Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Review: A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell

Dr. Thomas Sowell is one of those authors whose laundry lists I'd read. Reading A Conflict of Visions was one of the "Ah-ha!" moments of my life.

Sowell is an economist, newspaper columnist and Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a prolific writer on economics, public policy, history, culture and the politics of race. His opinions are often controversial and he has strong detractors and supporters. Agree or disagree, he is an opinion leader of considerable influence in our society today.

In observing arguments for and against a wide variety of positions, Dr. Sowell reports that he noticed that in many cases participants seemed to be arguing not so much against each other, but past each other. In other words, each person was arguing not against the others’ position but what they perceived those positions to be, which was often far different from the actual positions held.

Over time he refined his observations into the theory expressed in, A Conflict of Visions – Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (Basic Books, 2002). I believe this book has critical insights important for understanding the major ideological conflicts within Western civilization and has specific application to understanding the controversies concerning academic and journalistic bias.

His thesis is that prior to paradigms, world-views, theories or any rationally articulated models there is an underlying vision, defined (quoting Joseph Schumpeter) as a “pre-analytic cognitive act”. Sowell further defines a vision, “It is what we sense or feel before we have constructed any systematic reasoning that could be called a theory, much less deduced any specific consequences as hypotheses to be tested against evidence. A vision is our sense of how the world works.”

Visions are a sense of the possibilities of human reason and power to act purposefully to achieve desired ends and are broadly defined as Constrained and Unconstrained. An unconstrained vision sees articulated reason as powerful and potent to shape human society, a constrained vision sees human beings as more limited by human nature and natural law.

Dr. Sowell concedes that visions are rarely pure but range from strongly to weakly constrained or unconstrained. People may hold one sort of vision in a certain sphere of opinion and another in a different sphere, there are hybrid visions (Marx and John Stuart Mill are given examples) and people sometimes change predominant visions over their lifetimes.

It is important to note that he does not equate constrained and unconstrained visions with the Left/ Right model of the political spectrum, nor do they strongly reflect the Libertarian/ Authoritarian dichotomy. An unconstrained vision characterizes the Utopian Socialists of the early nineteenth century (such as Fourier) but is also strongly expressed by William Godwin, considered by many to be the founder of modern Anarchism, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

The unconstrained vision is more often characteristic of those who would use the coercive power of the state to affect great changes in the structure of society and human nature, but it cannot be assumed that a constrained vision leads to a blind defense of the status quo. He gives the example of Adam Smith, an exemplar of a strongly constrained vision, was an advocate of sweeping social changes such as the abolition of slavery and an end to mercantilist policies.

Once grasped, Dr. Sowell’s theory makes sense of some seeming inconsistencies and contradictions in both Left and Right positions.

For example, though there is a tendency for the constrained vision to predominate among the politically Conservative and free market advocates, it is not absolute or consistent. A Conservative may argue for the superior efficacy of market processes to serve the social good (as opposed to purposeful direction of the economy) but fail to see the market for illegal drugs as subject to the same laws of supply and demand as other commodities or consider the argument that the process costs of drug prohibition may be higher than the social costs of drug addiction. In fact, the phrase “consider the argument” is misleading. It is possible that the argument simply does not exist in his perceptual universe and is interpreted as advocacy for drug use.

On the other end of the political spectrum, a thinker such as Paul Ehrlich (in The Population Bomb) may argue from the highly constrained view of Thomas Malthus on population and food resources, combined with an unconstrained view of the ability of the state to effectively control population and allocation of resources for the general good of mankind.

And we see on both the Left and Right, visionaries holding strong beliefs about the ability of humans to deliberately shape culture to reflect whichever set of values held by their respective advocates. Though much experience in the twentieth century has shown how limited the ability of men is to design culture as if it were an engineering project, and how disastrous the attempts often are, men and women of unconstrained vision persist in their advocacy of policies intended to rid society of gender defined roles on the one hand or of behavior considered “vice” on the other.

So the question arises, if the concept of the contrasting visions is hedged about with so many qualifications, is it at all useful in categorizing belief systems or explaining behavior?

I believe it is highly useful. In Western civilization there exists no serious argument about the desirability of that condition expressed by the words “freedom” and “equality”. Yet in the West we find that whenever advocates of various causes argue for their sides, their definitions do not coincide, i.e. they argue past each other.

Advocates of redistributionist policies, affirmative action to achieve more socioeconomic equality and a high degree of taxation and market regulation are seen as tending towards totalitarianism by advocates of a less intrusive government.

Contrariwise, advocates of leaving the pursuit of the social good to voluntary and market processes are seen by political opponents as apologists for powerful and rapacious economic elites in their drive to impose a quasi-royal authority on society via economic coercion.

