The Frontier Garden City

I am no fan of the “Woke” but a few years ago Ross Douthat wrote a piece entitled “A Crisis our Universities Deserve,” which showed me that at the core of this movement lay something admirable. At some point in the 20th century, college lost its emphasis on ennobling the soul, the great virtues, ideas, etc., and became a means to make more money in life. Certainly in the early 90’s, most of the encouragement from society to go to college came in this form. Students today rightly rebel from this, want more from their education than this, and more from life in general. Many “woke” students seek something moral, something transcendent. Douthat commends them for this, at least. So far, so good.

My public school education left me with the impression that the arc of American History bent towards the good, but of course we had x,y,z, and 1, 2,3, things wrong with us. The list of wrong things had grown since my dad’s day, but still stopped just short of overthrowing the basic arc. Subsequent generations have had the scales tipped. Manifest Destiny, the idea that History/God/Fate/Benign Providence wanted/needed America to span the continent, stood very near the core of our things wrong with us, and seemingly impossible to redeem in any way. After reading Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth I had the realization that the Woke and the various champions of Manifest Destiny have a great deal in common, including a highly idealistic goal and rebellion against the complacent stuffed shirts of status quo.

This comparison may surprise some, but makes at least temperamental sense to me. My first reaction to the Woke and Manifest Destiny comes from the gut: “Ick . . . it’s just too much work, too much angst and yearning, too much of everything. Enough, already.” I feel Jerry Seinfeld should have a bit on this–he would agree with me, I’m sure. But one needs more of a foundation to denigrate these two major epochs of our country’s past and present, and one has to admire the energy and drive in both movements.

Smith shows that Manifest Destiny had no direct racial motivations. When race entered into the discussion from some, it usually involved spreading “free labor” across the continent to help limit and eventually squeeze out slavery. Manifest Destiny’s sharpest critics in fact often came from pro-slavery camps, who poured cold water on all of the messianic expectations of free labor across the continent. I found it curious as well that the native Indians got little mention. It strikes me not that they were discounted, but rather not counted from the start. Maybe promoters of expansion automatically assumed that the natives would go along with it. More likely, thoughts of overland Asian trade routes, the fusion of independence, wealth, and power, the sweep of empires throughout time–left no room to see particular people such as the natives. Certainly one could critique the impact of the idea on native peoples, but harming them seems absent from the original intent.

At its core, then Manifest Destiny

  • Believed firmly in America’s unique role in world history
  • Allied with many of the progressive causes of the day–causes that today would certainly look progressive–grants of free government things (not $, but land), the belief that the hand of government should engineer certain social and political ends.
  • Believed strongly in unity–national unity, but also a more expansive international unity, for which the United States could hold the standard. Walt Whitman wrote in his A Passage to India that

The people [are] to become brothers and sisters,

Their races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,

The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,

The lands welded together.

Whitman being Whitman, he waxes rhapsodically about how Man and Nature shall once again fuse together under the “true Son of God”–not sure whom this was supposed to be. We conclude, then, that Manifest Destiny involved not just our national greatness, but

  • A grand union of all humanity, abolishing all national differences and dismantling the hierarchies of the old, worn out traditional world.

All of these are strongly progressive causes.

The progressive Woke have their virtues, but their virtues lean so far in one direction that they have to overcompensate, consciously or no, towards the other pole. So while they talk of abolishing all forms of difference in some grand human unity on the one hand, with the other they proclaim a certain kind of radical individuality. We see this in their insistence that anyone can do anything they like with their body, sexuality, etc. On the one hand, the Woke can be fiercely anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional, but on the other, as Patrick Deneen has pointed out they need Government writ-large to protect them from local, more traditionally minded majorities. And, while the Woke encourage a general sort of mixing, they have a hard time mixing in a fruitful manner, i.e., with relationships, marriages, and families.

With the heroes of expansion west, real or fictional, we see the same motifs. Civilization requires cooperation, but Cooper’s Leatherstocking, Whitman’s rhapsodies, and the real Daniel Boone can never settle and build. The unbounded horizon calls more strongly to them than any particular place. They decide things for themselves on the fly. Their freedom from the shackles of civilization gives them a newfound moral clarity and moral authority, for they are freed from all bigotry of place. They see with universal eyes. In his novel Old Hicks the then-famous Charles W. Webber (a product of Princeton), declares of the Texas Ranger that,

With them the primitive virtues of a heroic manhood are all-sufficient, and they care nothing for reverences, forms, and duties, as civilization has them, but respect each others rights and recognize the awful presence of a benign God in the grandeur of the mountain, forest, plain, valley, and river. . . . Such men do not look to society except with disgust . . .

Interestingly, as part of the plot, Webber has the head mountain man romantically pursue the wife of the villain, and marry her despite she actually being the wife of the evil Count. The “Laws of Nature” here easily become the Laws of God, which trumps the laws of man. Similar arguments today justify ditching traditional sexual ethics. For example, those that transition, or “come out,” are granted a carte blanche in their decisions regardless of its impact on those around them, for their very distance from society with these decisions grants them insight and authority.

Webber wrote fictional characters, but life imitated art in some respects with the foremost advocates for the frontier. Francis Parkman, another ivy-league grad (Harvard) traveled west in the summer of 1842 following his sophomore year. In a foreshadowing of the coastal elite frayed relationship with flyover country, in his journal Parkman showed disdain for most of the actual people he met, especially the livestock farmer. After passing beyond civilization further into the forest, Smith notes that “[Parkman’s] tone changes completely.” The independent woodsman garners immense respect: “He is a remarkably intelligent fellow . . . resolute and independent as the wind.” Smith writes,

Parkman’s antithetical attitudes towards farmers and the hunters of the wilderness illustrate the fact that . . . two distinct “West’s” existed in the minds of many [advocates of the frontier from the east]. The agricultural west was tedious. Its inhabitants belonged to a despised social class. The Wild West was by contrast an exhilarating region of adventure in the open air. Its heroes . . . were in reality not members of society at all, but noble anarchs owning no master, free denizens of a limitless wilderness.

Advocates for Manifest Destiny could, like the Woke, see civilization in sweeping terms, and they could see the heroic individual. They both have a harder time with groups in between these categories.

A competing mythos, that of the west as paradisal garden, also informed America’s westward push. This motif had more to say for it, as it usually involved families, but still had its rose-colored glasses. Timothy Flint against attitudes like Parkman’s, and gloried in farm life, writing in 1827:

Thousands of independent and happy yeoman reside [in the west], with their numerous, healthy, and happy families about them, with the ample abundance that fills their granaries, with their young orchards, whose branches must be propped to sustain the weight of their fruit, beside their beautiful rivers and beech woods, in which the squirrels skip, the deer browse, and the sweet red-bird sings, and with the prospect of settling their children on any of the dozens of farms that surround them.

James Lanman echoed such ideas in the 1830’s . . .

If, as has been remarked by distinguished statesman, cities are the sores of the political body where the bad matter of the state concentrates what healthful attitudes of mind and body are afforded by agricultural enterprise. The exhilarating atmosphere of rural life, the invigorating exercise afforded by its various occupations, the pure water, the necessities supplied for daily existence, leading to early and virtuous marriages, all point to this pursuit as best adapted to the comfort of the individual man.

I do not like to agree with the anti Free-soil crowd (often, though not always, secessionists and pro-slavery) on much of anything, but the “Messenger” was on to something in 1856, when it opined that

Farming is hardly a pleasant occupation, and the idea that it is comes from dreamers and poets. The actual, manual operations of farming are irksome and repulsive to the great mass of mankind.

Alas, reality set in for the devotees of the garden myth shortly after the Civil War. Smith writes,

The yawning gap between agrarian theory and post-war reality . . . comes out in the farmer’s crusades of the last 25 years of the 19th century. The western farmer had been told that he was not a peasant but a peer of the realm; that his contribution to society was basic, and all others peripheral or parasitic, in comparison cities were sores on the body politic. . . . He had been told that he was compensated for any austerity in his mode of life by receiving shelter from the temptations of luxury and vice, and against the ups and downs of the market. His outstanding characteristic was his independence of character and condition.

But after the Civil War Republican policy obviously favored the city against the country, the merchant against the farmer. And the western farmer found that instead of being independent, he was at the mercy not only of the Chicago and New York and Liverpool grain pits, but also of the railways and steamships lines that he must rely on to get his crop to market

I have read most of the volumes of Toynbee’s unabridged A Study of History. I think him a great master and I owe him a great debt, but I found the central theme of Volume III–which describes the growth of civilizations after their infancies–so annoying I stopped reading about halfway through some years ago. I have yet to pick it up again. Toynbee rightly reacted against material measures of progress. Instead he looked towards what he called “etherealization.” The idea seems to run along the lines of

  • A civilization develops an idea or technique that works for them, but that idea/process, has a limited growth potential because it is anchored to its locality
  • The civilization then extracts the core of the idea, removing from its trappings, thus making it more transferrable across space.
  • This allows for more sharing of ideas, etc. which aids growth. It is essentially cooperative and other oriented.

He takes, as an example, the alphabet as an etherealization of language, as opposed to ideograms. Alphabets transfer across cultures relatively easily, but China’s writing, among other things, will not allow for this, keeping them isolated.

Toynbee often nods via anecdote and analysis to “the old ways are best.” He wasn’t always consistent in his ideas, but this is not a fault. He usually explored possibilities as opposed to asserting things absolutely. But etherealization shows Toynbee’s weakness for too much generality, too much “Platonism” (but only in the worst sense of that word). Lifting something too far off the ground tends to make it dangerous and destabilizing to society, like a steroid. Supporters of Woke politics, and mid-19th century supporters of Manifest Destiny have this same problem. What masks itself as “progress” in fact only abstracts what in embodied form might actually be good, though less dramatic, ideas.

American history mashes together so many competing concepts. Sometimes this results in great creative tension. We get into trouble when succumb to the lure of the unbounded everything America has always foolishly promised. The possibilities of the frontier will always have more romance than a farm, and a farm will have greater appeal for most than the grime of a city.

