The Red State Ranger

"He is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative." - GK Chesterton

Saturday, July 04, 2009

A Slender Thread

As some of you may know, I've been reading a lot of GK Chesterton lately. I haven't been reading his more well-known mysteries, essays, and apologetics. Instead, I've been reading a few of his less well-known pieces of fiction. The Return of Don Quixote is a full-length novel. There's a reason it was his last: it's forced, at times lazy, and he never really found his classic voice in it. Don't get me wrong, it's got some powerful, fun, and touching passages; in fact it contains what has become my favorite Chesterton quotation ever. But there's a reason it's not as well known as Father Brown, The Man Who Was Thursday, or any other of his fiction. On the other hand, Tales of the Long Bow is a collection of disjointed short stories that tie together a handful of characters, each of whom have a triumphal moment in his particular story. It's romantic (the arch-conservative follows the comedic template and they all manage to get hitched), hilarious (each in his own way absurdly disproves a popular figure of speech), and yet full of a modern pathos (the villains are a cabal of politico-industrial bureaucrats). I highly recommend this particular work.

But there's one thing they do have in common: Both stories hinge around great conservative counter-revolutions. In the former, a fad of recreating medieval England in culture and politics sweeps the nation. In the latter, the band of heroes defend and expand private property rights against a socializing land reform scheme. Indeed, the revolutions portrayed in these stories are surprisingly broad and sweeping; they would put the wildest dreams of the 1960s cultural revolutionaries to shame. Clearly, Chesterton was a man of his era, and these stories are stories of their era. The man wrote during a revolutionary time; within a decade of the Bolshevik Revolution, at a time when fascism, communism, and industrial capitalism were sweeping post-WWI Europe like a storm. It's only natural for a radical conservative such as Chesterton to imagine a truly conservative England, and enjoy throwing a few social scientists in the mad house in the process.

All this got me thinking about the state of modern-day America in a new light. Signs of a social breakdown are everywhere, from the faltering economy to the divisive political culture. The fault lines are indeed as geographic as they are economic and social. It's hard not to wonder a little about the future of American Civilization. I mentioned a while back to someone that if the roots of these elements of great political change are the expansion of social-science and government bureaucracies evident at the turn of the 20th century, the antidote to them certainly is Chesterton. That antidote is no less potent against the concern for an impending revolution.

As I stated earlier, Chesterton lived in a time very ripe for revolution. Indeed, it was arguably moreso than today. Yet if we look at his England and the rest of Western Civilization in the time that followed, while a handful of countries did succumb to revolution, many, indeed most, did not. The thread of civilization is a slender one, but it's as strong as spider silk. While there are many things to remain concerned about, truly revolutionary moments in history are more rare than our prideful sense of the present is wont to admit. Indeed, to have truly revolutionary moments, one must have truly revolutionary ideas. The concepts of ordering society by social science and of the proletariat owning the means of production were truly revolutionary ideas. But at least in America, we were fortunate enough that they were overpowered and outlasted by even more powerful revolutionary ideas. Let us look upon them today, and commit ourselves to continuing to make that so:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

Have a great Independence Day, everyone! For those who are so inclined, hoist a Sam Adams for me!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Favorite Christmas Writing

From the first chapter of the second book of GK Chesterton's excellent The Everlasting Man. The whole book is outstanding, but read this and you'll never see Christmas the same again - you'll know why you saw and sensed it the way you always did before.

Some Excerpts:

  • A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded. It is at least like a jest in this; that it is something which the scientific critic cannot see. He laboriously explains the difficulty which we have always defiantly and almost derisively exaggerated; and mildly condemns as improbable something that we have almost madly exalted as incredible; as something that would be much too good to be true, except that it is true. When that contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasized, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals pictures, poems, and popular sermons, it may be suggested that we hardly need a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about it; especially one of the sort that seems to take a long time to see a joke, even his own joke.
  • Yet [the scientific modern critic] will think us very narrow-minded, if we say that this is exactly why there really is a difference between being brought up as a Christian and being brought up as a Jew or a Moslem or an atheist. T he difference is that every Catholic child has learned from pictures, and even every Protestant child from stories, this incredible combination of contrasted ideas as one of the very first impressions on his mind. It is not merely a theological difference. It is a psychological difference which can outlast any theologies It really is, as that sort of scientist loves to say about anything, incurable. Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether be likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savor of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God. But the two ideas are not naturally or necessarily combined. They would not be necessarily combined for an ancient Greek or a Chinaman, even for Aristotle or Confucius. It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians; because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones. In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. It may not be a difference of moral worth, for the Moslem or the Jew might be worthier according to his lights; but it is a plain fact about the crossing of two particular lights, the conjunction of two stars in our particular horoscope.* Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique.
  • Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet. Here begins, it is needless to say, another mighty influence for the humanization of Christendom. If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas. Yet it is obviously bound up with what is supposed to be a controversial aspect (I could never at any stage of my opinions imagine why); the respect paid to the Blessed Virgin. When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows I as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.
  • The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic; it was not a place of myths allegorized or dissected or explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true. Since that hour no mythologies have been made in the world. Mythology is a search.
I could seriously quote the whole thing. Read it if you have time. Then read the book. :)

Merry Christmas to all!

