Sunday, August 28, 2011

The new Falwellism

I am currently seeking to draw together some threads that have concerned me for some time. A couple of years ago, when I criticized homophobic elements in Islam (which are surely there), I was taken to task by some gay men residing in the Netherlands. In their view, oe must never criticize Muslims; that is Islamophobia.

Now, as I am coming to understand, this politically correct point of view has crystallized in the campaign against "homonationalism." The chief proponent of this view is a British Rutgers professor of South Asian origin, Jasbir Puar. Her views were recently echoed in a Berlin address by that high priest of postmodern obscurantism, Judith Butler. Earlier this year, an Amsterdam conference on the subject dissolved in acrimony.

With much effort, we have at last put the forces of homophobia into retreat in Western nations. But we are not supposed to advocate similar progress in the Third World: these people are simply different and we mustn't seek to impose our parochial Western norms on them. For their part, women and gays are perfectly content with their abject status in those countries. Therefore, let us not interfere; in fact, let us don sackcloth and ashes to atone for our hubristic efforts to interfere.

As we have had reason to understand in many countries, from China to Libya, human rights is not just a parochial Western value. It is something that all peoples seek to achieve. Let us not be cowed by these new apostles of Falwellism, who allege that homophobia is fine and dandy, as long as it is practiced by people of color.


Buddhism lite

As an undergraduate majoring in art history, I felt a strong attraction to some Buddhist art, especially Chinese sculptures which conveyed an ethereal beauty and calm. Painted mandalas also appealed to me as mind maps.

In those days I read a few Buddhist scriptures in order to get some background for these aesthetic perceptions. I also fell into the Zen fad for a time. Only with my retirement did I begin to think seriously about becoming a Buddhist, and I read more deeply. At the end of the day, though, I found that I was not really ready for the renunciation that a true commitment would call for.

I have always suspected that many Western converts to the faith were only committed to a kind of “Buddhism lite” that did not call for any serious reformation of conduct, merely providing a gloss of confirmation for life patterns already adopted.

Now a new book seems to confirm this intuition. If is :The Bodhisattva's Brain" by Owen Flanagan.

Here is part of the book’s blurb: “If we are material beings living in a material world--and all the scientific evidence suggests that we are--then we must find existential meaning, if there is such a thing, in this physical world. We must cast our lot with the natural rather than the supernatural. Many Westerners with spiritual (but not religious) inclinations are attracted to Buddhism--almost as a kind of moral-mental hygiene. But, as Owen Flanagan points out . . . Buddhism is hardly naturalistic. Atheistic when it comes to a creator god, Buddhism is otherwise opulently polytheistic, with spirits, protector deities, ghosts, and evil spirits. Its beliefs include karma, rebirth, nirvana, and nonphysical states of mind. What is a nonreligious, materially grounded spiritual seeker to do? In The Bodhisattva's Brain, Flanagan argues that it is possible to subtract the "hocus pocus" from Buddhism and discover a rich, empirically responsible philosophy that could point us to one path of human flourishing. "Buddhism naturalized," as Flanagan constructs it, contains a metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics; it is a fully naturalistic and comprehensive philosophy, compatible with the rest of knowledge.”

I like the expression “opulently polytheistic,” which seems apt for Mahayana Buddhism, where such exuberance has long fostered the production splendid works of art. The caves at Dun Huang in Western China are just brimming over with examples. However, the idea of “subtracting the hocus pocus” seems banal and anticlimactic. After all, such lite versions of Judaism and Christianity have long been on offer; most of us find them unappealing. If science and secular philosophy provide the answers, why do we need the supposed confirmation of an emasculated theology to back them up?

Sam Harris, an atheist writer who has dabbled in Buddhism, holds that it can enrich the study of the human mind. However, Flanagan seems skeptical about this claim. Others who admire the book include the Christian religious thinker Alastair MacIntire, who maintains that this approach can throw light on “human flourishing,” and Patricia Churchland, a professor of philosophy who specializes in the study of the brain.

AS I pointed out in Abrahmicalia, one of the problems with the current attack on religion is that it is mainly restricted to the Abrahamic triad. Is Buddhism a viable alternative? Maybe, but not in this ghostly, etiolated form.


Saturday, August 27, 2011


The bogeyman is a monstrous imaginary figure parents and other care givers evoke in order to threaten children. The figure is archetypal, and takes various forms in the different cultures. In a famous print Goya depicted him as el Coco. Once, when I liviing in Rome, the distinguished archaeologist Massimo Pallottino told me that his mother had threatened him with a visitation from La Donna Olimpia, a formidable lady who actually lived in the seventeenth century.

The expression can also be used in an extended sense. During the 1990s, when direct mail solicitations had not yet been overtaken by the Internet, I would receive urgent funding appeals by our two major parties. The meme was always the same: you don’t want THAT/THOSE people to get in do you? Since we know you don’t, you better send us heap big wampum, pronto. As I recall, the Republican solicitations would often feature Reps. John Conyers (once a “card-carrying” Communist--gasp!) and Charley Rangel. Since Rangel, my own congressman, had once been very helpful to me when I ran into a problem with my telephone service, I wasn’t going for that one. Democrats would hammer away at the likes of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove.

Now we have a new form of this ploy in the denunciation of the leading Republican candidates. Admittedly most are dismal, to say the least. Bachmann is weird, and Rick Perry can’t seem to establish a stable connection between his brain and his larynx. Santorum is still troubled by the obscene meaning that Dan Savage gave his name. And Ron Paul is ignored as much as possible, by both sides--probably because he is the only antiwar candidate.

The problem with all this scolding is that it provides an easy our for Obama in relation to his leftist critics. He is counting on the prospect that they will hold their nose and vote for him, so that one of THOSE doesn’t get in. This means that Obama can swing as far to the right as he wants to--and sometimes it seems pretty far. Harping on the Republican bogeymen makes this strategy possible, and so--from the point of view of progressive politics--is counterproductive.


