Dissent and the Media

A few weeks ago a college student came to my door, asking me to support his dream to go to college by buying a six-month subscription to a local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times. I don’t read physical newspapers much anymore, so I demurred. But this kid was a natural-born salesman. “Your neighbor has already subscribed, but gave me the $25 for the subscription anyway. I can just give you a free subscription instead of pocketing the money.” Okay, kid, I’ll do that for you.

The papers have been coming to my door ever since, and I still barely read them. Today I decided to open one up along with my morning coffee, and I turned to something I never would have expected in a mid-level newspaper. Take a look at the title of this op-ed, by Stanford researcher Thomas Sowell: “Scientists who might dissent face a new inquisition.”

A new inquisition? I am intrigued! Let’s read further:

“…attempts to shut down people whose free speech interferes with other people’s political agendas go on, with remarkably little notice, much less outrage.

The Internal Revenue Service’s targeting the tax-exempt status of conservative groups is just one of these attempts to fight political battles by shutting up the opposition, rather than answering them.

Another insidious attempt to silence voices that dissent from current politically correct crusades is targeting scientists who do not agree with the “global warming” scenario.”

Would you look at that? Two hate facts in one paragraph, in the Bay Area no less! The third paragraph in that quote is the topic of this piece, and the professor marshals some pretty disturbing information to bolster his accusation:

The head of the National Academy of Sciences has chimed in, saying: “Scientists must disclose their sources of financial support to continue to enjoy societal trust and the respect of fellow scientists.”

This is too clever by half. It sounds as if this government bureaucrat is trying to help the dissenting scientists enjoy trust and respect — as if these scientists cannot decide for themselves whether they consider such a practice necessary or desirable.
The best part is when he turns the rhetoric back on the leftists themselves:

The idea that you can tell whether a scientist — or anybody else — is “objective” by who is financing that scientist’s research is nonsense. There is money available on many sides of many issues, so no matter what the researcher concludes, there will usually be somebody to financially support those conclusions.

Some of us are old enough to remember when this kind of game was played by Southern segregationist politicians trying to hamstring civil rights organizations like the NAACP by pressuring them to reveal who was contributing money to them. Such revelations would of course then subject NAACP supporters to all sorts of retaliations, and dry up contributions.

The emphasis is mine, of course. Modern news media is like a vampire: it attacks in the night and sucks its victims dry, but it can’t stand the light. Professor Sowell totally nails the modern machinations of leftist media, which attacks all dissent from the party’s narrative, usually through a variety of public shaming strategies: concerted campaigns on the spammier side of media, like Gawker; followed by a requisite Five Minutes Hate on social media; ending with public apologies and then ostracization of the sinner. Everyone who has seen how much media works now knows how this goes. That the media itself is now commenting on it, sanctioning it in the pages of their own publications, is new. It’s a welcome sign.

Read the rest of Sowell’s piece here.

Facts vs Narrative: American Peronismo

Anyone who has written anything other than an accident report, maybe even only three letters to his mother, knows or guesses the following: facts often interfere with the quality of a narrative. Only very great writers manage to incorporate all the relevant facts without damaging the beauty of their narratives. Or, they make up facts that will fit without damage into their narrative. I am thinking of Mark Twain among a few others. But that’s in mostly fiction writing, intended as fiction and perceived as such by the reader. The other option is to leave out all the hard facts to the benefit of narrative beauty and then, you have poetry!

Writers in genres other than fiction – old-school journalists, for example – face the same issue, the same dilemma. While they wish to communicate facts, they understand that an attractive narrative helps them in their task. If nothing else, an enthralling story, does keep the reader, and the listener awake; even merely a pleasantly told story Only the un-gifted who face what they think is a captive audience (no such thing, I think) abandon narrative altogether. They insist on bullet points of facts, a method that seldom achieves much of anything, or anything lasting, I believe.

There is thus another, more subtle reason to craft one’s narrative when transmitting facts, a reason to which I just alluded: Facts embedded in a good narrative are retained longer than facts thrown out at random.

Form really matters when you tell others things you believe they ought to know. But facts are often undisciplined, they often refuse to be choreographed into the opera you wish to stage.

