Monday, August 30, 2010

Bear in a China Shop?

This could be it, folks. Get those bolt holes ready. The big China bubble may be about to blow.

According to Stratfor and Ming Pao, rumours are circulating in China that the governor of the People's Bank of China has disappeared, and that he was under investigation for a book loss of $430 billion.

The Chinese government is blocking web pages mentioning the rumor. Meantime, the governor has not appeared in public since the rumour started--the obvious thing to do to kill it.

Hate to be alarmist, but I've been expecting this for some time. Things are never what they seem in China, there is no transparency in that economy, and the current boom seems to violate several historical principles.

If China goes into an economic tailspin, in turn, it lacks the limited resilience of more open nations. The government will probably collapse, and the government has taken care to ensure that there is nobody else around in a position to take over.

This one bears watching.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Back to the Future

"Maison tournante aerienne," 1883: a 19th century view of life in the 20th century.

There is a small but growing subculture among the lowbrow and neglected fans of speculative fiction and illustrated novels (aka comic books), called "steampunk." Steampunk is about setting stories in an imaginary future based on a posited direct logical and aesthetic extension from the Victorian past. A future replete with dirigibles, brass, gears and pulleys, and Meccano-like constructions.

This may seem odd to some; and it is a small subculture of a subculture still, for now.

But personally, I expect it to take over Western civilization.

The whole thing just feels right the minute you see a manifestation of if--go rent the Japanese animated movie "Howl's Moving Castle" to see it for yourself.

Here's why.

"Globalization" has become the watchword in speaking of our shared future; generally meaning, naysayers say, the world "hegemony" of English-speaking "pop" culture. Yet globalization is hardly new; the development of worldwide trade networks has been ongoing since at least 1492, and the Anglicization of the world was at least as obvious at the end of the 19th century as it is today: with Britain controlling a quarter of the world's population and land mass, and the US dominating a second huge chunk from Monrovia to Nome to Manila to Tierra del Fuego. Were you to draw a direct line from 1900 to now, on an imaginary graph of globalization and cultural homogenization, with only these two points for reference, it would look as though the whole process had flatlined.

It has not. Growth has resumed after a long bear market. More or less the entire 20th century can be understood as a retrograde motion in the progress of mankind: an extended universal fit in which the inevitable march of human progress, material and social, which was the standard world view of Victorian, "Whig" history, has been taking staggering jolts. It was a century-long pandemic depression, of lost confidence in ourselves and our goals, during which "Western" or "Modern" civilization almost succeeded in committing suicide in the midst of self-doubt. "Postmodernism" is almost depression to the point of suicide expressed as philosophy.

There may have been earlier troubling trends, harbingers, in the intellectual realm: Marxism, Darwinism, the suffragettes. But things really came unglued, chronologically, at about the time of and probably because of the First World War. Before this, and despite massive conflagrations in the US and China during the 19th century, Europeans had come to think that we were, if slowly, turning into angels. War was fading as a part of human experience; slavery was dead; civilization was inexorably advancing to cover the earth.

...All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,
And a great army but a showy thing;
What matter that no cannon had been turned
Into a ploughshare? Parliament and king
thought that unless a little powder burned
The trumpeteers might burst with trumpeting (Yeats, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen)

Then, suddenly, a system of grand alliances intended to preserve the "balance of power," and so the peace, of Europe, instead led to a general war, which in turn was far bloodier than anyone anticipated.

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldierly
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thought into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole...

That was probably the moment it all shook loose; and Yeats, the great poet, saw it and captured it.

Civilization seemed, instead of conquering, to be dying. As Yeats was writing, the Bolsheviks were also taking Russia, and the Austrian Empire--the Holy Roman Empire--had disappeared in a puff of smoke.
That was the blow that did it; but we also were not given any respite after it. Other blows followed. Next came the apparent failure of social progress and the progressive "social gospel" with the collapse of prohibition and the introduction of "Jim Crow" in the reconstructed South. Next came the Great Depression, throwing into chaos our faith in material progress, and our fundamental economic assumptions. Then came a new, rabid form of nationalism seeking to block globalization and deny the value of civilization itself, in Fascism, Nazism, and the various other nativist movements across the globe--continuing today as "anti-colonialism." Al Qaeda and "Islamism" are only the latest entrants in this bomb-tossing competition. Then came the second and greater holocaust of WWII, which, among other things, showed that under the veneer of a modern civilization, the most barbaric things conceivable could be done.

How could this not all shake the confidence of our civilization? It all began to look like an inexorable trend--downwards. Well before this time, in reaction, the general depression it all caused led to attempts at suicide, which in turn exacerbated the problem. Marxism, Fascism, feminism, psychiatry, the culture of youth, postmodernism, and environmentalism, wrought worse havoc, portraying all civilization as we knew it as evil, ripping down any established values, cultural memories or ideals they could find.

In a way, al Qaeda and Islamism may have done us a favour, snapping us out of this funk, by presenting a genuine, genuinely external, threat. Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia, were still eruptions from within the Western civilizational tent, not external enemies. Imperial Japan may have been an external threat, but it was subsumed under the much more menacing German umbrella. Al Qaeda and 9/11 may be the first attack on the heart of the West that is both genuinely external and genuinely painful since the Turks left the gates of Vienna in 1683. While not really much of a danger to the civilization as a whole, it may have been just the sort of slap in the face we Euros and Anglos needed to pull ourselves together and see things as they are. All the better that it came from Europe's great ancestral enemy, the great rival against which European civilization was largely defined at its birth: the Saracens. The Moors.

We in the West may in the end all owe a great deal to Osama bin Laden.

Steampunk, with its nostalgia for Victorianism, for the Victorian view of the world, and Victorian optimism--there are few dystopias in steampunk lit--may be an early sign that the fever is breaking. Western Civ may soon be back in business. If civilization as we know it does revive, something like "Steampunk" is its inevitable form: too much of the Twentieth Century is tainted with the general rot. We are going to have to reach back to a time before the shock that threw us off track, and try to work our way forward from there. A point before 1919; roughly, late Victorian times.

