Saturday, April 27, 2013

We Live in Bizarro World

One day, perhaps when I retire, I’d like to take a crack at distilling Western Civilization into one volume, a volume of short passages. This would be primarily for ESL students from non-Western cultures trying to get a fix on the West; but it also ought to be useful for the education of children.

The Bible is, of course, especially good for this. It is, after all, the original such repository in the West. One passage that comes close to summing up the world is John 3: 20-21.

“Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

Hard to say much about that explanation, because once one starts, one might go on forever. Note that “light” here equals truth and moral good.

This explains, for example, why, so often, it is the exact opposite of the truth that is proclaimed as truth. It seems in my experience that this is usually the case.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Man, the Invasive Species

Weclome to my workaday world.

The pictures are clips from the ESL textbook with which I am currently teaching Saudi students. Nothing special about this particular textbook; these days, any textbook in any subject seems to include similar stuff. Supposedly, the topic is "the natural world." But the true topic is obviously how evil humans are.

This culture of death stuff, this misanthropy, generally masquerades as science; yet of course there is nothing scientific about it. It is a philosophical, or rather a religious, position, to see man as evil, and uniquely evil. Science would or could make no such judgement; it is not involved with morals. In falsifying science, this anti-humanism probably alienates many of the young who would be naturally so inclined. Conversely, it is calculated to attract the worst sorts of misanthropists to science, which seems at least as dangerous to our future. And it is quite an awkward thing to have to deal with as a guest in a foreign culture; surely it is especially troubling in an ESL context. You want to convince Middle Eastern Muslims there is a compelling need to take down Western culture? Here it is, in a nutshell. The Westerners, it is apparent, hate us all and want to destroy us.

The first clipping describes mankind as the “worst” invasive species, and responsible for most of the world's pollution. This is in a sense true, but also nonsensical. It is man who decides which species are “invasive,” i.e., both new to an area and unwanted. If men do not want men, then I guess men are invasive. QED. Otherwise, men are just following the same natural biological imperative of any other species, moving in to any new habitat that comes available. Nor is mankind the most pervasive species; not by a long shot. Insects, arachnids, and any number of micro-organisms have us beat seven ways to creation on that score. Similarly, pollution is human-defined as something humans don't want. So of course, without humans, there is no pollution. A tse-tse fly has no such concept nor concern, whatever droppings it may leave or species it may ravage. 

Yet "humans need to change many things about their lifestyle if they want to survive." Savour the logic--the human species is going to die out if it does not stop being so successful. Deus ex machina revenge from Mother Gaea must be assumed here.

The second clipping is a mock website for an ecological charity. Trying to teach the unenlighted races, often in benighted Third-world countries, who are most likely to be using an ESL text, what true charity is all about. One ought to work to save animals, “usually suffering because of humans.” Now imagine this textbook being used, as it is surely intended to be, by poor students in Africa or Asia. Experienced vets and the latest medical equipment,we read, ought to be and are being flown in to Africa to help the animals against their human oppressors—who will be only too conscious that they themselves lack medical practitioners and medical equipment. Kind of puts the Wogs in their place, doesn't it?

There is also the mandatory knock against zoos.

The final picture is unfortunately not self-explanatory. The context is this: the reader is asked to match the English names for various animals with their pictures. And one of the animals named and pictured, here right next to the Chinese mitten crab, is the human. The creature is showing what it can do on the gym floor. The message, surely, is that man is not a spiritual being, not both body and soul, not half animal and half angel, but an animal like any other, and of no greater significance.

This is obviously wildly objectionable to any Christian, Jew, Muslim, or pagan Greek, not to mention roughly the balance of the human race. What is the point of throwing this in, if the intent is not propagandistic, and controversialist?

Now, be clear that this is not a problem with one particular book. Quite the opposite: this particular book was selected largely because it was the least culturally objectionable to be found, for a Muslim audience. Most are far worse in terms of openly promoting what John Paul II called "the culture of death."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How to Insult a Canadian

They miss on the origin and meaning of "snow bird," though.

