Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

March 3, 2009

They’re ba-a-a-ack!

Filed under: Book reviews,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 4:21 pm

If you go here http://pajamasmedia.com/michaelledeen/2009/02/12/we-are-all-illiterates-now/

you’ll find a very nice article by Michael Ledeen that I meant to write – complete with the title I’d picked for it.

Heavy sigh.

Only goes to show the dangers of procrastination. When there is an obvious truth staring you in the face you should write about it without delay. Because if it is, 1) true, and 2) obvious, somebody else is going to see it and write about it.

The title of the article We Are All Fascists Now, suggested itself. It’s a play on words of the title of the Newsweek article We Are All Socialists Now, which is itself a takeoff on Richard Nixon’s remark “We are all Keynesians now.”*

What Ledeen points out, is that in Obama’s Great Plan for the Economy and All of Us, we aren’t seeing pure Socialism, but the “Third Way” partnership of government and corporations of Mussolini, i.e. Fascism.**

The term “Fascism” has for a long time had no intellectual content other than perhaps, “position held by people on the Right that I don’t like.” Or more specificly, “positions held by people on the Right which are so repugnant they ought to be killed for holding them.”

I once had an email exchange with a correspondent who referred to an Englishman I recommended listening to, as a “fascist bastard.” I then invited him to name a single plank in the Fascist Party platform, either Mussolini’s or the contemporary Fascist Party in modern Italy, (yes, it’s still around and regularly elects delegates to parliament) your choice.

Of course, he couldn’t. Instead he blustered, “I know it when I see it.”

Well, actually no. He didn’t

Anyone who investigates history seriously runs into the uncomfortable but incontrovertable fact that German Nazism and Italian Fascism are phenomena of the Left.

Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei “National Socialist German Workers’ Party” – sound Right-wing to you?

In the words of Jonah Goldberg, “Everything you know about Fascism is wrong.”

So, as part of your survival kit for the next four-to-eight years, if we’re lucky, I recommend that you read Michael Ledeen’s article right now, and follow the link and read the Newsweek article.

Next, I strongly urge you to read Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” without too much delay.

It drags in spots, and at the end it almost seems like his argument is taking him to places even he doesn’t want to go. Nonetheless, read it. You need to.

Among other things you’ll find are:

-Mussolini’s Fascist Party was not at all anti-Semitic. Italian Jews joined in disproportionate numbers and were included in the highest ranks.

-Mussolini considered himself a Marxist and socialist to his dying day.

-Musollini was initially admired by a great many American intellectuals, including Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey, and (this hurts) Will Rogers.

-The Fascist platform included a number of planks many would approve of: abolition of the draft, lowering the voting age to 18, universal suffeage – including women, repeal of titles of nobility, an eight-hour day, a minimum wage. Along with others you’d find very familiar: the obligation of the state to build “rigidly secular” schools for the raising of “the proletariat’s moral and cultural condition,” and “A large progressive tax on capital that would amount to a one-time partial expropriation of all riches.”

According to Goldberg, America has gone through three flirtations with fascism, under Woodrow Wilson, FDR and the National Recovery Administration, and a period of “smiley faced fascism” that started in the 60s and has been sputtering along ever since.

We’ll discuss this further. In the meantime – get the book.

*Nixon was invoking the ghost of leftist economist John Maynard Keynes (an English milord no less, 1st Baron Keynes) who advocated strong state intervention in the economy, particularly in the area of monetary policy – deficit spending.

We are now in what is called the “Keynesian revival.” Keynes fell out of favor during the Reagan years and is now having somewhat of a comeback.

The irony of it all is, according to people who actually knew him (such as his friend and intellectual opponent Leonard Read,) Keynes confided to them he had second thoughts about much of his theory. However, he didn’t publicly revise his opinions because the last act of his professional life before he died of a heart attack in 1946, was to help negotiate a post-war loan from the U.S. to Britain – and much of the argument from the loan proceeded from Keynesian theories he no longer supported!

**I love the response of Vaclav Klaus, sometime prime minister of the Czech Republic, and staunch free marketeer. His comment about a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, he remarked, “The Third Way is the quickest route to the Third World.”

November 29, 2008

A bad time for lovers

Filed under: Book reviews,Culture,Relationships — Tags: — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:15 pm

There has been a bit of Net buzz lately over Kay Hymowitz’s two articles about the marriage and dating scene, published this year in City Journal.

Hymowitz first looked at the scene from the point view of women’s complaints in the Winter 2008 issue, Child-Man in the Promised Land.

Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. You’ve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face—and then it’s off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. They come from everywhere: California, Tokyo, Alaska, Australia. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?

Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthood’s milestones—high school degree, financial independence, marriage, and children. These days, he lingers—happily—in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. Decades in unfolding, this limbo may not seem like news to many, but in fact it is to the early twenty-first century what adolescence was to the early twentieth: a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import. Some call this new period “emerging adulthood,” others “extended adolescence.”

Then evidently she received a deluge of mail from angry, resentful men, and had another look – from the point of view of twenty-something men, in the Autumn, 2008 issue, Love in the Time of Darwinism.

It would be easy enough to hold up some of the callow ranting that the piece inspired as proof positive of the child-man’s existence. But the truth is that my correspondents’ objections gave me pause. Their argument, in effect, was that the SYM (Single Young Male) is putting off traditional markers of adulthood—one wife, two kids, three bathrooms—not because he’s immature but because he’s angry. He’s angry because he thinks that young women are dishonest, self-involved, slutty, manipulative, shallow, controlling, and gold-digging. He’s angry because he thinks that the culture disses all things male. He’s angry because he thinks that marriage these days is a raw deal for men.

