, 1991, 1998] 2008. ISBN 978-1-56663-796-1.
If you want to understand what's happening in the United States today, and how the so-called millennial generation (May 2008) came to be what it is, there's no better place to start than this book, originally published eighteen years ago, which has just been released in a new paperback edition with an introduction and postscript totalling 65 pages which update the situation as of 2008. The main text has been revised as well, and a number of footnotes added to update matters which have changed since earlier editions.

Kimball's thesis is that, already by 1990, and far more and broadly diffused today, the humanities departments (English, Comparative Literature, Modern Languages, Philosophy, etc.) of prestigious (and now almost all) institutions of higher learning have been thoroughly radicalised by politically-oriented academics who have jettisoned the traditional canon of literature, art, and learning and rejected the traditional mission of a liberal arts education in favour of indoctrinating students in a nominally “multicultural” but actually anti-Western ideology which denies the existence of objective truth and the meaning of text, and inculcates the Marxist view that all works can be evaluated only in terms of their political context and consequences. These pernicious ideas, which have been discredited by their disastrous consequences in the last century and laughed out of public discourse everywhere else, have managed to achieve an effective hegemony in the American academy, with tenured radicals making hiring and tenure decisions based upon adherence to their ideology as opposed to merit in disinterested intellectual inquiry.

Now, putting aside this being disastrous to a society which, like all societies, is never more than one generation away from losing its culture, and catastrophic to a country which now has a second generation of voters entering the electorate who are ignorant of the cultural heritage they inherited and the history of the nation whose leadership they are about to assume, this spectacle can also be quite funny if observed with special goggles which only transmit black humour. For the whole intellectual tommyrot of “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” has become so trendy that intellectuals in other fields one would expect to be more immune to such twaddle are getting into the act, including the law (“Critical Legal Studies”) and—astoundingly—architecture. An entire chapter is devoted to “Deconstructivist Architecture”, which by its very name seems to indicate you wouldn't want to spend much time in buildings “deconstructed” by its proponents. And yet, it has a bevy of earnest advocates, including Peter Eisenman, one of the most distinguished of U.S. architects, who advised those wishing to move beyond the sterility of modernism to seek

a theory of the center, that is, a theory which occupies the center. I believe that only when such a theory of the center is articulated will architecture be able to transform itself as it always has and as it always will…. But the center that I am talking about is not a center that can be the center that we know is in the past, as a nostalgia for center. Rather, this not new but other center will be … an interstitial one—but one with no structure, but one also that embraces as periphery in its own centric position. … A center no longer sustained by nostalgia and no longer sustained by univocal discourse. (p. 187)
Got that? I'd hate to be a client explaining to him that I want the main door to be centred between these two windows.

But seriously, apart from the zaniness, intellectual vapidity and sophistry, and obscurantist prose (all of which are on abundant display here), what we're seeing what Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci called the “long march through the institutions” arriving at the Marxist promised land: institutions of higher education funded with taxpayer money and onerous tuition payments paid by hard-working parents and towering student loans disgorging class after class of historically and culturally ignorant, indoctrinated, and easily influenced individuals into the electorate, just waiting for a charismatic leader who knows how to eloquently enunciate the trigger words they've been waiting for.

In the 2008 postscript the author notes that a common reaction to the original 1990 edition of the book was the claim that he had cherry-picked for mockery a few of the inevitably bizarre extremes you're sure to find in a vibrant and diverse academic community. But with all the news in subsequent years of speech codes, jackboot enforcing of “diversity”, and the lockstep conformity of much of academia, this argument is less plausible today. Indeed, much of the history of the last two decades has been the diffusion of new deconstructive and multicultural orthodoxy from elite institutions into the mainstream and its creeping into the secondary school curriculum as well. What happens in academia matters, especially in a country in which an unprecedented percentage of the population passes through what style themselves as institutions of higher learning. The consequences of this should be begin to be manifest in the United States over the next few years.

November 2008 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. 1968 : The Year That Rocked the World. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-345-45582-7.
In the hands of an author who can make an entire book about Salt (February 2005) fascinating, the epochal year of 1968 abounds with people, events, and cultural phenomena which make for a compelling narrative. Many watershed events in history: war, inventions, plague, geographical discoveries, natural disasters, economic booms and busts, etc. have causes which are reasonably easy to determine. But 1968, like the wave of revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 (January 2002), seems to have been driven by a zeitgeist—a spirit in the air which independently inspired people to act in a common way.

The nearly simultaneous “youthquake” which shook societies as widespread and diverse as France, Poland, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Spain, and the United States, and manifested itself in radical social movements: antiwar, feminism, black power, anti-authoritarianism, psychedelic instant enlightenment, revolutionary and subversive music, and the emergence of “the whole world is watching” wired planetary culture of live satellite television, all of which continue to reverberate today, seemed so co-ordinated that politicians from Charles de Gaulle, Mexican el presidente Díaz Ordaz, and Leonid Brezhnev were convinced it must be the result of deliberate subversion by their enemies, and were motivated to repressive actions which, in the short term, only fed the fire. In fact, most of the leaders of the various youth movements (to the extent they can be called “leaders”—in those individualistic and anarchistic days, most disdained the title) had never met, and knew about the actions of one another only from what they saw on television. Radicals in the U.S. were largely unaware of the student movement in Mexico before it exploded into televised violence in October.

However the leaders of 1968 may have viewed themselves, in retrospect they were for the most part fascinating, intelligent, well-educated, motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, and optimistic that they could—nothing like the dour, hateful, contemptuous, intolerant, and historically and culturally ignorant people one so often finds today in collectivist movements which believe themselves descended from those of 1968. Consider Mark Rudd's famous letter to Grayson Kirk, president of Columbia University, which ended with the memorable sentence, “I'll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I'm sure you don't like a whole lot: ‘Up against the wall, mother****er, this is a stick-up.’” (p. 197), which shocked his contemporaries with the (quoted) profanity, but strikes readers today mostly for the grammatically correct use of “whom”. Who among present-day radicals has the eloquence of Mario Savio's “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop” (p. 92), yet had the politeness to remove his shoes to avoid damaging the paint before jumping on a police car to address a crowd. In the days of the Free Speech Movement, who would have imagined some of those student radicals, tenured professors four decades later, enacting campus speech codes and enforcing an intellectual monoculture on their own students?

It is remarkable to read on p. 149 how the French soixante-huitards were “dazzled” by their German contemporaries: “We went there and they had their banners and signs and their security forces and everything with militaristic tactics. It was new to me and the other French.” One suspects they weren't paying attention when their parents spoke of the spring of 1940! Some things haven't changed: when New Left leaders from ten countries finally had the opportunity to meet one another at a conference sponsored by the London School of Economics and the BBC (p. 353), the Americans dismissed the Europeans as all talk and no action, while the Europeans mocked the U.S. radicals' propensity for charging into battle without thinking through why, what the goal was supposed to be, or how it was to be achieved.

In the introduction, the author declares his sympathy for the radical movements of 1968 and says “fairness is possible but true objectivity is not”. And, indeed, the book is written from the phrasebook of the leftist legacy media: good guys are “progressives” and “activists”, while bad guys are “right wingers”, “bigots”, or “reactionaries”. (What's “progressive” ought to depend on your idea of progress. Was SNCC's expulsion of all its white members [p. 96] on racial grounds progress?) I do not recall a single observation which would be considered outside the box on the editorial page of the New York Times. While the book provides a thorough recounting of the events and acquaintance with the principal personalities involved, for me it failed to evoke the “anything goes”, “everything is possible” spirit of those days—maybe you just had to have been there. The summation is useful for correcting false memories of 1968, which ended with both Dubček and de Gaulle still in power; the only major world leader defeated in 1968 was Lyndon Johnson, and he was succeeded by Nixon. A “whatever became of” or “where are they now” section would be a useful addition; such information, when it's given, is scattered all over the text.

One wonders whether, in our increasingly interconnected world, something like 1968 could happen again. Certainly, that's the dream of greying radicals nostalgic for their days of glory and young firebrands regretful for having been born too late. Perhaps better channels of communication and the collapse of monolithic political structures have resulted in change becoming an incremental process which adapts to the evolving public consensus before a mass movement has time to develop. It could simply be that the major battles of “liberation” have all been won, and the next major conflict will be incited by those who wish to rein them in. Or maybe it's just that we're still trying to digest the consequences of 1968 and far from ready for another round.

April 2006 Permalink

Lamont, Peter. The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004. ISBN 1-56025-661-3.
Charmed by a mysterious swami, the end of a rope rises up of its own accord high into the air. A small boy climbs the rope and, upon reaching the top, vanishes. The Indian rope trick: ancient enigma of the subcontinent or 1890 invention by a Chicago newspaper embroiled in a circulation war? Peter Lamont, magician and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, traces the origin and growth of this pervasive legend. Along the way we encounter a cast of characters including Marco Polo; a Chief of the U.S. Secret Service; Madame Blavatsky; Charles Dickens; Colonel Stodare, an Englishman who impersonated a Frenchman performing Indian magic; William H. Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State; Professor Belzibub; General Earl Haig and his aptly named aide-de-camp, Sergeant Secrett; John Nevil Maskelyne, conjurer, debunker of spiritualism, and inventor of the pay toilet; and a host of others. The author's style is occasionally too clever for its own good, but this is a popular book about the Indian rope trick, not a quantum field theory text after all, so what the heck. I read the U.K. edition.

January 2005 Permalink

Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-26964-5.
In The Fatal Conceit (March 2005) Friedrich A. Hayek observed that almost any noun in the English language is devalued by preceding it with “social”. In this book, virtual reality pioneer, musician, and visionary Jaron Lanier argues that the digital revolution, which began in the 1970s with the advent of the personal computer and became a new foundation for human communication and interaction with widespread access to the Internet and the Web in the 1990s, took a disastrous wrong turn in the early years of the 21st century with the advent of the so-called “Web 2.0” technologies and “social networking”—hey, Hayek could've told you!

Like many technologists, the author was optimistic that with the efflorescence of the ubiquitous Internet in the 1990s combined with readily-affordable computer power which permitted photorealistic graphics and high fidelity sound synthesis, a new burst of bottom-up creativity would be unleashed; creative individuals would be empowered to realise not just new art, but new forms of art, along with new ways to collaborate and distribute their work to a global audience. This Army of Davids (March 2006) world, however, seems to have been derailed or at least delayed, and instead we've come to inhabit an Internet and network culture which is darker and less innovative. Lanier argues that the phenomenon of technological “lock in” makes this particularly ominous, since regrettable design decisions whose drawbacks were not even perceived when they were made, tend to become entrenched and almost impossible to remedy once they are widely adopted. (For example, just look at the difficulties in migrating the Internet to IPv6.) With application layer protocols, fundamentally changing them becomes almost impossible once a multitude of independently maintained applications rely upon them to intercommunicate.

Consider MIDI, which the author uses as an example of lock-in. Originally designed to allow music synthesisers and keyboards to interoperate, it embodies a keyboardist's view of the concept of a note, which is quite different from that, say, of a violinist or trombone player. Even with facilities such as pitch bend, there are musical articulations played on physical instruments which cannot be represented in MIDI sequences. But since MIDI has become locked in as the lingua franca of electronic music production, in effect the musical vocabulary has been limited to those concepts which can be represented in MIDI, resulting in a digital world which is impoverished in potential compared to the analogue instruments it aimed to replace.

With the advent of “social networking”, we appear to be locking in a representation of human beings as database entries with fields chosen from a limited menu of choices, and hence, as with MIDI, flattening down the unbounded diversity and potential of human individuals to categories which, not coincidentally, resemble the demographic bins used by marketers to target groups of customers. Further, the Internet, through its embrace of anonymity and throwaway identities and consequent devaluing of reputation, encourages mob behaviour and “drive by” attacks on individuals which make many venues open to the public more like a slum than an affinity group of like-minded people. Lanier argues that many of the pathologies we observe in behaviour on the Internet are neither inherent nor inevitable, but rather the consequences of bad user interface design. But with applications built on social networking platforms proliferating as rapidly as me-too venture capital hoses money in their direction, we may be stuck with these regrettable decisions and their pernicious consequences for a long time to come.

Next, the focus turns to the cult of free and open source software, “cloud computing”, “crowd sourcing”, and the assumption that a “hive mind” assembled from a multitude of individuals collaborating by means of the Internet can create novel and valuable work and even assume some of the attributes of personhood. Now, this may seem absurd, but there are many people in the Silicon Valley culture to whom these are articles of faith, and since these people are engaged in designing the tools many of us will end up using, it's worth looking at the assumptions which inform their designs. Compared to what seemed the unbounded potential of the personal computer and Internet revolutions in their early days, what the open model of development has achieved to date seems depressingly modest: re-implementations of an operating system, text editor, and programming language all rooted in the 1970s, and creation of a new encyclopedia which is structured in the same manner as paper encyclopedias dating from a century ago—oh wow. Where are the immersive massively multi-user virtual reality worlds, or the innovative presentation of science and mathematics in an interactive exploratory learning environment, or new ways to build computer tools without writing code, or any one of the hundreds of breakthroughs we assumed would come along when individual creativity was unleashed by their hardware prerequisites becoming available to a mass market at an affordable price?

Not only have the achievements of the free and open movement been, shall we say, modest, the other side of the “information wants to be free” creed has devastated traditional content providers such as the music publishing, newspaper, and magazine businesses. Now among many people there's no love lost for the legacy players in these sectors, and a sentiment of “good riddance” is common, if not outright gloating over their demise. But what hasn't happened, at least so far, is the expected replacement of these physical delivery channels with electronic equivalents which generate sufficient revenue to allow artists, journalists, and other primary content creators to make a living as they did before. Now, certainly, these occupations are a meritocracy where only a few manage to support themselves, no less become wealthy, while far more never make it. But with the mass Internet now approaching its twentieth birthday, wouldn't you expect at least a few people to have figured out how to make it work for them and prospered as creators in this new environment? If so, where are they?

For that matter, what new musical styles, forms of artistic expression, or literary genres have emerged in the age of the Internet? Has the lack of a viable business model for such creations led to a situation the author describes as, “It's as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.” One need only visit YouTube to see what he's talking about. Don't read the comments there—that path leads to despair, which is a low state.

Lanier's interests are eclectic, and a great many matters are discussed here including artificial intelligence, machine language translation, the financial crisis, zombies, neoteny in humans and human cultures, and cephalopod envy. Much of this is fascinating, and some is irritating, such as the discussion of the recent financial meltdown where it becomes clear the author simply doesn't know what he's talking about and misdiagnoses the causes of the catastrophe, which are explained so clearly in Thomas Sowell's The Housing Boom and Bust (March 2010).

I believe this is the octopus video cited in chapter 14. The author was dubious, upon viewing this, that it wasn't a computer graphics trick. I have not, as he has, dived the briny deep to meet cephalopods on their own turf, and I remain sceptical that the video represents what it purports to. This is one of the problems of the digital media age: when anything you can imagine can be persuasively computer synthesised, how can you trust any reportage of a remarkable phenomenon to be genuine if you haven't observed it for yourself?

Occasional aggravations aside, this is a thoughtful exploration of the state of the technologies which are redefining how people work, play, create, and communicate. Readers frustrated by the limitations and lack of imagination which characterises present-day software and network resources will discover, in reading this book, that tremendously empowering phrase, “it doesn't have to be that way”, and perhaps demand better of those bringing products to the market or perhaps embark upon building better tools themselves.

June 2010 Permalink

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: HarperCollins, [1944] 1947. ISBN 0-06-065294-2.
This short book (or long essay—the main text is but 83 pages) is subtitled “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools” but, in fact, is much more: one of the pithiest and most eloquent defences of traditional values I recall having read. Writing in the final years of World War II, when moral relativism was just beginning to infiltrate the secondary school curriculum, he uses as the point of departure an English textbook he refers to as “The Green Book” (actually The Control of Language: A critical approach to reading and writing, by Alex King and Martin Ketley), which he dissects as attempting to “debunk” the development of a visceral sense of right and wrong in students in the guise of avoiding emotionalism and sentimentality.

From his description of “The Green Book”, it seems pretty mild compared to the postmodern, multicultural, and politically correct propaganda aimed at present-day students, but then perhaps it takes an observer with the acuity of a C. S. Lewis to detect the poison in such a dilute form. He also identifies the associated perversion of language which accompanies the subversion of values. On p. 28 is this brilliant observation, which I only began to notice myself more than sixty years after Lewis identified it. “To abstain from calling it good and to use, instead, such predicates as ‘necessary”, ‘progressive’, or ‘efficient’ would be a subterfuge. They could be forced by argument to answer the questions ‘necessary for what?’, ‘progressing toward what?’, ‘effecting what?’; in the last resort they would have to admit that some state of affairs was in their opinion good for its own sake.” But of course the “progressives” and champions of “efficiency” don't want you to spend too much time thinking about the end point of where they want to take you.

Although Lewis's Christianity informs much of his work, religion plays little part in this argument. He uses the Chinese word Tao () or “The Way” to describe what he believes are a set of values shared, to some extent, by all successful civilisations, which must be transmitted to each successive generation if civilisation is to be preserved. To illustrate the universality of these principles, he includes a 19 page appendix listing the pillars of Natural Law, with illustrations taken from texts and verbal traditions of the Ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Old Norse, Babylonian, Hindu, Confucian, Greek, Roman, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, American Indian, and Australian Aborigine cultures. It seems like those bent on jettisoning these shared values are often motivated by disdain for the frequently-claimed divine origin of such codes of values. But their very universality suggests that, regardless of what myths cultures invent to package them, they represent an encoding of how human beings work and the distillation of millennia of often tragic trial-and-error experimentation in search of rules which allow members of our fractious species to live together and accomplish shared goals.

An on-line edition is available, although I doubt it is authorised, as the copyright for this work was last renewed in 1974.

May 2007 Permalink

Lileks, James. Mommy Knows Worst. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-8228-5.
Why did we baby boomers end up so doggone weird? Maybe it's thanks to all the “scientific” advice our parents received from “experts” who seemed convinced that despite millennia of ever-growing human population, new parents didn't have the slightest clue what do with babies and small children. James Lileks, who is emerging as one of the most talented and prolific humorists of this young century, collects some of the very best/worst of such advice in this volume, along with his side-splitting comments, as in the earlier volumes on food and interior decoration. Flip the pages and learn, as our parents did, why babies should be turned regularly as they broil in the Sun (pp. 36–42), why doping little snookums with opiates to make the bloody squaller shut up is a bad idea (pp. 44–48), why everything should be boiled, except for those which should be double boiled (pp. 26, 58–59, 65–68), plus the perfect solution for baby's ears that stick out like air scoops (pp. 32–33). This collection is laugh-out-loud funny from cover to cover; if you're looking for more in this vein, be sure to visit The Institute of Official Cheer and other features on the author's Web site which now includes a weekly audio broadcast.