Every writer of other than fiction faces the same issue although more or less frequently. The issue is this: what to do with facts that injure an attractive feature, or the whole integrity of the narrative to which it belongs, like this:

“Dear Mom and Dad: I really, really enjoy Camp Iroquois. In the morning, with have this huge breakfast outside with huge omelets and as much bacon as we can eat plus pancakes with syrup and jam. Then, we wash a little and sometimes the counselors make us brush our teeth and we throw wet towels at each other. After that we, play baseball or touch football until noon. (Don’t worry, Mom, I am wearing my cap and lots of sunscreen.) After games, we all have barbecued lunch with hot dogs and lots of relish and cold coke. And then, we rest under a big tree and a counselor reads us adventure stories. After the story, we go and bathe naked in the pond that’s very close. Just the other day, I went to the pond early by myself and I slipped into water that reached above my head. You couldn’t see anything underwater and there was lots of mud at the bottom. So, I forgot that I could swim a little and I swallowed some pond water. Fortunately, Counselor John, the tall one I told you about was just walking by the other side of the pond. He ran and he pulled me out just in time. I coughed a lot of brown water but I guess I am fine, now, so, don’t worry. And, Mom, don’t worry about the laundry either because we hardly wear any clothes most of the time. Plus, I have found a way to make my underwear last for more than one day by just turning it inside out. Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that right after diner, every night, the counselors make a big bonfire and we sing songs until we feel tired and we have to walk to our tents to sleep.

So, Mom, and Dad, you see, I am having a great time at camp so, don’t fret about me.

Your son, Peter.”

You see the problem? The narrative of a happy kid whose parents need not worry about a thing would be improved by the removal of the near-drowning episode. If the child were wise beyond his years, he would leave it out, right?

The same problem arises with every political narrative, including the long-flowing narratives that serve as action guides by default for political parties and for political currents:

Do you tell a good story on an ongoing basis or do you include the relevant facts even if they interfere with its flow?

It seems to me that there is a major difference between political left and right in their willingness to worsen the narrative with facts. I may be wrong. I will listen to criticism and to contradictions. If my perception is correct however this preference for the narrative explains a great deal. It explains the fact that the left everywhere is inured to its own failures and to the success of its adversaries. Curiously, it explains why there is such a preponderance of leftists in practically all the arts, from Hollywood to French singers.

This preference for form over fact even explains the continuing puzzle that is the country of Argentina. I explain: There is no reason why Argentina is not Canada, as prosperous as Canada or nearly so. In fact, three times in one hundred years, the Argentinean standard of living nearly equaled that of Canada. Each time, it was after an important conflict elsewhere. Each time, Argentinians squandered their wealth; each time, they allowed themselves to fall back into poverty instead of taking off and out of underdevelopment for good.

The current government in Buenos Aires is the third iteration of a populist movement called “Peronismo.” The movement is based on a good story: a benevolent, and originally elected dictator, distributes the unjustly acquired wealth of the insolent rich to the poor to the “descamisados,” to those who don’t even have a shirt on their back. Sure the process, is sometimes a little messy but it does not matter; it’s the intention and the goal that matter. And if you stop the clock at any time during the re-distribution process, you will easily find poor families that are better off this year than they were last year.

Peronismo promises to create social justice and a decent life without the rigors and the discipline of communism, for example. The first two times, Peronist regimes ended in economic disaster, the second time, also in a brutal, murderous military dictatorship that lasted for seven years. The current Peronist regime recently had to assassinate a prosecutor in his home because he was about to splash the presidency bloody with a precise, well documented tale of murder and corruption in high places. (Argentina is not a stereotypical Latin American dictatorship however; the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was properly elected .)

The thing, when you talk to Argentinians of the middle class is how civilized they are, how courteous, how well educated, how well informed, (much better informed that middle class Americans in general, if you ask me). And they speak a beautiful Spanish that bears lightly the faint echo of the millions of Italians that form the bulk of Argentina’s population. And their songsters and their singers are second to none. I am listening to Mercedes Sosa as I write, whose “Gracias a la vida” would make me shed tears if I could shed tears. Before her there was Atahualpa Yupánqui, a singer and poet of the poor much better than any country music singer I know (and I know many). Even Buenos Aires pimps invented the tango which is more than you can say about pimps anywhere else. And then, there is that gaucho sitting on his skinny horse sipping hierba mate from a silver tube in a gourd. He always looked to me like a more authentic version of Western movie cowboys because he is not that well groomed, if truth be told; he is just more manly.

In brief, Argentina, the nation, has an excellent narrative. It’s all the better because it is not spoiled, it does not contain disturbing facts: Destiny and history favored Argentinians from the beginning but they are poor most of the time. (Currently, the country has a GDP (PPP) per capita of $19,000, against Korea’s $33,000, a country that had nothing in 1955, and $53,000 for the US – CIA Fact Book) Argentines always dive into poverty for the same reason: They insist that dividing into twenty a pie intended for six will be just fine. They give no attention to the requisites for baking a bigger pie. They are quick to endorse concrete injustices committed in the name of abstract justice. (After all, the expressed wish of the sovereign people must take precedence over constitutional formalities.) If all these obvious historical facts were woven into it, the narrative would not be nearly as attractive; it would be disfigured. It might be disturbing enough to force them to pay attention and begin fixing what’s wrong with their society at last.