It is certainly time for a new Universal and International Exhibition on the subject. London might be the perfect site. I envision a Crystal Palace, like a great gleaming city on a hill...

Queen Victoria opens the great 1851 exhibition.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Zank Heaven...

Yestreen we broached the subject of current prejudices. Unfortunately, I am not yet bored with the subject. Today, we speak of "pedophiles," and the growing scandal of "child brides."

This too is common in the Philippines. A near neighbour to this seaside resort reportedly recently ran off with a fourteen-year-old. The local expat community is scandalized, of course. The man's a child molester, a "sexual predator."

Another beautiful propaganda coinage from the Ministry of Truth--a "predator" is a meat-eating animal. We are all predators, or else none of us are; the word almost literally reduces the target to the sub-human, brute beast level.

I would object, certainly, to an old man having sex with a young girl to whom he was not married. As to an old woman.

But this cartoon character released into what should be real life, the "pedophile," is really one more prejudice against men--since woman, though they are statistically more likely to sexually abuse children or adolescents, somehow generally escape the label and the punishment. Refer to the picture in your mind's eye when you hear the word "pedophile." Be honest, now: is the drooling, grinning character you see a man or a woman? Is he or she good looking?

You have been conditioned, just as a dog by Pavlov.

Let me explain "pedophilia." Muhammed, the Prophet, married his last and favourite wife, Ayesha, when he was in his fifties and she was as young as nine. Official Muslim sources. For one thousand four hundred years, this union has been held up as a moral and romantic ideal throughout the Muslim world. Many parents name their daughters "Ayesha" to evoke the memory. If this is wrong, and obviously wrong, isn't it odd that it never occurred to anybody until just the last few years?

And not just Islam, either. "Child brides" are all the scandal these days in Hindu India--all of a sudden. Worked okay and to everyone's satisfaction for five thousand years or more. Has right and wrong really suddenly changed over the last twenty years or so?

Read your Bible for more. Song of Solomon:

"We have a young sister,
and her breasts are not yet grown.
What shall we do for our sister
for the day that she is spoken for?"

Wedding preps in full swing. Puberty? Not yet.

For a millennium or two, it was understood that Joseph of Nazareth wed Mary the mother of Jesus when she was barely pubescent, perhaps twelve or thirteen, and he was an old man with a grey beard and grey hair--look at some of the old mosaics. This was the ideal family, the model for all mankind--just as were Ayesha and Muhammed. Nobody thought there was anything amiss there until quite recently. A lot of Joseph's statues have probably had their beards repainted accordingly.

"Joseph was an old man, an old man was he
When he married Mary, the Queen of Galilee..."

St. Joseph as he appeared in 1635. He has since aged remarkably well.

The prejudice is recent enough that the laws in North America have just barely caught up. No surprise--over the last forty years or so our ideas of sexual morality have changed so fast any thinking person has to know something is wrong. Over that period, homosexual sex, adultery and abortion, for example, have all gone from a criminal offense to a "human right." May-December marriage has moved at about the same speed in the opposite direction. Even a generation ago, it was fairly common for girls to marry in the US South in their early teens. I was just reviewing the biography of Edgar Allan Poe: he married his cousin Virginia when she was thirteen. But never mind Poe; Elvis and Priscilla Presley started dating when she was fourteen. You can even trace the development in the history of the cinema--up to the fifties the standard was still to have a much older man playing as male lead to a much younger woman--fifty and twenty, if not fifty and fifteen. Bogart and Bacall. Gable and Leigh. Gable and Monroe. Cooper and Kelly. Stewart and Kelly. Nobody thought it was immoral--just classically romantic.

Mrs. Virginia Poe, 13.

All very much to the advantage of the woman in particular, by the way. Older men have more money to support a family; but women are, by contrast, perfectly ready to have children at a much younger age. No reason for them to wait, to leave their lives on hold, even if men must. Younger women are also much less likely statistically to die in childbirth with a first child--and the first child is the most risky. This is important in poor places where good medical care is not readily available--and in earlier times when it was available nowhere.
Times have changed, in that it is now at least safe to leave childbearing until later. Why woman would want to remains a question. Only in the modern West, after all, has adolescence become such a notorious time of angst and recklessness; surely this is symptomatic of a system that has left so many young people all dressed up for real life, but with nowhere to go. Women in the Third World, interestingly, report being much happier than the men; in the modern West, that gap has closed.

But even so, times have not changed everywhere. In only somewhat poorer countries, the old equation still applies. In India, surely. In the Philippines, good medical care is still beyond the reach of most, and women marrying in their early teen years is still quite common. All Filipina women also seem to prefer significantly older men. So, I discovered last summer, do Bulgarian women.
I expect the same is still true for the great majority of the world's people. For Western feminists to try to impose their "morality" here, is probably to condemn a great many Third World women to death, and their children to neglect or starvation.

Quite possibly, they don't care.

Obviously, at best, a cultural prejudice is involved, so long as this "pedophilia" includes marrying the "victim." Yet call someone a "pedophile," or a "sexual predator," and Ann Landers feels perfectly morally justified to suggest sweetly in her column that they really all ought to be castrated. They can't ever,obviously, be trusted anywhere around children, ever, again. Statutes of limitations must be suspended indefinitely. Their names and home addresses must be kept public and their whereabouts always known for the rest of their natural lives, ensuring that they can never rehabilitate, never rejoin society, never stop paying for their crime, and are ready targets for anyone else wishing to act out their own righteousness against them. Send to prison, they are shockingly often put to death there by other inmates--almost necessarily with some level of connivance from the prison authorities.

Absolutely no humanity left. And clearly, no human rights left.

I recall telling a fellow grad school student that one of my favourite writers was Lewis Carroll.

"How could you?" he asked, shocked. "That pedophile!"

Never mind that Carroll was not, as far as we know, a "pedophile."

Never mind that.

My colleague's favourite author was Ezra Pound.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Deadbeat Dads

Two words: "deadbeat dad." You hear them all the time, those of you back home in Canada, don't you? Any man who is not paying court-appointed child support is a "deadbeat dad," isn't he?