December 2005 Permalink

Mack, John E. Abduction. New York: Ballantine Books, [1994] 1995. ISBN 0-345-39300-7.
I started this book, as I recall, sometime around 1998, having picked it up to get a taste for the “original material” after reading C.D.B. Bryan's excellent Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, describing an MIT conference on the alien abduction phenomenon. I made it most of the way through Abduction on the first attempt, but ran out of patience and steam about 100 pages from the finish line while reading the material “recovered” from “experiencer” Carlos, which is the literary equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld with a custard pudding. A mercifully brief excerpt with Mack's interpolations in parentheses goes as follows (p. 355).
Their bodies go from being the little white creatures they are to light. But when they become light, they first become like cores of light, like molten light. The appearance (of the core of light) is one of solidity. They change colors and a haze is projected around the (interior core which is centralized; surrounding this core in an immediate environment is a denser, tighter) haze (than its outer peripheries). The eyes are the last to go (as one perceives the process of the creatures disappearing into the light), and then they just kind of disappear or are absorbed into this. … We are or exist through our flesh, and they are or exist through whatever it is they are.
Got that? If not, there is much, much more along these lines in the extended babblings of this and a dozen other abductees, developed during the author's therapy sessions with them. Now, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum (Mack was killed in a traffic accident in 2004), and having won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of T.E. Lawrence in addition to his career as a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and founder of the psychiatry department at Cambridge Hospital, his credentials incline one to hear him out, however odd the message may seem to be.

One's mind, however, eventually summons up Thomas Jefferson's (possibly apocryphal) remark upon hearing of two Yale professors who investigated a meteor fall in Connecticut and pronounced it genuine, “Gentlemen, I would rather believe that two Yankee professors would lie than believe that stones fall from heaven.” Well, nobody's accusing Professor Mack of lying, but the leap from the oh-wow, New Age accounts elicited by hypnotic regression and presented here, to the conclusion that they are the result of a genuine phenomenon of some kind, possibly contact with “another plane of reality” is an awfully big one, and simply wading through the source material proved more than I could stomach on my first attempt. So, the book went back on the unfinished shelf, where it continued to glare at me balefully until a few days ago when, looking for something to read, I exclaimed, “Hey, if I can make it through The Ghosts of Evolution, surely I can finish this one!” So I did, picking up from the bookmark I left where my first assault on the summit petered out.

In small enough doses, much of this material can be quite funny. This paperback edition includes two appendices added to address issues raised after the publication of the original hardcover. In the first of these (p. 390), Mack argues that the presence of a genuine phenomenon of some kind is strongly supported by “…the reports of the experiencers themselves. Although varied in some respects, these are so densely consistent as to defy conventional psychiatric explanations.” Then, a mere three pages later, we are informed:

The aliens themselves seem able to change or disguise their form, and, as noted, may appear initially to the abductees as various kinds of animals, or even as ordinary human beings, as in Peter's case. But their shape-shifting abilities extend to their vehicles and to the environments they present to the abductees, which include, in this sample, a string of motorcycles (Dave), a forest and conference room (Catherine), images of Jesus in white robes (Jerry), and a soaring cathedral-like structure with stained glass windows (Sheila). One young woman, not written about in this book, recalled at age seven seeing a fifteen-foot kangaroo in a park, which turned out to be a small spacecraft.
Now that's “densely consistent”! One is also struck by how insipidly banal are the messages the supposed aliens deliver, which usually amount to New Age cerebral suds like “All is one”, “Treat the Earth kindly”, and the rest of the stuff which appeals to those who are into these kinds of things in the first place. Occam's razor seems to glide much more smoothly over the supposition that we are dealing with seriously delusional people endowed with vivid imaginations than that these are “transformational” messages sent by superior beings to avert “planetary destruction” by “for-profit business corporations” (p. 365, Mack's words, not those of an abductee). Fifteen-foot kangaroo? Well, anyway, now this book can hop onto the dubious shelf in the basement and stop making me feel guilty! For a sceptical view of the abduction phenomenon, see Philip J. Klass's UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game.

June 2005 Permalink

Mead, Rebecca. One Perfect Day. New York: Penguin Press, 2007. ISBN 1-59420-088-2.
This book does for for the wedding industry what Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death did for that equally emotion-exploiting industry which preys upon the other end of adult life. According to the American Wedding Study, published annually by the Condé Nast Bridal Group, the average cost of a wedding in the United States in 2006 was US$27,852. Now, as the author points out on p. 25, this number, without any doubt, is overstated—it is compiled by the publisher of three bridal magazines which has every incentive to show the market they reach to be as large as possible, and is based upon a survey of those already in contact in one way or another with the wedding industry; those who skip all of the theatrics and expense and simply go to City Hall or have a quiet ceremony with close family at home or at the local church are “off the radar” in a survey of this kind and would, if included, bring down the average cost. Still, it's the only figure available, and it is representative of what the wedding industry manages to extract from those who engage (if I may use the word) with it.

To folks who have a sense of the time value of money, this is a stunning figure. The average age at which Americans marry has been increasing for decades and now stands at around 26 years for women and 27 years for men. So let's take US$27,000 and, instead of blowing it out on a wedding, assume the couple uses it to open an investment account at age 27, and that they simply leave the money in the account to compound, depositing nothing more until they retire at age 65. If the account has a compounded rate of return of 10% per annum (which is comparable to the long-term return of the U.S. stock market as a whole), then at age 65, that US$27,000 will have grown to just a bit over a million dollars—a pretty nice retirement nest egg as the couple embarks upon their next big change of life, especially since government Ponzi scheme retirement programs are likely to have collapsed by then. (The OpenOffice spreadsheet I used to make this calculation is available for downloading. It also allows you to forecast the alternative of opting for an inexpensive education and depositing the US$19,000 average student loan burden into an account at age 21—that ends up yielding more than 1.2 million at age 65. The idea for this analysis came from Richard Russell's “Rich Man, Poor Man”, which is the single most lucid and important document on lifetime financial planning I have ever read.) The computation assumes the wedding costs are paid in cash by the couple and/or their families. If they're funded by debt, the financial consequences are even more dire, as the couple finds itself servicing a debt in the very years where saving for retirement has the largest ultimate payoff. Ever helpful, in this book we find the Bank of America marketing home equity loans to finance wedding blow-outs.

So how do you manage to spend twenty-seven thousand bucks on a one day party? Well, as the author documents, writing with a wry sense of irony which never descends into snarkiness, the resourceful wedding business makes it downright easy, and is continually inventing new ways to extract even more money from their customers. We learn the ways of the wedding planner, the bridal shop operator, the wedding media, resorts, photographers and videographers, à la carte “multi-faith” ministers, drive-through Las Vegas wedding chapels, and the bridal apparel industry, including a fascinating look inside one of the Chinese factories where “the product” is made. (Most Chinese factory workers are paid on a piecework basis. So how do you pay the person who removes the pins after lace has been sewed in place? By the weight of pins removed—US$2 per kilogram.)

With a majority of U.S. couples who marry already living together, some having one or more children attending the wedding, the ceremony and celebration, which once marked a major rite of passage and change in status within the community now means…precisely what? Well, not to worry, because the wedding industry has any number of “traditions” for sale to fill the void. The author tracks down the origins of a number of them: the expensive diamond engagement ring (invented by the N. W. Ayer advertising agency in the 1930s for their client, De Beers), the Unity Candle ceremony (apparently owing its popularity to a television soap opera in the 1970s), and the “Apache Indian Prayer”, a favourite of the culturally eclectic, which was actually penned by a Hollywood screenwriter for the 1950 film Broken Arrow.

The bottom line (and this book is very much about that) is that in the eyes of the wedding industry, and in the words of Condé Nast executive Peter K. Hunsinger, the bride is not so much a princess preparing for a magic day and embarking upon the lifetime adventure of matrimony, but (p. 31) “kind of the ultimate consumer, the drunken sailor. Everyone is trying to get to her.” There is an index, but no source citations; you'll have to find the background information on your own.

September 2007 Permalink

Miller, Richard L. Under The Cloud. The Woodlands, TX: Two Sixty Press, [1986] 1991. ISBN 978-1-881-043-05-8.
Folks born after the era of atmospheric nuclear testing, and acquainted with it only through accounts written decades later, are prone to react with bafflement—“What were they thinking?” This comprehensive, meticulously researched, and thoroughly documented account of the epoch not only describes what happened and what the consequences were for those in the path of fallout, but also places events in the social, political, military, and even popular culture context of that very different age. A common perception about the period is “nobody really understood the risks”. Well, it's quite a bit more complicated than that, as you'll understand after reading this exposition. As early as 1953, when ranchers near Cedar City, Utah lost more than 4000 sheep and lambs after they grazed on grass contaminated by fallout, investigators discovered the consequences of ingestion of Iodine-131, which is concentrated by the body in the thyroid gland, where it can not only lead to thyroid cancer but faster-developing metabolic diseases. The AEC reacted immediately to this discovery. Commissioner Eugene Zuckert observed that “In the present frame of mind of the public, it would only take a single illogical and unforeseeable incident to preclude holding any future tests in the United States”, and hence the author of the report on the incident was ordered to revise the document, “eliminating any reference to radiation damage or effects”. In a subsequent meetings with the farmers, the AEC denied any connection between fallout and the death of the sheep and denied compensation, claiming that the sheep, including grotesquely malformed lambs born to irradiated ewes, had died of “malnutrition”.

It was obvious to others that something serious was happening. Shortly after bomb tests began in Nevada, the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, New York which manufactured X-ray film discovered that when a fallout cloud was passing overhead their film batches would be ruined by pinhole fogging due to fallout radiation, and that they could not even package the film in cardboard supplied by a mill whose air and water supplies were contaminated by fallout. Since it was already known that radiologists with occupational exposure to X-rays had mean lifespans several years shorter than the general public, it was pretty obvious that exposing much of the population of a continent (and to a lesser extent the entire world) to a radiation dose which could ruin X-ray film had to be problematic at best and recklessly negligent at worst. And yet the tests continued, both in Nevada and the Pacific, until the Limited Test Ban Treaty between the U.S., USSR, and Great Britain was adopted in 1963. France and China, not signatories to the treaty, continued atmospheric tests until 1971 and 1980 respectively.

What were they thinking? Well, this was a world in which the memory of a cataclysmic war which had killed tens of millions of people was fresh, which appeared to be on the brink of an even more catastrophic conflict, which might be triggered if the adversary developed a weapon believed to permit a decisive preemptive attack or victory through intimidation. In such an environment where everything might be lost through weakness and dilatory progress in weapons research, the prospect of an elevated rate of disease among the general population was weighed against the possibility of tens of millions of deaths in a general conflict and the decision was made to pursue the testing. This may very well have been the correct decision—since you can't test a counterfactual, we'll never know—but there wasn't a general war between the East and West, and to this date no nuclear weapon has been used in war since 1945. But what is shocking and reprehensible is that the élites who made this difficult judgement call did not have the courage to share the facts with the constituents and taxpayers who paid their salaries and bought the bombs that irradiated their children's thyroids with Iodine-131 and bones with Strontium-90. (I'm a boomer. If you want to know just how many big boom clouds a boomer lived through as a kid, hold a sensitive radiation meter up to one of the long bones of the leg; you'll see the elevated beta radiation from the Strontium-90 ingested in milk and immured in the bones [Strontium is a chemical analogue of Calcium].) Instead, they denied the obvious effects, suppressed research which showed the potential risks, intimidated investigators exploring the effects of low level radiation, and covered up assessments of fallout intensity and effects upon those exposed. Thank goodness such travesties of science and public policy could not happen in our enlightened age! An excellent example of mid-fifties AEC propaganda is the Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region pamphlet, available on this site: “Your best action is not to be worried about fall-out. … We can expect many reports that ‘Geiger counters were going crazy here today.’ Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily. Don't let them bother you.”

This book describes U.S. nuclear testing in Nevada in detail, even giving the precise path the fallout cloud from most detonations took over the country. Pacific detonations are covered in less detail, concentrating on major events and fallout disasters such as Castle Bravo. Soviet tests and the Chelyabinsk-40 disaster are covered more sketchily (fair enough—most details remained secret when the book was written), and British, French, and Chinese atmospheric tests are mentioned only in passing.

The paperback edition of this book has the hefty cover price of US$39.95, which is ta lot for a book of 548 pages with just a few black and white illustrations. I read the Kindle edition, which is priced at US$11.99 at this writing, which is, on its merits, even more overpriced. It is a sad, sorry, and shoddy piece of work, which appears to be the result of scanning a printed edition of the book with an optical character recognition program and transferring it to Kindle format without any proofreading whatsoever. Numbers and punctuation are uniformly garbled, words are mis-recognised, random words are jammed into the text as huge raster images, page numbers and chapter headings are interleaved into the text, and hyphenated words are not joined while pairs of unrelated words are run together. The abundant end note citations are randomly garbled and not linked to the notes at the end of the book. The index is just a scan of that in the printed book, garbled, unlinked to the text, and utterly useless. Most public domain Kindle books sold for a dollar have much better production values than this full price edition. It is a shame that such an excellent work on which the author invested such a great amount of work doing the research and telling the story has been betrayed by this slapdash Kindle edition which will leave unwary purchasers feeling their pockets have been picked. I applaud Amazon's providing a way for niche publishers and independent authors to bring their works to market on the Kindle, but I wonder if their lack of quality control on the works published (especially at what passes for full price on the Kindle) might, in the end, injure the reputation of Kindle books among the customer base. After this experience, I know for sure that I will never again purchase a Kindle book from a minor publisher before checking the comments to see if the transfer merits the asking price. Amazon might also consider providing a feedback mechanism for Kindle purchasers to rate the quality of the transfer to the Kindle, which would appear along with the content-based rating of the work.

September 2010 Permalink

Murray, Charles. The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead. New York: Crown Business, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8041-4144-4.
Who, after reaching middle age and having learned, through the tedious but persuasive process of trial and error, what works and what doesn't, how to decide who is worthy of trust, and to distinguish passing fads from enduring values, hasn't dreamed of having a conversation with their twenty year old self, downloading this painfully acquired wisdom to give their younger self a leg up on the slippery, knife-edged-rungs of the ladder of life?

This slim book (144 pages) is a concentrated dose of wisdom applicable to young people entering the job market today. Those of my generation and the author's (he is a few years my senior) often worked at summer jobs during high school and part-time jobs while at university. This provided an introduction to the workplace, with its different social interactions than school or family life (in the business world, don't expect to be thanked for doing your job). Today's graduates entering the workforce often have no experience whatsoever in that environment and are bewildered because the incentives are so different from anything they've experienced before. They may have been a star student, but now they find themselves doing tedious work with little intellectual content, under strict deadlines, reporting to superiors who treat them as replaceable minions, not colleagues. Welcome to the real world.

This is an intensely practical book. Based upon a series of postings the author made on an internal site for interns and entry-level personnel at the American Enterprise Institute, he gives guidelines on writing, speaking, manners, appearance, and life strategy. As the author notes (p. 16), “Lots of the senior people who can help or hinder your career are closeted curmudgeons like me, including executives in their forties who have every appearance of being open minded and cool.” Even if you do not wish to become a curmudgeon yourself as you age (good luck with that, dude or dudette!), your advancement in your career will depend upon the approbation of those people you will become if you are fortunate enough to one day advance to their positions.

As a curmudgeon myself (hey, I hadn't yet turned forty when I found myself wandering the corridors of the company I'd founded and silently asking myself, “Who hired that?”), I found nothing in this book with which I disagree, and my only regret is that I couldn't have read it when I was 20. He warns millennials, “You're approaching adulthood with the elastic limit of a Baccarat champagne flute” (p. 96) and counsels them to spend some of those years when their plasticity is greatest and the penalty for errors is minimal in stretching themselves beyond their comfort zone, preparing for the challenges and adversity which will no doubt come later in life. Doug Casey has said that he could parachute naked into a country in sub-saharan Africa and within one week be in the ruler's office pitching a development scheme. That's rather more extreme than what Murray is advocating, but why not go large? Geronimo!

Throughout, Murray argues that what are often disdained as clichés are simply the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of generations of massively parallel trial and error search of the space of solutions of human problems, and that we ignore them at our peril. This is the essence of conservatism—valuing the wisdom of the past. But that does not mean one should be a conservative in the sense of believing that the past provides a unique template for the future. Those who came before did not have the computational power we have, nor the ability to communicate data worldwide almost instantaneously and nearly for free, nor the capacity, given the will, to migrate from Earth and make our species multi-planetary, nor to fix the aging bug and live forever. These innovations will fundamentally change human and post-human society, and yet I believe those who create them, and those who prosper in those new worlds will be exemplars of the timeless virtues which Murray describes here.

And when you get a tattoo or piercing, consider how it will look when you're seventy.

May 2014 Permalink

Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought. New York: Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-5535-6.
It's a safe bet that the vast majority of Westerners who have done business in East Asia (China, Japan, and Korea), and Asians who've done business in the West have come to the same conclusion: “Asians and Westerners think differently.” They may not say as much, at least not to the general public, for fear of being thought intolerant, but they believe it on the evidence of their own experience nonetheless.

Psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and his colleagues in China and Korea have been experimentally investigating the differences in Asian and Western thought processes, and their results are summarised in this enlightening book (with citations of the original research). Their work confirms the conventional wisdom—Westerners view the world through a telephoto lens, applying logic and reductionism to find the “one best way”, while Asians see a wide-angle view, taking into account the context of events and seeking a middle way between extremes and apparent contradictions—with experimental effect sizes which are large, robust, and reliable.

Present-day differences in Asian and Western thought are shown to be entirely consistent with those of ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, implying that whatever the cause, it is stable over long spans of history. Although experiments with infants provide some evidence for genetic predisposition, Nisbett suspects that a self-reinforcing homeostatic feedback loop between culture, language, and society is responsible for most of the difference in thought processes. The fact that Asian-Americans and Westernised Asians in Hong Kong and Singapore test between Asian and Western extremes provides evidence for this. (The fact that Asians excel at quintessentially Western intellectual endeavours such as abstract mathematics and theoretical science would, it seems to me, exclude most simple-minded explanations based on inherited differences in brain wiring.)

This work casts doubt upon Utopian notions of an End of History in which Western-style free markets and democracy are adopted by all nations and cultures around the globe. To a large extent, such a scenario assumes all people think like Westerners and share the same values, an assumption to which Nisbett's research offers persuasive counter examples. This may be for the best; both Western and Asian styles of thought are shown as predisposing those applying them to distinct, yet equally dangerous, fallacies. Perhaps a synthesis of these (and other) ways of thinking is a sounder foundation for a global society than the Western model alone.

December 2004 Permalink

Ortega y Gasset, José. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton, [1930, 1932, 1964] 1993. ISBN 0-393-31095-7.
This book, published more than seventy-five years ago, when the twentieth century was only three decades old, is a simply breathtaking diagnosis of the crises that manifested themselves in that century and the prognosis for human civilisation. The book was published in Spanish in 1930; this English translation, authorised and approved by the author, by a translator who requested to remain anonymous, first appeared in 1932 and has been in print ever since.