Here’s Jeff from Middleburg, Florida: “I am not going to hitch my wagon to a woman . . . who is more into her abs, thighs, triceps, and plastic surgery. A woman who seems to have forgotten that she did graduate high school and that it’s time to act accordingly.” Jeff, meet another of my respondents, Alex: “Maybe we turn to video games not because we are trying to run away from the responsibilities of a ‘grown-up life’ but because they are a better companion than some disease-ridden bar tramp who is only after money and a free ride.” Care for one more? This is from Dean in California: “Men are finally waking up to the ever-present fact that traditional marriage, or a committed relationship, with its accompanying socially imposed requirements of being wallets with legs for women, is an empty and meaningless drudgery.” You can find the same themes posted throughout websites like AmericanWomenSuck, NoMarriage, MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), and Eternal Bachelor (“Give modern women the husband they deserve. None”).

I have to say, I think it’s admirable of Hymowitz to turn around and consider that there is, after all, another side to the problem.

Perhaps I’m not well-qualified to speak to this issue. For one, I haven’t dated an American woman in about twenty years. For another, I’ve been married for eight years – a new personal best in relationship longevity for me.

When I was last single in America, my experience was not good. I wrote in a previous post, ‘Have some free relationship advice’.

(UPDATE: Now divorced and raising two kids alone. The ex Americanized rapidly.)

I’m a survivor of two really bad long-term relationships. I won’t go into the details because, 1) they’re really not relevant, and 2) in spite of the Oprah-age, let-it-all-hang-out culture we live in, I think it’s vulgar. Suffice it to say, together they consumed a total of ten years of my life and had repercussions that echo to this day.

It wasn’t until the end of the second disaster (nice word that, it means “evil star”), that I realized I had made the same mistake as the first. The first was excusable, I was young and new to the serious relationship scene. The second time, I thought I’d hooked up with a partner who was different in every way from the first – physically, intellectually and personality-wise.

What I realized too late was that they had both had something in common that overrode all their basic differences – they were unhappy people.

I have had no personal contact with either of these former partners for many years. I have heard of them though, and the evidence would seem to indicate they are both still unhappy people. (One is married with two grown children and still cruises bars, less and less successfully as she ages. The other had divorced husband number five when I last heard of her. That game isn’t going to get easier as she approaches 60 either.)

Slightly better were relationships with single mothers raising children with zero help from the fathers, financial or otherwise. Yes they wanted a meal ticket, but at least showed evidence of being willing to show gratitude for it.

In that whole period of my life, the best relationship I had before I left for Poland was a purely utilitarian one. I was working on finishing my Master’s, she was in the middle of a divorce and neither of us had time for complications. We were introduced by mutual friends, and used to meet for conversation and physical release, no strings attached.

Understand, I liked her just fine, she was good company. And she probably liked me too. But we walked away without a backward glance, in spite of some good times together. I remember her quite fondly, but I probably think of her least often – and I suspect the same is true of her.

It would be easy for a man to blame this on American women – and some do. (See: http://www.americanwomensuck.com/)

I recently had a conversation with a friend in Texas who is getting his doctorate in Mathematics, so his income prospects are pretty good. He’s good-looking, well-travelled, cultured – and single.

He told me, “If a woman expresses an interest, about half the time I’ve found she’s setting you up for humiliation.”

If I’d had time though, there are a couple of women I could have introduced him to. Both in their 30s, intelligent, great personalities (I’ve known both of them since they were kids), real lookers – and single.

I could even have introduced him to another academic (not American), who is highly intelligent and goddam gorgeous. You’d think she’d have to beat off potential suitors with a club.

I’ve never seen her at a social function with a date.

What the heck is going on?

Well, women are delaying marriage for career reasons. This is actually not new, Thomas Sowell pointed out that this was actually more common in the early 20th century than it became in the 1950s – so perhaps this is the upswing of another one of those cycle things.

And yet something is different this time around. A woman may have married later back then, but she was expected to arrive without the baggage of kids with no father in sight (unless she was a respectable widow), and any sexual history was supposed to be discretely buried.

Some conservatives blame the Sexual Revolution and Women’s Liberation.

Well, the Sexual Revolution deserves a re-thinking for sure. Birth control, and antibiotics, delivered us (for a while at least) from our biology – but not from our nature.

“Sexual liberation ought logically to have brought in a time of ‘naturalness,’ ease, and candor between men and women. It has, on the contrary, filled the country with sexual self-consciousness, uncertainty, and fear.” – Wendell Berry

People who sleep together regularly, tend to fall in love, get possessive, sexually jealous and all that old-fashioned stuff. Unless they are emotionally retarded, or deliberately, by a conscious act of will, shut off a part of themselves from their partners.

(Or unless they are sleeping with someone they are at least adequately attracted to – and don’t like. And believe me, there is something enormously liberating about that -in a thoroughly soul-corrupting sort of way.)

And what we kept running into was, young girls who become sexually active, on a level below rational thought, want to get pregnant. It’s one of those basic biological drives that extreme environmentalists (like Marxists) don’t want to believe in.

Can there be any other explanation for the combination of readily available, effective birth control and the skyrocketing rate of out-of-wedlock births?