Great phrase--the lovely assonance makes it easy to remember, and summon up on any appropriate occasion. Whoever came up with it knew what they were doing. Perhaps they worked for the Ministry of Truth. It is capable of reducing any divorced father --any-- from a human being to a cartoon villain with just two words, and in a fraction of a second. Case dismissed.

It is vital to realize this, because it is how all prejudice works. Calling someone a "deadbeat dad" is just the same in principle and in moral terms as calling them a "lazy nigger" or a "greedy Jew" -- or, to cite another example, a "pedophile." It is a trick to dehumanize people, after which you can do to them whatever you want.

Understand now that it would work in a courtroom just as it probably did with you, gentle reader. Since the prejudice is everywhere and socially acceptable--indeed, socially obligatory--just as the prejudice "greedy Jew" was in Nazi Germany, or "lazy nigger" in the postbellum US South, no Dad in the dock for child support can expect any understanding of his circumstances. The judge will, just as you just did, dismiss all evidence and testimony with a sweep of the cuff, think only of the prejudicial stereotype "deadbeat dad," and refuse to believe he cannot pay, or that he is not paying for any reason but lack of responsibility. He will, indeed, probably need to be punished pre-emptively.

It's just the way men are, right?
Which is why the fact is almost always the opposite--just as most Jews gassed in Nazi Germany were not really guilty of doing anything wrong, and most black men lynched in the US South weren't.
Most will go on, if recent personal correspondence from Canada is any indication, having stripped the man of any human characteristics, to blame _him_ for being separated from his children. Assuming that any Dad does not want to see or have anything to do with his children is like charging the nigger with the cost of the rope you use to hang him, and making him tie the knot. It is rarely the husband who chooses divorce, in the first place; it is usually the wife. It is most certainly rarely the father who decides he is not to have custody of the children, or not even to have visitation rights.
There is, in addition, a fundamental and outrageous inequity in the assumption that the right to actually live with the children and watch them grow up, and the duty to pay the bills, without seeing receipts, are morally equivalent. If it really were so, then slaves on the US South genuinely owed their labour to their masters, didn't they? It was a perfectly fair and just arrangement. What's all this fuss about slavery?
In Canada, one dare not even say such things. But so long as you go along with it, and benefit from it, as you do daily if you are a woman, you are also guilty of it.
There are, of course, fathers who are irresponsible, just as there are mothers who are irresponsible, and just as there are Jews who really are greedy. Of course. This does not justify the prejudice.

As a result, in places like the Philippines, where I am right now, or Thailand, or Vietnam, there might as well be a statue in every entry harbour, with an inscription about bringing those huddled masses of ex-husbands yearning to be free.

There are a lot of expats here. They are all men. And their stories are almost always the same story.

Thank Lady Liberty there is still, at least, a place for men to flee. Even if most of them arrive here with nothing more than the small change in their pockets.
This may be, as a result, the place where the future is built, as such places have been before.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Doctor, Just How Bad Is It?

Just how far is the world away from where it was meant? How far did we fall when we fell from Eden?
It seems to me that this is a vital question. It can serve us as a guide in life. How far should we "buy in" to this world?
Not very far, apparently. According to the New Testament, we are to be "in the world, but not of it." Unlike other religions, we do not believe that the world is all illusion. But we don't go that much farther than that.
The perfect test case that this is true is the example of feminism: a doctrine obviously untrue, and obviously in violation of the golden rule, that nevertheless swept all before it, all around the world, with barely a peep of opposition anywhere, and then was able to crush anything else that opposed it, regardless of its claims to being true. Never mind Nazism--a purely localized phenomenon by comparison.
But there is a better example, in scientific terms.
It is the Milgram experiment (1961-63). And it is not good news.
In the experiment, subjects, archly called "teachers," were told to administer electric shocks to "students" (actors, as it happened) whenever the students gave a wrong answer, increasing the voltage every time. Pre-recorded screams were played for each shock level, to make it clear to the "teacher" that the student was experiencing serious pain and urgently wanted the experiment to stop. Well before the highest voltage, the "student" stopped responding altogether, indicating the likelihood that he was actually dead.
The point was to see how far the average person would accept the word of authority against their own conscience.
The answer is that 65% of participants kept right on giving those electric shocks right up to the maximum, 450 volt level--well beyond killing their supposed "student."
These results do not seem to vary much by class or culture: the experiment has since been repeated in various places around the world, and the level of compliance by "teachers" is consistently 61-66 percent, regardless of time or place.
Sixty-one to sixty-six percent of humanity will allot zero value to the golden rule whenever their own immediate self-interest is at stake, even at a fairly trivial level.
The choice given is not so far from the choice in Eden.
So there it is, a hard number to plug in for the overall depravity of the social world: 61-66% bad.
Since the number is over 50%, "the world" as such becomes a temptation, as it is understood to be in the classical Catholic formulation ("the world, the flesh, and the devil"). Most things in this world are the reverse of what they are supposed to be; nothing should be accepted at face value. The good is always going to be buried under a pile of offal, rejected in this world.
The experiment surely also implies that the majority of people are going to Hell--given the choice, they will consistently go against morality. This is not a fashionable thing to believe; but it does agree with the Bible. Jesus himself says

13"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7)

Thirty-four to thirty-nine percent of humanity is about as generous an interpretation of "few" as humanly possible.

Luke writes, of Jesus's temptation in the desert: "the devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I wish." (Luke 4:5-7).

This means that the social world is in the command of the devil.

John refers to the devil as "prince of this world." 30"Jesus said, 'This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out." (John 12). St. Paul refers to "the course of this world" as the way of the devil: "2you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." (Ephesians 2)

I have heard the argument that this all refers to the world before Christianity "redeemed" it. This does not work: the Book of Revelations makes plain that the depravity of the majority will continue until the end of time.

"7He [the beast] was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. 8All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." (Revelations 13)

In other words, it is the devil who has charge of all the world's kingdoms and governments, of social authority generally.