For those who see government as a powerful engine for social engineering, it is desired results that matter. If it is possible for the state to eliminate poverty and insure socio-economic success for historically disadvantaged groups then it follows that it is immoral not to do so. Arguments that the goals lie outside the state’s competence or that process costs are too high or that the attempt itself is counterproductive will simply not register and almost inevitably must be interpreted in terms of ulterior motive.

Thus a TV journalist can make a parenthetical remark on a broadcast about how African-Americans are still not as “free” as Whites in the US. One who considers freedom to be the absence of legal coercion might ask how are they not free today when all forms of legal discrimination have been abolished by Supreme Court decisions and federal law? The answer would reflect the definition of “freedom” as opportunity, a definition that will conflate “poor and disadvantaged” with “unfree”.

The definition that limits freedom to a relationship of men in society where physical force or fraud in human relationships is made illegal with no further attempt to redress inequalities of wealth, education, opportunity etc, is sometimes derided as “freedom to starve”.

Likewise the condition called “equality” is seen by those with opposing visions as either a process or a result, leading them to almost diametrically opposite interpretations of the term. To someone of unconstrained vision who views equality as a result, the socioeconomic lagging of certain groups behind others is prima facie evidence of externally imposed inequality (such as persistent discrimination) in society. To someone who views equality as the absence of legally imposed barriers to opportunity, the outcome is the result of values and choices and irrelevant to questions of justice as seen by people of unconstrained vision.

Those with a constrained vision tend to regard socioeconomic inequalities between individuals and groups as the inevitable result of inborn human variations in ability, different cultural indoctrination in values that promote or retard economic success and individual choices. Those of unconstrained vision tend to regard them as the result of artificially imposed constraints and when inequalities persist beyond the removal of obvious constraints will keep looking for them rather than change their model of causation.

Dr. Sowell has elaborated this theory far more than can be covered in a short review. He examines in detail visions of justice, power and equality and the difference between visions and paradigms, values and theories.

What is important to the problem of both academic and journalistic bias is how contrasting visions lead to unconscious assumptions about how the world works, and how that affects their interpretation of events. For those of unconstrained vision, though socioeconomic equality may be a strongly held value, they are nonetheless going to tend strongly towards intellectual elitism. If articulated reason is held to be the most powerful force for the social good then it must follow that society should be lead by the most advanced and progressive thinkers. Those who view the collective wisdom of individuals operating within their own spheres of experience to be superior to the ability of others to direct their destinies will be seen as self-interested, reactionary and apologists for injustice.

Those who see themselves as being in the intellectual vanguard of progress will tend to be strongly attracted to the fields of teaching, liberal arts, humanities, and journalism, and moreover, will tend to regard journalism as an extension of the teaching profession.

Unconstrained visions flourish in the absence of deep experience. In business, the natural sciences and engineering, theories about the way things ought to work (within their sphere of activity) are constantly tested against the way they do in fact work: profitability, repeatable experiments and bridges that don’t fall down all serve as reality checks against extending theory further than is warranted by the facts.

An academic environment tends to insulate against experience and journalism, by the nature of the news cycle, tends to expose practitioners to a superficial kind of experience, most especially among the newsreader “talking heads” who are basically presenters rather than researchers.

The consequences of the predominance of this vision among many academics and journalists are subtle and powerful and may include:

*Dismissal of other points of view as unworthy of reporting rather than attempting to refute them, not from motives of conscious fraud but simply from failure to take them seriously, often because of…

*Attribution of motive. It noteworthy how often arguments give the “real” motive of the opposing point of view – the one thing that cannot be known for certain. Motives can be strongly inferred only by a ruthlessly honest appraisal of one’s own nature – but it is seldom the case that a partisan for a particular point of view argues that “His motive is probably thus because that is what I experience in myself.”

*Unsupported parenthetical remarks among university lecturers and telejournalists. A broadcast from location often cannot be edited due to time constraints. It is interesting to note how often among the narrative of events a sentence that is unsupported comment can be slipped in.

*The use of ad hominem attacks (both Direct and Circumstantial) on someone’s credibility, probably coming from the unconscious assumption that since articulated reason can show the way to the social good, then conclusions about how to achieve it must be consistent among reasonable people. Disagreement about means and ends are seen as coming from ulterior motives, villainy or stupidity.

Dr. Sowell sees the theory as explaining a lot about the ideological struggles of the past two centuries – and sees no end in sight for the conflict of visions. However an appreciation of the role of visions in shaping worldviews can help make sense of opposing views for those who disagree and shows us that opposing views are not capriciously chosen or necessarily stemming from ulterior motives, but are internally self-consistent within the framework of the underlying vision. One may even hope that this appreciation may lead at least to genuine argument of the points at issue rather than character assassination and attribution of rapaciously self-interested motive.