For nearly two generations, newly-discovered antibiotics could handle nearly all common STDs. Then our vacation from history was over with, first herpes – then AIDS. In essence, we were thrown back to our grandparents’ world of incurable STDs. AIDS, was the new syphilis.

Women’s lib started as a righteous demand for women to be let into the work force and judged on their competence like anyone else, and for men to stop patronizing them.

Watch some of those TV commercials from the ’50s and early ’60s if you don’t think that last was a valid complaint. They are absolutely cringe-making in the patronizing attitudes towards women they display.

Then it got hijacked by lunatics. Now whatever it’s about, it’s not equality. The Larry Summers affair at Harvard demonstrates that with certainty. Women on colleges across the country demanded the right to punish a man – not even for an opinion, but for a tentative speculation based on a demonstrable truth. For Thoughtcrime in fact.

But who started this? Anthropologist Lionel Tiger (what a wonderful name!) speculated that Women’s Lib was a response to men abandoning their responsibilities of support for partners and children. Which for women is scary enough to drive them pretty crazy.

My generation’s contribution to Men’s Lib, “Like wow, this fatherhood trip isn’t my thing. See ya.”

Tiger speculated the implicit message of Women’s Lib was, “If you won’t support us, then give us your damn jobs!”

I could speculate forever, but won’t here, yet. I’m getting too far from what I’m really sure of.

I will venture one guess, two things are different from previous times of great social change.

One is that while previous codes of morality and behavior may have been harsh, they were at least based on a generally good understanding of what human nature is, and formulated rules accordingly to control the excesses of behavior that we are prone to by nature.

They didn’t know about evolutionary biology, back in Old Testament times, but they had what I call a “pre-scientific intuition” of its consequences.

In these times, the lingering legacy of the extreme environmentalist position has it that there is no fixed human nature, or that “human nature is infinitely plastic” (Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who really ought to know better) and can be molded to whatever form we desire.

No-it-is-not.

The other piece of philosophical lunacy is that there is no fixed reality and that truth can always be redefined contextually.

The consequences of this are far-reaching and show up in unexpected places. One of which I suspect may be the youth suicide rate. The notion that there is no place to plant your feet is terrifying for young people.

What all this adds up to is, here and now, it’s a bad time for lovers.

December 1, 2007

Review: The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

Filed under: Book reviews — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:53 pm

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Peter Sis, 2007. Frances Foster Books. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York.

Not long ago, my wife and I were in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble bookstore when she found this book.

My wife was born in Poland and grew up during the last years of communism. I have lived and worked in Poland during the years immediately after the fall of the Soviet empire, Milosevic’s Yugoslavia and Belarus. Ever since the birth of our children we have asked ourselves, what are we going to tell them about how Mommy grew up in a country that wasn’t free?

Peter Sis is an artist and writer who was born in Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the Cold War. Now an American, he has asked himself the same question.

He tells the story, in words and wonderful drawings, of a boy who loved blue jeans, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and drawing. But mostly he loved freedom, though the only freedom he knew was in what he drew and hid away because it didn’t conform to the dictates of Socialist Realism.

His drawings tell the story of growing up in a country where Russian-language classes, political indoctrination, joining the Young Pioneers were all compulsory; practicing religion discouraged, and listening to foreign radio broadcasts forbidden.

“Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students. Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves…Letters are opened and censored…Informers are rewarded for snooping.”

He tells of the Prague Spring, “where everything seemed possible” and seeing it crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks. Next to the drawing of a tank with a red flag are these terrible words,

“Help from the West doesn’t come.”

But resistance rises again through unlikely means, “The Beach Boys arrived. America to the rescue!”

In spite of renewed and intensified secret police surveillance and repression, Samizdat literature flourishes, secretly translating and publishing banned books. People gather in speakeasy-style discotheques, make their own clothes copying western fashions and cover walls with paintings of their dreams, again and again no matter how often the authorities painted them over.

The boy draws his dreams, in spite of the danger that his cache of drawings might be discovered. He draws himself tunneling, pole vaulting, and flying on a bicycle with wings across the border, from a gray land of injustice, corruption, envy, fear and lies, to a bright land of liberty, dignity, truth, honor and trust.

And then, “Sometimes dreams come true. On November 9, 1989, The Wall fell.”

“Now when my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it’s hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life – before America – for them.”

And an excellent job he has done of it. Get this book for your children. We did, and we will use it to help explain to our children how Mommy grew up in a land that wasn’t free.

(This appeared in the 12/10 issue of Human Events.)

July 7, 2007

7/7/7 Happy 100th Bob

Filed under: Book reviews,Literature — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:04 pm

Today, Saturday 7/7/7 is the hundredth anniversary of SF author Robert Anson Heinlein’s birth.

It’s actually difficult to write anything about Heinlein that wouldn’t lengthen into a book by way of digressions, qualifications and defenses against some of the more egregiously idiotic criticisms he’s been subjected to*. He led a long and interesting life, absorbed with the exploration of ideas.

Man of contradictions, libertine and libertarian. Simultaneously condemned as a “militarist” and “facist”, mostly for Starship Troopers**, he also wrote the hippy free-love counter-culture Bible Stranger in a Strange Land.

Apostle of reason and the scientific method, he also apparently believed in reincarnation and dabbled in fringe science such as Korzybski’s General Semantics and was briefly enamored of the pseudo-science of Dianetics.

Heinlein was a ardent patriot, strong supporter of the military, and a just as passionate anti-authoritarian. One of the few absolute dogmatic positions he took was an unbending opposition to conscription in any form. He once wrote that a society that needed to resort to conscription to save itself was already lost and did not deserve to survive.

