Iran, Twitter, and Revolution

In looking through the first five blogs on my list of usual suspects for this evening, I noticed that all five of them had “Facebook Revolution” posts on Iran. Here’s tonight’s line-up, not necessarily in the order of their current favor at Court: Sullivan, Kos, Huffpo, Instapundit, and Little Miss Attila. The whole Twitter, Flickr, Facebook revolution of the future thing seems compelling, but I have my doubts. All of the above can be monitored and controlled, and despotic states will become increasingly likely to do just that every time another Ahmadinejad is caught flat footed. Back in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1917, there was no Internet, but the word still got around, and, occasionally, revolutions succeeded even without Tweets. Of course, they often succeeded because guys like Louis XVI and Nicholas II lacked the will and ruthlessness to resist. They also succeeded because the state in those days lacked anything like the means of controlling its citizens that are easily at the command of any ruler who wants to use them today. In the end, technology will favor the oppressors, and not the oppressed. Just as the proponents of torture on the right will have second thoughts as soon as they become the victims, the proponents of the unrestricted growth of state power on the left should be careful what they wish for. They assume they will always be the state, and that it will never turn on them, but only on their enemies. So did Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Trotsky.
If state power cannot be limited and controlled, all the tweeting in the world won’t raise Liberty from the dead. Mankind’s brush with Naziism and, especially, Communism in the 20th century were near things. We may not be so lucky in the years to come.
Update: Publius on the limits of Twitter.

Marsilius of Padua and “Defensor pacis”

How is it that I never heard of Marsilius of Padua until now? Yes, I know, ignorance, but even the illustrious Dr. Johnson was guilty of that occasionally. (In case you haven’t heard the anecdote, he erroneously defined a pastern as “the knee of a horse,” in his famous dictionary when it ought to be “that part of the leg of a horse between the joint next the foot and the hoof.” When he was asked, at a large dinner, how he managed to get this one so wrong, he was unevasive: “Ignorance, Madam, ignorance.”)
But I digress. Marsilius was one of the outstanding thinkers of the middle ages, and made a profound impression in his own time, and for centuries thereafter. More to the point, in his book, “Defensor pacis,” which I heartily recommend to the gentle reader, he makes some powerful and brilliant arguments in favor of the separation of church and state, drawing heavily on scripture. In a word, he was the Roger Williams of his day. Perhaps the reason that he is virtually unknown outside of academia today is that fact that his teaching must certainly have been uncomfortable to those who cherish the good things of this world that can be acquired by gulling others into a belief in the world to come. I suspect that the same may be said of Jean Meslier, and many another brilliant but unconventional thinker.
It has been a great boon to mankind that one of the world’s greatest religions could produce thinkers like Marsilius and Williams from among the ranks of its own clerics. Drawing their arguments from scripture itself, they provided a strong philosophical basis for the separation of church and state and freedom of religion. It is regrettable that Islam never produced similar thinkers. One can only hope that, some day, it will.


Jean Meslier
Jean Meslier

Maxim Gorky, Russia, and the Communist Experiment

Humanity has produced many Cassandras over the years. Maxim Gorky was one of them. Or at least he was during the critical years 1917-18, when he edited Novaia zhizn’ (New Life), an independent socialist newspaper. Would that Russia had listened to him. Here are some of his more prophetic passages:

“Imagining themselves to be Napoleons of socialism, the Leninists rant and rave, completing the destruction of Russia. The Russian people will pay for this with lakes of blood.”

“All this (the Bolshevik experiment) is unnecessary and will only increase the hatred for the working class. It will have to pay for the mistakes and crimes of its leaders – with thousands of lives and torrents of blood.”

To the Russian workers:
“You are being led to ruin, you are being used as material for an inhuman experiment, and in the eyes of your leaders you are still not human beings.”

“Therefore I keep on saying: an experiment is being conducted with the Russian proletariat for which the proletariat will pay with their blood.”

Sad, isn’t it, that there are certain things mankind just seems to have to learn the hard way? Of course, when it comes to the messianic quasi-religion of Communism, there were many other Cassandras. Sir James MacKintosh, a brilliant Scottish thinker who died in 1832, long before Communist ideology was systematized by Marx and Engels, nevertheless saw what was coming. Socialist ideas were already quite familiar to the intellectuals of his generation. He remarked that the zealots of the new ideas might eventually succeed in gaining power, but they were doomed to failure. The reason? Unlike religious fanatics, with their celestial heaven, they promised a heaven on earth, and would be exposed as false prophets when it failed to materialize.