It is fairly obvious that the constrained vision is behind much economic thinking. Economics is after all fundamentally about the way that human beings allocate finite resources. It is not clear that Dr. Sowell is making a blanket condemnation of the unconstrained vision though. He has noted that in the years since he first published, Malthus (on the constrained side) has been proven consistently wrong and he has credited both William Godwin and Ayn Rand (both exponents of the doctrine of the godlike power of human reason) as contributing to the evolution of modern libertarian thought. Possibly a certain element of the unconstrained vision serves to fire the imagination and may be necessary for motivating the spirit of social reform. Only when carried to extremes does it become a demand that society be everywhere remade to conform to a vision of perfection.

It also seems evident that though America was founded by men of largely constrained vision, there have been elements of both visions in our national culture from the beginning. The Founding Fathers did in fact design our federal institutions and were quite aware that they were creating a new social order by an act of will. However, they did so with a realistic appraisal of human nature, careful research of historical confederations and built upon local institutions that had been in operation for nearly two centuries. Since our beginnings American culture has reflected both utopian and pragmatic visions, a pattern that shapes our political discourse to this day.


The following chart is drawn from some of the major points of Dr. Sowell’s theory of visions. Since it is a collection of very short abstractions, responsibility for how well it represents the author’s thought rests with me.

Constrained Vision:
Sees human nature as fixed, unchanging, selfish and ambitious, which must be subordinated to society to some extent.

Unconstrained Vision:
Sees human nature as malleable, perfectible whose uncorrupted form will be expressed in the good society.
CV: Freedom is defined as the absence of coercion by other human beings.

UV: Unfreedom seen as the absence of opportunity.
CV: Emphasis on process costs. Seeks optimum trade-offs.

UV: Emphasis on motives and the desired results. Seeks solutions.
CV: Sees tradition as expressing the accumulated experience of the culture.

UV: Sees tradition largely as outmoded superstition.
CV: Sees articulated reason as less important than “distributed knowledge” expressed in market processes. Emphasis on experience.

UV: Sees articulated reason as powerful and effective. Emphasis on logic.
CV: Seeks the social good in making allowances for human nature, such as checks and balances in government, using mutual jealousy as a counterbalance against ambition and greed on the part of the powerful.

UV: Seeks the social good in the elevation of an enlightened and progressive leadership.
CV: Preference for evolved systems.

UV: Preference for designed systems.
CV: Characterized by the belief that the evils of the world can be explained by inherent characteristics of human nature. War and crime may be rational, if immoral, choices.

UV: Characterized by the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world. War and crime seen as aberrations.
CV: Tends to compare the status quo with worse alternatives.

UV: Tends to compare the status quo with hypothetical perfection.
CV: Exemplary thinkers: Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, The Federalist, Thomas Malthus, de Tocqueville, Oliver Wendell Holmes, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman…

UV: Exemplary thinkers: William Godwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Condorcet, Fourier, Harold Laski, Thorstein Veblen, John Kenneth Galbraith, Ronald Dworkin…

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

End of semester

I'm not posting as often these few weeks because of end-of-semester chaos.

I've done this before with a kid - but never before with a new baby. Plus that makes it two kids. It's all part of the way I'm living my life backwards, like Merlin as portrayed by T.H. White. Some of my old friends now have kids of their own going through the same thing.

I've got a couple of weeks to write two papers and complete one thesis proposal. There is a lot of reading and prep work, but the fact is that I do the most important work inside my head, before I even begin to take notes. However that makes even me nervous as the deadlines approach and I haven't set fingers to keyboard yet.

In case you're interested, what I'm doing is: 1) designing a study (interviews most likely) of foreign-language media in Oklahoma, 2) a rhetorical analysis of Robert Emmet's speach on the occasion of his being sentenced to death in 1803, and 3) an essay arguing that the study of mass media effects and propaganda should begin with the study of classical rhetoric.

* And about Robert Emmet and other Irish rebels, I sometimes wonder why a nation known as "Britains nursery of soldiers" produced so many spectacularly incompetent revolutionaries?

* And media... it's interesting that Imus got canned, but now evidently Rosie O'Donnell has too - or at least left The View by hearty mutual agreement. Do you suppose the audiences are getting tired of no-class, trash-talking bullies?

OK, perhaps I don't believe it either.

* What gives that we have to wait until 2008 for new Battlestar Galactica? Is production of episodes really slow because of special effects or what? This is one of the few shows I've ever followed that kept consistently ahead of me. I've never anticipated where the most important plot lines have gone, and that's saying a lot.

