Monday, June 05, 2006

Bellyaching about ORDER OF THE PHOENIX

I am a Potter fan. While I do not think Potter is the greatest thing since sliced bread, it is certainly on the order of the greatest thing since pop-tarts. The writing is solid and workmanlike, the characters engaging. Potter is the only modern example of what used to be a common type of boy's fiction: loyal-school-chums fighting evil spies.

In this case, the school chums are in Roke, the school for Wizards, and that adds a Halloween flavor to the mix.

In addition, JK Rawlings adds some dignity to the proceedings by touching on deep themes: the death of Harry's mother, the power of her salvific love, is something deeper than what one might find in a TOM SWIFT Jr. book, or DANNY DUNN.

I would not call these books 'Modern Fantasy' if by that we mean the genre promoted by Lin Carter at Ballantine in the post-Tolkien 70's. Fantasy has certain conventions, certain expectations in the audience that the reader of HARRY POTTER need not know to enjoy the book. From time to time, Rawlings will do something that displays an ignorance of fantasy conventions.

Fantasy, like science fiction, relies for its appeal on the unearthly and extraterrestrial. The fantasy reader wants to visit the strange dreamscapes of Elfland. But there is nothing strange in POTTER. The reader is not called upon to stretch his imagination to a new world view, or reach into the past to embrace the world view of our grim and noble pagan ancestors. POTTER takes place in Halloweenland: everything you need to know about ghosts and witches and black cats and werewolves, you already know from the common green of modern pop culture. Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Casper the Friendly Ghost and Count Chocula can tell you everything you need to know about how magic works in the POTTER universe. We all know witches ride broomsticks Ghosts haunt castles and wizard's have pointy hats. Rowling’s genius is that she adds a little zest and fun to these tropes by having the broomstick riders play soccer with magically animate dodge balls, the Ghosts have Christmas parties, and the pointy hat sorts you into your house at school.

So it is fun. But I would not call it Modern Fantasy. Even the worst-written Conan story, or the weakest Tolkien rip-off requires some greater act of imagination from the reader, an embrace of strangeness. Conan's world, his mental life, is not like ours: in his world, skeletons rise from unquiet graves and can be vanquished by blows from the ancestral sword of one's fathers; Crom, the god of the barbarians, sits on his mountain and sends death in battle to those he wishes to honor. In LORD OF THE RINGS, a moral character informs even the actions of storms or clouds; brave forests rise up in vengeance against modern factories; evil volcanoes blot out the sun. Foxes and trees and even mountains are alive in a fashion no modern philosophy admits. A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA or WHEEL OF TIME have a dualistic, perhaps Taoist flavor to them which requires a stretch of imagination from a modern English reader.

Here are two examples of awkwardness that Modern Fantasy might avoid, which Rowling, a Halloweenland writer (if I may coin that term) stumbles over: first, when a major character is killed, why doesn’t he come back as a ghost, in the fashion of Nearly Headless Nick? Potter’s parents, or the helpful adults who die in the course of the books, do not seem to be able to leave ghosts behind, and no necromancers of the school can contact them in the afterlife. Why? Well, that’s a silly question. The ghosts in Hogwarts are part of the silly charm of the school, like the quill pens and the broomsticks, they are there for atmosphere.

A Science Fiction writer would have thought through the logical implications of a world where ghosts were readily available. Can a ghost revise a will he made in life? Can he testify at his own murder hearing? Can he be used as a spy in wartime? But this type of logical investigation, fascinating to SF fans, is a big turn off for mood and atmosphere; it robs the ghosts of their menace and their magic by making ghosthood too analytical.

But a fantasy writer would have at least come up with an explanation as to where the other ghosts were. If Nearly Headless Nick is allowed to walk the earth for the same reason as Hamlet’s father: as an act of purgatory and penance, the ghost of Lily Potter need not be suffering the same fate. Or perhaps her “life-energy” was employed protecting Harry from Voldemort, eliminating, for technical reasons, the components needed to cast the Raise Ghost Spell. Whatever; doesn’t matter what the explanation is. A Modern Fantasy writer would have made one up.

The second mistake occurs with the death of a major character in ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, and, to a lesser degree, in HALF BLOOD PRINCE. This is a mistake very easy for the unwary visitor to fantasyland. All of the great fairy tales (including that One Greatest Fairy Tale that happens to be True) include themes of resurrection, from SNOW WHITE to FARTHEST SHORE to THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Even DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL had it (sort of). Comic Books have resurrections occur so often that they must put turnstiles on the graveyards in the Marvel Universe. Hence, in order for a character in a fantasy story to be dead and stay dead, the death must be unambiguous, and the rules for resurrection must be laid out plain and clear.