The con of Irene

It is raining here in Gotham City, forerunner of Irene. It is just noon, which means that the NYC transit system, both trains and buses, is shutting down, the first time that this has happened.

Having been through somewhat similar events, I predict that by the time Irene reaches our city it will not amount to much more than a summer storm.

Why then these extraordinary measures? My suspicion is that they are a dress rehearsal for some big disaster that may be looming--possibly on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. At all events, what appears to be a serious overreaction has served further to reduce my confidence in those who govern us. As that confidence is (I thought) almost infinitessimally minute, I wouldn't have thought that it could have diminished much further. But that is what has happened.

At any rate, I have plenty of food, water, and duct tape at hand. Having settled in for the weekend, I should be able to make great strides in my current project of reading all the works of Giordano Bruno in the original Latin and Italian.

The title of this posting, btw, reflects an old porno classic of the 1920s, Le con d'Irene, attributed to Louis Aragon.

UPDATE. As of 9 AM this morning (Sunday), Irene has been downgraded to the status of a tropical storm. There has been a bit of flooding in lower Manhattan, and significant damage elsewhere-but no more than with other such storms. Once again, I ask: why the hype?

SECOND UPDATE (Sunday afternoon).

This is by Tony Harnden, as published in The Telegraph:


For the television reporter, clad in his red cagoule emblazoned with the CNN logo, it was a dramatic on-air moment, broadcasting live from Long Island, New York during a hurricane that also threatened Manhattan.

“We are in, right, now…the right eye wall, no doubt about that…there you see the surf,” he said breathlessly. “That tells a story right there.”

Stumbling and apparently buffeted by ferocious gusts, he took shelter next to a building. “This is our protection from the wind,” he explained. “It’s been truly remarkable to watch the power of the ocean here.”

The surf may have told a story but so too did the sight behind the reporter of people chatting and ambling along the sea front and just goofing around. There was a man in a t-shirt, a woman waving her arms and then walking backwards. Then someone on a bicycle glided past.

Across the screen, the “Breaking News: Irene Batters Long Island” caption was replaced by stern advice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): “Stay inside, stay safe.”

The images summed up Hurricane Irene – the media and the United States federal government trying to live up to their own doom-laden warnings and predictions while a sizeable number of ordinary Americans just carried on as normal and even made gentle fun of all the fuss.

There was almost palpable disappointment among the TV big guns rolled out for the occasion when Irene was downgraded to a mere ‘tropical storm”. In New York city, CNN’s silver-haired Anderson Cooper, more usually seen in a tight t-shirt in a famine or war zone, was clad in what one wag dubbed “disaster casual”.

He looked crestfallen fell briefly silent when a weatherwoman told him that the rain was not going to get any worse. “Wow, because this isn’t so bad,” he said. “It’s an annoying rain but it isn’t even a sideways rain.”

Then came the press conferences from the politicians, with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey that his evacuation of the Jersey Shore was “a pre-emptive measure that I am confident saved lives” and there could still be damage worth “tens of billions” of dollars.

Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security chief, declared that there was ” a ways to go with Irene” but “with the evacuations and other precautions taken we have dramatically decreased the risk to life”. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York seemed thoroughly delighted with himself, as if he personally had calmed the waters and stifled the winds.

The truth is that the dire warning beforehand suited both politicians and journalists. Just as with the minor earthquake that shook the east coast last week causing no loss of life and virtually no damage, Irene became a huge story because it was where the media lived.

For politicians, Irene was a chance to either make amends or appear in control. The White House sent out 25 Irene emails to the press on Saturday alone.

There were photographs of President Barack Obama touring disaster centres and footage of him asking sombre, pertinent questions. With his poll ratings plummeting, Obama needed to project an aura of seriousness and command. He was all too aware that the political fortunes of his predecessor George W. Bush never recovered after the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005.

The press mostly reported the message the White House had carefully crafted: “Obama takes charge” read the headline of one wire service story.

At the state level, Irene was a chance for political redemption. Christie had been lambasted around the start of the year for taking a holiday during one of the worst snow storms in New Jersey history.

Bloomberg, who ordered a mandatory evacuation of residents in low-lying areas during Irene that thousands ignored, had been widely criticised for inadequate clean-up plans during the same blizzards.

There was some loss of life during Irene, though significantly less than during dozens of other weather events across the US this year.

Preparation for the worst-case scenario makes sense and could have saved hundreds during Katrina. But the worst-case scenario was largely portrayed as inevitable. Some of the footage of television reporters putting themselves in the most extreme position possible just to get the best “stand-up” live shot was beyond parody.

First prize went to Tucker Barnes, a reporter for Fox 5, who went live from Ocean City, Maryland amid a strange, brown foamy substance. He reported that it “didn’t taste great” and had a “sandy consistency”. Apparently, it was raw sewage:

As Howard Kurtz notes, The media and politicians enjoy a symbiotic relationship during possible impending disasters. The resultant perfect storm of hype over Irene runs the risk of making Americans even more like to ignore warnings in the future.

By lunchtime on Sunday, the sun was peeking through over New York. The TV anchors were expressing their relief at the good news that the east coast had “dodged a bullet” and Irene had not been the apocalypse they had predicted.

Perhaps it would be a bit too much to hope that they and certain politicians felt a little sheepish too.


I especially love the point about the "strange brown substance." A cocktail of that should be served up to all who participated in this big farce.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wilsonianism resurgent

The presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) was not particularly successful. Nonetheless, it has left an enduring legacy that I find insidious,

Wilsonianism (sometimes honorifically termed “Wilsonian idealism”) holds that the internal political policy of a state should also find expression in its foreign policy. If one favors vigorous intervention in domestic affairs, as Wilsonian liberals generally do, then the same principle applies abroad: state building at home and abroad.

Those adhering to this trend are usually characterized by their belief in progress. In this light, they held that the system of international relations that had given rise to World War I could be reformed: it was capable of being reshaped into a more peaceful and just world order. This transformation would involve the awakening of democracy, a term often brandished, with little justification, in this discourse. At one time much hope was placed in the League of Nations, a hope transferred for a time to the United Nations. Now that the prestige of the latter body has dimmed, the hopes have been transferred to an amorphous entity known as the “world community.” For its own good, of course, that community must be managed by the United States. In fact, Wilsonians often embrace the ideal of American exceptionalism.