* A reference to the idea that the Wise Men sought the Newborn King when they observed the conjunction (close joining) of Jupiter and Venus in Leo. The Star of Bethlehem seen by the astrologers may have been two "stars" very closely joined. Talk about a pretty clever allusion by Chesterton!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

General Thanksgiving

By the PRESIDENT of the United States Of America


WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;-- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

(signed) G. Washington

Happy Thanksgiving, and God Bless America!

Enjoy the Turkey and family and everything else!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Barbarians in the Ports

By now, you've all seen the news. Thar be pirates.

For nearly a century, during peacetime, there has been freedom of navigation for all on the high seas. This universal freedom was bought and paid for by the US Navy. Similarly, we have freedom of navigation in the ether of modern communication - space and these interwebs right here - thanks to the US Air Force.

Does this mean the US Navy is no longer strong enough to maintain full freedom of the seas? Make no mistake; you're going to hear from people blaming this on the atrophy brought on by the War in Iraq, or the War on Terror, or the Failed Bush Policies, or even Clinton's Peace Dividend. Don't believe them.

I agree with the premise that the US Navy can no longer control and defend the entirety of the sea. But the reason is not through the fault of the Navy. The economies of the world have expanded explosively, and commerce is more and more global. Heck, one look at the multi-national crew manifests on these ships is evidence of that. Simply put, there's just too much traffic, and too many sea lanes to protect every single one - especially when it's not really your job in the first place.

But we're not facing the end of global shipping, nor even the end of "Made in China" tags. The good news about the expansion of other economies is the expansion of self-interest. Other countries are stepping up to defend their economy and their sense of nationhood.

If it's the Wild West, the cattle rustlers have ticked off just about every sheriff on this side of the Pecos.

What's really interesting is we've been here before. A nation, relatively new to the global scene, stands up to defend its commerce and interests against piracy on the high seas.

This ties into the War on Terror, as well. The Barbary Pirates came about as a result of the Crusades; it could be said that that medieval battle between Europe and the Middle East didn't end until the conquering of Algiers in 1830. And it's safe to say that these Somali pirates aren't exactly independent of the modern-day crusade. Will history repeat itself, and will those aggrieved by piracy set aside their differences and put down the barbarians at the gates? (You can watch - isn't the internet cool?)

Two things are certain - First, in indiscriminately attacking vessels of all nationalities and origins and destinations, the pirates have succeeded in making the war (not just the battlefields) truly Global in nature, and they've given us some allies in the process. That should be capitalized on in this global counterinsurgency.

Second, everything old is new again:
It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy's ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.

Sound familiar?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Audacity of Audacity

Michael Yon has an interesting piece referring to a story he wrote in one of his earlier books.

Go read it - it's hilarious. I'll see you back in a couple minutes.

Welcome back. Maybe that's the breakthrough in this past election. It's not about shady funding and massive spending after all. The thing that Changed Everything this year was that we discovered the concept of Election by Meme.

It doesn't matter who you are, or what your past is, or what you will be. All that matters is that you have some concept that's sufficiently vague - say, "Change" - and the audacity to turn that concept into a magic mirror, showing everyone what they want to see.

The internet was hailed as an achievement of and monument to Reason. Instead it's become a better propagator of memes and hysteria. For example, it doesn't matter if Rickrolling is dumb and pointless - it's still funny, and therefore it must go on. It was well-documented that no one could really describe or explain "Change," but it didn't matter. It doesn't matter if "Change" as a policy is stupid and pointless. They saw in it what they wanted to see, even if they couldn't put it into words. Reason cannot penetrate either.

Of course, all of this proves why democracy becomes a crude and cruel system, and why the Founding Fathers did all they could to dampen its influences. Otherwise, we all find ourselves voting for Bill Gurley. I mean, he's a good guy, and I guess we like him, but who's in charge when he gets elected?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In the Palm of Your Hand

In the wave of support for “Green Energy,” we’ve seen support for about every form. But the future of energy isn’t in clean coal, it’s not in windmills, nor water mills, nor distilled cereal grains. We’ve been doing all of those for centuries, anyway.

Two companies – Hyperion Power Generation and Toshiba – are developing for market mini-nuclear reactors. They’re the size of a tool shed, made of no moving parts, and can be buried for security and safety. Hyperion’s provides 25 megawatts of power, and lasts for up to 10 years. And it’s all in a generator that needs no infrastructure but the road to drive the truck on, and the cable coming up from the ground.

