Posted on April 4th, 2013 4 comments
As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage. It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation. “Bigot” is a pejorative term. In other words, it expresses moral emotions. It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups. In this case, the moral judgment of the ”pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate. Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.” Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).
The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex. Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations. Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all. We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better. Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.
As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot? Of course not! There never is. Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary. There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”
The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person. For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot. In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians. While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading. Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two. At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with. Why would it need them?
In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game. However, no moral judgment is rational. Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.
What to do in the case of gay marriage? My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing. What is marriage? One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state. It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition. That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever. On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits. It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits. Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.
Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require. It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.” In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”
Posted on November 8th, 2012 No comments
The election is history and the unlucky soothsayers I referred to in my last post are eating crow. To paraphrase Billy Joel in one of his songs, “they didn’t have quite enough information.” For the edification and amusement of my readers, here are some of Tuesday’s losers.
Noted Republican strategist Karl Rove. He thought the polls suggested that more Republicans and fewer Democrats would show up to vote than in 2008. He was wrong.
In an article entitled, “Reflections on Mittmentum,” the ever hopeful Roger Kimball, who blogs for PJmedia, wrote the day before the election,
My own sense of the matter, as I have said here on many occasions, is that Mitt will not only win but win handily. The final tally, I suspect, will show Mitt the victor with something like 330 electoral votes.
The day after, a chastened Kimball wrote,
But I misread and misread badly both the mood of the country and the depth of support for Obama’s failed policies. I will doubtless get around to rejoining Ron in the battle, but a little hiatus for reflection will not come amiss.
That is certainly a sentiment his fellow prophets will agree on. Soothsayers over the water also got their comeuppance on Tuesday. Christopher Carr of Australia’s conservative mag, The Quadrant, had assured his readers,
On November 6, 2012, Mitt Romney will be elected President of the United States by a comfortable margin. It will not be a cliffhanger, despite the chorus of conventional wisdom.
Carr added that, because of his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate, and his strong performance in the debate, Romney’s victory was assured. In his post mortem after the results were in, he sadly concluded,
Mitt Romney played Mr. Nice Guy. President Obama played the demagogue. But nice guys finish last.
In Germany, Der Spiegel’s token conservative pundit, Jan Fleischhauer, also had it wrong. In an article entitled “Bad, Bad Romney,” a satirical dig at the usual German version of reality in which the Republicans are bad guys and the Democrats good guys, he writes,
In the media the battle for the White House is already decided; Mitt Romney… has no chance. Unfortunately, wishful thinking isn’t much help in a democracy. The Republicans may not have the press on their side – but they have the numbers.
Not one to dwell on his mistake, Mr. Fleischhauer penned another article entitled “Our Obama-Love is Infantile“ a couple of days after the election analyzing the “root causes” of German anti-Americanism. It was probably more useful to his readers, noting, for example, that Germans have been hopefully and confidently predicting the downfall of the United States for the last 40 years. In fact, it’s probably been longer than that. I note in passing that, in reading the many comments after the articles on the U.S. elections on German webzines, there are a lot more Germans pointing to the faults of their own country and condemning the ubiquitous destructive criticism of the United States than there were, say, ten years ago. The usual received wisdom according to which the U.S. is the decaying embodiment of evil imperialism, run by shadowy financiers, and inhabited by Bible-thumping Christian versions of the Taliban, is still there in abundance. However, more nuance is gradually being added by those who ask questions such as why, if we are so evil, and Germany such a paradise, so many Germans are looking around for the best shortcut to a Green Card.
One thing that both the lucky and the unlucky pundits will likely agree on is that the electorate is fractured along racial and gender lines as never before. Political ingroups in the U.S. are rapidly becoming less defined by ideology, and more defined by demography. Romney won the vote of white males over thirty by a massive majority. Obama won the black, Hispanic, Asian, and single female votes by similarly huge majorities. His majorities trumped Romney’s. It seems that similarly constituted Democratic majorities will continue prevail more frequently than not in national elections for a long time to come. To the extent that political and economic issues mattered in this election, they mattered less in their own right and more as cultural attributes associated with race and gender than in past elections. The Benghazi debacle was a huge deal for white males over thirty. It was a non-issue for young black women.
Posted on November 6th, 2012 No comments
In an article entitled “Hitler’s Second Front,” that appeared in the November 1942 issue of the Atlantic Review, one T. H. Thomas confidently predicted disaster for the British forces in North Africa. In his words,
Roughly speaking, Rommel is sixty miles or so away from winning the war. There looms up close at hand the prospect of a decisive victory – one which would involve an irreparable disaster to the Allied conduct of the war.