* Worse, I've picked up a new habit - Rome. I'm not going to see any more of that for several months either. Rome feels more like history than any movie or TV series I've ever seen.

Notice something about Rome? Reviews by Conservatives I've read rave about it, in spite of the fact that there's a lot of explicit sex.

* We've also found a new sitcom - Notes from the Underbelly. I wonder if anyone who hasn't gone through the pregnancy thing, either pregnant or partner, can really appreciate it? It's the first new sitcom I've enjoyed enough to follow since Scrubs, and I wonder why that is?

* God I miss Titus! Sort of a sitcom, but dark and very, very edgy.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


When I heard about the murders in Virginia I was having lunch with heroes.

These were Latin American journalists here on a program sponsored by the State Department and the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at Oklahoma University. Several of them were from places like Medellin and face the possibility of murder every time they leave their offices to cover a story - and sometimes don't even have to leave the office.

Because I hadn't turned on the TV all day, I hadn't heard anything about the mass murder at Virginia Tech. I had volunteered to drive the journalists, so we were having lunch at the Daily Oklahoman when the subject of journalistic coverage of human carnage "like what just happened in Virginia" came up.

Since then I've learned more than I cared to know about the evil bastard who did it. Turns out - no surprises. Everyone who knew him thought he was perfectly capable of doing this thing, and no one was really surprised that he did. He nonetheless had neither been arrested nor expelled for stalking, vandalism, arson, threatening or intimidating and thus passed the background check to buy firearms.

The "experts" medicalized his behavior then and even now. The craven administration of VT wouldn't - and won't, allow students to possess the means of self-defense on campus, nor would they kick an obvious scary psycho off it.

Debate rages about the ethics and practicality of showing the creepy video testament he mailed to NBC. Me... while I think they are porno-pimps for doing it, I say do it anyway. Let our people look into the face of evil. We need to, we've forgotten that evil exists, that there are people out there who hate you for nothing you've done to them but for what you are - happy.

Will it inspire copycats? Probably, evil is notably unoriginal.

Two names stand out with honor amidst this horror, Liviu Librescu and Nikki Giovanni. Professor Librescu barred the door to his classroom with his own body and bought with his life enough time for some of his students to escape. Professor Giovanni was the one teacher who had the murderer in her class who would not tolerate his threatening behaviour and kicked him out - and had to threaten to resign to do it. In a better world, they would make her president of the university.

Professor Librescu was a holocaust survivor, he recognized evil at once and knew what to do. Professor Giovanni was a teacher of poetry, which I also find highly significant but I'll leave it to you to consider why.

I hope I get to meet Professor Giovanni some day. I am almost unbearably sad that I will never get to meet Professor Librescu.

We've again had our noses rubbed in the fact that this happens. What I'd like to address now though is, what to do about it - and I mean you and me.

Don't be a victim.

Easier said than done, no? None of the dead at Virginia Tech intended to be a victim when they went off to college.

And I don't mean anything as simplistic as "buy a gun". Unless your life is such that the risk factors are considerably higher than that of the average college student, it could be more trouble than it's worth. (If you're male that is - like a lot of things we aren't supposed to talk about, it's different for women.)

The smallest, most portable handgun is still a pain in the ass to carry, and when you make the decision to live with a weapon you must live with a weapon. And I mean 24/7. A handgun is not something you accessorize with. A gun is only one possibility out of a whole range of strategies and preparations which must be considered when assessing your particular situation, and not even the most important one in any case.

What I mean is that you must educate yourself in non-victimhood. The three possible responses to the threat of violence, in rough order of desirability are:

1) Avoid it

2) Run away successfully

3) Fight back successfully

Excuse me, there is a fouth: die - or perhaps worse.

Number 1 is the most desirable, but we've seen that it's not always possible. Evil men determined to wreak horror will seek out victims, they will not just lie in wait for them.

Number 2 may or may not be possible, and furthermore there might be potential victims you could not bear to leave behind. Number 3 depends on how ready you are for that eventuality, and sometimes a lot of dumb luck.

Point being, whatever course of action you might choose, you must be ready to make the correct decision quickly and act on it.

I am a martial arts instructor and familiar with firearms, and will have more to say about training in the future, but I am not a professional security expert. Instead I will point you towards these individuals who are.

The first stop for educating yourself on the subject of self-defense in the broadest sense, is here http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/ the most comprehensive source of information in one place, by Marc "Animal" MacYoung. Get a cup of coffee, there is a LOT of information here, but very well-organized.

Next stop here: Masaad Ayoob http://www.ayoob.com/ one of the foremost firearms/ self-defense experts will give you several excellent reasons why you might not want to get a gun, and if you do, wise advice about the capabilities, responsibilities and limitations of gun ownership.