I have encountered few works so short (just 190 pages), which are so densely packed with enlightening observations and thought-provoking ideas. When I read a book, if I encounter a paragraph that I find striking, either in the writing or the idea it embodies, I usually add it to my “quotes” archive for future reference. If I did so with this book, I would find myself typing in a large portion of the entire text. This is not an easy read, not due to the quality of the writing and translation (which are excellent), nor the complexity of the concepts and arguments therein, but simply due to the pure number of insights packed in here, each of which makes you stop and ponder its derivation and implications.

The essential theme of the argument anticipated the crunchy/soggy analysis of society by more than 65 years. In brief, over-achieving self-motivated elites create liberal democracy and industrial economies. Liberal democracy and industry lead to the emergence of the “mass man”, self-defined as not of the elite and hostile to existing elite groups and institutions. The mass man, by strength of numbers and through the democratic institutions which enabled his emergence, seizes the levers of power and begins to use the State to gratify his immediate desires. But, unlike the elites who created the State, the mass man does not think or plan in the long term, and is disinclined to make the investments and sacrifices which were required to create the civilisation in the first place, and remain necessary if it is to survive. In this consists the crisis of civilisation, and grasping this single concept explains much of the history of the seven decades which followed the appearance of the book and events today. Suddenly some otherwise puzzling things start to come into focus, such as why it is, in a world enormously more wealthy than that of the nineteenth century, with abundant and well-educated human resources and technological capabilities which dwarf those of that epoch, there seems to be so little ambition to undertake large-scale projects, and why those which are embarked upon are so often bungled.

In a single footnote on p. 119, Ortega y Gasset explains what the brilliant Hans-Hermann Hoppe spent an entire book doing: why hereditary monarchies, whatever their problems, are usually better stewards of the national patrimony than democratically elected leaders. In pp. 172–186 he explains the curious drive toward European integration which has motivated conquerors from Napoleon through Hitler, and collectivist bureaucratic schemes such as the late, unlamented Soviet Union and the odious present-day European Union. On pp. 188–190 he explains why a cult of youth emerges in mass societies, and why they produce as citizens people who behave like self-indulgent perpetual adolescents. In another little single-sentence footnote on p. 175 he envisions the disintegration of the British Empire, then at its zenith, and the cultural fragmentation of the post-colonial states. I'm sure that few of the author's intellectual contemporaries could have imagined their descendants living among the achievements of Western civilisation yet largely ignorant of its history or cultural heritage; the author nails it in chapters 9–11, explaining why it was inevitable and tracing the consequences for the civilisation, then in chapter 12 he forecasts the fragmentation of science into hyper-specialised fields and the implications of that. On pp. 184–186 he explains the strange attraction of Soviet communism for European intellectuals who otherwise thought themselves individualists—recall, this is but six years after the death of Lenin. And still there is more…and more…and more. This is a book you can probably re-read every year for five years in a row and get something more out of it every time.

A full-text online edition is available, which is odd since the copyright of the English translation was last renewed in 1960 and should still be in effect, yet the site which hosts this edition claims that all their content is in the public domain.

June 2006 Permalink

Paul, Pamela. Pornified. New York: Times Books, 2005. ISBN 0-8050-7745-6.
If you've been on the receiving end of Internet junk mail as I've been until I discovered a few technical tricks (here and here) which, along with Annoyance Filter, have essentially eliminated spam from my mailbox, you're probably aware that the popular culture of the Internet is, to a substantial extent, about pornography and that this marvelous global packet switching medium is largely a means for delivering pornography both to those who seek it and those who find it, unsolicited, in their electronic mailboxes or popping up on their screens.

This is an integral part of the explosive growth of pornography along with the emergence of new media. In 1973, there were fewer than a thousand pornographic movie theatres in the U.S. (p 54). Building on the first exponential growth curve driven by home video, the Internet is bringing pornography to everybody connected and reducing the cost asymptotically to zero. On “peer to peer” networks such as Kazaa, 73% of all movie searches are for pornography and 24% of image searches are for child pornography (p. 60).

It's one thing to talk about free speech, but another to ask what the consequences might be of this explosion of consumption of material which is largely directed at men, and which not only objectifies but increasingly, as the standard of “edginess” ratchets upward, degrades women and supplants the complexity of adult human relationships with the fantasy instant gratification of “adult entertainment”.

Mark Schwartz, clinical director of the Masters and Johnson Clinic in St. Louis, hardly a puritanical institution, says (p. 142) “Pornography is having a dramatic effect on relationships at many different levels and in many different ways—and nobody outside the sexual behavior field and the psychiatric community is talking about it.” This book, by Time magazine contributor Pamela Paul, talks about it, interviewing both professionals surveying the landscape and individuals affected in various ways by the wave of pornography sweeping over developed countries connected to the Internet. Paul quotes Judith Coché, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has 25 years experience in therapy practice as saying (p. 180), “We have an epidemic on our hands. The growth of pornography and its impact on young people is really, really dangerous. And the most dangerous part is that we don't even realize what's happening.”

Ironically, part of this is due to the overwhelming evidence of the pernicious consequences of excessive consumption of pornography and its tendency to progress into addictive behaviour from the Zillman and Bryant studies and others, which have made academic ethics committees reluctant to approve follow-up studies involving human subjects (p. 90). Would you vote, based on the evidence in hand, for a double blind study of the effects of tobacco or heroin on previously unexposed subjects?

In effect, with the technologically-mediated collapse of the social strictures against pornography, we've embarked upon a huge, entirely unplanned, social and cultural experiment unprecedented in human history. This book will make people on both sides of the debate question their assumptions; the author, while clearly appalled by the effects of pornography on many of the people she interviews, is forthright in her opposition to censorship. Even if you have no interest in pornography nor strong opinions for or against it, there's little doubt that the ever-growing intrusiveness and deviance of pornography on the Internet will be a “wedge issue” in the coming battle over the secure Internet, so the message of this book, unwelcome as it may be, should be something which everybody interested in preserving both our open society and the fragile culture which sustains it ponders at some length.

October 2005 Permalink

Pennington, Maura. Great Men Are Free Men. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4664-4196-5.
This is so bad it is scarcely worth remarking upon. Hey, the Kindle edition is (at this writing) only a buck eighteen, but you also have to consider the value of the time it'll take you to read it, which is less than you might think because it's only 116 pages in the print edition, and much of that is white space around vapid dialogue. This is really a novella: there are no chapters (although two “parts” which differ little from one another, and hardly any character development. In fact, the absence of character development is only one aspect of the more general observation that nothing much happens at all.

A bunch of twenty-something members of the write-off generation are living in decadent imperial D.C., all cogs or aspiring cogs in the mindless and aimless machine of administrative soft despotism. All, that is, except for Charlie Winslow, who's working as a barista at a second-tier coffee joint until he can get into graduate school, immerse himself in philosophy, and bury himself for the rest of his life in the library, reading great works and writing “esoteric essays no one would read”. Charlie fashions himself a Great Man, and with his unique intellectual perspective towering above the molecular monolayer of his contemporaries, makes acerbic observations upon the D.C. scene which marginally irritates them. Finally, he snaps, and lets loose a tepid drizzle of speaking truth to poopheads, to which they respond “whatever”. And that's about it.

The author, who studied Russian at Dartmouth College, is a twenty-something living in D.C. who styles herself a libertarian. She writes a blog at Forbes.

March 2012 Permalink

Pinnock, Don. Gangs, Rituals and Rites of Passage. Cape Town: African Sun Press, 1997. ISBN 1-874915-08-3.

July 2001 Permalink

Ponnuru, Ramesh. The Party of Death. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1-59698-004-4.
One party government is not a pretty thing. Just as competition in the marketplace reins in the excesses of would-be commercial predators (while monopoly encourages them to do their worst), long-term political dominance by a single party inevitably leads to corruption, disconnection of the ruling elites from their constituents, and unsustainable policy decisions which are destructive in the long term; this is precisely what has eventually precipitated the collapse of most empires. In recent years the federal government of the United States has been dominated by the Republican party, with all three branches of government and both houses of the congress in Republican hands. Chapter 18 of this fact-packed book cites a statistic which provides a stunning insight into an often-overlooked aspect of the decline of the Democratic party. In 1978, Democrats held 292 seats in the House of Representatives: an overwhelming super-majority of more than two thirds. Of these Democrats, 125, more than 40%, were identified as “pro-life”—opposed to abortion on demand and federal funding of abortion. But by 2004, only 35 Democrats in the House were identified as pro-life: fewer than 18%, and the total number of Democrats had shrunk to only 203, a minority of less than 47%. It is striking to observe that over a period of 26 years the number of pro-life Democrats has dropped by 90, almost identical to the party's total loss of 89 seats.

Now, the Democratic decline is more complicated than any single issue, but as the author documents, the Democratic activist base and large financial contributors are far more radical on issues of human life: unrestricted and subsidised abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, stem cell research which destroys human embryos, and human cloning for therapeutic purposes, than the American public at large. (The often deceptive questions used to manipulate the results of public opinion polls and the way they are spun in the overwhelmingly pro-abortion legacy media are discussed at length.) The activists and moneybags make the Democratic party a hostile environment for pro-life politicians and has, over the decades, selected them out, applying an often explicit litmus test to potential candidates, who are not allowed to deviate from absolutist positions. Their adherence to views not shared by most voters then makes them vulnerable in the general election.

Apart from the political consequences, the author examines the curious flirtation of the American left with death in all its forms—a strange alliance for a political philosophy which traditionally stressed protecting the weak and vulnerable: in the words of Hubert Humphrey (who was pro-life), “those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped” (p. 131).

The author argues against the panoply of pro-death policies exclusively from a human rights standpoint. Religion is not mentioned except to refute the claim that pro-life policies are an attempt to impose a sectarian agenda on a secular society. The human rights argument could not be simpler to grasp: if you believe that human beings have inherent, unalienable rights, simply by being human, then what human right could conceivably be more fundamental than the right not to be killed. If one accepts this (and the paucity of explicitly pro-murder voters would seem to indicate the view is broadly shared), then the only way one can embrace policies which permit the destruction of a living human organism is to define criteria which distinguish a “person” who cannot be killed, from those who are not persons and therefore can. Thus one hears the human embryo or fetus (which has the potential of developing into an adult human) described as a “potential human”, and medical patients in a persistent vegetative state as having no personhood. Professor Peter Singer, bioethicist at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University argues (p. 176), “[T]he concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life.”

But the problem with drawing lines that divide unarguably living human beings into classes of persons and nonpersons is that the distinctions are rarely clear-cut. If a fetus in the first three months of pregnancy is a nonperson, then what changes on the first day of the fourth month to confer personhood on the continuously developing baby? Why not five months, or six? And if a woman in the U.S. has a constitutionally protected right to have her child killed right up until the very last part of its body emerges from the birth canal (as is, in fact, the regime in effect today in the United States, notwithstanding media dissimulation of this reality), then what's so different about killing a newborn baby if, for example, it was found to have a birth defect which was not detected in utero. Professor Singer has no problem with this at all; he enumerates a variety of prerequisites for personhood: “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”, and then concludes “Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”

It's tempting to dismiss Singer as another of the many intellectual Looney Tunes which decorate the American academy, but Ponnuru defends him for having the intellectual integrity to follow the premises he shares with many absolutists on these issues all the way to their logical conclusions, which lead Singer to conclude (p. 186), “[d]uring the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse…. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.” Doesn't that sound like a wonderful world, especially for those of us who expect to live out our declining years as that brave new era dawns, at least for those suitably qualified “persons” permitted to live long enough to get there?

Many contend that such worries are simply “the old slippery slope argument”, thinking that settles the matter. But the problem is that the old slippery slope argument is often right, and in this case there is substantial evidence that it very much applies. The enlightened Dutch seem to have slid further and faster than others in the West, permitting both assisted suicide for the ill and euthanasia for seriously handicapped infants at the parents' request—in theory. In fact, it is estimated that five percent of of all deaths in The Netherlands are the result of euthanasia by doctors without request (which is nominally illegal), and that five percent of infanticide occurs without the request or consent of the parents, and it is seldom noted in the media that the guidelines which permit these “infanticides” actually apply to children up to the age of twelve. Perhaps that's why the Dutch are so polite—young hellions run the risk not only of a paddling but also of “post-natal abortion”. The literally murderous combination of an aging population supported by a shrinking number of working-age people, state-sanctioned euthanasia, and socialised medicine is fearful to contemplate.

These are difficult issues, and the political arena has become so polarised into camps of extremists on both sides that rational discussion and compromise seem almost impossible. This book, while taking a pro-life perspective, eschews rhetoric in favour of rational argumentation grounded in the principles of human rights which date to the Enlightenment. One advantage of applying human rights to all humans is that it's simple and easy to understand. History is rich in examples which show that once a society starts sorting people into persons and nonpersons, things generally start to go South pretty rapidly. Like it or not, these are issues which modern society is going to have to face: advances in medical technologies create situations that call for judgements people never had to make before. For those who haven't adopted one extreme position or another, and are inclined to let the messy democratic process of decision making sort this out, ideally leaving as much discretion as possible to the individuals involved, as opposed to absolutist “rights” discovered in constitutional law and imposed by judicial diktat, this unsettling book is a valuable contribution to the debate. Democratic party stalwarts are unlikely in the extreme to read it, but they ignore this message at their peril.

The book is not very well-edited. There are a number of typographical errors and on two occasions (pp.  94 and 145), the author's interpolations in the middle of extended quotations are set as if they were part of the quotation. It is well documented; there are thirty-four pages of source citations.

July 2006 Permalink

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 1: The Spell of Plato. 5th ed., rev. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1945, 1950, 1952, 1957, 1962] 1966. ISBN 0-691-01968-1.
The two hundred intricately-argued pages of main text are accompanied by more than a hundred pages of notes in small type. Popper states that “The text of the book is self-contained and may be read without these Notes. However, a considerable amount of material which is likely to interest all readers of the book will be found here, as well as some references and controversies which may not be of general interest.” My recommendation? Read the notes. If you skip them, you'll miss Popper's characterisation of Plato as the first philosopher to adopt a geometrical (as opposed to arithmetic) model of the world along with his speculations based on the sum of the square roots of 2 and 3 (known to Plato) differing from π by less than 1.5 parts per thousand (Note 9 to Chapter 6), or the exquisitely lucid exposition (written in 1942!) of why international law and institutions must ultimately defend the rights of human individuals as opposed to the sovereignty of nation states (Note 7 to Chapter 9). The second volume, which dissects the theories of Hegel and Marx, is currently out of print in the U.S. but a U.K. edition is available.

December 2003 Permalink

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 2: Hegel and Marx. London: Routledge, [1945, 1962, 1966, 1995] 2003. ISBN 0-415-27842-2.
After tracing the Platonic origins of utopian schemes of top-down social engineering in Volume 1 (December 2003), Popper now turns to the best-known modern exemplars of the genre, Hegel and Marx, starting out by showing Aristotle's contribution to Hegel's philosophy. Popper considers Hegel a complete charlatan and his work a blizzard of obfuscation intended to dull the mind to such an extent that it can believe that the Prussian monarchy (which paid the salaries of Hegel and his acolytes) was the epitome of human freedom. For a work of serious philosophical criticism (there are more than a hundred pages of end notes in small type), Popper is forthrightly acerbic and often quite funny in his treatment of Hegel, who he disposes of in only 55 pages of this book of 470. (Popper's contemporary, Wittgenstein, gets much the same treatment. See note 51 to chapter 11, for example, in which he calls the Tractatus “reinforced dogmatism that opens wide the door to the enemy, deeply significant metaphysical nonsense…”. One begins to comprehend what possessed Wittgenstein, a year after the publication of this book, to brandish a fireplace poker at Popper.)

Readers who think of Popper as an icon of libertarianism may be surprised at his remarkably positive treatment of Marx, of whom he writes (chapter 13), “Science progresses through trial and error. Marx tried, and although he erred in his main doctrines, he did not try in vain. He opened and sharpened our eyes in many ways. A return to pre-Marxian social science is inconceivable. All modern writers are indebted to Marx, even if they do not know it. … One cannot do justice to Marx without recognizing his sincerity. His open-mindedness, his sense of facts, his distrust of verbiage, and especially of moralizing verbiage, made him one of the world's most influential fighters against hypocisy and pharisaism. He had a burning desire to help the oppressed, and was fully conscious of the need for proving himself in deeds, and not only in words.”

To be sure, this encomium is the prelude to a detailed critique of Marx's deterministic theory of history and dubious economic notions, but unlike Hegel, Marx is given credit for trying to make sense of phenomena which few others even attempted to study scientifically. Many of the flaws in Marx's work, Popper argues, may be attributed to Marx having imbibed too deeply and uncritically the work of Hegel, and the crimes committed in the name of Marxism the result of those treating his work as received dogma, as opposed to a theory subject to refutation, as Marx himself would have viewed it.

Also surprising is his condemnation, with almost Marxist vehemence, of nineteenth century “unrestrained capitalism”, and enthusiasm for government intervention in the economy and the emergence of the modern welfare state (chapter 20 in particular). One must observe, with the advantage of sixty years hindsight, that F.A. Hayek's less sanguine contemporary perspective in The Road to Serfdom (May 2002) has proved more prophetic. Of particular interest is Popper's advocacy of “piecemeal social engineering”, as opposed to grand top-down systems such as “scientific socialism”, as the genuinely scientific method of improving society, permitting incremental progress by experiments on the margin which are subject to falsification by their results, in the same manner Popper argues the physical sciences function in The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Permit me to make a few remarks about the physical properties of this book. The paperback seems to have a spine made of triple-reinforced neutronium, and cannot be induced to lie flat by any of the usual stratagems. In fact, when reading the book, one must either use two hands to hold it open or else wedge it open with three fingers against the spine in order to read complete lines of text. This is tiring, particularly since the book is also quite heavy. If you happen to doze off whilst reading (which I'll confess happened a few times during some of the more intricate philosophical arguments), the thing will pop out of your hand, snap shut like a bear trap, and fly off in some random direction—Zzzzzz … CLACK … thud! I don't know what the problem is with the binding—I have any number of O'Reilly paperbacks about the same size and shape which lie flat without the need for any extreme measures. The text is set in a type font in which the distinction between roman and italic type is very subtle—sometimes I had to take off my glasses (I am nearsighted) and eyeball the text close-up to see if a word was actually emphasised, and that runs the risk of a bloody nose if your thumb should slip and the thing snap shut.

A U.S. edition of this volume is now back in print; for a while only Volume 1 was available from Princeton University Press. The U.K. edition of Volume 1 from Routledge remains available.

