Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Three stages of resistance

There are three stages of resistance a new idea. So at least maintained the Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz 1807-1873). First comes denial: it is said, flat out, that it isn’t so. Second, the new idea is unacceptable because it is against religion. Finally comes the ho-hum stage. People have known about that for a long time--tell us something new. Variations of this meme have circulated ever since. Whatever the exact formulation, it is remarkable how often the pattern fits.

We are going through all three stages at once in the matter of Koran abuse at Guantanamo, as reported in Newsweek. Pickets have appeared at the Newsweek offices proclaiming that the allegations of Koran abuse are a lie (stage one). However, the Bush administration, while deploring the Newsweek piece, hasn’t confirmed this. Accordingly, we have the second contingent that says that, whatever the facts of the case, Newsweek should have remained silent. Such a revelation is against the American religion, that is, that our country has a divinely appointed right to impose our values on other nations, at the point of a gun, if necessary. For this reason the information, while possibly correct, should never have been publlished, and having been published must be disavowed (stage two). Yet others point out that there are Red Cross reports credibly documenting the abuse that go back two years. It is old news (stage three).

The Koran. Why this fuss about an old book that no rational person can understand? No one cared when the National Library in Baghdad, containing priceless manuscripts and other unique items, burned to the ground. And few cared about the looting of major treasures, documents of humanity’s oldest civilization, stolen from the Baghdad Museum. We had enough troops to preserve the Oil Ministry from harm, but not the Library and the Museum.

Other rationales for the Iraq war having perished, the fallback position is that we have a right to impose our values on the Middle East. Yet what kind of values are these that we are introducing? Whatever they are, the military is unsuited to impose them. If we were serious about values we would have sent a team of scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, to Iraq to guide the development. Of course, we are not interested in building civilization--only in creating a government in that country that is beholden to US interests.

It has been my preference to reject the arguments of the negativists, who say (as many said after 9/11) that America is rotten to the core. Not only is the United States my country, but it is, on balance, far more a repository of good than bad. Others decry European civilization or echo Susan Sontag’s hyperbole (later disavowed) the white race is the cancer of human history. These views manifest self-contempt. I have also doubted the claims of the "declinists" that the recession of the American Empire is inevitable.

Now I am not so sure about what will happen. And there is a more disturbing question. As things are going, do we in fact deserve to prevail?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Consequences of illegal immigration

You don’t read much about the matter in the New York Times, but it appears that our Southern border is becoming more porous than ever. It is hard to know whether this disturbing situation reflects understaffing of INS enforcement personnel or covert orders to look the other way.

This flood of illegal immigration flourishes because of a bizarre triadic alliance. First, the Mexican government fosters the immigration because it provides a social safety net and a major source of income owing to the remittances sent back by the "undocumented" Mexicans in the United States. In our own country the Left favors looking the other way because it sees a need for more brown people to consolidate our "diversity" and to blunt the Anglo-Saxon foundational ethos, which it sees as increasingly out-of-step with the non-white world. The last of the three pillars of support is the most cynical. Business interests favor the illegal immigration so as to have a vast supply of cheap labor. It is presumably in aid of this group that President Bush, commenting on the activities of the Minutemen, spoke of "vigilantism." If Bush had been enforcing the law, the Minutemen would not be needed.

It is said that if another 9/11 occurs, brought about by terrorists who have come over the border, Bush’s reputation will suffer a fatal blow. I don’t know if that is a serious danger or not. What I do believe is that the policy implications of changing the country’s demography in this way need to be debated. We must not simply passively surrender to the three forces that are driving the permissiveness on our Southern border.

Two perspectives, diametrically opposed, confront one another. First, it is said that the current wave of Hispanic/Latino immigration, massive as it is, will lead to the same result as virtually every other ethnic group that has come to our shores: assimilation, with the English language as the primary medium of communication. In the past, of course, naturists have sounded the alarm, viz. that "too many" Germans, Irish, Eastern Europeans (or whomever) were threatening our national foundations. This is the hyphenated American bugaboo stirred up by Theodore Roosevelt and others a century ago.