Stripped of the “idealist” rhetoric, this current of foreign-policy thought yields the imperative that the United States must be the world’s policeman. In taking us into Iraq, the neo-Conservatives displayed a muscular version of Wilsonianism. However, there is another version that relies more on soft-power, including diplomacy, arm twisting, and foreign aid. This version has long flourished within the ambit of the Democratic Party. In this way those who are skeptical of Wilsonianism are confronted with a kind of Tweedledum-Tweedledee problem: do we want the hard or the soft version? No other is on offer.

The disastrous adventure in Iraq should have produced a fundamental challenge to the Wilsonian project. However, just as in the case of the Vietnam catastrophe, the discomfort is proving to be only temporary. The marvelous sway of “idealism” is reasserting itself.

This point is brought out by the reaction of politicians and pundits to the Libya affair. To be sure, the neo-cons are not happy. According to the hawkish Senators McCain and Graham, Obama’s approach was too timid: "[We] regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our air power."

That aggressive approach reflects the old (Iraq) model. Yet our latter-day Wilsonians--those of the liberal stripe--take a different tack, among them Fareed Zakaria: “[T]he Libya intervention is so significant precisely because it did not follow the traditional pattern of U.S.-led interventions. Indeed, it launched a new era in U.S. foreign policy." That is a frightening prospect. In other words, as long as we can whomp up some indigenous rebellion and get some other foreign powers to take the (apparent) lead, even as we egg them on and provide the cash, then the US is set to pursue world domination for the foreseeable future. See Zakaria’s opinion piece in this week’s Time Magazine.

Michael O’Hanlon holds a similar view:  "Obama can point to Libya now as a signature example of how to lead multilaterally [sic], encourage others to do more and avoid the Hobson's choice of doing everything ourselves or retreating into defeatism or isolationism."

As the saying goes, a little bit of sugar makes the pill go down. Yet this is a pill we should not be taking.

UPDATE (Aug. 27, 2011). There is more evidence of the prevalence of this troubling analysis. I quote from Josh Rogin in


This week's toppling of the Qaddafi regime in Libya shows that the Obama administration's multilateral and light-footprint approach to regime change is more effective than the troop-heavy occupation-style approach used by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, a top White House official told Foreign Policy today in a wide-ranging interview.

"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with Foreign Policy. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."

Despite criticism from Congress and elsewhere, President Barack Obama's strategy for the military intervention in Libya will not only result in a better outcome in Libya but also will form the basis of Obama's preferred model for any future military interventions, Rhodes said.

"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the Libya intervention] that have borne out in our approach. The first is that we believe that it's far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers," said Rhodes. "Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions."

Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Twenty-Three Enigma

In my investigations here and elsewhere I have sometimes addressed special numbers, such as the Biblical 40 and 666.

A more mysterious number is 23. As far as I can tell, this preoccupation stems mainly from the eccentric Berlin physician Wilhelm Fliess (1858-1928), who for a time exercised an important influence on Sigmund Freud.

Fliess developed several idiosyncratic theories, such as reflex nasal neuroses, postulating a connection between the nose and the genitals. This is in fact an older idea, as illustrated in the folk belief that one can determine the size of man’s penis by checking out the nose.

This theory played a notorious role in the case of Emma Eckstein, a patient referred to Fliess by Freud in 1895. Fliess sought to cure her of a tendency to premenstrual depression by anesthetizing her nasal mucosa with cocaine, followed by nasal surgery. The treatment turned into disaster because in concluding the operation the doctor neglected to remove some surgical gauze, causing chronic bleeding. Nonetheless Freud chose to back up his colleague, ignoring Eckstein’s complaints.

Together with the Viennese writer Otto Weininger, Fliess ranks as an early advocate of universal bisexuality.

Fliess was also a believer in vital periodicity, the forerunner of the today’s popular concepts of biorhythms. By tracing illnesses, the outbreak of fevers, and deaths back to birth. Fliess became convinced that two rhythms, one of 23 days and the other of 28 days, were fundamental. The latter number, which tends to be connected with the female gender, clearly stems from the menstrual cycle. It is not clear where the postulate of the 23-day (masculine) periodicity came from, though Fliess was interested in astrology together with some abstruse mathematical theories. In keeping with the theory of bisexuality, both cycles figure importantly in the life of every human being.

Adding the two figures together, Fliess also predicted Freud's death in or around the age of 51. Somewhat shaken by this prognosis, Freud nonetheless lived to be 83 years old. While Fliess’s life-cycle theories enjoy some popularity today, it seems that there is no independent evidence to support the 23-day cycle. Yet it remains mysteriously popular.

Evidently unaware of Fliess’s work, the science-fiction writer Robert Anton Wilson held that William S. Burroughs was the first person to focus on the number 23. In an article in Fortean Times, Wilson related the following story: “I first heard of the 23 enigma from William S Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Nova Express, etc. According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark’s ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was pondering this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida. The pilot was another captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23."

During the 1930s Burroughs was briefly a medical student in Vienna. There he could have picked up Fliess's speculation, forgetting the source when he later recycled the enigmatic number.

At all events, in 1967 Burroughs published a short story entitled "23 Skidoo." In fact the expression "23 skidoo" goes back to the early 1920s, when it meant "it's time to leave while the getting is good." It has been traced in newspapers as early as 1906.

The number figures prominently in The Illuminatus Trilogy by Wilson and Robert Shea. In his book Challenge of Chance, Arthur Koestler also devoted some attention to it.

Skeptics suggest that, as with most numerological claims, the enigma can be viewed as an example of apophenia (the tendency to detect meaningful patterns in random data), selection bias, and confirmation bias. In interviews, Wilson acknowledged the self-fulfilling nature of the enigma, noting that when one start looking for something one tends to find it--provided that “sufficient cleverness” is deployed.