November 2005 Permalink

Raspail, Jean. Le Camp des Saints. Paris: Robert Laffont, [1973, 1978, 1985] 2006. ISBN 978-2-221-08840-1.
This is one of the most hauntingly prophetic works of fiction I have ever read. Although not a single word has been changed from its original publication in 1973 to the present edition, it is at times simply difficult to believe you're reading a book which was published thirty-five years ago. The novel is a metaphorical, often almost surreal exploration of the consequences of unrestricted immigration from the third world into the first world: Europe and France in particular, and how the instincts of openness, compassion, and generosity which characterise first world countries can sow the seeds of their destruction if they result in developed countries being submerged in waves of immigration of those who do not share their values, culture, and by their sheer numbers and rate of arrival, cannot be assimilated into the society which welcomes them.

The story is built around a spontaneous, almost supernatural, migration of almost a million desperate famine-struck residents from the Ganges on a fleet of decrepit ships, to the “promised land”, and the reaction of the developed countries along their path and in France as they approach and debark. Raspail has perfect pitch when it comes to the prattling of bien pensants, feckless politicians, international commissions chartered to talk about a crisis until it turns into catastrophe, humanitarians bent on demonstrating their good intentions whatever the cost to those they're supposed to be helping and those who fund their efforts, media and pundits bent on indoctrination instead of factual reporting, post-Christian clerics, and the rest of the intellectual scum which rises to the top and suffocates the rationality which has characterised Western civilisation for centuries and created the prosperity and liberty which makes it a magnet for people around the world aspiring to individual achievement.

Frankly addressing the roots of Western exceptionalism and the internal rot which imperils it, especially in the context of mass immigration, is a sure way to get yourself branded a racist, and that has, of course been the case with this book. There are, to be sure, many mentions of “whites” and “blacks”, but I perceive no evidence that the author imputes superiority to the first or inferiority to the second: they are simply labels for the cultures from which those actors in the story hail. One character, Hamadura, identified as a dark skinned “Français de Pondichéry” says (p. 357, my translation), “To be white, in my opinion, is not a colour of skin, but a state of mind”. Precisely—anybody, whatever their race or origin, can join the first world, but the first world has a limited capacity to assimilate new arrivals knowing nothing of its culture and history, and risks being submerged if too many arrive, particularly if well-intentioned cultural elites encourage them not to assimilate but instead work for political power and agendas hostile to the Enlightenment values of the West. As Jim Bennett observed, “Democracy, immigration, multiculturalism. Pick any two.”

Now, this is a novel from 1973, not a treatise on immigration and multiculturalism in present-day Europe, and the voyage of the fleet of the Ganges is a metaphor for the influx of immigrants into Europe which has already provoked many of the cringing compromises of fundamental Western values prophesied, of which I'm sure most readers in the 1970s would have said, “It can't happen here”. Imagine an editor fearing for his life for having published a cartoon (p. 343), or Switzerland being forced to cede the values which have kept it peaceful and prosperous by the muscle of those who surround it and the intellectual corruption of its own elites. It's all here, and much more. There's even a Pope Benedict XVI (albeit very unlike the present occupant of the throne of St. Peter).

This is an ambitious literary work, and challenging for non mother tongue readers. The vocabulary is enormous, including a number of words you won't find even in the Micro Bob. Idioms, many quite obscure (for example “Les carottes sont cuites”—all is lost), abound, and references to them appear obliquely in the text. The apocalyptic tone of the book (whose title is taken from Rev. 20:9) is reinforced by many allusions to that Biblical prophecy. This is a difficult read, which careens among tragedy, satire, and farce, forcing the reader to look beyond political nostrums about the destiny of the West and seriously ask what the consequences of mass immigration without assimilation and the accommodation by the West of values inimical to its own are likely to be. And when you think that Jean Respail saw all of this coming more than three decades ago, it almost makes you shiver. I spent almost three weeks working my way through this book, but although it was difficult, I always looked forward to picking it up, so rewarding was it to grasp the genius of the narrative and the masterful use of the language.

An English translation is available. Given the language, idioms, wordplay, and literary allusions in the original French, this work would be challenging to faithfully render into another language. I have not read the translation and cannot comment upon how well it accomplished this formidable task.

For more information about the author and his works, visit his official Web site.

June 2008 Permalink

Red Eagle, John and Vox Day [Theodore Beale]. Cuckservative. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2015. ASIN B018ZHHA52.
Yes, I have read it. So read me out of the polite genteel “conservative” movement. But then I am not a conservative. Further, I enjoyed it. The authors say things forthrightly that many people think and maybe express in confidence to their like-minded friends, but reflexively cringe upon even hearing in public. Even more damning, I found it enlightening on a number of topics, and I believe that anybody who reads it dispassionately is likely to find it the same. And finally, I am reviewing it. I have reviewed (or noted) every book I have read since January of 2001. Should I exclude this one because it makes some people uncomfortable? I exist to make people uncomfortable. And so, onward….

The authors have been called “racists”, which is rather odd since both are of Native American ancestry and Vox Day also has Mexican ancestors. Those who believe ancestry determines all will have to come to terms with the fact that these authors defend the values which largely English settlers brought to America, and were the foundation of American culture until it all began to come apart in the 1960s.

In the view of the authors, as explained in chapter 4, the modern conservative movement in the U.S. dates from the 1950s. Before that time both the Democrat and Republican parties contained politicians and espoused policies which were both conservative and progressive (with the latter word used in the modern sense), often with regional differences. Starting with the progressive era early in the 20th century and dramatically accelerating during the New Deal, the consensus in both parties was centre-left liberalism (with “liberal” defined in the corrupt way it is used in the U.S.): a belief in a strong central government, social welfare programs, and active intervention in the economy. This view was largely shared by Democrat and Republican leaders, many of whom came from the same patrician class in the Northeast. At its outset, the new conservative movement, with intellectual leaders such as Russell Kirk and advocates like William F. Buckley, Jr., was outside the mainstream of both parties, but more closely aligned with the Republicans due to their wariness of big government. (But note that the Eisenhower administration made no attempt to roll back the New Deal, and thus effectively ratified it.)

They argue that since the new conservative movement was a coalition of disparate groups such as libertarians, isolationists, southern agrarians, as well as ex-Trotskyites and former Communists, it was an uneasy alliance, and in forging it Buckley and others believed it was essential that the movement be seen as socially respectable. This led to a pattern of conservatives ostracising those who they feared might call down the scorn of the mainstream press upon them. In 1957, a devastating review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers marked the break with Ayn Rand's Objectivists, and in 1962 Buckley denounced the John Birch Society and read it out of the conservative movement. This established a pattern which continues to the present day: when an individual or group is seen as sufficiently radical that they might damage the image of conservatism as defined by the New York and Washington magazines and think tanks, they are unceremoniously purged and forced to find a new home in institutions viewed with disdain by the cultured intelligentsia. As the authors note, this is the exact opposite of the behaviour of the Left, which fiercely defends its most radical extremists. Today's Libertarian Party largely exists because its founders were purged from conservatism in the 1970s.

The search for respectability and the patient construction of conservative institutions were successful in aligning the Republican party with the new conservatism. This first manifested itself in the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Following his disastrous defeat, conservatives continued their work, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But even then, and in the years that followed, including congressional triumphs in 1994, 2010, and 2014, Republicans continued to behave as a minority party: acting only to slow the rate of growth of the Left's agenda rather than roll it back and enact their own. In the words of the authors, they are “calling for the same thing as the left, but less of it and twenty years later”.

The authors call these Republicans “cuckservative” or “cuck” for short. The word is a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative”. “Cuckold” dates back to A.D. 1250, and means the husband of an unfaithful wife, or a weak and ineffectual man. Voters who elect these so-called conservatives are cuckolded by them, as through their fecklessness and willingness to go along with the Left, they bring into being and support the collectivist agenda which they were elected to halt and roll back. I find nothing offensive in the definition of this word, but I don't like how it sounds—in part because it rhymes with an obscenity which has become an all-purpose word in the vocabulary of the Left and, increasingly, the young. Using the word induces a blind rage in some of those to whom it is applied, which may be its principal merit.

But this book, despite bearing it as a title, is not about the word: only three pages are devoted to defining it. The bulk of the text is devoted to what the authors believe are the central issues facing the U.S. at present and an examination of how those calling themselves conservatives have ignored, compromised away, or sold out the interests of their constituents on each of these issues, including immigration and the consequences of a change in demographics toward those with no experience of the rule of law, the consequences of mass immigration on workers in domestic industries, globalisation and the flight of industries toward low-wage countries, how immigration has caused other societies in history to lose their countries, and how mainstream Christianity has been subverted by the social justice agenda and become an ally of the Left at the same time its pews are emptying in favour of evangelical denominations. There is extensive background information about the history of immigration in the United States, the bizarre “Magic Dirt” theory (that, for example, transplanting a Mexican community across the border will, simply by changing its location, transform its residents, in time, into Americans or, conversely, that “blighted neighbourhoods” are so because there's something about the dirt [or buildings] rather than the behaviour of those who inhabit them), and the overwhelming and growing scientific evidence for human biodiversity and the coming crack-up of the “blank slate” dogma. If the Left continues to tighten its grip upon the academy, we can expect to see research in this area be attacked as dissent from the party line on climate science is today.

This is an excellent book: well written, argued, and documented. For those who have been following these issues over the years and observed the evolution of the conservative movement over the decades, there may not be much here that's new, but it's all tied up into one coherent package. For the less engaged who've just assumed that by voting for Republicans they were advancing the conservative cause, this may prove a revelation. If you're looking to find racism, white supremacy, fascism, authoritarianism, or any of the other epithets hurled against the dissident right, you won't find them here unless, as the Left does, you define the citation of well-documented facts as those things. What you will find is two authors who love America and believe that American policy should put the interests of Americans before those of others, and that politicians elected by Americans should be expected to act in their interest. If politicians call themselves “conservatives”, they should act to conserve what is great about America, not compromise it away in an attempt to, at best, delay the date their constituents are delivered into penury and serfdom.

You may have to read this book being careful nobody looks over your shoulder to see what you're reading. You may have to never admit you've read it. You may have to hold your peace when somebody goes on a rant about the “alt-right”. But read it, and judge for yourself. If you believe the facts cited are wrong, do the research, refute them with evidence, and publish a response (under a pseudonym, if you must). But before you reject it based upon what you've heard, read it—it's only five bucks—and make up your own mind. That's what free citizens do.

As I have come to expect in publications from Castalia House, the production values are superb. There are only a few (I found just three) copy editing errors. At present the book is available only in Kindle and Audible audiobook editions.

May 2016 Permalink

Reynolds, Glenn. An Army of Davids. Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006. ISBN 1-5955-5054-2.
In this book, law professor and über blogger (InstaPundit.com) Glenn Reynolds explores how present and near-future technology is empowering individuals at the comparative expense of large organisations in fields as diverse as retailing, music and motion picture production, national security, news gathering, opinion journalism, and, looking further out, nanotechnology and desktop manufacturing, human longevity and augmentation, and space exploration and development (including Project Orion [pp. 228–233]—now there's a garage start-up I'd love to work on!). Individual empowerment is, like the technology which creates it, morally neutral: good people can do more good, and bad people can wreak more havoc. Reynolds is relentlessly optimistic, and I believe justifiably so; good people outnumber bad people by a large majority, and in a society which encourages them to be “a pack, not a herd” (the title of chapter 5), they will have the means in their hands to act as a societal immune system against hyper-empowered malefactors far more effective than heavy-handed top-down repression and fear-motivated technological relinquishment.

Anybody who's seeking “the next big thing” couldn't find a better place to start than this book. Chapters 2, 3 and 7, taken together, provide a roadmap for the devolution of work from downtown office towers to individual entrepreneurs working at home and in whatever environments attract them, and the emergence of “horizontal knowledge”, supplanting the top-down one-to-many model of the legacy media. There are probably a dozen ideas for start-ups with the potential of eBay and Amazon lurking in these chapters if you read them with the right kind of eyes. If the business and social model of the twenty-first century indeed comes to resemble that of the eighteenth, all of those self-reliant independent people are going to need lots of products and services they will find indispensable just as soon as somebody manages to think of them. Discovering and meeting these needs will pay well.

The “every person an entrepreneur” world sketched here raises the same concerns I expressed in regard to David Bolchover's The Living Dead (January 2006): this will be a wonderful world, indeed, for the intelligent and self-motivated people who will prosper once liberated from corporate cubicle indenture. But not everybody is like that: in particular, those people tend to be found on the right side of the bell curve, and for every one on the right, there's one equally far to the left. We have already made entire categories of employment for individuals with average or below-average intelligence redundant. In the eighteenth century, there were many ways in which such people could lead productive and fulfilling lives; what will they do in the twenty-first? Further, ever since Bismarck, government schools have been manufacturing worker-bees with little initiative, and essentially no concept of personal autonomy. As I write this, the élite of French youth is rioting over a proposal to remove what amounts to a guarantee of lifetime employment in a first job. How will people so thoroughly indoctrinated in collectivism fare in an individualist renaissance? As a law professor, the author spends much of his professional life in the company of high-intelligence, strongly-motivated students, many of whom contemplate an entrepreneurial career and in any case expect to be judged on their merits in a fiercely competitive environment. One wonders if his optimism might be tempered were he to spend comparable time with denizens of, say, the school of education. But the fact that there will be problems in the future shouldn't make us fear it—heaven knows there are problems enough in the present, and the last century was kind of a colossal monument to disaster and tragedy; whatever the future holds, the prescription of more freedom, more information, greater wealth and health, and less coercion presented here is certain to make it a better place to live.

The individualist future envisioned here has much in common with that foreseen in the 1970s by Timothy Leary, who coined the acronym “SMIILE” for “Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension”. The “II” is alluded to in chapter 12 as part of the merging of human and machine intelligence in the singularity, but mightn't it make sense, as Leary advocated, to supplement longevity research with investigation of the nature of human intelligence and near-term means to increase it? Realising the promise and avoiding the risks of the demanding technologies of the future are going to require both intelligence and wisdom; shifting the entire bell curve to the right, combined with the wisdom of longer lives may be key in achieving the much to be desired future foreseen here.

InstaPundit visitors will be familiar with the writing style, which consists of relatively brief discussion of a multitude of topics, each with one or more references for those who wish to “read the whole thing” in more depth. One drawback of the print medium is that although many of these citations are Web pages, to get there you have to type in lengthy URLs for each one. An on-line edition of the end notes with all the on-line references as clickable links would be a great service to readers.

March 2006 Permalink

Ronson, Jon. Them: Adventures with Extremists. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. ISBN 0-7432-3321-2.
Journalist and filmmaker Jon Ronson, intrigued by political and religious extremists in modern Western societies, decided to try to get inside their heads by hanging out with a variety of them as they went about their day to day lives on the fringe. Despite his being Jewish, a frequent contributor to the leftist Guardian newspaper, and often thought of as primarily a humorist, he found himself welcomed into the inner circle of characters as diverse as U.K. Muslim fundamentalist Omar Bakri, Randy Weaver and his daughter Rachel, Colonel Bo Gritz, who he visits while helping to rebuild the Branch Davidian church at Waco, a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan attempting to remake the image of that organisation with the aid of self-help books, and Dr. Ian Paisley on a missionary visit to Cameroon (where he learns why it's a poor idea to order the “porcupine” in the restaurant when visiting that country).

Ronson is surprised to discover that, as incompatible as the doctrines of these characters may be, they are nearly unanimous in believing the world is secretly ruled by a conspiracy of globalist plutocrats who plot their schemes in shadowy venues such as the Bilderberg conferences and the Bohemian Grove in northern California. So, the author decides to check this out for himself. He stalks the secretive Bilderberg meeting to a luxury hotel in Portugal and discovers to his dismay that the Bilderberg Group stalks back, and that the British Embassy can't help you when they're on your tail. Then, he gatecrashes the bizarre owl god ritual in the Bohemian Grove through the clever expedient of walking in right through the main gate.

The narrative is entertaining throughout, and generally sympathetic to the extremists he encounters, who mostly come across as sincere (if deluded), and running small-time operations on a limited budget. After becoming embroiled in a controversy during a tour of Canada by David Icke, who claims the world is run by a cabal of twelve foot tall shape-shifting reptilians, and was accused of anti-Semitic hate speech on the grounds that these were “code words” for a Zionist conspiracy, the author ends up concluding that sometimes a twelve foot tall alien lizard is just an alien lizard.

January 2006 Permalink

Russell, Sharman Apt. Hunger: An Unnatural History. New York: Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0-465-07165-4.
As the author begins this volume, “Hunger is a country we enter every day…”. Our bodies (and especially our hypertrophied brains) require a constant supply of energy, and have only a limited and relatively inefficient means to store excesses and release it upon demand, and consequently we have evolved to have a strong and immediate sense for inadequate nutrition, which in the normal course of things causes us to find something to eat. When we do not eat, regardless of the cause, we experience hunger, which is one of the strongest of somatic sensations. Whether hunger is caused by famine, fasting from ritual or in search of transcendence, forgoing food in favour of others, a deliberate hunger strike with the goal of effecting social or political change, deprivation at the hands of a coercive regime, or self-induced by a dietary regime aimed at improving one's health or appearance, it has the same grip upon the gut and the brain. As I wrote in The Hacker's Diet:

Hunger is a command, not a request. Hunger is looking at your dog curled up sleeping on the rug and thinking, “I wonder how much meat there is beneath all that fur?”

Here, the author explores hunger both at the level of biochemistry (where you may be amazed how much has been learned in the past few decades as to how the body regulates appetite and the fall-back from glucose-based metabolism from food to ketone body energy produced from stored fat, and how the ratio of energy from consumption of muscle mass differs between lean and obese individuals and varies over time) and the historical and social context of hunger. We encounter mystics and saints who fast to discover a higher wisdom or their inner essence; political activists (including Gandhi) willing to starve themselves to the point of death to shame their oppressors into capitulation; peoples whose circumstances have created a perverse (to us, the well-fed) culture built around hunger as the usual state of affairs; volunteers who participated in projects to explore the process of starvation and means to rescue those near death from its consequences; doctors in the Warsaw ghetto who documented the effects of starvation in patients they lacked the resources to save; and the millions of victims of famine in the last two centuries.

In discussing famine, the author appears uncomfortable with the fact, reluctantly alluded to, that famine in the modern era is almost never the result of a shortage of food, but rather the consequence of coercive government either constraining the supply of food or blocking its delivery to those in need. Even in the great Irish famine of the 1840s, Ireland continued to export food even as its population starved. (The author argues that even had the exports been halted, the food would have been inadequate to feed the Irish, but even so, they could have saved some, and this is before considering potential food shipments from the rest of the “Union” to a starving Ireland. [Pardon me if this gets me going—ancestors….]) Certainly today it is beyond dispute that the world produces far more food (at least as measured by calories and principal nutrients) than is needed to feed its population. Consequently, whenever there is a famine, the cause is not a shortage of food but rather an interruption in its delivery to those who need it. While aid programs can help to alleviate crises, and “re-feeding” therapy can rescue those on the brink of death by hunger, the problem will persist until the dysfunctional governments that starve their people and loot aid intended for them are eliminated. Given how those who've starved in recent decades have usually been disempowered minorities, perhaps it would be more effective in the long term to arm them than to feed them.