This necessarily, and notably, includes the secular classroom. It is no coincidence that the subjects of the Milgram experiment were called "teachers." To no one else do we give such unbridled social authority. And two out of three of us are perfectly prepared to abuse such authority to the hilt, till death--of the student--do us part. We ought to be damned concerned about this, as parents, as Christians, and as teachers.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Go Ahead--Make My Te Deum

There's a certain something about Catholics. You can call it charisma--since that is what we do call it.

Who is famous for being charismatic? John Paul II, surely; John Kennedy; Pierre Trudeau.

All Catholics. You don't have to be Catholic to have charisma--Elvis, Bill Clinton, Obama aren't. But it seems to be more common among Catholics.

This is significant, I think, because charisma is, literally, a spiritual gift, a gift from God. Assuming that is true, it implies that the Spirit is more fond of Catholics than others--which is a good test of a true religion.

Not, mind, that the fact of having charisma seems to be any guarantee that the individual is good or Godly: Hitler and Mussolini had it too. (Both raised Catholics, interestingly.) But that is inevitable; it has to do with man's free will, and the fact that this truly is a "gift" from God, not something personally earned and dependant on good behaviour.

But a concentration of charisma among Catholics still looks significant. Here's why: charisma, or "savoir faire," which seems to be about the same thing, seems to have to do with a kind of inner certainty: a charismatic person radiates a sense that he knows something ultimate, that he is in touch with truth. Such a sense most naturally and fully comes from true religion; even if it can have other sources at times.

Someone who is directly in touch with truth is less likely to be swayed or frightened by immediate events--the bomb goes off behind him, but the tough guy does not flinch, continuing to walk steadily towards the camera. Being Catholic seems to be especially good for actors in "tough guy" roles: Gary Cooper; Nicholas Cage; James Cagney; Sean Connery; Clark Gable; Mel Gibson; Al Pacino; Gregory Peck; Arnold Schwarznegger; Martin Sheen; Sylvester Stallone; Spencer Tracy; John Wayne; Patrick McGoohan.

Notably missing: Humphrey Bogart, an Episcopalian; and Robert Mitchum. Generally, though, it does seem that being Catholic produces a certain steadiness of hand in the face of worldly events, even if only on celluloid.

This tendency to charisma among Catholics seems to me to be yet one more proof of the truth of Catholicism. "By their fruits ye shall know them": and here are visible fruits of the spirit.

Of course, the dominance of Catholic actors may have much to do with a general dominance by Catholics of the arts, both in America and internationally.

But this too speaks of the gifts of the spirit. What else is art but visible inspiration?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Plato's Cave in Claymation

The Future: Threat or Menace?

Chicken Little

My friend the left-wing newspaper columnist admits, in his latest column, to being a pessimist. "Given today's world, who wouldn't be?"
No surprise: all leftists are. Yet there is an irony here. Those who call themselves "progressives" are mostly distinguished precisely by this disbelief in human progress.

But the more important point is that, in this, the leftists are clearly wrong. Granted, any thoughtful person sees that the world is a mess, and the pace of progress can be terribly frustrating--two steps forward, one step back. Nevertheless, progress seems clear, over the broad sweep of known history.
What, really, could be clearer than the general material progress over the last several thousand years, and especially over the last few hundred? The gradual elimination of disease and growth in life expectancy? Whatever happened to smallpox, leprosy, scarlet fever, TB, polio, and the plague?
There has also clearly been a gradual spread of more democratic and less autocratic government, of greater legal and civic worth placed on every individual. Cannibalism, human sacrifice, slavery, caste, are mostly gone, and formally renounced everywhere. No government these days would dare to publicly defend the idea that humans are not equal.
There has also, over the long haul, been development in religion and philosophy. Shamanism and polytheism have generally fallen to ethical monotheism.

Henny Penny

Let's look at my friend's counter-evidence point by point.

"Wars inflame new terrorist groups."

"Population growth increases."

"Food shortages increase."

"Cleanup from the worst oil spill in history still awaits."

"Deforestation continues unchecked, especially in tropical zones."

"Industries sow toxins, and use the world as guinea pigs for genetically-manipulated foods."

"Glaciers are melting faster than ever."

"Even as we suffer the hottest summer in recorded history, naysayers deny global warming."

"More species are dying daily than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs."

"World economies seem poised for a second plunge into chaos. Entire nations hover on the brink of bankruptcy."

"Human rights are sacrificed on the altar of national security."

"Intolerance, especially among the fanatic fringes of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, seems to be growing."

In the old days, "We saw prosperity as a human right, 'Freedom 55' as a universal goal." [But no longer.]

Wow; things really do look terrible, don't they?


1. "Wars inflame new terrorist groups."

I take it this is the politically correct way to say that both wars and terrorism are growing in frequency or severity. Putting it this way removes the blame from the terrorists.

Touch wood; but wars actually appear to be getting less frequent over time, and also less bloody. Hunter-gatherer societies seem to be at war at all times.

And, contrary to what you might think, improved military technology has actually led to lower, not higher, casualty rates in battle.

Consider this next time you hear someone say they wish they lived on Avatar's "planet Pandora."

I think it is necessarily true that "terrorism" is increasing; in an important sense, "terrorism" is a creation of the media, and improved communication, improved dissemination of information, creates it. Without the press coverage, there is no terror. The real question is whether it is really worthwhile to take down all our modern communication systems in order to reduce it.

At the same time, the growth in terrorism is also probably less than we imagine; our perspective is somewhat distorted, I think, by one spectacular attack, on 9-11. But whatever happened to the FLQ, the IRA, the German, Italian, and Japanese Red Armies, the Weather Underground, the Moluccas separatists, the Black Panthers? All were active only forty years ago. The Tamil Tigers are also now gone, it appears. We tend to forget about the terrorists of yesteryear, and their causes--perhaps the ultimate proof that, in the end, terrorism does not work.

2. "Population growth continues;"
Growth in human population is obviously a good thing, from the human perspective. It is hard to put a negative spin on it. Even so, the UN's figures predict that world population will grow only until 2050 or so, and then begin to decline. This, not population growth, ought to worry us--so long as we forget that health technology is also improving. I expect improvements in life expectancy to hold these figures to steady state or better in the end.