We should note that the Old Testament takes a dim view of cities. Cain builds the first one, from which evil and violence come, and then you have Sodom, the cities built by Hebrew slaves for Pharaoh, Babylon, Ninevah, and the like. But the end of the New Testament shows the final restoration taking place with a garden within a city–even cities get redeemed in God’s providence over history. So, the frontier, the farm, the city–every civilization that actually functions needs all three.

Dave

The Adventures of Dog Man

David Gordon White’s Myths of the Dog-Man examines how cultures interact with the concept of the “other” in three major civilizational traditions: Christendom, India, and China. White has a number of keen insights and makes impressive connections across cultures. But a key aspect of his work bothered me greatly, and so first, a rant.

Before warming up, I acknowledge that the job of the academic involves risk. They should not just affirm the immediate cultural norms in a rote manner. The scholar who functions as they ought will always walk a tight-rope, which can feel lonely. Like anyone, they search for community, but perhaps have a harder time of it because of their partial distance cultural from many of those around them.

Perhaps that is why many academics feel their job involves the opposite–that of praising the “other” while critiquing one’s own culture. That, at least, puts them on the other side of the suspended rope. We can see this as a personal attempt to connect with something. Having started by crafting a respectful, and perhaps even appropriate, distance with one’s surrounding culture, perhaps even unconsciously, the academic seeks something new to connect with.

But at least the narrow-minded idiot disdained by the academic has built a thing that people can live in, however narrowly they live. The academic always in love with the “other” can offer critique of their home base aplenty, for sure. But could they navigate a monster-truck rally?*

White seems to treat the “other” in his work as an inherent moral good, which is extremely flat thinking. The “other” we encounter could be bad or good. It would depend. I elaborated at length about this dynamic, found in Christ and patterned throughout the world, in this post here, so I will not elaborate at length now. White seemingly has no cognizance that navigating the other brings great peril to one’s soul and one’s civilization. Union with the “foreign other” brought down Solomon, the wisest of kings, and his failure brought down Israel. Abraham made his servant swear to find a wife for Isaac only among his own people, and God showed him Rebecca by the well. It took Wisdom Himself to navigate to “marry” the “other” at another well with success many centuries later (John 4).

Of course the Old Testament takes care to avoid the sclerosis that possibly infected ancient Egypt and China. The Israelites were to take care to “leave” a day at the end of the week, to leave their garments and their fields with a fringe (Lev. 23:22), so that the edges of society could come right to your door. And of course, we see Ruth, and especially Rahab, who prefigures Photine.**. What White fails to see is that the “foreign” does not just change the core. The foreign “other” also must change–the change goes both ways.

So yes, I–perhaps unjustly–detected some know-it-all smarminess from White, who looks a fool for telling us that a quarter has a picture of an eagle on one side.

But I still absolutely liked this book. White teaches us a great deal about the symbolic role of the “other.”

First, regarding the title of this post, apologies and thanks to the wondrous Dav Pilkey, whose books about a half-man, half-dog crime fighter had great truck in the Mathwin household some years ago Pilkey’s books usually have the the core as boring, stuffy, adult authority figures. His heroes come from the fringe to bring justice and order. Pilkey may not be pleased to hear it, but this pattern fits many biblical heroes, such as Ehud (left-handed), Samson, and the like. But his use specifically of a “dog-man” certainly qualifies as a “symbolism happens” moment.^

For as White shows, different cultures across time and space have viewed the dog as an outsider, and “unclean.” At the same time, dogs guard boundaries, and they help protect the center. This paradox, this interplay between good and bad, outside and inside, shows in our experience in a number of ways:

  • Dogs form the boundary between the human and the animal world. No other pet does this in quite the same way. Think of how having a dog will lead you to interact more with nature when you take them for walks, and how the dog will protect you from nature. Think too of how dogs, much more than cats, for example, function as a social lubricant between humans who might otherwise stand awkwardly beside each other.
  • The Romans conceived of the “Lares,” the ancestral divinities who wandered borders protecting home and hearth, as dogs or men clad in the skins of dogs.
Two Lares flank a dog
Lares as Dog-Men
While we do not see the dog motif here directly with the Lares above, note how they guard against the snakes below
  • Note how many many military veterans suffering from trauma work with dogs to help integrate them back into “normal” human society.
  • Think of Cerebus, who guarded the passage of death, or Anubis in Egyptian civilization. Here again, dogs stand in the gap. For the Egyptians, Anubis had close association to the “Dog-Star,” Sirius. The rise of Sirius heralded the “dog-days” of summer, the terrible heat linked with death. But–the rise of Sirius also meant the Nile would soon flood, bringing life back to Egypt. Once again, we see the dog associated with boundary and transition, the bringer of death and life.
  • In the Alexander Romance, of which versions exist across multiple different cultures, Alexander meets the “Cynocephalae,” men with faces of dogs, at the edge of his travels in the east.
  • In Hindu tradition, there is the example of the great sage Visimitra. He shows up in story about “how to rule when time has arrived at a low-point, when all things have become slave-like.” In the story, a terrible drought has beset the land at the end of the Treta age for 12 years. Visimitra, known for his strict purity and asceticism, goes into the forest and eats the hind leg of a dog, over and against strong objections from those around him, for the dog was most unclean, “the vilest of all game.” After he eats, Indra sends rain and the earth revives. “Thus one who is expert and high-souled, and a knower of solutions,” the story concludes, ” . . . ought to maintain a firm conviction of dharma and adharma in this world.”
  • Chinese culture generally closed itself off from the outside, yet they too have stories involving dog-men. But in an indirect way (no dog-men directly in the story) the following Taoist acecdote I find most illustrative:

The Emperor of the South was called Shu. The Emperor of the North was called Hu. And the Emperor of the center was called Hun-tun. Shu and Hu at times came together and in Hun-tun’s territory. Hun-Tun treated them very generously. Shu and Hu discussed how they could emulate Hun-tun’s virtue, saying: “Men all have seven openings in order to see, hear, eat, and breathe. He alone has none. Let’s try boring him some.” Each day, they bored one hole, and on the seventh day, Hun-Tun died.

White notes that the Taoists saw the greatest good in optimal potential, i.e., uncut stone, uncut cloth, etc., with the Tao preceding the regimentation of creation itself. This parable then, spoke against the Confucian school, the “meddling busybodies” who wanted all things ordered, classified, managed, and understood. One has to leave some room for the fringe.

But . . . the tradition that seems most open to the dog man comes from White’s very own backyard, that of Christendom. In your face, White! It seems as if the cat has been caught . . . by the very person trying to catch him

For sure, White spends plenty of time looking at the The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, a medieval text that emphasizes the role of the Church in keeping out the “other” from infecting the world. “Methodius” may have borrowed from stories about Alexander the Great building a wall to keep out the barbarians. Again, if we turn to the paradigm outlined above, we can say that the emphasis on the dangerous aspects of the other absolutely has its place. Another example of this emphasis comes from the Estonian Kynocephalae Daemon, similar in theme to the Apocalypse noted above:

The Dog Snouts live at the edge of the world, where the earth ends and heaven begins.  They must stand guard at this edge, so that no one may enter heaven there. . . . They dwell behind a great mountain.  The mountain forms a border between the land of men and that of the Dog Snouts.  By general consensus, a company of Russian soldiers stands guard here, lest the Dog Snouts come over the mountain.  Were they to come, they would tear every man limb from limb.  They have great strength so that none can resist.

The Dog Snouts threaten the world with destruction.  One need not fear, however, so long as the troops stand guard.  Those soldiers refuse to be trifled with, and victory always stands with them.  

In some regions it is believed that each town contributes a portion of the guard of this mountain, because all share in the burden of not wanting the end of the world.  Even so, one time the Dog Snouts did break through into the world of men.  They came to lay waste our land, but a violent hailstorm drove them back across the mountain, which we guard now more strongly than ever.

Though this idea of the other bringing destruction certainly has its role in the Christian tradition, a variety of Christian saints have strong associations with dogs. The birth of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order, took place after his mother dreamt she carried a dog with a torch in its mouth in her womb. His feast day in the west also took place in summer’s “dog days,” observed in the first week of August. Compostello in Spain still is one of the most traveled of Christian pilgrimages, and has very early roots. This has significance, for the Compostello site resides right at the western edge of medieval Christendom, the place where the sun sets, towards the land of the dead. One tradition states that on July 25, the rise of the Sirius star, St. James of Compostello opened the gates of heaven to the souls of the dead.

But the story of St. Christopher the Cynocephalae has pride of place. Different versions of the story exist, with some overlap. The first, from an Ethiopian text called “The Acts of the Apostles Andrew and Bartholomew . . .

Then did our Lord Jesus Christ appear unto Andrew and Bartholomew and say, “Now depart into the desert, and I will be with you; and be not afraid, for I will send unto you a man whose face is like unto a dog, and you shall take him into the city.”

And the apostles went forth with sorrow, for the people of the city had not believed.  They walked for a time and came to rest and fell asleep.  When they slept, the Angel of God lifted them up and brought them to the City of Cannibals.  Now there came from that city a man looking for another man to eat.  And the Angel of God said unto him, “O thou man whose face is that of a dog, behold–you shall find two men sitting under a rock, and when you arrive there, let no evil thing happen to them through you, for they are servants of God.

And the dog-man trembled and asked the Angel, “Who art Thou?  I know neither thee nor thy God, but tell me of whom you speak.”  

[Here follows a long discourse of the angel to the man about God, the gospel, etc.]

Then the man said, “I wish to see some sign so that I may believe in all His miraculous powers.”  Then at the same hour fire came down from heaven and surrounded that man with the face of a dog, and he was unable to withdraw himself.  He cried out, “O God whom I know not, have compassion upon me and I will believe.”  The angel answered and said, “You must go with the Apostles every place they go, and follow all of their commands.”  

“O my Lord, I am not like other men, and I have no knowledge of their speech.  And if I be hungry, where will I find men to eat?  I should certainly then fall upon them and devour them.”  The angel replied, “God will give unto thee the nature of the children of men, and will restrain thy nature.”  The angel stretched out his hands and brought the dog man out of the fire and cried out to him in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Then the dog-faced man became as gentle as a lamb.