What Makes Finnish Schools So Successful?

An infographic.

But they bury the lede.

Is it really having no homework that makes the difference? While I have a lot of sympathy with letting kids be kids, I think the overwhelming difference between the Finnish education system and less successful systems, borne out by studies, is this:

Only the top ten percent of college graduates are admitted into teaching programs.

This is the opposite of the practice in the US. But it is the same practice as in Korea and China, both with significantly successful education systems on the same metrics.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dating the Birth of Jesus

You'vve probably heard a million times that Jesus could not have been born in 1 AD, that his real birth must have been in 4BC or a little earlier.

Actually, maybe not. Check out this piece from the National Catholic Register.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

On Solving the World's Problems

St. Michael the Archangel

Everyone ought to have a leftist friend—or, if you are yourself of the left, a rightist friend. Without one, how do you know what the other side really thinks? And, if you do not know what they think, how do you know whether you really disagree?

The trick is staying friendly. Sadly, most people these days don’t talk with those on the other side of the culture wars; that is what happens when it becomes a kind of war. I think abortion made it a war; it is now hard to be a leftist without being consciously immoral. And it is hard to be sanguine about the difference between right and wrong.

I am lucky enough, though, to have more than one friend who is on the left and who is still speaking to me. One of them recently presented me with what seems a, maybe the, fundamental argument for leftism generally.

Here it is, in point form:
  1. We imagine heaven as a place without wars, without armies or weapons, of perfect equality, where nobody dominates anyone else.
  2. If we can imagine this in heaven, we can imagine it on earth.
  3. If it is imaginable, it is possible.
  4. Therefore, we ought to work to make earth like this.

Sounds good, on the face of it. And this seems to me to raise some important and interesting points.

First, can we really imagine heaven as a place without wars?

St. James
I think not.

Those who have read the Bible will be aware that it indeed speaks of a “war in heaven.” St. Michael and all that. Revelation 12: 7-9, inter alia.

This is usually thought of as happening in the primordial past; but in fact, in Revelations, it is also reported as a future event, part of the end times. Jesus also speaks, cryptically, of “the violent taking heaven by storm” (Matthew 11:2) at the time of the New Testament.

And, at the end of the Book of Revelations, when the New Jerusalem, the ultimate image of the perfection of the created world, descends from the sky… it has walls. “It had a great, high wall with twelve gates” (Revelations 21:12). There is no point to a walled city if there is no threat of war.

St. John sees the New Jerusalem descend from heaven.

So the matter is clear. Not only has there been war in heaven, but war is an eternal feature of heaven. There was war in heaven before Adam and Eve, and there will be war in heaven at the end of time.

And there are armies in heaven. God is “Lord of Hosts,” “The Lord who commands armies” (Isaiah 6:5).

Is there free will in heaven? Of course; there has to be; it would not be heaven if we lost our free will in getting there. But so long as there is free will, there is the chance of choosing evil. Ask, not only Lucifer, but Adam and Eve, who chose evil in the very face of the beatific vision. Therefore, there can be and has been moral conflict in heaven. And, if there has ever been war in heaven, there is always war in heaven. That is the nature of things eternal.

Does the presence there of war make heaven less than heaven? No, just the reverse. Ask any decent storyteller. A story without conflict is dead. Would a heaven that is deadly boring be heaven? No.

Ergo, heaven without war is inconceivable. The difference with earth, I suspect, is that in heaven, as in a work of fiction, the participant, the reader or the fictional character, never really gets hurt.

Is war in itself evil? Certainly not, if it is a clear contest between good and evil. It is not evil to fight evil, for that would be a contradiction in terms. While we have a moral obligation to avoid unjust war, it is too often forgotten that we have, equally, a moral obligation to engage in just war. It is pacifism, not war, that is objectively immoral.