As poetic justice would have it, the preoccupation with the number 23 has returned to the apparent land of its birth. The 1998 German film "23," starring August Diehl as the hacker Karl Koch, portrays the real-life story of computer hackers inspired by Wilson's Illuminatus Trilogy. In addition, the German band Welle: Erdball referenced the 23 enigma in their song "C=64/23."

The 2007 American film "The Number 23," starring Jim Carrey, tells the story of a man who becomes obsessed with the number 23 as a result of reading a book of the same title that seems to be about his own life. The industrial music group Throbbing Gristle recounted the meeting of Burroughs and Clark, together with the significance of the number 23, in the ballad "The Old Man Smiled."

NOTE. If memory serves, there were originally 23 monumental statues of the Old Kingdom Egyptian pharaoh Khafra (builder of the second pyramid at Giza) in his funerary temple there. Only one of these survives (it is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), but the existence of the others is attested by the bases, which subsist. Sometimes it is surmised that there was a 24th element, perhaps an altar, to fill out the sequence in accordance with the hours of the day. However, it may be that the number 23 had a special significance for the ancient Egyptians that has eluded us so far.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Philosophy: does it matter?

I miss many things about my colloquies with my late 'net friend Stephen Heersinck. His older views are still available at, but alas no dialogue is possible now.

Stephen had had extensive training in the field of analytic philosophy, and one of the matters we used to argue about was the value of that current of thought--and indeed any form of academic philosophy. I took the negative position, having been repeatedly disappointed over the years in my quest to find any enlightenment in what passes for contemporary philosophy. Obviously, such figures as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant are different, but their day is long past, alas.

Now this thread has been taken up by Stanley Fish, the maverick professor of English and Law, in a series in the Opiniator section of the NY Times online. Fish recognizes that philosophical reflection may keep the brain limber because it offers a mental workout. Yet he holds that it is inconsequential because it does not deliver answers to any of life's most important questions, In these matters philosophical arguments are generally marshaled only post quem, in an effort to justify conclusions previously attained by other means,

I will not try to summarize his arguments further, though perhaps this tidbit will help.

Stanley Fish:

"Philosophy is fun; it can be a good mental workout; its formulations sometimes display an aesthetically pleasing elegance. I’m just denying to philosophy one of the claims made for it - that its conclusions dictate or generate non-philosophical behavior ..." (

Some discussion has been elicited, in the comments sections after the pieces, and from Paul Boghossian who points (Scribd) to David Velleman's dissent.

I'm sorry that I can't supply a full set of URL pointers, but the pieces should be fairly easy to find.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dame Frances Yates

I was privileged to enjoy a very extended period of graduate education in such major intellectual centers as New York, London, and Rome. This idyll (as it now strikes me) lasted from 1956 to 1969, years of comparative tranquility in the world--certainly in relation to the convulsions that came after.

A lot of what I did was self-education conducted in major libraries. Over the years I had a number of impressive professors, whose high standards still seem to me a beacon of integrity. Sometimes, though, I think that the teachers who influenced me most were people with whom I did not formally study. Two of these figures (to whom I will return later) were Karl Popper and Meyer Schapiro Yet this piece is devoted to a third figure, Frances Yates.

After I went to London in 1963, I found it profitable to spend as much time as possible in the serene setting of the Warburg Institute. The Institute had been founded in Hamburg, Germany in the 1920s by the independent scholar Aby Warburg, who died in 1929. After the rise of the Nazis, Warburg’s successors managed to transfer the Institute, with its precious books, to England, where it was attached to the University of London. The stated purpose of the Warburg Institute was the study of the classical tradition. In practice, this meant an interdisciplinary approach to a whole range of cultural artifacts and survivals. (Because the organization issued a periodical together with the Courtauld Institute in London's West End, it is sometimes thought to have been concerned with art history; yet except for the director Ernst Gombrich, the professors and scholars there were generally not art historians. They were usually concerned with texts.)

How pleasant it was to stroll each morning from my modest digs to leafy Woburn Square where the Institute was ensconced! The building was located just north of the British Museum. Nearby was Dillon’s, then one of the finest bookstores in the world. There were plenty of pleasant spots to have lunch and tea, and other adventurous students to talk to.

Before going to London I knew, by reputation, the names of a number of luminaries at the Warburg Institute. But I had never heard of Frances Yates. In addition, her discipline seemed outlandish. The Hermetic Tradition, what the heck was that?

First, who was Yates? Dame Frances Amelia Yates DBE (1899-1981) was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Yates' father, a devout Anglican, was a naval engineer who began working in the shipyards as a teenager and supervised the construction of British warships in the years leading up to World War I. Although one of her older sisters attended Girton College, Cambridge, like many independent women scholars, Frances was educated at home by her mother, yet attended Birkenhead High School for some time.

During her Warburg years, she published frequently. Probably her signature books were the trio of Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966), and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972). The first was her breakthrough work. With the publication of her Bruno book she transformed Renaissance historiography. In it Yates revealed the hermeticism with which the Renaissance was, in her view, thoroughly and quintessentially imbued. In its heyday, this trend reinvigorated the strands of mysticism, magic, and gnosticism of late antiquity that survived the Middle Ages. Challenging the conventional wisdom of historians, Yates held that the itinerant Catholic priest Giordano Bruno was executed in Rome in 1600 for espousing hermetic ideas, and not for his affirmation of the heliocentric principle.

Yates’ central insight, if one can sum if up in a few words, is that the Western tradition that emerged in full flower in early modern Europe was characterized by a vital fusion of reason and unreason. Reason provides critical context, allowing us to sort out concepts that seem valid from others that must be set aside. For its part, however, speculative thought offers an indispensable store of stimulus. It is the caffeine of knowledge. This speculative vein took concrete form in the hermetic or occult tradition.

The two trends were often united in a single individual. For example, Sir Isaac Newton, when he was not developing the fundamental principles of modern physics, expended much energy on alchemy and on working out obscure aspects of Biblical chronology.