To make sure a character in a fantasy stays dead, you have to show the body. The Apostle Thomas must come by and put his hands in the wounds. The Munchkin coroner must aver he’s thoroughly examined her; and the Witch not only merely dead, but really quite sincerely dead. Then you have put garlic in his mouth, cut off his head, and stake him through the heart: OTHERWISE YOUR READERS WILL EXPECT YOUR GANDALF TO RISE UP AGAIN.

Now, this problem is particularly acute in Rowling’s background. The whole point, the whole root of evil of Lord Voldemort, is his necromantic quest for life and more life. It is an ancient and honorable theme: the source of the Unnatural in FARTHEST SHORE was the same unholy desire to use magic to extend life. But one this means that none of the characters can come back from the dead. To resurrect a dead character would be to violate the whole moral principle Harry Potter and the Good Guys are fighting for. Hence any character who dies must die unambiguously. Rowling does not do this. Her characters die offstage. Fantasy readers know that a man who vanishes in a puff of smoke might have been teleported away, not disintegrated, but mainstream readers have not been conditioned by decade of false deaths to assume this, and so mainstream writers do not know that they need to emphasize a death in order to make it unambiguous.

There are other things I disliked, despite my general love for the series. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is one of my least favorite of a favorite series.

WARNING! Many Spoilers Below! If you haven't read the book, Do Not Look!

<>(1) Harry is too angry too often. I do not care for books where the main character, no matter what his age, shows no self-control. If the anger had turned out to be a spell cast by Voldemort, due to their psychic connection, that would have been fine. As it was, it was annoying.
<>(2) The McGuffin was supposed to be this prophecy that Voldemort is dying to get his hands on, willing to kill (and risk capture) to do. However, when the prophecy finally comes on stage, it tells us nothing we have not known since book one: that Voldemort and Harry are mortal enemies, one must kill the other to live. Suppose Voldemort had gotten his hands on the prophecy: how would it have affected his plans? Not one wit, as he was already trying his utmost to kill Harry. If the McGuffin in a story makes no difference in a story, why is it in the story? Imagine the movie STAR WARS where the plans to the Death Star carried by the brave little droid turn out not to contain the secret of any weak spot, and not to have any value: Luke’s parents die for nothing.
<>(3) The death of Harry godfather seemed cynical and unmotivated to me. Cynical, because the author, in order to keep Harry an orphan, has to make sure he has no parents to help him in his struggles. Since the prophecy he is trying to fight the Death-Eaters from getting has no information of any value in it, his death is doubly pointless. Hence, the death is pointless and annoying. His method of death? He falls through a sinister looking curtain. Since the reader is never told that falling through sinister curtains leads to certain and immediate death, and since we do not see his corpse, we cannot be certain he is dead.
(4) Harry is given a package by his godfather, with the instructions that he is to use it when he needs him. However, not until after his death, does Harry bother to open the package and discover it is a magical mirror, a wizardly version of a cellphone, which would have allowed Harry to call Sirius at any time, and not have been fooled by his dream into thinking Sirius was in danger. The sheer improbability of this is staggering. Imagine you are an orphan at school. You have a present from your godfather. Not only do you never open it, it does not occur to you to look at it during periods when you are desperate for any contact with your godfather. It might contain cookies, or a note, or a magical mirror: and so you throw it into the bottom of your trunk and promptly forget about it.
(5) Professor Umbrage threatens to torture a student in front of several witnesses; she also opens fire on another Professor and sends her to the hospital; she also arranges to have several dementors attempt to murder Harry and any muggles who might be in the area where he lives. What is her punishment for these crimes? Is she sent to Azkaban? Is she killed by Centaurs after insulting them? Does she fall through a sinister looking curtain, never to be seen again? No. She is discharged from her post, and a ghost beats her with a walking stick while she flees the area. As far as I can tell, her job at the ministry is not even in danger. A woman guilty of the attempted murder of a child, and there is no satisfying end to her career.
(6) Neville Longbottom is in a running gun-fight (well, wand-fight) with several Death-Eaters, including the woman who tormented his parents to madness. He has been trained by Harry for page after page to be able to fight against the Dark Arts. What is his reaction to seeing this woman again? Where is his vengeance? No mention is made of any attempt by Longbottom to avenge himself; instead, the woman gets involved in a shoot-out with Harry. Unsatisfying.
(7) During the same scene, why were Ginny, Luna, etc. involved in the break-in to the Ministry of Magic? What was the point of including these characters in the climactic battle scene, since we never see them battle?
(8) Harry discovers his father picked on Snape, but nothing is made of this. What should have reconciled the two into their common cause, instead is added for no purpose. I hope something is made of this in the final book.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Message from Dan Simmons

A short cautionary tale by Dan Simmons, which generated a firestorm of foolish controversy. Does no one read Thucydides?