You will not find such gnarly sentiments in this book, which is very much aligned with the NGO view that famine due to evil coercive dictatorships is just one of those things that happens, like hurricanes. That said, I cannot recommend this book too highly. The biochemical view of hunger and energy storage and release in times of feast and famine alone is worth the price of admission, and the exploration of hunger in religion, politics, and even entertainment puts it over the top. If you're dieting, this may not be the book to read, but on the other hand, maybe it's just the thing.

The author is the daughter of Milburn G. “Mel” Apt, the first human to fly faster than Mach 3, who died when his X-2 research plane crashed after its record-setting flight.

February 2012 Permalink

Scully, Matthew. Dominion. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 0-312-26147-0.

February 2003 Permalink

Segell, Michael. The Devil's Horn. New York: Picador, 2005. ISBN 0-312-42557-0.
When Napoléon III seized power and proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1851, his very first decree did not have to do with any of the social, economic, or political crises the country faced, but rather reinstating the saxophone in French military bands, reversing a ban on the instrument imposed by the Second Republic (p. 220). There is something about the saxophone—its lascivious curves and seductive sound, perhaps, or its association with avant garde and not entirely respectable music—which has made it the object of attacks by prudes, puritans, and musical elitists almost from the time of its invention in the early 1840s by Belgian Adolphe Sax. Nazi Germany banned the sax as “decadent”; Stalin considered it a “dangerous capitalist instrument” and had saxophonists shot or sent to Siberia; the League of Catholic Decency in the United States objected not to the steamy images on the screen in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, but rather the sultry saxophone music which accompanied it, and signed off on the scene when it was re-scored for French horn and strings; and in Kansas City, Missouri, it was once against the law to play a saxophone outside a nightclub from ten-thirty at night until six in the morning (which seems awfully early to me to be playing a saxophone unless you've been at it all night).

Despite its detractors, political proscribers, somewhat disreputable image, and failure to find a place in symphony orchestras, this relative newcomer has infiltrated almost all genres of music, sparked the home music and school band crazes in the United States, and became central to the twentieth century evolution of jazz, big band, rhythm and blues, and soul music. A large and rapidly expanding literature of serious and experimental music for the instrument exists, and many conservatories which once derided the “vulgar horn” now teach it.

This fascinating book tells the story of Sax, the saxophone, saxophonists, and the music and culture they have engendered. Even to folks like myself who cannot coax music from anything more complicated than an iPod (I studied saxophone for two years in grade school before concluding, with the enthusiastic concurrence of my aurally assaulted parents, that my talents lay elsewhere) will find many a curious and delightful detail to savour, such as the monstrous contrabass saxophone (which sounds something like a foghorn), and the fact that Adolphe Sax, something of a mad scientist, also invented (but, thankfully, never built) an organ powered by a locomotive engine which could “play the music of Meyerbeer for all of Paris” and the “Saxocannon”, a mortar which would fire a half-kiloton bullet 11 yards wide, which “could level an entire city” (pp. 27–28)—and people complain about the saxophone! This book will make you want to re-listen to a lot of music, which you're likely to understand much better knowing the story of how it, and those who made it, came to be.

June 2007 Permalink

Sharansky, Natan with Ron Dermer. The Case for Democracy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004. ISBN 1-58648-261-0.
Every now and then you come across a book which cuts through the fog of contemporary political discourse with pure clarity of thought. Well of course, the programmer peanut gallery shouts in unison, Sharansky was a computer scientist before becoming a Soviet dissident and political prisoner, then Israeli politician! In this book Sharansky draws a line of unambiguous binary distinction between “free societies” and “fear societies”. In a free society, you can walk into the town square and express your views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm (p. 41); in a “fear society”, you can't—it's that simple. Note that, as Sharansky is quick to observe, this counts as free societies without a trace of democracy, with dirigiste economies, and which discriminate against minorities and women—yet permit those who live there to protest these and other shortcomings without fear of recrimination. A society which he deems “free” may not be just, but a society which doesn't pass this most basic test of freedom is always unjust.

From this viewpoint, every compromise with fear societies and their tyrants in the interest of “stability” and “geopolitics” is always ill-considered, not just in terms of the human rights of those who live there, but in the self-interest of all free people. Fear societies require an enemy, internal or external, to unite their victims behind the tyrant, and history shows how fickle the affections of dictators can be when self-interest is at stake.

The disastrous example of funding Arafat's ugly dictatorship over the Palestinian people is dissected in detail, but the message is applicable everywhere diplomats argue for a “stable partner” over the inherent human right of people to own their own lives and govern themselves. Sharansky is forthright in saying it's better to face a democratically elected fanatic opponent than a dictator “we can do business with”, because ultimately the democratic regime will converge on meeting the needs of its citizens, while the dictator will focus on feathering his own nest at the expense of those he exploits.

If you're puzzled about which side to back in all the myriad conflicts around the globe, you could do a lot worse that simply picking the side which comes out best in Sharansky's “town square test”. Certainly, the world would be a better place if the diplomats who prattle on about “complexity” and realpolitik were hit over the head with the wisdom of an author who spent 13 years in Siberian labour camps rather than compromise his liberty.

May 2005 Permalink

Simon, Roger L. Blacklisting Myself. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59403-247-9.
The author arrived in Hollywood in the tumultuous year of 1968, fired by his allegiance to the New Left and experience in the civil rights struggle in the South to bring his activism to the screen and, at the same time, driven by his ambition to make it big in the movie business. Unlike the multitudes who arrive starry-eyed in tinseltown only to be frustrated trying to “break in”, Simon succeeded, both as a screenwriter (he was nominated for an Oscar for his screen adaptation of Enemies: A Love Story and as a novelist, best known for his Moses Wine detective fiction. One of the Moses Wine novels, The Big Fix, made it to the screen, with Simon also writing the screenplay. Such has been his tangible success that the author today lives in the Hollywood Hills house once shared by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.

This is in large part a memoir of a life in Hollywood, with pull-no-punches anecdotes about the celebrities and players in the industry, and the often poisonous culture of the movie business. But is also the story of the author's political evolution from the New Left through Hollywood radical chic (he used to hang with the Black Panthers) and eventual conversion to neo-conservatism which has made him a “Hollywood apostate” and which he describes on the first page of the book as “the ideological equivalent of a sex change operation”. He describes how two key events—the O. J. Simpson trial and the terrorist attacks of 2001—caused him to question assumptions he'd always taken as received wisdom and how, once he did start to think for himself instead of nodding in agreement with the monolithic leftist consensus in Hollywood, began to perceive and be appalled by the hypocrisy not only in the beliefs of his colleagues but between their lifestyles and the values they purported to champion. (While Simon has become a staunch supporter of efforts, military and other, to meet the threat of Islamic aggression and considers himself a fiscal conservative, he remains as much on the left as ever when it comes to social issues. But, as he describes, any dissent whatsoever from the Hollywood leftist consensus is enough to put one beyond the pale among the smart set, and possibly injure the career of even somebody as well-established as he.)

While never suggesting that he or anybody else has been the victim of a formal blacklist like that of suspected Communist sympathisers in the 1940s and 1950s, he does describe how those who dissent often feign support for leftist causes or simply avoid politically charged discussions to protect their careers. Simon was one of the first Hollywood figures to jump in as a blogger, and has since reinvented himself as a New Media entrepreneur, founding Pajamas Media and its associated ventures; he continues to actively blog. An early adopter of technology since the days of the Osborne 1 and CompuServe forums, he believes that new technology provides the means for an end-run around Hollywood groupthink, but by itself is insufficient (p. 177):

The answer to the problem of Hollywood for those of a more conservative or centrist bent is to go make movies of their own. Of course, to do so means finding financing and distribution. Today's technologies are making that simpler. Cameras and editing equipment cost a pittance. Distribution is at hand for the price of a URL. All that's left is the creativity. Unfortunately, that's the difficult part.

A video interview with the author is available.

February 2009 Permalink

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, [1905] 2003. ISBN 1-884365-30-2.
A century ago, in 1905, the socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason began to run Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle in serial form. The editors of the paper had commissioned the work, giving the author $500 to investigate the Chicago meat packing industry and conditions of its immigrant workers. After lengthy negotiations, Macmillan rejected the novel, and Sinclair took the book to Doubleday, which published it in 1906. The book became an immediate bestseller, has remained in print ever since, spurred the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in the very year of its publication, and launched Sinclair's career as the foremost American muckraker. The book edition published in 1906 was cut substantially from the original serial in The Appeal to Reason, which remained out of print until 1988 and the 2003 publication of this slightly different version based upon a subsequent serialisation in another socialist periodical.

Five chapters and about one third of the text of the original edition presented here were cut in the 1906 Doubleday version, which is considered the canonical text. This volume contains an introduction written by a professor of American Literature at that august institution of higher learning, the Pittsburg State University of Pittsburg, Kansas, which inarticulately thrashes about trying to gin up a conspiracy theory behind the elisions and changes in the book edition. The only problem with this theory is, as is so often the case with postmodern analyses by Literature professors (even those who are not “anti-corporate, feminist” novelists), the facts. It's hard to make a case for “censorship”, when the changes to the text were made by the author himself, who insisted over the rest of his long and hugely successful career that the changes were not significant to the message of the book. Given that The Appeal to Reason, which had funded the project, stopped running the novel two thirds of the way through due to reader complaints demanding news instead of fiction, one could argue persuasively that cutting one third was responding to reader feedback from an audience highly receptive to the subject matter. Besides, what does it mean to “censor” a work of fiction, anyway?

One often encounters mentions of The Jungle which suggest those making them aren't aware it's a novel as opposed to factual reportage, which probably indicates the writer hasn't read the book, or only encountered excerpts years ago in some college course. While there's no doubt the horrors Sinclair describes are genuine, he uses the story of the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkos, as a Pilgrim's Progress to illustrate them, often with implausible coincidences and other story devices to tell the tale. Chapters 32 through the conclusion are rather jarring. What was up until that point a gritty tale of life on the streets and in the stockyards of Chicago suddenly mutates into a thinly disguised socialist polemic written in highfalutin English which would almost certainly go right past an uneducated immigrant just a few years off the boat; it reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt's speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It does, however, provide insight into the utopian socialism of the early 1900s which, notwithstanding many present-day treatments, was directed as much against government corruption as the depredations of big business.

April 2005 Permalink

Smith, Lee. The Strong Horse. New York: Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-51611-2.
After the attacks upon the U.S. in September 2001, the author, who had been working as an editor in New York City, decided to find out for himself what in the Arab world could provoke such indiscriminate atrocities. Rather than turn to the works of establishment Middle East hands or radical apologists for Islamist terror, he pulled up stakes and moved to Cairo and later Beirut, spending years there living in the community, meeting people from all walks of life from doormen, cab drivers, students, intellectuals, clerics, politicians, artists, celebrities, and more. This book presents his conclusions in a somewhat unusual form: it is hard to categorise—it's part travelogue; collection of interviews; survey of history, exploration of Arab culture, art, and literature; and geopolitical analysis. What is clear is that this book is a direct assault upon the consensus view of the Middle East among Western policymakers which, if correct (and the author is very persuasive indeed) condemns many of the projects of “democratisation”, “peace processes”, and integration of the nations of the region into a globalised economy to failure; it calls for an entirely different approach to the Arab world, one from which many Western feel-good diplomats and politically correct politicians will wilt in horror.

In short, Smith concludes that the fundamental assumption of the program whose roots can be traced from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush—that all people, and Arabs in particular, strive for individual liberty, self-determination, and a civil society with democratically elected leaders—is simply false: those are conditions which have been purchased by Western societies over centuries at the cost of great bloodshed and suffering by the actions of heroes. This experience has never occurred in the Arab world, and consequently its culture is entirely different. One can attempt to graft the trappings of Western institutions onto an Arab state, but without a fundamental change in the culture, the graft will not take and before long things will be just as before.

Let me make clear a point the author stresses. There is not the slightest intimation in this book that there is some kind of racial or genetic difference (which are the same thing) between Arabs and Westerners. Indeed, such a claim can be immediately falsified by the large community of Arabs who have settled in the West, assimilated themselves to Western culture, and become successful in all fields of endeavour. But those are Arabs, often educated in the West, who have rejected the culture in which they were born, choosing consciously to migrate to a very different culture they find more congenial to the way they choose to live their lives. What about those who stay (whether by preference, or due to lack of opportunity to emigrate)?

No, Arabs are not genetically different in behaviour, but culture is just as heritable as any physical trait, and it is here the author says we must look to understand the region. The essential dynamic of Arab political culture and history, as described by the 14th century Islamic polymath Ibn Khaldun, is that of a strong leader establishing a dynasty or power structure to which subjects submit, but which becomes effete and feckless over time, only to eventually be overthrown violently by a stronger force (often issuing from desert nomads in the Arab experience), which begins the cycle again. The author (paraphrasing Osama bin Laden) calls this the “strong horse” theory: Arab populations express allegiance to the strongest perceived power, and expect changes in governance to come through violent displacement of a weaker existing order.

When you look at things this way, many puzzles regarding the Middle East begin to make more sense. First of all, the great success which imperial powers over the millennia, including the Persian, Ottoman, French, and British empires, have had in subduing and ruling Arabs without substantial internal resistance is explained: the empire was seen as the strong horse and Arab groups accepted subordination to it. Similarly, the ability of sectarian minorities to rule on a long-term basis in modern states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq is explained, as is the great stability of authoritarian regimes in the region—they usually fall only when deposed by an external force or by a military coup, not due to popular uprisings.

Rather than presenting a lengthy recapitulation of the arguments in the book filtered through my own comprehension and prejudices, this time I invite you to read a comprehensive exposition of the author's arguments in his own words, in a transcript of a three hour interview by Hugh Hewitt. If you're interested in the topics raised so far, please read the interview and return here for some closing comments.

Is the author's analysis correct? I don't know—certainly it is at variance with that of a mass of heavy-hitting intellectuals who have studied the region for their entire careers and, if correct, means that much of Western policy toward the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has been at best ill-informed and at worst tragically destructive. All of the debate about Islam, fundamentalist Islam, militant Islam, Islamism, Islamofascism, etc., in Smith's view, misses the entire point. He contends that Islam has nothing, or next to nothing, to do with the present conflict. Islam, born in the Arabian desert, simply canonised, with a few minor changes, a political and social regime already extant in Arabia for millennia before the Prophet, based squarely on rule by the strong horse. Islam, then, is not the source of Arab culture, but a consequence of it, and its global significance is as a vector which inoculates Arab governance by the strong horse into other cultures where Islam takes root. The extent to which the Arab culture is adopted depends upon the strength and nature of the preexisting local culture into which Islam is introduced: certainly the culture and politics of Islamic Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia are something very different from that of Arab nations, and from each other.

The author describes democracy as “a flower, not a root”. An external strong horse can displace an Arab autocracy and impose elections, a legislature, and other trappings of democracy, but without the foundations of the doctrine of natural rights, the rule of law, civil society, free speech and the tolerance of dissent, freedom of conscience, and the separation of the domain of the state from the life of the individual, the result is likely to be “one person, one vote, one time” and a return to strong horse government as has been seen so many times in the post-colonial era. Democracy in the West was the flowering of institutions and traditions a thousand years in the making, none of which have ever existed in the Arab world. Those who expect democracy to create those institutions, the author would argue, suffer from an acute case of inverting causes and effects.

It's tempting to dismiss Arab culture as described here as “dysfunctional”, but (if the analysis be correct), I don't think that's a fair characterisation. Arab governance looks dysfunctional through the eyes of Westerners who judge it based on the values their own cultures cherish, but then turnabout's fair play, and Arabs have many criticisms of the West which are equally well founded based upon their own values. I'm not going all multicultural here—there's no question that by almost any objective measure such as per capita income; industrial and agricultural output; literacy and education; treatment of women and minorities; public health and welfare; achievements in science, technology, and the arts; that the West has drastically outperformed Arab nations, which would be entirely insignificant in the world economy absent their geological good fortune to be sitting on top of an ocean of petroleum. But again, that's applying Western metrics to Arab societies. When Nasser seized power in Egypt, he burned with a desire to do the will of the Egyptian people. And like so many people over the millennia who tried to get something done in Egypt, he quickly discovered that the will of the people was to be left alone, and the will of the bureaucracy was to go on shuffling paper as before, counting down to their retirement as they'd done for centuries. In other words, by their lights, the system was working and they valued stability over the risks of change. There is also what might be described as a cultural natural selection effect in action here. In a largely static authoritarian society, the ambitious, the risk-takers, and the innovators are disproportionately prone to emigrate to places which value those attributes, namely the West. This deprives those who remain of the élite which might improve the general welfare, resulting in a population even more content with the status quo.

The deeply pessimistic message of this book is that neither wishful thinking, soaring rhetoric, global connectivity, precision guided munitions, nor armies of occupation can do very much to change a culture whose general way of doing things hasn't changed fundamentally in more than two millennia. While change may be possible, it certainly isn't going to happen on anything less than the scale of several generations, and then only if the cultural transmission belt from generation to generation can be interrupted. Is this depressing? Absolutely, but if this is the case, better to come to terms with it and act accordingly than live in a fantasy world where one's actions may lead to catastrophe for both the West and the Arab world.

March 2010 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-59403-086-3.
One of the most pernicious calumnies directed at black intellectuals in the United States is that they are “not authentic”—that by speaking standard English, assimilating into the predominant culture, and seeing learning and hard work as the way to get ahead, they have somehow abandoned their roots in the ghetto culture. In the title essay in this collection, Thomas Sowell demonstrates persuasively that this so-called “black culture” owes its origins, in fact, not to anything blacks brought with them from Africa or developed in times of slavery, but rather to a white culture which immigrants to the American South from marginal rural regions of Britain imported and perpetuated long after it had died out in the mother country. Members of this culture were called “rednecks” and “crackers” in Britain long before they arrived in America, and they proceeded to install this dysfunctional culture in much of the rural South. Blacks arriving from Africa, stripped of their own culture, were immersed into this milieu, and predictably absorbed the central values and characteristics of the white redneck culture, right down to patterns of speech which can be traced back to the Scotland, Wales, and Ulster of the 17th century. Interestingly, free blacks in the North never adopted this culture, and were often well integrated into the community until the massive northward migration of redneck blacks (and whites) from the South spawned racial prejudice against all blacks. While only 1/3 of U.S. whites lived in the South, 90% of blacks did, and hence the redneck culture which was strongly diluted as southern whites came to the northern cities, was transplanted whole as blacks arrived in the north and were concentrated in ghetto communities.