The other perspective is a harder sell. This view asserts that Hispanic/Latin immigration, especially from Mexico, is sui generis. This will lead to a kind of binational situation, something already presaged, it would seem, by bilingualism. Samuel P. Huntington has espoused this view in his 2004 book “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.” Huntington cites a number of factors for his sui generis claim (see esp. p. 222ff). 1) Contiguity. The Mexican Americans go back and forth across our southern border, unlike, say immigrants from Hungary or Greece, who once they got here tended to stay put (unless, as some did, they went back for good.) 2) Numbers. The absolute and relative numbers of the new Mexican arrivals completely dwarf any previous immigration phenomenon, even those of the Irish and Germans in the 19th century. 3) Illegality. Not only is the illegal status difficult for the “undocumented,” it is tended to erode respect for our legal system as a whole. 4) Regional concentration. This is particularly true with the Mexicans and Meso-Americans in the Southwest. 5) Persistence. Given Mexico’s apparently insoluble economic problems, there is no likelihood that the flood of immigrations will slacken off, at least not in the foreseeable future. 6) Historical presence. History, and what is presumed to be history fuel irredentist sentiment. Some Chicano activists claim to be taking back the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, Aztlán. More realistically, our Southwest was first Spanish and then Mexican (until 1848). In California Chicano activists speak openly of "Reconquista." Here there is a discrepancy that has gone largely unexamined. If it was acceptable for the Spaniards to conquer and rule the Southwest in their day, why shouldn’t the Anglos do it later?

All this is taking place in an atmosphere of doubt about our national foundations. In some cases it is accompanied (as seen in the field of education) by critiques of our European (largely British heritage) as the source of racism, intolerance and other ills. The only remedy is to balance the baleful heritage of the "ice people" with more "sun people," the more the better. All this is part of what we commonly term multiculturalism.

Yet there is a contradiction here. Multiculturalists tell us not to worry, the Hispanic/Latino groups will be assimilated like all the rest. Yet if they are so assimilated, where is the dividend of "diversity"? So it looks as if multiculturalism has a stake in r e t a r d i n g the progress of assimilation.

I speak fairly good Spanish, and am the proud possessor of some 1000 Spanish-language classics (from the Cantar del Mio Cid to Borges), which I dip into from time to time. I have just finished my Don Quijote project (though it almost finished me). Nonetheless, I support the goals of the US English movement. As the recent history of Belgium and Canada shows, bilingualism means disaster. It should be avoided if possible—and we can avoid it in this country.

As the illegal immigration continues to surge, there may be unexpected consequences for segments of our society. Gay people are a possible instance. My understanding is the variety of Catholicism brought by the Hispanic immigrants is less tolerant of homosexuality than that of our Italian and Irish Catholics. In any event, masses of Hispanics are going over to evangelicalism, and this spells trouble for us. One of the "ice-people" values they are likely to resist is tolerance for sexual minorities.

In this way we will reach a softer version of the situation found in Western Europe, where bands of young Muslims attack gay people, almost at will, while the mullahs call for restoration of the ban on homosexuality. Behind such behavior lies a tragic consequence of multiculturalism, which encourages the immigrant groups to resist assimilation, tacitly supporting their effort to transform the societies in which they have settled.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

National Association of Scholars

Some twenty years ago, as a college professor concerned with declining academic standards, I became interested in the work of the National Association of Scholars (NAS). In due course I joined the executive committee of the local chapter, based in our City University of New York. Three years ago I dropped out. In the latter part of this posting I will seek to explain why.

The following are some of the main NAS concerns: decline of academic standards; politicization of scholarship and teaching, together with substitution of social reform for the pursuit of knowledge; use of sexual, racial, and other criteria unrelated to merit in hiring, in promotion, and in student recruitment; denigration of great literature and art; hostility to Western civilization; faddish curriculum innovations which tend to supplant scholarly methods and criteria of proven efficacy.

NAS has had to endure the slander of being a neocon or even Far Right plot. In fact it is not a monolithic organization. Many of the members are centrist Democrats. The NAS journal even published an article of mine on the state of gay studies in the academy.