Consider this too: how could a truly moral person be content sitting in heaven strumming a harp with the awareness that evil and suffering persisted in the created world below? Therefore, so long as there is ill-being on earth, there must also be conflict in heaven. Happiness would require continuing to fight in that war. Hence, of course, the Catholic doctrine of saints. And at the end of time? That is eternity, and eternity is not an absence nor an infinite extension of time; it is a point from which all times are equidistant. The war is still present.

So premise 1 in my friend’s argument is false.

But let’s not pass on without dealing as well with equality, since that is yet closer to the modern left’s bosom.

Here too, it is quite clear from the Bible that there is no equality in heaven. There is an elaborate hierarchy. There are ranks of angels, and levels of saints, with thrones, principalities, powers, some elders seated closer to the throne of God than others (Revelations 4:4), and so forth. When James and John ask for seats at Jesus’s left and right, he does not demand equality; he says that it is not for him to choose.

Really, equality in heaven is a strange idea. There is no equality with God, of course. Moreover, why would someone who was “no better than he should be” be equal in heaven to a Mother Teresa, an Oskar Schindler, or a John the Baptist, who demonstrate “heroic virtue”?

This is objectively unjust.

The idea that there should be equality in heaven, I gather, comes from a misunderstanding on the left of what political equality on earth means or ought to mean--a concept that itself comes from Christianity. It means everyone should get the same chances; not that everyone should get the same results. We understand and accept that when we put murderers in prison. Meritocracy is not opposed to true equality, but is its result. The absence of meritocracy is automatically inequality.

If heaven, or indeed social justice, is our aim, then, the left has it wrong. We should not be seeking a situation in which everyone gets the same salary, for example, but one in which everyone is rewarded according to their efforts. Just as in heaven. The whole concept of heaven and hell is of ultimate just rewards, not everyone ending up with the same result.

On to point 2 and 3: that what we can imagine in heaven, we can imagine on earth; and what is imaginable is possible. This is true in a sense, but trivial. The limits of what we can imagine are the limits of what we can imagine. And we cannot imagine anything that is logically or mathematically impossible. But we can imagine things that are impossible in practical terms, like flying pigs or the moon being made from green cheese.

Just so, anything we can imagine happening in a dream, we necessarily can imagine happening in waking life. But if I dream that I can fly, it is not necessarily a good idea to jump off a tall building the next morning.

In fact, recognizing this distinction is more or less definitive of sanity.

Practical circumstances in heaven and on earth might be somewhat different.

But let’s even allow points 1, 2, and 3. I think there is still a problem with point 4: that we ought to work to make earth more like heaven.

Actually, why? Couldn’t God manage it on his own? Isn’t he omnipotent and all? So why isn’t it perfect already?

In other words, it follows from God’s omnipotence that the world is as it is largely because it ought to be or must be so.

So should we change it? Are we sure?

It takes long and sober thought to understand what our proper role and purpose is here. To seek to remold the world to fulfill our desires is not obviously it; it might instead be an act of disobedience, of arrogance, and of selfishness. One thinks, first off, of the Tower of Babel. The builders sought to make something “whose top may reach unto heaven.” Bad idea. As bad as Eve’s similar plan “to be as God.”

Why are we here, then? Genesis suggests an answer: Genesis 2: 15. We were created to tend a garden. It is not our garden; we are just the gardeners.

And, at least at the creation, there was no need to work the garden for material sustenance; that came after the fall (Genesis 3:17-18). Though we have to do that now as well, that was not the purpose. It is not that kind of garden.

Now, if a gardener is not gardening for food, what is his purpose? What other kind of garden is there?

He is gardening for beauty. That is our mission: to change and adapt the natural world as and when this produces greater beauty. Pruning here, weeding there.

But not just beauty in the strictest sense. It is important to add, with Keats, that truth and moral good are both forms of beauty—the selfless good deed, the mathematical equation that elegantly solves the problem.