He reports that this is not, as some would like to believe, an April Fool's Prank


This is from a wikipedia article on Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which I here quote at length:

To modern readers, some statements in the book may seem to convey a sense of misogyny or homophobia. For example:

...[Jill] had explained homosexuality, after Mike had read about it and failed to grok -- and had given him rules for avoiding passes; she knew that Mike, pretty as he was, would attract such. He had followed her advice and had made his face more masculine, instead of the androgynous beauty he had had. But Jill was not sure that Mike would refuse a pass, say, from Duke -- fortunately Mike's male water brothers were decidedly masculine, just as his others were very female women. Jill suspected that Mike would grok a 'wrongness' in the poor in-betweeners anyhow -- they would never be offered water.

Another passage concerns the mail that the man from Mars receives:

After looking over a bushel or so of Mike's first class mail Jubal set up a list of categories: ... G. Proposals of marriage and propositions not quite so formal ... Jill brought a letter, category "G," to Jubal. More than half of the ladies and other females (plus misguided males) who supplied this category included pictures alleged to be of themselves; some left little to the imagination, as did the letters themselves in many cases. This letter [from a woman] enclosed a picture which managed not only to leave nothing to the imagination, but started over by stimulating fresh imaginings.

One critic writes:

These days the "heresy" is centered more on the characters' provincial attitudes towards gay men ("poor in-betweeners" whose "wrongness" denies them water-kinship) and all women ("Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault," Jill says to Michael, when instructing him not to defend her too strenuously against such an assault). (Tasha Robinson, "Humanity, through a glass brightly")

However, these passages both deal with the prudish character Jill, who is used as a dramatic foil for Mike and Jubal's less parochial views. A major thread of the story is Smith's gradual persuasion of Jill to grow beyond her inhibitions, embrace her previously suppressed exhibitionistic nature, and learn to understand other people's sexuality (e.g., Duke's interest in pornography). The passage about the letter deals with Jill's inclination to shield Mike from it, and she is overruled by the wiser Jubal (additionally, the "misguided males" could be misguided only in that they are unaware that Mike is strictly heterosexual). The quote concerning "wrongness" in the "poor in-betweeners" likewise portrays the unenlightened character Jill's speculation about what Mike would think of homosexuality, not Mike's actual attitudes.

On the other hand, just because some of these negative views of homosexuality occur in the thoughts and words of the characters, rather than coming from the authorial voice, that doesn't mean that they were not intended to express Heinlein's views. As Brooks Peck put it, "Heinlein loved to pontificate through the mouths of his characters," and Jubal is clearly often acting as a mouthpiece for Heinlein's own views. Also, the remark about "misguided males" is part of the book's exposition, not its dialogue or the representation of a character's thoughts.

Later chapters in the novel, depicting the workings of the Church of All Worlds, in fact have a number of references, some more obvious than others, that the sexual bonding that occurs between water-brothers is not limited to male/female. Ben, who has become a water brother but who has not received the training that normal church members receive, comments at one point that two men are kissing, but nothing about the act seems out of place or unmasculine. By the novel's end, it seems to promote a kind of general bisexuality, implying that sexual bonding can occur between any water-brothers, regardless of gender. This is, however, not directly stated so much as implied, and other interpretations are possible.

End of Quote. My comments follow:

It is safe to assume that this passage was not written by someone on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

The mere fact that “modern readers” might find Heinlein “misogynistic or homophobic” is a sufficient clue that we are dealing with a Leftist archly dropping the hint that Heinlein has committed thoughtcrime. “Modern readers” is a code word for Leftist, who congratulate themselves on being the vanguard and inheritors of the future; “misogyny” means not being a politically correct feminist; “homophobia” (a technical term meaning a psychopathological fear of being alone) is here used to mean not being a politically correct pervertarian.

The problem is, of course, that Heinlein is a pervertarian: the greatest and clearest voice for sexual liberation, for the trashheaping of all sexual mores, comes from Heinlein, and, specifically, from this very book: a satire where a man from Mars shows how all human social conventions concerning sexuality and religion are bogus and uproariously absurd.

But Heinlein’s unambiguous support for libertarian, libertine, and sexual liberation in all its forms, is insufficient for the thought police of the modern age. The book is clearly and explicitly pro-fornication and pro-pornography. It is filled with hostility and mockery toward marriage, fidelity, or other norms of sexual behavior.

The book strongly hints at being pro-homosexual. There being a scene where Ben Caxton is sternly criticized for fleeing from the naked man trying to kiss him. The gentle tone with which the author discusses homosexuality, calling it a ‘wrongness’, but otherwise passing over it as if it were merely a mildly risible personality quirk, was about as strong and clear a pro-pervertarian message as could be managed or imagined in the time when the book was written. Remember that STRANGERS was penned before the Viet Nam war. This book, indeed, was one of the great victories of the Culture Wars, bringing the norms and values (such as they are) of the counterculture to the forefront of American popular ideas. This book therefore should be reverenced by the sexual liberators, counterculturalists, and pervertarians everywhere: it is their Gospel, their clearest and strongest enunciation of their credo.