It seems to me that a preference for the flow, the coherence of a narrative over the inclusion of relevant facts is commonplace but I think it’s routine among the tribes of the left.* Communism killed at least 100 million people. Yes but it fought injustice. Cubans lead miserable lives in Cuba; those who fled with the shirts on their back are twice richer than those who stayed, after only a couple of years parking cars in Miami. Yes, but the Cuban revolution was deserving of a great movie and it ended by providing free medical care for everyone. That is justice.

Even worse, the US is an international bully variously attacking other, weaker countries for their oil or to force them to adopt institutions they don’t like. A sense of decency requires that Americans stop the bullying.

In the US, the Democratic Party, propelled by its energetic left wing, often garners the extra votes it needs to win – beyond the obligatory black votes, union votes and teachers’ votes – by telling a good story: It’s the party holding the fort against the “war on women,” it’s the party of the little guy; it’s the party of the perpetually racially oppressed, of those oppressed merely because of their sexual preference, even of the newly oppressed “middle class.” Its narrative tugs at your heart strings unless you are very critical and very well informed. It’s a narrative that is squarely opposed to facts. Here are some facts that would change the liberal American story’s face, if they were allowed into that story:

  • The War on Poverty may have been a good idea originally. Fifty years later later, we are allowed to take stock. There is no reason to believe it was a success. There are reasons to think it was a failure.
  • The death rate of young black Americans is stupendous. Few die at the hands of police however. Mostly, they kill one another and they succumb to drug overdoses.
  • At any one time, at least half of American adults are opposed to abortion on demand. A high proportion of these think it’s murder plain and simple.
  • There is no evidence that, on the average, women earn less money than comparably situated men. There is a law forbidding this and there is no evidence that it’s often violated.
  • Out-of-wedlock birth is highly correlated with poverty for all social and racial groups.
  • The thesis that human activities (industrial, cars) are causing a rapid rise in global temperature that will cause catastrophes for the environment and, eventually for humans, that thesis is not well established, if it is established at all. Evidence against as a well as evidence in support is amassing quickly.
  • When the US does not act as a world policeman, unspeakable horrors multiply.

I could go on and on, obviously. Liberals don’t want to include these basic facts in their narrative of injustice and of oppression, domestic and international because it would simply destroy it. Absent the narrative, they would lose almost all elections. That’s why it matters to contradict tirelessly with facts the fairy tale in reverse tirelessly propagated by the left and by media now mostly at its beck and call.

Under the guidance of the Democratic Party (today’s Democratic Party), America would become another Argentina. The Democratic Party is not “socialist” as old Republicans are fond to grumble. (“Socialism” is a word that has lost any fixed meaning. It may never have had one. Perhaps, it was always only an incantation.) The Democratic Party is Peronist. Peronism is a form of soft, self-indulgent fascism that drags everyone except the dictator’s buddies into poverty. (See my short essay on fascism on this blog: “Fascism Explained.”)

* Here is an example of a conservative narrative that would be spoiled by relevant facts. Conservative media heads keep repeating that the first thing to do to solve the problem of illegal immigration, is to “secure the border.” Let’s not kid ourselves, they mean the southern border of the US, the border with Mexico. Missing from this concise and manly, energetic-sounding narrative:

The fact that most illegal immigrants today do not come from Mexico, or from elsewhere in Latin America.

The fact that those who do come from south of the Rio Grande don’t actually swim across that river or trudge in the desert at night but that they drive in and fly in and then, overstay their visa.

The fact that arrests of illegal aliens where they are easy to catch, at places of work that concentrate them such as slaughter houses, the fact the number of such arrests is tiny, year after year. (I mean that this requires an explanation.)

The fact that illegal immigrants who are arrested and who, under the law, are supposed to be deported by priority, criminals, often get to stay, mysteriously.

All these facts who detract from the “secure the border” narrative for the simple reason that none of facts above would be altered if the National Guard stood right on the border with Mexico elbow to elbow, fingers on the trigger of their machine guns.

Barbarian Liberty and Civilisation in Homer

Following from my last two posts, this will explore the sort of ‘barbarian’ liberty that Tacitus recognised in his time, that is of the early Roman empire, and was further explored by Montesquieu and Humboldt in the eighteenth century in relation to the poetry of Homer. ‘Homer’ here refers to two Greek epic poems attributed to him, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which had a very large presence not only in Greek culture, but in Roman culture which produced a kind of sequel in Latin, The Aeneid of Virgil, a very major work in its own right deserving of separate consideration.