This may, but does not obviously or automatically, involve political action.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The State of the World This Friday

I suppose it is too obvious to say that war involving North Korea is unlikely. There in nothing in it for North Korea or her government but suicide, and nothing in it for South Korea or the US. The one danger, and it is real, is that those in charge in North Korea – i.e., Kim Jong Un – are so completely sheltered from reality that they actually believe they can win such a war. We've seen it before: Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, events in Egypt may herald the end of “radical Islam.” The Muslim Brotherhood have the misfortune of having been left holding the bag during a disastrous period of chaos and economic recession. Actual rule has already discerdited political Islamism among the people of Iran, reputedly. Mosque attendance in Iran has fallen through the floor; it might imply supporting the government. Egypt may do the same for the Arab world.

On top of that, political Islamism's sources of funding may soon be drying up. It has been boosted by Middle Eastern oil wealth. The fracking revolution in North America looks to me likely to force down the price of oil soon and for the foreseeable future, taking a lot of that money out of the system. 

In any case, Islamism has always looked to me like a retrograde movement, an attempt to slam the door on a perceived cultural threat from globalization. By their nature, such movements tend not to succeed and tend to collapse suddenly. I, for one, hope that Islam itself is not tainted by it all in the end.

I expect Europe to continue to coast downhill. Isn't it obvious, with the latest crisis in Cyprus, that things there are steadily getting worse? It's only a matter of time before the Euro falls apart, and that will cause some dislocations. Things will not really be able to start getting better until that happens.


Why Italy?

Prince Henry the Navigator, true father of the Renaissance, and quite possible the most influential European who ever lived. Certainly worth the longest picture caption in the history of Od's Blog, in any event.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. You needn't say a word.

You want to know why, if the Renaissance was caused, as I say in my new Grand Theory of History and Everything, by the early explorations of Henry the Navigator of Portugal, the Renaissance started in Italy instead of right there in Portugal. Granted that all of Europe was wired together, still, why Italy?

Here's why. Nominally, Henry's expeditions were Portuguese, but in real terms, the Portguguese mariners were mostly the agents of Florence and Genoa. The Florentines were the financial backers for the expeditions. When the enterprise proved valuable, the Florentines were the first to profit and the first to know. Then, once the new trade routes had opened, who had the kit and the expertise for the cargo trade? Not the Portuguese; they were fishermen. The Genoese and Florentines had been in the business for centuries around the Mediterranean, along with Venice. As soon as Madeira was discovered, it was the Genoese traders who brought in and planted sugar cane and sugar beets, opened the entrepots at either destination, started the various supporting businesses, and hauled the “sweet salt” back to Europe, in Genoese and Florentine ships manned by Genoese and Florrentine sailors.

Henry took the trouble to train his own shipbuilders and navigators. When other European monarchs wanted to get in on the action, they took the quick and dirty route. They hired Genoese and Florentine captains, Europe's most experienced. The Spanish contracted with Christopher Columbus, and the English with John Cabot, both from Genoa. The French cut a deal with Verrazano and the Spanish another with Amerigo Vespucci, both from Florence.

Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the Americas are named. Kind of like naming an entire hemisphere "Bob," actually.

In sum, once the rush to the new lands began, it was the Italians who had the greatest opportunities, as sea captains, sailors, traders, and merchants; as everything but farmers. The opportunity to settle and farm was open to just about anyone in Europe, but the Portuguese themselves did not seem especially eager to seize the chance. Flanders, then also under the Spanish or Portuguese crowns, seemed more active in sending actual settlers—perhaps not coincidentally, Flanders became the second great site of the Renaissance.

Kind of makes you think.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

We Need Feminism because ...

My contributions to the ongoing “We need feminism because …” campaign seen in many places on the internet.

We need feminism because bureaucracies must self-perpetuate. A lot of cushy, well-paid jobs depend on it.

We need feminism because common sense is so pre-modern.

We need feminism for relief from the many real and serious problems in the world.

We need feminism ... because I say so.