But it’s nuclear – and nuclear’s scary, right? Not really. They’ve been safely using this source of power – thermocouples turning radioactive heat into electrical energy – on deep-space probes for decades. It’s material that’s refined only enough to stay hot, but not so much to be hot enough to melt down. And they say it would take roughly the same level of technology to “weaponize” it as pure ore.

That means countries like Iran that feel the need to have nuclear programs “for the energy” can do just that without needing an the infrastructure that’s strikingly similar to nuclear weapons programs. Don’t you just hate it when plausible deniability disappears like that?

That’s not to say it’s without fault. I don’t know how “dirty” a dirty bomb using the material would be – but it’s probably worse than using regular dirt. Also, in 10 years, you’d have a bunch of radioactive material come due for reprocessing or disposal. And that disposal problem has proven tricky in the past.

But, in the end, it’s the technology to dig a hole and plug in the world – whether it’s remote drilling sites in the Canadian far north, or cell towers linking rural Africa to the global market. And that’s pretty darned cool.

Welcome to the Nuclear Age. Even if it is some 60 years late.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A More Perfect Union

"Our union can be perfected." - President-Elect Obama

Those were words from his acceptance speech last Tuesday night. I'm sure it was a rhetorical flourish, meant to refer back to the Preamble of the Constitution. But it says so much more.

When you compare the Preamble (see the title of this post) to the quotation, however, you'll note an important difference. That difference is the word "more."

That one simple word belies a significant difference in philosophy. You see, the Founders, and, indeed, most people from the beginning of time, viewed people as inherently imperfect, and therefore imperfectable, creatures. And, as such, any human system, be it family, group, or country, is imperfectable as well.

But we're not here to just throw up our hands in resignation at our flaws. No, we ought to seek to make ourselves more perfect tomorrow than we are today, and the world a more perfect place, too.

That lasted for a few thousand years, until the early 1900s. (Though there are stirrings of it in The Republic) About then, the political class found themselves flush with all sorts of new knowledge and understanding. Darwin, Einstein, Marx, and countless others had been able to unlock the wisdom of the ages, and make it accessible to everyone else. With scientific understanding of biology, and physics, and economics, it became possible to understand people, and societies, and social systems.

If only you could get the right technocrats, the right Brain Trust in place, they could apply these new and wonderful sciences to society. They'd have to be able to do this by fiat, of course, because when you can make everything perfect with your knowledge, why would you need to stick to democratic ideals? A sufficiently enlightened dictator ought to be good enough, if they can make things perfect.

This was the source of a philosophy that called itself Progressive (sound familiar?). Essentially, they justified this wave of Applied Social Sciences with the concept of pragmatic governance - If it works, who cares how you do it - into a new technocratic ideal.

The thing is, the concept itself is distinctly illiberal. If you can drum up the support of the people through populism (which can often be easy with the "just do it" pragmatism), so be it. But if you can't, well, they're all hoopleheads anyway, and they'll thank you later. When you have a Brain Trust of the Smartest People in the World, you don't need popular support. You just need the power to make things better. To "perfect the Union," if you will.

Now I don't know if the President-Elect meant all this or not by that one turn of phrase. But knowing the progressive roots of his Party, it makes one wonder, doesn't it?

But it gets worse. You see, in other countries, it wasn't just society they sought to perfect through Applied Social Sciences. These ideas followed naturally to applying the other Applied Sciences of biology and chemistry and physics to not just human social groups, but to humans themselves. The wave of interest in eugenics came from the exact same stream of thought. In some cases, it took the form of selective breeding, in others, various genetic and biological experiments. In others, it focused on culling certain folks, rather than keeping certain folks. If you get my drift.

No, it's been tried before. It didn't end well.

For decades, the Left has been emphasizing that this Union is not perfect. Well, no kidding. But that's the definition of any human society. Can we make it more humane? Every day. Can they, or anyone, make it perfect. Not only no, but Hell No.

I'm reminded of a speech from the climax of the movie Serenity. (Highly recommended, if you haven't seen it.) They've discovered the story of a Government that had tried its own experiments at perfecting a society. It didn't end well, either. It's from science fiction, but the words can be a call to us, too.

I know this - they will try again. . . A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that.
- Malcolm Reynolds

No, we're not perfect, nor is this Union. But no government, no Brain Trust, no quasi-messianic President-Elect can perfect either. We can only strive toward a more perfect self, and a more perfect Union, one person and one act at a time.

I don't know if it was a rhetorical flourish, or if it was a hint at a more dangerous philosophy rearing its head. I hope it was the former. But if it was the latter, well,

I aim to misbehave.