3. "Food shortages increase."
Not according to the Global Hunger Index. According to them, over the past ten years, "The ... GHI had fallen by 13% in Sub-Saharan Africa compared with the 1990 GHI, by about 25% in South Asia, and by 32% in the Near East and North Africa. Progress in Southeast Asia and Latin America was especially great, with the GHI decreasing by over 40%." Don't those figures sound rather promising? World hunger has really not been a going concern since the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s. Typically for conservatives, the modern left is apparently living in the past.

4. "Cleanup from the worst oil spill in history still awaits."
"The worst oil spill in history"? I know just a little about that. It happened in this part of the world, in the Persian Gulf, during Saddam's retreat from Kuwait. Happily, twenty years later, there is no longer any trace of it.
Or was he referring to the recent BP blowout? Nowhere near being the biggest oil spill in history. Only about 50 million gallons, tops. Even some large oil tankers have spilled more.
And there are reports the cleanup crews are having trouble already in finding anything major to clean up.

Hint: oil evaporates.

This illustrates, I think, the modern left's fear of all change. Any significant event looks to them as though the sky is falling.
This is typical of the attitude of any ruling class. When you are on top, any change is necessarily frightening--you have nowhere to go but down.
When you're poor, the opposite is true.

5. "Deforestation proceeds unchecked, especially in tropical zones."
Have you noticed that deke, how what used to be "global deforestation" has become "tropical deforestation"? There's a good, but never-stated, reason for that. The clear evidence is that the forest cover is actually growing throughout the developed world.
As for the tropics, the clearest truth is that we lack sufficient data to be sure. Some studies suggest they are shrinking, some that they are growing, some that they are remaining about the same. I fail to be alarmed--especially when I see that a tree in the tropics can reach a height of twenty feet within a couple of years. That's why you so often see the qualifiers "old growth" or "virgin" forests.

Me, I think you need to be pretty short of worries to get terribly upset over the virginity of trees in the tropics.
But, given that forest cover is growing in the developed world--

--it seems likely, with progress, that as the rest of the world also develops, forest cover will probably grow overall. This is mostly due to improved farming technology. But with increasing computerization, we can also expect a decline in the use of paper.
This has actually already begun. Newsprint production has been falling at 5% per annum over the past decade.

6. "Industries sow toxins,"

Strictly speaking, industries do not sow toxins; people do. The gimmick here is to word the matter in order to suggest that this is somehow intrinsic to "industry" per se--to the business of making a living--as an excuse to block development, to block material progress.
Of course, in the real world, no business wants to produce waste--waste means lost productivity, and toxins mean bad public relations. Accordingly, allowing free rein for development, for industry, will always reduce toxins and pollution, not increase them. The proof of this is the quickest glance at the developed world: in Europe, North America, and Japan, everything is ridiculously clean. Compare India, China, Africa, Mexico...

7. "and use the world as guinea pigs for genetically-manipulated foods."

A bit of a contradiction here? Above, our correspondent seemed concerned about word hunger. So what happens as soon as something is proposed to prevent it--a little multinational factory here, a nuclear plant there, a seal hunt, a genetically-modified crop? All hell breaks loose, doesn't it? Those damned rednecks can eat cake.

The resistance to genetically-manipulated crops is a classic example of the left's innate conservatism. All change is terrifying. Is there really a danger? If there is, can it really be enough to negate all the obvious advantages? If there is, are we not already doing enough to prevent it? Have we really, as our correspondent suggests, never looked at GMOs in controlled conditions before we fed them to humans?

Obviously, the claim as made is simply false. Possibly reasonable men could argue we should do more.

8. "Glaciers are melting faster than ever."

We don't know whether this is true or not; we have insufficient data. Some glaciers are melting, some are growing.

Overall, the earth's ice cover seems to be fairly stable. Shrinking in the Northern Hemisphere, growing in the Southern.

Note the graph, "global sea ice area."

9. "Even as we suffer the hottest summer in recorded history, naysayers deny global warming."

The global warming believers are the first to insist that weather is not climate: for good reason. We know perfectly well that we cannot predict the weather beyond 48 hours in advance or so--so how can we pretend to predict the weather a hundred years hence?

The claim is dubious. But, by their own logic, one hot summer is not evidence of anything in terms of climate change.

And if it is, mind, it must be weighed in the balance with the fact that there has been no detectable rise in global temperature over the past 15 years.

As it happens, there is an interesting alternate explanation for the current hot summer, and for the coolness of the last fifteen. The sun is just awakening, spectacularly, from a period of dormancy. From today's news:

Of course, all of this leaves aside a very basic question: why would a warmer earth be a bad thing? This comes down again to the left's aversion to all change.

10. "More species are dying daily than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs."

This is a claim often made, but, like global warming, it is based solely on a computer model. Once upon a time, if you told people a thing was done on a computer, they thought it was necessarily true. The left, still unfamiliar with computers, apparently still believes this. The rest of us know about "garbage in, garbage out." If the assumptions are correct, the model will work. There's a 50-50 chance if there are two alternatives. For a very complex system, like any ecosystem, it is extremely unlikely that the computed result is anything but random.

The truth is that we have no idea. It is virtually impossible to document a species's extinction; it requires proving a negative. But every year, species thought to have been extinct are actually being rediscovered.

Note that the notion of species extinction is based on the assumption that humans are gradually encroaching on the habitat of other species. And note that this assumption itself does not hold up. As we have seen, forest cover is growing in the developed world--hence non-human habitat. And another contradiction in the left's claimed logic: as a general rule, more heat means more life. If global warming is real, those who worry about non-human species extinction should encourage it along by all means necessary. As a matter of fact, this goes as well for deforestation: nothing is better for forest growth than a little extra CO2 in the air.

11. "World economies seem poised for a second plunge into chaos."

This could well be true; and unpleasant to get through. Still, what does it have to do with the overall trend of history? Does a recession, or a depression, mean an end to all human material progress?

