Saturday, May 26, 2012

Who's Up, Who's Down

I didn't post any predictions this year, did I?

Arnold Toynbee says civilizations and cultures rise and fall on the strength of conviction of their “creative class” that they are doing something worthwhile. Put another way—my words, not his—they rise and fall on the strength of their social world view.

This has, in fact, long been understood in the Far East.

A strong social world view that everyone believes in will sharply reduce corruption and selfishness; and corruption, as Mancur Olsen demonstrated, is the single overwhelming case for poverty at the level of a society.

Some of the great, successful social world views of the past have been Confucianism, liberal democracy, and Islam.

If Toynbee is right, China is more or less necessarily going down. For a few decades, Marxism worked as a social world view limiting corruption and fostering idealism; but the flaws in the theory are now obvious. Few in China seem to believe in Marxism any more. As a result, the Chinese ruling classes are becoming a kleptocracy. And, unfortunately for China, the regime has actively suppressed all alternative world views, so that the transition to something that works better will be quite difficult.

On top of that, China is doomed by demographics, thanks to the disastrous “one child” policy. This shortage of children is, apart from government policies to encourage or enforce it, a common symptom of a social world view in decline. It just stands to reason: having children is a dramatic vote in favour of an optimistic view of the society’s future. Not having children is the reverse. Darwin, in The Descent of Man, commented that a dramatic fall in fertility rates among more “primitive” people was a common result of first contact with Europeans.

So I continue to say China is going down soon, and going down hard, all the harder because it has boomed so much recently. Even when I was there in the early nineties, I smelt death everywhere.

Can India take up the slack? Corruption is an endemic problem there as well. I am not sure India's Hinduism can provide the necessary BTUs to allow it to really take off. Hinduism is a bit too relaxed and without a sense of social mission for this purpose; it is largely a national religion, without the sort of universal message that would prompt a country to become a world leader. And it tends to the individualistic and mystical rather than the social in its emphasis. On the other hand, this makes India fertile soil for the transplanting of liberal democratic ideals, which have proven so successful in America and Europe in the recent past. I expect to see India joining the first rank of the developed world; but I am not sure it will ever be a world leader in the way America or Britain have been.

The EU does well on the anti-corruption measures. But it looks increasingly as though its political and social world view is living on fumes. Europe has never recovered from the trauma of two world wars; it has been nursing a self-hate verging on suicide. As the current “Eurozone” crisis has tended to show, Europe does not have the stamina nor the idealism any longer for a great deal of personal sacrifice or deferred gratification. Everyone just wants a comfortable life.

Eastern Europe, where Marxism has collapsed as a social philosophy, is having trouble transitioning to a new world view, precisely because the Communist regimes, as in China, systematically repressed all alternatives. Poland is a notable exception—buoyed by the strength of its Catholic faith.

The Muslim world is wild card. Islamic revival offers an alternative social world view to liberal democracy. If successful, it might outstrip liberal democracy. If unsuccessful, it will hold the Muslim world back by preventing it from embracing liberal democracy. This is the conflict that has been working itself out in Egypt’s streets, in Iran, and elsewhere.

The fundamental problem Islamism faces, though, seems to be that, while popular with the bulk of the population, it is far less popular with Toynbee’s “creative classes.” It seems as though Iran, the model Islamist state, has not been successful. Turkey, the prime Muslim liberal democratic model, seems to be doing much better. However, it looks as though Egypt will go with the Islamist model. My suspicion is that Turkey is on its way up, for now, and Egypt is on its way down.

So who gets the mantle of leadership? I think it’s still the USA, for the foreseeable future. The liberal democratic model seems to have tarnished a bit over the years, but there is no rival that looks capable yet of taking over. And the one place where the liberal democratic model is still taken the most seriously is the USA. Unlike Europe, the US is not collapsing demographically, but maintaining a decent birth rate. It seems to be undergoing a religious revival. And it has only very recently launched the high-tech revolution, giving it in theory the sort of advantage England held for a century or so after the Industrial Revolution.

The same factor makes Africa look like a good bet for the near to mid-term. Most of sub-Saharan Africa is benefiting from a Christian religious revolution.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Index of Banned Books

One hears a lot about the Catholic Church's old "index" of books good Catholics were not supposed to read. My great-aunt Mary, otherwise a committed Catholic, used to claim that she grew up choosing her reading material from the Index.

She must have been lying. Have you ever seen the Index? If you kept strictly to its precepts, you would miss out on very little good general reading, and very little controversy. The 1948 version is online here. Note there are no decent modern novels banned; not even Nietzsche, Marx, or Freud are banned. Neither is Martin Luther. The books banned are, sensibly and uncontroversially, books that by their nature and content might be supposed to be expressions of Catholic doctrine, but are not. Hence books by Blaise Pascal and Saint Faustina are banned. Nobody would make that mistake about Marx, Freud, or a modern novel.

But that means the books banned are mostly, for the casual reader, extremely dry; probably of interest only to theologians.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Canada's Flying Saucer

Canada has a certain odd tendency to come up with strange "secret weapons"--that then were scrapped. I've long thought there was a good book in this--maybe a boy's book. There is the Canadian super cannon, Habbukak, the Canadian aircraft carrier made from ice, a Canadian atom bomb, the famous Avro Arrow--and now this.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


Here's something that looks like a real treat for Canadian gardeners. From the University of Saskatchewan.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Civil War News

This was a set of bubble gums cards familiar to me from my childhood in Montreal. Strikes me that putting such things on bubble gum cards is a fantastic way to teach almost any subject.