Aug 29

Pretty People Behaving Stupidly

I’ve been learning about the romance genre recently. I have no intrinsic interest in it at all, but I have an intelligent friend who plows through romances the way I read SF, and we’ve been discussing the conventions and structural features of the genre. Along the way I’ve learned that romance fans use an acronym TSTL which expands to “Too Stupid To Live”, describing a class of bad romance in which the plot turns on one or both leads exhibiting less claim to sophont status than the average bowl of clam dip.

My wife and I have parts in an upcoming live-action roleplaying game set in early 16th-century Venice. As preparation, she suggested we watch a movie called Dangerous Beauty set in the period. I couldn’t stand more than about 20 minutes of it. “It’s just,” I commented later “pretty people behaving stupidly.”

On reflection, I’ve discovered that PPBS describes a great deal of both the fiction and nonfiction I can’t stand. It’s a more general category that includes not just TSTL, but celebrity gossip magazines, almost every “romantic comedy” ever made, and a large percentage of the top-rated TV shows (especially, of course, the soap operas).

Obviously there’s a huge market for this stuff. I must be from Mars or something, because I don’t get it. How is wallowing in PPBS any different from going to the zoo to watch monkeys masturbate?

B-but… half my readers are probably spluttering, “…those are monkeys. PPBS is about people. Their hopes, their loves, their foolishness and dreams.” Yeah. And your point is? The entire emotional range of PPBS is duplicated in the social dynamics of any chimpanzee band; that’s exactly what makes it so boring.

There is nothing there about what actually makes us human, neither the good stuff like science and art and discovery nor the bad stuff like warfare and governments. In a universe of satoris and supernovas, the people who produce and consume PPBS only care about who slept with or dissed or made up with who.

I find that truly sad.

UPDATE: I’m a shadow Tourette’s Syndrome case, not a shadow autist like many other geeks. Nevertheless, this description of neurotypicality seems relevant.

Aug 28

People Getting Brighter, Culture Getting Dimmer

In response to my previous post noting that the Flynn effect turns out to be a mirage, at least two respondents have suggested that average IQ has actually been falling, and have pointed to the alleged dumbing-down of politics and popular culture in the last fifty years.

I think both those respondents and the psychometricians are correct. That is, it seems to me that during my lifetime I’ve seen evidence that average IQ has risen a little, but that other traits involved in the “smart or stupid” judgment have eroded.

Continue reading

Aug 25

Blame The Audience

In Summer
Fading, Hollywood Sees Fizzle
, a writer for the New York
Times
explores the theory that movie attendance is tanking
because the quality of all too many mega-hyped “major movies” has
plunged into the crapper. Well, no shit, Sherlock — what was
your first clue? Pearl Harbor? Alexander?
Mission Impossible II? What’s really news about this story is
that it’s news — a startling break from the blame-the-audience
thinking so prevalent in Big Media over the last decade.

Continue reading

Jan 03

Appreciating Joe Satriani

I like to listen to instrumental electric guitar, and have a very
large collection of the genre from the pioneering Jeff Beck albums of
the 1970s forward, and including most of the output of Jeff Beck, Steve
Morse, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, Gary Hoey, Marc Bonilla, and half a
dozen other guitar virtuosi.

The seldom-disputed king of this genre today is Joe Satriani, who
has produced a string of excellent and often groundbreaking albums
since his debut in 1986. There are other guitarists who have had
moments of brilliance exceeding anything in Satriani’s catalog (I
think, for example, of Marc Bonilla’s astonishing EE
Ticket
album from 1992) but nobody else has sustained Joe’s
level of quality over eighteen years and a dozen albums.

For those of you who have been living in a hole for fifteen years
Joe Satriani definitely hails from the rock/blues end of the guitar
spectrum rather than the jazz-fusion one — his technique is
sometimes near to speed-metal. His commercial success seems to be
built on an ability to appeal to both intelligent metalheads and
old jazz-fusion fans like me.

Here’s my personal guide to appreciating Joe’s work. It covers
every track on all of his studio albums, but not the EPs or
live-concert anthologies. It’s aimed mainly at people who have
heard parts of his music and would like to know where to go next, or
who want to deepen their appreciation of what they’ve already heard.

One of the perils of being a virtuoso is that you can get so caught
up in your own skill that it’s hard to know when to stop —
musicality can get crowded out by meaningless elaboration. This is a
trap that lies in wait for all guitarists above a certain technical
level; some (like, say, Yngwe Malmsteen or Tony McAlpine) fall into it
to the point of near-unlistenability, and others are badly compromised
by it but still able to turn out good work when they restrain
themselves enough (Joe’s student Steve Vai leaps to mind). Very few
have the ability to sustain a flawlessly consistent balance between
technique and musicality; Marc Bonilla managed it, Jeff Beck and Eric
Johnson come very close.

Joe Satriani’s grasp on that happy medium is pretty good but prone
to lapses. I think he is acutely aware of this problem. One of the
themes you can see in his career development is how he struggles not
to let his technique run away with him, sometimes reacting with a
retreat into an obstinate minimalism or over-reliance on traditional
forms (eight-bar blues, the 4/4 rock beat, etc.). Gradually, over
time, he gets better at avoiding these extremes.

Joe takes chances, and sometimes he fails. Thus, this guide is not
going to be an unbroken paean of praise. But one of the things that
keeps me a fan is his very refusal to play safe, his determination to keep
trying new things and pushing his own boundaries as a musician. Joe
shows a rare combination of talent, hard-working dedication to his
craft, and artistic courage that is worthy of all praise.

One pattern that became apparent to me as I was compiling this
guide is that it is always worth holding Joe’s song titles in mind as
you listen to his stuff. They are often valuable clues to his
intentions. Many of his pieces seem to have been written as
soundtracks to go with a strong visual image to which the title is a
pointer, and it can thus substantially increase your enjoyment to
decode whatever references are in the title.

Not Of This Earth (1986)

This was Joe’s freshman album. I first heard it after
Surfing With The Alien and Flying In A Blue
Dream
, and it was fascinating with that experience to hear
Joe’s style not quite yet fully developed.

The title track, Not Of This Earth, blends acoustic and
electric guitar sounds in an interesting way that Joe would explore
further in The Lords Of Karma on the next album. It’s
followed by The Snake, a rather funny tone poem about
slithery things that manages to include references to both the
Volga Boatmen and some death-metal tune I’ve never
quite been able to place, I think by Black Sabbath.

Rubinais named after Joe’s wife. It is built around a
simple, pretty melody but somewhat marred by a drum track that sounds
mechanical and is mixed way too far up. Memories is
stronger, combining a reggae-like rhythm track with some raga-like and
bluesy melodic influences to produce a unique and tasty sound.
Satriani is finding his voice here. He continues to explore
interesting territory with Brother John, an odd but
pleasing little modal finger exercise.

The Enigmatic is one of the two standout tracks on
this album — tense, dissonant, weirdly inventive. Joe’s bold use
of atonality to depict an encounter with the alien is carried off
beautifully and works well at both the technical and emotional
levels.

After that, Driving At Night is positively reassuring as
it reasserts the bluesy call-and-response pattern at the core of rock
guitar. We are no longer in alien darkness but rather in a soothing and
familiar night.

But that night has Earth creatures in it too, and some of them can
be pretty scary. Hordes of Locusts is another tone-poem
about creepy-crawlies, imbued with the faintly campy menace of a 1950s
monster movie. This piece is funny, but (as you’ll especially learn
if you ever get to hear it live) it also rocks bone-crunchingly hard.
It’s a standout.

The remaining two tracks are slight, almost finger exercises.
New Day feels like dawn after the night of the locusts.
Headless Horseman is a silly bit of business that refers
to Washington Irving’s famous short story.

This was a very thought-provoking debut — uneven, but promising.
That promise would be fulfilled with the next two albums.

Surfing with The Alien (1987)

This was my first introduction to Joe’s amazing talents, and seems
more generally to have been the album that made his name and secured
him a long-term fan base (his official bio describes it as the most
commercially successful instrumental-guitar album since Jeff Beck’s
genre-defining Wired in 1974). The Satriani style is
already fully developed here.

The title cut, Surfing With the Alien, is without a
doubt one of the great instrumental rock guitar numbers of all time
— a screaming hyperkinetic rave-up that goes straight over the
top and then delivers everything it promises. The album cover
makes it obvious that the alien in question is the Silver Surfer
of Marvel Comics fame, and you can hear him swooshing through space
at a couple of points in the track.

The title Ice 9 is a reference to an SF novel by Kurt
Vonnegut in which a bizarre form of self-propagating ice freezes all
the oceans of the world. This track is not quite such a tour de force as
the first but tasty all the same. On almost any other album of
instrumental guitar it would be a standout; here it tends to fade into
the background in comparison to the flashier pieces.

My personal favorite on this album is Crushing Day.
What makes this a standout is that there is not a wasted note in in
it. Though the first and second solo sections reach blistering
intensity, Joe has his technique under perfect control here; he never
loses sight of the underlying melodic idea for a nanosecond, and the
result is tight and right. Half a dozen albums and nearly twenty years
later it is still one of his best pieces of playing.

Always With Me, Always With You is a quiet little
number, this album’s equivalent of Rubina. He hasn’t yet
attained the simple lyricism and delicacy we’ll hear in
Home, two albums on, but he’s reaching for it.

Satch Boogie is another propulsive rave-up that stands
comparison to the title track as a display of guitar pyrotechnics.
Interestingly, what makes the whole piece work is a quiet section in
the middle (about 1:44 in) that builds tension towards the ending.
Joe has commented in an interview that a fan who disliked the
quiet part once sent him a mix tape with the section deleted in an
effort to prove his point. “It sucked,” said Satriani, succinctly
and correctly.

Hill of the Skull is 1:48 of auditory comic book. You
can see the evil skull-shaped temple brooding on the hilltop, torches
guttering in the great gaunt eyesockets…

Circles is much more substantial, opening
with a lovely acoustic-guitar appetizer that sets you up for a muscular
electric main course in the manner of Led Zeppelin’s or Heart’s best.
The loud-soft contrast is artfully handled, and like all of Joe’s
best work this piece is distinguished by seventeen-jewel composition
and exacting control of his instruments.

Lords of Karma continues the hot streak, opening with
sitar sounds and launching into a driving raga-influenced melody. The
exultant glissando guitar scream at about 1:42 is particularly
lovely. At a couple of points in the piece the recurring sitar
sounds make a pungent contrast to the guitar line. The whole
is as tasty as a good Indian curry.

Midnight, by contrast, is as mannered as a Bach fugue,
nearly a finger exercise. It segues directly into the final track,
Echoes, which returns to the meditative feel of
Circles and finishes off the album in excellent style.

This is a great album, barely a dud track on it. Even Hill of
the Skull
works in its silly way. It remains among Joe’s two
or three best, and is probably still the best introduction to his
music.

Flying in a Blue Dream (1989)

This album starts off strong with the hypnotic feedback and
acoustic rhythm guitars of the title track. The long sustained
electric guitar notes played over them contain subtle shifts of tambre
and vibrato that would do Carlos Santana proud. The interplay between
the acoustic guitars and the electric lead line recalls
Circles and works equally well here. As with that track
the effect is meditative, almost mystical. And, no, Satriani himself
doesn’t know what the little boy is saying in that background sample.

The next track calls itself mystical, The Mystical Potato Head
Groove Thing
, but isn’t. The effect is more one of inspired
whimsy, with subtle off-rhythms and a whirling, eccentric guitar line
giving the piece the feel more of witty banter than anything else. The
bridge section at about 3:00 in echoes the melody of Surfing with
the Alien
but the effect is of commentary rather than self-imitation.
The track closes with a classic smashing rock finish, very satisfying.

In Can’t Slow Down, Joe Satriani sings.
Unfortunately, even the most dedicated Satriani fan generally reacts
to his singing with a heartfelt wish that the man would shut up and
play his guitar. Fortunately, he does.

Headless is just as embarrassing, a pointless retake of
Headless Horseman from the first album that is only partly
redeemed by Joe’s quiet, rather self-mocking chuckle at the end.

In Strange, Joe sings again. The contrast between his
clumsy vocals and the shimmering loveliness of the guitar bridges is
almost painful to the ear. Alas, the worst is yet to come.
That worst is the next track, I Believe, possibly
the most cringe-worthy opus Joe has ever committed to tape. He sings
again, wrapping an uncertain voice around lyrics that intend to be
inspirational but come out mawkish. A few lovely guitar bits cannot
redeem this mess.

In the next track, One Big Rush, Joe blessedly does not sing.
We’re back in the familiar territory of Surfing With The Alien
or Satch Boogie here. It’s not as inventive as the album’s
first two numbers but a good solid piece of work. Probably the best bit
is the last five seconds of coda.

On Big Bad Moon, Joe sings again. This time it works a
little better, as he portrays some hapless geek who has become a
werewolf and, far from considering it a curse, discovers But I
like it!
. His fretboard antics over a steaming boogie
grind rescue this track.

The Feeling is 50 seconds of rootsy banjo. This works
pretty well, considering.