Good Lord, even cannibalism is praised in this book. Objections to feasting on human flesh are dismissed as Neanderthal. One cannot imagine a more clearly antinomian tract. It is perfect in its opposition to all traditions of decency and norms of civilized behavior.

Instead this Gospel of the Left is condemned. By the Left.

This is a sad commentary on the Left, but it is not unexpected. Radicals are always replaced by radicals even more extreme, and the new radical condemns the old as reactionary.

Leftists are not known for their sense of gratitude.

The Leftist is in the unenviable posture of being in continuous rebellion against all authority figures, father figures, and establishments. The Left exist in an eternal “now” like an infant, and know nothing of history. It is always Year Zero to them.

This means that any victories, where their own philosophy becomes part of the establishment, are welcomed only with condemnation. A Leftist cannot make a mark on history, or establish a legacy, begin a movement: because the next generation of Leftists will treat him with the same contempt and disdain he treated the generation before. Heinlein’s radical libertarianism in sexual matters, since it was not sufficiently explicit in its adoration of the perversion of homosexuality, is now condemned as a psychopathology; a ‘wrongness.’

The philosophy of eternal rebellion cannot be passed from generation to generation: it is self-defeating. Only a philosophy that teaches respect for prior generations can expect to be passed to the next.

Politics As A Substitute For Life

I feel a frisson of horror when I come across these words in Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews: " You may find yourself having to make allowances for writing you consider shallow or politics you consider regressive."

"Politics you consider regressive" …? Savor the implications of that phrase for a moment. Zweig expects, and perhaps rightly, for the current generation to be so alienated from books written only twenty or forty years ago as to require a caution to make allowances.

The alienation has entirely to do with politics. The politics have become central to life, affecting everything, so that even a book written for light entertainment comes under political scrutiny for political messages. Zweig does not caution, for example, readers of THE THREE MUSKETEERS or KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE to hold in check their disagreement with the political and religious system of the Catholic Monarchy. No such warning is needed. Readers can enjoy the adventures of D'Artagnan or Lancelot without suffering a choking wrath and disdain at the political systems governing their kingdoms. "Politics" in that sense of the word—the art of government—is not meant. "Politics" here refers to an all-embracing system of opinion and belief.

Note the use of the word "regressive." Charming word. Notice what it implies.

Zweig does not caution readers to tolerate books whose politics the reader might hold as the opinion of honorable and loyal opposition. The idea that one could disagree with another political party, and still hold it to be a worthy and honorable party, is forgotten in modern thought. The operative word here, "regressive", is one that the conservative would not use. The word means that the political opposition comes from an earlier, more primitive (and hence inferior) stage of the evolution and progressive enlightenment of man. As men stand to apes, so (in the mind of the Progressive) the Party stands to the old regime.

Zweig's caution is repeated on another page: "The mores and prejudices of the writers will rarely match our own. Their books may strike today's readers as racist or sexist or intolerant or naive. Fair enough: Ours could as easily strike them as godless or obscene or pornographic or naive -- and I'd love to know what faults people half a century from now will find in our favorite works..."

Note, again, there is no mention of the art of governing. "Politics" these days is taken to include a set of attitudes and beliefs about relations between the races, between the sexes, the moral stance of toleration and related (progressive) beliefs.

In additional to being central, politics is also more divisive than before. Previously, a book was written in for an audience that could be fairly assumed to agree with the author on a number of basic, unquestioned, assumptions and values. At that time in America, the two political parties agreed on the basics: both were patriotic and religious, honoring God and Country. The disagreements, with few exceptions, were about means to achieve agreed-upon ends: the preservation of the civilization of the West, the American Way of life.

The disagreements these days not as deep as before the Civil War, but they are deeper than postwar America. The disagreement now centers around whether morals are objective or subjective, whether the West merits preservation or destruction. There can be no rational debate and no compromise where disagreement runs so deep: small wonder our political debates these days are little more than name-calling shouting-matches. The common ground needed for a civilized debate of issues is absent.

I am not disagreeing with Zweig, by the by. I am merely horrified that politics has taken all the all-embracing aspect of a religion and a culture, and that two cultures, mutually incompatible, now exist in America.

When the children can no longer understand the thoughts of their neighbors, or read the books their fathers wrote, something barbaric has happened.

MODERN AGE by Paul Johnson

The Twentieth Century and it grave moral decline is examined in this brilliant book. Scholarly and readable, it touches on the personalities of the great figures of the day, and emphasizes how their moral choices created the events around them.