The dog-faced man rose up and went to find the Apostles.  Now–his appearance was terrible.  He stood 4 cubits in height, with teeth like that of a wild boar, and the nails of his hands were like great hooks, and his hair came down over his arms to resemble the mane of a lion.  When he came upon the Apostles, they became as dead men through fear of this man.  Then he laid hold upon them and said, “Be not afraid, O my spiritual fathers,” and God took the fear from Andrew and Bartholomew.

Then Andew said, “May God bless thee, my son.  But tell me thy name.”   “My name is Hasum [meaning ‘Abominable’ in Parthian].  And Andrew said, “You speak rightly, for a name is oneself.  But here is a hidden mystery, for from now on, your name shall be ‘Christian.’”  Then they journeyed back to the city.

Now Satan had gone ahead of them into the city.  Andrew prayed as they approached, “Let all the city gates open quickly.”  And as Andrew spoke, the gates of the city fell down, and the Apostles and ‘Christian’ (he who had the face of a dog) entered.

Then the Governor commanded the town to bring hungry and savage beasts to attack the men.  Then the man with the dog-face prayed, “O Lord Christ, who did take my former nature away from me, restore it now and strengthen me with thy power, so they may know there is no other God but thee.”

And then he became as he had been, and grew quickly in wrath and might.  He looked at all in great fury, and slew all of the beasts set against them, and tore out their bowels and ate their flesh.  When the men of the city saw this, they feared exceedingly, and set upon the men and each.  More than 700 of them died.  And God sent a fire to surround the city, and none of them could escape.  Then the people cried, “We believe that there is no other God but your God, and no other savior other than Christ the Lord.  Have compassion upon us!”  And so the Apostles prayed to God for them . . . 

And the Apostles came unto the dog-man, and prayed that his bestial nature would flee from him, and that the nature of the children of men would be restored, and Christian became as gentle as a lamb once more.  When the people and the governor saw this, they took olive branches in their hand and bowed before the Apostles, who told them of the grace of God.

The western version of the story . . .

Christopher was of the lineage of the Canaanites, and he was of a right great stature, and had a terrible and fearful cheer and countenance, and he was twelve cubits  of length.

And as it is read in some histories that, when he served and dwelled with the king of Canaan, it came in his mind that he would seek the greatest prince that was in the world, and him would he serve and obey. And so far he went that he came to a right great king, of whom the renown generally was that he was the greatest of the world. And when the king saw him, he received him into his service, and made him to dwell in his court. 

Upon a time a minstrel sang tofore him a song in which he named the devil, and the king, who was a Christian man, when he heard him name the devil, made anon the sign of the cross in his visage.  And when Christopher saw that, he had great marvel at what sign it was, and wherefore the king made it, and he demanded of him. And because the king would not say, he said: If thou tell me not, I shall no longer dwell with thee. 

And then the king told to him, saying: Alway when I hear the devil named, I fear that he should have power over me, and I garnish me with this sign that I have protection from him.

Then Christopher said to him: Can  the devil hurt you? Then is the devil more mighty and greater than you. I am then deceived of my hope and purpose, for I had supposed I had found the most mighty and the most greatest Lord of the world, but I commend thee to the Devil, for I will go seek him to be my Lord, and I his servant.

And then [Christopher] departed from this king, and hastened him to seek the devil. And as he went by a great desert, he saw a great company of knights, of which a knight cruel and horrible came to him and demanded where he was going. Christopher answered him and said: I go seek the devil for to be my master. And he said: I am he that thou seekest. And then Christopher was glad, and took him for his master and Lord. 

And as they went together by a common way, they found there a cross, erect and standing. 

When the devil saw the cross he fled, and brought Christopher about by a sharp turn. And after, when they were past the cross, he brought him to the highway that they had left. And when Christopher saw that, he marvelled, and demanded why he feared that sign.  And the devil would not tell him.  So Christopher started to take his leave.

So the devil told him: There was a man called Christ which was hanged on the cross, and when I see his sign I flee from it. 

Christopher said: Then he is greater, and more mightier than thou, when thou art afraid of his sign, and I see that I have chosen you in vain, when I have not found the greatest Lord of the world. And I will serve thee no longer, go thy way then, for I will go seek Christ.

And when he had long sought and demanded where he should find Christ, at last he came into a great desert, to an hermit that dwelt there, and this hermit preached to him of Jesu Christ and informed him in the faith diligently, and said to him: This king whom thou desirest to serve, requireth the service that you fast often. 

And Christopher said to him: Require of me some other thing, and I shall do it, for how can I fast?  I know nothing of this. And the hermit said: Thou must then wake and make many prayers. And Christopher said to him: What are prayers?  I can do no such thing. And then the hermit said to him: Knowest thou such a river, in which many be perished and lost? Christopher said he knew it well.

Then said the hermit, “Because you are strong and tall, reside by that river, and take them on your shoulders to the other side.  Do this and I pray our Lord will show Himself to you.”  Christopher agreed and went to the river.

Christopher took a staff to help him traverse the river, and he stayed there many days.  One night he heard a voice in his sleep.  He awoke and went out, but he found no man. And when he was again in his house, he heard the same voice and he ran out and found nobody. The third time he was called and came thither, and found a child beside the river, who asked Christopher to bear him across the river.

And then Christopher put  the child on his shoulders, and took his staff, and entered into the river. And the water of the river arose and swelled more and more: and the child was heavy as lead, and as he went farther the water increased and grew more, and the child got heavier, so that Christopher struggled mightily and thought himself and the child lost.  Finally he made it to the other side and dropped to the ground.  “Child, what is this, seeing that I almost died in carrying someone so little.”

And the child answered: Christopher, you have not only borne all the world upon thee, but also borne Him that created and made all the world, upon your shoulders. I am Jesus Christ the King, whom you serve at this river. And because you know that I say the truth, set your staff in the earth by thy house, and tomorrow it shall bear flowers and fruit, and then he vanished from his eyes. And then Christopher set his staff in the earth, and when he arose on the morn, he found his staff bearing flowers, leaves and dates.

And then Christopher went into the city of Lycia, and understood not their language. Then he prayed our Lord that he might understand them, and so he did. And as he was in this prayer, the judges supposed that he had been a fool, and left him there. And then when Christopher understood the language, he covered his face and went to the place where they martyred Christian men, and comforted them in our Lord. 

And then the judges smote him in the face, and Christopher said to them: If I were not Christian I should avenge mine injury. Christopher pitched his rod in the earth, and prayed to our Lord that to convert the people it might bear flowers and fruit, and it did so. And then he converted eight thousand men.

And then the king sent two knights to fetch him to the king. They found him praying. The king sent many more, and they set them down to pray with him. And when Christopher arose, he said to them: What do you seek? 

And when they saw him in the visage they said to him: The king hath sent us, that we should lead thee bound unto him.  And Christopher said to them: If I would, you should not lead me to him bound.  And they said to him: If you put it that way, we’ll say that we could not find you.

It shall not be so, but I shall go with you. 

And then he converted them in the faith, and commanded them that they should bind his hands behind his back, and lead him so bound to the king. And when the king saw him he fell down off the seat, and his servants lifted him up and revived him. And then the king inquired his name and his country; and Christopher said to him: Before I was baptized I was named Reprobus, and after, I am Christopher; before baptism, a Canaanite, now, a Christian man. 

The king said: You have the foolish name of Christ crucified.  He could not help himself–he cannot help you. So, cursed Canaanite, why not sacrifice to our gods?  Christopher said: Thou art rightfully called Dagnus, for thou art the death of the world, and fellow of the devil, and thy gods be made with the hands of men. 

And the king said to him: You nourished among wild beasts, your words are wild language, unknown to men. If you now sacrifice to the gods I shall give to you great gifts and great honors. If not,  I shall destroy you by great torments. Christopher refused.  The king killed the knights with him, and threw Christopher in prison.

And after this he sent into the prison to St. Christopher two fair women, of whom one was named Nicæa and that other Aquilina.  The king promised them many great gifts if they could draw Christopher to sin with them. 

And when Christopher saw that, he set him down in prayer, and when he was constrained by them that embraced him to move, he arose and said: What do you seek?And they were afraid of his cheer and clearness of his face, said: Holy saint of God, have pity on us so that we may believe in God.

And when the king heard that, he commanded that they should be let out and brought to him. “You women are deceived, but I swear to you by my gods that, if you do no sacrifice to my gods, you shall perish by an evil death.” they said to him: “We will sacrifice.  Command that people come to the temple to witness.”And when this was done they entered in to the temple, and took their girdles, and put them about the necks of their gods, and drew them to the earth, and brake them all in pieces, and said to them that were there: “Go and call the doctors to heal your gods!”

And then, by the commandment of the king, Aquilina was hanged, and a right great and heavy stone was hanged at her feet, so that her body broke severely. And when she was dead, and passed to our Lord, her sister Nicæa was cast into a great fire, but she issued out without harm all whole, and then he made to smite off her head, and so suffered death.

After this Christopher was brought to the king, and the king commanded that he should be beaten with rods of iron, and that there should be set upon his head a cross of iron red hot and burning, and then after, he sat Christopher on a stool of iron, and set fire under it, and cast therein pitch. But Christopher took no harm.

And when the king saw that, he commanded that he should be bound to a strong stake, and that forty archers pierce him with arrows. But try as they would, the arrows always missed. Then by the commandment of the king he was led  to be beheaded, and then, there made he his death. His head was smitten off, and so suffered martyrdom. 

Now the king had suffered a wound in his eye. And the king then took a little of Christopher’s blood and laid it on his eye, and said: “In the name of God and of Christopher!” and he was healed. Then the king believed in God, and gave commandment that if any person blamed God or St. Christopher, he should be slain with the sword.

Many icons of St. Christopher depict him with a dog’s head:

For many years, St. Christopher’s feast day occurred on July 25, which coincided with the rise of the Sirius star, so important to the ancient Egyptians.