I would just add two things: if you don't want a gun in your house, car or on your person, or if the legal environment makes it an unreasonable risk, nonetheless you should familiarize yourself with guns and what they can do. Get your gun nut friend to take you shooting, even if only once. And if the range permits, shoot something other than paper targets such as bottles of water or melons. That gives you at least a rough idea of what bullets do inside flesh (80% water, remember).

Secondly, some of the best advice I've read about having guns in a house with children came, oddly enough, from Ms Magazine many years ago (in an article about security for the single mom). They said, let your small child fire the gun, with your arms wrapped around them and your hands around theirs on the gun. The idea is to let them experience how it kicks and how loud it is and they'll be less likely to consider it a toy. In other words - terrify them.

That and this piece of gun lore I intend to pass on to my kids. If mine want to take up shooting some day, I will encourage them and find a range that caters to young people. BUT - the first day they start shooting real guns is the last day they play with toy guns, "Bang bang you're dead" "Am not!" "Are too!'

* I commented on a previous mass murder (the Amish killings) with speculations on motive here http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/amish-tragedy.html

Friday, April 13, 2007

Why the Nazi comparison sets my teeth on edge

There is a question I've asked myself for years; why are the Nazis the paradigmatic symbol of evil for our civilization?

WHAT? (outraged) Don't you know history?

Yes, very well thank you. In fact, I know history well enough to realize that the Nazis come in a rather poor third in the 20th century mass murder sweepstakes, right after the USSR and the People's Republic of China. The murder toll of the USSR is, at minimum ten times greater than the Holocaust*.

Perhaps that's not a fair comparison, the Third Reich had only 12 years to accomplish what the USSR did in 81 years and the PRC in 62. Still one has to wonder, why nobody calls someone whose politics they don't like, a "Lenin", "Stalin", or a "Mao"?

Well one reason could be that the Nazis mostly murdered Europeans. The Chinese and the Russians were more distant peoples whose history and culture we knew little about. Perhaps it's the same reason we don't call someone a "Tojo", though the Japanese killed Chinese in numbers far exceeding the European casualties of WWII.

Another could be that the Nazis made the mistake of picking on a literate people capable of telling their story to the world. We all know something about Jewish history because it is part of the history of western civilization, but how many in the West know or care about the history of the Crimean Tartars, Ukrainians or Tibetans?

And, a bit of unconscious racism/culturism might be at work as well. Perhaps we expect Asians and Russians to behave with what we think of as "oriental cruelty", but Germany was a European nation whose contributions to western civilization are considerable.

But sometimes I get the depressing impression that the most important reason may be that it's safe to beat the Nazi horse, because it's a dead one. They lost.

The USSR was until recently, and the PRC still is, a terrifying reality in the present. And they had and have numerous apologists and defenders in the West. Neo-nazis are a small group of pathetic losers nursing a neurotic need for attention, who don't really scare anyone anymore.

I hear "Hitler" and "Nazi" tossed around by people who would never say "Stalin" or "Mao" or "communist". Is it because they are afraid of these kind of people? Or worse, is it because they
admire them on some level?

And why is it that when you compare someone like Ahmedinejad to the Nazis, who admires them and simultaneously denies the Holocaust while promising that next time he'll do it right, you get accused of being "extremist"?

But probably the biggest reason that the careless use of the "Nazi/Hitler" insult sets my teeth on edge, is - I've been to Auschwitz.

Auschwitz (Oswieciem (Osh-vee-en-chiem) in Polish) is a small town about an hour from Krakow by bus, in a rather remote rural area. Today the town has essentially two industries, camp tourism and a furniture factory on the other end of the main street. It makes me wonder what it's like to grow up there.

Before the Second World War, it was an ethnically German town. When Polish army reserve forces assembled there at the invasion, townspeople were taking pot shots at them from their windows as they retreated to the east. Because it was remote, had a railhead and an army base with lots of three-story barracks, it was convenient to convert it to the largest death factory of the whole concentration camp system. Since Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe (approximately 15% of the country's population) it was most efficient to transport Jews from the much smaller communities of other countries there to be murdered.

I was told before I went there that it could make you sick. It didn't. Instead what I felt was numb. Like I'd had a shot of novocaine in my emotion center.

I had pictured it differently, more like the image of Stalag something-or-other in The Great Escape. You know, wooden barracks on stilts. These were actually three-story brick buildings that looked like they'd be perfectly comfortable dorms or barracks - if they hadn't been full of starving, brutalized people. I'm told the extermination camp nearby, now almost totally gone was more like that.

The gas chambers: square buildings divided into a smaller square in one quarter of the floor where the crematoria were, and an L-shaped room around it - the murder room.