But the horror of the Twentieth Century are unique, monstrous, inhuman. It is like reading about the goings-on of a flock of devils. The anarchy, the pointlessness, the disorganization, the madness that governed the highly-efficient and scientifically run mass-murder machines of the totalitarian states of the 1940's shocks the conscience. Every time I think the bottom depth of depravity is reached, there is something that opened an even lower floor to an ever deeper hell. Mass murder is bad; scientifically-organize ruthless-mass murder is worse; pointless, awkward, and foolish scientifically-organized mass-murder is somehow even worse. The wife of a German Officer, who at a confused railway junction got onto a death train to Auschwitz by mistake, was ordered into the ovens nonetheless so that she could not relate what she had seen. I wonder whether some patriotic Nazi officer, waiting at some train station for his blonde wife, was ever told she was burned alive due to a mishap.

I had no idea that the Japanese high command had no leadership. All of them knew they had no strategy, no long term hope of defeating the USA, but anyone who spoke up a dishonorable or unpatriotic truth would be assassinated. The Army and Navy did not cooperate, and were killing each other's officers. The attack on Pearl Harbor was carried out without any superior officers in the government, being informed.

The Germans had a similar anarchy in their uppermost ranks, with redundant organizations spying on each other, stealing each other's mail, performing assassinations.

Hitler wrote no orders down, kept no records.

Hitler's dying words were that he regretted he had been too benevolent, too soft. If only he had killed more people, he sobbed, his plan would have worked.

Himmler was hiding Jews from Hitler because he wanted slave laborers. As if they were disposable parts of a machine. Auschwitz was turned into a factory for the production of synthetic fuel and rubber, so that the Jews and other non-desirables could be worked to death. Each morning the labor allocation officer picked out the sickly for gassing. The average weight loss from overwork and underfeeding was six to nine pounds of body mass was week, so that the hitherto normally nourished could make up the deficiency out of his own body for up to three months. The corpses in the gas chambers would be piled near the iron doors as the dying had died clawing to get out, and they would have to have the excrement and blood hosed off before the bodies could be hauled away for rendering.

Gold filing were pulled out, hair for mattresses and fat for soap. Yet despite all this gruesome meanness, so characteristic of the totalitarian state, Auschwitz was an economic failure: very little synthetic fuel and no synthetic rubber were ever produced there.

Thank God we smashed these people and their slave state. If only we had the grit and the backbone needed to face their modern counterparts.

Christian Conservatism as Myth

There are six political parties in America, not two.

These six align themselves into the two major political parties for convenience, but the grouping is not harmonious or even.

The elite of the Left are the Dissolute. They are idealists, concerned with ideas rather than pragmatics. These are media moguls, academicians, ACLU lawyers, and intellectuals primarily concerned with abolishing the norms of decency from society, or, rather, to alter the norms to bring them in line with a nonjudgmental, all-welcoming, but ultimately nihilist political correctness. They favor abortion and homosexual marriage. Libertarians are found here.

The elite of the Right are the Capitalists. Rightwing intellectuals and businessmen seek minimum government and free trade. Their primary concern is economics. They also tend to favor what is properly called the liberal institutions of rule of law, the constitution, the freedoms in the Bill of Rights. They are somewhat internationalist in flavor. Libertarians are found here also.

The yeomen of the Left are the Dependents. These include teacher’s unions and bureaucrats, farmers, trial lawyers and race hustlers, and everyone who depends on handouts from the public till, or pay-offs from class-action suits. They favor expansions of the federal government to fund their various programs, and class actions suits to force guns and cigarettes into oblivion. They are pragmatists, concerned with questions of Right Conduct, which they regard as synonymous with charity. Authoritarians are found here of the Welfare-State kind.

The yeomen of the Right are the Militarists. They favor a strong military and an aggressive foreign policy. They are anticommunist and patriotic. They do not share the internationalist feelings of the Capitalists. They are pragmatists, concerned with questions of Right Conduct, which they regard as synonymous with honor. Authoritarians are found here of the Law-and-Order kind.

The base of the Left are the Workers. These include many constituencies, such as southern Black Baptists, who do not share the social values of the Social Libertines, but they do share a suspicion of the Capitalists, in whom they see a mutual enemy. Their primary concern is economics: they want the government to regulate the market and protect the workingman.

The base of the Right are the Social Conservatives, who want to protect their families from the rising tide of filth and moral decay in which our current society is drowning. The are idealists, concerned with ideas rather than pragmatics. They want to see perversion shamed rather than lauded. The Social Conservatives have more in common with the Workers than they do with the Capitalists, whom they also mistrust as driving the morals of society into Philistinism, but the presence of the Marxist and socialist element in the Left elite drives the Conservatives to the Right. They want the government to regulate the speech and protect the manners of society. They regard abortion as child-murder.

The main opposition in the media, the marketplace of ideas, is between the two idealist factions: the Social Conservatives and the Libertines, between the Chaste and the Dissolute.