In The Phone Call Joe seems to have figured out that
his weak singing voice works best as comedy. This mini-soap-opera
about a selfish and none-too-bright guy dumping his ditzy and
gold-digging girlfriend is worth a chuckle or two.

Day at the Beach (New Rays From an Ancient Sun) echoes
Midnight from the last album, and works best as a sort of
extended intro to Back to Shalla-Bal. This track is
straight-ahead leather-jacketed rock complete with a revving Harley.
The motorcycle theme continues in the rather similar next
track, Ride. Joe sings again, managing not to botch
the job too badly. Still, one does wish he would stop.

The Forgotten begins with a short finger exercise that
is, like Day at the Beach, a preface to something more
substantial. Part two returns to the meditative, introverted feel of
the title track, but with an emotionally powerful melody that feels
almost like something a Romantic-era classical composer might have
penned. It’s up there with the first two tracks as a standout.

The Bells of Lal is another two-part composition, but
this one feels like noisy fragments that never quite come together or
rise above the level of noodling.

,Into the Light by contrast, feels elegiac and
graceful. I think of cloudscapes suffused with sunlight when I hear
this piece, and rather wish Joe had given it more than 2:29 of
development.

This album is uneven, undisciplined. Parts of it match and even
exceed the quality of Surfing With The Alien, but a lot of
it is experiments that should have been left on the studio floor. Joe
clearly needs somebody working with him to curb his excesses.

The Extremist (1992)

Perhaps Joe found that somebody. This album returns to the consistent
form of Surfing With The Alien; it’s neither as quirky nor
as inventive as Flying in a Blue Dream, but full of energy
and joy.

Friends, The Extremist. and
War are all good solid work, intricate and high-energy
guitar explorations in the now-standard Satriani mold that reward
repeated listening pretty well. There’s some nice blues harp in the
second track, but the third is probably the strongest of the three.

Cryin’ is a quiet, bluesy track with a prog-rock feel to
it. It’s well followed up by Rubina’s Blue Sky, a down-home
delight that uses mandolins and acoustic guitars to evoke the feel
of folk or bluegrass music. The last two minutes sets off the acoustic
guitars against a singing, joyful electric-guitar line, then mysteriously
fades out with a pibroch-like ending.

Summer Song (which you can deduce from one of the the
album-cover photos originally titled The Door Into Summer
after Robert Heinlein’s novel) was this album’s big radio single, a job
it fulfills admirably well. A tight and well-layered arrangement and
immaculate production make this a crowd-pleaser.

Tears In the Rain is another intricate finger exercise
like Midnight, conducted this time on a nylon-string
guitar.

Why and Motorcycle Driver return to the basic
style of propulsive and intricate guitar we’ve heard in the first three
tracks and Summer Song. Like those, these tracks are
sunny and exuberant music that would sound great pouring out of a
boom box at your next beach party.

New Blues is a total contrast — a spare,
introverted blues piece that fades into silence. It foreshadows where
the next studio album is going.

Time Machine (1993)

The first disk of this two disk set combines rarities, oddities,
and unreleased tracks from old studio sessions. The second is a
collection of live performances. The quality is uneven here; some of
this stuff is the equivalent of doodling. But for a serious fan this
is definitely worth having, if only because it collects limited-release
stuff like Dreaming #11.

Joe is generally pretty good at picking strong openings for his
albums and Time Machine is no exception. This exercise
in massive-guitars-of-doom can bear comparison with his best work and
is a standout track. Following it, The Mighty Turtle Head is
merely passable; the parts are OK but don’t seem to cohere
well. All Alone works better; it’s a big blues tune in
classic style. One can easily imagine it as movie music.

On Banana Mango II Joe jams with world-beat rhythms.
The result is loose, floaty and interesting, quite different from his
usual sound. Thinking of You is a simple, pretty tune,
lovely and lyrical, proving once again that Joe doesn’t need effects
or elaborate arrangements to sound good — another standout
track.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Crazy is another
one of those regrettable occasions on which Joe sings. We live
through it.

Speed Of Light nails once again the joyous
power-pop-like groove Joe found in Summer Song. An
unusual and interesting touch in this use is Joe’s use of wordless
choral singing as a counterpoint to the guitar.

In Baroque Joe experiments with the idiom of classical
guitar. His execution is good but the production is heavy-handed; I
think it would have worked better without the effects.

Dweller On The Threshold is a Lovecraftian tone poem
that is probably the closest approach to true speed metal in Joe’s oeuvre.
He proves here that he could out-Metallica Metallica if he wanted to
(Kirk Hammet was an early student of his in the 1970s). The atonal
alien from Enigmatic makes a cameo appearance.

Banano Mango previsits the word-beat rhythms we heard
earlier in Banano Mango II, but the guitar treatment is
different in style. Not as good, I don’t think. but it’s instructive
and interesting to have both versions included.

Dreaming #11 takes us to another unusual place that
can only be described as surrealist comedy funk. The strain of sly,
zany humor that flavors a lot of Joe’s music is in full evidence
here.

The title of I am Become Death doubtless refers to Robert
Oppennheimer’s famous quote from the Bhagavad-Gita at the first nuclear
test in 1945. The piece is simultaneously grim, bathetic and jarring,
a deliberately disjointed nightmare. On Saying Goodbye Joe sounds quite unlike himself and
so much like Jeff Beck in a quieter moment that I think this piece
must be an intentional tribute. The first disc then finishes with
Woodstock Jam, which is also utterly like anything else
Joe has ever recorded, sixteen minutes of atonal psychedelia that
plays like the soundtrack for a drug dream.

The main thing the second disc demonstrates is that Joe plays his
tunes live with great fidelity to the studio versions, so I won’t
review all of these separately here.

Joe Satriani (1995)

In contrast with the sunny vibe of The Extremist, this
album seems moody, sad, even depressed. I have no hard information, but I
suspect Joe might have been going through a rough couple of years as
this one was recorded.

Cool #9 If, and Down, Down, Down
set the tone — deeply bluesy, well-executed, somehow rather
dark.

Luminous Flesh Giants is one of the standout tracks on
this album — angry, powerful stuff and doubtless a big
live-concert number.

S.M.F. returns to the deep introspective groove of the
first three tracks, burrowing into the classic 8-bar blues as though it’s a
refuge from something. One of the problems with this album is that these
four tracks are all too similar and tend to blur together in one’s memory.

Look My Way is one of Joe’s occasional comedy numbers. He
sings, badly. But the composition is such that bad singing is sort of
appropriate.

Home is a surprising island of calm and beauty. It’s
the refuge that a lot of the rest of this album seems to be looking for,
and a standout track.

Moroccan Sunset sounds a little happier, too. The
melody line is indeed middle-Eastern flavored in spots. The rhythm
guitars share the dark, fuzzed-out flavor we hear in many of the other
arrangements on this album. Nevertheless this is another standout
track.

In Killer Bee Bop Joe seems to be trying to capture
some of the flavor of bebop jazz — the opening base line
certainly suggests that. This is a fast, noisy track, interesting
but at times rushed and incoherent-sounding.

The first section of Slow Down Blues slides even
deeper into the blues idiom, with a spare and mostly acoustic
arrangement featuring a dialogue between Joe’s understated electric
lead and a blues harmonica. All this recalls New Blues
from the previous album, and seems deeply sad. Things pick up some
in the last four minutes as the track launches into a steady electric
boogie with a big finish.

(You’re) My World is another simple, effective tune
that seems (like Home) to express some kind of peace or
resolution. The effect is very beautiful and a standout track.

The album ends with Sittin’ Round, another slow and
sad blues reminiscent of the first section of Slow Down
Blues
.

Emotionally, Joe had nowhere to go but up after this album.

Crystal Planet (1998)

And up he goes, in what is certainly his best album since
Surfing With The Alien. Whatever troubles informed
Joe Satriani are gone; he seems to reach a new high in
energy and inventiveness here.

The album opens strong with Up in the Sky, a fast and
tight little number built around an odd guitar lick with an almost
surf-rock feel to it. The tastiness continues with House Full
of Bullets
and Crystal Planet, which don’t break any
particularly new ground but are well-composed works that deliver the kind
of virtuosity Joe’s fans have come to expect.

Love Thing slows the pace a little to do a more
melodic exploration in the mode of Home or (You’re)

My World from the previous album. It’s followed by
Trundrumbalind which moves a bit up-tempo again but
sustains great intensity of feeling and is one of the standout tracks
of this album. The last minute is especially interesting.

Lights of Heaven starts off quietly, but the
fanfare-like bit at about 1:13 leads into one of Joe’s best sustained
stretches of composition ever, one in which occasional hushed stretches
serve to build tension for soaring guitar lines that resolve them wonderfully.
The shimmering finale in the last 40 seconds is magnificent. This is
possibly the strongest single track on the album.

Raspberry Jam Delta Vee is not quite as impressive,
but it delivers the goods. The break using string and cello tambres
about four minutes in is unusual, and the track finishes strong with
dual leads and and interesting use of what sounds like ring
modulators.

Ceremony returns to the up-tempo pace and
arpeggio-rich solos typical of the first three tracks, but there is
nothing especially distinguishing about it. With Jupiter In
Mind
, on the other hand, is a standout track with a strong and
attractive melody on which Joe works some interesting transformations
before returning to the opening version. Fat rhythm guitars back up
a powerful finale.

Secret Prayer is merely ordinary for this album,
which is to say it is better than most guitarists could manage
on their best days ever. Train of Angels opens interestingly
with military-style drumming and remains tasty even after switching to
a traditional rock beat; the second solo beginning at about 2:00 is
especially nice. A Piece of Liquid is quiet and restful,
making interesting use of a catchy South-American-flavored rhythm.

Psycho Monkey is a distortion-fest with a deliberately
heavy attack; the dog-whistle feedback at the end is reminiscent of the
title track from Flying In A Blue Dream.

Time is a clever tone poem in which the staccato
4-chord figure the rhythm guitars repeat seems intended to evoke a
ticking clock. There’s a lot more going on, here, though, and it
repays several listens to find out what.

Z.Z.’s Song ends the album with a resonant acoustic solo
piece that seems to use silence as much as sound.

There really isn’t a weak track on this whole album, which is especially
impressive since it runs to 15 of them. It’s probably the right one
to buy second, after Surfing With The Alien.

Engines of Creation (2000)

The title of this album seems to be a reference to to K. Eric
Drexler’s seminal book on nanotechnology; the cover art and
the song titles suggest that Joe had a lot of SFnal imagery in mind
when composing it. Despite that promising start, a lot of Satriani
fans would say this album shouldn’t have been made. In it, Joe seems
to be trying to understand electronica and house music. The result is, alas,
cold and mechanical-sounding in comparison to the rest of his work;
drum machines and synthesizers almost drown out his guitar.

Despite that, this album has some excellent moments. And even when
it doesn’t work, I think Joe deserves praise for being willing to take some
risks. Another Crystal Planet or Surfing With The
Alien
would have been more of a crowd-pleaser — but at
this point Joe could probably crank out ordinary guitar virtuosity in
his sleep and would not necessarily have grown as a musician by taking
that easy path.

Devil’s Slide tells you right away you are not in for the
usual, with its drum machine and synthesizer-led attack. Parts of it achieve
a chill, haunting beauty. Flavor Crystal 7 is very similar,
but with a more up-front guitar line that makes it more interesting.
Both tracks take us far from the rock/blues/metal roots of Joe’s style;
he displays the superb musicianship we’d expect, but the results seem
at times unnervingly soulless and antiseptic.

Borg Sex is more of the same, with a growling guitar
line that manages (probably not by accident) to sound rather like
industrial noise. Joe seems to use this one fairly frequently in
concert.

Until We Say Goodbye, by contrast, is much more like a
normal Satriani track; some superfluous electronic effects in the
background fail to step on an appealing and rather jazz-tinged
melody. The pizzicato strings in the last eight seconds are a nice
touch.

Attack puts us right back in the territory of
Devil’s Slide, which it rather resembles. The break
about two minutes in, ornamented with little sequencer bits and
drum-machine licks, is probably Joe’s most effective use of
electronica idiom.

Champagne? is a bit of clowning in which glassy synth
voices are set against a bouncing baseline and bluesy guitar. It
changes style abruptly at about 2:04 when the drum machines turn on,
but returns to being an appealingly silly romp in the last three
minutes. The last section changes styles again, offering us a jazzy
solo with beautiful arpeggios and an odd roots-rock sort of
finish vaguely reminiscent of Creedence.

Clouds Race Across the Sky is a surprise and a
standout, laying a beautifully simple guitar line over an infectious
South-American-flavored rhythm track. The effect is tranquil and
lovely.

The Power Cosmic 2000 is a two-part invention. In it,
Joe seems to be trying to fuse electronica influences into his basic
style (the first guitar line in part two will remind you of The
Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing
) but succeeds mainly in
sounding chilly and remote. By contrast, the synthesizer
instrumentation of Slow And Easy fails to completely
suppress some moments of quiet beauty.

Engines of Creation is a gradually building crescendo
that unaccountably cuts out just as it should be reaching a climax.
Too bad; there are some good moments on the way there, and the track
does better at integrating synthesizers with guitar and base than most
of went before. But, like the album as a whole, the track is a
brave experiment that doesn’t end well.