We should have listened to Sir James. Instead, it took more than 150 years and tens of millions of corpses before the rest of the world caught on.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Socialism

Maxim Gorky
Maxim Gorky
There’s an interesting article over at Classical Values entitled, “So who owns Socialism?” The author is in a quandary because so much of what we’ve seen happening on the national scene walks like socialism, quacks like socialism, and flaps its wings like socialism, that a national debate on whether it really is socialism would seem to be in order. Unfortunately, that seemingly innocent word became fouled in the cogwheels of political correctness long ago, and one can no longer use it without treading on any number of ideological toes. It’s too bad. I agree with Eric at CV that, as something very closely akin to socialism, if not actually the genuine article, is already a fait accompli in some branches of industry, a serious national discourse on the subject is long overdue. While, as a rule, I’m anything but an enthusiast, I do make exceptions. For example, I would be a whooping fan of socialism in cases such as, for example, nationalization of the legal industry.

Socialism wasn’t always in such ill repute. The great Russian author, Maxim Gorky, thought, along with many other progressive intellectuals in his day, that “democracy cannot be other than socialist.” (“Untimely Thoughts,” p. 164) In January, 1918, just after the Bolsheviks had seized power, he wrote with what now seems uncanny prescience in his newspaper, Novaya Zhizn, “Therefore I keep on saying: an experiment is being conducted with the Russian proletariat for which the proletariat will pay with their blood, life, and worst of all, a prolonged disillusionment with the very ideal of socialism.”

He certainly got it right when it comes to the ideal of socialism. However, perhaps he was rather too pessimistic when it comes to the reality of socialism.

Der Spiegel, anti-Americanism, and the Suck Up

There must have been some serious tutt-tutting in the Spiegel editorial offices over the rabid anti-Americanism on display in its recent coverage of the Opel affair. After all, Spiegel has been trying to project a kinder, gentler image lately, ever since a few Americans noticed that its coverage of the US had deteriorated to something rather akin to racism. Some of it was vile enough to make Julius Streicher blush. People did start noticing, though, and Spiegel had to throttle back on the hate mongering. Lately it has been carefully balancing a policy of maintaining a façade of objectivity with the occasional need to toss red meat to its legions of Amerika hating readers, imperative for keeping the bottom line above sea level. The kid glove treatment became more pronounced after Obama’s inauguration, as, according to the German media narrative, anti-Americanism was “all about Bush,” even though it was actually far more vicious and flagrant in the final years of the Clinton administration than it was in Bush’s final years. Be that as it may, Spiegel Online just published a piece dripping with such unctuous praise of the US, for Spiegel at least, that the disconnect with its usual line is enough to give you whiplash. It’s always had a policy of posting a token pro-American piece once a month or so to “balance things out,” but this was way over the top. Here are a few snippets:

Why our Picture of the USA is False

“Lots of money for child care, few cancer deaths: in comparison to Europe, the USA often ranks better than commonly believed. The historian Peter Baldwin explains why America is the land of bookworms – and why corruption is much worse in France.”

Of course, Teutonic superiority must be vindicated. Ergo, the next paragraph:

“The level of social services in the US is often portrayed as miserable and underdeveloped in comparison to Europe. And that picture is true – if one takes Sweden or Germany (my emphasis) as the standard. However, if one considers social policy in Europe as a whole, things look completely different.”

…and so on, with more reassurances that the US isn’t entirely barbaric after all, and its population is quite erudite to boot. For anyone who’s actually been following the coverage of the US in Spiegel for the last decade, the hypocrisy is enough to choke a horse.

Of course, after all this abject kow-towing, it was necessary to quickly restore “balance” to avoid disorienting Spiegel’s loyal fans. The editors didn’t disappoint, taking the occasion to post one of their regular US “history lessons.” To wit:

Secret Operation Mongoose

(Under a picture of Castro’s unfortunate predecessor) “Fulgencio Batista: The former Cuban president in front of a map of the island nation. With his US-friendly politics, Batista turned the island into an el Dorado for investors, casino barons, and Mafia dons.

Deadly Greetings from Washington

“Tainted handkerchiefs and explosives in cigars: In the early 60’s the CIA tried to kill their worst enemy with methods à la James Bond. The perfidious murder conspiracy against the Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro had the personal approval of the US President – but still failed.”

And so on. You get the picture. Spiegel is hardly the only guilty party. I’ve added some covers from Stern to “restore balance” myself.