What makes this more than an anthropological and historical footnote is, that as Sowell describes, the redneck culture does not work very well—travellers in the areas of Britain it once dominated and in the early American South described the gratuitous violence, indolence, disdain for learning, and a host of other characteristics still manifest in the ghetto culture today. This culture is alien to the blacks who it mostly now afflicts, and is nothing to be proud of. Scotland, for example, largely eradicated the redneck culture, and became known for learning and enterprise; it is this example, Sowell suggests, that blacks could profitably follow, rather than clinging to a bogus culture which was in fact brought to the U.S. by those who enslaved their ancestors.

Although the title essay is the most controversial and will doubtless generate the bulk of commentary, it is in fact only 62 pages in this book of 372 pages. The other essays discuss the experience of “middleman minorities” such as the Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese in Africa, overseas Chinese, etc.; the actual global history of slavery, as a phenomenon in which people of all races, continents, and cultures have been both slaves and slaveowners; the history of ethnic German communities around the globe and whether the Nazi era was rooted in the German culture or an aberration; and forgotten success stories in black education in the century prior to the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. The book concludes with a chapter on how contemporary “visions” and agendas can warp the perception of history, discarding facts which don't fit and obscuring lessons from the past which can be vital in deciding what works and what doesn't in the real world. As with much of Sowell's work, there are extensive end notes (more than 60 pages, with 289 notes on the title essay alone) which contain substantial “meat” along with source citations; they're well worth reading over after the essays.

July 2005 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York: Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-01948-9.
What does it mean to be an intellectual in today's society? Well, certainly one expects intellectuals to engage in work which is mentally demanding, which many do, particularly within their own narrow specialities. But many other people perform work which is just as cognitively demanding: chess grandmasters, musical prodigies, physicists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, yet we rarely consider them “intellectuals” (unless they become “public intellectuals”, discussed below), and indeed “real” intellectuals often disdain their concern with the grubby details of reality.

In this book, the author identifies intellectuals as the class of people whose output consists exclusively of ideas, and whose work is evaluated solely upon the esteem in which it is held by other intellectuals. A chess player who loses consistently, a composer whose works summon vegetables from the audience, an engineer whose aircraft designs fall out of the sky are distinguished from intellectuals in that they produce objective results which succeed or fail on their own merits, and it is this reality check which determines the reputation of their creators.

Intellectuals, on the other hand, are evaluated and, in many cases, hired, funded, and promoted solely upon the basis of peer review, whether formal as in selection for publication, grant applications, or awarding of tenure, or informal: the estimation of colleagues and their citing of an individual's work. To anybody with the slightest sense of incentives, this seems a prescription for groupthink, and it is no surprise that the results confirm that supposition. If intellectuals were simply high-performance independent thinkers, you'd expect their opinions to vary all over the landscape (as is often the case among members of other mentally demanding professions). But in the case of intellectuals, as defined here, there is an overwhelming acceptance of the nostrums of the political left which appears to be unshakable regardless of how many times and how definitively they have been falsified and discredited by real world experience. But why should it be otherwise? Intellectuals themselves are not evaluated by the real world outcomes of their ideas, so it's only natural they're inclined to ignore the demonstrated pernicious consequences of the policies they advocate and bask instead in the admiration of their like-thinking peers. You don't find chemists still working with the phlogiston theory or astronomers fine-tuning geocentric models of the solar system, yet intellectuals elaborating Marxist theories are everywhere in the humanities and social sciences.

With the emergence of mass media in the 20th century, the “public intellectual” came into increasing prominence. These are people with distinguished credentials in a specialised field who proceed to pronounce upon a broad variety of topics in which their professional expertise provides them no competence or authority whatsoever. The accomplishments of Bertrand Russell in mathematics and philosophy, of Noam Chomsky in linguistics, or of Paul Erlich in entomology are beyond dispute. But when they walk onto the public stage and begin to expound upon disarmament, colonialism, and human population and resources, almost nobody in the media or political communities stops to ask just why their opinion should be weighed more highly than that of anybody else without specific expertise in the topic under discussion. And further, few go back and verify their past predictions against what actually happened. As long as the message is congenial to the audience, it seems like public intellectuals can get a career-long pass from checking their predictions against outcomes, even when the discrepancies are so great they would have caused a physical scientist to be laughed out of the field or an investor to have gone bankrupt. As biographer Roy Harrod wrote of eminent economist and public intellectual John Maynard Keynes:

He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.
As was, of course, the attention paid by his audience.

Intellectuals, even when pronouncing within their area of specialisation, encounter the same “knowledge problem” Hayek identified in conjunction with central planning of economies. While the expert, or the central planning bureau, may know more about the problem domain than 99% of individual participants in the area, in many cases that expertise constitutes less than 1% of the total information distributed among all participants and expressed in their individual preferences and choices. A free market economy can be thought of as a massively parallel cloud computer for setting prices and allocating scarce resources. Its information is in the totality of the system, not in any particular place or transaction, and any attempt to extract that information by aggregating data and working on bulk measurements is doomed to failure both because of the inherent loss of information in making the aggregations and also because any such measure will be out of date long before it is computed and delivered to the would-be planner. Intellectuals have the same conceit: because they believe they know far more about a topic than the average person involved with it (and in this they may be right), they conclude that they know much more about the topic than everybody put together, and that if people would only heed their sage counsel much better policies would be put in place. In this, as with central planning, they are almost always wrong, and the sorry history of expert-guided policy should be adequate testament to its folly.

But it never is, of course. The modern administrative state and the intelligentsia are joined at the hip. Both seek to concentrate power, sucking it out from individuals acting at their own discretion in their own perceived interest, and centralising it in order to implement the enlightened policies of the “experts”. That this always ends badly doesn't deter them, because it's power they're ultimately interested in, not good outcomes. In a section titled “The Propagation of the Vision”, Sowell presents a bill of particulars as damning as that against King George III in the Declaration of Independence, and argues that modern-day intellectuals, burrowed within the institutions of academia, government, and media, are a corrosive force etching away the underpinnings of a free society. He concludes:

Just as a physical body can continue to live, despite containing a certain amount of microorganisms whose prevalence would destroy it, so a society can survive a certain amount of forces of disintegration within it. But that is very different from saying that there is no limit to the amount, audacity and ferocity of those disintegrative forces which a society can survive, without at least the will to resist.
In the past century, it has mostly been authoritarian tyrannies which have “cleaned out the universities” and sent their effete intellectual classes off to seek gainful employment in the productive sector, for example doing some of those “jobs Americans won't do”. Will free societies, whose citizens fund the intellectual class through their taxes, muster the backbone to do the same before intellectuals deliver them to poverty and tyranny? Until that day, you might want to install my “Monkeying with the Mainstream Media”, whose Red Meat edition translates “expert” to “idiot”, “analyst” to “moron”, and “specialist” to “nitwit” in Web pages you read.

An extended video interview with the author about the issues discussed in this book is available, along with a complete transcript.

July 2010 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Dismantling America. New York: Basic Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-465-02251-9.
Thomas Sowell has been, over his career, an optimist about individual liberty and economic freedom in the United States and around the world. Having been born in the segregated South, raised by a single mother in Harlem in the 1940s, he said that the progress he had observed in his own lifetime, rising from a high school dropout to the top of his profession, convinced him that America ultimately gets it right, and that opportunity for those who wish to advance through their own merit and hard work is perennial. In recent years, however, particularly since the rise and election of Barack Obama, his outlook has darkened considerably, almost approaching that of John Derbyshire. Do you think I exaggerate? Consider this passage from the preface:

No one issue and no one administration in Washington has been enough to create a perfect storm for a great nation that has weathered many storms in its more than two centuries of existence. But the Roman Empire lasted many times longer, and weathered many storms in its turbulent times—and yet it ultimately collapsed completely.

It has been estimated that a thousand years passed before the standard of living in Europe rose again to the level it had achieved in Roman times. The collapse of civilization is not just the replacement of rulers or institutions with new rulers and new institutions. It is the destruction of a whole way of life and the painful, and sometimes pathetic, attempts to begin rebuilding amid the ruins.

Is that where America is headed? I believe it is. Our only saving grace is that we are not there yet—and that nothing is inevitable until it happens.

Strong stuff! The present volume is a collection of the author's syndicated columns dating from before the U.S. election of 2008 into the first two years of the Obama administration. In them he traces how the degeneration and systematic dismantling of the underpinnings of American society which began in the 1960s culminated in the election of Obama, opening the doors to power to radicals hostile to what the U.S. has stood for since its founding and bent on its “fundamental transformation” into something very different. Unless checked by the elections of 2010 and 2012, Sowell fears the U.S. will pass a “point of no return” where a majority of the electorate will be dependent upon government largesse funded by a minority who pay taxes. I agree: I deemed it the tipping point almost two years ago.

A common theme in Sowell's writings of the last two decades has been how public intellectuals and leftists (but I repeat myself) attach an almost talismanic power to words and assume that good intentions, expressed in phrases that make those speaking them feel good about themselves, must automatically result in the intended outcomes. Hence the belief that a “stimulus bill” will stimulate the economy, a “jobs bill” will create jobs, that “gun control” will control the use of firearms by criminals, or that a rise in the minimum wage will increase the income of entry-level workers rather than price them out of the market and send their jobs to other countries. Many of the essays here illustrate how “progressives” believe, with the conviction of cargo cultists, that their policies will turn the U.S. from a social Darwinist cowboy capitalist society to a nurturing nanny state like Sweden or the Netherlands. Now, notwithstanding that the prospects of those two countries and many other European welfare states due to demographic collapse and Islamisation are dire indeed, the present “transformation” in the U.S. is more likely, in my opinion, to render it more like Perón's Argentina than France or Germany.

Another part of the “perfect storm” envisioned by Sowell is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, the imperative that will create for other states in the region to go nuclear, and the consequent possibility that terrorist groups will gain access to these weapons. He observes that Japan in 1945 was a much tougher nation than the U.S. today, yet only two nuclear bombs caused them to capitulate in a matter of days. How many cities would the U.S. have to lose? My guess is at least two but no more than five. People talk about there being no prospect of a battleship Missouri surrender in the War on Terror (or whatever they're calling it this week), but the prospect of a U.S. surrender on the carrier Khomeini in the Potomac is not as far fetched as you might think.

Sowell dashes off epigrams like others write grocery lists. Here are a few I noted:

  • One of the painful consequences of studying history is that it makes you realize how long people have been doing the same foolish things with the same disastrous results.
  • There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.
  • Do not expect sound judgments in a society where being “non-judgmental” is an exalted value. As someone has said, if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything.
  • Progress in general seems to hold little interest for people who call themselves “progressives”. What arouses them are denunciations of social failures and accusations of wrong-doing.
      One wonders what they would do in heaven.
  • In a high-tech age that has seen the creation of artificial intelligence by computers, we are also seeing the creation of artificial stupidity by people who call themselves educators.
  • Most people on the left are not opposed to freedom. They are just in favor of all sorts of things that are incompatible with freedom.
  • Will those who are dismantling this society from within or those who seek to destroy us from without be the first to achieve their goal? It is too close to call.

As a collection of columns, you can read this book in any order you like (there are a few “arcs” of columns, but most are standalone), and pick it up and put it down whenever you like without missing anything. There is some duplication among the columns, but they never become tedious. Being newspaper columns, there are no source citations or notes, and there is no index. What are present in abundance are Sowell's acute observations of the contemporary scene, historical perspective, rigorous logic, economic common sense, and crystal clear exposition. I had read probably 80% of these columns when they originally appeared, but gleaned many new insights revisiting them in this collection.

The author discusses the book, topics raised in it, and the present scene in an extended video interview, for which a transcript exists. A shorter podcast interview with the author is also available.

October 2010 Permalink

Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West: An Abridged Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1918, 1922, 1932, 1959, 1961] 1991. ISBN 0-19-506634-0.
Only rarely do I read abridged editions. I chose this volume simply because it was the only readily-available English translation of the work. In retrospect, I don't think I could have handled much more Spengler, at least in one dose. Even in English, reading Spengler conjures up images of great mountain ranges of polysyllabic German philosophical prose. For example, chapter 21 begins with the following paragraph. “Technique is as old as free-moving life itself. The original relation between a waking-microcosm and its macrocosm—‘Nature’—consists in a mental sensation which rises from mere sense-impressions to sense-judgement, so that already it works critically (that is, separatingly) or, what comes to the same thing, causal-analytically”. In this abridged edition the reader need cope only with a mere 415 pages of such text. It is striking the extent to which today's postmodern nostrums of cultural relativism were anticipated by Spengler.

April 2004 Permalink

Steyn, Mark. America Alone. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-89526-078-6.
Leave it to Mark Steyn to write a funny book about the collapse of Western civilisation. Demographics are destiny, and unlike political and economic trends, are easier to extrapolate because the parents of the next generation have already been born: if there are more of them than their own parents, a population is almost certain to increase, and if there are fewer, the population is destined to fall. Once fertility drops to 1.3 children per woman or fewer, a society enters a demographic “death spiral” from which there is no historical precedent for recovery. Italy, Spain, and Russia are already below this level, and the European Union as a whole is at 1.47, far below the replacement rate of 2.1. And what's the makeup of this shrinking population of Europe? Well, we might begin by asking what is the most popular name for boys born in Belgium…and Amsterdam…and Malmö, Sweden: Mohammed. Where is this going? Well, in the words of Mullah Krekar of Norway (p. 39), “We're the ones who will change you. Every Western woman in the EU is producing an average of 1.4 children. Every Muslim woman in the same countries is producing 3.5 children. By 2050, 30 percent of the population in Europe will be Muslim. Our way of thinking…will prove more powerful than yours.”

The author believes, and states forthrightly, that it is the purest fantasy to imagine that this demographic evolution, seen by many of the élite as the only hope of salvation for the European welfare state, can occur without a profound change in the very nature of the societies in which it occurs. The end-point may not be “Eutopia”, but rather “Eurabia”, and the timidity of European nations who already have an urban Muslim population approaching 30% shows how a society which has lost confidence in its own civilisation and traditions and imbibed the feel-good but ultimately debilitating doctrine of multiculturalism ends up assimilating to the culture of the immigrants, not the other way around. Steyn sees only three possible outcomes for the West (p. 204):

  1. Submit to Islam
  2. Destroy Islam
  3. Reform Islam
If option one is inconceivable and option two unthinkable (and probably impossible, certainly without changing Western civilisation beyond recognition and for the worse), you're left with number three, but, as Steyn notes, “Ultimately, only Muslims can reform Islam”. Unfortunately, the recent emergence of a global fundamentalist Islamic identity with explicitly political goals may be the Islamic Reformation, and if that be the case, the trend is going in the wrong direction. So maybe option one isn't off the table, after all.

The author traces the roots of the European predicament to the social democratic welfare state, which like all collectivist schemes, eventually creates a society of perpetual adolescents who never mature into and assume the responsibilities of adults. When the state becomes responsible for all the things the family once had to provide for, and is supported by historically unprecedented levels of taxation which impoverish young families and make children unaffordable, why not live for the present and let the next generation, wherever it may come from, worry about itself? In a static situation, this is a prescription for the kind of societal decline which can be seen in the histories of both Greece and Rome, but when there is a self-confident, rapidly-proliferating immigrant population with no inclination to assimilate, it amounts to handing the keys over to the new tenants in a matter of decades.

Among Western countries, the United States is the great outlier, with fertility just at the replacement rate and immigrants primarily of Hispanic origin who have, historically, assimilated to U.S. society in a generation or two. (There are reasons for concern about the present rate of immigration to the U.S. and the impact of multiculturalism on assimilation there, but that is not the topic of this book.) Steyn envisages a future, perhaps by 2050, where the U.S. looks out upon the world and sees not an “end of history” with liberal democracy and free markets triumphant around the globe but rather (p. 205), “a totalitarian China, a crumbling Russia, an insane Middle East, a disease-ridden Africa, [and] a civil war-torn Eurabia”—America alone.

Heavy stuff, but Steyn's way with words will keep you chuckling as you contemplate the apocalypse. The book is long on worries and short on plausible solutions, other than a list of palliatives which it is unlikely Western societies, even the U.S., have the will to adopt, although the author predicts (p. 192) “By 2015, almost every viable political party in the West will be natalist…”. But demographics don't turn on a dime, and by then, whatever measures are politically feasible may be too little to make much difference.

November 2006 Permalink

Steyn, Mark. After America. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-596-98100-3.
If John Derbyshire's We Are Doomed (October 2009) wasn't gloomy enough for you, this book will have you laughing all way from the event horizon to the central singularity toward which what remains of Western civilisation is free falling. In the author's view, the West now faces a perfect storm of demographic collapse (discussed in detail in his earlier America Alone [November 2006]); financial cataclysm due to unsustainable debt and “entitlement” commitments made by the welfare state; a culture crash after two generations have been indoctrinated in dependency, multiculturalism, and not just ignorance but a counterfactual fantasy view of history; and a political and cultural élite which has become so distinct and disconnected from the shrinking productive classes it almost seems to be evolving into a separate species.

Steyn uses H. G. Wells's The Time Machine as his guide to the future, arguing that Wells got the details right but that bifurcation of mankind into the effete Eloi and the productive but menacing Morlocks is not in the remote future, but has already happened in Western society in every sense but the biological, and even that is effectively the case as the two castes increasingly rarely come into contact with one another, no less interbreed. The Eloi, what Angelo Codevilla called The Ruling Class (October 2010), are the product of top-ranked universities and law schools and dominate government, academia, and the media. Many of them have been supported by taxpayers their entire lives and have never actually done anything productive in their careers. The Obama administration, which is almost devoid of individuals with any private sector experience at the cabinet level, might be deemed the first all-Eloi government in the U.S. As Wells's Time Traveller discovered, the whole Eloi/Morlock thing ended badly, and that's what Steyn envisions happening in the West, not in the distant future or even by mid-century, but within this decade, absent radical and painful course changes which are difficult to imagine being implemented by the feckless political classes of Europe, the U.S., and Japan.

In a chilling chapter, Steyn invokes the time machine once again to deliver a letter from the middle of our century to a reader in the America of 1950. In a way the world he describes would be as alien to its Truman administration reader as any dystopian vision of Wells, Orwell, or Huxley, and it is particularly disturbing to note that most of the changes he forecasts have already taken place or their precipitating events already underway in trends which are either impossible or extremely difficult to reverse. A final chapter, which I'll bet was added at the insistence of the publisher, provides a list of things which might be done to rescue the West from its imminent demise. They all make perfect sense, are easily understood, and would doubtless improve the situation even if inadequate to entirely avoid the coming calamity. And there is precisely zero chance of any of them being implemented in a country where 52.9% of the population voted for Barack Obama in 2008, at the tipping point where a majority dependent on the state and state employees who tend to them outvote a minority of productive taxpayers.

Regular readers of Steyn's columns will find much of this material familiar—I suspect there was more than a little cut and paste in assembling this manuscript. The tone of the argument is more the full-tilt irony, mockery, and word play one expects in a column than the more laid back voice customary in a book. You might want to read a chapter every few days rather than ploughing right through to the end to avoid getting numbed. But then the writing is so good it's difficult to put down.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are properly linked to the text and in notes which cite a document on the Web, the URL is linked to the on-line document. The index, however, is simply a useless list of terms without links to references in the text.