This is still the most difficult Satriani album to enjoy, and may be
for hard-core fans and completists only. But I like it better than I
did when I first heard it. It will take several listenings before
you can get past the electronic clutter to what Joe is trying to
achieve, but doing so has some rewards.

Strange Beautiful Music (2002)

If a comparative failure like Engines of Creation was
what Joe needed to grow, this album tells us it was worth it. I think
it’s his best ever, equalling Crystal Planet and
Surfing With The Alien for creativity and melodic
invention and showing a maturity and grace neither previous album
can match.

Oriental Melody continues Joe’s flirtation with modal
scales and time signatures derived from Middle Eastern and Indian
music. It’s a good start to the album, which puts some creative
distance between Joe and his roots as a rock player.

Belly Dancer moves back towards rock rhythms, but an
eastern touch is still present in the melody line. The track centers
on lovely series of arpeggios at about 3:08. The sitar tambre that Joe
used so effectively in tracks like Lords of Karma reappears
as a nice bit of background color towards the end.

We get a third beautiful melody in Starry Night,
which though stylistically reminiscent of Home from the
Extremist album is nicely original.

Chords of Life is themed around a nice bit of
acoustic-guitar rhythm work that appears in it twice and dominates
the finale. This is a crisp and satisfying little number in
which the electric lead gets its licks in but, for once, takes a back
seat to other elements of the composition.

Mind Storms is more in the conventional Satriani
idiom, and a fine example of same. The alien from
Enigmatic makes a brief reappearance at about 2:00
in.

Sleep Walk covers a Santo & Johnny hit from 1959,
archetypal syrupy fifties pop. I have a strong personal aversion to
this particular sound, but there is no denying that Joe (with some
help from, of all people, Robert Fripp) nails the style dead-on. If
it has to be done at all, it should be done this well.

New Last Jam is another superior Satriani slice of
fretboard frenzy, unremarkable only because it’s jostling so much
good material on this album. Mountain Song, immediately
following, is even better. His normal idiom has never sounded hotter.

What Breaks A Heart begins with what seems to be an
experiment in vox humana guitar; the effect is almost like wordless
singing. The middle section that begins at 1:19 builds to reggae
rhythms and more vox-humana playfulness. The whole finishes with a
very pretty ride-out as Joe riffs away with gleeful zest.

Seven String takes us back to basic rock’n’roll crunch
with a somewhat Southern flavor — one can imagine Lynrd Skynrd or
.38 Special playing this, if they had ever come within a light year of
having the chops to try. It’s followed by Hill Groove, a
bluesy piece that features some particularly nice interplay between
lead guitar and electric base.

The Traveller has something of a prog-rock feel to it;
listen for the nice use of harmonics at about 1:58. And the album
finishes strong with Journey, another melodic and excellent
track without a waste motion in it.

The music on this album is so consistently good that it’s hard to
pick standouts. Pressed, I’d have to pick Mind Storms and
Seven String, but there are several other tracks that give
these a serious tussle.

With this album, Joe seems to have almost completely banished his
occasional tendency to get lost in his technique. All of these tracks
have a well-seasoned restraint about them, to a degree that was only
true of exceptional pieces like Crushing Day in his
earlier work.

Is There Love In Space (2004)

Is There Love In Space is a big contrast with
Strange Beautiful Music. It’s a neoprimitive crunchfest
of fat, distorted rhythm guitars that begs to be played at
room-filling volume. Satriani is out to remind us that, by damn, he
is a rock guitarist — and he succeeds.

The first track, Gnaah!, is a piece of sly humor. You
can hear the title gnaah as a repeated rising note in the song’s main
lick. Up In Flames is a loose bluesy howl that has good
moments but some tendency to fall into mere noodling. Much in these
will sound familiar to long-time fans.

Track three, Hands in The Air, is a standout — a
stomping, shouting rock’n’roll rave-up that has “arena-filler” written
on it in letters of fire. Fuck yeah, turn those Marshalls up to 11!

It’s interesting to contrast Hands in The Air with
Luminous Flesh Giants from the Joe Satriani
album. These two tracks are stylistically and structurally similar, but
what a huge difference in emotional tone! Where the older one is
dark, brooding and ominous, the newer one is a big joyful noise.

In Lifestyle Satriani accomplishes a personal first by
by managing to sing without sucking. His voice actually sounds good
run through a chorus box over a basic three-chord romp. The lyrics
are pretty funny, too.

The title track Is There Love In Space, gives us a
quieter and more reflective moment, especially in the final section
about 4:00 in which takes us back towards Joe’s jazz influences.
If I Could Fly continues in a similar vein, firming up to
a steady rock groove around which Joe dances in trademark fashion.
There’s nothing especially novel here but the effect is quite
pleasant.

The Souls Of Distortion takes us back to the Land of the
Monster Stomp, at a slower tempo than Hands in The Air
but with tasty use of a wah-wah pedal. The fading feedback blare at the
end is just right.

Look Up is lyrical and quiet, resembling Rubina’s
Song
and Always With Me, Always With You in flavor.

I Like The Rain, unfortunately, demonstrates that
Lifestyle was probably a fluke; Joe sings and sucks. You’ll
be reminded of Ride from Flying In A Blue Dream,
but he did it better it the first time.

Searching is another standout track. It opens with a
hypnotic ostinato reminiscent of Ted Nugent’s
Stranglehold and holds to that line relentlessly amidst
flurries of manic noodling and blares of feedback. You get the
feeling this was recorded as a late-night jam-session with everybody
half wasted, and you are right there with them.

Bamboo will remind you of Midnight from
Surfing With The Alien or Tears In The Rain
from The Extremist. There’s some interesting and subtle
use of what sounds like reverse echo at about 3:25 in.

In some ways this album doesn’t compare well with the previous one;
there is less variety and originality here than there was in
Strange Beautiful Music. It’s got more in the way of
simple, turn-it-up-loud visceral thrills, though. If Joe was out to
prove that he can rock the house down better than 3/4ths of the
spoiled children who call themselves ‘metal’ acts, he sure
succeeded.

Dec 30

Susan Sontag is Dead

Imagine a writer/playwright/intellectual whose most famous single
remark was “the black race is the cancer of human history”. Who said
“The Pinochet revolution is astonishingly free of repression
and bureaucratization.” Who praised the attack on Pearl Harber as a
brave deed. Do you suppose such a person would collect laudatory
tributes and glowing obituaries on the occasion of her death?

Substitute “white” for “black”, “Cuban” for “Pinochet”, and “9/11”
for “Pearl Harbor” and you’ll have remarks Susan Sontag actually did
make, and never retracted. (She later glossed her equation of white
people with cancer as a slander on cancer patients). Her equally
abominable expressions of racism, tyrannophilia, and anti-American
hatred have either gone totally unmentioned in the New York
Times
, Philadelphia Inquirer and AP wire service
stories, or else been surrounded by exculpatory verbiage about
Sontag’s alleged devotion to high ideals.

Sontag’s willingness to say in 1982 on the occasion of the
anti-communist Polish worker’s revolution that “Communism is Fascism
with a human face” has been much feted. In fact the utter
anti-humanity of Communism had already been demonstrated by the
Kronstadt massacre and other atrocities years before Sontag was born.
Her failure to absorb that lesson forty years sooner than she did led
her to utter a great deal of toxic garbage, and should neither be
forgotten nor forgiven.

George Orwell once said that “There are some ideas so wrong that
only a very intelligent person could believe in them.” In the AP
obituary, author author Francine Prose says Sontag “represents
something that I’m afraid that’s passing, I don’t think that many
people these days say, `Oh, I want to be an intellectual when I grow
up.'” Not the least of Sontag’s crimes is that Prose is right —
by repeatedly living out Orwell’s observation throughout her lifetime,
Sontag is one of the people who taught Americans by her example to hold
intellectuals in contempt.

I have spoken ill of the dead here in order to make a point about
the living. The damage Sontag did is in the past, but the
muddleheadedness of her eulogists and their willingness to embrace
the same evils she did is a problem for the present and the future.
Only by confronting and condemning those evils can we excise the
true cancers of human history.

Dec 20

The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well

Grant McCracken has argued in his book Plenitude that one of the defining characteristics of the last fifty years is an explosion of subcultural variety — people creating new lifestyles and new identities around occupations, sexual tastes, hobbies, genres of art and music, religions, and just about any other investment of time human beings have ever dreamed up.

When McCracken proposes that there is now as much divergence among individual subcultures in the life of the modern West as we can find among preindustrial tribes in the annals of anthropology he is probably exaggerating. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is onto something when he observes that the old idea of a ‘mainstream’ culture with subcultures developing in anti-conformist reaction to it is falling apart.

[S]ubcultures now come from the cultural system in place. The culture of
commotion is, as I have labored to demonstrate, dedicated to the production
of new and different subcultures.

SF fans. Skatepunks. Polyamorists. Gangsta rappers. Goths. McCracken certainly has this much right; there are now lots of voluntary subcultures out there that have the kind of adhesiveness once only associated with religious or tribal groupings. Belonging to them is not just a predilection like being a baseball fan or liking Chinese food, but a statement of identity with a whole social network and a set of myths and dreams and heroes attached to it.

Among the five groups I listed more or less at random above the culture of SF fandom is a bearded grandaddy, dating back to the late 1930s and thus predating the beginnings of the modern explosion of plenitude in the 1960s. The others are all much more recent, and illustrate how new tribes can emerge to become apparently permanent features of the landscape in less than a decade.

And this brings us to the geeks. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, there was not yet anything you could call “geek culture”. Sure, there were bright kids fascinated by computers or math or science, kids who were often poorly socialized in the jargon of the day and hung together as a defensive measure; I was one of them. But we didn’t see ourselves as having a social identity or affiliation the way the jocks or surfers or hippies did. We weren’t a subculture, nor even a community; we didn’t even have a label for ourselves.

Slowly, slowly that began to change. One key event was the eruption of science fiction into pop culture that began with the first Star Wars movie in 1977. This was our stuff and we knew it, even though most of us never joined the subculture of SF fandom proper. Personal computers made another big difference after 1980; suddenly, technology was cool and sexy in a way it hadn’t been for decades, and people who were into it started to get respect rather than (or in addition to) faint or not-so-faint scorn.

You could see the trend in movies. War Games in 1983; Revenge of the Nerds in 1984; Real Genius in 1985. To kids today Revenge of the Nerds doesn’t seem remarkable, because geek culture is more secure and confident today than a lot of older tribes like bikers or hippies. But at the time, the idea that you could have an entire fraternity of geeks — an autonomous social group with reason to be proud of itself and a recognized place in the social ecology — was funny; all by itself it was a comedy premise.

The heroes of Revenge of the Nerds were people who created a fraternity of their own, who bootstrapped a niche for themselves in Grant McCracken’s culture of plenitude. The movie was an extended joke, but it described and perhaps helped create a real phenomenon.

The term ‘geek’ didn’t emerge as a common label, displacing the older and much more sporadically-used ‘nerd’, until around the time of the Internet explosion of 1993-1994. I noticed this development because I didn’t like it; I still prefer to tell people I hang out with hackers (all hackers are geeks, but not all geeks are hackers). Another index of the success of the emerging geek culture is that around that time it stopped being an almost exclusively male phenomenon.

Yes, you catch my implication. When I was growing up we didn’t have geekgirls. Even if the label ‘geek’ had been in use at the time, the idea that women could be so into computers or games or math that they would identify with and hang out with geek guys would have struck us as sheerest fantasy. Even the small minority of geek guys who were good with women (and thus had much less reason to consider them an alien species) would have found the implications of the term ‘geekgirl’ unbelievable before 1995 or so.

(There are people who cannot read an account like the above without assuming that the author is simply projecting his own social and sexual isolation onto others. For the benefit of those people, I will report here that I had good relations with women long before this was anything but rare in my peer group. This only made the isolation of my peers easier to notice.)

What changed? Several things. One is that geek guys are, on the whole, better adjusted and healthier and more presentable today than they were when I was a teenager. Kids today have trouble believing the amount of negative social pressure on intelligent people to pass as normal and boring that was typical before 1980, the situation Revenge of the Nerds satirized and inverted. It meant that the nascent geek culture of the time attracted only the most extreme geniuses and misfits — freaks, borderline autists, obsessives, and other people in reaction against the mainstream. Women generally looked at this and went “ugh!”

But over time, geeky interests became more respectable, even high-status (thanks at least in part to the public spectacle of übergeeks making millions). The whole notion of opposition to the mainstream started to seem dated as ‘mainstream’ culture gradually effloresced into dozens of tribes freakier than geeks (two words: “body piercings”). Thus we started to attract people who were more normal, in psychology if not in talent. Women noticed this. I believe it was in 1992, at a transhumanist party in California, that I first heard a woman matter-of-factly describe the Internet hacker culture as “a source of good boyfriends”. A few years after that we started to get a noticeable intake of women who wanted to become geeks themselves, as opposed to just sleeping with or living with geeks.