This leads to an exaggeration, a false perception that the Right is predominantly Christian, and the Left predominantly secular, whereas, in truth, Christians are not any more active now than ever before in politics: look at the way politics was conducted in the 60’s and 50’s; look at the Temperance movement, or the Abolitionist movement.

All that is happening now is that the antinomian Dissolute, the Left Elite, have openly and publicly declared themselves to be anti-Christian, and find increasing resistance to their views from all quarters as the horrific results of a quarter century of experimentation with unchastity and family-unfriendly social mores are coming home to roost.

Nearly every politician salutes the flag, kisses a baby, and goes to church on Sunday, but only politicians on the Right are accused of basing their agenda on their church. Are not John Kerry and Bill Clinton God-fearing sons of the Church?

The Church has not moved. She still condemns divorce, homosexuality, the use of contraception, and abortion. She also opposes war and mistrusts the wealthy, and she supports the poor. The Left in American moved away from the Church teachings on chastity, and now finds itself in opposition to her. The Right is just as far away from the Church on questions of just war and proper use of wealth, but no one emphasizes the breach there, and the Right has not come out openly against Christ. Even when the Pope himself, surely the world’s most widely recognized spokesman for Christianity, when the Holy Father denounced the War in Iraq, no newspaper spoke of the “Christian Left” or the “Christian Anti-war movement.”

There is no such thing as the Christian Right, unless you consider people like me to be of that camp. It is an invention of the popular media, because it feeds the popular vanity that Rightwingers are ignorant bumpkins from the Cow States. There are many secularists who regard modern nihilism in the areas of art, culture, and sexual self-control to be repugnant. But no one labels their political belief as being triggered by Biblical teachings, does he?

All my friends who are liberals are go to my Church. All my friends who are Right-wing war hawks are secular atheists.

On Piety

A youth is inexperienced, and hence, he will always either be an intellectual, or pious. A pious man can take advantage of the accumulated experiences of his forefathers, because he trusts and follows his forefathers. When he reaches such an age as the wisdom of his forefathers becomes evident, when he has enough accumulated experience of his own to rely on, at least, in the areas where his life has touched. An intellectual of advanced age is merely a weak-boned sophomore, since his theory is no more or less based on experience than that of a sophomore: in a debate, the aged intellectual has no more dignity than the sophomore; his word carries no more weight.

The confusion of the modern world springs from the success of the empirical sciences. Science, by definition, is intellectual: it is nothing but theory. The experiment of an old scientist and a young scientist are of equal weight, because, in science, prudence counts for nothing, only results count. So great has been the success of science, that eager intellectuals in Nineteenth Century Europe disregarded the accumulated experience of civilization, the accumulated precedent of law, the accumulates insights of economics, and erected vicious and empty intellectual models of human behavior: Marxism, Freudianism, Moral Relativism. They attempted to apply the luster of science to three areas not open to empirical methods: economics, the human mind, and the moral order of the universe. The results were collectivism, communism, Nazism, lawlessness, world war, mass-death, mass-lying, mass-starvation, and atrocities beggaring description.

Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization

Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization

By Ludwig von Mises (see

Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.

It may be left undecided whether or not it is correct to call the economic organization of the Roman Empire capitalism. At any rate it is certain that the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the "good" emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. Several metropolitan centers, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilization. The inhabitants of these urban agglomerations were supplied with food and raw materials not only from the neighboring rural districts, but also from distant provinces. A part of these provisions flowed into the cities as revenue of their wealthy residents who owned landed property. But a considerable part was bought in exchange for the rural population's purchases of the products of the city-dwellers' processing activities. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were interdependent.

What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them. From a military point of view the tribes which invaded the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries were not more formidable than the armies which the legions had easily defeated in earlier times. But the empire had changed. Its economic and social structure was already medieval.

The freedom that Rome granted to commerce and trade had always been restricted. With regard to the marketing of cereals and other vital necessities it was even more restricted than with regard to other commodities. It was deemed unfair and immoral to ask for grain, oil, and wine, the staples of these ages, more than the customary prices, and the municipal authorities were quick to check what they considered profiteering. Thus the evolution of an efficient wholesale trade in these commodities was prevented. The policy of the annona, which was tantamount to a nationalization or municipalization of the grain trade, aimed at filling the gaps. But its effects were rather unsatisfactory. Grain was scarce in the urban agglomerations, and the agriculturists complained about the unremunerativeness of grain growing.The interference of the authorities upset the adjustment of supply to the rising demand.