Reading Heinlein was one of the things that got me through childhood. (The other being Kipling’s poetry and stories – people who like the one will almost certainly like the other.) His specialty in the novels for juveniles he penned for Charles Scribner & Sons was the coming-of-age story.

Heinlein’s prose and story tellling has been condemned by literary types, but novels published under his own name – even some pretty bad ones (Rocket Ship Galileo, I Will Fear No Evil) have never gone out of print since they first saw the light of day.

Heinlein tossed off ideas like sparks from a blacksmith’s hammer. The term Waldo (remote-control robot arms for handling dangerous materials) came from a story of the same name. During a period of convalescence from his chronic health problems, he invented the idea of the waterbed. The first man to build and market them sent him one – which he never assembled.

The acronym he coined in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress TANSTAAFL (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”) has been used in libertarian circles as a summation of the essence of free market economics.

But Heinlein makes even libertarians uncomfortable, because though passionately committed to freedom, he was equally committed to the ideal of duty. They should look again. “Never confuse duty with anything you owe anyone else. Duty is something you owe only to yourself.”

I reformulated this as a guide for my own conduct: “Duty is the price you must pay for the privilege of thinking of yourself as the kind of person you wish to be” i.e. if you wish to think of yourself as brave, you must act with courage when the occasion demands.

Heinlein makes doctrinaire feminists uncomfortable – this in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that every one of his female characters without exception is strong-willed, intelligent, competent and courageous.

My brother once mentioned to me that a female friend of his loathes Heinlein. “Why?” I asked. “She said something about how he shows women who like to have babies.” Oh whatever will this poor old world be FORCED to endure next!

Heinlein is the man who defined love: “Love is when another’s happiness is essential to your own” and a short elaboration, “Love is what goes on when you’re not horney.”

Has love every been so succinctly defined in any language?

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Heinlein tossed off in one paragraph the only original constitutional idea since, well perhaps since the Constitution. The idea (which I call Petition Proportional Representation) was that almost everybody could have the representative of his choice if, instead of a winner-take-all election in a geographic area, a candidate would gather petition signatures until a he/she gathered a certain minimum x. One x signatures got you a seat and one vote in the representative body. Two x got you a seat and two votes, etc.

I will confess that my favorite Heinlein novels are still the juveniles he wrote under contract for Scribner’s, plus Starship Troopers, which they rejected. Citizen of the Galaxy still moves me to tears at the end, “To be willing to live a slave, or to die, that freedom might live.”

His later works were more experimental and seem to miss as much as they hit. However, I’m willing to entertain the notion that Heinlien was ahead of his time and we just haven’t gotten it yet.

Heinlein’s effect on our culture is something that social scientists will be trying to evaluate for centuries to come – once they get that a popular writer of genre fiction had a greater effect than probably any academic of this century. I read him and my children will – and perhaps theirs as well.

* Spider Robinson’s essay ‘Rah, rah RAH’ is the best point-by-point “defense of a man who doesn’t need it”.

** Those offended by Heinlein’s notion that the privilege of voting should be restricted to those who accept some responsibility for supporting and defending society (via military service among other ways) have never to my knowledge, realized that this was institutionalized in some of the states at the beginning of our history. Voting qualifications included paying taxes on a freehold of a certain value – or by being registered for the militia.

Nor do critics ever seem to note that Federal Service in Starship Troopers was completely voluntary and a soldier could resign at any time up to the start of a battle.

May 12, 2007

At the Core

Filed under: Book reviews,Ethics,Literature,Politics,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:33 pm

Issues of courage and cowardice have been on my mind a lot lately. In my reviews of ‘300’ I mentioned that the disturbing thing about the bad reviews I’ve read isn’t that they didn’t like it, it’s definitely not to everyone’s taste, but that much of them seemed to be part of a reflexive dislike of any portrayal of physical courage.

In my post ‘Virginia’, I mentioned that the three responses to deadly danger in rough order of desirability are, 1) avoid it, 2) successfully run away from it, and 3) successfully fight back against it.

Any competent and ethical martial arts instructor knows that one of the difficult tasks of instructing boys and young men, is teaching when and how to escape and evade aggressors. Testosterone overload often makes men want to fight when they should run, or keep pounding on a downed foe longer than the law considers justified. (You could call that “losing by winning”, when you consider the potential criminal charges and/or lawsuits.)

One thing I like to do is to pose the question, “What is the highest military command skill?” I didn’t know the answer myself until it was pointed out to me.

Experts consider the highest command skill to be the ability to lead a retreat in good order.

Think about that for a minute. When in an untenable position, you may have to fall back to a one you are better able to defend. If it has to be done in the face of the enemy, it can all too easily turn into a rout – and then you’re screwed.

Circumstances alter cases of course. For a Greek hoplite, when the day was clearly lost he could possibly save his life by abandoning his heavy armor and running. (“He who fights and runs away… etc.) But if just one man did it too soon he could cause the collapse of the line. (Hence the Spartan expression, “Come back with your shield or on it.”) For a medieval pikeman facing cavalry, dropping his pike and running meant that the cavalry would likely run him down and take him from behind.

The point of all this is that running is not necessarily evidence of cowardice – it all depends on circumstances.

Americans proud of our preeminent position of power in the world, might do well to remember from time to time that our nation was populated largely by people who successfully used the strategy of running away.

Now if you’ll bear with me a moment (I promise, it’s actually heading for a point), I’d like to tell you about a science fiction story I read when I was in high school, lo these many years ago.