In the mustering of forces for this battle, the enemy has now the advantage of position. At one time British convoys could still take the direct sea route to Alexandria, but German dive bombers then appeared over the central Mediterranean. By now it has actually become Mare Nostrum. The British forces in Africa and the British fleets had no planes with which to strike back in kind. British factories do not produce them.
British tanks were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans:
These actions (earlier fighting in north Africa) also brought into the field German medium tanks armed with 75′s (i.e., 15 pounders) against British tanks carrying nothing larger than 2-pounders. The effective range of the German guns is said to be over three times that of the 2-pounders. This contrast has dominated the fighting in Egypt since that day. The British 2-pounder is an excellent tank against infantry positions. In the naked landscape of Libya, mechanized warfare develops the situation of duels between tank and tank, or tanks against anti-tank artillery. On this footing, the heaviest British tanks were hopelessly outranged.
Victory, was out of the question for the British. It was merely a question of hanging on for dear life until the various nostrums proposed by Mr. Thomas could be applied:
The narrow front at El Alamein has become the keystone of the whole arch of Allied resistance east of Suez. Here, as on every other front, the pressing task is to avoid defeat – the question as to how the war is to be won does not yet arise.
As it happens, on this day 70 years ago, just as Thomas’ prophecy of doom was appearing on the newstands, the question of how the war was to be won did arise. Rommel’s “hopelessly superior” forces had been smashed by a British offensive after nearly two weeks of brutal fighting. The remnant was in speedy retreat, leaving Hitler’s Italian allies, who had fought well at El Alamein, helplessly mired in the desert without food, ammunition or fuel. Quoting from the Wiki article on the battle:
It had not been the first time that the Allies had had numerical superiority in men and equipment in the Western Desert, but never had it been so complete and across all arms. Furthermore, in the past—except in field artillery—they had struggled with the quality of their equipment. But with the arrival of Sherman tanks, 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Spitfires in the Western Desert, the Allies at last had the ability to match the opposition.
Allied artillery was superbly handled. Allied air support was excellent in contrast to the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica which offered little or no support to ground forces, preferring to engage in air-to-air combat. This overwhelming air superiority had a huge effect on the battle…
In the end, the Allies’ victory was all but total. Axis casualties of 37,000 amounted to over 30% of their total force. Allied casualties of 13,500 were by comparison a remarkably small proportion of their total force. The effective strength of Panzer Army Africa after the battle amounted to some 5,000 troops, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns.
So much for Mr. Thomas’ prophecies of doom. The Atlantic described him as follows:
A military hitorian who served with distinction on the staff at GHQ in the First World War, T. H. Thomas is well qualified to appraise the developments of the war.
I have no information on what became of him after he penned the article, although I didn’t put a great deal of Google time in searching for him. If he had written the same stuff in Germany or the Soviet Union, no doubt he would have been shot as a defeatist. However, the Allies were remarkably tolerant of pacifists and defeatists during the war. I suspect that such tolerance played a major role in the rapid collapse of France, and may have cost Hitler’s other enemies dearly if he had not been so completely outmatched by the forces arrayed against him. Be that as it may, there were many other T. H. Thomases writing similar disinformation about Hitler and the phenomenon of Naziism, the likelihood of war, the probable outcome of the war, etc., during the 30′s and 40′s. I know of none whose careers suffered significantly as a result. Apparently they just swept their past mistakes under the rug, and kept writing more of the same.
Fast forward 70 years, and a new generation of pundits has been busily enlightening readers as to the reasons why either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney will inevitably win the election. Half of them, more or less, will be wrong, and the other half, more or less, will be lucky. Given the number of pundits and the laws of probability, a random few will be very lucky, predicting not only the outcome, but the exact tally of votes in the electoral college. No doubt these lucky ones will be celebrated as geniuses, at least until the next election. Except for Cassandra, successful fortune tellers have always prospered. However, those who put too much faith in them would do well to recall the example of Mr. Thomas.
Posted on October 24th, 2012 No comments
President Obama’s snarky response to Mitt Romney’s observation about the dwindling number of ships in our navy in their final debate seems to have gone viral over the last couple of days. Here is the quote for those of you who, like me, become nauseous when watching political debates:
Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets
I have no comment on who out-snarked whom but, having attended the military academy at West Point and served in the military for a while thereafter, I can at least throw in a few anecdotes. Touching on horses, the old riding hall (Thayer Hall) was still there in my day, and remains there now. However, it was converted to classrooms in 1956. The contractors made a very competent job of it, because there was little left to remind one of its old function when they were done, and it served its new mission very well. The building had a high wall facing the Hudson river next to the old riding field, and they used to march us down there to practice our “command voices” by shouting “Ma! Mo! Ma! Mo!” at the wall and listening to the echo.