In many articles, studies, and public statements the NAS folks have eloquently made their case. Yet a sense of redundancy has crept in. This is especially discouraging, as progress towards the achievement of NAS goals is so glacially slow. The multiculturalist faction in academia has had many years to consolidate its gains. And they enjoy at least the passive support of most of our faculties. College professors, never particularly courageous, flee at any allegation of "racism," just as fifty years ago they were terrified of being called "communist." The fact that most have been neither doesn’t seem to matter.

It is generally good policy to reexamine one’s conclusions from time to time. That is especially so with NAS, which has been right on so many issues.

On Sunday May 14 I went to an local NAS forum on schools of education. The gathering was held in a gorgeous apartment on the 26th floor of a building near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan with a wonderful view of the harbor. Sadly, this venue may symbolize the predicament of NAS—it has a lofty and cogent view, but is too far away to affect events. However that may be, about twenty-five people attended the gathering, most of them older, in their fifties and sixties.

The speakers, four of them, were in top form. All were eloquent, incisively on point, and the discussion afterwards was lively. I learned a few things that were new, such as the current vogue for "constructivism." This is the view that children construct their own knowledge. If a child concludes that two and two make five—well, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. It’s the process that matters. And any criticism would damage the child’s self-esteem. There were some telling new anecdotes. And yet, as one speaker acknowledged, the presentations amounted to preaching to the choir.

Eventually the discussion shifted to the perennial topic of the need to study literature. I am very sympathetic to this precept. However, there is some disturbing evidence that for some students at least, popular culture may provide a more effective instrument for stimulating mental powers, than say, Victorian novels. My own view is that such novels belong to an earlier era, when families were confined indoors during the long winters with little else to do. I just can’t see any justification nowadays for spending many hours reading Anthony Trollope. Wait for the Masterpiece Theater version.

As far as I could detect the NASers attempted no discussion of the Internet, and of the fact that most students nowadays, and many professors too, get their information by “Googling it.” This shortcut, eliminating a trip to the library, involves real prospects of loss. Yet it is probably inevitable. Without entering a new dark age, we will probably have to forget about some of the arcana that lie locked in old files of academic periodicals. In all too many instances only thirty or forty people actually read these items of "fundamental research." Albert Einstein aptly termed this type of production "ink-shitting."

For better or worse, several uses of the Internet impinge on academia. I am told that when a candidate comes up for an entry-level academic appointment, the liberal enforcers troll the blogosphere. Should they find that the candidate has uttered anything remotely conservative or non-PC, the appointment is nixed. It used to be said, "don’t leave a paper trail." Nowadays an electronic one can get you into more trouble, and much quicker.

Of course, all this enforcement of orthodoxy, often conducted behind closed doors, is just not right. But tell that to those who are happily practicing it.

Even apart from all that, it seems that the opponents of reform are so entrenched in the schools of education that matters are likely to get worse, rather than better. Only one speaker at the NAS symposium suggested a way out: substitution of exams for teacher training. That sounds good, but the approach is unlikely to gain much traction.

Parents might be expected to rise up, but as a rule they are complacent. After all Jane and Johnny are getting A’s and B’s, so all must be well.

My own feeling is that only a drastic economic downturn in this country (a catastrophe some experts insist is inevitable) will suffice to curtail these monstrous programs of indoctrination. What a harsh remedy!

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Tourettes and Bush

As a supporter of limited government, I am deeply disturbed by the economic profligacy of George W. Bush and the Republican Congress. It is correctly pointed out that in the interests of "letting the good times roll," we are loading the expenses onto the next generation despite a disastrous and seemingly unending war in Iraq. Yet people seem to be saying: "Party on!"

Rational analysis of this ominous situation doesn't seem to be working. Instead, some people are tempted to resort to a kind of Tourettes response. Bush is called everything from a "liar" (as if all politicians did not lie) to an ***hole. The latter is a word of uncertain metaphorical significance that is not as negative as it might seem. After all, without anuses, how could we continue to live? Well, there is the possibility of a coleostomy. Enough of that.