“At the Core” by Larry Niven, was part of his Known Space universe, set in the far future and involving his character Beowulf Schaeffer.

Beowulf Schaeffer is hired for a deep space exploration mission by the Puppeteers, an alien race described as looking like “a three-legged centaur with two Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent puppets for heads.”

Puppeteers have a certain outstanding characteristic – they are cowards. All of them.

Puppeteers have an inborn mortal fear of, basically everything even remotely dangerous. So for dangerous tasks such as exploration they hire humans, whom they regard as crazy – but lucky. (A brave Puppeteer is by definition psychotic.)

They hire Beowulf Schaeffer to pilot a new kind of spaceship to the galactic core and report back what he finds.

What he finds when he gets there is that the galactic core has exploded in a chain of supernovas. In 50,000 years the blast wave and radiation is going to reach our galactic neighborhood, rendering it uninhabitable. He reports this and returns.

When he gets back to Known Space, he finds that all of the Puppeteers have fled the Galaxy.

Let’s break here and ask yourself what you’d do if your knew for certain that an unavoidable danger was going to wipe out all life on Earth and all of the nearer solar systems – in 50,000 years? Would you even lose any sleep over it?

Didn’t think so, neither would I.

Beowulf Schaeffer muses on this and comes to the same conclusion. We’d do nothing until the sky started to glow.

He thinks further on it. No Puppeteer ever pretended danger didn’t exist. He may have been looking for the best place to run, but he would never deny the necessity for running.

He concludes, “Maybe it’s humans who are cowards, at the Core.”

(Nice play on words there.)

To belabor the point just a little, it’s not necessarily cowardly to run from danger. As I said, it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes running can save your life, sometimes it gets you killed – or leaves those you love unprotected.

But to deny that danger exists?

I’ll deal more with this later.

April 28, 2007

Review: A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell

Filed under: Academic,Book reviews,Media bias — Stephen W. Browne @ 5:36 am

Dr. Thomas Sowell is one of those authors whose laundry lists I’d read. Reading A Conflict of Visions was one of the “Ah-ha!” moments of my life.

Sowell is an economist, newspaper columnist and Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a prolific writer on economics, public policy, history, culture and the politics of race. His opinions are often controversial and he has strong detractors and supporters. Agree or disagree, he is an opinion leader of considerable influence in our society today.

In observing arguments for and against a wide variety of positions, Dr. Sowell reports that he noticed that in many cases participants seemed to be arguing not so much against each other, but past each other. In other words, each person was arguing not against the others’ position but what they perceived those positions to be, which was often far different from the actual positions held.

Over time he refined his observations into the theory expressed in, A Conflict of Visions – Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (Basic Books, 2002). I believe this book has critical insights important for understanding the major ideological conflicts within Western civilization and has specific application to understanding the controversies concerning academic and journalistic bias.

His thesis is that prior to paradigms, world-views, theories or any rationally articulated models there is an underlying vision, defined (quoting Joseph Schumpeter) as a “pre-analytic cognitive act”. Sowell further defines a vision, “It is what we sense or feel before we have constructed any systematic reasoning that could be called a theory, much less deduced any specific consequences as hypotheses to be tested against evidence. A vision is our sense of how the world works.”

Visions are a sense of the possibilities of human reason and power to act purposefully to achieve desired ends and are broadly defined as Constrained and Unconstrained. An unconstrained vision sees articulated reason as powerful and potent to shape human society, a constrained vision sees human beings as more limited by human nature and natural law.

Dr. Sowell concedes that visions are rarely pure but range from strongly to weakly constrained or unconstrained. People may hold one sort of vision in a certain sphere of opinion and another in a different sphere, there are hybrid visions (Marx and John Stuart Mill are given examples) and people sometimes change predominant visions over their lifetimes.

It is important to note that he does not equate constrained and unconstrained visions with the Left/ Right model of the political spectrum, nor do they strongly reflect the Libertarian/ Authoritarian dichotomy. An unconstrained vision characterizes the Utopian Socialists of the early nineteenth century (such as Fourier) but is also strongly expressed by William Godwin, considered by many to be the founder of modern Anarchism, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

The unconstrained vision is more often characteristic of those who would use the coercive power of the state to affect great changes in the structure of society and human nature, but it cannot be assumed that a constrained vision leads to a blind defense of the status quo. He gives the example of Adam Smith, an exemplar of a strongly constrained vision, was an advocate of sweeping social changes such as the abolition of slavery and an end to mercantilist policies.

Once grasped, Dr. Sowell’s theory makes sense of some seeming inconsistencies and contradictions in both Left and Right positions.

For example, though there is a tendency for the constrained vision to predominate among the politically Conservative and free market advocates, it is not absolute or consistent. A Conservative may argue for the superior efficacy of market processes to serve the social good (as opposed to purposeful direction of the economy) but fail to see the market for illegal drugs as subject to the same laws of supply and demand as other commodities or consider the argument that the process costs of drug prohibition may be higher than the social costs of drug addiction. In fact, the phrase “consider the argument” is misleading. It is possible that the argument simply does not exist in his perceptual universe and is interpreted as advocacy for drug use.

On the other end of the political spectrum, a thinker such as Paul Ehrlich (in The Population Bomb) may argue from the highly constrained view of Thomas Malthus on population and food resources, combined with an unconstrained view of the ability of the state to effectively control population and allocation of resources for the general good of mankind.