My favorite St. Christopher icon comes from the East and shows him with St. Stephen the proto-martyr. The image reveals something crucial that White misses. Yes, Church acknowledges the importance of the other, that Christ reaches the outer-limits, and even that the beast in us can be used against evil if tamed and transformed. But it also shows St. Christopher on the left, and St. Stephen on the right, the place of honor, vis a vis the unseen Christ. Furthermore, it also shows that how what lies outside pays honor to the inside. Christopher shows deference to Stephen here. The fringe has legitimacy, but contra White, the center, not the fringe, gets pride of place. An addiction to the “other,” so common in so many today, will serve no one, and does no honor to the greatest hero of the Dog-Men. That’s not how St. Christopher would want it.

Your physique was overwhelming and your face horrifying. You willingly suffered trauma from your own people. Men and women tried to arouse consuming fires of passion in you, but instead they followed you to your martyrdom. You are our strong protector, o great martyr Christopher!

Prayer for the feast day of St. Christopher

Dave

*Perhaps this is unfair. I would have a hard time with this as well.

**St. Photine is the name of given by Catholics and Orthodox to the woman in John 4.

^I suppose I should say that it would be a mistake for the reader to get caught up in whether or not people with actual dog’s heads really ever had a physically observable existence. To ask the question in itself means that one fails to perceive in the manner of traditional cultures. Whether or not such creatures had a “physically observable existence” was not the point for them–it should not be for us. Rather, we can begin by thinking of the meaning of Dog-Men–they are bestial, they have lost something crucial of their humanity, they have become unclean and must be made whole once more.

I find it intriguing that American culture seems to value dogs more highly than almost any other culture. Why might this be–many theories no doubt exist. I am convinced, however, that a large part of the answer involves the fact that America itself lies at the “edge,” the farthest reaches of Western civilization. In a traditional concept of the world, America, the un-tapped “pure potential” functioned as the ultimate symbolic fringe. No surprise, then, that we would associate ourselves with the animal traditionally relegated to the fringe.

Mapping the Middle

Some years ago I listened to an interview with a historian whose name I cannot remember, but she made a startling observation I had never before considered. We cherish the idea of voting in our secret booths. Many regard it as impolite to ask who one voted for. But this method, so cherished as a foundation of democratic practice, has a purely modern origin.* In ye olden days we voted in public, sometimes simply by standing on one side of a room, with those voting for the other guy on the other side, and then counting heads. In a republic, thinking went, one should live openly with their fellow man. The idea of ‘private’ political opinions would have seemed absurd and anti-democratic to Americans of the early-mid 1800’s.

I come back to this nugget often, for it reminds me that things we assume about the ‘absolute’ meaning of America, or democratic identity, may not be quite what we assume. Stories like this also should help us reflect on whether or not the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Gordon Wood needs no praise from me. I find his analysis consistently penetrating and illuminating. One reason for this . . . he seems to know how to appreciate the weirdness of American history and maintain tension between competing perspectives. For those who praise America’s unique role in the history of western civilization, he can say, “Yes, but . . . ,” and for those that decry our faults, he says the same. He draws us into an appreciation for the tensions and oddities of our national life. The best historians make the past seem at once strange and yet familiar. Wood accomplishes this with deep learning and a light touch. His book Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution serves as a great summary of some of his previous work.

Some surprising details emerge here. We know that the founders had many differences on a variety of issues, but I didn’t know that they had unity in their condemnation of . . . Rhode Island. They objected not to their religious oddities, inspired by the likes of Roger William’s and Anne Hutchinson, nor to their commercial turn–something Alexander Hamilton, at least, appreciated. No, they directed their universal ire towards Rhode Island’s use of paper money. “The cry for paper money,” John Adams commented, “is downright Wickedness and Dishonesty. Every Man must see that it is the worst engine of Knavery that ever was invented.”

Of course we can choose to smile benignly and call them curmudgeons, but Wood reminds us in a variety of other places the radical and progressive nature of the American Revolution. The fact that more or less everyone across the spectrum condemned Rhode Island should tell us something. All knew that paper money represented a loosening of the hierarchy, and a preference for debtors over creditors, Whether they consciously intuited it or not, paper money also meant a more fluid and democratic society than perhaps any of the founders desired.

In discussing the Constitutional Convention, Wood mentions a curious bifurcation in American society. Some progressives and libertarians call the Constitution basically the byproduct of a conspiracy. This groups sees America in the 1780’s as flourishing and in no need of significant alteration. As usual, Wood answers, “Yes, but” and adds nuance. Various state economies performed well in this decade, but the problem lay in the strong commercial push for markets and regulated trade. The government under the Articles of Confederation had no powers regarding trade. This desire for markets ran so deep that Wood suggests a significant portion of Americans would have allied with any foreign power that would ensure their products access to the sea. George Washington commented of such folk in 1784 that, “the slightest touch of a feather would turn them any way.” We needed some kind of stronger national government. But Wood agrees that had the American people actually known how strong a government some of the delegates to Philadelphia wanted during the summer of 1787, they might very well have shut down the process entirely.

Most key members of the Convention sought to supersede state government power with the Federal government, but the theme that almost no one who helped start the American Revolution truly understood what they had unleashed runs throughout Wood’s work. This sometimes had good effects such as with the slavery question. Wood argues that we had a blindness about African-American slavery before the Revolution because we had a basic blindness towards white “slavery” as well. White “indentured servitude” was indeed not the same as “slavery” as we know it, but it was close, most particularly in the idea that owners could sell the labor contracts of their servants. Also,

“because labor was so valuable in America, colonists enacted numerous laws to control the movement of white servants and prevent runaways. There was nothing in England resembling the passes required for traveling servants. . . . No wonder newly arriving Britons were astonished to see how ruthlessly Americans treated their white servants. ‘Generally speaking,’ said William Eddis upon his introduction to Maryland society in 1769, ‘they groan beneath a burden worse than Egyptian bondage.'”

This started changing when the rhetoric of revolution started focusing on “slavery” to England, making “slavery” unacceptable to many for the first time–again–this was not the plan. Wood, a critic of the 1619 Project, wants to focus on the significant progress made by the revolutionary impulse to end slavery/servitude in most of the colonies, rather than its tragic persistence in the few. Of course, slavery didn’t just persist in southern colonies, it actually dramatically expanded from 1775-1850. At least here, Wood cannot explain how the impulse that ended slavery in some places seemed to increase it in others. By the early 19th century, one could accurately describe America both as dramatically more and less free than England.

Perhaps because Wood possesses great knowledge and a great ability to parse the details, he cannot quite bring the unusual disparities of America into an explanatory whole. We have already touched on the freedom/slavery divide, but others exist too:

  • Some wanted much less central unity than England had, some wanted much more power for the federal government than King George ever had.
  • The equating of land with freedom, and the “ravenous” appetite for land among colonists that shocked European observers, despite land’s vast abundance.

If we see America in a spatial, symbolic/mythological way an explanation emerges.

Many look at medieval maps and wonder, “what in the world . . . ?

The Hereford “Mappa Mundi,” ca. 1250 (?)

At first glance, and at a second and third glance, the map gives very little physical information. At times the physical data it gives is not even accurate, such as the separation of England and Scotland on the map above. But if we see the map as a means of guiding us to understanding how to navigate the world, or a “map of meaning,” we see as the medievals (and other cultures before them) saw.**

This post has little to do with the map directly, so I will limit my comments to its application for America. If you magnify the map, you see that towards the edges, one meets strange creatures. Reality starts to blur, there exists at once a strange mixing and a strange separation of bodily form, yet also, if managed rightly, a chance for wisdom and new growth. This happens on the “fringe” of reality. Most every great story involves the hero leaving home and being remade, casting bread upon the waters that it might return–in short–heroes must successfully navigate the fringe.^

The key to managing the fringe first involves understanding its meaning. We can consider alcohol as one example of how the fringe works. Taverns and bars have always been a place to meet others and mix. This is not an arbitrary social convention. Alcohol serves to “loosen” us, which is why we should drink only in the evening, as our being naturally gets looser as we move towards sleep. This “loosening” facilitates mixing and mingling with others more easily. So, “Can I buy you a drink?” works better as a pick-up line than, “Can I buy you some carrots?”

But one must be careful. If we stay too long on the fringe–i.e., drink too much–our being splits. We may discover too late that we have “mixed” with someone we should have avoided. Notice too that those who get drunk tend to experience either an unnatural extremity of the fringe (they are over-social, thinking everything is funny, etc.) or they get surly and overly anti-social–i.e., they seek to return “home” from the fringe but return misshapen. They attempt to recalibrate their mixing but their “monstrous” form, acquired from too much transformative “mixing potion,” means they cannot “tighten” themselves with proper form and grace. The moral of the story–one should not stay too long on the fringe.

Though we may not see it easily now, for European settlers in the New World, America was “the fringe,” The glories, degradations, and strangeness of America have their explanation here. Europeans traveled out to the edge, and decided not to return but camp out for good. This has several implications:

  • I have already alluded to the “more free,” and “less free” polarity.
  • Those who wanted to try and implement extreme forms of religiosity might find a home here. The Puritans could implement their views, but the continual implementation of their ideas required close knit communities, which “the fringe” would naturally work against.
  • Those who wanted to basically try and transplant something of the society of the English gentry, like many of transplants into Virginia, could achieve this only through strenuous effort and hence, malformation. This could explain the large number of slaves in Virginia.
  • Washington’s desire that we eschew political parties had no chance of success whatsoever. The fringe brings out extremes, it divides.
  • It might additionally mean that the fringe would define America. Examples might be–American literature has its origins with Twain, who lived out west. Many of our folktales involve strange, misshapen people, or those who lived in continual movement (Daniel Boone, Jonny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, etc.). African Americans, who resided obviously on the social fringe, created some of the best and most noteworthy culture, especially in terms of music. Finally, when we got out as far we could physically go on the fringe (California), we made this “fringe of the fringe” America’s heart with the advent of Hollywood.

We can quickly see that some of this is good (who wouldn’t take American 20th century music over any and all European countries?), some bad, and some of it confusing. It is the fringe, however, that defines American life, and this means that we will experience extremes, and that the lines between “good” and “bad” will blur quickly, right before our eyes. This template also explains much of early American history and the heightened versions of good and bad we see.