These findings indicate that the achievement of what we nowadays term knowledge was not reached by a straight-line progress from one (true) discovery to another, but by a complex interplay between the “normal” and the hermetic. Through her studies of the hermetic tradition, Yates uncovered a whole hidden dimension of European intellectual history. (The term “hermetic,” by the way, derives from Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary Egyptian sage of antiquity.)

Somewhat oddly, perhaps, Yates’ achievement has been compared to that of Michel Foucault, who has become portentously famous. Of the two, I prefer Yates.

Some commentators assert that Yates founded a paradigm, or gave out a grand narrative--the so-called Yates paradigm (sometimes termed the Yates Thesis). As such, her work has not gone without challenge. Her ideas are contested freely. One scholar who has addressed these questions is Wouter Hanegraaff,, who is serves as professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and is also president of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). Hanegraaff acknowledges Yates as the first major scholar to treat Renaissance hermeticism, together with its offshoot Rosicrucianism, as a coherent aspect of European culture. He pinpoints a fascinating paradox, that of autonomous esotericism helping give birth to the scientific mentality that was to disown its own parent. There is some support for an intermediary position that holds that there was no unitary esoteric tradition, a notion that is only tenable on a selective reading of the evidence. The arguments surrounding this questioning of Yates include Lodovico Lazzarelli as not included; and the rival views of Antoine Faivre, who has proposed a clearer definition of esotericism.

Hanegraaff has further argued that the reception of the work of Yates was colored by the Zeitgeist. I fact, the 1960s, when her work made its first impact, saw the rise of all sorts of New Age trends. This was the era, to put it in a nutshell, when all sorts of people would ask, on first introduction, “what’s your sign?”

Hanegraaff further argues that essentialist rather than nominalist use of the very term "esotericism" has vitiated succeeding work. In his view, the Yates paradigm flourished in the 1970s but fell by the wayside in the 1980s. This view strikes me as too restrictive, for the influence of Frances Yates lives on.

NOTE. For biographical information, one should consult the monograph entitled Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition by Marjorie G. Jones (2008). A good many years ago E. H. Gombrich published a life of Aby Warburg. A kind of latter-day successor to the Warburg Institute, in published form, is Anthony Grafton et al., eds., The Classsical Tradition, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mental health break

I know that I should resist temptation, but what can I say: it's the middle of August! This from the ever-acute

ARIZONA (The Borowitz Report) – In a fledgling campaign that has already produced more than its share of gaffes, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) today confused her ass with a hole in the ground during a campaign swing through Arizona.

Speaking to a group of supporters in Phoenix, Rep. Bachmann raised eyebrows when she said, “It’s great to be here in Arizona, the home of my ass.”

After her comment was greeted with confused murmurs from the crowd, Rep. Bachmann quickly added, “Oh wait, did I say my ass? I meant the Grand Canyon.”

Being unable to tell her ass from a hole in the ground, especially a prominent one such as the Grand Canyon, is only one of many challenges facing Rep. Bachmann in her quest for the Presidency, according to political science professor Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota.

“Michele Bachmann is a staunch believer in the theory of Intelligent Design,” he said. “However, Intelligent Design cannot explain Michele Bachmann.”

But Dr. Logsdon added that Rep. Bachmann remains an attractive candidate, especially for those Republican voters who find former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin “too cerebral.”

“When Sarah Palin looks at Michele Bachmann, she must feel the way the Jonas Brothers feel about Justin Bieber,” he said.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Poetry, the dismal art

As a teenager I aspired for a time to become a poet. Eventually, I decided that my ear was not good enough, and I was not prepared to endure the life of poverty that this career choice almost inevitably entailed.

Still, based on this interest, I have checked in from time to time on current poetry production. The most discouraging feature is its formal poverty: no rhyme, rhythm, imagery, or intertexuality: just indifferent prose with the lines chopped off.

Of course there is content of a sort, but most of it counts as "confessional," that is, the airing of tedious personal experience, usually in the service of some grievance or other. The high priestess of this trend was of course the late Sylvia Plath. Plath's life was indeed tragic, but that fact doesn't make her verse exemplary or even interesting.

Then there is the plague of popular culture, as seen in the trend sometimes known as camp: "Lana Turner Has Collapsed!" That last gem is by a leading gay poet, Frank O'Hara, but the fact that he was gay does not reconcile me to his junk verse.

I am not alone in espousing these negative views.

Responding to the latest poet-laureate appointment, that of the pedestrian Philip Levine, Anis Shivani has some blunt, but appropriate words ( for 8/13):

"The truth about American poetry is that it is in very bad shape. The professional poetry establishment has taken care to mark serious criticism coming its way as sour grapes, but the quality of poetry being produced by American poets regularly awarded the highest prizes in the land and recognized as the equals of past masters is not meant to last this pathetic moment of self-absorption and lassitude.

"One reads Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, Philip Levine, and their camp followers to come away diminished, as a reader and as a human being. Their very project is to participate--as the front guard of a regressive political elite--in the annihilation of common decency at all levels. Their poetry is garish, troublingly content-free, indecorous, and emotionless. Readers are smart not to read this trash."

The writer goes on--but you get the point.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Of cell phones and flash mobs

I am not a fan of cell phones. Four years ago when I had to leave the apartment for extensive remodeling, I got one, but discarded it almost as soon as service on my land line was restored. Today like many other folks on the “wrong” side of the digital divide, I walk the city streets in dismay. I am disconcerted by the fetish-like attachment young people show towards the devices. Constantly yapping into them about nothing much at all, they seem desperate to convey the message: “See I’m not a loser; I have FRIENDS.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Two people I know have serious medical conditions, and require the cell phone in case of necessity when they are out of their homes. Significantly, these people are not cell-phone addicts, but use the instruments only when there is good reason to do so.

I do give cell phones credit for one thing: they have helped to cut down on street crime. When a mugging is threatened, either the victim or a good Samaritan standing by can call the police. The criminals seem to know this. But now they are adapting, as I will explain.