And we see on both the Left and Right, visionaries holding strong beliefs about the ability of humans to deliberately shape culture to reflect whichever set of values held by their respective advocates. Though much experience in the twentieth century has shown how limited the ability of men is to design culture as if it were an engineering project, and how disastrous the attempts often are, men and women of unconstrained vision persist in their advocacy of policies intended to rid society of gender defined roles on the one hand or of behavior considered “vice” on the other.

So the question arises, if the concept of the contrasting visions is hedged about with so many qualifications, is it at all useful in categorizing belief systems or explaining behavior?

I believe it is highly useful. In Western civilization there exists no serious argument about the desirability of that condition expressed by the words “freedom” and “equality”. Yet in the West we find that whenever advocates of various causes argue for their sides, their definitions do not coincide, i.e. they argue past each other.

Advocates of redistributionist policies, affirmative action to achieve more socioeconomic equality and a high degree of taxation and market regulation are seen as tending towards totalitarianism by advocates of a less intrusive government.

Contrariwise, advocates of leaving the pursuit of the social good to voluntary and market processes are seen by political opponents as apologists for powerful and rapacious economic elites in their drive to impose a quasi-royal authority on society via economic coercion.

For those who see government as a powerful engine for social engineering, it is desired results that matter. If it is possible for the state to eliminate poverty and insure socio-economic success for historically disadvantaged groups then it follows that it is immoral not to do so. Arguments that the goals lie outside the state’s competence or that process costs are too high or that the attempt itself is counterproductive will simply not register and almost inevitably must be interpreted in terms of ulterior motive.

Thus a TV journalist can make a parenthetical remark on a broadcast about how African-Americans are still not as “free” as Whites in the US. One who considers freedom to be the absence of legal coercion might ask how are they not free today when all forms of legal discrimination have been abolished by Supreme Court decisions and federal law? The answer would reflect the definition of “freedom” as opportunity, a definition that will conflate “poor and disadvantaged” with “unfree”.

The definition that limits freedom to a relationship of men in society where physical force or fraud in human relationships is made illegal with no further attempt to redress inequalities of wealth, education, opportunity etc, is sometimes derided as “freedom to starve”.

Likewise the condition called “equality” is seen by those with opposing visions as either a process or a result, leading them to almost diametrically opposite interpretations of the term. To someone of unconstrained vision who views equality as a result, the socioeconomic lagging of certain groups behind others is prima facie evidence of externally imposed inequality (such as persistent discrimination) in society. To someone who views equality as the absence of legally imposed barriers to opportunity, the outcome is the result of values and choices and irrelevant to questions of justice as seen by people of unconstrained vision.

Those with a constrained vision tend to regard socioeconomic inequalities between individuals and groups as the inevitable result of inborn human variations in ability, different cultural indoctrination in values that promote or retard economic success and individual choices. Those of unconstrained vision tend to regard them as the result of artificially imposed constraints and when inequalities persist beyond the removal of obvious constraints will keep looking for them rather than change their model of causation.

Dr. Sowell has elaborated this theory far more than can be covered in a short review. He examines in detail visions of justice, power and equality and the difference between visions and paradigms, values and theories.

What is important to the problem of both academic and journalistic bias is how contrasting visions lead to unconscious assumptions about how the world works, and how that affects their interpretation of events. For those of unconstrained vision, though socioeconomic equality may be a strongly held value, they are nonetheless going to tend strongly towards intellectual elitism. If articulated reason is held to be the most powerful force for the social good then it must follow that society should be lead by the most advanced and progressive thinkers. Those who view the collective wisdom of individuals operating within their own spheres of experience to be superior to the ability of others to direct their destinies will be seen as self-interested, reactionary and apologists for injustice.

Those who see themselves as being in the intellectual vanguard of progress will tend to be strongly attracted to the fields of teaching, liberal arts, humanities, and journalism, and moreover, will tend to regard journalism as an extension of the teaching profession.

Unconstrained visions flourish in the absence of deep experience. In business, the natural sciences and engineering, theories about the way things ought to work (within their sphere of activity) are constantly tested against the way they do in fact work: profitability, repeatable experiments and bridges that don’t fall down all serve as reality checks against extending theory further than is warranted by the facts.

An academic environment tends to insulate against experience and journalism, by the nature of the news cycle, tends to expose practitioners to a superficial kind of experience, most especially among the newsreader “talking heads” who are basically presenters rather than researchers.

The consequences of the predominance of this vision among many academics and journalists are subtle and powerful and may include:

*Dismissal of other points of view as unworthy of reporting rather than attempting to refute them, not from motives of conscious fraud but simply from failure to take them seriously, often because of…

*Attribution of motive. It noteworthy how often arguments give the “real” motive of the opposing point of view – the one thing that cannot be known for certain. Motives can be strongly inferred only by a ruthlessly honest appraisal of one’s own nature – but it is seldom the case that a partisan for a particular point of view argues that “His motive is probably thus because that is what I experience in myself.”

*Unsupported parenthetical remarks among university lecturers and telejournalists. A broadcast from location often cannot be edited due to time constraints. It is interesting to note how often among the narrative of events a sentence that is unsupported comment can be slipped in.

*The use of ad hominem attacks (both Direct and Circumstantial) on someone’s credibility, probably coming from the unconscious assumption that since articulated reason can show the way to the social good, then conclusions about how to achieve it must be consistent among reasonable people. Disagreement about means and ends are seen as coming from ulterior motives, villainy or stupidity.