The loner/obsessive/perfectionist tendencies of your archetypal geek are rare in women, who are culturally encouraged (and perhaps instinct-wired) to value social support and conformity more. Thus, women entering the geek subculture was a strong sign that it had joined the set of social identities that people think of as ‘normal’. This is still a very recent development; I can’t recall the term ‘geekgirl’ being used at all before about 1998, and I don’t think it became commonly self-applied until 2000 or so.

Interestingly, the dot.com bust does not seem to have slowed down or discredited the geek subculture at all. Websites like http://geekculture.com and http://thinkgeek.com do a flourishing business, successfully betting investment capital on the theory that there is in fact a common subculture or community embracing computer hackers, SF fans, strategy gamers, aficionados of logic puzzles, radio hams, and technology hobbyists of all sorts. Just the fact that a website can advertise The World’s Coolest Propeller Beanies! is indication of how far we’ve come.

I’ve previously observed about one large and important geek subtribe, the Internet hackers, that when people join it they tend to retrospectively re-interpret their past and after a while find it difficult to remember that they weren’t always part of this tribe. I think something similar is true of geeks in general; even those of us who lived through the emergence of geek culture have to struggle a bit to remember what it was like back when we were genuinely atomized outcasts in a culture that was dismissive and hostile.

There are even beginning to be geek families with evidence of generational transmission. I know three generations of one, starting when two computer scientists married in the late 1960s, and had four kids in the 1970s; the kids have since produced a first grandchild who at age five shows every sign of becoming just as avid a gamer/hacker/SF-fan as his parents and grandparents.

Little Isaac, bless him, will grow up in a culture that, in its plenitude, offers lots of artifacts and events designed by and for people like him. He will take the World Wide Web and the Sci-Fi Channel and Yugio and the Lord of the Rings movies and personal computers for granted. He’ll probably never be spat on by a jock, and if he can’t find a girlfriend it will be because the geekgirls and geek groupies are dating other guys like him, rather than being nonexistent.

For Isaac, Revenge of the Nerds will be a quaint period piece with very little more relevance to the social circumstances of his life than a Regency romance. And that is how we know that the nerds indeed got their revenge.

Nov 15

Hurray for Dollywood

Hot damn! I wonder if this
here post by Iowahawk
means I’m gonna git me someplace near here
in Pensylvay-ni-ay that can serve up a decent mess of Texas
barbeque
?

Put me down as a proud purple-stater. I like guns, but I hate
country music. I love burnt-ends sandwiches, but I despise chewing
tobacco. I agree that Waffle House makes the breakfast food of the
gods, but I loathe fundamentalists. I not uncommonly use “y’all”
rather than “you” for the second person plural because it’s clearer,
but I assume people who use “y’all” for the second person
singular really are dumb hicks.

Demography is not destiny. I was born in the Yankee heart of
Boston, I went to an Ivy League university, I’m a fluent writer and
speaker, every house I’ve lived in in the U.S. has been within a
hundred miles of the Atlantic, and I’ve never had a manual-labor job
in my life. By all that’s stereotyped I ought to be a member in good
standing of the chattering classes and the tribe of fuzzy-sweater
liberals, sucking up NPR and voting for Kerry like all decent
blue-staters were supposed to.

I’m not quite sure how I escaped this fate. It wasn’t by becoming
a conservative, oh dear no. I’m a radical Wiccan anarchist with a
sexual style that your average red-stater wouldn’t even know the right
words to describe (yes, I’ve checked). Right-wingers appall me
— most are so narrow-minded that they don’t even have a prayer
of understanding how narrow-minded they are. They live inside cages
and never see the bars.

So instead of repudiating my blue-state pedigree by turning into
some sort of repellant young-conservative lizardoid, I grew into
someone half-blue, half-red. My wife Cathy thinks my father’s
influence had a lot to do with that, and she’s probably got a point.
He grew up hardscrabble poor in the red counties of rural central
Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, clawed his way out to a
profession in coastal blue-land with drive and brains, and married an
upper-class girl with the looks of a movie star. Men like that don’t
fall for easy, comfortable answers in politics or anywhere else.
Among the traits I inherited from him are a contrarian streak, a
studied and stubborn refusal to fit into anyone’s tidy categories, and
some bedrock respect for red-state virtues.

Iowahawk ends his brilliant satire with the line “After the toilet
backed up, I think he got my point”. Whether intentionally or not, he
perfectly illustrates the single most important advantage of red-state
culture and politics. It’s an advantage my father understood, and he
passed that understanding on to me.

Here it is: your average red-state prole’s world-view may be
strangely cramped, and is too often shot through with bizarre and ugly
superstitions like creationism — but within his limits he
is in contact with reality. On the other hand, your average
elite blue-stater — insulated by wealth and a complacent
mainstream media and thick layers of theoretical artifice —
understands everything except reality. Which is great if
what you need is irony or wit or skilled navigation through a maze of
social constructions, but not so useful when you need a toilet
fixed.

There’s nothing new about this dance. Aristocrats and yeomen have
been doing it since the days when Sumer was the new kid on the block.
The anti-red-state squawking now being emitted by blue-state pundits
in the wake of Kerry’s defeat can be summed up as a fearful cry of
“The peasants are revolting!” It isn’t really about political
geography but about class and class snobbery.

And you know what? Class snobbery pisses me off, especially when
the people peddling it are vapid ninnies whose smugness about their own
sophistication doesn’t conceal their complete failure to get a grip
on reality. Apparently it pisses off Iowahawk too — his satire
doesn’t conceal a dark delight in the thought of all those blue-state
aristo parents wringing their hands.

So, even though I’ll never be one of them, my response to
Iowahawk’s satire is to root for the Neckies. Being one of them by
birth myself, I have long since taken the measure of the blue-state
elite. They’re more interesting to hang with, they tell better jokes,
they understand all the finer things in life — and it’s past
time for this country’s Y’alls to be rubbing their noses in the fact
that they’re mostly full of shit.

Nov 13

Islamofascism and the Rage of Augustine

In response to a long, thoughtful post on religion and democracy. a commenter on the Belmont Club wrote:

A favorite criticism of Christianity is to point to the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition and claim that these events are somehow proof that Christianity is by nature “just another violent religion”. This is both an intellectually shallow and dishonest assessment, since this criticism ignores that fact that these institutionalized excesses did not occur until a full 1000 years into the history of the Christian religion.

The commenter, a Christian apologist, missed or evaded an important point that is relevant to the question of living with Islam and how we cope with the ideological problem of Islamic terrorism. It is indeed true that early Christianity committed only small-scale atrocities against its own ‘heretics’, rather than the really large-scale ones against Jews, witches, and other soi-disant unbelievers that came to characterize it later on. But in interpreting that early period, we need to bear in mind that Christianity changed in fundamental ways after the Donation of Constantine.

I think the turning point was Augustine, though you can see a prefiguration of his ideas in Paul of Tarsus. By making the theology of Fall, sin, and guilt central to Christianity, Augustine transformed it from a relatively harmless mystery cult into a successful monster. Islam underwent a very similar transformation during the early years of the Ummaiyyad caliphate, from a splinter of Monophysite Christianity no more bloody-minded than most tribal cults of the time to a new prosyletizing religion of especially virulent and violent stripe.

Both religions, in their “mature” forms, became strikingly similar to their most important ancestor, which was not Judaism but Zoroastrianism. Augustine was a former adherent of one of the Zoroastrian splinter groups, the Gnostics of Manicheus. He imported Manichean dualism into Christianity almost entire. One can read Zoroastrian descriptions of heaven, hell, angels, the devil, and the fate of sinners from 900 years before Christ and recognize them; they are like nothing else in world religion but very much like Christianity after Augustine, the Christianity that made the Book of Revelations part of its canon.

The Zoroastrian influence on Christianity had always been important. Early Christians had adopted Zoroastrian customs and terminology, especially under the influence of the cult of Mithras which was probably their most important competition in the early centuries. That’s where we got the Sunday sabbath and our words for “priest” and “pope”; even the Eucharist reflects a Mithraic initiation ceremony called the Taurobolion. After Augustine, the Manichean, quasi-Zoroastrian elements of Christianity became dominant and the massacres began, gradually increasing in tempo.

Part of the reason for the reconvergence with Zoroastrianism was doubtless functional. Zoroastrianism had been the state religion of the Persian Empire. It was designed to reinforce the authority of the Priest-Emperor over his vast multi-ethnic rabble of subjects, placing him at the apex of both secular and spiritual authority (and, indeed, making them indistinguishable). The emperors of Rome and the early Caliphs faced a similar set of problems, and enlisted the same kind of religious absolutism as a tool of totalitarian social control.

It was Augustine’s theology of sin and grace that sharpened that tool into a blade. In a nutshell, it reduces to this: (1) We are all sinners, broken and wrong. (2) To escape this condition, we must not only obey authority but internalize it. (3) Even if we succeed at (2), only the whim of divine authority can save us, and that whim is beyond human ken. The tyrant can never be called to account, and to act against him is to be damned.

Worse: in Augustinean theology, the intention to sin is as bad as the act. It is not sufficient to behave as though we believe when we really don’t. It is not even sufficient that we allow authorities to coerce us into believing absurd things or performing atrocities in God’s name. We must conform not only outwardly but inwardly, become our own oppressors, believing because it is absurd. The God-tyrant can never be rejected even in our own minds, or we are damned.

Only when we have installed the sin/guilt/thoughtcrime monitor in our own heads will we be even potentially among the saved. There is a straight line that connects Zoroastrian dualism and Augustine’s sin-centered theology with the Islamic concept of “sarfa” (turning away from God) and Communist talk of “false consciousness” — at some level, the mechanisms to run any stable totalitarianism have to look alike, because they’re all designed to control the same wetware.

The alliance now forming between the Islamo-fascists and the hard left should surprise nobody who understands the deep structure of either belief system. Both are, fundamentally, designed as legitimizing agents for tyranny — memetic machines designed to program you into licking the boot of the commissar or caliph that stomps you. But outside of a tiny minority of the brave (Robert Ingersoll) or the crazy (Nietzsche) Western intellectuals have averted their eyes from this truth, because to recognize it would almost require them to notice that the very same deep structure is wired into the Gnosticized Christianity of “Saint” Augustine — and, in fact, historically derived from it.

Hence the shared Christian/Islamic propensity for putting unbelievers to the sword for merely unbelieving. You will search in vain for such behavior among post-Exilic Jews, or Taoists, or animists, or any other world religion. Only a religion which is totalitarian at its core, fundamentally about thoughtcrime and sin and submission, can even conceive of a need to murder people wholesale for the state of their unbelief. The massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Eve and Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks were of a piece, both jihads against thoughtcrime.

Islam conceals this less well than Christianity or Communism ever did. The very name, “Islam”, means “submission”. But when Christian evangelists called the destruction on 9/11 God’s punishment for feminism and homosexuals they were singing from the same hymnbook, channelling the same authoritarianism and “ancient religious rage” that Margalit and Buruma’s essay Occidentalism quite correctly diagnosed at the roots of fascism.

It is not difficult to recognize in that rage something deep, twisted, sick, and anti-human, and condemn it for the psychosis it is. It is more difficult, but necessary, to recognize Augustine’s theology of submission — and the concept of “islam” that Islam derived from it — as one of the most subtle and deadliest symptoms of that pychosis, one which leads to massacre as surely as a stab wound bleeds.

Totalitarian religion and democracy are not, in the end, compatible. Free people cannot — indeed, must never — submit in the way that Zoroaster, Augustine, Mohammed, and Stalin required. The Founding Fathers understood this, and when George Washington wrote “The United States is in no way founded upon the Christian religion” on a diplomatic message to the Knights of Malta they were expressing it.

Islamic terrorism is forcing us to face this fact. But we will not be able to understand and squarely confront the evil at the heart of Islam, Naziism, and Communism, until we face the fact that all three of these monsters are Augustine’s progeny, and that same evil is embedded in Christianity itself.

Oct 18

The Far Side of Irony

Having seen Team America: World Police last Friday on its
opening night, I’m amused by the mainstream-media spin that this movie
is an anti-right-wing satire too subtle for the yokels to get. In
fact, I think it’s it’s something much more peculiar and interesting
— a movie that hides a strong fundamental patriotism and appeal
to traditional values under a veneer of scatology and sexual crudity.

The MSM can’t see this, because in the MSM’s universe the kind of
patriotism for which the movie ultimately plumps is at best a joke to
be sneered at and at worst actually toxic. But the South Park guys
tip their hand early, during a sequence in which the the protagonist
Gary visits the Lincoln Memorial and other national monuments while
wrestling with a question of duty. The soundtrack is country music
of the most teeth-gritting, lachrymose awfulness — but the steel
guitars and schmaltzy vocals fail to obscure the fact that the song is
asking a serious moral question, and that the right answer (for Gary
and for the rest of us) is that he must accept his duty to defend
freedom. The entire rest of the plot follows from that decision.

This scene is a microcosm of the movie. In this satire, it’s the
satire you’re supposed to see through. Irony is enlisted to
anti-ironic purposes. In another early scene, Gary is cosmetically
morphed for infiltration purposes into a caricature of the generic
Islamo-terrorist so extreme that pained laughter is the only possible
response — and his teammates think it’s a perfect disguise. But
never once is this pointed jab at American parochialism allowed to
obscure the genuine evil of the type he is disguised as.