A flash mob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless collective act for a brief time, then disperse. These actions started as harmless pranks, reviving perhaps the long-dormant spirit of Dada.

Reputedly, the first flash mobs were organized in Manhattan in 2003 by Bill Wasik, a senior editor of Harper's Magazine. On June 3, 2003, som 130 people converged upon the ninth-floor rug department of Macy’s, gathering around an expensive carpet. Anyone approached by a sales assistant was advised to say that the gatherers lived together in a warehouse on the outskirts of New York City, that they were shopping for a "love rug, and that they made all their purchase decisions as a group. Subsequently, 200 people flooded the lobby and mezzanine of the Hyatt Hotel engaging in synchronized applause for about 15 seconds, and a shoe boutique in SoHo was invaded by participants pretending to be tourists on a bus trip.

Ostensibly, this and other such events were designed to target conformity, but it has been observed that they also exhibit conformity, since the participants are acting according to a script devised by the convener. Flash mobs have also been hailed as a form of performance art. The resemblance to political demonstrations is only superficial, since there is no underlying agenda of social change.

About two years ago, however, the flash mob phenomenon morphed into something else: groups of young people, in numbers of twenty or more, would suddenly rush into a convenience store or other business and grab things, leaving quickly before they could be apprehended. In other cases, the mobs, usually consisting of people of color would attack white people.

Because of the racial element, the US media has been slow to cover these events. Not long ago, however, the outrage at the Wisconsin state fair in Milwaukee were too big to ignore. White people were simply attacked at random. The authorities seem reluctant to label the event a hate crime, though if it had been white people beating up blacks, there would have been no such hesitation.

For some time Philadelphia has been a major scene of these criminal outbreaks. Now, wisely, Michael Nutter, the city’s black mayor, has denounced them and imposed a curfew.

This sinister metamorphosis of the flash-mob phenomenon provides the immediate background of the outbreaks in London and other English cities where, once again, the gatherings were coordinated by the so-called social media. Here is one typical postings from Blackberry: "Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!)." Another read: "If you're down for making money, we're about to go hard in east London."

It seems that there are issues of ethnicity in the British events, but it is not simple black-and-white ones. Instead, there is interethnic tension, with properties owned by South Asians, who are resented because of their relative prosperity, often being targets. Some white people have also been seen among the looters.

Nonetheless, the events cast a harsh light on the British interpretation of multiculturalism, which has encouraged ethnic minorities to evolve separately, sometimes under the influence of extremist spokespeople who sow anger and disunity.

To be sure, this is not an original observation on my part. In his recent commentary, prime minister David Cameron denounced thirty years of multiculturalism in Britain. He asserted that multiculturalism was incubating extremist ideology. More specifically, it was contributing to home-grown Islamic jihadism. He said,” We have failed to provide a vision of society [to young Muslims] to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and believe in can lead them to extremist ideology.”

Cameron is not alone in his strictures on multiculturalism and its failure to accommodate Muslims. In October 2010, Angela Merkel the German Chancellor, unequivocally declared: “The approach of saying, ‘Well, let’s just go for a multicultural society, let’s coexist and enjoy each other,’ this very approach has failed, absolutely failed.”

Not everyone will assent to these harsh remarks. Still, it is hard to deny that in Europe multiculturalism has not succeeded in delivering on the promises of its proponents. They envisaged that it would protect minority communities from the intolerance and discrimination perpetrated by society, while at the same time fostering a healthy sense of group identity.

In principle, multiculturalism is supposed to reflect respect for diversity and pluralism, ostensibly key elements of a secular society. Certainly, combating discrimination and opposing unequal treatment under the law were worthy efforts. Yet as time passed, left-leaning and liberal thinkers sought to extend the boundaries of pluralism, pressing for disadvantaged groups to be granted greater opportunities to enhance their religious and cultural identity in all aspects of societal life. In short the policy promoted separatism. Yet instead of reconciling the minority groups to society by recognizing their grievances, this approach served only to alienate them.

In Britain this trend has been traced to some seemingly persuasive remarks uttered by the politician Roy Jenkins in 1966. He said, “I do not think we need in this country a ‘melting pot’ which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman… I define integration therefore, not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, coupled with cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.”

This became known as Jenkins formula. Policy makers adopted it to establish guidelines and laws for multiculturalism. In the course of the next forty years, this interpretation of multiculturalism seeped into almost every aspect of British public life. Yet it was tough going, for subsequently relations between the host and immigrant communities rapidly deteriorated. While many resist this conclusion, clearly there is a need to examine the wisdom and practicality of multiculturalism, British style. As a panacea for social cohesion, the approach has clearly failed.

Islam in particular does not subscribe to West’s notion of pluralism. Islam stipulates that life, honor, blood, property, belief, race, and mental functioning are to be protected and fostered by the Believing community. In such matters, Islam does not recognize individual rights: the community (ummah) is always paramount.

It follows that pluralism (or multiculturalism) cannot flourish if it is rejected by one of the major beneficiary groups. Thus there is a sad irony in the fact that Muslims were among the victims in the recent British riots.


Sunday, August 07, 2011

New word

This morning I learned a new word: redology. Redology (simplified Chinese: 红学; traditional Chinese: 紅學; pinyin: hóng xué) is the systematic study of the enormous novel. the Dream of the Red Chamber, ascribed to Cao Xueqin.

According to Chinese scholars, there are four major branches of intensive research in redology, focusing on the Seventeen Debates, the Nine Public Cases, the Four Mysteries, and the Three Dead Knots (seemingly insoluble conundrums). Consult the Wikipedia article for further details.

This work, the Dream or the Red Chamber, ranks as one of the Four Great Classical Novels (Chinese: 四大名著; pinyin: sì dà míng zhù) of Chinese literature. Dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, they are well known to most Chinese readers.