Thomas Jefferson took great pride in helping Virginia, and in time, all of America, to develop the practice of religious tolerance and avoiding state sponsored religions. Wood suggests that Jefferson thought this meant that a democratic people could arrive at an “enlightened” understanding. Madison thought differently, and knew better. We allowed for toleration only because we feared the monopoly that other religions might gain. Mutual collision, and not mutual understanding, made us “healthy.” Lacking a defined core, “collision” was our last, best option.

The American Revolution saw the European fringe break decisively from the core. Once free, new practices embedded in the ideas of revolution spread rapidly. Having lived on the fringe, Americans could navigate the changes rather easily. When a society with a more traditional core, such as France, tried something similar, it had a much more disruptive impact. When the ideas migrated into an even more traditional society like Russia toward the end of the 20th century, an oppressive tyranny reigned for 70 years, instead of the five we saw in France.

Americans love to spread their ideas, and always have. We believe that our beliefs and practices should transplant everywhere. Many of us look around us and surmise that significant change is coming for western civilization. I don’t think I will like many of the changes coming, but I take some comfort in knowing that America has a large bandwidth for adaptation. My concern lies in what happens when these new ideas migrate into more traditional societies. The impact there will be more traumatic (i.e., Russia and Ukraine?).

Ok, my concerns also lie with us. We need a middle to navigate the extremes, but alas, “middle ground” will always be elusive on the fringe.

Dave

*The historian was not entirely sure of why this switch happened, but speculated that it likely had something to do with Victorian ideas of propriety, and with the new involvement of women voting. In ye olden days, fisticuffs on Election Day with those on the other side were relatively normal occurrences. But with the new system, one didn’t know how the other voted, which made fighting much less likely.

**In this case, obviously the creators of the map knew that England and Scotland were geographically connected, but they remained culturally separate in their experience. The map then, reflects an understanding of their experience, not a mere physical representation.

^There is a great present in Scripture about the core, fringe, etc. if one knows how to look. Consider creation in 6 days, and leaving 1 untouched, leaving something on the edge of plowed fields, not weaving one’s garments to totality (i.e., leave the edge of your garments with a fringe), and so on. But just as Christ ministered first on Israel’s geographic fringe, He came to back “home” to Jerusalem.

Ritual, Politics, and Power

This post was originally written in 2017 . . .

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President Reagan garnered political popularity and power in part by his skillful use of political theater and imagery.

But in 1985 even this great master of ritual and belief stumbled a bit with the infamous “Bitburg” affair.  A New York Times article read,

It was a day Ronald Reagan had dreaded, even though it was a rite he felt bound to endure.  Walking beside Chancellor Kohl amidst the German military graves of the Bitburg cemetery, he looked stiff and uncomfortable, in awkward contrast to his usual ease.  While Kohl brushed aside tears, Reagan looked straight ahead, careful not to glance down at the graves less he spy the SS symbols sprinkled across the cemetery lawn.  In spite of the West German’s desire to clasp hands over the graves of the war dead, the President’s arms remained resolutely at his side.  Earlier in the day, at a hastily arranged ceremony at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Reagan laid a wreath inscribed, “From the People of the United States.”  At the cemetery, in a ceremony that he was able to limit to just eight minutes, the wreath bore a somewhat different message: “From the President of the United States.”

Reagan got himself into this mess through a series of awkward political circumstances.  First, West Germany had emerged as a crucial ally in the Cold War and Reagan wanted to put a new kind of missile on West German soil.  Second, Chancellor Kohl had engaged in a long campaign of rehabilitation for Germany, and argued that the German people were also the victims of the Nazi regime–a statement most found (and I find) partially true but mostly false.  Still, things in West Germany had obviously changed since the 1940’s.  Still, rehabilitating the Nazi regime . . . ?

Most world leaders balked at any ceremonial recognition.  Reagan felt that he needed to acknowledge West Germany’s emerging role and commitment to freedom.  Plus, the missiles . . . he needed enough political capital with the West Germans to install them on their soil.

So, he decided to go.  He asked that the ceremony be limited in time, pomp, and circumstance.  He asked his aides to pick a spot that would incur the least amount of political damage.  Somehow, in a gaffe of gaffes, his aides picked a spot that included graves of SS officers!  One might understand mourning the ordinary German soldier, but not even Reagan could pull this off.  Still, Reagan had pledged–but he then insisted on another visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in last-ditch attempt to balance things out.  Hence, his stiff posture at the Bitburg cemetery, and the different messages on the wreaths.

The amount of controversy these simple and subtle gestures caused shows us that such gestures are not that simple.  Rituals reflect deeply held beliefs.  More than that, rituals create beliefs that stick in the minds of men.

David Kertzer’s Ritual, Politics, and Power discusses this topic brilliantly.  He writes about weighty topics like ritual, psychology, and sociology with a spring in his step, and shares numerous revealing examples across time and space.  By far, his is the best book I have seen on the subject.

Some of us of a more rationalistic bent might say that rituals have no meaning in themselves.  Perhaps they give outward expression to inward meaning, but certainly cannot create meaning.  Meaning and ritual can easily part ways.

But how far could one take the separation of meaning and ritual?  Imagine we felt respect for someone but failed to shake their hand.  Would we really have this respect?  Some might say, “We love each other and we don’t need the state or the church to tell us that we’re married.” But I doubt that such people would refuse the “act of marriage” that creates intimacy in the first place.  “That’s ok, it’s the thought that counts” would not work as a defense.  Without a physical embodiment of the thought, no evidence of the thought exists.  More than that, our thoughts cannot be said to conform to reality without a physical manifestation of them.  We know a tree by its fruits.

In the Socratic dialogue Phaedo, Socrates argues about the nature of reality.  He comments,

Is their true nature contemplated by means of the body? Is it not rather the case that he who prepares himself most carefully to understand the true essence of each thing that he examines would come nearest to the knowledge of it?”  “Would not that man do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to attain to the knowledge of reality?”

In On the Celestial Hierarchy, St. Dionysius the Areopagite acknowledges that human beings cannot immediately or directly attain to spiritual contemplation.  Being flesh and blood, we require visible symbols and embodiments to know truth.  Kertzer in turn acknowledges that the president mainly functions as, “the chief symbol maker of the land,” so the minute analysis of Reagan’s gestures should not surprise us.*  Kertzer quotes another scholar who similarly wrote, “Most political controversy centers around which myth to apply to a particular problem.”

Kertzer generally ignores religion in his book, but the thin line between religion and politics makes itself perfectly obvious throughout his work–a huge strength in my view.  It illumines the fact that our political commitments come very near, or equivalent to, our religious beliefs, consciously or otherwise.  One immediately thinks of the vesting of clergy to perform religious rites.  We should not be gnostics.  You cannot just “think” yourself into being married.  Even today we still understand that you need a rite, you need “the act of marriage” to create marriage.  We know of the crown, robes, and mitres of kings.  But even in our much more casual modern American democracy, we have fixed expectations of how to look presidential.  To take one example, presidents give the pens they use to sign laws and treaties to favored confidantes or privileged citizens as “sacred” tokens of leadership.

Some may recall how Jimmy Carter’s popularity fell at least in part due to his failure to manage the symbolic nature of his leadership, either in his dress, relationship with Congress, or his tone of voice when speaking.  To take an opposite case, Kertzer shows how Rajiv Ghandi skillfully managed the symbolism of his mother Indira’s funeral to make a political career from nothing to India’s youngest Prime Minister in a matter of months.

We will know that our country’s religion is changing when we see its basic rituals come under fire.  Personally I find the singing of our national anthem at sporting events laborious and excessive.  But once the toothpaste gets out of the tube . . . things get complicated.  Though I find the ritual onerous and misplaced, I acknowledge the power of the rite.  Objectors to singing the anthem wisely engage in a symbolic action of their own.  The fact that they kneel has much more power than holding a press conference to voice their objections.

The more our country moves away from religion and its overt religious rite and symbolism, the more we will seek it elsewhere, the more important our political symbols will likely become, and the more power their proper execution will confer.  Ritual, Politics, and Power makes it clear that we need symbols to make sense of reality, and will have them one way or another.

Dave

*What do our modern presidential elections decide?  Given entitlement and defense spending, our federal budget has very little room to maneuver.  Our system of government and regular elections keep the president more or less in check.  Many believed the world would soon end after Trump’s election, but little of real substance has changed.  I think Kertzer would argue that what is most often really at stake is who gets to craft our symbols.  Neither candidate proposed any radical policy measure, and when Trump talked about a wall few thought it would actually happen.  But . . . it symbolically meant something to talk about it.  The election was bitter and contentious because of the symbolic nature of the candidates.  They may not have actually done radically different things in office but they represent very different symbols of what America is or should be.

Guenon and the Monsters

A recent local article mentioned that one Fairfax County School (Herndon HS) will cease allowing students to use their phones in class. Anyone familiar with reality knows that listening to one’s phone in class, or texting, or scrolling through Instagram, will hinder the learning process. Of course, the rule has loopholes that some will exploit. Perhaps more embarrassing for our civilization than the actual presence of phones in class–teachers may give students a 5 minute “phone break” during instruction if necessary. Most interesting to me from a cultural perspective, however, was the stated rationale for the policy: the phones need removed, for they may distract from other students learning. I applaud the school’s principal move to ban phones. The rationale for the decision, however, will not allow any real progress in education.

When we cannot state the obvious–i.e., students with phones out distract themselves far more than others–we have discovered a sacred cow of our times. But this fits in with other aspects of our culture. So strong runs our belief even in the power of a 15 year-old to define their lives ad nauseam, that parents, teachers, our society, will not attempt to define reality for them. We will not tell them that phones hurt themselves, for we likely would have response for, “It might hurt others, but not me,” and no idea what kind of general embodiment we would ask from our children.

If this reads so far like a cranky reactionary, well, that can be me at times. But I have far to go to reach the crankiness of Rene Guenon. He appreciated essentially nothing of modern life. But we should not dismiss him. The Crisis of the Modern World shows real prescience (he wrote this in 1927). His symbolic framing of the topics he examines make his work intuitive to understand and important for our times.