Dr. Sowell sees the theory as explaining a lot about the ideological struggles of the past two centuries – and sees no end in sight for the conflict of visions. However an appreciation of the role of visions in shaping worldviews can help make sense of opposing views for those who disagree and shows us that opposing views are not capriciously chosen or necessarily stemming from ulterior motives, but are internally self-consistent within the framework of the underlying vision. One may even hope that this appreciation may lead at least to genuine argument of the points at issue rather than character assassination and attribution of rapaciously self-interested motive.

It is fairly obvious that the constrained vision is behind much economic thinking. Economics is after all fundamentally about the way that human beings allocate finite resources. It is not clear that Dr. Sowell is making a blanket condemnation of the unconstrained vision though. He has noted that in the years since he first published, Malthus (on the constrained side) has been proven consistently wrong and he has credited both William Godwin and Ayn Rand (both exponents of the doctrine of the godlike power of human reason) as contributing to the evolution of modern libertarian thought. Possibly a certain element of the unconstrained vision serves to fire the imagination and may be necessary for motivating the spirit of social reform. Only when carried to extremes does it become a demand that society be everywhere remade to conform to a vision of perfection.

It also seems evident that though America was founded by men of largely constrained vision, there have been elements of both visions in our national culture from the beginning. The Founding Fathers did in fact design our federal institutions and were quite aware that they were creating a new social order by an act of will. However, they did so with a realistic appraisal of human nature, careful research of historical confederations and built upon local institutions that had been in operation for nearly two centuries. Since our beginnings American culture has reflected both utopian and pragmatic visions, a pattern that shapes our political discourse to this day.

************************************************************************************

The following chart is drawn from some of the major points of Dr. Sowell’s theory of visions. Since it is a collection of very short abstractions, responsibility for how well it represents the author’s thought rests with me.

Constrained Vision:
Sees human nature as fixed, unchanging, selfish and ambitious, which must be subordinated to society to some extent.

Unconstrained Vision:
Sees human nature as malleable, perfectible whose uncorrupted form will be expressed in the good society.
—–
CV: Freedom is defined as the absence of coercion by other human beings.

UV: Unfreedom seen as the absence of opportunity.
—–
CV: Emphasis on process costs. Seeks optimum trade-offs.

UV: Emphasis on motives and the desired results. Seeks solutions.
—–
CV: Sees tradition as expressing the accumulated experience of the culture.

UV: Sees tradition largely as outmoded superstition.
—-
CV: Sees articulated reason as less important than “distributed knowledge” expressed in market processes. Emphasis on experience.

UV: Sees articulated reason as powerful and effective. Emphasis on logic.
—–
CV: Seeks the social good in making allowances for human nature, such as checks and balances in government, using mutual jealousy as a counterbalance against ambition and greed on the part of the powerful.

UV: Seeks the social good in the elevation of an enlightened and progressive leadership.
—–
CV: Preference for evolved systems.

UV: Preference for designed systems.
—–
CV: Characterized by the belief that the evils of the world can be explained by inherent characteristics of human nature. War and crime may be rational, if immoral, choices.

UV: Characterized by the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world. War and crime seen as aberrations.
—–
CV: Tends to compare the status quo with worse alternatives.

UV: Tends to compare the status quo with hypothetical perfection.
—–
CV: Exemplary thinkers: Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, The Federalist, Thomas Malthus, de Tocqueville, Oliver Wendell Holmes, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman…

UV: Exemplary thinkers: William Godwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Condorcet, Fourier, Harold Laski, Thorstein Veblen, John Kenneth Galbraith, Ronald Dworkin…

November 19, 2006

Religions that never were – but might be

Filed under: Book reviews,Literature,Martial arts,Philosophy — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:01 pm

Hymn to Mithras, sung by the XXX Legion stationed at the Wall (Hadrian’s) north of Eboracum (modern York).

Mithras, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the wall!
Rome is above the Nations, but Thou art over all,
Now as the names are answered, and the guard is marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!

Mithras, God of the Noontide, the heather swims in the heat,
Our helmets scorch our foreheads; our sandals burn our feet,
Now in the ungirt hour; now lest we blink and drowse,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us true to our vows!

Mithras, God of the Sunset, low on the Western main,
Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again!
Now as the watch is ended, now as the wine is drawn
Mithras also a soldier, keep us pure till the dawn!

Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the Great Bull dies,
Look on thy children in darkness. Oh take our sacrifice!
Many roads Thou has fashioned: all of them lead to the Light,
Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright!

I don’t know about you, but that hymn to an extinct religion always sends chills down my spine. The worship of the solar deity Mithras, the “soldiers’ god”, was once the most serious rival to Christianity. The Christians ultimately co-opted several features from it, such as December 25 as the birth date of the Savior (originally the winter solstice before calendar reforms altered the relationship with the seasons) and Sunday as the Sabbath, rather than the original Jewish Sabbath of sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Mithraism lost out to Christianity, probably for a couple of reasons. One was that the Mithraic mysteries were reserved for men. This resulted in Roman households where the women were Christians and the men Mithraists. When the primary caregivers are of one faith, you can pretty much guess which is going to win out in the long run.

Another was that the Mithraism insisted on a high moral standard for candidates for admission – a Christian bishop once bitterly remarked that, “The Devil shames us with the quality of his adherents.” The Christians would take you as you were and work on upgrading your morals. Nonetheless there is something very compelling in that vision of Roman legionaries singing to their god, asking for strength to fulfill their duty of guarding the civilized lands against the northern savages (i.e. my ancestors) and a poignancy that comes from the knowledge that eventually their strength failed and they were overwhelmed.