In chronological order, they are:

Water Margin (Chinese: 《水浒传》; pinyin: shuǐ hǔ zhuàn) (14th century);

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Chinese: 《三国演义》; pinyin: sān guó yǎn yì) (14th century)

Journey to the West (Chinese: 《西游记》; pinyin: xī yóu jì) (16th century)

Dream of the Red Chamber (Chinese: 《红楼梦》; pinyin: hóng lóu mèng) (18th century)

A fifth major work. the Jin Ping Mei, or Plum in the Golden Vase, clearly belongs in this company; however, it has encountered some official disapproval because of its explicit sexual scenes.

My library contains translations of all five. However, I confess that, because of their intricacies, I have only been able to get all the way through Water Margin, which is an outright adventure tale.


Friday, August 05, 2011


It is sometimes said that atheism can never become really popular. Well, never say never. And in fact atheism has been popular in some places abroad. Millions of aging Communists in France and Italy were atheists, and so they remain.

In commenting on this subject earlier, I noted that I was an agnostic rather than an atheist. Many cling to the idea that an agnostic is just a closet atheist, someone who is afraid to "come right out" with his/her true beliefs. This is a common misperception. In fact, in its refusal to make any particular affirmation in the God matter, agnosticism finds itself arrayed against both theism and atheism.

My own conviction is that all truth, or just about all, is asymptotic, that is to say a matter of probability. The only exceptions are statements that belong to the realm of purely deductive or a priori assertions, such as 2 plus 2 equaling 4. Even cosmological constants, such as the speed of light, might not be true in a parallel universe.

As regards the god(s) hypothesis, I think it extremely unlikely that there is a God who is a vengeful, arbitrary, dyspeptic old man who holds court somewhere in the sky, surrounded by a gang of enforcers he calls his "angels." But there are other concepts that are less improbable. Some rest on what has been termed the fine-tuned universe, that is, the idea that the conditions that foster life can only occur when certain universal physical constants obtain. These constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of them were only slightly different the universe would be not be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is presently understood.

This imperative is not accepted by all scientists. Some of them point out that in alternative universes other constants might prevail, permitting the emergence of forms of life that we cannot imagine. Even so, though, the concordance of life-fostering elements is uncanny, since even one defection from the ensemble would cause the whole mechanism to collapse.

A few creationists and proponents of the Intelligent Design movement have seized on the concept as offering support for their views. It certainly does not. However, fine-tuning might be consistent with some sort of panentheism, that it, the idea that the universe is pervaded by some sort of stabilizing force. Whether this force, if it exists, should be called "God" or not is obviously a judgment call.

I return to the main theme. On the whole, it would seem that there is not a lot to be said about agnosticism, arguably a selling point since it allows plenty of time to reflect on other matters of more pressing concern. However, I learned from "Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction" by Robin Le Poidevin (Oxford, 2010) that there is more to be said about it than many think. Professor Poidevin is a "strong agnostic," which means (among other things) that he holds that the attitude of skepticism evident in agnosticism in the narrow sense should be extended across the board. As I indicated, one way of doing this is to seek to assess truth-value in terms of probability. For most people, though, such principled dedication is too austere. They require Answers, so that they can get on with the rest of their lives. For this reason, I fear that agnosticism is destined to remain confined to fairly narrow circles, figuring chiefly as part of the rarefied tool kit of some highly educated individuals, most of them ensconced in academia. By contrast, atheism (as we noted in a previous post) does command a certain popular appeal, as manifested in summer camps, book-club meetings and other social gatherings, parodic rituals, and so forth.

UPDATE. I reproduce portions of some pertinent remarks by the Muslim scholar Reza Aslan, an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Where I part company is in his suggestion that the similarity of certain concepts, such as the Hindu prana, the Chinese ch'i, the Hebrew ruah, and the Christian Holy Spirit, offers cross-cultural confirmation of some objective significance of religion. They may only represent a universal tendency to superstition, as seen in such beliefs as ghosts and the evil eye. As for Paul Tillich's "Ultimate Concern," that has always struck me as a cop out, a kind of fig leaf for unbelief.

Here is Aslan:

"One cold spring day in London, as I crossed the bustling square at Piccadilly Circus, I looked left instead of right (a typical American tourist) and was nearly run down by a careening double-decker bus with a flash of letters emblazoned along its side:


"The slogan is now ubiquitous and not only in London. When I first saw it I laughed, amused that atheists in the UK were miming propaganda techniques perfected by evangelical groups in the US, whose billboards dot the American landscape ("Having truth decay? Brush up on your Bible!"). I likely would have thought no more of it had not a friend informed me that the driving force behind the London bus ads was none other than the dean of the so-called "new atheists"--Darwin's Rottweiler, himself--Richard Dawkins. . . .

"There is, as has often been noted, something peculiarly evangelistic about what has been termed the new atheist movement. The new atheists have their own special interest groups and ad campaigns. They even have their own holiday (International Blasphemy Day). It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism--an atheist fundamentalism. The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers [and child molesters--WRD]), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore. This is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauerm or Nietzsche. . . . Neither is it the scientific agnosticism of Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer. . . .

"The principal error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism--and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism--is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist.) Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence--by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented--and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god. One should, for example, be cognizant of how the human experience of transcendence has been expressed in the material world through historically dependent symbols and metaphors. One should be able to recognize the diverse ways in which the universal recognition of human contingency, finitude, and material existence has become formalized through ecclesiastical institutions and dogmatic formulae. One should become acquainted with the unmistakable patterns--call them modalities (Rudolph Otto), paradigmatic gestures (Mircea Eliade), spiritual dimensions (Ninian Smart), or archetypes (Carl Jung)--that recur in the myths and rituals of nearly all religious traditions and throughout all of recorded history. Even if one insists on reducing humanity's enduring religious impulse to causal definitions, dismissing the experience of transcendence as nothing more than an anthropological (e.g. Edward Tylor or Max Mueller), sociological (think Robertson Smith or Emile Durkheim), or even psychological phenomenon (a la Sigmund Freud, who attempted to locate the religious impulse deep within the individual psyche, as though it were a mental disorder that could be cured through proper psychoanalysis), one should at the very least have a sense of what the term "God" means.