I had imagined the crematoria as larger. These were like commercial ovens in size, with a slab big enough for one corpse. This was a shock to me when I realized that the sonderkommandos had to pull out and process each body one at a time. (I also didn't see any of the fake shower heads that I'd read about. A myth, or did they just not survive the years?)

There were exhibits from every country which had citizens who died there, each country was given a building to create their own. Some of the exhibits were devoted to countering holocaust denial: blankets with lab certificates confirming that they were made of human hair, canisters with certificates showing that they contained residues of Zyklon-B crystals, photos kept of experiments in starving humans to death.

Everyone who visits the camp probably has their own memory that time will never erase. Mine was from a wall of mug shots. Two of them near each other were of young girls, whose faces I will never forget till the day I die. One is a Polish-looking girl with long blonde hair, covered with a kerchief and dressed in peasant style. She looks into the camera, afraid but not really comprehending what is happening. The other is a girl of about the same age, 14-16 I'd guess, dressed in prison stripes with her hair shaved to a buzz cut. She's looking into the camera with a terrified expression, like she knows exactly what's going on.

* And I mean murder, the deliberate killing of helpless civilians or POWs, not direct or incidental casualties of war.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Those Brits

Well now the crisis is over - except now it'll never be over. But the Brits got their 15 servicemen (and one woman) back. They had a nice little love-in with Mr. President who gave them new suits and gift bags. This was followed by the obligatory media encounter group therapy session.

Everyone seems agreed that the Iranian whacko won this one hands down. Debate tepidly rages on about the conduct of the servicemen and how little time it took for them to crack. The Iranians seem to have had side-splitting fun intimidating them, without actually doing them any physical harm.

A former Iranian hostage from the Carter Crisis, guesting on Hannity and Colmes was obviously trying real hard to be kind, but invidious comparisons with the behaviour of the (mostly civilian) men and women who endured far worse for 444 days were impossible to ignore.

Colmes said, we got them back and isn't that all that matters? The media basically had to line up real war heroes to say their conduct was reprehensible - those of us who aren't, aren't supposed to criticize until we've been in their shoes.

Oh horse pucky! I don't know how I'd react in the same situation - but when it comes to the defense of me and mine, I want men who are tougher than I am mounting guard on this fat, happy, clueless country of ours.

And these were Royal Marines! In the UK, the Marines are far more of an elite outfit than even the USMC. They are mostly commandos trained to a standard comparable with any of the elite forces in the world.

And what few people have had the guts to ask is, what the hell was a mother with a child at home doing in a combat position? And what effect does this have in that ulta-patriarchal culture to parade her in front of the media, pat her on the head and say (in effect) "There there now little girl. You go home and play with your baby." Convince them that the forces of the West are composed of women and real sensitive guys?

But in all this, I think everybody has missed the point. Yes you could say that they betrayed their country. But don't forget - their country betrayed them first.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

300, part 2. The essential virtue

Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae.

What, silent still, and silent all?
Ah! no; the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent's fall,
And answer, "Let one living head,
But one arise,---we come, we come!"
'Tis but the living who are dumb.

The Isles of Greece
George Gordon, Lord Byron

As mentioned, 300 is generating quite a lot of argument between those who love it or loathe it. Much more than one would expect from a genre movie. Obviously it is touching some nerves.

When I saw the film, I observed a rare instance of spontaneous applause breaking out in the audience at one scene (don't worry, no spoilers here - and you'll probably know what scene when you see it) and I've read a touching story of two young marines leaving the theater and high-fiving each other with a hearty "Semper Fi!" Distinguished classicist Victor Davis Hanson liked it in spite of the liberties it took with history.

So who doesn't like it?

Well, the Iranians are mad as hell, partly because the bad guys are their Persian ancestors. It's been pointed out that the modern Iranian regime (unlike the late Shah's) has by policy denigrated its pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian past anyway so they have limited grounds to complain.

It is as might be expected, breaking records in Greece.

However, Iranians who are not jihadist crazies and are proud of their past might be made very uncomfortable. Xerxes is portrayed as semi-nude, shaven hairless and body-pierced giant. Classical Persians dressed in long robes, cultivated long hair and beards and had no recorded affinity for punk jewelry.

Persian kings of the period were not effeminate cowards either. The History channel notes that part of the graduating exercise of an heir to the throne's education was to be put in an arena with a lion, armed only with a spear.

More to the point, the Persian Empire successfully integrated a host of nations into a single polity in what was a reasonably humane manner for the time, practiced religious toleration and can themselves claim to have saved the West at an earlier date when Cyrus the Great rescued the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. Not to mention the fact that Athens provoked the first of the Persian invasions by sending troops to support the revolt of the Greek cities in Persian Anatolia.