I think it unlikely, by the way, that most of the movers and shakers in the German media world really suffer from the crude, quasi-racist anti-Americanism they peddle in their rags. They’re just greedy. They do it because, as Spiegel discovered more than a decade ago, there’s big dough in catering to hatred of the United States. Stern, Focus, and the rest caught on quickly.

Finally, I wish to draw attention to some heroes that most Americans have been blithely unaware of, although they have been fighting thanklessly on our behalf for more than a decade. They are individual Germans, who, motivated only by a sense of common decency and an elementary desire for justice, have met the America haters head on, confronting them on blogs, forums, and wherever they could make their voices heard. Some of them are more articulate in their fight for fairness and against the mindless promotion of hate between peoples than I could ever hope to be. Their reward has been abuse and vilification. There have always been Germans like this, willing to take a firm stand against the national prejudices that afflict every land. I know what it has cost them to stand up for us, and I am deeply grateful to them. The rest of America should be, too.


Gregory of Tours, the Trinity, Gay Marriage, and Liberal Christianity

Gregory of Tours
Gregory of Tours
I am the least spiritual of men, and believe in no gods or supernatural beings of any kind, my only deviation in these matters being a slight case of triskaidekaphobia. However, I do take an interest in history, and religious belief has certainly played a significant role therein. It’s interesting that the times most people would consider the most enlightened are not necessarily those coincident with the highest levels of sophistication when it comes to religious belief. In fact, some of the writings that have come down to us from what Europeans call the “Dark Ages” are hardly behindhand in that regard. To support this assertion, I call to the stand Gregory, Bishop of Tours, who wrote in the latter half of the 6th century A.D., a time when England was shrouded in a deep historical mist. Gregory was a chatty, gossipy, entertaining writer, who lived in and described firsthand the horrific scene in western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was a time of warring petty states whose kings and nobility tortured, murdered, and robbed their subjects, of constant devastating plagues, natural disasters and famines, and periodic social chaos. If you want some real insight into what it was like, read Gregory’s “History of the Franks.” He won’t disappoint you.

In spite of it all, Gregory, scion of an old Roman senatorial family, somehow managed to acquire an education, and no mean skill as a theologian. In those days, the Goths, Vandals, and most of the other Christianized barbarian tribes had adopted a Unitarian version of the faith before Athanasius and his followers had managed to gain acceptance for their Trinitarian teachings. When the Trinitarians gained the upper hand in what remained of the Empire, the surrounded barbarians remained Unitarians, with the exception of the Franks. In the excerpt that follows, Gregory, an orthodox Catholic, describes a debate he had with a visiting Unitarian cleric from the Visigothic kingdom in Spain. What’s noteworthy about it is the subtlety of Gregory’s theological arguments. As you’re reading it, try to imagine a “modern” priest or bishop teaching a similarly sophisticated version of the Trinity. I rather suspect most of us have never heard anything of the sort. Turning it over to Gregory…

“As envoy to Chilperic (one of the Frankish kings who ruled part of France) King Leuvigild (Visigothic ruler of Spain) sent Agilan, a man of low intelligence, untrained in logical argument, but distinguished by his hatred of our Catholic faith. Tours (seat of Gregory’s bishopric) was on his route and he took advantage of this to attack me concerning my beliefs and to assail the dogmas of the Church. ‘The bishops of the early Church made a foolish pronouncement,’ he said, when they asserted that the Son was equal to the Father. How can He be equal to the Father, when He says: ‘My Father is greater than I’? It is not right that the Son should be considered equal to the Father when He Himself admits that He is less, when it is to the Father that He complains about the miserable manner of His death, when at the very moment of His death He commends His spirit to the Father, as if He Himself were completely powerless. Surely it is quite obvious that He is less than the Father, both in power and in age!’ In reply to this, I asked him if he believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and if he admitted that He was the wisdom of God, the light, the truth, the life, the justice of God. Agilan answered: ‘I believe that the Son of God was all those things.’ Then I said: ‘Tell me now, when was the Father without wisdom? When was He without light, without life, without truth, without justice? Jast as the Father could not exist without these things, so He could not exist without the Son. These attributes are absolutely essential to the mystery of the Godhead. Similarly the Father could hardly be called the Father if He had no Son. When you quote the Son as having aaid: ‘My Father is greater than I,’ you must know that He said this in the lowliness of the flesh, which He had assumed so that He might teach you that you were redeemed not by His power but by His humility. You must also remember, when you quote the words: ‘My father is greater than I,’ that He also says in another place: ‘I and my Father are one.’ His fear of death and the fact that He commended His spirit are a reference to the weakness of the flesh, so that, just as he is believed to be very God, so may He be believed to be very man.’ Agilan answered: ‘He who does what another commends is less than that other: the Son is always less than the Father because He does the will of the Father, whereas there is no proof that the Father does the will of the Son.’ ‘You must understand’, I replied, ‘that the Father is the Son and that the Son is in the Father, each subsisting in one Godhead. If you want proof that the Father does the will of the Son, consider what our Lord Jesus Christ says when He come to raise Lazarus – that is if you have any faith in the Gospel at all: ‘Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.’ When He comes to His Passion, He says: ‘And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.’ Then the Father replies from Heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ Therefore the Son is equal in Godhead, and not inferior, and He is not inferior in anything else.”