And, if it did, isn't this just what the left has wanted and worked for all along?

12. "Entire nations hover on the brink of bankruptcy."

As above; and as above, isn't this directly as a result of leftist policies?

Note this recent chart of state debts across the US.

The "bluest" states are precisely those with the heaviest state debt burdens: Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, Connecticut, New York...

What does 2 plus 2 equal, again?

13. "Human rights are sacrificed on the altar of national security."
While perhaps unnecessary, any security measures taken today to combat terrorism pale beside what was done, in the leading democracies, in the American Civil War, the First World War, of the Second World War, by folks like FDR, Woodrow Wilson, Churchill, Lloyd George, and Lincoln--usually considered champions of human rights.

Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, seized private property without compensation, and shut down hostile newspapers.

Wilson imposed press censorship, deported foreign-born US citizens, shut down 60 newspapers.
Lloyd George bloodily suppressed the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, and had the leaders shot.

FDR interned all citizens of Japanese descent.

Churchill's suppression of a rebellion in Bengal during the Second World War may have resulted indirectly in as many as four million civilian deaths. He also suspended elections for the duration of the war.
Each of these acts may or may not have been justified by the requirements of war; but they are all a good deal more extreme than anything we are dealing with today. Can you imagine Obama deporting or interning all Americans of Arab or Muslim descent? Shutting down Fox News? (Well, maybe.)

Suspending the 2012 elections?
Probably not.

14. "Intolerance, especially among the fanatic fringes of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, seems to be growing."

Here's the false moral equivalence for which the left is justly famous. Intolerance growing in Christianity?

In Christianity, I see exactly the reverse. When I was a child, most Evangelical Protestants seemed more or less openly hostile towards Catholics; now Catholics and Evangelical Protestants seem to be more often the best of friends. There have been significant steps toward reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans, and between Catholics and Orthodox. Ecumenicism is all the rage.

As for Islam and Hinduism: there was a jump in intolerance in the last few decades, but there are some signs it has already abated. The public has rejected the Islamists in Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, where they once seemed electorally powerful. The Islamist government in Iran seems to be under popular siege. The "Hindutva-ist" government in India was defeated in the last election.

Nor were these examples of religion-based intolerance ever in the same league as the politically-inspired intolerance of Marxist and Nazi regimes of earlier decades, who murdered millions solely on the basis of race, or class, or political views. Even Islamist Iran makes an effort at being a democracy.

15. In the old days, "We saw prosperity as a human right, 'Freedom 55' as a universal goal."

This last lament is significant for revealing the true base of the modern left. I doubt many in the working class ever expected to retire at 55. That's a privilege always restricted to those living off the public purse--broadly, those in government, the real ruling class.

 It also seems to me that retiring at 55 makes one, by definition, one of the idle rich, at least from that point on.

If I were a member of that class,perhaps I too would indeed fear for the future. Changes brought on mostly by the Internet do indeed suggest their days may be numbered.
But I doubt that is bad news for humanity as a whole.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Genius of Alexander

Being on vacation means time for some purely self-indulgent reading. I found a free book in a book swap cabinet on great battles, and began with the earliest, the Battle of Arbela, or Gaugamela, by which Alexander the Great conquered Persia.

It quickly becomes clear why Alexander was so Great. He was a great psychologist. He won this battle through superior insight into the psychology of his opponent. He could predict what Darius would do in any given situation, and through this could control him like a puppet.

Alexander understood that Darius was a very cautious, even a timid man. Pulling up his own exhausted forces after a thousand-mile march, facing a vastly superior force arrayed for defense on a battlefield of their choosing, Alexander therefore nonchalantly rested his army for four full days. He understood that he would not be attacked by the Persians; so there was no need to rush into battle with tired troops. Even better, he knew that, meanwhile, the Persians would not be able to rest, Alexander being by no means so predictable, and would thereby be exhausted from lack of sleep by the time he faced them.

Reputedly, the night before the battle, Alexander slept like a baby, and had to be roused late in the morning.

How did Alexander know he would not be attacked? Because the Persians had a vast advantage, in numbers and in having chosen the battlefield. So long as they kept everything predictable, they should have had no problem defeating him. To break up their formations to attack the Greeks first would be to risk losing this advantage; it was like rolling the dice.

Conversely, though, the Persians had to fear that Alexander might indeed choose to gamble, being at a disadvantage, and try attacking them at night; so they could not let down their guard over the four days.

The day before the battle, Alexander led his entire army up the hills surrounding the battlefield, and let them get a good look at the huge Persian army spread out on the plain below them. Wasn't this foolish? Wouldn't it frighten and intimidate his men to see in advance just how much bigger the Persian army was, and how well-chosen their ground?

No; Alexander understood the psychology. Everyone is less afraid of the known than of the unknown. Had he not done this, the Persian opponent would have remained semi-mythical, and might easily have assumed supernatural proportions in the mind's eye. Letting his army all see for themselves, he brought the Persians, formidable as they were, down to the puny dimensions of the real world. Even better, he gave his soldiers an image from above, an image of dominance, the Persians in perspective seeming tiny, like ants. Meanwhile, the Persians, seeing the Greeks watching them from above, and not being able to see their real numbers, probably lost some of their confidence.

Alexander's generals advised him to attack at night, under cover of darkness. This was the classic tactic for an outnumbered army; the idea was that the darkness allowed more surprise, and so favoured an attacker. Alexander refused, saying he "would not steal his victory."Seems reckless and arrogant, doesn't it?

Not at all. Again, this was psychologically wise, and for Alexander the psychology mattered more than the purely military considerations. Had he gained his victory essentially by stealth, by attacking at night, the Persian army, even if technically defeated, would not have felt beaten. They would probably be able to withdraw in reasonable order, even aided by the darkness, and regroup to fight later.

Any war of attrition was certain to go against the Greeks in time--with their smaller forces, smaller population, poorer home economy, and longer supply lines. Only a decisive, demoralizing defeat would win the war. This is exactly what Darius was offering him, by massing all his armies together on a ground of his own choosing.