The faux Persians in 300 are being used as symbols of an alien and threatening absolutism. In the 1950s a lot of alien invasion movies did the same. (If it turns out that there are Martians, and they've been watching our old movies on TV, we're going to have a lot to answer for.)

Some libertarians are objecting that the Spartans were a "militarist fascist state"* who practiced infanticide, pederasty, slavery and maintained the krypteia - a brutal secret police/KKK-like organization to keep the helot population terrified and under control. Some include Athens in their indictment of slave states as well.

This mixes valid considerations with puerile ones. No free state every sprung, wholly-formed and armed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Free institutions evolved; slowly, painfully and with much trial and error. And the history of every free state starts with the history of free classes among the unfree.

Athens had a democracy of all free male citizens who could support themselves and their hoplite panoply from freehold estates. Ultimately, pressure to extend democracy came from below, when the poorer classes made up the rowing force of their navy, i.e. when a man's military gear could consist of an oar and a pad to sit on.

And even by this time, men were beginning to envision a world in which there were no slaves. “The God gave freedom to all men, and nature created no one a slave” - Alcidamus.

Sparta had a military state to be sure, but one in which there were significant checks and balances in the institution of the dual kingship and the council of ephors**, a governing body whose members served for limited terms. And though most of the historical attention is given to citizen-soldiers and helot serfs, there is evidence of a considerable non-citizen but free class of artisans, merchants etc, the Perioeci.

Women had more rights in Sparta than anywhere else in Greece. They dressed in ways the Athenians considered scandalously immodest, exercised naked in athletic contests, managed the property holdings of their warrior husbands and spoke their minds freely. 300 attributes to Queen Gorgo a saying of the Spartan women when a woman of Athens asked a Spartan woman, "How is it that you alone among women can rule men?" who replied "Because only we among women give birth to men."***

The Athenian democracy itself could get pretty militaristic. It was remarked at the time that it was easier to move the democracy of Athens to send a military force across the sea than it was to persuade the Spartans to send an army a few days march from home.

I think what is resonating here is the ancient problem of how a society is to be both free and united. Or put another way, how a society that is free and self-governing can exist on anything but a small and local level.

This is a problem that was only beginning to be addressed at the time, and is still a matter of debate today. The Perisans discovered that they could create a huge state while replacing the rule of stark terror with a certain amount of humanity and tolerance. This created its own problems, a population that wasn't sufficiently ground down might nonetheless prefer to live under its own institutions, as the Greek cities of Anatolia did.

The Greeks created democratic states governed by consensus of free citizens, but they had a tendency to relapse into despotism as Athens did during the dictatorships of the 30 and the 300 oligarchs. And the democracy of Athens was often swept up in popular passions which moved them to vote such disastrous policies as the invasion of Syracuse, and horrible ones such as the massacre of all males above the age of ten on the island of Melos.

At various times the cities of Greece created leagues and alliances, which were studied closely by James Madison when he was helping write the Constitution of the United States. All of them failed. Both Athens and Sparta eventually lapsed into a dictatorial domination of weaker allies and all of Greece fell into disunity (Sparta becoming allied with Persia) and was conquered by outside powers - a depressingly common fate of free societies throughout history.

Consider that today there is precisely one country that meets any reasonable definition of "free" and "self-governing" which is of a size comparable to any of the great ancient empires - US. And we are vexingly overgoverned and bureaucratized. (I wish the EU well, I really do, but we've just seen what happened to their alliance when a member state suffered aggression from, come to think of it - Persia.)

300 is entertainment pure and simple, but it touches on an important point. The problem is not so much how to become free - but how to remain free.

Now for those who think that we have nothing to learn from the Spartans, consider that in 500 years the Spartans were never ruled by a tyrant, never occupied by a foreign power, and never had a civil war.

And further, consider this; the Greeks survived as long as they did as small, free states because they created a mode of warfare superior to anything else in the world at the time, relying on heavily armed men acting with a high degree of coordination. That is, contrary to our stereotype of highly regimented masses of men, it was free men who first learned to march in ranks.

As shown, there are plenty of objections to the picture of Sparta in 300, but much to like as well. Who could fail to be inspired by the words between Leonidas and his comrade while dying from the wounds of the Persian arrows, "It is an honor to die with you, my king." "It was an honor to have lived with you."

"Here on the plain of Platea we are 10,000 Spartans leading 40,000 free Greeks, a paltry three to one against us. Good enough odds for any Greek!"

And who would not feel with the desire of the deformed, cast-off Spartan Ephialtes when he betrayed the secret of the pass around Thermopylae. When the Great King offered him women, wealth and power, he responded from the depths of his anguish, "Yes, and one more thing. A uniform!"