First, what failed to impress me about the book:

  • Guenon has some brilliant insights in his critique of the modern west, but he ascribes nothing good at all to the West and finds salvation only in the East. I understand taking a big swing for effect, but in this case, the book made me want to think of ways to defend the west. His overreach has the opposite effect on me.
  • I cannot tell quite where Guenon stands religiously, which I think important in a work like this. On the one hand, he has much to praise about Hinduism. On the other, we know he converted to Islam a bit after writing this work. He also argued that the West’s only hope lay in the faint possibility of revival of true Catholicism. Perhaps he dabbled in the idea of Perennialism, which seems to run counter to his main point of commitment to a tradition. Or–perhaps Guenon at the time of this writing lacked internal clarity himself, and if so it shows a bit in this book.

Now, on to the good stuff. . .

Guenon begins by critiquing the modern west’s view of linear progress. We see time functioning as a line, and our technological and political progress demonstrating that this line moves upwards. We no longer have the same attachment to the idea of inevitable progress as 100 years ago, but we still measure progress in material terms, i.e., how the economy functions, what new technology we invent, etc. But the core of our problem lies here. How we measure time and progress put us in continuously impossible situations that we cannot comprehend, due to the angle of our vision, akin to someone who scratches their irritation and wonders why it still itches.

Ancient and traditional societies put their focus on retaining meaning within their culture, not in increasing power or wealth. Our focus on power over our environment has led us “down the mountain” towards disunity of mind and society in general. The ancient world also tended to see time as cyclical, which Guenon thinks key to his thesis about time. I disagree, but it influences his view of how our culture has moved from “higher” to “lower” things. He writes,

It will doubtless be asked why cyclic development must proceed in this manner, in a downward direction, from higher to lower, a course that will at once be perceived as a complete antithesis to progress as the moderns understand it. The reason is . . . it implies a gradual increasing of distance fro the principle from which it proceeds; starting from the highest point, it tends downward, and as with heavy bodies, the speed of its motion increases continuously until finally it reaches a point at which it is stopped. This fall could be described as “progressive materialization.”

The project of the western world for the last 500 years or so has generally involved deconstruction of the world through a focus on gaining power over our environment. Rather than a circle, I prefer the image of a mountain to explain this process, something that I will not rehash in full here (I have written about this in other posts linked above). Of course mountains have a prominent role in almost every traditional culture, including ancient Israel (Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, etc.). The top of the mountain allows one a unity of vision, though it entails a necessary blending of various particularities. Descending down the mountain comes naturally. It’s easier than going up. This downward movement also gives you increased ability to see particular things with greater distinction and contrast to other things around it. But to accomplish this, one must sacrifice a unity of perspective. The methods western society employs lead us to chaos and disunity, which will manifest itself in our souls and our societies.

For example, we can take the idea prevalent in modern parlance that trade will unify countries and draw them together. The more trade, the more unity. Guenon argues that, in fact, increased trade between peoples will likely lead to more conflict, not less. Perhaps we see the pattern. Trade in goods means focusing on materiality, and focusing on matter means dividing reality–and we divide to conquer. Guenon wrote just shortly after the horror of W.W. I. But in the years leading up to that conflict, Germany and England were primary trading partners.

Thirty years ago many argued that the U.S. should increase trade with China to cement good relations between us, which would help China improve its record on human rights. In fact, what has happened is just as Guenon would predict–China and the U.S. like each other less, and trade in material goods has only served to increase China’s power. A more immediate example–Europe’s use of Russian oil and gas has done nothing to make them like each other more. Perhaps trade may make disparate cultures a bit more alike, but history shows that we tend to fight more with those who look a bit skewed to us, rather than those who are completely different. For example, lots of historians pour vitriol on the Middle Ages, which has similarities and differences to the modern world, but no one “hates” ancient Egypt, which maintains a proper, non-threatening distance from us. In any case, when we act against the pattern of reality, we suffer for it.

The political schisms the western world experiences now have their origin in our souls. Many marvel at why, despite unprecedented material opportunities and prosperity, we see such a spike in suicide, escapist drugs, depression, and other mental illnesses. Guenon sees an obvious connection. A focus on “materiality” inevitably means a focus on particularity, which means division. Two years ago many believed that the presence of COVID might at least have the silver lining effect of bringing us together and helping heal our political divisions. Of course, nearly two years of focus on the particularity of tiny molecules and the various means of treating said molecules have driven us even farther apart, which again Guenon could have predicted.*

But because Guenon has a primarily cyclical view of reality, a degree of hope exists, for this is not the first time civilization has experienced this descent into “progressive materialization.” In the history of the world, he sees in the 6th century B.C. a period when unity descended into division. He writes,

In the sixth century [B.C.] changes took place for one reason or another amongst almost all peoples . . . for example, in China, where doctrine previously established as a unified whole divided clearly into two distinct parts: Taoism, reserved for the elite and comprising pure metaphysics . . ., and Confuscianism, . . . whose domain was that of practical and social applications. In India . . . this period saw the rise of Buddhism, that is to say, a revolt against the traditional spirit . . . Moving westward we see that for the Jews this was the time of the Babylonian captivity and perhaps one of the most astonishing of all these happenings is that a short period of 70 years should have sufficed for the Jews to forget even their alphabet . . .

. . . for Rome it was the beginning of the ‘historical’ period, which followed on the ‘legendary’ period of the kings. [In Greece also], the 6th century was the start of so-called ‘classical’ civilization, which alone is entitled–according to the moderns–to be considered ‘historical.’**

This moment in Greece inaugurated the discipline of philosophy, so dear to the western intellectual tradition. What began more or less in innocence devolved into an exaltation of the rational, and hence, the analytical side of man over and above all things.

The tendencies that found expression among the Greeks had to be pushed to the extreme . . . before we could arrive at “rationalism,” a specifically modern attitude that consists in not merely ignoring, but expressly denying, everything of a supra-rational order.

Christianity arose via the collapse of western civilization in the 5th century A.D., and reasserted more traditional ways of knowing. We can see this in how history got written, with the examples of Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the time of Rome’s decline. His precise factual accuracy has high value in today’s world. But even Gibbon found him unreadably dull and shortsighted, commenting that, “The coarse and undistinguishing pencil of Ammianus has delineated his bloody figures with tedious and disgusting accuracy.” We can compare him with the author/s? of the roughly contemporaneous Alexander Romance, which had universal appeal, with eventual versions written in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopian, to name a few. Many dismiss the work as “fantastical” (it has Alexander encountering mythical beasts such centaurs) but it had broad appeal for a reason. The work seeks to interpret the life of Alexander, and thus communicate meaning, not facts. Traditional cultures understand this difference in ways that elude us, making much of the “legendary” histories written in the past unintelligible to us.

With medieval culture Guenon believes that we see the turn of history’s wheel back towards the apex of the cycle. They focused on wisdom through inhabiting meaning over analysis. But the wheel keeps turning, which brings us to the Renaissance. For Guenon, moderns get it backwards. The “Middle Ages” was not merely a bridge between “civilization” (which the term “Middle Ages” implies), but a time of actual civilization in between decayed epochs. As for the Renaissance,

As we have said . . . . the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts; and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have very artificial character, as it meant a re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. . . . Henceforth there was only ‘profane’ philosophy and ‘profane’ science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely the empirical and analytical study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion of an indefinite multitude of insignificant details . . .^

All of this ends with the ‘Individual’ as the only form of reality left that we recognize, hence the problem one encounters in a public school when you want to ban cellphones. Our individuality has generated the chaos of defining one’s own reality through social media, or through simple assertions of will, as Neo lamely articulated in the third Matrix installment. Some try and plug the holes in the ship by earnestly urging us to focus on the “facts.” Alas, like those that focus on trade, or “the science,” to bring us together fail to see that the “facts” can never accomplish that task. Focusing on meaning by examining things outside of their context separates things from other things, and so it will divide selves from other selves.^^.

The distortions of the modern have created a reality that Guenon calls “monstrous.” A “monster,” by definition, is something that exists internally and externally out of proper proportion. We may think that we have traded unity for diversity, and since both have their place, we will at least have one even if we lack the other. Guenon disagrees, “since unity is the principle out of which all multiplicity arises.” So–we will be left only with a naked assertion of will whereby we seek to subsume all things into ourselves. This brings the flood, and a restarting of the cycle.

As powerfully as Guenon writes, I push back in one particular. Guenon, influenced by his possible Perennialism, hovers perhaps a bit too far above the mountaintop. He seemingly fails to see that the reality he wants to inhabit has irregularities. The orbiting of the planets, like our own bodies, lack perfect symmetry. Parts of reality are “weird,” and we occasionally see creatures and situations that defy categories. Exceptions to rules exist. Where Guenon is right, however, is that those exceptions don’t destroy the form, but merely give it room to breathe.

Dave

*Many social conservatives like myself who want to rein in society’s affirmation of school-children wanting gender reassignment surgery put the focus on biology–“there are only two genders,” and so on. I have seen Ben Shapiro, for example, consistently go to this well. But focusing on “the science” perpetuates confusion, for the same reasons discussed above. A focus on deconstructing physical matter will never answer this question, because one can always find exceptions when looking to deconstruct. Those that push back against him are wrong in their conclusion but at least partially right in their method. “Why should I submit to matter?” they seem to be saying. “Shouldn’t the lower serve the higher?”

**Curiously, Guenon fails to note that at around exactly the same time in Greece and in Rome, we see a movement towards more democracy. I would not call the Roman Republic ‘democratic,’ but certainly it was more democratic than their previous era. I find it curious that he passes on a chance to point out another move away from unity towards diversity/particularity.

^Guenon later writes that philosophy, following this form, has grown obsessed with abstractions and “problems,” and multiplying difficulties rather than expounding “wisdom.”

^^COVID did indeed present us with an opportunity, but one that we missed. Rather than exclusively focusing on how to combat the disease, and whether or not this or that measure helped prevent it and by how much, we should have focused on how to preserve meaning and coherence amidst the disease. Instead, we were basically told to stay at home and watch Netflix.