Throughout the film, Team America is clumsy, parochial,
hamfisted and inadvertently destructive. But this is emphasised mainly
in order to point up a continuing underlying message that it’s better
to be a dolt with traditional American intentions than a sophisticate
in the service of evil.

In this and other ways, this movie seems profoundly conservative to
me. I don’t often use the label ‘conservative’ as a compliment, but
such use is merited here. Team America knows it’s their job to defend
civilization, to conserve it. Part of the humor in this movie comes
from the contrast between that fundamental conservatism and the
profane, obscene, and jejunely disgusting moments that occupy much of
the film. These are not your father’s conservatives, a point the
South Park auteurs make early by showing two of the characters
sprinting a lust-a-thon through a marrionette kama sutra of sexual
positions.

And maybe that’s the most interesting message of this movie. We
watch it blowing up scenery in a parody of the Bruckheimerian action
flick, but what’s really being exploded is the fixed categories of the
post-1960s culture wars. The South Park guys are trying to divorce
the muscular self-confidence of a healthy civilization from the
cultural-conservative and religious fixations that confidence has
usually been married to. There is not one single reference to
Christianity in the entire movie. The good guys drink, swear, and
screw like frenzied minks, but they’re good guys just the same.

Ultimately, what matters about them most is that they never give
up and never compromise with evil. That’s what makes this vulgar
comedy ultimately a serious parable for our time.

Sep 24

Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem

There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last
hundred years — become drained of vitality, driven their audiences
away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits
or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.

The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel
and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms
determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had
made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left
vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and
art photography.

Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only
in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in
honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own
sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as
smoothed-out elevator music. Sculpture, having spent a century losing
itself in increasingly meaningless abstraction, is only now feeling
its way back towards a figurative vocabulary; the most interesting
action there is not yet in the revival of mimetic forms but in artists
who speak the vocabulary of mathematics and machine technology.

What makes an art-form self-destruct like this? Many things can
contribute — hankerings for bourgeois respectibility, corruption
by politics, clumsy response to a competing genre. But the one we
see over and over again is deadly genius.

A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and
remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to
emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers
lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the
genius has defined.

Arnold Schoenberg (classical music). James Joyce (literary
novels). John Coltrane (jazz). Pablo Picasso (painting). Konstantin
Brancusi (sculpture). These men had the knack of inventing radical
new forms that made the preexisting conventions of their arts seem
stale and outworn. They produced works of brilliance, taught their
followers to value disruptive brillance over tradition, and in doing so
all but destroyed their arts.

Artistic tradition can be limiting sometimes, but it has one thing
going for it — it is the result of selection for pleasing an audience.
Thus, artists of moderate talent can imitate it and produce something that
the eye, ear, heart and mind will experience with pleasure. Most artists
are at best of moderate talent; thus, this kind of imitation is how
art forms survive and keep an audience.

On the other hand…imitation Schoenberg or Coltrane is
unlistenably bad. Imitation Joyce is unreadable. Imitation Picasso
looks like a toddler’s daubings and imitation Brancusi is ugly junk.
Worse still is when mediocre artists strain themselves to be the next
disruptive genius. And perhaps worst of all is what happens when bad
artists turn disruption into cliche.

Art forms self-destruct when enough of their establishment follows
a deadly genius off a cliff. And we had a bad streak of this sort of
thing just about a century ago; three of the four deadly geniuses I’ve
named above flourished at that time. Why then?

Tom Wolfe argued in From Bauhaus to Our House that the
breakdown of the traditional patronage system in the late 19th century
had a lot to do with the degenerative changes in modern art. Wolfe never
identified deadly genius as a core problem. but his argument readily
extends to an explanation of why deadly genius become so much deadlier
at that time.

Wealthy aristocratic patrons, had, in general, little use for
disruptive brilliance — what they wanted from artists was
impressive display objects, status symbols that had to be
comprehensible to the patron’s peers. Thus, artists learned to
stay more or less within traditional forms or starve. Evolution
happened, but it was relatively gradual and unsconscious. Geniuses
were not permitted to become deadly.

After 1900 all this changed. Wolfe elucidates some of the complex
reasons that artists found themselves with more freedom and less
security than ever before. In an increasingly bourgeois climate, the
cry went up that artistic creation must become autonomous, heeding its
own internal imperatives as much as (or more than) the demands of any
audience. The breakneck pace of technological change helped reinforce a
sense that possibilities were limitless and all rules could be
discarded.

In the new environment, artistic tradition lost much of its normative
force. “Back to zero!” was the slogan; forget everything so you can invent
anything. And when the next wave of deadly geniuses hit, there was nothing
to moderate them any more.

It is unlikely that anything quite like the Modernist disruption will
ever happen again, if only because we’ve been there and done that now. But
as we try to heal all the fractures it produced, this one lesson is worth
bearing in mind. Genius can be deadly when it goes where mere talent
cannot follow.

Sep 21

The Art of Science

One of my earliest blog essays (Terror Becomes Bad
Art
) was about Luke Helder, the pipe-bombing “artist” who created
a brief scare back in 2002. Arguably more disturbing than Helder’s
“art” was the fact that he genuinely thought it was art, because none
of the supposed artists or arts educators he was in contact with had
ever taught him any better and his own talent was not sufficient to
carry him beyond their limits.

I am not the first to observe that something deeply sick and
dysfunctional happened to the relationship between art, popular
culture, and technology during the crazy century we’ve just exited.
Tom Wolfe made the point in The Painted Word
and expanded on it in From Bauhaus To Our House. Frederick Turner
expanded the indictment in a Wilson Quarterly essay on
neoclassicism which, alas, seems not to be available on line.

If we judge by what the critical establishment promotes as “great
art”, most of today’s artists are bad jokes. The road from Andy
Warhol’s soup cans to Damien Hirst’s cows in formaldehyde has been
neither pretty nor edifying. Most of “fine art” has become a moral,
intellectual, and esthetic wasteland in which whatever was originally
healthy in the early-modern impulse to break the boundaries of
received forms has degraded into a kind of numbed-out nihilism.

There are exceptions, though — artists who engage the world, who
are deeply involved with ideas, and who playfully incorporate all the
possibilities of our technological age into their work. When I was a
guest of honor at Arisia 2004 I had the good fortune to meet one of
these; Arthur Ganson, an
artist/engineer who creates beautiful and sometimes disturbing kinetic
sculptures.

One that I’ve just discovered is Bathsheba Grossman. She
visualizes and then realizes beautiful ideas from mathematics,
cosmology, and organic chemistry. Contemplate her Large Scale
Model
, an image of the galactic clusters in the three hundred
million cubic light years around Earth — an eidolon of a
substantial fraction of the observable universe laser-etched into a
three-inch-tall glass block.

It isn’t quite “to see the Universe in a grain of sand”, but nobody
with more sensitivity than a brick could fail to have dizzying and
wonderful vistas of time/space and paradoxical thoughts about scale in
the presence of this luminously beautiful work of art. All too many
artists portentiously claim that what art is supposed to do is induce
one to meditate on one’s place in the universe, then deliver pettiness
(or perhaps a toxic political screed) as the punchline.
Ms. Grossman’s Large Scale Model is the real deal, and a hard slap in
their faces.

Or contemplate Ms. Grossman’s gorgeous metal sculptures, derived
from mathematical forms by a process that combines hand-modelling with
CAD and produced with cutting-edge 3D-printing technology. It’s not
just the end results that are beautiful but the whole dialogue between
art and technology implicit in her
technique.
After reading about it, I am not surprised to learn that she sometimes
writes her own modeling software — and, having seen her art, I
would lay a healthy bet that she writes damn good software.

There’s something refreshing even about Ms. Grossman’s most narrowly
commercial work. She will laser-etch the protein structure of your
choice into glass, using the same technique as in the Large Scale
Model, for prices starting at $145. These images of cloudy, intricate
structure are visually beautiful enough as abstracts, but they derive
their true power from being about something. About
hemoglobin, the molecule in your blood that carries oxygen. Or about
the DNA polymerase crucial in cell replication, or the
neurotransmitter acetylcholinesterase. Each one is a joyful
celebration of our ability to know, to find beauty and meaning in the
complexity of the natural universe.

To see these craft objects, unashamedly made for money (that’ll be
$40 extra for molecular-surface etching, thank you), is to have your
nose rubbed in the desperate poverty of most modern art, to be
reminded of the vacuum at its core and the pathetic Luke Helders that
the vacuum spawns. It’s a poverty of meaning, a parochialism that
insists that the only interesting things in the universe are the
artist’s own psychological and political quirks.

Bathsheba Grossman’s art reminds us that exploration of the narrow
confines of an artist’s head is a poor substitute for artistic
exploration of the universe. It reminds us that what the artist owes
his audience is beauty and discovery and a sense of connection, not
alienation and ugliness and neurosis and political ax-grinding.

Forgetting this value rotted the core out of the fine arts and
literary fiction of the 20th century. We can hope, though, that
artists like her and Arthur Ganson will show the way forward to
remembering it. Only in that way will the unhealthy chasm between
popular and fine art be healed, and fine art be restored to a healthy
and organic relationship with culture as a whole.

Dec 18

Sex and Tolkien

Yes, I went to my local instantiation of the all-three-LOTR-movies
marathon on Tuesday, and enjoyed it immensely. The movies were a
delight; Peter Jackson’s Return Of The King fully lived up
to the promise of The Fellowship of the Ring and The
Two Towers
. Despite minor flaws and some questionable omissions,
Tolkien fans have reason to be vastly grateful both for Jackson’s vision
and the fact that Hollywood actually allowed him to make these movies
as good as they are.

The marathon was also quite a geekfest. The theater was
wall-to-wall with SF and fantasy fans, SCAdians, computer hackers,
and the like. A very intelligent, cerebral, imaginative crowd. My
kind of people, talking and meeting and mixing with each other
a great deal more than your typical movie crowd does. The fact
that many people showed up hours early to get good seats, and the
two half-hour intermissions, helped a lot.

In a refutation of stereotypes, many of those attending were
female. And attractive. And often dressed to display it in Arwen or
Eowyn outfits. Had I been actually trying, I believe I would have
taken home at least three phone numbers, which is a significant datum
even given that I’m a lot more self-confident about the flirting thing
than most geek guys.

Part of me was in anthropologist mode, contemplating the mating
behaviors on display, even as I was chatting with the pretty redheaded
theater student from State College, the massage therapist in the seat
next to me, the blonde in the concession-stand line, and the buxom
big-eyed wench in the Ramones T-shirt who told me all about re-reading
the Rings every year since she was eleven, and I’ll be damned
if she didn’t mean that as at least a bit of a come-on. I wondered
what Tolkien, Edwardian prude that he was, would have said of the
human tendency to turn the appreciation of his works into a sort of
pickup scene for the high-IQ crowd. That led me to consider ribald
parodies like the hilarious Very Secret Diaries,
which at least two of the women I chatted with obviously knew quite
well and I’d bet money the other two did too.

I was also thinking, during the movies, about Liv Tyler. Long-time
readers will be aware that I have warm and lusty feelings about our
Liv. OK, so I will cheerfully concede that Miranda Otto is a dish and
well into wouldn’t-kick-her-out-of-bed territory, but her Eowyn
doesn’t nail the releaser circuitry in my hindbrain quite the way
Tyler’s Arwen does. During the first movie I found watching Arwen’s
lips as she spoke Elvish quite an erotic experience. (And it’s not
just me. My sister Lisa reported, after I mentioned this, having been
startled to discover the same reaction in herself. This is amusing
because I have never had any reason to doubt her report that she’s
normally as straight as a laser-beam.) Arwen isn’t any less sexy
in the third movie.

So I was well-primed to read the essay Warm Beds Are
Good
this morning. This is an extended and thorough consideration
of sex and sexuality in Tolkien’s works. Towards the end, the author
makes the telling point that eroticizing various elements in Tolkien’s
mythos is one of the ways in which modern readers adapt it to their
own fantasy needs. This makes sense; giving a luscious version of
Arwen screen time and playing up her thing with Aragorn is not just a
crude sell-it-with-sex maneuver, it’s a way to make the mythos
fundamentally more intelligible to a viewer in 2003 than the rather
dessicated and repressed account of The romance of Aragorn and
Arwen
in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings would
have been.

Warm Beds Are Good fails to grapple with the most
interesting question of all, however, which is how Arwen and Aragorn
could possibly have developed the hots for each other in the first
place. It turns out to be rather hard to come up with any theory of
Elvish reproductive biology under which Arwen’s behavior makes
any sense at all.

Aragorn’s end isn’t that much of a mystery. He’s an alpha male of
a warrior culture, chock full o’ testosterone and other dominance
hormones guaranteed to make him into a serious horn-dog. She’s a
beautiful princess, broadcasting human-compatible health-and-fertility
signals in all directions. If she doesn’t actively smell bad, tab A
fits slot B just fine from the point of view of his
mating instincts.