As already indicated Homer shows us warriors of extreme destructive ferocity, who consider it normal and admirable to destroy enemy cities, taking slaves, and collecting loot as well as killing without mercy. A reasonable immediate reaction to that from a liberty supporting point of view is that this is the opposite of what liberty is about, that liberty oriented thought treats  unprovoked violence as the prime evil. Without denying any of that, the kind of violence that the Homeric Heroes engage in is part of a social bond within which voluntary co-operation of some sorts. Here I am referring to heroes not just in the sense of the main protagonists of a story, but the semi-divine status they are accorded in Homer, and by implication which is accorded to them in Mycenaean (late Bronze Age) Greece, where these stories originate.

The Homeric world is one in which there is trade and commerce, but it is regarded as less ‘honourable’ than Heroic violence, including piracy and physical destruction of cites. What this refers to, in fictionalised and poetic ways, is a world of weak enforcement of rules about property and individual security from violence outside small compact communities. Trade is clearly hazardous, running risks of the piracy referred to and maybe trading valuables of a kind acquired by violence, including slaves. Wealth is to a very large degree understood to consist of what can be seized or occupied through violence, including land, livestock and metal objects, rather than the less tangible and physically identifiable wealth of commercial life.

The value of ‘Heroic’ violence is then understandable in a world where there is very limited understanding of forms of wealth and security arising from relations of mutual advantage and respect for rules that apply to more than a small community and maybe its intimate contacts in other communities. Individual achievement and excellence is then understood in very large part as striving for excellence in war, and maybe in associated activities such as competitive sports which may suit strong aggressive warriors, and in which valuables looted in war or even originating with the gods (presumably a metaphoric poetic way of referring to the skilled workers in metal, leather, and precious stones that only the ‘Hero’ class could employ) may be awarded as prizes.

What this picture is building up is the importance of excellence and competition in the Homeric warrior society, and which continues into later stages of ancient Greek society, certainly up to the great cultural achievements and experiments with political liberty and democracy in Athens of the fifth century BCE. Of course the Homeric poetry maybe to a large degree reflects the growth of that culture of individual excellence and competition between whatever tales of Bronze Age wars are the starting point of the oral poetic tradition that leads to Homer and the writing down of the poems as we know them.

The Iliad begins with a story of extreme personal anger at an insult to honour in which the greatest Greek hero, Achilles, withdraws from the war. This is one aspect of the individualistic competitive nature of the warrior culture in Homer and while it is a classic case of uncontrolled temper which threatens social bonds, it is  also a classic case of the growth of individuality. Achilles’ rage is the product of self-awareness of individuality and demands for respect of that individuality, which Achilles directs at someone with some claim to authority over him, Agamemnon the most powerful of the many kings ruling different parts of Greece, and the leader of the Greek league against Troy.

Achilles’ rage does not easily decline and is even increased when the Trojan hero Hector kills his best friend Patroclus. Achilles shows ‘barbaric’ cruelty in not only killing Hector himself, an inevitable response in this world, but in denying Hector’s body a funeral, even throwing it in the dust to decay and be eaten by wild animals. The greatest horror of the Homeric Heroes is to suffer such indignities in death, which are also an attack on the honour and welfare of family and of the community of that dead Hero. In the end, however, Hector’s father, King Priam of Troy, is able to persuade Achilles to return Hectors body and reflect on their shared experience of mourning for loved ones.

What we have in The Iliad is a kind of brutal but real individuality, which at least elevates warriors as individuals above a mass of identical individuals in a collective killing machine. The fierce kind of individuality which leads Achilles to rage at insults to his honour and the death of his friend also shows a capacity to judge wisely in disputes as in Achilles’ way of handling the games which are part of the funeral of Patroclus, and a capacity for empathy with the extreme emotions of others. That is Achilles shows a barbaric strength of warrior individualism and a growth of understanding of impartially administered justice and empathy with the sufferings of others, including his enemies. So we see that ‘barbarian liberty’ encompasses justice within the community and respect of some kind for the individual suffering of others, basic prerequisites for the development of a society in which individual liberty can flourish.

Next week the development of heroic individualism in the character of Odysseus and in The Odyssey.

More on Liberty and Homer: Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Humboldt

As I have discussed before here, there is a way of writing about liberty in a conscious focus on political thought, which finds liberty to be emulated in some respect, going back at least to the first century Roman historian Tacitus. He was referring to the condition of the ancient Britons, within the Roman Empire, but rebelling against it, and the ancient Germans who could not be incorporated into the Empire.

The latter situation may have been at least as much for economic reasons as for the German fighting spirit, but they were certainly difficult to overcome and inflicted one of the great defeats on the Roman legions, at the height of Roman power in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 25CE.