August 2011 Permalink

Thornton, Bruce. Decline and Fall. New York: Encounter Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59403-206-6.
This slim volume (135 pages of main text, 161 pages in its entirety—the book is erroneously listed on Amazon.com as 300 pages in length) is an epitaph for the postwar European experiment. The author considers Europe, as defined by the post-Christian, post-national “EUtopia” envisioned by proponents of the European Union as already irretrievably failed, facing collapse in the coming decades due to economic sclerosis from bloated and intrusive statist policies, unsustainable welfare state expenditures, a demographic death spiral already beyond recovery, and transformation by a burgeoning Islamic immigrant population which Europeans lack the will to confront and compel to assimilate as a condition of residence. The book is concise, well-argued, and persuasive, but I'm not sure why it is ultimately necessary.

The same issues are discussed at greater length, more deeply, and with abundant documentation in recent books such as Mark Steyn's America Alone (November 2006), Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe (July 2006), and Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept (June 2007), all of which are cited as sources in this work. If you're looking for a very brief introduction and overview of Europe's problems, this book provides one, but readers interested in details of the present situation and prospects for the future will be better served by one of the books mentioned above.

A video interview with the author is available.

May 2008 Permalink

Todd, Emmanuel. Après la démocratie. Paris: Gallimard, 2009. ISBN 978-2-07-078683-1.
This book is simultaneously enlightening, thought-provoking, and infuriating. The author is known for having forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1976 and, in 2002, the end of U.S. hegemony in the political, military, and financial spheres, as we are currently witnessing. In the present work, he returns his focus to Europe, and France in particular, and examines how the economic consequences of globalisation, the emergence of low-wage economies such as China and India in direct competition with workers in the developed West, the expansion of college education from a small fraction to around a third of the population, changes in the structure of the family due to a longer lifespan and marital customs, the near eclipse of Christianity as a social and moral force in Western Europe, and the collapse of traditional political parties with which individuals would identify over long periods of time have led to a crisis in confidence among the voting public in the élites who (especially in France) have traditionally governed them, escalating to a point where serious thinkers question the continued viability of democratic governance.

Dubiety about democracy is neither limited to the author nor to France: right-like-a-stopped-clock pundit Thomas Friedman has written admiringly of China's autocracy compared to the United States, Gaia theorist James Lovelock argues that “climate change” may require the West to “put democracy on hold for a while” while other ManBearPig fabulists argue that the “failure of democracy” on this issue requires it to give way to “a form of authoritarian government by experts”.

The take in the present book is somewhat different, drawing on Todd's demographic and anthropological approach to history and policy. He argues that liberal democracy, as it emerged in Britain, France, and the United States, had as a necessary condition a level of literacy among the population of between one third and two thirds. With a lower level of literacy the general population is unable to obtain the information they need to form their own conclusions, and if a society reaches a very high level of literacy without having adopted democratic governance (for example Germany from Bismarck through World War II or the Soviet Union), then the governing structure is probably sufficiently entrenched so as to manage the flow of information to the populace and suppress democratic movements. (Actually, the author would like to believe that broad-based literacy is a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy in the long run, but to this reader he didn't make the sale.)

Once democratic governance is established, literacy tends to rise toward 100% both because governments promote it by funding education and because the citizenry has an incentive to learn to read and write in order to participate in the political process. A society with universal literacy and primary education, but only a very small class with advanced education tends to be stable, because broad political movements can communicate with the population, and the élites which make up the political and administrative class must be responsive to the electorate in order to keep their jobs. With the broad population starting out with pretty much the same educational and economic level, the resulting society tends toward egalitarianism in wealth distribution and opportunity for advancement based upon merit and enterprise. Such a society will be an engine of innovation and production, and will produce wealth which elevates the standard of living of its population, yielding overall contentment which stabilises the society against radical change.

In the twentieth century, and particularly in the latter half, growing prosperity in developed nations led to a social experiment on a massive scale entirely unprecedented in human history. For the first time, universal secondary education was seen as a social good (and enforced by compulsory education and rising school-leaving ages), with higher (college/university) education for the largest possible fraction of the population becoming the ultimate goal. Indeed, political rhetoric in the United States presently advocates making college education available for all. In France, the number of students in “tertiary” education (the emerging term of art, to avoid calling it “superior”, which would imply that those without it are inferior) burgeoned from 200,000 in 1950 to 2,179,000 in 1995, an increase of 990%, while total population grew just 39% (p. 56). Since then, the rate of higher education has remained almost constant, with the number of students growing only 4% between 1995 and 2005, precisely the increase in population during that decade. The same plateau was achieved earlier in the U.S., while Britain, which began the large-scale expansion of higher education later, only attained a comparable level in recent years, so it's too early to tell whether that will also prove a ceiling there as well.

The author calls this “stagnation” in education and blames it for a cultural pessimism afflicting all parts of the political spectrum. (He does not discuss the dumbing-down of college education which has accompanied its expansion and the attendant devaluing of the credential; this may be less the case on the Continent than in the Anglosphere.) At the same time, these societies now have a substantial portion of their population, around one third, equipped nominally with education previously reserved for a tiny élite, whose career prospects are limited simply because there aren't enough positions at the top to go around. At the same time, the educational stratification of the society into a tiny governing class, a substantial educated class inclined to feel entitled to economic rewards for all the years of their lives spent sitting in classrooms, and a majority with a secondary education strikes a blow at egalitarianism, especially in France where broad-based equality of results has been a central part of the national identity since the Revolution.

The pessimism created by this educational stagnation has, in the author's view, been multiplied to the point of crisis by what he considers to be a disastrous embrace of free trade. While he applauds the dismantling of customs barriers in Europe and supported the European “Constitution”, he blames the abundance of low-wage workers in China and India for what he sees as relentless pressure on salaries in Europe and the loss of jobs due to outsourcing of manufacturing and, increasingly, service and knowledge worker jobs. He sees this as benefiting a tiny class, maybe 1% of the population, to the detriment of all the rest. Popular dissatisfaction with this situation, and frustration in an environment where all major political parties across the ideological spectrum are staunch defenders of free trade, has led to the phenomenon of “wipeout” elections, where the dominant political party is ejected in disgust, only to be replaced by another which continues the same policies and in turn is rejected by the electorate.

Where will it all end? Well, as the author sees it, with Nicholas Sarkozy. He regards Sarkozy and everything he represents with such an actinic detestation that one expects the crackling of sparks and odour of ozone when opening the book. Indeed, he uses Sarkozy's personal shortcomings as a metaphor for what's wrong with France, and as the structure of the book as a whole. And yet he is forced to come to terms with the fact that Sarkozy was elected with the votes of 53% of French voters after, in the first round, effectively wiping out the National Front, Communists, and Greens. And yet, echoing voter discontent, in the municipal elections a year later, the left was seen as the overall winner.

How can a democratic society continue to function when the electorate repeatedly empowers people who are neither competent to govern nor aligned with the self-interest of the nation and its population? The author sees only three alternatives. The first (p. 232) is the redefinition of the state from a universal polity open to all races, creeds, and philosophies to a racially or ethnically defined state united in opposition to an “other”. The author sees Sarkozy's hostility to immigrants in France as evidence for such a redefinition in France, but does not believe that it will be successful in diverting the electorate's attention from a falling standard of living due to globalisation, not from the immigrant population. The second possibility he envisions (p. 239) is the elimination, either outright or effectively, of universal suffrage at the national level and its replacement by government by unelected bureaucratic experts with authoritarian powers, along the general lines of the China so admired by Thomas Friedman. Elections would be retained for local officials, preserving the appearance of democracy while decoupling it from governance at the national level. Lest this seem an absurd possibility, as the author notes on p. 246, this is precisely the model emerging for continental-scale government in the European Union. Voters in member states elect members to a European “parliament” which has little real power, while the sovereignty of national governments is inexorably ceded to the unelected European Commission. Note that only a few member states allowed their voters a referendum on the European “constitution” or its zombie reanimation, the Treaty of Lisbon.

The third alternative, presented in the conclusion to the work, is the only one the author sees as preserving democracy. This would be for the economic core of Europe, led by France and Germany, to adopt an explicit policy of protectionism, imposing tariffs on imports from low-wage producers with the goal of offsetting the wage differential and putting an end to the pressure on European workers, the outsourcing of jobs, and the consequent destruction of the middle class. This would end the social and economic pessimism in European societies, realign the policies of the governing class with the electorate, and restore the confidence among voters in those they elect which is essential for democracy to survive. (Due to its centuries-long commitment to free trade and alignment with the United States, Todd does not expect Great Britain to join such a protectionist regime, but believes that if France and Germany were to proclaim such a policy, their economic might and influence in the European Union would be sufficient to pull in the rest of the Continent and build a Wirtschaftsfestung Europa from the Atlantic to the Russian border.) In such a case, and only in that case, the author contends, will what comes after democracy be democracy.

As I noted at the start of these comments, I found this book, among other things, infuriating. If that's all it were, I would neither have finished it nor spent the time to write such a lengthy review, however. The work is worth reading, if for nothing else, to get a sense of the angst and malaise in present-day Europe, where it is beginning to dawn upon the architects and supporters of the social democratic welfare state that it is not only no longer competitive in the global economy but also unsustainable within its own borders in the face of a demographic collapse and failure to generate new enterprises and employment brought about by its own policies. Amidst foreboding that there are bad times just around the corner iTunes Store, and faced with an electorate which empowers candidates which leftists despise for being “populist”, “crude”, and otherwise not the right kind of people, there is a tendency among the Left to claim that “democracy is broken”, and that only radical, transformative change (imposed from the top down, against the will of the majority, if necessary) can save democracy from itself. This book is, I believe, an exemplar of this genre. I would expect several such books authored by leftist intellectuals to appear in the United States in the first years of a Palin administration.

What is particularly aggravating about the book is its refusal to look at the causes of the problems it proposes to address through a protectionist policy. Free trade did not create the regime of high taxation, crushing social charges, inability to dismiss incompetent workers, short work weeks and long vacations, high minimum wages and other deterrents to entry level jobs, and regulatory sclerosis which have made European industry uncompetitive, and high tariffs alone will not solve any of these problems, but rather simply allow them to persist for a while within a European bubble increasingly decoupled from the world economy. That's pretty much what the Soviet Union did for seventy years, if you think about it, and how well did that work out for the Soviet people?

Todd is so focused on protectionism as panacea that he Panglosses over major structural problems in Europe which would be entirely unaffected by its adoption. He dismisses demographic collapse as a problem for France, noting that the total fertility rate has risen over the last several years back to around 2 children per woman, the replacement rate. What he doesn't mention is that this is largely due to a high fertility rate among Muslim immigrants from North Africa, whose failure to assimilate and enter the economy is a growing crisis in France along with other Western European countries. The author dismisses this with a wave of the hand, accusing Sarkozy of provoking the “youth” riots of 2005 to further his own career, and argues that episode was genuinely discouraged young versus the ruling class and had little to do with Islam or ethnic conflict. One wonders how much time Dr. Todd has spent in the “no go” Muslim banlieues of Paris and other large European cities.

Further, Todd supports immigration and denounces restrictionists as opportunists seeking to distract the electorate with a scapegoat. But how is protectionism (closing the border to products from low wage countries) going to work, precisely, if the borders remain open to people from the Third World, many lacking any skills equipping them to participate in a modern industrialised society, and bringing with them, in many cases, belief systems hostile to the plurality, egalitarianism, secularism, and tolerance of European nations? If the descendants of immigrants do not assimilate, they pose a potentially disastrous social and political problem, while if they do, their entry into the job market will put pressure on wages just as surely as goods imported from China.

Given Todd's record in predicting events conventional wisdom deemed inconceivable, one should be cautious in dismissing his analysis here, especially as it drawn from the same kind of reasoning based in demographics, anthropology, and economics which informs his other work. If nothing else, it provides an excellent view of how more than fifty years journey down the social democratic road to serfdom brings into doubt how long the “democratic” part, as well as the society, can endure.

April 2010 Permalink

Truss, Lynne. Talk to the Hand. London: Profile Books, 2005. ISBN 1-86197-933-9.
Following the runaway success of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (January 2004), one might have expected the author to follow up with another book on grammar, but instead in this outing she opted to confront the “utter bloody rudeness of everyday life”. Not long ago I might have considered these topics unrelated, but after the publication in July 2005 of Strike Out, and the subsequent discussion it engendered, I've come to realise that slapdash spelling and grammar are, as explained on page 23 here, simply one aspect of the rudeness which affronts us from all sides. As Bernard Pivot observed, “[spelling] remains a politeness one owes to our language, and a politeness one owes to those to whom one writes.”

In this book Truss parses rudeness into six categories, and explores how modern technology and society have nearly erased the distinctions between private and public spaces, encouraging or at least reducing the opprobrium of violating what were once universally shared social norms. (Imagine, for example, how shocking it would have seemed in 1965 to overhear the kind of intensely personal or confidential business conversation between two fellow passengers on a train which it is now entirely routine to hear one side of as somebody obliviously chatters into their mobile phone.)

Chapter 2, “Why am I the One Doing This?”, is 23 pages of pure wisdom for designers of business systems, customer relations managers, and designers of user interfaces for automated systems; it perfectly expresses the rage which justifiably overcomes people who feel themselves victimised for the convenience and/or profit of the counterparty in a transaction which is supposedly of mutual benefit. This is a trend which, in my opinion (particularly in computer user interface design), has been going in the wrong direction since I began to rant about it almost twenty years ago.

A U.S edition is also available.

December 2005 Permalink

Van Buren, Peter. We Meant Well. New York: Henry Holt, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8050-9436-7.
The author is a career Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department. In 2009–2010 he spent a year in Iraq as leader of two embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (ePRT) operating out of Forward Operating Bases (FOB) which were basically crusader forts in a hostile Iraqi wilderness: America inside, trouble outside. Unlike “fobbits” who rarely ventured off base, the author and his team were charged with engaging the local population to carry out “Lines of Effort” dreamed up by pointy-heads back at the palatial embassy in Baghdad or in Washington to the end of winning the “hearts and minds” of the population and “nation building”. The Iraqis were so appreciative of these efforts that they regularly attacked the FOB with mortar fire and mounted improvised explosive device (IED) and sniper attacks on those who ventured out beyond the wire.

If the whole thing were not so tawdry and tragic, the recounting of the author's experiences would be hilariously funny. If you imagine it to be a Waugh novel and read it with a dark sense of humour, it is wickedly amusing, but then one remembers that real people are dying and suffering grievous injuries, the Iraqi population are being treated as props in public relation stunts by the occupiers and deprived of any hope of bettering themselves, and all of this vast fraudulent squandering of resources is being paid for by long-suffering U.S. taxpayers or money borrowed from China and Japan, further steering the imperial power toward a debt end.

The story is told in brief chapters, each recounting a specific incident or aspect of life in Iraq. The common thread, which stretches back over millennia, is that imperial powers attempting to do good by those they subjugate will always find themselves outwitted by wily oriental gentlemen whose ancestors have spent millennia learning how to game the systems imposed by the despotisms under which they have lived. As a result, the millions poured down the rathole of “Provincial Reconstruction” predictably flows into the pockets of the bosses in the communities who set up front organisations for whatever harebrained schemes the occupiers dream up. As long as the “project” results in a ribbon-cutting ceremony covered by the press (who may, of course, be given an incentive to show up by being paid) and an impressive PowerPoint presentation for the FOB commander to help him toward his next promotion, it's deemed a success and, hey, there's a new Line of Effort from the embassy that demands another project: let's teach widows beekeeping (p. 137)—it'll only cost US$1600 per person, and each widow can expect to make US$200 a year from the honey—what a deal!

The author is clearly a creature of the Foreign Service and scarcely conceals his scorn for the military who are tasked with keeping him alive in a war zone and the politicians who define the tasks he is charged with carrying out. Still, the raw folly of “nation building” and the obdurate somnambulant stupidity of those who believe that building milk processing plants or putting on art exhibitions in a war zone will quickly convert people none of whom have a single ancestor who has ever lived in a consensually-governed society with the rule of law to model citizens in a year or two is stunningly evident.

Why are empires always so dumb? When they attain a certain stage of overreach, they seem to always assume they can instill their own unique culture in those they conquer. And yet, as Kipling wrote in 1899:

Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

When will policy makers become as wise as the mindless mechanisms of biology? When an irritant invades an organism and it can't be eliminated, the usual reaction is to surround it with an inert barrier which keeps it from causing further harm. “Nation building” is folly; far better to bomb them if they misbehave, then build a wall around the whole godforsaken place and bomb them again if any of them get out and cause any further mischief. Call it “biomimetic foreign policy”—encyst upon it!

March 2012 Permalink

Vazsonyi, Balint. America's Thirty Years War. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0-89526-354-8.

November 2003 Permalink

Walden, George. Time to Emigrate? London: Gibson Square, 2006. ISBN 1-90393393-5.
Readers of Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom and Our Culture, What's Left of It may have thought his dire view of the state of civilisation in Britain to have been unduly influenced by his perspective as a prison and public hospital physician in one of the toughest areas of Birmingham, England. Here we have, if not the “view from the top”, a brutally candid evaluation written by a former Minister of Higher Education in the Thatcher government and Conservative member of the House of Commons from 1983 until his retirement in 1997, and it is, if anything, more disturbing.

The author says of himself (p. 219), “My life began unpromisingly, but everything's always got better. … In other words, in personal terms I've absolutely no complaints.” But he is deeply worried about whether his grown children and their children can have the same expectations in the Britain of today and tomorrow. The book is written in the form of a long (224 page) and somewhat rambling letter to a fictional son and his wife who are pondering emigrating from Britain after their young son was beaten into unconsciousness by immigrants within sight of their house in London. He describes his estimation of the culture, politics, and economy of Britain as much like the work of a house surveyor: trying to anticipate the problems which may befall those who choose to live there. Wherever he looks: immigration, multiculturalism, education, transportation, the increasingly debt-supported consumer economy, public health services, mass media, and the state of political discourse, he finds much to fret about. But this does not come across as the sputtering of an ageing Tory, but rather a thoroughly documented account of how most of the things which the British have traditionally valued (and have attracted immigrants to their shores) have eroded during his lifetime, to such an extent that he can no longer believe that his children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities he had as a lower middle class boy born twelve days after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939.

The curious thing about emigration from the British Isles today is that it's the middle class that is bailing out. Over most of history, it was the lower classes seeking opportunity (or in the case of my Irish ancestors, simply survival) on foreign shores, and the surplus sons of the privileged classes hoping to found their own dynasties in the colonies. But now, it's the middle that's being squeezed out, and it's because the collectivist state is squeezing them for all they're worth. The inexorably growing native underclass and immigrants benefit from government services and either don't have the option to leave or else consider their lot in life in Britain far better than whence they came. The upper classes can opt out of the sordid shoddiness and endless grey queues of socialism; on p. 153 the author works out the cost: for a notional family of two parents and two children, “going private” for health care, education for the kids, transportation, and moving to a “safe neighbourhood” would roughly require doubling income from what such a typical family brings home.