The showdown came when in the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralyzed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society's economic organization. The more eagerness the authorities displayed in enforcing the maximum prices, the more desperate became the conditions of the urban masses dependent on the purchase of food. Commerce in grain and other necessities vanished altogether. To avoid starving, people deserted the cities, settled on the countryside, and tried to grow grain, oil, wine, and other necessities for themselves. On the other hand, the owners of the big estates restricted their excess production of cereals and began to produce in their farmhouses--the villae--the products of handicraft which they needed. For their big-scale farming, which was already seriously jeopardized because of the inefficiency of slave labor, lost its rationality completely when the opportunity to sell at remunerative prices disappeared. As the owner of the estate could no longer sell in the cities, he could no longer patronize the urban artisans either. He was forced to look for a substitute to meet his needs by employing handicraftsmen on his own account in his villa. He discontinued big-scale farming and became a landlord receiving rents from tenants or sharecroppers. These coloni were either freed slaves or urban proletarians who settled in the villages and turned to tilling the soil. A tendency toward the establishment of autarky of each landlord's estate emerged. The economic function of the cities, of commerce, trade, and urban handicrafts, shrank. Italy and the provinces of the empire returned to a less advanced state of the social division of labor. The highly developed economic structure of ancient civilization retrograded to what is now known as the manorial organization of the Middle Ages.

The emperors were alarmed with that outcome which undermined the financial and military power of their government. But their counteraction was futile as it did not affect the root of the evil. The compulsion and coercion to which they resorted could not reverse the trend toward social disintegration which, on the contrary, was caused precisely by too much compulsion and coercion. No Roman was aware of the fact that the process was induced by the government's interference with prices and by currency debasement. It was vain for the emperors to promulgate laws against the city-dweller who "relicta civitate rus habitare maluerit." The system of the leiturgia, the public services to be rendered by the wealthy citizens, only accelerated the retrogression of the division of labor. The laws concerning the special obligations of the shipowners, the navicularii, were no more successful in checking the decline of navigation than the laws concerning grain dealing in checking the shrinkage in the cities' supply of agricultural products.

The marvelous civilization of antiquity perished because it did not adjust its moral code and its legal system to the requirements of the market economy. A social order is doomed if the actions which its normal functioning requires are rejected by the standards of morality, are declared illegal by the laws of the country, and are prosecuted as criminal by the courts and the police. The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Fuhrer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.

Economics on One Lesson

There is only one rational method to produce and distribute goods, in such a fashion as to satisfied the most urgently felt desires of the producers and consumers involved, and that is by means of a trade voluntary on both sides, one thing of value, a good or a service, for another thing of value.Gold is also of value where it stands for some value in goods or labor; currency is of value when it is redeemable by gold.The only other option, aside from voluntary trade, is through rationing. Rationing occurs when some state authority by fiat takes the value of the good or service from the productive man and gives it to another man. The rationing is always justified in the name of reducing the scarcity of the rationed good. Rationing produces the very scarcity it is attempting to avoid. It is always counter-productive.

All market interventions are a type of rationing, including regulations of money circulation, credit rates, working conditions, banking regulations, safety regulations. In each case, the state takes a certain goods or service and forces a transfer, or abolishes a transfer.

The wars and controversies of the Twentieth Century revolved around economic issues: socialism or liberalism. In Europe, Socialism took two forms: National Socialism, or Nazism, and International Socialism, or Communism. Italian fascism was a type of National Socialism, but one where the landowners and factory owners kept title to their property in name only, while all manufacturing and farming was done by command of the state bureaucracy. Liberalism had so thoroughly discredited the aristocratic order of the previous eras, the ancient regime of throne and altar, crown and miter, of guilds and protectionism, that no philosophy of political economics could gain wide acceptance, unless it adopted the names and outward appearances of the liberal order. Hence, in Western Europe and America, Socialism took on itself the name Liberalism. Karl Marx affixed the name "Capitalism" onto the economic arrangements of the liberal order, under the risible slander that the free market only operates to benefit people in the investor roles in the economy, and no other roles.

Marx errs in his analysis by assuming that people are their economic roles: a man (let us say his is a cobbler by trade) who runs a family-owned shop, but also does piecework or picks fruit on weekends for a wage given him by a local farmer, buys consumer goods with his wages, buys stocks and bonds with his profits, and invests part of his earnings, is at once, a proletarian, a bourgeoisie, a consumer, and a capitalist. If the family-owned shop turns second-order goods (half finished goods) into goods ready for consumption (such as a cobbler who buys leather to make into shoes), the man is furthermore a factory-owner, as well as the exploited factory worker that figures so prominently in Marxist mythology.

Marx's analysis assumes that economies of scale would drive all businesses into the hands of fewer and fewer owners, till all manufacturing was controlled by monopolies, and that an iron law of wages would reduce all wages to a mere subsistence level. He predicts an inevitable progress of ever-increasing misery for the great mass of people, as all productions are increasingly driven into monopolies, and all wage-earners reduced to bare subsistance.