Language as Myth

One will sometimes hear thinkers of a materialist stripe say something along the lines of, “A table is obviously a table, but words like truth or beauty are mere abstractions, a placeholder/convenience for certain ideas that different cultures have,” and so on. The problem with this lies in the fact that most everything anyone can think of deserves the title, “abstraction.” A table is not one thing but many things put together in a particular arrangement. Is it only a delusion that we call a table a table? Any living creature has many millions of separate parts, yet these parts function as a unity. Even an atom has multiple parts that we “conveniently” put together as a whole. We all “abstract” reality. Reality functions, in this way, as myth. The title of Ernst Cassirer’s difficult (for me at least) but significant work, Language and Myth could perhaps have the title Language IS Myth.

Writing at the end of WW II mean that Cassirer stood near the end of the unquestioned dominance of the scientific worldview. The deconstruction of the coherence of more traditional ways of knowing seemed complete. Cassirer was struck with the fact that the, “theory of knowledge as philosophers had developed it since the Middle Ages concerned itself solely with ‘facts’ and the development of orderly thoughts about facts. . . . Human intelligence begins with conception, the prime mental activity; the process of conception always culminates in symbolic expression. ” The book’s translator Susanne Langer noted in her introduction that, “Myth never breaks out of the magic circle of its figurative ideas. . . . But language, born in that same magic circle, has the power to break its bounds; language takes us from the myth making to phase of logical thought and the conception of facts.”

Hence, “Myth is an inherent necessity of language.”

In the early chapters Cassirer looks at theorist Max Muller. For Muller,

the mythical world is essentially one of illusion–but an illusion that sings its explanation whenever, the original, necessary self-deception of the mind, from which the error arises, is discovered. . . . From this point it is but a single step to the conclusion which the modern skeptical critics of language have drawn: the complete dissolution of any alleged truth content of language . . . Moreover, from this standpoint, not only myth, art, and language, but even theoretical knowledge itself becomes a phantasmagoria; for even knowledge can never reproduce the true nature of things as they are.

If myth be nothing, Cassirer writes, “it is mystifying indeed that this shadow should . . . evolve a positive activity and vitality in its own right, which tends to eclipse the immediate reality of things . . .” All in all Cassirer critiques “that naive realism which regards the reality of objects as something directly and unequivocally given–literally something tangible.” Objects in themselves cannot give meaning directly, for every object is a contract of other objects–hence, reality requires myth-making to achieve any sort of comprehension.

Most interesting to me were his thoughts on the idea that gods in the ancient world served mainly as embodied synthesized concepts. Much of what I learned about ancient religion growing up often amounted to something like, “The ancients didn’t know about electricity, so they thought Zeus threw lightning bolts.” Of course, how such unsophisticated people all over the ancient world managed to achieve such great heights of philosophy, architecture, etc. remains a mystery. Perhaps aliens?” Cassirer has a better approach, though also incomplete.

He begins talking about the “realness” of ancient religious feeling, even through the classical period in Greece, often thought of an an irreligious era. “Reason, Wealth, Chance, Feasting . . . Whatever comes to us suddenly [is] like a sending from heaven. Whatever rejoices or oppresses us, seems to religious consciousness like a divine being.” From these momentary “daimons” a new kind of god emerged, not from immediate experience but from “the ordered and continual activities of mankind,” which happened as our relation to the outer world went from passivity to active engagement. These gods have a narrow “width” but a degree of depth and permanence, as every year one needs to plant, sow, fish, and so forth. “Whenever a special god is conceived, it is invested with a special name, which is derived from the particular activity that has given rise to the deity.” Here we see the connection between language and religion, and how we need both to synthesize and create meaning from experience. Cassirer, using the work of Hermann Usener, thinks too much in an evolutionary way, but represents a big improvement from standard ways of viewing ancient religion.

Again–we have the link between language, myth, religion, all as examples of a synthesizing of material (be that material certain sounds or certain experiences) into meaning. Cassirer seems to lean heavily on the side of “emergence” in the Emanation/Emergence debate, but we can take his point. Cognitive scientist John Vervake has made a similar point about the current conflict in the Ukraine. Everyone is worried that something will happen to expand the war, but that “something” may not come from individual agency. Rather, war means participation in “Ares/Mars.” When we describe war as having “a logic of its own” we mean that a separate “life” exists as a corporate personality that drives decisions. We get enmeshed within this life and follow its bidding.

We can assert that we control this “life” because we created it. But I think it more accurate to say that we, speaking from the “emergence” side of the coin, call it into being rather than create it. History shows that such “ghosts” can be notoriously difficult to control. Think for example, of all of the allied moral denunciations of German use of chemical warfare in W.W. I, or the German bombing of civilian England in W.W. II. But England used chemical weapons in W.W. I shortly after the Germans, and the British and American forces killed far more civilians with bombs than the axis powers in W.W. II. As Vervake noted, these “collective ideations” (which I think was his term) resemble gods of the Bronze Age in Homer’s Iliad. They have abundant power, but grant no wisdom.

We can say the same for the internet itself. Humans created it, but we also called something into being, as we entered a hybrid-partnership of sorts. We feed it with attention, and it in turn learns and feeds things back to us. Surely, the internet has an agency, and seeks to add to its agency all the time.

Ok, the stuff about the internet I stole directly from

and both Vervake and Pageau explain the concept much better than I could.

The new Compact magazine has an article by Edwin Aponte that attempts to split the horns of the free speech wars. Most look at the fact that the left championed free speech in the 60’s, and now seems to favor more restrictions, or that the Right championed the “Moral Majority” and now wants comedians to say whatever they feel like saying, as either ironic or puzzling. But Aponte sees something else, writing

Consider also the activist left’s resistance to the Reagan White House’s unofficial gag order on public discussion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and then, barely a decade later, when the Democratic Party held the executive branch, the push for what was at the time called “political correctness”—a speech rubric spearheaded by many of the same left organizers.

In other words, today conservatives are out of power and railing against the canceling of comedians who make jokes about transgender people; tomorrow, the same people may be in power and leading the charge in favor of a ban against transgenderism in schools. This is borne out by the Times editorial. Per the survey, 66 percent of respondents agreed that democracy is built on the free and open exchange of ideas, yet a whole 30 percent also allowed for the curbing of speech if it runs afoul of acceptable etiquette.

Aponte makes the noteworthy claim that the root of this dichotomy lies in the Liberal (the term includes the modern Left and Right) project itself, which pledges unrestrained autonomy to grant one’s desires. Well, one’s desires could easily include both the right to say what you think and to not be bothered by what other people think. When Liberalism chucked Tradition and social mores as guides, they opened these floodgates.

I think, however, that something else is happening. In his farewell address, George Washington warned his countrymen against the formation of political parties, advice which we ignored almost immediately. Perhaps participation in democracies means that we cannot help but form political collectives to try and get what we want. This in turn catches us up in the war of “gods” who seek power but grant no wisdom. Language itself shows that we cannot avoid synthesizing meaning, but how we do so . . . that’s up to us.

Dave

Words in Play

Lots of pendulum swings happen in the history of thought, but these pendulum swings sometimes resemble more the bending of a line towards the form of a circle instead of opposite points on a line horizontally. In other words, when certain positions get to their extremes, they start to resemble what they claim to oppose. Reality, when warped, curves back on itself.

For example, one could argue that the age of imperialism in Europe came from the conviction that a) We are better than you, and b) We are different than you. This is a caricature, but we can let it stand for our purposes. In turn, this attitude called forth the work of Joseph Cambell, who argued in his religious analysis that actually, nothing has any difference from anything else. Narcissus, Christ, Osiris, and so on all participate in the same reality and are basically the same god. On the surface this looks like the opposite end of the imperialist impulse, but as imperialism grew, the mingling of cultures grew, and the differences between the cultures start to blur. For example, we have Rudyard Kipling as one of imperialism’s strongest advocates, but much of his writing shows a fascination not with English culture, but with that of India and Afghanistan.

So . . . McBain was entirely correct to conflate the Commies and the Nazi’s.

Plato and Aristotle give us the foundation to western philosophy. Many first notice their differences, and certainly they parted ways in key areas. Plato emphasized the unity of things via the world of the forms. He sought to draw everything up into the eternal, i.e., when we come to know and understand something, we are in fact remembering something we used to know.* Aristotle differed from his teacher and focused on particulars. We know him best through his extensive categorizations. He separates that we might see things more clearly. It seems they occupy opposite points on a line, with opposite strengths and weaknesses. But in certain ways they share the same strengths and faults. Aristotle critiqued Plato’s overgeneralizing of concepts, but he himself seemed to overgeneralize everything in the mythical/spiritual realm, consigning it all to irrelevancy. Like Plato, he criticized aspects of Athenian religion but could not see the particular threads of truth within it. In turn, Plato’s focus on finding the eternal kernel of truth led him to define concepts so finely that in the Laches a general does not know what courage is due to his faulty definition. They both over-generalized at times, they both hyper-categorized other times.

Avoiding this warping effect might involve taking Aristotle’s “advice:” If you drill a hole all the way through the earth and fall down from the North Pole, stop and hover at the halfway point. The key to healthy societies as well as healthy thought comes from fusing “Heaven” and “Earth,” and not by camping out at either locale.

I never knew that Plato’s dialogue Cratylus even existed until a few weeks ago. Rather than the usual meandering conversation in most of his work, here he focuses entirely on the role of language, and names in particular. The issue has relevance especially in times of societal breakdown. Without a common cultural framework, language loses its power as a conveyor of meaning and a means of discourse, i.e., we no longer have an agreed upon meaning for important words such as “male and female,” “racism,” “love,” and so on.

The dialogue begins with one extreme tentatively suggested by Hermogenes, who argues that, “whatever anyone agrees to call a particular thing is its name.” Socrates teases out the implication of such a position, which means that something can have infinite names, “And however many names someone says there are for each thing, it will really have that number at whatever time he says it?” Hermogenes reluctantly agrees.

Of course this won’t do, and Socrates leads Hermogenes out of this thicket. The problem of meaning has a link to the problem of virtue. If we can give names to anything we wish and have that in fact be its name, then we in effect, become the arbiters of reality itself. For, “some statements are true, while others are false,” and “it is possible to say things that are and that are not in a statement.” We are not God and cannot make reality come into being by merely declaring it so. Otherwise good and evil have no real existence outside of our own minds, and so we can call nothing truly good or evil at all. Meaning and coherence break down. The question of language is much more than academic.