As for bayonets, my father, who served in Patton’s Army in World War II, said they routinely threw them away as so much useless extra weight on their way across Germany. However, we were still trained in their use in my day (the late 60′s). They were considered good for morale, and I could probably still perform a convincing imitation of “butt stroke series number one” and “butt stroke series number two,” growling fiercely at the end as I plunged my blade into the heart of an imaginary enemy. There’s no doubt that bayonet training helped to get us in shape during “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of every cadet’s career. Try double timing with an M-14 with fixed bayonet at port arms to some field in the hot sun and then performing all the traditional gyrations for an hour or so, and you’ll understand why.
When asked, “What’s the purpose of the bayonet?” the proper response was to shout at the top of one’s lungs, “To Kill!” When we returned to the barracks after training at the double-time, we would chant, “To kill! To kill!” in cadence with our steps, holding our weapons with fixed bayonets at full port arms in front of us. Apparently some of the more tender-hearted officer’s wives on base were quite shocked to hear this, and complained to the Superintendant. As a result, our class was the last to learn that the purpose of the bayonet was “To Kill.” Its new purpose sounded rather more innocuous, but unfortunately I no longer recall what it was.
Of course, bayonets were included in our parade equipment, and we used to fix them on our weapons during marching drill. Once, while we were marching in platoon formation, one of the more inept plebes (first year men) happened to be marching behind me. At the command of ”Present Arms!” he swung his M-14 a bit too far in front of him, plunging it up to the hilt through my fatigue shirt and cutting a nice scratch along my back. After struggling for a while, he finally managed to extract it. I’m sure the incident wasn’t “funny” to him, as plebes who became “famous” in that way came in for some nasty hazing in those days, but I still always smile when I think about it. As for parades, bayonets add a nice touch as they glitter in the sun when the Corps of Cadets marches out onto the plain. By all means, take one in if you’re ever in the area.
While bayonets may no longer be as useful as they were at Yorktown, the mystique about them remains. As I recall, there were plans in my day to mount bayonet studs on the noses of Army helicopters. I’m not sure if they were ever actually carried into effect.
Posted on October 7th, 2012 No comments
As I noted in another post a couple of months ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, the great financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, in December 1783, while Minister Plenipotentiary of the infant United States in Paris,
The remissness of our people in paying taxes is highly blameable, the unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see in some resolutions of town meetings, a remonstrance against giving Congress a power to take, as they call it, the people’s money out of their pockets, though only to pay the interest and principal of debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the point. Money justly due from the people is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law. All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages! He can have no right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.
Today such a comment would position Franklin as a radical well to the left of Paul Krugman, but, so far as I can tell, neither Morris nor the editor of the American Quarterly Review who published the letter along with a number of other interesting pieces of diplomatic correspondence 50 years later, thought the comment in the least extreme. That may be because it seemed so out of the question at the time that anyone would be seriously inconvenienced by such a doctrine. The U.S. government, both in Franklin’s day and 50 years later, was both miniscule and frugal by today’s standards. As Franklin put it in another letter written in 1778 to a couple of Englishmen who had sent him an insulting missive ridiculing the very possibility that the American colonies could survive as an independent republic,
The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.
Obviously, he was not looking ahead to the day when we, too, would become an “ancient and corrupted” state with a budget that dwarfs anything ever heard of in 1778. An interesting aspect of Franklin’s first quote above is his discussion of rights. He believes that the state, or at least a democratic state, has a right to take at need whatever property a person has over and above that necessary to preserve life and support the family. I doubt that many citizens of the United States today would agree that such a right exists. This begs the question of how and if rights may acquire legitimacy.
In fact, rights are like good and evil, in that they can never acquire objective legitimacy. They have no independent existence other than as the perception of phenomena that occur in the brains of individuals. As such, it makes no sense to ask whether they are legitimate or illegitimate, justified or not justified. There can be no basis for making such a judgment for things that are the outcomes of mental processes of individual brains. There is no way that they can jump out of those brains and become things in themselves. It is no more possible to assign qualities such as legitimate or illegitimate to them than to a dream. Franklin was therefore wrong to claim that “the people” have a right to confiscate wealth without qualification, and his modern day opponents would be equally wrong to claim that individuals have a right to keep a greater share of their wealth than Franklin admits. Such claims assume the independent existence of rights. However, they have no such existence. The drawing up of lists of rights, whether human or animal or otherwise, are efforts in futility unless the nature of rights is properly understood. It is impossible for them to be self-evident. To the extent that they exist at all, they exist as conventions within groups, and they are effective only to the degree to which they are accepted and defended.