We need feminism because, with the decline of Nazism and Stalinism, the world needs more political “isms.”

We need feminism to give political support to False Memory Syndrome.

We need feminism because quotas have always been a force for good.

We need feminism because sexual equality is unfair to women.

We need feminism because in politics, many women care only about themselves, and they need a voice.

We need feminism because at our age, nostalgia for a mythologized past is all many of us Baby Boomers have left.

We need feminism because there shouldn't be only one “f-word” in the dictionary.

We need feminism because civilization was getting boring anyway.

We need feminism because weak women need an intellectual ghetto where they can feel safe.

We need feminism because Eve was right all along.

We need feminism because I have to finish this sentence somehow.

We need feminism because even bad ideas must be heard, or we cannot be sure of hearing the good ideas when they come along.

We need feminism because Gaea commands it.

We need feminism because without it, some might still be tempted to take the left seriously.

We need feminism because it gives a lot of bored rich women something to do with all their free time.

We need feminism because it may not be very bright, but it's cute ... and easy to lay.

We need feminism because too many princesses are still oppressed by too many peas.

We need feminism because the richer you are, the more needs you have.

We need feminism because holes in the head are not really medically advisable.

We need feminism because without it, how would we have known that fish need bicycles?

We need feminism because this placard says so.

We need feminism because without it, “women’s studies” would require actual study.

We need feminism because it allows women the intellectual equivalent of preening themselves in a mirror. Forever.

We need feminism because it is more supportive than realityism.

We need feminism because it validates our bitchy moods.

We need feminism because don’t you dare even ask.

We need feminism because it is more fun than femennonism.

Happy to help.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

My New Theory of History and Everything

Cantino Planisphere, 1502 - What the Portuguese knew as of that date.
When adventurers heading to the gold fields during the Yukon gold rush wintered in Athabasca, Alberta, their camp was commonly known as “the Bohemian camp.”

This says something, I think, about the type of people who were drawn west. Robert W. Service spoke of “the men who don’t fit in”--men discontented with life in general, but in particular with social life. They seek freedom, not in the purely political, but in a deep, existential sense. These were not immoral men, mind; those came later. As Bob Dylan once said, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” There is no profit in robbery until those around you have established themselves in some way. It is when the scoundrels arrive, in the second or third wave of immigration, that government and law and regulation become necessary. The first men off the wagons are, on the whole, unusually intelligent, brave, inventive, curious men.

Bohemian Camp, Bennett Lake, 1898

The reason for this is that the world is tailored, inevitably, to the average man. Not only in a democracy, but anywhere, regulations are mostly made by average men—because, on average, it will always be an average man in charge. This is no different in the universities, or in the professions, than anywhere else; although there are exceptions elsewhere. By their nature, as well, any regulations eliminate not just the substandard, but just as automatically anything very superior to the standard.

As a result, settled life in an established society is more or less constant torture for the highly intelligent. They will always be in the wrong. And, unlike the stupid or lazy, they can never “learn better.”

And so a prime need of the highly intelligent in order to survive, let alone thrive, is to escape in some way from social constraints.

One measure of this need of the highly intelligent is the fact that the greatest writers, artists, philosophers, or scientists commonly choose exile from their homeland. Li Bai; Picasso; Einstein; Joyce; Descartes; Columbus; Voltaire; Yeats; Rumi; Kubrick; Hitchcock; Hemingway; Hesse; Dante; Da Vinci; Aristotle; Plato; Leibniz; Berkeley … it is the usual and expected thing. Other geniuses have accomplished about the same by dropping out of society in place for a reclusive existence: Mendel, Newton, Salinger, Darwin, Kant, Aquinas, St. John of the Cross.

But having a new wilderness to go to is even better, especially for the brilliant who are not either well –educated or born well-off. The ability of America, if only through geography, to offer a free frontier beyond the reach of law for generations was a profoundly important thing. It preserved the most intelligent and adventurous in the population, their creations, and their posterity. Elsewhere, they would have been “mute, inglorious Miltons,” beaten down and then forgotten. In the US, they had the option to move on, and experiment, and if necessary move on again.