…and so on. As noted above, I’m not a believer, but I’ve spent a great deal of time in church. I’ve never heard the Trinity discussed by pastor, bishop, or priest with anywhere near that level of sophistication. I grew up in the Methodist church, and one of our pastors in my early youth was a throwback who took theology seriously. He is the only Christian teacher I’ve ever heard who so much as made a serious attempt to teach the doctrine of the Trinity to his flock. However, his sermons never approached Gregory’s level of subtlety or refinement. What’s the point? I guess that, when one compares intellectual development in the “Dark Ages” with that in modern times, one should answer the question, “What kind?”

The “kind” of theological debate Gregory excelled at no longer exists outside of obscure seminary classrooms because the conclusions of that debate have become irrelevant. Today, the “theology” of the more liberal sects of Christianity is a mélange of badly digested “progressive” ideology. To the extent that the Scriptures have any significance at all, they are rifled through in the search for verses that appear to support some already foregone conclusion, borrowed from the realm of politics. The “doctrine” of the church conforms to a prevailing political fashion, and not vice versa, limited only by the reluctance of the clerics’ more conservative flocks to go along. This is what one might expect. Modern “in-groups” and “out-groups” are far more likely to be defined by politics than religion in first world countries with a European background. (See my post on the significance of in-group/out-group behavior in the archives.) If one wants to play a role in a group that has relevance in modern society, one must conform to the fundamental doctrines that define the intellectual boundaries of the group. If the groups happen to be political, then so much the worse for religion. Its “teachings” must conform to politically derived ideological doctrines, regardless of what the contents of its written scriptures might be. Thus, for example, one finds a number of Christian sects embracing gay marriage, in defiance of the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexual acts. The sophistication of Gregory of Tours and the “Dark Ages” is exchanged for “Christianity Lite.”

As an infidel, I offer these remarks as an observation on the human condition, and certainly not to support or condemn gay marriage, or any other aspect of Christian belief. As for the battle between Athanasius and Arius, I am content to let sleeping dogs lie.

Bunin, Nazhivin, and Ideological Demonization

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ivan Bunin was a Russian man of letters who experienced the Russian revolution firsthand, and published his impressions in the book, “Cursed Days.” As the title would imply, he didn’t like what he saw. For example, he objected to a phenomenon we would, nowadays, refer to as ideological demonization. He describes it very accurately in connection with ad hominem attacks on one Nazhivin, a poet villified by the Bolsheviks and their hangers on in the midst of the Russian Civil War:

“Because of his book, though, Nazhivin is beginning to be persecuted in a malicious, coarse, and most obscene type of way.
“For the simple reason that he dared to say things that violated the credo of the left.
“It would seem that one could simply say to Nazhivin: ‘In our view you have made a mistake because of this or that.’
“One could express himself even more strongly and say, ‘It is not good that you have said this or that.’ – if the person really deserves such a remark.
“But when reviewers begin mocking this outstanding Russian person and writer, when they start slandering him with all kinds of cliches, as leftists are often wont to do, …I …hardly the newest person in this literature…decisively protest their actions and hope that my views will be shared by many of my colleague writers.
“I repeat: One may or may not agree with Nazhivin. One may argue with him, refute him… but to rebuke him in an indecent way, to rush off in a frenzy and seek to silence a great Russian individual and writer – such actions are not ‘liberal,’ nor should they be tolerated or allowed.”

Sound familiar? It should. Ninety years later, the sort of ideological demonization Bunin refers to has not disappeared. Far from it! One can spend days hopping from blog to blog, website to website, “news” channel to “news” channel, and never encounter a serious argument against this or that political point of view that doesn’t amount to a melange of ad hominem attacks, snarky remarks, and name calling, accompanied by the striking of virtuous poses from the “moral high ground.”