When people are asked to explain why they believe some right or moral judgment is legitimate, they commonly respond either by citing the authority of a God, or by claiming that they would serve some greater good. In the first case, one is simply arguing that absolute power and legitimacy are interchangeable. The second amounts to basing one good on another good, which, in turn, can only be justified by citing yet another good beyond it. One can continue constructing such a daisy chain of goods ad nauseum, but no link in the chain can ever stand by itself. The qualities “legitimate” and “illegitimate” are irrelevant to the moral intuitions of individuals because it is impossible for those intuitions to acquire such qualities.
I do not claim that human societies can exist without such concepts as “good,” “evil,” and “right.” I merely suggest that they are likely to be most effective and useful in regulating our societies if they are properly understood.
Posted on September 4th, 2012 No comments
H. L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, edited the American Mercury from its inception in January 1924 through the issue of December 1933. It was always a worthwhile read while he was at the helm, published without pictures except for the advertisements, two columns to a page. There were articles about politics, science, religion, the arts, and whatever happened to strike Mencken’s fancy, along with occasional poems and short stories. Mencken continued the fascinating monthly review of newly released books that he had begun in The Smart Set, which he had edited during its heyday with George Jean Nathan. Every issue of the Mercury included an “Americana” section, made up of unwittingly comical extracts from newspapers and magazines across the country, and usually including a slap or two at the Ku Klux Klan, at least until that organization’s power and influence began to wane. Indeed, while he never patronized them, few if any individuals did more to promote respect for African Americans than Mencken. He frequently published the work of W. E. B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Carl van Vechten, and many other black intellectuals. However, he did not alter the typically snide and sarcastic attitude he reserved for everyone else when speaking of them, and so was later condemned for “racism.” No good deed goes unpunished.
The final issue of the Mercury with Mencken as editor was as irreverent as the rest. There was an article entitled “Musical Slaughter House,” by one Edward Robinson, identified as “a piano teacher from New York, who condemned attempts to nurse The Metropolitan Opera through the Great Depression by appeals for charitable donations, noting, for example, that,
The list of the company’s productions would alone earn complete damnation in the eyes of even moderately civilized music-lovers, for the essential artistic contribution of the Metropolitan has been to preserve operas like “Aida” and “Pagliacci” from an oblivion that should have been theirs on the night they first appeared.
There was a piece on the radical socialist paper, The Masses, by journalist Bob Brown, with the less than complimentary take-off on its name, “Them Asses.” Brown occasionally wrote for The Masses, and his article is actually quite complimentary, at least by the standards of the Mercury. There were some fascinating vignettes on the workings of a radical sheet during the heyday of socialism, and biographical sketches of editor Max Eastman, a confidante of Trotsky, and other contributors.
Mencken was one of the foremost unbelievers of his day, so it was only fitting that his final edition of the Mercury should include an article about atheism. Entitled “Atheism Succumbs to Doubt,” its theme was that atheist activism was on the decline for lack of opposition. Noting that,
Not one believer in a thousand appears to know the difference between the Nicene and the Athanasian creeds. To the overwhelming majority Christianity is simply a ritual associated with sacred concerts on Sunday and chicken dinners at irregular intervals, the whole sustaining a variety of more or less useful funds and institutions.
The author concludes,
The faithful of romantic inclination dabble in theosophy or Bahaism. Are they excommunicated? Nay, even the village atheist would be welcomed into the fold if he’d be willing to subscribe to the Y.M.C.A. and hold his tongue. So the God-Killers marching forth to battle nowadays find the enemy’s camp deserted, Daniel’s lions dead of old age, and the Shekinah departed unto the Ozarks.
He makes the intriguing claim that American infidels had been vastly more robust and influential 50 years before, in the heyday of the great atheist speaker and writer, Robert G. Ingersoll.
It was not always thus. The God-Killers of half a century ago were taken seriously and took themselves seriously… In those days hundreds of atheistic pamphlets were published and sold in the United States. They bore such titles as “Why Don’t God Kill the Devil?” “The Myth of the Great Deluge,” “Where Is Hell?” “Death-Beds of Infidels,” “Faith or Fact,” “The Devil’s Catechism,” and “When Did Jehoshaphat Die?” John E. Remsburg, author of the last-named, proved by the Bible and arithmetic that this King of Israel died on sixteen different dates. Today nobody knows or cares that Jehoshaphat ever lived.