The image of barbarian liberty in Tacitus was certainly in some part shaped by Homer given the deep impact of Greek culture on the Romans, and most relevantly in this instance through the continuation of Homer in the greatest latin epic, Aeneid, which links Rome with the Trojan prince Aeneas. As I pointed out before here, Tacitus’ idea of barbarian liberty strongly influenced Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748, a work I will be posting on in future), whose view of liberty in modern Europe, in brutal but meaningful summary, was of a combination of Roman law and Germanic individualism.

Montesquieu was of course a great part of Classical Liberalism and we can follow up his interest in barbaric liberty with reference to other classical liberals. David Hume and Adam Smith, who were writing after Montesquieu, tended to write on ‘barbarism’ and a related idea of ‘savagery’ with some anxiety regarding the possibility that such societies, or societies closer to that stage than those European nations where civil society had advanced the most, might overwhelm commercial legalistic nations with their unrestrained force.

However, some element of respect for liberty in the most simple societies does manifest itself at times, but mostly through an interest in the earliest stages of the Roman and Greek republics of antiquity, which in Montesquieu’s thinking come between the Germanic individualism and the late Roman legalism. Tacitus was thinking of the ‘virtue’ (in the sense of patriotic courage and love of law) of the early Romans when addressing the courage, rough individuality, and fierce independence of the Britons and Germans.

The most interesting way of linking back from Enlightenment liberalism of the Eighteenth century, for me at least, is via Wilhelm von Humboldt, a thinker I will address in at least one dedicated post in future. Humboldt’s major contribution to political thought, The Limits of State Action, was written in the 1790s, so another generation on from Montesquieu, just after Smith and Hume.

At this point, we might think of a movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism in European thought. While we should be very careful about such general distinctions, and amongst other things not engage in simplistic oppositions, it is appropriate to think of Humboldt as belonging to a phase of interest in the history and current meaning of aesthetics, literature, culture, and language as part of the study of political ideas.

He was in fact a major thinker about language and the infinite capacities inherent in the combinatory nature of language, which was part of his thinking about individual human capacity and the power of voluntary co-operation.

It is the interest in aesthetics, language, culture, historical existence, and the capacity of the inner human which makes him ‘Romantic’ rather than ‘Enlightened’, though again we should avoid stereotype and simple opposition here. Humboldt was very much not against Enlightenment respect for reasons, and some of these ‘Romantic’ themes are in ‘Enlightenment’ texts.

One of the earlier big classics of Enlightenment, The New Science (1725, 1744) by Giambattista Vico, is a good example and that is a book giving great importance to Homer. Vico is someone else who merits at least one dedicated post, so there will be more about him at some point. I am not aware of any evidence that Humboldt read Vico, but he certainly made an impression on German thinkers of the time.

Anyway, Humboldt was a learned classicist from a philological and literary way, which has an impact on his idea of how liberty was strengthened in antiquity, which compensated for the tendency of the ancient state to interfere in the soul, as Humboldt thinks of antique laws and institutions to promote moral and religious traditions.

What compensates for this pressure on liberty is the struggle in the lives of ancient humans, which has two main aspects. First the struggle with nature to have enough food and shelter to preserve life. Second the military struggle with rival states and communities, which was a very frequent experience in antiquity, and was an aspect of the history of the early Greek and Roman republics.

The best place to look for that in antique sources is Homer, because of the breadth of the Homeric world, as well as its poetic qualities, as well as its enormous influence on Greek and Roman culture. I had meant to address how the kind of struggle which can promote some kinds of liberty does appear in Homer, but this post is already long enough, and the best thing is to address Homer directly in the next post.

In the meantime, careful reading of any of the translations in books and post on websites, of The Iliad and The Odyssey (or indeed the original Greek for those fortunate enough to have that linguistic capacity), should I hope provide material to confirm what I’m suggesting.

What’s wrong with migrating?

This is a response to Irfan Khawaja over at the Policy of Truth blog.

I am of Jewish descent. I am not a JewI was baptized a Catholic as a baby and have no plan to convert in the foreseeable future. I am nonetheless of Jewish descent. My paternal grandfather is a rabbi and my cousins from that side of the family are Jews.

My family patriarch migrated from Germany to Mexico during the turn of the 20th century. He migrated long before the Holocaust, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was motivated to migrate to escape prosecution in Europe.

I also have slaves in my family tree. My great grand mother (Or was it great great? I forget.) was a black Cuban and my parents thought I might be born with dark skin. Blacks, for those who are keeping score at home, are not native to Cuba. Slavery in Cuba did not end till 1886. My great grandmother migrated to Mexico to escape prosecution in Cuba.

I myself migrated to the United States at the age of two. I might have been born in Mexico, but I was a libertario at birth. I loved Mexican food but that was not sufficient reason to stay in a country with such a poor conception of personal liberty. So I kissed my mother good bye, packed my bags, and crossed the border. I ended up settling down in Los Angeles, where I could have Mexican food and liberty.