"Of course, positing the existence of a transcendent reality that exists beyond our material experiences does not necessarily imply the existence of a Divine Personality, or God. (In some ways, the idea of God is merely the personal affirmation of the transcendent experience.) But what if did? What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations--separated by immeasurable time and distance--seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi'i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse? Then again, maybe the patterns of religious phenomenon signify nothing. Maybe they indicate little more than a common desire among all peoples to answer similar questions of "Ultimate Concern," to use the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich's famous phrase. The point is that, like any researcher or critic, like any scientist, I'm open to possibilities.

"The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion's name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics. The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid--the stock response of any absolutist. Some argue that the religious impulse is merely the result of chemicals in the brain, as though understanding the mechanism by which the body experiences transcendence delegitimizes the experience (every experience is the result of chemical reactions). What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims--be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth--are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science. That may not be a slogan easily pasted on the side of a bus. But it is the hallmark of the scientific intellect."

WRD: That conclusion, unknowability, yields agnosticism, not theism.


Thursday, August 04, 2011

Zen: Italian style and US style

On several late nights I have watched (on PBS television) the BBC-originated series "Zen." This has nothing to do with the venerable Sino-Japanese religious philosophy, but focuses on a contemporary Italian detective named Aurelio Zen. Zen is an old Venetian surname, but its Venetian scion Aurelio is posted to the prosecutor’s office in Rome.

With English actor Rufus Sewell in the title role, the television series is based on a series of novels by the late British crime writer Michael Dibdin. Cynical, devious, and shrewd, Aurelio Zen is a kind of Lt. Columbo without the mumbling. The TV series features numerous moody views of Rome at night, evocative of the early Federico Fellini. What the series is best at, though, is in revealing the labyrinth of the Italian bureaucracy, with its many links to crime, big business, and who knows what other centers of power. There are only three 90-minute episodes so far, but more may be coming.

During my years in Rome, some fifty years ago, I was fortunate not to have too many run-ins with the bureaucracy. Friends assured me that conflicts could usually be resolved with a discrete bribe. While I was there, though, I heard an interesting story. In the late 1930s Mussolini’s regime planned for a World’s Fair to take place in Rome in 1942. Of course World War II interrupted this implementation of this scheme, though a new residential quarter, the EUR, arose at the site in the southwestern part of the city.

Reports had it that the Commission to plan the 1942 event continued to meet well into the 1960s, and perhaps beyond. After all, the commissioners reasoned, why should a good thing be abandoned just because its original purpose has lapsed?

Frauds of this kind lie at the heart of Italy’s problems today. For a while the inertia and nepotism hobbling the government could be counterbalanced by the dynamism of the business sector. Public squalor was held in check by private efficiency. But no longer,it seems. Hence the fate of that unhappy country, whose troubles are unlikely to cease with the departure of the buffoonish Berlusconi.

Are we in these states, though, in a position to throw stones? I thought of the 1942 commission when I heard of the tenacious survival of the comically misnamed “Essential Air Service” program, which maintains passenger service at a series of small airports that are completely unnecessary--except of course that they lie within the districts of powerful Congressmembers. On an average Monday at the Bradford Regional Airport in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, six passengers are flying in on each of the three Continental Connection flights. In the airports overall, it is estimated that it requires $3700 in subsidy for each departure.

As part of the current FAA wrangle, the House of Representatives voted to dismantle this absurdity. Yet until recently the Senate refused to go along. Now apparently, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has agreed to the dismantling--provided that the service be immediately restored by Cabinet order. Dracula lives!

The amount of money is small, but when one multiplies such idiocy by a hundred-fold (probably much more) the situation is much more serious. It seems that there is no such thing as a sunset law; these things will go on forever.

This is how empires stumble towards their end.


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Catastrophe averted?

In these pages I rarely offer commentary on current events. It seems to me that our culture is obsessed with present-mindedness. Instead, I try to offer a historical perspective.

Still, as a citizen, and indeed one whose pension arrangements are tied to the economy, I cannot help noticing certain things in the grim present.

It seems that with the incipient passage in the Senate of the bill raising the debt ceiling (and ostensibly including radical measures about the economy) we have dodged the bullet. Only temporarily I fear, for when one looks past the smoke and mirrors, the new legislation simply sets the stage for a continuation of the profligate policies that have brought us to this pass.

How's that again? Doesn't the legislation shred the safety net, destroying the hopes of tens of millions of the aspiring and disadvantaged? Well, I would agree about the shredding of the hopes part, but the bill will do very little to achieve the needed fiscal reform.

Following a long-established form of chicanery, the savings are mostly "backloaded"; they are to occur in the out years. During the first year only $21 billion dollars will be saved, if that; even less in the following year. The remainder of the supposed 917 billion would have to be approved by successive Congresses. Given the mood of the electorate to "throw the bums out," the composition of the next House of Representatives will probably be very different from the present one; it can simply decline to approve the ambitious frugalista agenda.

Increases in revenue are desperately needed. These are fervently opposed by the Tea Partyites and their dupes, but also, more covertly by the left, which believes in the mirage of "growing the economy." Alas, the unemployment rate is not likely to come down soon, maybe ever because so many of the jobs have gone to Asia, gone for good.

If the absurd Bush tax cuts were simply allowed to disappear en bloc next year, a lot would be accomplished. However, Obama has already muddied those waters by saying that only the taxes on the rich should be restored. The thing can only be done if it is all or nothing, and that means a positive utilization of the crippling powers of governmental grid-lock.

Another pie-in-the-sky provision is reduction in military spending. A little later, when we get to that juncture, it will be found that "for pressing reasons" of national security we cannot do that. The real reason of course is that the military-industrial complex is ensconced in too many congressional districts.

In short, very little has changed--or is likely to change. We will continue spending beyond our means, and our economy will continue to fall behind that of other, more dynamic countries.

I will probably get lynched for saying this, but I believe that in some ultimate sense the Tea Party is right. We cannot just keep putting money on the national credit card, promising that we will pay our bills in the "out years." That is what the English call the never-never.