Fast forward another 75 years, and another crop of “God-Killers” has appeared on the scene, commonly referred to as the New Atheists. As readers of The God Delusion, penned by Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous of the lot, will have noted, he cannot turn his gaze our way without imagining an “American Taliban” behind every bush, and is as innocent of any knowledge of this flowering of American atheism as a child. Perhaps some nascent Ph.D. in history should take the matter in hand and document the doings of the “God-Killers” of the 1880′s, not to mention their rise and fall and rise again since the days of such famous infidels as Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.
Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany at the end of January, 1933, and Mencken, who was known as a Germanophile, took up the phenomenon of Nazism in the “Library” section of his last issue. Noting five titles on the subject as “a few of the first comers among what promises to be a long procession of Hitler books,” he proceeded to outline the implications of the rise of Hitler a great deal more soberly and presciently that most of the journals of the day. Typical of the stuff appearing at the time was a piece that appeared in the Century some months earlier whose author, rich in the wisdom of journalists, assured his readers that there was not the slightest reason to be concerned about Hitler or the hijinks of his followers. Mencken was not so sanguine. Echoing what John Maynard Keynes and many others had foreseen immediately in 1919, he wrote,
The most surprising thing about him (Hitler) it seems to me, is that his emergence should have been surprising. He was, in fact, implicit in the Treaty of Versailles.
He goes on to note some inconvenient truths about Hitler’s anti-Semitism that are as true now as they were then:
His anti-Semitism, which has shocked so many Americans, is certainly nothing to marvel over. Anti-Semitism is latent all over Western Europe, as it is in the United States… (The Jew) is an easy mark for demagogues when the common people are uneasy, and it is useful to find a goat. He has served as such a goat a hundred times in the past, and he will probably continue in the role, off and on, until his racial differentiation disappears or he actually goes back to his fatherland. In Germany, as in Poland, Austria and France, he has been made use of by demagogues for many years, precisely as the colored brother has been made use of in our own South.
Germanophile or no, Mencken has no illusions about what the rise of Hitler may portend, and doesn’t mince words in explaining it to his readers:
In such matters what is done cannot be undone; the main question, as I write, is how long the orgy will last, and whether it will wear itself out or have to be put down by external force. If the latter is resorted to, and it takes the form of military pressure, we are probably in for another World War.
During the entire decade he was editor, the Mercury reflected Mencken’s own cynical attitude, sometimes insightful and sometimes shallow as it was. Then, as now, authors craved seeing their work in print, and adjusted the style of the stuff they submitted to suite his taste accordingly. As a result, the paper always had a distinctly Menckenian flavor during his reign. In his final editorial, we find Mencken at his most optimistic, assuring his readers that nothing would change:
In case there be any among those readers who fear that the change of editorial administration will convert the magazine into something that it is not they may put their minds at ease. In its basic aims and principles there will be little change. Hereafter, as in the past, it will try to play a bright light over the national scene, revealing whatever is amusing and instructive, but avoiding mere moral indignation as much as possible.
The Mercury was to be taken over by Henry Hazlitt, who “was my first and only choice for the post he takes, and I am completely convinced that he will make a first-rate magazine.” Alas, it was not to be. Hazlitt didn’t see eye to eye with the publisher, and resigned within four months. The Mercury was taken over by Mencken’s former assistant, Charles Angoff, and took a sharp turn to the left. After the fashion of the political and intellectual journals of the time, it became a forum for authors who were cocksure that the demise of capitalism was just around the corner, and differed mainly in the degree of mayhem they deemed necessary for the inevitable transition to socialism. There were several similar jarring changes before the final demise of the paper in 1980.
No matter, the Mercury of Mencken’s day is as fascinating as ever for those seeking relief from the unrelenting political correctness and overbearing piety one often finds in its modern equivalents. There are usually a few copies available on eBay for interested readers at any given time, although prices have been trending upwards lately.
Posted on August 24th, 2012 No comments
I’ve mentioned the work of historian Niall Ferguson in the context of what used to be called the Amity/Enmity Complex before. Simply put, the term was used to describe that ubiquitous tendency of our species to perceive the rest of mankind in terms of ingroups, to which we belong and with which we associate Good, and outgroups, to which “others” belong, and with which we associate Evil. Ferguson just did something that was guaranteed to land him in an outgroup. He started rattling and prying at one of the boards of which the ideological box that a particular ingroup lives in was built. He accomplished this feat by publishing an article in Newsweek critical of Barack Obama, who happens to be the human icon of the Good for the ingroup in question, consisting of a substantial faction of the ideological left.