What I am getting at here is that there is nothing wrong with migrating.

Had I stayed in Mexico I would likely be dead now. If a cartel member asked me to pay protection tax I would have refused and instead given him a speech on why we should legalize drugs. My town of birth, Morelia, is one of the capitals of the drug trade so you can imagine how long I would have lasted.

Had my great grandmother stayed in Cuba she would have to live with left over discrimination against slaves and their descendants. Worse still her descendants would be living in Castro’s Cuba!

My family patriarch might have survived the Holocaust if he had stayed in Europe. Or he might have been baked.

I agree with Irfan Khawaja that one should be assured of their personal safety and liberty regardless of any incidents of birth. I also agree with him that Benjamin Netanyahu, current Israeli Prime Minister, is wrong to urge European Jews to migrate to Israel. Israel is hardly a safer country for Jews than Europe.

Where I disagree is that I see nothing with migrating or urging others to migrate in pursuit of safety or liberty. There are times when one should hold strong and defend themselves. There are also times when one should realize that your neighbors are bigots and they won’t stop being bigots during your lifetime. If you can improve your quality of life by migrating, why not do so?

For any European Jews who might be reading this: forget about Israel and come to the United States! Specifically come over to my hometown, the San Fernando Valley.  The San Fernando Valley is a lovely community within Los Angeles. The original Karate Kid series, and countless other films, take place in the Valley. The film industry is actually located in the Valley, not Los Angeles itself. Best of all, the valley is filled with Jews. My undergraduate university, Cal State Northridge, has one of the largest concentration of Jews in America. Did I mention that there is plenty of Mexican food to go around?

I’ll be honest, there are some drawbacks to the valley. We are ruled over by the incompetent authorities in Los Angeles city hall and attempts to form our own city have been thwarted over the years. Real estate prices are also high. Despite this though I love the valley and welcome others to migrate there if their current home is undesirable.

Reading the Laws, Part 4

If you haven’t been following along with the series, you can find the last three entries here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

***

I recently began reading Joseph Campbell’s well known work, the Hero with a Thousand Faces, and in the section concerning the challenges of the hero, he uses the example of Theseus and the Minotaur. I instantly thought back to my first entry in this reader’s diary, for the characters of the dialogue are all on their way to the Temple of Zeus, in mimicry of the journey of King Minos, who would go there once every nine years to propitiate the sky god for his aid.

I will quote what I said initially:

“They [the three participants in the dialogue] find each other as strangers on the road to Knossos, where they are all heading to the temple of Zeus for some religious function. The Athenian suggests a discourse, befitting their age and mental alacrity, on the nature of law. Aping the pilgrimage of the mythic king Minos, who would travel every nine years to this very shrine for the purpose of receiving instruction from Zeus on the law, the other two heartily agree to the suggestion.

Plato’s first invocation, and the setting of his dialogue, readily complement each other. The first asks whether the law comes from man or from a god, while the second seemingly answers in favor of the gods, set as it is in direct apposition with Minos’ nine year journey to Zeus himself. Law, and all its attendant meanings, seems to spring from divine reason rather than human craftsmanship.”

Any serious student of literature could make that assessment, as it requires no previous knowledge about Greek culture, mythology, and history. The ability to make inferences, hopefully a faculty shared by all people, is sufficient. Coupling the plain interpretation of the passage with some concrete knowledge about the Ancient Greek cultural milieu will add further depth. I quote now from Campbell:

“…the king of the south Indian province of Quilacare, at the completion of the twelfth year of his reign, on a day of solemn festival, had a wooden scaffolding constructed, and spread over with hangings of silk. When he had ritually bathed in a tank, with great ceremonies and to the sound of music, he then came to the temple, where he did worship before the divinity. Thereafter, he mounted the scaffolding and, before the people, took some very sharp knives and began to cut off his own nose, and then his ears, and his lips, and all his members, and as much of his flesh as he was able. He threw it away and round about, until so much of his blood was spilled that he began to faint, whereupon he summarily cut his throat.

This is the sacrifice that King Minos refused when he withheld the bull from Poseidon. As Frazer has shown, ritual regicide was a general tradition in the ancient world. “In Southern India,” he writes, “the king’s reign and life terminated with the revolution of the planet Jupiter round the sun. In Greece, on the other hand, the king’s fate seems to have hung in the balance at the end of every eight years . . . Without being unduly rash we may surmise that the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens whom the Athenians were bound to send to Minos every eight years had some connexion with the renewal of the king’s power for another octennial cycle” (ibid., p. 280). The bull sacrifice required of King Minos implied that he would sacrifice himself, according to the pattern of the inherited tradition, at the close of his eight-year term. But he seems to have offered, instead, the substitute of the Athenian youths and maidens. That perhaps is how the divine Minos became the monster Minotaur…”