Many other illustations of Bush Tourettes could be cited. At all events, this kind of name calling leads nowhere. It is not even preaching to the choir, because the expletives turn off many, like myself, who are very worried about the current profligacy.

So reason doesn't work; invective doesn't work. What will? Can there be a new sort of emotional appeal? For a while, it seemed that John Edwards was onto something with his gentler, kinder version of the class war. But that faded. Is there something else that can be tried?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

History's stories

For centuries humanists and scholars have mourned a catastrophe--the Fall of the Roman Empire. This event (really a series of events) presupposes an grand and inspiring drama: the rise of classical civilization, its peaks of achievement (the last being apparently the “Good Emperors” of the second century CE), and then its decline and fall. Can our understanding of the symptoms be generalized? And if so, are we destined to repeat that tragic Fall?

During the 1970s a group of "declinist" historians, headed by Professor Paul Kennedy of Yale University, maintained that the United States had already entered on the downward slope. The economic revival of the Reagan years and especially the siliconized nineties put this conclusion into doubt. Now, though, in the early years of the new millennium, it does not seem so far fetched.

At all events, such patterns are doubly interesting. First, detecting them yields a sense of organizing historical knowledge, which had otherwise been disorderly, episodic, and almost chaotic. Secondly, pondering such patterns allows one to make at least a moderate stab at futurology. What is in store in the immediate future? How do we prepare for what is coming? Are there ways in which we could influence change—if not the actual change, at least its rate and severity of effects?

Speaking very broadly, historical templates are of two types. 1) linear; and 2) cyclical or alternating. Let us look at the linear patterns first. Linear templates of historical development rely on the detection of a plot line: each society has a beginning, middle, and an end. The idea that classical civilization had a life cycle, ending in the fall of the Roman Empire was one such notion.

For a long time the classical sequence was considered the sole example. However in 1859 the Russian scientist Nikolai Yakovlevich Danilevsky developed this archetype into a typology. Danilevski identified ten specimens: Egyptian; Chinese; Assyrian-Babylonian-Phoenician; Indian; Iranian; Hebraic; Greek; Roman; "neo-Semitic" (i.e. Islamic); and European. During the twentieth century this model reemerged in the better-known works of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee.

Such schemes are pessimistic, for no matter what heights each civilization may achieve at its peak, the canker infests the rose. Each great civilization is foredoomed to wither and die.

By contrast, other schemes are optimistic. The Christian Heilsgeschichte, or salvation history, consists of six ages (based on the six days of Creation), culminating in the Restoration of All Things. It is true that the concluding portion of the sixth age, the Apocalyptic one, will be violent, but in the end, when Christ establishes his eternal rule, all will be well.

Marxism is sometimes regarded as a secular version of Christianity, though this is something of an exaggeration. Still, this ideology also favors a teleological scheme with a happy end: slave-owning society yields to feudalism. Then we have capitalism, followed by socialism, leading to the Earthly Paradise of Communism itself.

Linear patterns often see civilization in terms of a biological organism. Societies are born, enjoy their youthful period of exuberance, then their peak, followed by senescence and death. On occasion, the interpreter employs the metaphor of the seasons. Thus the historian Johan Huizinga entitled the original Dutch version of his classic study of the late Middle Ages the A u t u m n of the Middle Ages.

Sometimes the idea of progress is invoked, so that there may be no inevitable decline. Kondratieff waves (after the Russian scholar Nikolai Dmitrievich Kondratieff, 1892-1938) address the major technological changes of modern times (the start of the industrial revolution with the steam engine; the era of steel and the railway; electrotechnology; the ear of petroleum and the automobile; and finally the cybernetic or information era.) Intense phases and slack intervals characterize each wave, which lasts about sixty years.

The cyclical pattern presupposes the recurrence of phenomena, possibly in an unending sequence. Historians of American religion have posited a series of Great Awakenings, periods of religious fervor, separated by periods of lethargy. According to one account there have been four such peaks of religious enthusiasm (1730-40s; 1820s-30s; 1880s-1900s; and 1960s-70s). A fifth such awakening may be under way.