New Harmony, Indiana, as proposed, 1838

Reading recently about the “Burnt-Over District” of Western New York, it is striking how much it resembles an earlier version of California. Buffalo and the Erie shore was really the original “West Coast” of America, full like California of crazy new ideas and social experiments like Mormonism, Spiritism, Shakerism, or the Oneida Community. This was the result of the Erie Canal opening up Western New York in the early 19th century to settlement by the most adventurous dreamers living on the Atlantic littoral at the time, with the promise of the vast northwest territories beyond if things did not work out.

In the next generations, the Bohemians headed for the Midwest, the Great Plains, the Great Basin and the Pacific Coast, each time bringing a taste for freedom, a creative ferment and a tendency to try crazy new things. You can track the same path for American folk culture: the Appalachians, the myths, legends, songs, and poetry of the cowboy; Mark Twain’s writing; jazz and blues and gospel along the Mississippi; Zane Grey, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis; essentially, America.

To a significant extent, the same thing was also happening in America’s cities on the East Coast. New waves of adventurous and intelligent and creative malcontents were arriving in from Europe each generation, and causing their own famous ferment. But I suspect on balance we overestimate the value of the latter, and underestimate the former. Firstly, up until the 20th century, it was the former, the opening of new lands westwards, that made the latter possible. Secondly, there is a difference between emigrating to another, established society, and emigrating beyond the reach of civilization itself. The latter, obviously, gives more room for raw freedom and experimentation.

We have recently, I think, been predisposed to overestimate the value of cultural mixing; that is the whole idea of "multiculturalism," and fits well with the fall of Constantinople as the origin of the Renaissance. But it may be that escape from one's home culture is the greater inspiration. After all, most of the famous exiled writers we mentioned did not as a result add a major part of their new host culture into their work. Joyce and Yeats are not remarkable for any great injection of French culture into Irish letters. Some assume elements of the new host culture; some ignore it. But both find the expatriate experience preferable.

Is this the true secret of America’s political, social, cultural, and economic success? I suspect it is; why wouldn’t it be?

Growth and Decline of the British Empire

Britain’s earlier success seems built on a similar model: Britain had the sea, and the adventurous and discontented could hope to find a tropical island somewhere or some other outpost of Empire with which to escape the oppression of social conformity. And this, simply, is why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. Let’s date its start, as Wikipedia does, from 1760. What else was happening at about that time? From 1744-1760, Clive was busily securing India. In 1759, Wolfe took Quebec and Canada, securing as well the American colonies. In 1770, Cooke took Australia. Odd coincidence in timing, that; nor can the Industrial Revolution be credited with the expansion of Empire, which came before it. The causation has to be the other way around: the sudden opportunity to emigrate inspired the burst of technical and scientific innovation. Not to mention the burst of innovation in the arts we now know as the British Romantic period; starting, traditionally, with the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

How about the Western European Renaissance? The most popular explanation for this sudden flowering of inventiveness and cultural progress is the fall of Constantinople, and the flight west of so many Greek scholars. But it is also strikingly coterminous with the first great surge of Western exploration. Some dates: 1402 - Castille begins to colonize the Canary Islands. 1420 – Portuguese discover and colonize the Madeira Islands. 1427 – Portuguese discover and colonize the Azores. 1434 – Portuguese sail past Cape Bojador, traditionally considered the limit of the navigable world. 1441 – Portuguese sail past Cape Blanco. 1444 – Portuguese sail past Cap-Vert and into Sub-Saharan Africa; huge new trade route opened up. 1450 – Gutenberg discovers the printing press. 1453 – Constantinople falls. 1462 - Portuguese trading as far south as Sierra Leone. 1488 – Dias reaches Cape of Good Hope. 1492 – Columbus discovers America. 1495 – Da Vinci, The Last Supper. 1498 – Da Gama reaches India. 1503 – Mona Lisa. 1504 – David. 1509 – Erasmus, In Praise of Folly. 1512 – Sistine Chapel. 1516 – More, Utopia. 1519-1522 – Magellan circumnavigates the globe. 1543 – Copernicus, De Revolutionibus.