Whereas the king’s journey to the Temple of Zeus, in connection with the theme of Plato’s dialogue, connects kingship, divinity, and the law thematically for the reader, this passage from Campbell offers a related but different perspective: kingship is not a transmission of divine decrees into a phenomenal space, but is itself bound by a deeper law, a primordial order tied to the revolutions of the planets, and the bloody desires of the gods. Zeus did not give just give Minos the law, but also a limited time to enforce it, for it was dependent on his devotion, and eventual demise. By subverting the will of the divinity in diverting the sacrifice from its typical victim, the regent, to a novel set of seven youths, the king invites calamity: his wife copulates with the bull of Poseidon, bearing the Minotaur, which as Frazer and Campbell argue, is really the personification for the bloodlust of the king himself, effaced over time by myth.

The law cannot be deceived, and it always exacts its due, for it is not the enforcement of human decrees, but an element of the fabric of the universe. The word of Zeus is binding because Zeus is the pillar of existence and the basis of all, “the first and last, one royal body, containing fire, water, earth, and air, night and day, Metis and Eros. The sky is his head, the stars his hair, the sun and moon his eyes, the air his nous, whereby he hears and marks all things,” in the words of an Orphic hymn (quotation from A. Wayman, “The Human Body as a Microcosm,” History of Religions, Vol. 22, No. 2, (Nov., 1982), pp. 174). His words bear the weight of physical laws, which balk at defiance. If Plato had this myth in mind when he wrote the Laws, then his setting of the dialogue in such a place, at such a time, fives a different interpretation for his view of the law: law is the capricious will of the gods, which binds us with the finality of the law of gravity, the pious upholding it and prospering, the wicked flouting it and suffering, though its moral dictums are always enforced in the end, even if it is defied.

There is little to indicate that this was Plato’s intention. Though some Greeks moved into a sort of philosophical monotheism based on the preeminence of Zeus – see Stoic cosmology, for one example – belief in the entire Olympian pantheon was still widespread. If the law is the will of the gods, we must ask first, whose will? All of the gods, or just one, the father, Zeus? Surely all of them, since the poets always depicted the gods as bickering over their own spheres of influence, and with significant power endowed in each. But if all of them, how can their wills be the basis of law? For did not Poseidon support the Achaeans at Ilium, while Apollo took the side of noble Hektor? Plato went over these questions himself in his dialogue Euthyphro, which indicates to me that he would not endorse a viewpoint he ringingly denounced through his mouthpiece, Socrates, in his earlier dialogue. Furthermore, as I have pointed out earlier, it seems to vitiate the whole point of this book of the dialogue, which is to examine different systems of law and define the basis of good laws.

Despite this, there is something to go on here. As Plato’s Athenian has earlier argued, the old should be the only ones with the prerogative to discuss the laws, their bases, their validity, their use, while the young must be enjoined only to obey, lest respect for the law as an institution does not solidify in them. Edmund Burke has a similar argument in his Reflections. From page 29:

“Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits, its monumental inscriptions, its records, evidences, and titles. We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot pro- duce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.”

Burke argues for creating a civic religion around the institutions of the laws, which attains its respect from its age and pedigree, in the same way an old man garners respect by virtue of his advanced age. On my foregoing interpretation of Plato, tying the law to a far more awful and terrifying source than human judgment gives it greater security, for there is not just the fear of man’s retribution, but also god’s. Both these thinkers operate on the premise that the law does not necessarily attain respect from its goodness or its appropriateness. These are objective aspects, which can only be comprehended by an intellect habituated to high and lofty topics, and not by the vulgus, which is naturally stupid, and has no capacity for understanding such things. Better to inspire such people, always the bulk of a society, through the antiquity of the law, to awe them with its heraldry and trappings, to set them to quaking with the terrible countenance of the statue of Zeus, in the greatness of its size and the scale of its construction a visible reminder of the awesome power of the god, and of his vengeance.

From the Footnotes: Ignorance of Islam and of the Decentralization of Power

There are widespread calls for an Islamic reformation such as Christianity experienced in the sixteenth century, but the Reformation cleaved Christianity into two major traditions and many splintered sects; each grew independently of the others, eroding any hope of a Christian center that could rein in extremes. After its early division into Sunni and Shi’a, Islam has come to suffer enough from this segmentation without a modern reformation. Indeed, Islam is a democratic religion, so thoroughly decentralized that even muftis are elected. Many Muslims are interested not in further schisms but rather in reconciliation among the competing doctrines and their extremist messengers, ultimately reducing the violence carried out against each other and other civilizations. As Gilles Kepel argues, though the rise of militant Islamism has been spectacular, its hyperviolence has proved to be a liability rather than an asset. (243)

This is from Parag Khanna’s 2008 book The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. This footnote is in most respects a microcosm of the book as a whole: it’s on the cusp of providing theoretical insight into how the world works but just can’t seem to shake a certain type of dogma associated with the technocratic Left (I think he has done a better job of shaking this dogma post-2008).