Alternating schemes have enjoyed favor in the realm of cultural history. There is the idea of classic-romantic handovers. The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin formulated a similar idea in his linear-painterly contrast—two ways of seeing, which alternate in there dominance.

The secular version of the triadic sequence reflects the paradigm of the fall of the Roman Empire, adding the dark ages after, and then a new upswing, the Renaissance, ushering in modern times. One is reminded of a sonata-form sequence: allegro, largo maestoso, allegro. Recently, the gay historian Louis Crompton has adapted this in his survey of homosexuality, which sees a gay-friendly era in classical times, then a long era of repression, followed by renewed tolerance in the Enlightenment (Homosexuality and Civilization, Harvard University Press, 2003). Such schemes do not always sag in the middle in a kind of reverse bell curve. Some art historians, for example, have detected recurring sequences of the archaic, the classic, and the baroque modes. In these, the high point is arguably the middle (the classic).

Because of the influence of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, threes have had particular appeal for Christian historical thinkers. Some patristic writers liked to see human history as comprising three phases: ante legem or before the law (Old Testament history prior to the appearance of Judaic law), sub lege or under the law (later Old Testament history), and sub gratia or under grace (the Christian era.

This theory posits that we are living in the last age, perhaps in its senescence. The world will end soon. By contrast, about 1200 CE the Calabrian monk Joachim of Flora developed an open ended scheme: the era of the Father (up to the Incarnation), the era of the Son (to the present and beyond), and the era of the Holy Spirit, which is to come. Joachim’s template, which has been recurrently influential, embodies a prophetic element. In this light we must expect the coming of the Third Realm, though no one knows precisely when it will come. (Some followers of Joachim thought that it had come in 1260, but this spoils the element of expectation.)

Then there is an approach with much shorter time snippets, the detection of generations. This approach strikes me as somewhat problematic, because births spread themselves pretty much at random, though some decades are more prolific than others. Take the currently popular term "Generation X." Some say that this cohort embraces everyone born in the US between 1961 and 1981 (amounting to 78-85 million). Others restrict the bracket to 1965-76 (46 million). That is quite a difference.

Generations are sometimes marked by significant events. In Spain the Generation of 1898 was marked by the defeat in the Spanish-American war. The coming of World War I left its impression on the Generation of 1914. The "Lost Generation" emerged in the wake of that conflict.

Generations are the starting point for the currently popular theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe, developed in several books and public presentations. They began with an enumeration of generations, so the Thirteenth Generation (equivalent to Generation X) is part of a sequence starting with the American Revolution. Then they developed an overarching periodization, with units of approximately 80 to 100 years. Each of these large units is internally divided into four "turnings": high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis. In the current cycle we are about to enter the last phase, hence the catch-phrase the Fourth Turning. Such schemes owe a large part of their appeal to the idea that we are caught up in a particular historical drama. Using this knowledge we can understand ourselves better, and perhaps be more effective actors.

Some see no need to plot out the whole thing. The key point is to detect a turning point, which has either just happened, is happening, or will happen soon. According the theosophist H. P. Blavatsky (1831-1891), who was influenced by Joachimite thinking, the New Age was scheduled to start in the 21st century. The term "Age of Aquarius" seems to have been introduced by the British astrological expert Rupert Gleadow in 1940; he thought that it was yet to come. Yet in 1961 the novelist J.B. Priestly opined that the shift from the “fishy”Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius had already begun. This was prescient, as the decade closed with the popular musical "Hair," producing the anthem "It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius."

This somewhat bewildering recitation of historical templates is a mere tip of the iceberg. For a fuller, though by no means complete account see monograph of Johan Hendrik Jocob van der Pot, Sinndeutung und Periodisierung der Geschichte (Brill, 1999). Aptly enough, this tome has a millennial dimension: it is 1001 pages long!