Alexander, having much smaller forces, was vulnerable to the classic tactic: encirclement of his flanks. This was good, in a way, because he could more or less count on this, and so was again able to predict Darius's actions. The only risk was this: Alexander's Greek phalanxes were extremely strong in defense, and offense is always riskier than defense. The danger was that Darius would refuse to attack, even given the great odds in his favour, and simply wait to fend off the Greeks. That would be the cautious approach. Alexander therefore had to force him into attacking.

He did this by advancing his whole army obliquely. Instead of aiming at the centre of the Persian line, he marched the centre of his army over towards the Persian left flank. This meant that, if Darius did nothing, Alexander would force the battle off of the prepared field, wrecking Darius's battle plans. It would also mean, if he did nothing, that Darius would soon no longer be able to outflank Alexander on the Persian left--again ruining his predicted battle plan. Alexander was forcing him into committing his forces in a certain way. Darius was forced to pull forces away from the centre of his line, and rush them over to the left flank, to keep from being outflanked and to halt the Greek movement. This left the centre weak.

At the same time, in making this feint over to his right, Alexander was also offering an incredibly tempting target--a perfectly exposed Greek left flank, which looked as if it could now be easily turned by the Persian cavalry on the Persian right. To make the prize more tempting, Alexander held back both flanks at a 45 degree angle, making his line appear shorter than it was, and concealing the true strength of his flanks. At the same time, at this angle, they were already prepared to face an attempted flanking movement.

This ensured that Darius would not pull any troops away from the Persian right flank in order to make up for the depletion of the centre. If anything, he was likely to move some further troops from the centre out to the left in order to exploit this opening.

Darius took the bait. He shifted soldiers from the centre out to both the right and left flanks, and ordered the cavalry to charge on his left flank, to stop the Greek advance.

This was the tricky part--it was entirely possible, just here, that the Persian cavalry charges might indeed turn the Greek flanks. Alexander had tactics ready to make this less likely, though. He sent out his own cavalry counter-charges, which then stopped, turned, and apparently fled in the face of the oncoming enemy. It was play acting; seeing their enemy apparently in full retreat, the Persian riders spurred on at top speed, breaking formation, and now psychologically unprepared to face any sudden opposition.

Behind this cavalry screen, Alexander had his phalanxes move forward, so that the Persian cavalry came upon them unexpectedly, in headlong charge. So far, so good--the element of surprise is gained, an important psychological advantage. But Alexander also exploited the psychology of horses, now predictably being given more or less free rein by their riders. As the horses approached, the front lines parted to the right and the left for them. The horses, naturally enough, headed straight for these gaps in the line, instead of running into the outstretched pikes everywhere else.

Each horse and rider was now trapped in a box, where they could be attacked from three sides.

It was enough; given that, according to Alexander's plan, all that his flanks really had to do was to hold off the Persian assault for a certain length of time. Importantly, Alexander had extended the Persian lines, leaving the Persian centre depleted; and he had forced the flanks to be committed, so that they could no longer be pulled back to the centre. This had created his opportunity. He now wheeled his own cavalry, still not engaged after their faked retreat, all over on his right flank, and charged with them in toward the centre of the Persian line.

He did not actually need to break through--all he needed was the psychological shock of seeming close to threatening Darius personally, standing behind the centre of his line. Seeing the danger of personal capture, despite an overwhelming majority in arms, what would a sensible, cautious man do? Of course--get away as quickly as possible. One must live to fight another day, surely? Darius sensibly grabbed a horse and rode for the rear.

But Alexander was counting, yet again, on the psychological effect. As Alexander understood, the Persian army was not held together by any national feeling or great loyalty to their regime, or personal love of Darius; they were a very mixed body of tributary peoples and mercenaries, held together only by the regime's prestige and aura of power. Crack that, and the collapse comes quickly.

Seeing their leader flee the battle caused the Persian resistance to crumble fairly quickly, despite still having numerical superiority over the Greeks.

Interestingly, Alexander did not even bother to hotly pursue. Simply killing more Persian soldiers would not have been of much value. The Gordian knot had already been unpicked.

A few days later, having been exposed as a mere mortal, Darius was murdered by his own retinue.

Alexander had only to pick the crown of Persia up from the dust.

The lessons to be learned from his example here are endless.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Sanity and Insanity

Not long ago, the National Post covered an "Anti-psychiatry" convention in Toronto. The coverage was not sympathetic; no doubt the Posties saw this as yet another left-wing victim group. The reporter wrote caustically of "self-absorbed crackpots like the 'shaman' M. Anne Phillips," "who holds that mentally ill people are in fact spirit guides to alternative realities," and that a psychotic episode "'is an indication of a traditional medicine or shamanic calling.'" Is that nuts, or what?

Unfortunately, I too am a crackpot. I have lived in Korea, China, and in the Middle East; my wife is Filipina. It is only too obvious to me, from personal experience, that

1. beliefs that are labelled insane in North America are accepted as simply true in other places; and

2. people who would be declared insane, unemployable, and put on mind-numbing medicines for life in North America are fairly normal members of society, with families and decent jobs, elsewhere.

How then can madness be an "illness" on the analogy of physical illness? To me, this whole notion of "mental health" and "mental illness" is a metaphor misunderstood literally, at the level of puzzling over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

My wife, along with most Filipinos, believes as a matter of course in curses, ghosts, witches, and various magical spirit beings similar to dwarfs and fairies. After all, she has seen some of them herself. She is quite open about these "hallucinations": a few months ago, she phoned me at work, agitated, because she had just seen me waving at her from the end of the street, although I could not have been there. At home, a neighbour who was a witch died, and her house was filled with bees. But the bees all left when her surviving daughter ordered them to do so.

I suspect we Europeans and North Americans all have such "hallucinations" as well; we just ignore them, like our dreams, or at least keep our mouths shut about them. Thirty-five percent of Americans, after all, claim direct contact with aliens. My two kids from a previous marriage once saw Dracula at the head of the staircase, and reported this quite matter-of-factly at the time. Now grown, they still remember it vividly, but know enough to no longer talk about it. My sister says she saw an angel at her window once. Me, I'm not saying. As Samuel Johnson once said, "most of us learn to conceal our tails."