No, the fundamental problem is Arwen’s lifespan. She is supposedly
something like two thousand, seven hundred years old when she meets
Aragorn. That’s an awful lot of Saturday nights at the Last Homely
Disco West of the Mountains; if she has a sex drive anything like a
normal human female’s, she ought to have more mileage on her than a
Liberian tramp steamer. On the other hand, if her sexual wiring is
fundamentally different from a human female’s, what’n’thehell
is she doing with Aragorn? He shouldn’t look or smell or behave right
to trigger her releasers, any more than a talking chimpanzee would to
most human women.

“B-b-but…” I hear you splutter “This is
fantasy!”, to which I say foo! Tolkien was very
careful about logical consistency in areas where he was equipped by
temperament and training to appreciate it; he invented a cosmology,
thousand of years of history, multiple languages; he drew maps. He
lectured on the importance of a having convincing and consistent
secondary world in fantasy. Furthermore, Tolkien never completely
repudiated the intention that his fiction was a mythic description of
the lost past of our Earth, and that therefore matter, energy
and life should be consistent with the forms in which we know
them.

Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to analyze Middle-Earth as
though it were a science-fictional creation, to assume Elves and Men
both got DNA, and to ask if the freakin’ biology makes any sense at
all under this assumption.

And one of the facts we have to deal with is that humans and elves
are not just interfertile, they produce fertile offspring. That means
they have to be genetically very, very similar. If there
are dramatic differences between elf and human reproductive behavior,
the instinctive basis for them must be coded in a relatively small
set of genes that somehow don’t interfere with that interfertility.
In fact, technically, Elves and Men have to be subspecies of the
same stock.

When this came up on my favorite mailing list just after the first
movie came out, my hypothesis was that elves (a) have only rare
periods of vulnerability to sexual impulses, and (b) imprint on each
other for life when they mate, like swans. This pattern is actually
within the envelope of human variation, though uncommon — which
makes it a plausible candidate for being dominant in another hominid
subspecies.

This ‘swan theory’ would be consistent with Appendix A,
which (a) has Arwen meeting Aragorn when he was garbed like an elven
prince and (as near as we can tell through Tolkien’s rather clotted
chansons-de-geste style) falling for him hard right then and there,
and (b) has Arwen’s family apparently operating under the assumption
that once that had happened, the damage was done and she wouldn’t be
mating with anyone else, noway, nohow.

One of the techies on the list shot the swan theory down by finding a
canonical instance of an Elf remarrying (Finwe, father of Feanor;
first wife Miriel, second Indis). In subsequent discussion, we
concluded that it wasn’t possible to frame a consistent theory that
fit Tolkien’s facts. The sticking-point turned out to be the
half-elven; Tolkien tells us that they get to choose whether
they will have the nature of Men or Elves, and it is implied that they
do so at puberty.

Since that’s true, the difference between Men and Elves can’t
properly be genetic at all. It must be in the cloudy realm of spirit,
magic, and divine interventions. This is not an area in which Tolkien
(a devout Catholic) gives us any rules or regularities at all. Elvish
sexual behavior could be arbitrarily variant from human without any
reasons other than that Eru keeps exerting his will to make it so,
and He very well might be intervening to keep elf-maidens’ hormones
from getting them jiggy Until It’s Time.

Helluva way to run a universe, say I. Inelegant. A really
craftsmanlike god would build his cosmos so it wouldn’t require
constant divine intervention to function. It’s a serious weakness in
Tolkien’s ficton, one that runs far deeper than anachronisms like
domestic cats (which didn’t reach northern Europe until late Roman
times) and tea (to Europe in 1610) in the Shire.

Meanwhile, back in this universe, I’m kind of wishing I’d asked the
buxom big-eyed wench in the Ramones T-shirt for her phone number. Too
many alpha-male horn-dog hormones, that’s me. Tolkien wouldn’t have
understood a sexual culture in which that was even conceivable
behavior for a happily married man. much less one in which the wench
and wife would have then been more likely to become friends than not;
his only category for it would have been debauchery. But I think his
fantasy continues to work partly because it’s so repressed.

Sexual love (and all the mutability of human custom that goes with
it) is essentially a side issue in Tolkien’s work, primarily a symbol
of reward for valor (Faramir and Eowyn; Sam and Rosie; Aragorn and
Arwen, for that matter). His Edwardian restraint produces a nearly
blank ground on which Peter Jackson can project Liv Tyler and readers
can project all their own sexual dramas and hopes, from the romance of
Aragorn and Arwen to the rather weird ones like Gimli/Legolas slash
fiction. Certainly that’s what the women in Arwen and Eowyn costumes
were doing.

And for a good laugh, there’s always the Very Secret
Diaries
. Rather than launch into a postmodernist-sounding rant
about irony and appropriation, I’ll just finish by observing that all
of these things modulate each other; that not only do we project our
sex onto Tolkien’s sex, we read Tolkien’s sex differently after
the Very Secret Diaries, or after seeing Liv Tyler
speak Elvish, than we did before. That much, Tolkien would
have had no trouble understanding.

Dec 15

The Last Samurai

Hollywood has given us a run of surprisingly good movies recently.
By ‘surprisingly good‘ I mean that they’re rather better
than one might expect from their genre. Loony Toons: Back In
Action
, for example, could have been a mere merchandising
vehicle, a repetition of clichés and tired sight gags. Instead
it was a wickedly funny combination of Animaniac edginess with classic
Warner Brothers wackiness. It has a few moments of true brilliance
— the sequence in which Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through
Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (think of melting clocks)
is jaw-droppingly wonderful, sublime art.

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World was
also a surprising treat. I’ve read all 20 of the Aubrey/Maturin
novels. The movie doesn’t capture their texture and depth —
that would be impossible, they are deeply literary works — but
as an adventure movie that refers to the books without insulting the
reader’s intelligence it works quite well.

The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter
movies are so good that hard-core fans of their respective books are
still pinching themselves, wondering when they’re going to wake up to
the discovery that they’re actually watching the usual dumbed-down
Hollywood crap. (I say this as a Tolkien fan so hard-core that I was
able to catch nuances of the spoken Elvish that weren’t in the
subtitles.)

Of course there have been dreadful turkeys where we expected
better, as well. The third Matrix movie and Star
Wars: Attack of the Clones
leap to mind. But dreadful turkeys
are part of the normal scene; what’s abnormal is that New
Line gave Peter Jackson the money and freedom to make
Rings movies that, while rushed and not without the
occasional compromise, are almost achingly good.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a movie that (a) was
a book adaptation faithful enough for the fans to cheer it, (b) got
great reviews from movie critics, and (c) was boffo box office? Just
counting the Rings and Potter movies and Master & Commander,
we’ve now had five of these in relatively quick succession. Something
is going on here. Can it be that Hollywood is having an attack of
intelligence and taste?

(My wife Cathy suggests Saving Private Ryan as a
precursor of the trend.)

The movie that pushed me to think about this as a pattern, rather
than a series of isolated incidents, is The Last Samurai.
I’d been wanting to see this one since the first trailers six months
ago, but was braced for a disappointment on the scale of Pearl
Harbor
. Hollywood’s record on wide-screen historicals is
dreadful; they tend to be laughably ahistorical — either
mindless spectacles or video sermonettes for whatever form of
political correctness was in vogue the week they were made. Remarkably,
The Last Samurai almost completely avoids these flaws.

I said “almost completely”. The movie is not without
flaws. But even the flaws are interesting. They illustrate the ways
in which Hollywood’s metric for a good (or at least successful) movie
is changing.

Let’s start with the bad stuff. First, way too much camera time
that could have been better employed gets spent on emotive closeups of
the lead’s phiz (a misfeature The Last Samurai shares with the first two Ring
movies and I am thus beginning to think of as ‘the Frodo
flaw’). But this is Hollywood and it’s Tom Cruise and one
supposes such excess is inevitable.

Secondly, the movie is seriously anti-historical in one respect; we
are supposed to believe that traditionalist Samurai would disdain the
use of firearms. In fact, traditional samurai loved firearms
and found them a natural extension of their traditional role as horse
archers. Samurai invented rolling volley fire three decades before
Gustavus Adolphus, and improved the musket designs they imported from
the Portuguese so effectively that for most of the 1600s they were
actually making better guns than European armorers could produce.

But, of course, today’s Hollywood left thinks firearms are
intrinsically eeeevil (especially firearms in the hands of anyone
other than police and soldiers) so the virtuous rebel samurai had
to eschew them. Besides being politically correct, this choice
thickened the atmosphere of romantic doom around our heroes.

Another minor clanger in the depiction of samurai fighting: We are
given scenes of samurai training to fight empty-hand and unarmored
using modern martial-arts moves. In fact, in 1877 it is about a
generation too early for this. Unarmed combat did not become a
separate discipline with its own forms and schools until the very end
of the nineteenth century. And when it did, it was based not on
samurai disciplines but on peasant fighting methods from Okinawa and
elsewhere that were used against samurai (this is why most
exotic martial-arts weapons are actually agricultural tools).

In 1877, most samurai still would have thought unarmed-combat
training a distraction from learning how to use the swords, muskets
and bows that were their primary weapons systems. Only after the
swords they preferred for close combat were finally banned did this
attitude really change. But, hey, most moviegoers are unaware of
these subtleties, so there had to be some chop-socky in the script to
meet their expectations.

One other rewriting of martial history: we see samurai
ceremoniously stabbing fallen opponents to death with a two-hand
sword-thrust. In fact, this is not how it was done; real
samurai delvered the coup de grace by decapitating their
opponents, and then taking the head as a trophy.

No joke. Head-taking was such an important practice that there was
a special term in Japanese for the art of properly dressing the hair on
a severed head so that the little paper tag showing the deceased’s name
and rank would be displayed to best advantage.

While the filmmakers were willing to show samurai killing the
wounded, in other important respects they softened and Westernized the
behavior of these people somewhat. Algren learned, correctly, that
‘samurai’ derives from a verb meaning “to
serve”, but we are misled when the rebel leader speaks of
“protecting the people”. In fact, noblesse oblige was not
part of the Japanese worldview; samurai served not ‘the
people’ but a particular daimyo, and the daimyo served the
Emperor in theory and nobody but themselves in normal practice.

Now for some of the good stuff. It begins with an amazingly strong
performance by Ken Watanabe as the rebel daimyo Katsumoto. From the
first moment that you see him, you believe him; there are no moments
of hey-I’m-Tom-Cruise to mar his immersion in the character, for
which excellent reason he actually upstages Cruise at several key points.

Through Katsumoto and the other Japanese characters, we are made to
see the intertwined quests for perfection of both technique and self
that was so central to the samurai warrior-mystic. Indeed, there are
points at which the filmmakers have some subtle fun with the fact that
Americans of our day, having successfully naturalized Japanese martial
arts into our own culture, have learned to understand that path rather
better than Cruise’s Captain Algren does. I’m thinking especially of
the point at which a bystander watching Algren lose at sword practice
tells him he has “too many minds”. The viewer probably knows what
he is driving at even if Algren does not.

Better: the movie is properly respectful of Japanese virtues
without crossing the line into supine multiculturalism. Captain
Algren appreciates and accepts the best of an alien culture
without renouncing his identity as a Westerner, an officer,
and a gentleman. There is a telling scene after Algren has been
accepted into the life of his Japanese hosts in which he takes a heavy
load from Taka (the female lead), who protests that Japanese men never
help with such things.

Algren replies that he is not a Japanese man. In this and other
ways he refutes an already-standard knock on the movie, which is to
refer to it as “Dances with Samurai”. But this movie,
despite the flaws I’ve pointed out, is more honest and far less
sentimental about the samurai than Dances With Wolves was
about its Sioux. This is progress of a sort.

Algren’s romance with Taka is also handled with a degree of
restraint that is appropriate but surprising. We get no sexual
cheap thrills; instead, we get subtle but extremely powerful
eroticism, notably in the scene where Taka dresses Algren in her
dead husband’s armor just before the final battle.

The film is visually quite beautiful. The details of costume,
weapons, armor, and the simple artifacts of Japanese village life are
meticulously and correctly rendered. In fact there are a number of
points at which the setting is stronger than the script and carries
one through places where the plotting is a bit implausible.

This contrast is an illustration of the uneven way in which
standards have risen. The Last Samurai, the Rings
movies, Master & Commander, and the Harry Potter movies
all have vastly better production values than (I think) they would
have had even ten years ago — perhaps the huge advances in
special-effects technology have created a sort of upward pressure on
the quality of movies’ depictions of reality. On the other hand,
downright silly plot twists are still acceptable and the conventions
of the star-vehicle film remain firmly in place.

One gets ahistorical howlers and (in fiction) violations of the
spirit of the original work, but fewer than formerly. In all these
movies, you can see where they were trimmed to fit Hollywood’s
marketing needs, but the trimming is done with a lot more sensitivity
and taste than it used to be. Occasionally one even sees outright
improvements — the moment in Peter Jackson’s version of
Boromir’s death scene in which the fallen Gondorian hails Aragorn as
his king, for example, achieves more power and poignancy than
Tolkien’s original.