This footnote is also in most respects why I’ll never be a Leftist again, even as a sleek, trade-friendly technocrat.

This footnote says to me that Khanna is arguing for a hands-off approach to Islam on the part of the West. Khanna is saying that Islam does not need a Christianity-style reformation. So far, so good. Khanna and I are in agreement. Then he goes off his rocker, though, by arguing that Christianity (and by implication European society) became a net loser because there was no Christian center to temper extremists.

What?

Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t Christian Europe have higher standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values today than anywhere else in the Old World? And isn’t Christian Europe the one place in the Old World where it is awfully hard to find Christian religious extremists? Wouldn’t you have a better argument if you stated that is was the lack of a Christian center which has been responsible for the dramatic increase in standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values in the West?

Maybe Khanna is thinking of medieval Europe, with its devastating series of religiously-inspired wars, but somehow I don’t think this is the case.

The Muslim world is decentralized culturally (like Europe) and is trying to decentralize politically (again, like Europe). The political decentralization is being hastened by trade liberalization and global economic integration. This same decentralization is being resisted by the international order (including, especially, Russia and China) due to nefarious but understandable interests of state but also to the severe lack of understanding that Western intellectuals like Khanna have of social organization. A center of cultural or political or economic power does not guarantee a waning of extremes. In fact, in some cases (in most?) such a center of power actually contributes to extremes.

Khanna was so blinded (and, again, I think he’s changed his tune post-2008) by technocratic Left-wing theory that he could not see what he was arguing: that a decentralized Christianity gave rise to Europe as we know it, therefore the West should step back so that the Muslim religion can build a monolithic consensus in order to combat “extremes.” Am I mischaracterizing Khanna’s footnote? Am I knocking down a straw man?

Khanna’s latest stuff has been much better than what I found in his 2008 book. He still doesn’t go far enough, though. He needs to undertake Brandon-style libertarianism in order to really be a bad ass: let the process of decentralization happen, but (but) recognize new states where it is smart and safe to do so (Kurdistan? The Islamic State? Baluchistan?) and then integrate them into the imperfect but important international order that the West has slowly been building for the last hundred years or so.

Khanna’s incoherence on geopolitical matters is not limited to interesting footnotes. Check out what he wrote in the introduction (again, this is from 2008):

Many believe that the emerging world order is polycentric: China will remain primarily a regional power, Japan will assert itself more nationalistically, the EU will lack influence beyond its immediate region, India will rise to rival China, Russia will resurge, and an Islamic Caliphate will congeal as a geopolitical force. (xviii)

This is basically what has happened so far, and it it largely falls in line of where I would bet my money (but not place my dreams) on future events (the Muslim world excepted; see above). Khanna has none of it though:

All these views ignore a much deeper reality: The United States, the European Union, and China already possess most of the total power in the world. (xviii)

I think this argument, if anything, reveals Khanna’s (and, by implication, the technocratic Left’s) authoritarian impulses and desires. The United States is the world’s sole hegemon, and it will be for a long, long time. The EU is a basketcase and China’s GDP (PPP) per capita stands at Intl$ 11,907 in 2013, just below the Dominican Republic, Serbia, the world average, and Iraq. Khanna’s inclusion of the EU – with the social democratic values that technocratic Leftists mistakenly believe Europe harbors – and China – an ode to both the condescending identity politics of the same technocratic Left and its fixation with centrally-planned but privately-run enterprises (“corporatism”) – in the troika of world powers illustrates nicely the weaknesses of the Left.

Khanna’s dogma gets him in more trouble (still on the same introductory page):

Russia, Japan, and India cannot assert themselves globally, militarily or otherwise […] In fact, they are being gradually outmaneuvered by the United States, the EU, and China in their own regions. (xviii)

Don’t cry for Khanna. Last time I checked, he was on the board of several prominent think tanks.

Khanna’s best chapter is on the Middle East (it starts with a useful map on p. 168 and ends on p. 253). His treatment of post-Soviet Europe is laughable (“Ukraine: From Border to Bridge”) and his treatment of China (“Asia”) is overly laudable. India gets just three dismissive pages.

Would I recommend reading it?

Yyy—. Yeah, sure. I like the concept of “second world” that Khanna tries (but fails) to convey. I like the way he thinks and his post-2008 work is especially good. There are a lot of facts that aren’t really facts in the book though, and he applies those facts to theories that I think are weak at explaining how the world works. Then again, when has reading a book ever hurt you?