Ferguson doesn’t exactly have a history of ingratiating himself with the left. He was an advisor to McCain in 2008, has been critical of Obamacare and government fiscal policy, and is certainly an outlier to the right among his fellow Harvard professors. Perhaps the furious response to his latest piece reflects the fact that it appeared in Newsweek, which doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an organ of the right. If he’d published the same piece in, say, National Review, I doubt that the bees would have come swarming out of their hive in quite such massive numbers. In any case, here are some of the responses to his latest, beginning with Alex Pareene at Salon;
Niall Ferguson is an intellectual fraud whose job, for years, has been to impress dumb rich Americans with his accent and flatter them with his writings. It’s a pretty easy con, honestly, if you’re born shameless and British (or French).
Maybe it’s a rich people thing, but I never thought Ferguson was particularly flattering towards Americans. For example, in his War of the World, we come in for some harsh criticism touching such matters as our pervasive habit of shooting enemy prisoners of war, our bombing of civilians in World War II, our less than generous response to the European persecution of Jews and other minorities before the war, and any number of other real or perceived shortcomings. Moving right along, here’s another take by Noah Smith:
I have been known to tease a fellow blogger or two, but there is really only one writer who makes me truly mad, and that is British historian Niall Ferguson. I will explain exactly why he makes me so mad at the end of this post. First, though, I want to say a few words about Mr. Ferguson’s cover story in Newsweek magazine, entitled “Hit the Road, Barack”. I should note that it imposes a heavy psychic cost for me to do so, since it requires that I actually read Niall Ferguson. But the public duty to expose BS and promote truth and intellectual honesty overrides such selfish concerns.
and another by James Fallows:
Yes, I know, you could imagine many sentences that would follow that headline (As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize). But here is what I have in mind right now: A tenured professor of history at my undergraduate alma mater has written a cover story for Daily Beast/Newsweek that is so careless and unconvincing that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade.
I won’t presume to judge between Ferguson and his detractors on matters of fact. As usual in such cases, the main differences between them depend, not on the facts themselves, but on how they are spun. For example, most of the broadsides against Ferguson I’ve seen so far take issue with the following quote from Newsweek:
Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.
It is cited as one of Ferguson’s “lies,” even though it is factually correct, because it doesn’t have the right spin. For example, Matthew O’Brien writes,
Ferguson’s fact is deliberately misleading. A better way to make the argument he says he wants to make would be something like, “Private sector payrolls have added 427,000 jobs since Obama took office, but we are nowhere near out of our deep hole — despite this growth, private sector payrolls are still 4.18 million jobs below their January 2008 peak.”
Ferguson counters with some spin of his own,
Both these statements are true. I picked the high point of January 2008 because it seems to me reasonable to ask how much of the ground lost in the crisis have we actually made up under Obama. The answer is not much. You may not like that, but it’s a fact.
Which version you prefer is probably a pretty good indication of which of the contending ingroups you inhabit. You be the judge, dear reader. While you’re at it, maybe you can tell me who was really guilty of starting World War I as well. I merely offer Ferguson’s article and the furious response thereto as another data point for students of the group behavior of our species.
Posted on August 22nd, 2012 No comments
Those who’ve read science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will recall the character of Hari Seldon, a scientist/prophet who developed the mathematical discipline of psychohistory, which enabled him to both predict and guide future events. He taught that the future would be punctuated by “Seldon Crises,” which mankind would have to successfully negotiate if the good guys were to win in the end. There have been many would be Hari Seldons in real life, among whom Karl Marx was probably the most prominent. The latest variation on the theme is known as cliodynamics, defined by the journal of that name as “…a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases.”
According to a recent paper by cliodynamicist Peter Turchin entitled, “Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010,” the Republic has so far successfully negotiated three Seldon Crisis analogs, and will encounter the next one around 2020. The article includes a graph purporting to show how a composite of riots, lynchings, and terrorism peaked in the three earlier events, which occurred around 1870, 1920, and 1970, at neat 50-year intervals. One enduring constant in history has certainly been the enduring popularity of fortune tellers. There have been so many of them that some fraction of their predictions are bound to come true, or at least nearly true, thereby “proving” the general validity of the trade for the next generation of soothsayers. This latest “scientific” version may be similarly “proved,” but I doubt it has a significant leg up over Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar.
Notice, for example, that the three earlier peaks happened to coincide with major wars, all of which had been predicted many years in advance of the time they actually happened, but none of which were provably inevitable, and, at least in the first two cases, were sparked, not by “macrosociological” cycles, but, in one instance, by the election of Abraham Lincoln, and in the next by the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. A peak seems to be missing for 1820, and bona fide insurrections like Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion that were certainly much remarked on by people at the time they happened are missing from the data. Similar “peaks” in other countries haven’t happened at neat intervals, nor have they been separated at anything like 50 years. For example, in France, major revolutions occurred in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870, with enough miscellaneous mayhem mixed in at random intervals between to make the U.S. “peaks” of 1920 and 1970 look like child’s play.