Is it any wonder we have so many billionaire collectivists (Buffett, Gates, Soros, etc.)? They don't have to experience the sordid consequences of their policies, but by advocating them, they can recruit the underclass (who benefit from them and are eventually made dependent and unable to escape from helotry) to vote them into power and keep them there. And they can exult in virtue as their noble policies crush those who might aspire to their own exalted station. The middle class, who pay for all of this, forced into minority, retains only the franchise which is exercised through shoe leather on pavement, and begins to get out while the property market remains booming and the doors are still open.

The author is anything but a doctrinaire Tory; he has, in fact, quit the party, and savages its present “100% Feck-Free” (my term) leader, David Cameron as, among other things, a “transexualised [Princess] Diana” (p. 218). As an emigrant myself, albeit from a different country, I think his conclusion and final recommendation couldn't be wiser (and I'm sorry if this is a spoiler, but if you're considering such a course you should read this book cover to cover anyway): go live somewhere else (I'd say, anywhere else) and see how you like it. You may discover that you're obsessed with what you miss and join the “International Club” (which usually means the place they speak the language of the Old Country), or you may find that after struggling with language, customs, and how things are done, you fit in rather well and, after a while, find most of your nightmares are about things in the place you left instead of the one you worried about moving to. There's no way to know—it could go either way. I think the author, as many people, may have put somewhat more weight on the question of emigration that it deserves. I've always looked at countries like any other product. I've never accepted that because I happened to be born within the borders of some state to whose creation and legitimacy I never personally consented, that I owe it any obligation whatsoever apart from those in compensation for services provided directly to me with my assent. Quitting Tyrania to live in Freedonia is something anybody should be able do to, assuming the residents of Freedonia welcome you, and it shouldn't occasion any more soul-searching on the part of the emigrant than somebody choosing to trade in their VW bus for a Nissan econobox because the 1972 bus was a shoddy crapwagon. Yes, you should worry and even lose sleep over all the changes you'll have to make, but there's no reason to gum up an already difficult decision process by cranking all kinds of guilt into it. Nobody (well, nobody remotely sane) gets all consumed by questions of allegiance, loyalty, or heritage when deciding whether their next computer will run Windows, MacOS, Linux, or FreeBSD. It seems to me that once you step back from the flags and anthems and monuments and kings and presidents and prime ministers and all of the other atavistic baggage of the coercive state, it's wisest to look at your polity like an operating system; it's something that you have to deal with (increasingly, as the incessant collectivist ratchet tightens the garrote around individuality and productivity), but you still have a choice among them, and given how short is our tenure on this planet, we shouldn't waste a moment of it living somewhere that callously exploits our labours in the interest of others. And, the more productive people exercise that choice, the greater the incentive is for the self-styled rulers of the various states to create an environment which will attract people like ourselves.

Many of the same issues are discussed, from a broader European perspective, in Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe and Mark Steyn's America Alone. To fend off queries, I emigrated from what many consider the immigration magnet of the world in 1991 and have never looked back and rarely even visited the old country except for business and family obligations. But then I suspect, as the author notes on p. 197, I am one of those D4-7 allele people (look it up!) who thrive on risk and novelty; I'm not remotely claiming that this is better—Heaven knows we DRD4 7-repeat folk have caused more than our cohort's proportion of chaos and mayhem, but we just can't give it up—this is who we are.

January 2007 Permalink

War Department. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Oxford: Bodelian Library, [1942] 2004. ISBN 978-1-85124-085-2.
Shortly after the entry of the United States into the European war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. troops began to arrive in Britain in 1942. Although more than two years would elapse before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, an ever-increasing number of “overpaid, oversexed, and over here” American troops would establish air bases, build logistics for the eventual invasion, and provide liaison with the British command.

This little (31 page, small format) book reproduces a document originally furnished to U.S. troops embarking for Britain as seven pages of typescript. It provides a delightful look at how Americans perceived the British at the epoch, and also how they saw themselves—there's even an admonishment to soldiers of Irish ancestry not to look upon the English as their hereditary enemies, and a note that the American colloquialism “I look like a bum” means something much different in an English pub. A handy table helps Yanks puzzle out the bewildering British money.

Companion volumes were subsequently published for troops bound for Iraq (yes, in 1943!) and France; I'll get to them in due course.

February 2009 Permalink

Weinberg, Steven. Facing Up. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-674-01120-1.
This is a collection of non-technical essays written between 1985 and 2000 by Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg. Many discuss the “science wars”—the assault by postmodern academics on the claim that modern science is discovering objective truth (well, duh), but many other topics are explored, including string theory, Zionism, Alan Sokal's hoax at the expense of the unwitting (and witless) editors of Social Text, Thomas Kuhn's views on scientific revolutions, science and religion, and the comparative analysis of utopias. Weinberg applies a few basic principles to most things he discusses—I counted six separate defences of reductionism in modern science, most couched in precisely the same terms. You may find this book more enjoyable a chapter at a time over an extended period rather than in one big cover-to-cover gulp.

January 2005 Permalink

West, Diana. The Death of the Grown-Up. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2007. ISBN 978-0-312-34049-0.
In The Case Against Adolescence (July 2007), Robert Epstein argued that the concept of adolescence as a distinct phase of life is a recently-invented social construct which replaced the traditional process of childhood passing into an apprenticeship to adulthood around the time of puberty. In this book, acid-penned author Diana West, while not discussing Epstein's contentions, suggests that the impact of adolescence upon the culture is even greater and more pernicious, and that starting with the Boomer generation, the very goal of maturing into an adult has been replaced by a “forever young” narcissism which elevates the behaviour of adolescence into the desideratum of people who previously would have been expected to put such childish things behind them and assume the responsibilities of adults.

What do you get when you have a society full of superannuated adolescents? An adolescent culture, of course, addicted to instant gratification (see the debt crisis), lack of respect for traditional virtues and moderation, a preference for ignoring difficult problems in favour of trivial distractions, and for euphemisms instead of unpleasant reality. Such a society spends so much time looking inward that it forgets who it is or where it has come from, and becomes as easily manipulated as an adolescent at the hands of a quick-talking confidence man. And there are, as always, no shortage of such predators ready to exploit it.

This situation, the author argues, crossing the line from cultural criticism into red meat territory, becomes an existential threat when faced with what she calls “The Real Culture War”: the challenge to the West from Islam (not “Islamists”, “Islamofascists”, “Islamic terrorists”, “militant fundamentalists” or the like, but Islam—the religion, in which she contends the institutions of violent jihad and dhimmitude for subjected populations which do not convert have been established from its early days). Islam, she says. is a culture which, whatever its shortcomings, does know what it is, exhorts its adherents to propagate it, and has no difficulty proclaiming its superiority over all others or working toward a goal of global domination. Now this isn't of course, the first time the West has faced such a threat: in just the last century the equally aggressive and murderous ideologies of fascism and communism were defeated, but they were defeated by an adult society, not a bunch of multicultural indoctrinated, reflexively cringing, ignorant or disdainful of their own culture, clueless about history, parents and grandparents whose own process of maturation stopped somewhere in their teens.

This is a polemic, and sometimes reads like a newspaper op-ed piece which has to punch its message through in limited space as opposed to the more measured development of an argument appropriate to the long form. I also think the author really misses a crucial connection in not citing the work of Epstein and others on the damage wrought by the concept of adolescence itself—when you segregate young adults by age and cut them off from the contact with adults which traditionally taught them what adulthood meant and how and why they should aspire to it, is it any surprise that you end up with a culture filled with people who have never figured out how to behave as adults?

October 2008 Permalink

Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. London: Fourth Estate, 2004. ISBN 0-00-714096-7.
I picked up this book in an airport bookshop, expecting a survey of contemporary lunacy along the lines of Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds or Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Instead, what we have is 312 pages of hateful, sneering political rant indiscriminately sprayed at more or less every target in sight. Mr Wheen doesn't think very much of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher (who he likens repeatedly to the Ayatollah Khomeini). Well, that's to be expected, I suppose, in a columnist for the Guardian, but there's no reason they need to be clobbered over and over, for the same things and in almost the same words, every three pages or so throughout this tedious, ill-organised, and repetitive book. Neither does the author particularly fancy Tony Blair, who comes in for the same whack-a-mole treatment. A glance at the index (which is not exhaustive) shows that between them, Blair, Thatcher, and Reagan appear on 85 pages equally sprinkled throughout the text. In fact, Mr Wheen isn't very keen on almost anybody or anything dating from about 1980 to the present; one senses an all-consuming nostalgia for that resplendent utopia which was Britain in the 1970s. Now, the crusty curmudgeon is a traditional British literary figure, but masters of the genre leaven their scorn with humour and good will which are completely absent here. What comes through instead is simply hate: the world leaders who dismantled failed socialist experiments are not, as a man of the left might argue, misguided but rather Mrs Thatcher's “drooling epigones” (p. 263). For some months, I've been pondering a phenomenon in today's twenty-something generation which I call “hate kiddies.” These are people, indoctrinated in academia by ideologues of the Sixties generation to hate their country, culture, and all of its achievements—supplanting the pride which previous generations felt with an all-consuming guilt. This seems, in many otherwise gifted and productive people, to metastasise in adulthood into an all-consuming disdain and hate for everything; it's like the end point of cultural relativism is the belief that everything is evil. I asked an exemplar of this generation once whether he could name any association of five or more people anywhere on Earth which was not evil: nope. Detesting his “evil” country and government, I asked whether he could name any other country which was less evil or even somewhat good: none came to mind. (If you want to get a taste of this foul and poisonous weltanschauung, visit the Slashdot site and read the comments posted for almost any article. This site is not a parody—this is how the young technological elite really think, or rather, can't think.) In Francis Wheen, the hate kiddies have found their elder statesman.

July 2004 Permalink

Wilson, Daniel H. Where's My Jetpack? New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. ISBN 1-59691-136-0.
One of the best things about the past was that the future was so much cooler then! I mean, here we are, more than halfway through the first decade of the flippin' twenty-first century for heaven's sake, and there's nary a flying car, robot servant, underwater city, orbital hotel, or high-speed slidewalk anywhere in sight, and many of the joyless scolds who pass for visionaries in this timid and unimaginative age think we'd all be better off renouncing technology and going back to being hunter-gatherers—sheesh.

This book, by a technology columnist for Popular Mechanics, wryly surveys the promise and present-day reality of a variety of wonders from the golden age of boundless technological optimism. You may be surprised at the slow yet steady progress being made toward some of these visionary goals (but don't hold your breath waiting for the Star Trek transporter!). I was completely unaware, for example, of the “anti-sleeping pill” modafinil, which, based upon tests by the French Foreign Legion, the UK Ministry of Defence, and the U.S. Air Force, appears to allow maintaining complete alertness for up to 40 hours with no sleep and minimal side effects. And they said programmer productivity had reached its limits!

The book is illustrated with stylish graphics, but there are no photos of the real-world gizmos mentioned in the next, nor are there source citations or links to Web sites describing them—you're on your own following up the details. To answer the question in the title, “Where's My Jetpack?”, look here and here.

August 2007 Permalink

Winograd, Morley and Michael D. Hais. Millennial Makeover. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8135-4301-7.
This is a disturbing book on a number of different levels. People, especially residents of the United States or subject to its jurisdiction, who cherish individual liberty and economic freedom should obtain a copy of this work (ideally, by buying a used copy to avoid putting money in the authors' pockets), put a clothespin on their noses, and read the whole thing (it only takes a day or so), being warned in advance that it may induce feelings of nausea and make you want to take three or four showers when you're done.

The premise of the book is taken from Strauss and Howe's Generations, which argues that American history is characterised by a repeating pattern of four kinds of generations, alternating between “idealistic” and “civic” periods on a roughly forty year cycle (two generations in each period). These periods have nothing to do with the notions of “right” and “left”—American history provides examples of periods of both types identified with each political tendency.

The authors argue that the United States are approaching the end of an idealistic period with a rightward tendency which began in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon, which supplanted the civic leftward period which began with the New Deal and ended in the excesses of the 1960s. They argue that the transition between idealistic and civic periods is signalled by a “realigning election”, in which the coalitions supporting political parties are remade, defining a new alignment and majority party which will dominate government for the next four decades or so.

These realignment elections usually mark the entrance of a new generation into the political arena (initially as voters and activists, only later as political figures), and the nature of the coming era can be limned, the authors argue, by examining the formative experiences of the rising generation and the beliefs they take into adulthood. Believing that a grand realignment is imminent, if not already underway, and that its nature will be determined by what they call the “Millennial Generation” (the cohort born between 1982 through 2003: a group larger in numbers than the Baby Boom generation), the authors examine the characteristics and beliefs of this generation, the eldest members of which are now entering the electorate, to divine the nature of the post-realignment political landscape. If they are correct in their conclusions, it is a prospect to induce fear, if not despair, in lovers of liberty. Here are some quotes.

The inevitable loss in privacy and freedom that has been a constant characteristic of the nation's reaction to any crisis that threatens America's future will more easily be accepted by a generation that willingly opts to share personal information with advertisers just for the sake of earning a few “freebies.” After 9/11 and the massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech, Millennials are not likely to object to increased surveillance and other intrusions into their private lives if it means increased levels of personal safety. The shape of America's political landscape after a civic realignment is thus more likely to favor policies that involve collective action and individual accountability than the libertarian approaches so much favored by Gen-Xers. (p. 200)
Note that the authors applaud these developments. Digital Imprimatur, here we come!
As the newest civic realignment evolves, the center of America's public policy will continue to shift away from an emphasis on individual rights and public morality toward a search for solutions that benefit the entire community in as equitable and orderly way as possible. Majorities will coalesce around ideas that involve the entire group in the solution and downplay the right of individuals to opt out of the process. (p. 250)
Millennials favor environmental protection even at the cost of economic growth by a somewhat wider margin than any other generation (43% for Millennials vs. 40% for Gen-Xers and 38% for Baby Boomers), hardly surprising, given the emphasis this issue received in their favorite childhood television programs such as “Barney” and “Sesame Street” (Frank N. Magid Associates, May 2007). (p. 263)
Deep thinkers, those millennials! (Note that these “somewhat wider” margins are within the statistical sampling error of the cited survey [p. xiv].)

The whole scheme of alternating idealist and civic epochs is presented with a historicist inevitability worthy of Hegel or Marx. While one can argue that this kind of cycle is like the oscillation between crunchy and soggy, it seems to me that the authors must be exceptionally stupid, oblivious to facts before their faces, or guilty of a breathtaking degree of intellectual dishonesty to ignore the influence of the relentless indoctrination of this generation with collectivist dogma in government schools and the legacy entertainment and news media—and I do not believe the authors are either idiots nor imperceptive. What they are, however, are long-term activists (since the 1970s) in the Democratic party, who welcome the emergence of a “civic” generation which they view as the raw material for advancing the agenda which FDR launched with the aid of the previous large civic generation in the 1930s.

Think about it. A generation which has been inculcated with the kind of beliefs illustrated by the quotations above, and which is largely ignorant of history (and much of the history they've been taught is bogus, agenda-driven propaganda), whose communications are mostly “peer-to-peer”—with other identically-indoctrinated members of the same generation, is the ideal putty in the hands of a charismatic leader bent on “unifying” a nation by using the coercive power of the state to enforce the “one best way”.

The authors make an attempt to present the millenials as a pool of potential voters in search of a political philosophy and party embodying it which, once chosen, they will likely continue to identify with for the rest of their lives (party allegiance, they claim, is much stronger in civic than in idealist eras). But it's clear that the book is, in fact, a pitch to the Democratic party to recruit these people: Republican politicians and conservative causes are treated with thinly veiled contempt.

This is entirely a book about political strategy aimed at electoral success. There is no discussion whatsoever of the specific policies upon which campaigns will be based, how they are to be implemented, or what their consequences will be for the nation. The authors almost seem to welcome catastrophes such as a “major terrorist attack … major environmental disaster … chronic, long-lasting war … hyperinflation … attack on the U.S. with nuclear weapons … major health catastrophe … major economic collapse … world war … and/or a long struggle like the Cold War” as being “events of significant magnitude to trigger a civic realignment” (p. 201).

I've written before about my decision to get out of the United States in the early 1990s, which decision I have never regretted. That move was based largely upon economic fundamentals, which I believed, and continue to believe, are not sustainable and will end badly. Over the last decade, I have been increasingly unsettled by my interactions with members of the tail-end of Generation X and the next generation, whatever you call it. If the picture presented in this book is correct (and I have no way to know whether it is), and their impact upon the U.S. political scene is anything like that envisioned by the authors, anybody still in the U.S. who values their liberty and autonomy has an even more urgent reason to get out, and quickly.

May 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Wolfe, Tom. I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Audiobook, Unabridged). New York: Macmillan Audio, 2004. ISBN 978-0-312-42444-2.
Thomas Sowell has written, “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late”. Tom Wolfe's extensively researched and pitch-perfect account of undergraduate life at an élite U.S. college in the first decade of the twenty-first century is a testament to what happens when the barbarians sneak into the gates of the cloistered cities of academe, gain tenure, and then turn the next generation of “little barbarians” loose into a state of nature, to do what their hormones and whims tell them to.

Our viewpoint into this alien world (which the children and grandchildren of those likely to be reading this chronicle inhabit, if they're lucky [?] enough to go to one of those élite institutions which groom them for entry into the New [or, as it is coming to be called, Ruling] Class at the cost of between a tenth and a quarter of a million dollars, often front-end loaded as debt onto the lucky students just emerging into those years otherwise best spent in accumulating capital to buy a house, start a family, and make the key early year investments in retirement and inheritance for their progeny) is Charlotte Simmons of Sparta, North Carolina, a Presidential Scholar from the hill country who, by sheer academic excellence, has won a full scholarship to Dupont University, known not only for its academic prestige, but also its formidable basketball team.

Before arriving at Dupont, Charlotte knew precisely who she was, what she wanted, and where she was going. Within days after arriving, she found herself in a bizarre mirror universe where everything she valued (and which the university purported to embody) was mocked by the behaviour of the students, professors, and administrators. Her discoveries are our discoveries of this alien culture which is producing those who will decide our fate in our old age. Worry!

Nobody remotely competes with Tom Wolfe when it comes to imbibing an alien culture, mastering its jargon and patois, and fleshing out the characters who inhabit it. Wolfe's talents are in full ascendance here, and this is a masterpiece of contemporary pedagogic anthropathology. We are doomed!

The audio programme is distributed in four files, running 31 hours and 16 minutes and includes a brief interview with the author at the end. An Audio CD edition is available, as is a paperback print edition.

October 2010 Permalink

Wood, Peter. Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003. ISBN 1-893554-62-7.

August 2003 Permalink