This phenomenon has long been a trademark of the ideological left in the US, but is now increasingly affecting the right, so that mutual villification has become the rule. One rarely finds cool, detached, objective arguments on any ideologically loaded topic. Instead, one hears a recitation of the reasons ones opponent is a villain, accompanied by much moralistic preening. The truth suffers. How refreshing it would be to find, if only once in a great while, an attack on an opponent’s arguments rather than his or her character. What a pleasant surprise it would be to find some ideologically loaded topic discussed on its merits, without the implication that anyone holding an opposing point of view must not only be wrong, but necessarily suffer from some kind of a moral deficit as well.

The shallowness necessarily associated with this form of “debate” eventually becomes oppressive. One reflects that none of these furious zealots would be remotely capable of explaining, based on first principles, why one action is good and another evil, and recalls a remark once uttered by Nietzsche: “Virtuous indignation is a crutch for the intellectually crippled.”


Japan, Roosevelt, and the Attack on Pearl Harbor

There are a plethora of sites out there for those whose tastes run to conspiracy theories and revisionist history according to which FDR knew all about the Japanese attack in advance, used masterful and insidious psychological tricks to provoke an otherwise peaceful nation, hoodwinked the American people, etc., etc. Examples can be found here, here, here, and here, along with the occasional sober voice to balance the scales. In fact, Roosevelt wasn’t the only one expecting an attack. People who were paying attention were aware it was coming at least as early as 1924. If the American people were “hoodwinked,” it was their own fault. As Exhibit A for the Defense, I cite an article from the “American Mercury,” issue of January 1924, entitled “Two Years of Disarmament,” authored by one Miles Martindale (nom de plume), pp. 62-68.

“Prior to 1854, Japan’s whole history was a sequence of efforts to prove herself independent of China. The influx of foreigners, backed by fleets of war vessels, brought the added fear of partition and domination by white men. Seventy years ago the Elder Statesmen advised avoidance of all disputes until Japan grew strong enough to deal with one rival at a time. This advice underlies the amazing modernization of Japan, centuries of development being compressed into decades. In accordance with the program, China was humbled in 1894, and Russia in 1904. Germany’s turn came in 1914, for to the peasant’s mind, the opera bouffe campaign of Tsing Tao bulks as large as if the entire war power of Germany had been engaged. The years ending in “4” were thus fixed in the Japanese mind as years of invincibility. The Americans were plotting war on Japan? Then let them have it; but it will be when we choose, and that is in 1924!

“Our lavish expenditure and great effort during the world war impressed even Chosiu (Japanese military party) with the difficulties of the program. The scheme of invasion through Mexico, once in favor, was abandoned, and the Japanese prepared for a swift blow without warning, like the naval blow with which they opened the war with Russia. (!) Seizing the Philippines, and isolating Manila Bay if it did not fall easily with the advantage of defense and distance, waiting for our attempt to recapture the islands. They counted two years as necessary for us to organize the required effort; expected a majority of our people to consider the Philippines not worth recovering; believed the war would be intensely unpopular in America and that we would ask for peace rather than undertake the pain and loss of fighting it out to the end. Whether their plan correctly appraised our psychology or not, it involved heavy losses on our part. To attack across several thousand miles of empty sea in a war involving land forces would require at least a 5-3 superiority in fighting ships, a million tons of auxiliaries and at least three million tons of transports.

“The war was not desired by the Japanese for aggrandizement, nor to provide extra room for their people. Japan has not yet filled some of her own home islands, notably Hokkaido and Saghalien. The war was simply a part of the Chosiu program, considered necessary to preserve the edivinity of the Emperor and the cohesion of the Empire. The Chosiu politicians were not over-optimistic, but they believed it was the safest course. Like the occupation of Belgium, it was planmässig, and the plan had three times succeeded in the past.”

So there you have it, as much ammunition as you need for proving the obvious: That high officials in the State Department suckered a junta of generals into suckering Roosevelt into suckering the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. Have fun! In retrospect, one might add that a larger dose of oriental patience would have served Japan well. If she’d waited until the first decade of the 21st century, she could have relied on bloggers like Andrew Sullivan to egg the US on into attacking first, then morph into hand-wringing, hysterical defeatists as soon as the first shot was fired. Chosiu’s program would have been a sure thing.

Quote for the day: Florence Farmborough, a nurse with the (former) armies of the Tsar, 16th December 1917

“How can I describe all that has happened in these last tragic days?  I feel as though I have been caught up in a mighty whirlpool, battered and buffeted, and yet…I am still myself, still able to walk, talk, eat and sleep.  It is astounding how much a human being can endure without any outward sign of having been broken up into pieces.”