Well, what of it? At worst the cliodynamicists may inspire a few people to take an interest in history, and at best they may significantly shorten the period of chaos between the rise and fall of galactic empires.
Posted on July 31st, 2012 2 comments
Well, actually that’s only technically true. Any potential Obama voter who can afford the fare and tell a red state from a blue state becomes an honorary U.S. citizen as soon as they set foot on these shores. They can vote as often as they like, as long as they don’t do it all in the same precinct. Still, I had to chuckle when I glanced at the website of Der Spiegel this morning. They are so in the tank for Obama they make MSNBC look like the soul of objective journalism. Here are the stories I found in a quick glance through:
Headline: Candidate Embarrassing Byline: Stiff as a board, clueless, artificial. Republican Presidential candidate exposed many of his weaknesses on his European tour.
Headline: Romney Enrages Palestinians (have they ever not been enraged?) Byline: Romney campaigns on his foreign tour – and arouses the Palestinians against him in the process.
Headline: Romney’s Blundering Tour through Europe Byline: The U.S. candidate for President booked a week of blunders and slip-ups in Europe. Things just aren’t going right for the Republican.
Headline: Stepping in it On Tour Byline: The Palestinians accuse him of racism, the British are cross, and Polands Solidarnosc doesn’t like him.
Headline: Romney Advisor Curses Reporters in Warsaw Byline: There’s no end to the criticism directed at Romney’s foreign tour – now one of his advisors lost his cool.
And mind you, that’s just what I saw in a quick glance on a single day. Actually, it’s a huge improvement. Back in the last years of the Clinton and first years of the Bush Administrations, Der Spiegel’s website was so full of vile, quasi-racist anti-American rants that it was often difficult to wade through it all and find any news about Germany. They only gave it up when a few people across the pond started to notice, and the editors realized they were putting all those prestigious international prizes for “objective journalism” in jeopardy. They still occasionally throw out some red meat to the Amerika haters, but only enough to keep them on life support.
Posted on May 6th, 2012 9 comments
Nuclear power is an attractive candidate for meeting our future energy needs. Nuclear plants do not release greenhouse gases. They release significantly less radiation into the environment than coal plants, because coal contains several parts per million of radioactive thorium and uranium. They require far less space and are far more reliable than alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. In spite of some of the worst accidents imaginable due to human error and natural disasters, we have not lost any cities or suffered any mass casualties, and the horrific “China Syndrome” scenarios invented by the self-appointed saviors of mankind have proven to be fantasies. That is not to say nuclear power is benign. It is just more benign than any of the currently available alternatives. The main problem with nuclear is not that it is unsafe, but that it is being ill-used. In this case, government could actually be helpful. Leadership and political will could put nuclear on a better track.
To understand why, it is necessary to know a few things about nuclear fuel, and how it “burns.” Bear with me while I present a brief tutorial in nuclear engineering. Nuclear energy is released by nuclear fission, or the splitting of heavy elements into two or more lighter ones. This doesn’t usually happen spontaneously. Before a heavy element can undergo fission, an amount of energy above a certain threshold must first be delivered to its nucleus. How does this happen? Imagine a deep well. If you drop a bowling ball into the well, it will cause a large splash when it hits the water. It does so because it has been accelerated by the force of gravity. A heavy nucleus is something like a well, but things don’t fall into it because of gravity. Instead, it relies on the strong force, which is very short range, but vastly more powerful than gravity. The role of “bowling ball” can be played by a neutron. If one happens along and gets close enough to fall into the strong force ”well,” it will also cause a “splash,” releasing energy as it is bound to the heavy element’s nucleus, just as the real bowling ball is “bound” in the water well until someone fishes it out. This “splash,” or release of energy, causes the heavy nucleus to “jiggle,” much like an unstable drop of water. In one naturally occurring isotope – uranium with an atomic weight of 235 – this “jiggle” is so violent that it can cause the “drop of water” to split apart, or fission.
There are other isotopes of uranium. All of them have 92 protons in their nucleus, but can have varying numbers of neutrons. The nucleus of uranium 235, or U235, has 92 protons and 143 protons, adding up to a total of 235. Unfortunately, U235 is only 0.7% of natural uranium. Almost all the rest is U238, which has 92 protons and 146 neutrons. When a neutron falls into the U238 “well,” the “splash” isn’t big enough to cause fission, or at least not unless the neutron had a lot of energy to begin with, as if the “bowling ball” had been shot from a cannon. As a result, U238 can’t act as the fuel in a nuclear reactor. Almost all the nuclear reactors in operation today simply burn that 0.7% of U235 and store what’s left over as radioactive waste. Unfortunately, that’s an extremely inefficient and wasteful use of the available fuel resources.