Portuguese map of claimed territory, 15th century.

In this timeline, we see three possible triggers for the Renaissance, three early epochal events: the invention of movable type, the fall of Constantinople, and the first striking out westward to trade with the wild unknown lands beyond. The dates are, respectively, 1450, 1453, and 1402. Obviously, an event in 1453 cannot cause one in 1450; only 1402 accounts for all three. Suddenly, the European imagination was unleashed, by the opportunity to pack up everything and head for the open sea. With the discovery of Madeira, the original "desert island" was found--previously uninhabited, virgin land. And there was obvious promise of more in the same direction; every few years after this point, the Portuguese or the Spanish were finding another uninhabited but habitable island group off the coast of Africa or further to the West. When, in 1444, the Portuguese arrived south of the Sahara, a wandering life at sea also suddenly became much more viable, with the new possibilities for trade.

Nor was this opportunity limited in any sense to the Portuguese. Western Europe in general, and Southern Europe in particular, was not yet divided culturally into nation states. Everyone who read or wrote wrote Latin. Italian seamen like Columbus and Cabot could sail just as easily under the flag or in the ships of England or Spain, and the two men who took the Canaries for Castille were French. The early settlers of the Canaries came from all over Europe; as did the early settlers of the Azores.

The westward and southward expansion inspires creativity in those who stay at home as well. Even if they never leave, they know they have this safety valve. They can experiment freely, and escape punishment or ruin if necessary by packing a bag and catching the next ship.

It occurs to me, moreover, that the very same conditions would have held in ancient Greece, explaining the great flowering of that civilization 2,500 or so years ago. The Greeks too had the sea, and were busily setting up colonies all around the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. Any individual or group dissatisfied with their polis could easily move out and on.

Might this not be the secret of cultural greatness generally? That is, the possibility of escape for the unusually intelligent to some virgin territory? The period of Western cultural dominance has lasted from the moment the Portuguese rounded Cap-Vert until now, but has shifted within European culture to whichever area had the best immediate prospects for outward migration.

But if this is indeed the secret of cultural growth, we seem to have fallen on bad times. Worldwide, emigration is much more difficult now than it was only a few generations ago. Government and its regulations are becoming stronger and more pervasive everywhere. The creative American cadre that spread west as far as California has hit the inevitable barrier of the sea; the American frontier disappeared officially in about 1890.

And it is not easy to see any new lands to settle. Yes, we can go to the moon and Mars; there is even a fair bit of empty terrain left in places like Canada. But this is not the same. One needs empty terrain on which one can settle as an individual. These remaining places are only possible with huge amounts of organization and government machinery. Once there, it is not obviously possible to make a living without retaining complex relationships with the original society. One cannot simply subsistence farm, or set up a trading post and live by barter.

A generation ago, however, the lingering sons and grandsons of the frontier, in California, created cyberspace. That offered many new opportunities for creative minds. That too is starting to get fenced in and regulated; but there is some hope that new cyberlands will still be found. With new cyberlands, it becomes possible in turn for people to homestead in currently remote areas, and make a living online.

So there is hope for the future of mankind.

And, dare I say it, there is one more possible option for the very bright, in the English speaking world. It is called English teaching.

Laugh if you like. If you do, you have no idea what a stimulating bunch of Bohemians the typical ESL faculty is in any non-English-speaking college or university.

There are strong drives afoot to fence in these fields too, and pass it all on to the drudges. I have hopes, though, that the nature of the life will prevent this; as it has, elsewhere, with circus people or gypsies. Conventional people don’t thrive on culture shock.