And here is where some of the most disturbing criticism of 300 is coming from. As with Gladiator, there is on the part of some, a reflexive condemnation of any portrayal of extraordinary martial courage.

We live in dangerous times, anyone can see that, however we may disagree on the nature and sources of that danger. Freedom has made tremendous strides since the collapse of the mighty Soviet empire, and now the forces of despotism are rallying again. Surely now of all times we are going to need courage. And where else are we going to find it if not in the stories of great deeds?

Courage, like any other virtue save perhaps compassion, can be corrupted and made to serve evil ends. But courage remains the essential virtue - without it all other virtues are impotent.

Part 3. The 300 Spartans and Gates of Fire.

* Quite a trick since fascism in the dictionary sense, as opposed to the "politics I don't like" sense, wasn't invented until the 20th century.

** Not the "inbred swine" of the movie. Which also failed to mention that Gorgo, wife of king Leonidas, was his niece as well.

*** And significantly, when Alcibiades was in exile in Sparta he fathered a son on one of the queens of Sparta, who called the child "Alcibiades". The king joined in running him out of town - but laid not one finger on the queen.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The British fleet

After my last post I remembered that Rudyard Kipling had addressed the same subject in verse - as often happens. After the Spanish capitulation to the jihadists after the Madrid train bombing, I remembered that Kipling had covered this kind of situation in his poem Dane-geld.

Gee, was the guy psychic or something? Well maybe that too, but there is a simpler explanation: human nature does not change over time. If you give in to force, or the threat of force, you have taught your enemy that bullying works. This was true yesterday, today and will be true tomorrow.

Besotted with dreams of "soft power" the Europeans are copping a smug, superior attitude. It's time to call them on that. If you fail to defend yourself, you have not dealt with the threat but passed the costs of dealing with it on to someone else. (Gee, I wonder who that might be?)

The English have forgotten the greatest poet they have produced since English achieved its present form (around 400 years - since Shakespear). They will remember - eventually.

The UK is at present busy scrapping what's left of their deep water fleet and converting their Navy into a Coast Guard. Here's what Kipling said about that kind of Grand Strategy.

The Dutch in the Medway 1664-72

If wars were won by feasting,
0r victory by song,
Or safety found in sleeping sound,
How England would be strong!
But honour and dominion
Are not maintained so.
They're only got by sword and shot,
And this the Dutchmen know!

The moneys that should feed us
You spend on your delight,
How can you then have sailor-men
To aid you in your fight?
Our fish and cheese are rotten,
Which makes the scurvy grow -
We cannot serve you if we starve,
And this the Dutchmen know!

Our ships in every harbour
Be neither whole nor sound,
And, when we seek to mend a leak,
No oakum can be found;
Or, if it is, the caulkers,
And carpenters also,
For lack of pay have gone away,
And this the Dutchmen know!

Mere powder, guns, and bullets,
We scarce can get at all;
Their price was spent in merriment
And revel at Whitehall,
While we in tattered doublets
From ship to ship must row,
Beseeching friends for odds and ends -
And this the Dutchmen know!

No King will heed our warnings,
No Court will pay our claims -
Our King and Court for their disport
Do sell the very Thames!
For, now De Ruyter's topsails
Off naked Chatham show,
We dare not meet him with our fleet -
And this the Dutchmen know!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Now who rules the waves?

As a fellow fiercely proud of his Celtic heritage, I've had my share of fun at the expense of the English. I can for example, recall evenings in Sofia, Bulgaria in the company of a slightly mad Irishman singing The Rising of the Moon, Carlow, and The Rifles of the IRA until the wee hours of the morning.

Nevertheless, I find that what I feel about the spectacle of the United Kingdom impotent against Iranian piracy in international waters, is an almost unbearable sadness. Fifteen sailors and Royal Marines were taken hostage, right under the guns of a Royal Navy warship which was specifically ordered not to fire on the takers. The British government is gravely concerned - so much so that they're going to grovel for all their worth to get their people back.

The Europeans don't know yet, but this marks the end of the dream of a united Europe, and maybe of Europe period. One of the biggest member states of both the EU and NATO alliance has been made to suffer humiliation - and no other state in their "Union" gives a rat's pattootie as long as the oil flows.

I read a story once, that after the evacuation of Dunkirk in the dark days at the beginning of World War II, a British admiral was subject to a Board of Inquiry that wanted to know if he hadn't perhaps endangered the fleet by bringing it in too close to shore to cover the evacuation. He replied, "We could have built a new fleet in five years. It would have taken 200 years to build a new tradition."

Watch events unfold, and weep for a once-noble tradition.