To understand why, it’s necessary to understand something about what happens to the neutrons in a reactor that keep the nuclear chain reaction going. First of all, where do they come from? Well, each fission releases more neutrons. The exact number depends on how fast the neutron that caused the fission was going, and what isotope underwent fission. If enough are released to cause, on average, one more fission, then the resulting chain reaction will continue until the fuel is used up. Actually, two neutrons, give or take, are released in each fission. However, not all of them cause another fission. Some escape the fuel region and are lost. Others are absorbed in the fuel material. That’s where things get interesting.
Recall that, normally, most of the fuel in a reactor isn’t U235, but the more common isotope, U238. When U238 absorbs a neutron, it forms U239, which quickly decays to neptunium 239 and then plutonium 239. Now it just so happens that plutonium 239, or Pu239, will also fission if a neutron “falls into its well,” just like U235. In other words, if enough neutrons were available, the reactor could actually produce more fuel, in the form of Pu239, than it consumes, potentially burning up most of the U238 as well as the U235. This is referred to as the “breeding” of nuclear fuel. Instead of just lighting the U235 “match” and letting it burn out, it would be used to light and burn the entire U238 “log.” Unfortunately, there are not enough neutrons in normal nuclear reactors to breed more fuel than is consumed. Such reactors have, however, been built, both in the United States and other countries, and have been safely operated for periods of many years.
Plutonium breeders aren’t the only feasible type. In addition to U235 and Pu239, another isotope will also fission if a neutron falls into its “well” - uranium 233. Like Pu239, U233 doesn’t occur in nature. However, it can be “bred,” just like Pu239, from another element that does occur in nature, and is actually more common than uranium – thorium. I’ve had a few critical things to say about some of the popular science articles I’ve seen on thorium lately, but my criticisms were directed at inaccuracies in the articles, not at thorium technology itself. Thorium breeders actually have some important advantages over plutonium. When U233 fissions, it produces more neutrons than Pu239, and it does so in a “cooler” neutron spectrum, where the average neutron energy is much lower, making the reactor significantly easier to control. These extra neutrons could not only breed more fuel. They could also be used to burn up the transuranic elements – those beyond uranium on the table of the elements – that are produced in conventional nuclear reactors, and account for the lion’s share of the long-lived radioactive waste. This would be a huge advantage. Destroy the transuranics, and the residual radioactivity from a reactor would be less than that of the original ore, potentially in a few hundred years, rather than many thousands.
Thorium breeders have other potentially important advantages. The fuel material could be circulated through the core in the form of a liquid, suspended in a special “salt” material. Of course, this would eliminate the danger of a fuel meltdown. In the event of an accident like the one at Fukushima, the fuel would simply be allowed to run into a holding basin, where it would be sub-critical and cool quickly. Perhaps more importantly, the United States has the biggest proven reserves of thorium on the planet.
Breeders aren’t the only reactor types that hold great promise for meeting our future energy needs. High temperature gas cooled reactors would produce gas heated to high temperature in addition to electricity. This could be used to produce hydrogen gas via electrolysis, which is much more efficient at such high temperatures. When hydrogen burns, it produces only water. Such reactors could also be built over the massive oil shale deposits in the western United States. The hot gas could then be used to efficiently extract oil from the shale “in situ” without the need to mine it. It is estimated that the amount of oil that could be economically recovered in this way from the Green River Basin deposits in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado alone is three times greater than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.
Will any of this happen without government support and leadership? Not any time soon. The people who build nuclear reactors expect to make a profit, and the easiest way to make a profit is to build more conventional reactors of the type we already have. Raise the points I’ve mentioned above, and they’ll simply tell you that there’s plenty of cheap uranium around and therefore no need to breed more fuel, the radioactive danger of transuranics has been much exaggerated, etc., etc. All these meretricious arguments make sense if your goal is to make a profit in the short run. They make no sense at all if you have any concern for the energy security and welfare of future generations.
Unless the proponents of controlled fusion or solar and other forms of alternative energy manage to pull a rabbit out of their collective hats, I suspect we will eventually adopt breeder technology. The question is when. After we have finally burnt our last reserves of fossil fuel? After we have used up all our precious reserves of U238 by scattering it hither and yon in the form of “depleted uranium” munitions? The longer we wait, the harder and more expensive it will become to develop a breeder economy. It would be well if, in this unusual case, government stepped in and did what it is theoretically supposed to do; lead.