Now here’s the rub, very little is known about Mithraism, that hymn was written by Rudyard Kipling as part of his ‘History of England’ series.

Mankind invents new religions, and variations on old ones all the time, and existing religions have schisms like cats have kittens. We are a religious animal, and there’s no escaping that. Religion is at least as old as mankind and I don’t see humans becoming indifferent to religion in the foreseeable future.

But what is it going to look like? That I wouldn’t take any bets on.

As Kipling invented a hymn for a religion in the past, many science fiction writers have invented religions for the future. One, L. Ron Hubbard actually got serious about it and founded Scientology. Other SciFi writers have done far better in my opinion, but didn’t go so far as to take their creations seriously enough to proselytize for them.

Robert Silverberg took the idea of a “religion of science” and in my humble opinion, did a more appealing job of it in his novel ‘To Open the Sky’. He postulated a religion which worshipped the mysteries of “the quantum, and the holy angstrom” in the Litany of the Wavelengths and sought immortality through scientific research rather than life-after-death.

Poul Anderson created at least two religions. In novels such as ‘The People of the Wind’ he created a race of intelligent birds, the Ythrians (as if humans had descended from hawks rather than primates). The deity of their New Religion was called God the Hunter.

So what kind of religion would a race of flying hunters create? Their god is a hunter – and we, all living beings, are his prey. We exist to give honor to god. God loves us, the way a hunter would love the prey in his sights. Our obligation is to fight as hard as we can to live as long as we can, so that god has honor from us.

Sound chilling? Yet Anderson wrote a very moving eulogy for this religion, “High you flew on many winds, until at last God stooped on you in your pride. Long you fought Him and well, and from you He has honor. Go now. Be wind, be ash, be water. Be always remembered.”

In the same future history series he invented, or adapted, the religion he called Cosmenosism (See: The Day of Their Return). Some variation of this actually seems to be emerging among people who can’t buy into faith-based supernaturalism, but still feel the religious impulse strongly.

The premise here goes something like, rationalist attempts at a definition of God often look a lot like a self-aware universe. So without supernaturalism, how does a universe become self-aware? By evolving life and intelligence. Matter organizing itself until one day a living being looks around as says, “I exist!” Intelligent beings further evolve, naturally and by developing their science and technology until they are so powerful and wise that they are pretty much indistinguishable from what we’d call gods.

This is cool, because it gives the atheists a way to have God too. Many variations are possible. Have other races made the journey to transcendence before us? That is, is God waiting for us to join him, and maybe lending a helping hand? Or do we become God far in the future, but are able to reach back in time to help ourselves up? Are we in fact going to become immortal?

Scientist Frank Tipler posits a future where our supercomputers will give us immortality by recreating in emulations, not only all human being who ever lived, but all human being who ever could have lived. Others speculate that if the universe is an expanding and contracting one, at the point where it starts to contract, all information will become available to us, including the information that went into making each and every one of us.

It’s interesting to note that something like a variation of Cosmenosism is the core theology of Mormonism. Other variations look something like the Hindu belief in cycles of creation.

What might be considered another variation is the crypto-Buddhist philosophy of Viriditas in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. The core principle here is that life and living worlds are so rare and precious, that our duty as sentient beings is to terraform and bring life to as much of the universe as we can, throughout our future existence as a race.

But what if it’s all a sham? What if belief is something we invent to hide from ourselves the fact that the universe is indifferent to us and someday we’re all going to die and be – nothing. George R. R. Martin invented the Liars, in his short story ‘The Way of Cross and Dragon’.

In this story, an Inquisitor for a far-future Roman Catholic church charged with the duty of fighting heresy, meets a heretic who tells him, “I’m a Liar.” “I know you’re a liar” he replies. “No, you don’t understand, I’m a Liar.”

The heretic tells him that he is a member of an underground sect called the Liars. They believe that there is no God and no afterlife, but that the vast majority of humans can’t live with that knowledge – so throughout the ages they invent comforting religions, creating mythologies tailored to the specific cultural needs of each time and place. The Inquisitor vanquishes the new heresy but is left with nagging doubts about his own faith. In the end he requests to be relieved of his duties because he has lost his faith. His superior coldly informs him that faith is not necessary for him to fulfill his duty…

John Maddox Roberts also saw the Roman Catholic church continuing into the far future, in his delightful novel ‘Cestus Dei’, which is Latin for “The brass knuckles of God”. (The Cestus was a kind of boxing handwrap, often with shot or spikes attached, used by a class of gladiators called pugilists or cestiarii.)

Cestus Dei is an order of Jesuit martial artists. At one point a potential convert tells a member of the order that understanding is easier for him because he grew up in the Faith. “But I didn’t” the Jesuit tells him. He informs the young man that he grew up on a planet settled by Hindus, and was a worshipper of the goddess Kali, of a sect that strangled men as an act of religious devotion – Thugee! (The cult of the stranglers in India, origin of the English word ‘thug’.)

He tells the young man that he found the faith when he saw a Christian missionary on the street of his city and, thinking that the killing of an infidel would be pleasing to his goddess, followed him with his silk rumal (scarf) with the intention of strangling him. “I woke up in the hospital a week later. As my bones healed, the Jesuit visited me every day and explained to me the truth of the Faith.”

It’s a hoot!

Verily, many and marvelous are the ways of God and Man.

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