I like this trend a lot, but I’m not sure I understand it. The
Hollywood establishment is in business to make money, but the link
between market demand and the quality of films has always been
tenuous at best. It would be nice to think that film audiences
have required filmmakers to exhibit better taste by developing
better taste themselves, but in the face of all the awful schlock
that still gets churned out and makes money, this is a difficult
case to sustain in general.

It feels to me more as though some balance of power within the
system has shifted and, for whatever reason, creative artists
have gained power at the expense of the marketeers. Thus, for
example, Rowling had more than somewhat to do with the casting
of the Harry Potter movies, and Peter Jackson’s films display
a nearly obsessive concern with getting the look of Middle-Earth
right that could hardly be shared by a typical studio exec.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad of the trend. I spend a lot more
time in movie theaters than I use to — and that’s the
message Hollywood wants to hear.

Dec 08

Cthulhu and Christ

This parody below comes to us from an artist named Howard Hallis, to whom all credit is due. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here because the design of his website leads me to suspect that this cartoon might be replaced by something else the next time he has a fit of artistic inspiration.

This is a brilliant piece of art. While it helps to have a prior acquaintance with the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ that H.P. Lovecraft developed in now-classic horror stories of the 1920s and ’30s, Hallis does a vivid and effective job of conveying the central themes and feel of the Mythos. But the truly subversive genius of this cartoon lies elsewhere…about which more after you have read it.

This is, of course, a parody of a fundamentalist Christian evangelical tract. More specifically, it is a remarkably accurate take on the style of Jack T. Chick, a pamphleteer who has occupied the scungy basement of Christian evangelism since the 1960s. Both the talking heads are recognizable, stock Chick characters — the sinful, scornful unbeliever and the saintly white-haired minister.

Some cultural-studies type ought to do a book on the way that the Cthulhu mythos has oozed forth from its pulp origins to become Western pop culture’s generic Nightmare From Beyond. This parody could have been written thirty years ago — Chick goes back that far and has been remarkably, er, consistent in his output — but thirty years ago only a handful of SF and fantasy fans would have recognized Cthulhu. Nowadays ol’ squid-face is all over the place; there are, ironically, plush toys.

I put it down to fantasy-role-playing games, which have reached a far larger audience than print SF or fantasy. Gamers have borrowed the Cthulhu mythos so frequently that it’s a cliché — but one which, thanks to the eerie power of Lovecraft’s imagery, never completely loses its power to send a chill down the spine. Even the mere names — the Necronomicon, Yog-Sothoth, the corpse-eaters of Leng, the Hounds of Tindalos, and of course dread Cthulhu himself — is to feel a vast and threatening darkness.

Hallis’s parody draws on a much more specific tradition. The idea of the Campus Crusade for Cthulhu as a parody of the Campus Crusade for Christ was already live when I was in college in the 1970s. But Hallis makes their point more compactly and effectively, and therein lies the real touch of genius in this piece.

Jack T. Chick’s pamphlets speak plainly the most fundamental message of Christian evangelism: believe or be damned. It’s all about fear, the induced fear that if you don’t get straight with God you will burn in Hell. Not for Chick the sugar-coating of talk about love or morality or becoming a better person. Writing for the lowest common denominator, he zeroes in on terror.

But so pervaded is our culture with Christian ideas and imagery that it is difficult to see how nasty and inhumane Chick and his ilk really are; even those of us who are not Christians tend to respond to the fear-mongering with a kind of numbness, reacting to Chick’s ugly, drab oeuvre mainly as an offense against good taste (or a form of unintentional found humor). For the more intelligent sort of Christian, Chick is embarrassing — like a slovenly relative you can’t quite kick out of your house because, after all, he is family.

What is really incisive about Hallis’s parody is his demonstration that very little about the Christian world-view or rhetoric has to change to make it indistinguishable from Lovecraft’s nightmare. Ah, the rapture of being taken up by the Elder Gods! Worship and sacrifice are good things. Trust the preacher, he will make you fear and show you the way.

It used to be popular among a certain sort of leftist to claim that the collectivist and apocalyptic ideas in socialism made it a proper political analog of Christianity. They were arguably correct in this; where they went wrong was in considering the connection flattering to socialism rather than damning of Christianity. Hallis’s parody is a starker demonstration; the fact that both the fictional cult of Cthulhu and the all-too-real religion of Christianity both depend so fundamentally on the terror of the Gods is not grounds for exonerating the former, but rather for condemning the latter.

Nov 14

Communism and the Jews

Uh-oh. I see another identity-politics double-bind coming. Eugene Volokh comments on the anti-semitic canard that Jews were disproportionally influential in the development of Communism. The sides in this kind of dispute are very predictable. One one hand, the anti-Semites, a disgusting crew of racist troglodytes with evil motives. On the other, the good-hearted and right-thinking people in the world exclaiming in horror at the very thought that anyone might say anything veering so close to the classic tropes of anti-Semitic propaganda. (And I am not being the least bit ironic in either description, not this time.)

Unfortunately, the awkward thing about this particular canard is that it happens to be true. And that illustrates a serious problem, an inability to cope that most historians have acquired when questions of history go too near certain forbidden topics and modes of inquiry.

As Eugene Volokh’s sources note, a disproportionately large number of the original Bolsheviks were Jewish. Karl Marx was ethnically Jewish, though his parents had converted to Christianity. It is impossible to study the history of Marxism, Socialism, and Communism without noticing how many Jewish names crop up among the leading intellectuals. It is equally impossible not to notice how many of the Old Left families in the U.S. were (and still are) Jewish — and, more specifically, Ashkenazim of German or Eastern European extraction. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg didn’t come out of nowhere.

It’s not even very hard to understand why this is. There is a pattern, going back to Spinoza in the 1600s, of Jewish intellectuals seeking out the leading edge of certain kinds of reform movements. Broadly speaking, if you look at any social movement of the last 300 years that was secular, rationalist, and communitarian, somewhere in it you would find nonobservant Jews providing a lot of the intellectual firepower and organizational skills. Often a disproportionate share, relative to other population groups.

Communism was one example; there are many others. One of my favorites is the Ethical Culture movement. Today, we have the Free Software movement, not coincidentally founded by Jewish atheist Richard Stallman. There is an undeniable similarity among all these movements, an elusive deep
structure having to do not so much with shared beliefs as a shared style of believing that one might call messianic social rationalism.

Anybody who thinks I’m arguing for a conspiracy theory should check their meds. No, there is something much simpler and subtler at work here. Inherited religious myths, even when they no longer have normative force, influence the language and conceptual frameworks that intellectuals use to approach other issues. The mythologist Joseph Campbell once noted that thinkers with a Catholic background like mine gravitate towards universalizing mysticisms and Protestants towards individualist redemptionism; he could have added that thinkers with a Jewish heritage tend to love messianic social doctrines. (One can cite exceptions to all three, of course, but the correlation will still be there after you’ve done so.)

Thus, assimilated Jews have a particular propensity for constructing secular messianisms — or for elaborating and intellectualizing secular messianisms invented by gentiles. But you can’t say this sort of thing in academia; you get called a racist if you do. And you especially aren’t allowed to notice the other reason movements like Communism sometime look not unlike Jewish conspiracies — which is that the IQ bell curve for Jews has a mean about a standard deviation north of the IQ bell curve for Caucasian gentiles.

In cold and sober truth, in any kind of organization where intelligence matters — even the Communist movement —, you are going to find a disproportionate number of Jews with their hands on the levers. It doesn’t take any conspiracy to arrange this, and it’s not the Jews’ fault the goyim around them are such narrs (Yiddish
for “imbeciles”). It just happens.

But only people like me who don’t give a shit about being castigated for political incorrectness are willing to even whisper these things. Because that’s true, anti-anti-Semites can’t counter anti-Semitic muck-spreading with the truth; instead, they have to pretend that none of the historical patterns around which anti-Semites have constructed
their paranoid delusions have any basis in fact at all.

This is denial, and leaves the good guys in a damn weak position against anti-Semitic racists, who by distorting the record only a little can not only feel they have the truth on their side, but in some nontrivial ways actually be justified in that belief.

Unlike the anti-Semites, I mostly like the cultural traits that led so many Jewish intellectuals to Communism — including one I haven’t mentioned yet, the urge to transcend ethnic tribalism
and order the world according to a Law. But if the road to a Christian hell is paved with good individual intentions, the road to totalitarian hell is paved with communitarian idealism. It’s a tragedy that in Communism Jewish idealism, messianism, and intellectualism nourished a monster that turned on the Jews and killed so many of them.

If the discussion didn’t violate so many taboos, mainstream scholars could start asking even more interesting questions. Like: exactly how and why did thinkers raised in the relatively gentle communitarianism of the Jewish tradition become apologists for the vicious collectivism of Marxism and all its toxic children? And what can we do to keep the like from happening again, to Jews or anyone else?

But these questions probably won’t get seriously asked in my lifetime. Because political correctness has made us afraid to notice that, in some ways, the Jews really have had a special, shaping influence on the reform politics of the modern era, including Communism. About that much, the anti-Semites are right.

Nov 13

The desexualization of the American (fe)male

There’s been quite a blogospheric flap lately about Kim DuToit’s
essay The
Pussification Of The Western Male
. The single feature of the
conversation that surprised me most is that nobody connected it to
Steven den Beste’s equally searing essay Anglo Women are an
endangered species
.

Steve’s point complements Kim’s and amplifies it in some useful
ways. Nobody wants to go back to the days when women were treated as
chattels or second-class citizens. Anyway, attempts to do so would be
doomed for reasons not so much moral as economic; societies that
suppress the productivity and intelligence of 50% of their members are
inevitably going to lose out to societies that don’t. But what Steve and
Kim have pointed out is that Western society often has pursued the
worthy goal of equality in a way that is hamfisted and destructive,
because it tries to remake human nature rather than acknowledging and
working with it.

These essays address two specific problems we’ve been saddled with;
Kim’s with the attack on masculinity, and Steve’s with the attack on
femininity. Among white anglos (especially bicoastal
“progressive” white anglos), it is no longer respectable
for a male person to behave like a man and a female person to behave
like a woman.

In fact, in today’s bien-pensant circles, one can be attacked as a
sexist for suggesting that the phrase “like a man” or
“like a woman” has any meaning at all. Many of us have
become obscurely terrified of sexual dimorphism, apparently out of
fear that acknowledging it will bring back the bad old days.

This kind of attitude has done more damage than most people
realize. Read those essays. There’s something gone badly wrong when
normal boys are dosed with Ritalin for being normally loud and
aggressive, and only strippers have the privilege of hugging a man
they like while at work.

I think our culture will recover from this. Beginning in the
1950s, portions of the kibbutz movement in Israel made the most
fervent try yet at erasing sex differences — they raised kids
in creches and tried to systematically stamp out sex-differentiated
behaviors. They failed; the children of the first generation, despite
intense socialization, gravitated back to traditional sex roles.

We’ll all be happier when we relax enough to acknowledge that
although equality before the law is something every human deserves,
some things naturally fall in men’s country and some in women’s
country — and the fact that minorities of men and women behave
in gender-atypical ways doesn’t change that reality. There will never
be more female soldiers or policemen than male ones, and never more
male nurses and child-rearers than female ones. Men are going to
groove on power tools and women are going to coo at babies; that’s
just the way it is. down to our DNA. Behavioral dimorphism is wired
into us for good reasons that have everything to do with Darwin and
nothing to do with political correctness.

The first stage of recovery is recognizing that there’s a problem
— that men and women find each others’ behavioral as well as
physical sex differences attractive, and that neither men nor women
are well served by efforts to cram us all into a unisex box. My wife
once observed, on behalf of a billion sisters, “What good is a man if
you cut off his balls?” — and she was talking everyday behavior,
not just anatomy or sexual function. There aren’t a lot of men who
will seek out the company of defeminized women if they have a choice
in the matter, either.

That is where essays like Kim’s and Steve’s can help. By waking us up
and pissing us off, they remind us that our sex-linked behaviors and
our preferences for sex-linked behaviors in others actually
matter, that they’re every bit as much a part of our normal
human makeup as having penises or vaginas. People who want us to
forget this for ideological reasons are objectively inhumane.

Oct 15

Toxic Christianity, round two

In the October 15th Best of the Web, James
Taranto asks:

So let’s see if we have this straight: The head of the Anglican
Church is telling us that the wanton murder of thousands of innocent
people [by Palestinian terrorists] is a sign of “serious moral goals,”
while the liberation of millions [of Iraqis] from one of the world’s
most vicious dictatorships is, as he has put it, “immoral and
illegal.”

Is this really what Christianity is all about?

Well, since you asked…yes, indeed it is.

To understand why, you first have to confront what Dr. Rowan
Williams is actually doing. He is aligning himself with Islamic
terrorists against individual Christians and against the liberation of
Iraq from an Islamizing dictator by a predominantly Christian
nation.

Now, why would the head of the second most prestigious of all
Christian denominations do that? What is it in Christianity that
could make him so confident in the morality of this position? What is
it about the U.S.’s actions that make it so threatening?