The genre shows a continuing vitality. Yet what does this vitality signify? Perhaps two contradictory things. On the one hand, there is the basic human desire to know, and in this case to acquire everyday insight, so that we may, up to a point at least, affect our own destiny. On the other hand, there is the sweet resignation of fatalism. We are under the control of "vast historical forces." So be it. Let us go with the flow.

It is the dawning of the age of . . . well, who knows? But the fascination of the quest abides.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Vietnam after thirty years

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of our final withdrawal from Vietnam. I did not serve there, only witnessing the turmoil that took place stateside. As a college professor I found myself in the thick of the protest movement. Afterwards I thought about the war as little as possible, feeling a need to move on. Two years ago, though, I visited Hanoi and Saigon, on my way to and from Cambodia.

There are similarities and differences between the Vietnam effort and that in Iraq. In neither case was a genuine national interest—a casus belli--evident, at least in the judgment of many informed observers. In both countries, Iraq and Vietnam, the borders are porous, allowing for continuing infiltration of men and materiel. However, the Iraqi insurgents do not seem as well organized as the Communists in Vietnam, and the Islamist support offered outside is less solid than the support of the USSR and mainland China had been.

We hear some of the same rationalizations. We are told that if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll fight them over here. This despite the fact that no connection has been shown between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein’s regime. While the phrase "light at the end of the tunnel" rarely appears, the meme is alive and well with regard to Iraq. "Surely, the insurgency has peaked and were on the road to stability and democracy," etc., etc. Worst of all is the assertion, found for example in a column by Jonah Goldberg, that every once and a while we must smite a small country to show who’s boss.

I was against the war while it went on. Having examined some revisionist accounts seeking to justify it, I very much doubt if the war could have been won. (See, for example "The War We Could Have Won" by Stephen J. Morris in the NY Times, May 1) Still, in a way that is disturbing, the antiwar perspective has framed the historiography of the matter, as I will seek to explain.

There have been countless books and studies about the agony of Vietnam. Most of them concentrated on the period when we were there, from 1960 to 1975. About the suffering of the Vietnamese people afterwards there is mostly silence. In the US the left led us to believe that after we got out and the country was unified, a wonderful period of peace and prosperity would ensue. After all, isn’t that what Communism is dedicated to, the welfare of the people?

To be sure we did learn something about the ethnic cleansing of the Chinese, many of whom were forced to flee in boats. Some information came out about the horrors of the reeducation camps. But the grinding day-to-day reality of the Vietnamese people was not portrayed. There were no glowing accounts of the wonders of the New Vietnam—because for twenty-five years there were no such wonders.

There has been, then, with regard to the total picture of modern Vietnam an appalling degree of bad faith. This in turn is connected with the differential treatment of fascism as against Marxism. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest killed far more people than the fascists, but somehow our mainstream opinion, not just that on the left, seeks to draw a veil over crimes done in the name of Communism. Communists were "idealists" and "internationalists." It is somehow not relevant that they brought unparalleled misery to the vast numbers of human beings unlucky enough to be under their control.

At last things are better now in Vietnam, as a result of following the Chinese path to individual initiative and entrepreneurship—engines of progress that had been so long suppressed, creating an endless and unnecessary cycle of misery. Without the Chinese example next door, the misery that stemmed from a false ideology would still prevail. We know that it is false, because nowadays the Chinese and Vietnamese profess one set of beliefs and act on another.

Now that matters have improved, it seems that the Vietnamese do not want to inquire too closely into what happened during that dark quarter of a century. Given the tight hold of the regime, it is probably not healthy to do so. Indeed, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai recommends that all sides "close the past, look to the future."

Closure has still not been achieved over here. We Americans are told, ceaselessly, that we lost the war. Actually we did not. From the vantage point of Saigon it looks very much as if we won it. The French influence is mostly gone. Saigon is a kind of blend of Las Vegas and Houston. American free enterprise rules. Personally Americans are popular in Vietnam today.

At last Vietnam is in a position to begin to take its place in the world of prosperous nations. All that is due to capitalism—a system we were told must be extirpated from the country. It seems that correct economic and management principles are finally taking hold—-but what a long, horrible detour was needed for that result to take place.