I'm not saying reality is up for grabs; I'm saying that a purely physical, five-senses view of reality is seriously incomplete. Insane, even. But that is the view that the psychiatrists defend to the death--albeit not their own--as the only valid one.

It tends to throw Westerners to discover that all Muslims believe as a matter of course in the reality of "jinn," or genies, creatures one would not dare to mention around a Western psychiatrist. They are in the Qur'an. But then again, any sincere Christian ought to know as much: the Bible is clear that the middle air is thronged with angels and demons, not to mention the saints in heaven, who continue their involvement in this world.

There is, after all, a spiritual reality. This is not a question of "faith." It is, in logical and philosophical terms, not in doubt. The spirit world is the only one we know directly. What is in doubt, as Berkeley proved, is whether there is any physical reality apart from it.

In Korea, people who start "hallucinating," who become directly aware of these spirit presences, commonly become "mudangs," professional shamans, just as Phillips suggests. After an apprenticeship, they can make a decent living telling fortunes, healing the sick, selling talismans. Instead of an illness, they have a career. You may scoff that their imagined reality is not real; but that is actually beside the point. So long as they are allowed to continue believing in it, they are happy and well. Their "sickness" is the psychiatrist's refusal to accept this.

The situation is the same in China or in the Philippines--the "psychotic" commonly become herbalists and healers, "witch doctors," "shamans." Perhaps, in the end, not all those diagnosed in the West with "mental illness" are shamans; but it seems necessarily true that at least some shamans are, in North America, instead drugged numb and declared permanently disabled.

Yet the minute you accept that there is a spiritual reality, it becomes almost necessarily true that some people will have greater insight into it than others. Those who have greater insight into it will almost certainly not be the social "scientists," nor the psychiatrists, the "physicians," who are materialist by ideology.

It is not just that the blind are leading the blind; the blind are leading the seers.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Washington Teacher Purge

Teachers are unpopular enough these days that many, especially on the right, are cheering the recent firing of 241 teachers by Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, for being "ineffective."

I am not. It is a scam. The whole push to "reform" the Washington system is in lieu of introducing school vouchers. It is not a bold initiative to improve the education system, but a rearguard effort to preserve the status quo.

Out of the 241 given pink slips, 76 were fired for "lack of teaching credentials."

In other words, for not being part of the union. What does it mean to be a "qualified teacher"? Are we justified in paying extra for schools to ensure that our children are taught by one?

As previously noted in this space, students who take "education" degrees score lower than any other college major, with the possible exception of "public administration," on the SAT or GRE. So if there is selection or weeding out going on here, it is weeding out of the best and the brightest.

But that is only half the story. Once they get to Ed School, is it rigorous? Is there any weeding out at that level?

Apparently not, according to a study by George K. Cunningham for the Pope Centre ("University of North Carolina Education Schools: Helping or Hindering Potential Teachers?" January, 2008).

Page 16 features a chart of average GPAs nationally, in the US, for different academic disciplines. The lower the score, obviously, the tougher it is to get good marks in that field. Average GPA for engineering: 2.67. Average GPA for math: 2.68. Social science: 2.96. Humanities: 3.06 (I suspect it would have been lower before the humanities went ideological). Education: 3.41. You gotta do something seriously wrong to get a B. Pile this on top of the fact that ed students are the weakest students to begin with, and it is hard to conceive of anyone managing to flunk out of an education program, on academic grounds.

And that seems to be the case. Page 19 shows a table of pass rates for all the Ed Schools in the state of Vermont. Range, average, mean, it's all the same: 100% Every single student in the state graduates.

All this means not just that our "qualified teachers" are not qualified; it means that anyone at all bright going into the field has to be consciously cynical, has to deliberately sell out. What do they learn in Ed Schools? Mostly, I suspect, to hew to an ideological line, key to which is the political solidarity of the teaching profession. It's all kind of like joining Hell's Angels, or the Mafia.

Are these the people we want in charge of our children? Perhaps not...

Those worst served by this form of teacher qualification, I suspect, are the brightest students. Teaching has a natural appeal to those with fantasies of power and control; and it is fallen human nature to resent those who are smarter than we are. Accordingly, the sort of folks who go into the field are liable often to be downright hostile to the gifted; others have remarked on a distinct tendency within the education establishment of anti-intellectualism, indeed of hostility toward any form of merit or meritocracy.

Accordingly, this mass firing has probably weeded out the better, not the worse, teachers.

Never mind; that's only 76 out of 241. That leaves 165 teachers who were fired for actual poor performance in the classroom, right?

Not necessarily. The rest were fired because they were marked poorly on classroom observations, or because their students failed to improve on standardized tests; but the DC administration cannot give figures for each category. This fact is in itself highly suspicious.

This matters. Unfortunately, classroom observations, although widely popular with the educational establishment, are unable to reliably identity good or bad teachers. Repeated studies show they only determine whether the observed teacher conforms to the teaching practices of the person observing; two different observers will commonly give two completely different evaluations. This is necessarily so, because we really do not know what traits produce the best classroom results.

Why, then, are they so popular? Because they too enforce the cartel of the Ed Schools. Given that the person observing will inevitably be himself or herself a product of an Ed School, their mark will simply reflect whether the person teaching has also attended Ed School, and teaches in the currently prescribed manner. The test is valid only if the methods of the Ed Schools can be shown to be valid; and they cannot. Studies consistently show that an Ed School grad gets no better results with a given class than an educated layman.

The only valid criterion mentioned in the story is how the students do on standardized tests. But we have no idea how many teachers, if any, were actually fired for this reason. And, of course, standardized tests too can be jimmied to some extent. Even if they are not, student test scores are a fairly rough measure of teacher competence--even over three years teaching the same course, the error rate is arguably as high as 25%.

A more perfect criterion, and a far simpler one, is simply this: let the market decide. Let families (and students) choose the school and teacher for their child, using whatever criteria they see fit. It is this criterion that all the recent sound and fury in Washington has actually been designed to avoid.