A clue to the problem is that though the U.S. is demographically a
mostly Christian nation, the effect of U.S. cultural hegemony is a
secularizing one. American popular culture severs the bonds of fear
and ignorance that hold people unquestioningly to their ancestral
relgions. The American vision of each individual as an autonomous
being who derives his rights from his humanness, from the simple fact
of his capacity to assert them, is deadly antithetical to any
religious tradition that vests moral authority in a transcendant
God.

The Founding Fathers of the U.S. understood this antipathy full
well. The pro-forma nods towards the distant god of the Deists in the
Declaration of Independence and U.S. Consitution failed to conceal the
fact that the Founding Fathers were freethinkers, agnostics and
atheists almost to a man. As George Washington and John Adams
explained to the Knights of Malta in 1787 “The United States is in no
way founded upon the Christian religion”. It could not have been so
founded without a fatal conflict with its aspiration to be a nation of
freedom.

The Archbishop of Canterbury cannot be dismissed as a fringe figure
as some are (incorrectly) wont to do of Pat Robertson. His enmity
towards the U.S.’s anti-terror strategy, his willingness to line up
with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden after no more than a pro-forma
disclaimer of terrorist means, proceeds directly from this fundamental
conflict. It is diagnostic of a deep sickness, an abiding evil in the
heart of Christianity itself — the exaltation of obedience, the
denial that humans can have any worth other than through the
condescension of God.

Nietzsche called this one correctly. Christianity, which purports
to be the religion of love, is only sporadically anything of the kind.
It is primarily a religion of slavery and submission. Christian
individualism, when it exists at all, is legitimized only by obedience
to God. In a Christian worldview there is always someone to be
obeyed, whether visible cleric or invisible Nobodaddy. You must
submit; the only argument is about to whom your obedience is owed, and
what humans under what circumstances may transmit the orders of God.
Without that sinew of obedience the entire world-view
disintegrates.

To a Christian cleric, a properly terrified and obedient Muslim is
less of a threat than a person who has rejected the God of the
Abrahamic faiths. The Muslim is still within the system of
submission. Only a handful of symbols separate him from the Christian;
the basic program is the same. Therefore, from the point of view of
the operators of the religious obedience machine that is Anglicanism
(or almost any other Christian denomination) Osama bin Laden is a more
natural ally than any freethinker.

Am I accusing Dr. Rowan Williams of being part of a conscious
totalitarian conspiracy? No; he is something far more dangerous
— a leading figure in an unconscious totalitarian
conspiracy, one which denies its own nature just effectively enough to
fool others as well. That conspiracy encompasses every tyrant
who has ever told human beings that their path to happiness lay
in the exaltation of some authority, whether God or the State.

It is in this context that Dr. Williams’s statement makes perfect
and consistent sense. For him, better a thousand terrorist acts than
even one human being waking up to discover that he need not after all
fear the wrath of God.

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Oct 14

Mohammed was a Christian

In a recent blog entry I mentioned that Islam appears to have begun life
as a mildly schismatic Christian sect. In the comments on that entry someone
called for sources. Here is what I know about this:

(First, a note on my general background: I am neither a Christian
nor a Moslem, and in fact consider those two religions #3 and #4 in
the Most Toxic Ideologies Of All Time sweepstakes, after Communism and
Naziism. I have therefore studied the history of Christianity and
Islam fairly closely, basically on the know-your-enemies principle.)

There is a scholar somewhere in Germany using the alias Christoph
Luxenberg. He has published a book called Die syro-aramaeische
Lesart des Koran; Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der
Quränsprache
. He uses a pseudonym because he thinks many
Moslems will want to kill him when they find out about it. In this
he is undoubtedly correct.

What Luxenberg has done is applied the same methods of philology
and linguistics to the Qur’an that were applied to the Christian Bible
beginning in the mid-19th century. I have not read the book itself as
I have no German, but when I read several summaries of its conclusions
I was struck by the sense they made of some odd facts I had picked up
over the years. Such as the datum that there is a Christian monastery
in the Sinai which received a special immunity, apparently from
Mohammed himself, under terms its abbots have kept mum about for 1400
years. And the curious resemblance (you have to have read both the
Qur’an and some odd Christian sources to notice, but I have) between
the rhetoric of the Qur’an and that of a now-forgotten group of
Christian ‘heretics’ called Monophysites who were particularly strong
in the Syria and Arabia of Mohammed’s time. And the fact that early
Muslims knelt to pray towards Jerusalem, not Mecca.

You can read this
scholarly review
for more. Another discussion, which was written
before Luxenberg but is particularly telling on the evidence that Islam
did not emerge as a separate faith until well after Mohammed’s death,
is at this
atheist site
. I’ll give you a summary of the high points, some of
which the reviewers (though not the atheists) tiptoe around.

Islam, the Qur’an, and classical Arabic all formed in a
cosmopolitan culture of Syrio-Aramaic-speaking Arabs. The religious
tradition that went with that language was Christian; in fact, the
very word “Qur’an” probably derived from “queryana”, a Syrio-Aramaic
term for a kind of Christian liturgical text. The variant spelling
“qur’an” for that word is attested.

Mohammed was probably a Christian of a Nestorian or Monophysite
stripe, and the Qur’an originally intended as a commentary or gloss on
the Syriac recension of the Christian Bible. The surah or section of
the Qur’an that Moslems believe is the oldest contains an exhortation
to take the Christian Eucharist.

In fact, it is almost certain that the concept of an Islamic
identity separate from Syriac Christianity did not develop in
Mohammed’s lifetime; there are hints that it was a political creation
of the Caliphate, constructed soon after Mohammed’s death by the
Caliph ‘Othman. Notably, he had burned all recensions of the sayings
of Mohammed other than the one prepared under his control.

Many textual difficulties in the Qur’an vanish once it is realized
that a lot of the words in it are fossilized Aramaic. Luxenberg
wanders deep into technical philology here and you have to know a lot
of details about early Semitic writing systems, including the fact
that they didn’t record vowels. (I know enough to smell that
Luxenberg has a hell of a strong case.) But the upshot is that you
can go to Syrio-Aramaic vocabularies and extract clear readings from
many passages that are maddeningly obscure if you’re running under the
assumption that they are written in the vocabulary of later
Arabic.

Remember the brief rash of news stories about “72 virgins” actually
meaning “72 white grapes”? That was Luxenberg reading the Qur’an in
its original Syrio-Aramaic-derived vocabulary.

Islamic scholars of the Qur’an lost the knowledge of the Qur’an’s
Aramaic origins shortly after ‘Othman’s book-burning. There are hints
of it in the oldest hadith (traditional saying of Mohammed) but the
hints don’t make any sense until you do the philology, at which point
they snap into focus and startle the crap out of you. The traditional
Islamic accounts of the Qur’an’s origins are are best confused, and at
worst pure inventions of the Umaiyyad propaganda machine that was
busily turning Mohammed’s reform of Syriac Christianity into a new
religion as the basis for empire

One entertaining detail I didn’t discover until I did my
fact-checking for this essay is that Catholic theologians have been
claiming Mohammed was a renegade Nestorian, or something like, for
about a thousand years. It also turns out that there are
scholar-priests in odd corners of the Christian world (notably among
Maronites in Lebanon) who had pieces of Luxenberg’s exegesis all
along, but lacked the philological training to put them together.
Now it turns out they were right. Who knew?

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Oct 08

Nuke ’em for Christ

Pat Robertson, the same paragon of Christian virtue who has opined
in the past that Wiccans like me should be burned alive the way they
used to in the good old days, just created an interesting dilemma for
me by suggesting that the State
Department should be nuked
.

As a pagan anarchist, I’m completely uninterested in being
considered a paragon of Christian virtue. So I can admit to feeling a
sneaking sympathy with Robertson’s modest proposal. I mean, it
wouldn’t just be nuking the government, it would be nuking one of the
more repulsive parts of same. The BATF and DEA are certainly a
greater threat to liberty and happiness, but watching the Foggy Bottom
crowd compete to see who can pander most abjectly to “international
opinion” and a succession of enemies from the old Soviet Union to the
France of today has been pretty nauseating.

But no. I have my own standards of virtue, and they don’t quite
stretch to vaporizing Foggy Bottom. Innocents (that is, persons who
are not causally implicated in the government’s normal practices of
coercion and fraud) could be harmed. Cleaning staff, visiting
children, that sort of thing. Shocking bad form to whack them, don’t
you know.

Now. Seriously. I’ve taken some flak in the past for implying that
Christianity is just as vile and violence-prone a religion as Islam.
Pat Robertson has made this point for me before and doubtless will again.
Because, like Osama bin Laden, he really believes. He pays
attention to all the bits of the Bible and doctrine and history that
most so-called ‘Christians’ edit out — a maneuver that
makes them better human beings, but worse Christians.

Christianity is sold as a “religion of love” but that is just as
bogus as calling Islam a “religion of peace”. What is far more
important and fundamental to both is eschatological dualism, which
Islam inherited through Mohammed’s roots in Monophysite Christianity.
(What? You didn’t know that Islam started life as a mildly schismatic
Christian sect? Yes, it’s true.)

“Eschatological dualism” is fancy theologist-speak for the belief
that history consists of a titanic struggle between God and the Devil,
which will culminate at the end of time with a great sorting out — godly
obedient people to Heaven, sinners to Hell. Eschatological dualism
is the root of the “Kill them all, God will know his own” attitude that
has always been rather more characteristic of both religions than “peace”
or “love”. Pat and Osama, brothers under the skin, are squarely in that
grand old tradition.

Christianity, fortunately for all of us, has become quite decadent
and weak these last 400 years or so — Robertson merely dreams of
smiting the Devil’s minions with Godly fire, rather than actually
incinerating 3000 people on a fine autumn morning. But it may take
another 400 before Christianity withers away sufficiently that my
descendants need not fear being burned at the stake by a charismatic
looney-tune like Robertson. Islam, 600 years younger, will probably
remain deadly for rather longer.

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Jul 28

Brother, Can you Paradigm?

I just read an interview with my friend Tim O’Reilly in which he approvingly cited Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. There are some books so bad, but so plausible and influential, that periodically trashing them in public is almost an obligation. The really classic stinkeroos of this kind, like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, exert a weird kind of seduction on otherwise intelligent people long after their factual basis has been completely exploded.

Yes, Kuhn’s magnum opus is one of these. When I was a bright and naive young sprat, full of zeal to correct my fuddy-duddy elders, I loved Kuhn’s book. Then I reread it, and did some thinking and fact-checking, and discovered that it is both (a) deeply wrong, and (b) dishonest,

First, deeply wrong. Kuhn’s basic model that paradigm changes are generational — you have to wait for the old dinosaurs to die — is dramatically falsified by the history of early 20th-century physics. Despite well-publicized exceptions like Einstein’s refusal to accept “spooky action at a distance”, the record shows us that a generation of physicists handled not one but two major paradigm shifts in their lifetimes — relativity and quantum mechanics — quite smoothly indeed.

Later in the 20th century, the paradigm shift produced by the discovery of DNA and the neo-Darwinian synthesis of evolutionary theory didn’t require the old guard to die off before it was accepted, either. More recently, the discovery of things like reverse transcriptase and “jumping genes”, which broke two of the central dogmas of genetics, were absorbed with barely a ripple.

I found many other examples once I started looking. It turns out that the kind of story Kuhn wants to tell is quite rare in the hard sciences. There are a few examples of paradigm shifts that fit his model — my personal favorite is Wegener and the continental-drift hypothesis — but they are the exception rather than the rule. Most theoretical upheavals, even most very radical ones, happen rather smoothly.

The soft sciences are a somewhat different story, and the reasons for this are revealing. Look at the post-Freudian upheaval in psychology or the clashes between social contructivism and the evolutionary-psych crowd and you will see something much more like a Kuhnian shock going on (I suspect we’ve got another one coming in linguistics when Noam Chomsky kicks off). But these fields are vulnerable largely to the extent that they are not science — that is, when the dominant model is poorly confirmed or untestable, and holds largely for reasons of politics and/or the influence of a single charismatic personality.

One of the most pointed criticisms of Kuhn is that his book is a sort of soft-science imperialism, an attempt to project onto the hard sciences the kind of incoherence, confusion, and political ax-grinding we see in (say) sociology or “political science”. In doing so, it does real science a profound disservice.

The dishonesty in the book is that Kuhn evades the question of whether paradigm shifts are an emic or etic phenomenon. In fact, he does this so neatly that it’s possible to read the whole thing and not notice that the largest central question about the nature of paradigm shifts is being dodged. Do they change the world or just our description of it? Kuhn hints at a radical sort of subjectivism without ever acknowledging what that would actually mean.

Kuhn got me interested in the cultural history of science when I read this book around 1971. But the more I studied it, the more I became convinced that Kuhn’s thesis is simple, appealing, and wrong. Among many other flaws, he erects a binary distinction between “normal” science and paradigm-shattering earthquakes that is not really sustainable except through a kind of selective hindsight. It plays to our human tendency to want to make heroic narratives out of history, but it misrepresents science as it is actually practised and perceived by the people who do it.

(For a demolition of Kuhn that focuses less on the factual holes in his thesis and more on the historical and logical flaws, see this New Criterion article.)

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