Applying this analysis to the cobbler, one reaches the conclusion that, in his role as wage-earner, the iron law of wages means he must pay himself just enough to feed himself, and no more; but in his role as consumer, he must have enough money in excess of his grocery bill to buy goods; and in his role as investor, he must have sufficient return on investment to buy stock or half-finished goods to keep the shoe shop going; and in his role as shop-owner, he must price his goods high enough to make a profit, which is, of course, a price higher than the cost of the half-finished goods and the labor cost. But since the labor cost is controlled by the "iron law of wages", he has to price his shoes above what other laborers also receive in wages, which, since it is only enough to keep them alive, requires that the economy produce food and no other products, since no one can afford shoes. Since this is true for our cobbler as well, one wonders where he is getting the money to replenish his stock and invest in the business ventures of others. <>

Marx also concludes that the value of a good is the labor put into it, no more, no less, and that no operations concerning organizing the efficiency of production, finding markets to sell the goods, or persuading buyers to buy or persuading investors to invest, lends any value to the good. A man who spend one hundred hours to dig a well in the desert to slake the thirst of gold-miners standing nearby, and a man who spends one hundred hours to construct a monumental statue of a dead dog in the desert where no art-lovers are to be found, according to Marx, have performed labor of the same value and merit. The man who provides the well-driller with the money needed to buy the drill, or who organizes an inefficient work-gang into an efficient team of diggers, or who goes and finds some wealthy art-lover ready, willing and able to pay to view the monumental statue of a dead dog, according to Marx, add nothing of value to the operation, even though, obviously, neither wells could be dug nor statues sculpted, in their absence.

To cure the progressive immiseration of the masses, Marx proposes the solution of abolishing all wages and prices, abolishing the institution of private property, and to have all manufacturing and farming done by quota, all property seized by the state, and distributed by quota.

The leftists who now call themselves liberals or progressives adopt some of the Marxist analysis. Their arguments fall into two categories (1) blaming the free market for some evil, real or imagined, that would be present under socialism, or (2) blaming the free market for some evil, real or imagined, that would be aggravated under socialism. No longer willing to propose an entire abolition of the price mechanism, they merely wish to jury rig the mechanism to give false information; no longer willing to have the state set quotas for production of factories and farms, and distribute the goods by ration, they merely wish to have some goods and services set by quota, or some goods and services distributed by rationing.

A single example will suffice to show the self-defeating character of rationing schemes, since the same logic applies to any example. Let there be some good, such as milk, which the Authority wishes to make more available to the customers, either on humanitarian grounds or some other grounds. Currently milk is bought and sold for some price, x. The Authority must either raise or lower the price, or enact some other regulation which has the same effect as raising or lowering the price.

Raising the price artificially, perhaps from a desire to protect dairy farmers, will forbid buyers ready and able to buy from being able to buy, by pricing them out of the market. Naturally, rich buyers will be able, by restricting their purchases elsewhere, to meet the higher price, but marginal buyers will simply stop buying the good. In the first case, the Authority has merely transferred the rich buyer’s money from the vendors of whatever goods the rich buyer would have otherwise bought to the dairy farmer; in the second, the authority has diminished rather than increased the custom of the dairy farmer.

Lowering the price artificially, perhaps from a desire to see to it that poorer buyers get milk, will forbid sellers ready and able to sell from being able to sell, by forbidding them the profit they need to stay in the market. Naturally a wealthier dairy farmer can make up the loss by raising prices on some other commodity he sells, such as butter, but the marginal dairy farmer will simply be forced out of this line of work. As before, in the first case, the Authority has transferred funds from the butter-buyers to the milk-buyers; in the second case, the Authority has diminished the supply of milk. Note that in the first case, the Authority must either admit the failure of his regulatory scheme, or else introduce additional regulations on the price of butter, lest the dairy farmers, reacting rationally to the regulation, turn away from milk production and use their cows for butter production instead. This regulation will lead to the need for another one, and so on.

In effect, rationing takes away goods from people who want and need them most, and distributes them to people who want and need them not so much. This was why, for example, during the gas shortage under the Carter Administration, certain areas of the country, willing and able to buy gas, had dry pumps and long gas lines, and other areas of the country were given the scarce commodity in amounts more than they wanted or needed, and were using fuel to heat their swimming pools, while their neighboring states did not have enough fuel to run the trucks used to ship fuel.

There may be perfectly valid reasons that serve the public weal to take goods from one person and give them to another, or restrict production or buying of certain goods, ro ration certain materials. Governments routinely regulate the sale of pharmaceuticals, for example, or weapons, or alcohol. These things are done for non-economic reasons. They are meant to improve the health, safety or morals of the people, and the cost to the economy is regarded as something like a tax: a necessary cost of civilized life.

But there is no rational ground on which to make the argument that an economic purpose is served by rationing.