So words and their meaning cannot come into being from below. The “bottom of the mountain,” so to speak, has too much individuation and division to provide a platform for societies. As our examples above show (i.e., Kipling, etc.), this extreme individuation shakes hands with extreme unity, for it cannot properly divide anything at all according to its nature. So in the end, with this view, everything mashes up together.

Socrates and Hermogenes then seek to go up to the “top of the mountain” to attempt to find the origin of names. Names function as a means of instruction, as a means of “divid[ing] things according to their natures. As Socrates comments,

So just as a shuttle is a tool for dividing warp and woof, a name is a tool for giving instruction, that is to say, for dividing being.**

Just as not all can use the loom, so Socrates asks, “Do you think every man is a rule-setter, or only those who possess the craft?” Hermogenes concedes that one must have the craft. Control of language cannot belong to the individual alone, but nor to “every man.” One must have “the craft.”

So Cratylus is right in saying that things have natural names, and that not everyone is a craftsman of names, but only someone who looks the natural name of a thing and is able to put its form into letters and symbols.

Undoubtedly language shapes our perception of reality, and possibly more than that, for in Genesis God’s speech creates reality as we know it. The names He gives fixes the distinctions between things, and Adam’s naming of animals gives humanity a cooperative role in the creative process.

The theological dilemma of, “Is something good because God declares it to be good, or does God declare something good because it is good already,” has a mirror in the dilemma about language.^ No one person can simply declare a word to be a word and have it fixed for all time. Socrates struggles with finding the absolute in each word. He had penetrating insights regarding the essence of truth, but stumbled in its application. The same hold true in Cratylus. The dialogue continues on a long excursion where Socrates seeks the unity of the principle embodied in names, and their particular Greek phonetics. Some of these endeavors succeed more than others. But in the end, Socrates must face reality–other cultures have different phonetical constructions for words embodying the same principles.

Socrates: Here is what I suspect. I think that the Greeks, especially those who live abroad, have adopted many names from foreign tongues.

Hermogenes: What of it?

Socrates: Well, if someone were trying to discover whether the names had been reasonably given, and he treated them as belonging to the Greek language rather than the one they were really from, then he would be in a quandary.

Hermogenes: He very probably would.

Socrates: . . . Consequently, though one might say something about these names, one mustn’t push them too far.

This realization leads Socrates nearer the truth, that language, like truth itself, involves a union of the masculine principle of declaration from those “who know,” from above, and the fluidity of things on earth. Socrates comments,

Perhaps you didn’t that [the names] are given on the assumption that the they name are moving, flowing, and coming into being. . . . Wisdom (phronesis) is the understanding of motion (phoras noesis) and flow. Or it might be interpreted as taking delight in motion. . . . Wisdom signifies the grasping of this motion.

For the rest of the dialogue Socrates struggles to find a way to unite the masculine and feminine aspects of language, but can’t quite get there. Still, he makes the crucial realization of the need for the seed from above, the plant from below, or the pattern and its manifestation must go together. For Adam in the Garden (Genesis 2) his names correctly manifested this, for at that time he had perfect communion with the Father above and the (Mother) Earth below. But since the sin entered the world, we essentially fail in proper manifestation of language, which furthers confusion of meaning.

But though we fall short, we still have the image of God within us, and can use Socrates’ insight to evaluate how we use words and their relationship to truth. There exists, for example, a certain method of Bible study among Christians that involves

  • Finding out the Hebrew/Greek meaning of a particular word
  • Grabbing a concordance to see where that word gets used in different parts of the Bible, and then
  • Using the meaning in one context to determine its meaning everywhere in Scripture.

This ignores the fluid aspects of language, and the central importance of context over strict phonetics. We all know that the word “radical” can be a math term in one context, an outdated term from the 80’s in another, an adjective for a political ideology, and so on.

Many of our current cultural debates, however, center around ignoring the fixed aspects of language. We can all acknowledge that the meaning of “male” and “female,” for example, have certain contextual fluidities determined in part by culture. Some men may be more effeminate, some women more masculine, than others of the same sex. But surely being either male or female cannot mean anything we wish it to mean. Biology certainly gives us constraints on the meaning of sex. The very fact that we call some men more masculine than other men shows that we have a defined concept of masculinity we cannot escape even if we wanted to. Indeed, some of those who wish to introduce more fluidity to the concept of sex/gender also decry “toxic masculinity” more than others.

It seems that we must see language, along with the reality language describes/creates, existing in a hierarchy. At the top we have God, who in Christian theology can only be defined as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. Then at the bottom we have words like “green,” a collection of phonetic sounds that can refer to a color, a newbie on the job, a person with sea-sickness, and so on. Yet while these phonetic sounds can take on meanings essentially unrelated to each other, they each manifest connections to a particular idea. More fluidity in language exists at the bottom of the mountain, but . . . not chaos. Then somewhere in the middle of reality, we have words such as “male and female,” which have more defined limits, along with a degree of contextual meaning.

Though the Cratylus fails to stick the landing on a unified theory of language, Socrates rightly intuits that correct naming is a “beautiful work.” We recognize beauty when we recognize a pattern, a pattern of the marriage of heaven and earth, of unity and diversity.^^ When this reality gets warped both the language absolutist and the language relativist both destroy the beauty of language and its meaning. Contrary to some, language is not a tool of power, but of meaning. When weaponized we lose beauty, wisdom, and also power. For in reality, power cannot truly exist without its connection to Heaven.

Dave

*I should state now that I am a rank amateur in my knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. My critique is not meant to deny their rightful place in the history of philosophy.

**Here we see more evidence of Andrew Kern’s suggestion that weaving and wisdom are interrelated in the ancient world, thus, the Luddites rebellion against mechanical looms had little to do with economics and much more to do with maintaining meaning and coherence in society.

^This dilemma is really no dilemma at all to those who understand Christian theology. The Church has always said that the answer to the above dilemma involves splitting the horns–things are “good” because God made them, and are stamped with God’s being and character.

^^I will attempt an explanation of my meaning by thinking about a spectacular sunset. We look up, and see light from above-that’s purity/Heaven. The light then transforms, becomes more fluid/diverse as it interacts with matter, the stuff of Earth. This combination produces the beauty we are drawn to.

While only God is eternal and infinite, this union of Heaven and Earth will continue into eternity. In His resurrection Christ continues to have a physical body. And when He returns, He will descend, and we will rise to “meet Him in the air.”

A Donut Shaped Universe

If anyone every feels a tinge of excitement opening Plato’s Republic for the first time, many find the text quickly snuffs it out. This foundational philosophical work starts off with a rather mundane conversation. Then, when Plato starts to talk about how the state should be built, one of the first points he makes is that no one should more than one job, one task. Stay in your lane, and do not deviate. Otherwise, “great evil” would result.

Such pronouncements strike moderns as absurd and non-sensical. I like Plato and think The Republic deserves its place in the canon, but I too never really liked the explanation given by various commentators about this section of the work.

Ah . . . but Jane Jacobs may have discovered the answer–one I had never heard or considered before.

All readers know the pleasure of discovering a new author, with the prospect not only of the current book in front of you, but of all of their other works. Well, historians get the same thrill as seekers of fiction, and I have to say . . . Jane Jacobs has been too long absent from my life. I am not sure if I agree with her, but that is not the point. The best teachers you have had may not have agreed with you, but pushed you to think, explore, and wonder.

But I have another qualification for a good historian–one cannot be simply a “one thing after another” type of historian. I would say that such people are in fact not historians–however good their research skills–for historians must create meaning. This means that historians must consciously synthesize even if they do not wish to overtly systematize. Jacobs showed in her most famous work (which I have not read) The Life and Death of American Cities that she can pick order out of the seemingly scattered flotsam of different neighborhoods.

One wants to agree with such people, and I find it annoying for the moment that I cannot decide quite what I think about one of her perhaps lesser-known works, Systems of Survival, a book that attempts to unify the entirety of history into two moral systems, or two ways in which civilizations, organizations, or movements, can order themselves. I admire the audacity of the attempt, and I love too that she organizes her thoughts in the form of hypothetical conversations–more books should take this accessible approach.*

Jacobs broadly identifies two “casts of mind” throughout history that derive from these two moral modes of being. The first, the “Guardian,” and the second, the “Commercial.” I think that “Cosmopolitan” fits better (my first minor disagreement with Jacobs), but I will stick with her terms. She has two of her characters demonstrate this with the following conversation:

Guardian: The love of money is the root of all evil.

Commercial: The love of power is the root of all evil.

G: History tells of the dynasties and the fates of nations and empires.

C: History tells us of how social, material, and economic conditions have changed.

G: The most valuable archeological findings are of art, religious artifacts, tombs, of kings, etc.

C: The most valuable artifacts are clues to how people lived everyday life, how they made their living, their tools and materials.

G: War and preparations for war are normal and peace a hiatus from war.

C: No–peace is normal, war is the aberration.

G: Man is a territorial animal.

C: People are city-building animals.

G: Knowledge is a weapon or possibly an adornment

C: Knowledge is a tool.

G: Intelligence gives us insight into others’ way of thinking–we should focus on what divides us.

C: Intelligence means primarily the ability to pick up new skills and good reasoning.  We should focus on what unites us.

G: China is prosperous at our expense.

C: China’s prosperity raises everyone’s standard of living.  Economic gain is not zero-sum.

G: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

C: The state exists for the sake of the people–that’s Locke, Rousseau, Madison–the social contract.

These casts of mind come from what Jacobs describes as two “moral syndromes.” By “syndrome” she simply means that the various parts of the moral system necessarily run together. She calls these the “Commercial” and “Guardian” moralities, and part of the vim and dash of the book is that she commits to the idea that these two “syndromes” are all that have ever existed. The values of each system are . . .

The “Commercial” Syndrome

Shun Force–Come to voluntary agreements

Be honest–collaborate easily with strangers

Compete–but respect contracts and other voluntary agreements

Use initiative and creativity

Be open to new things–change should be embraced

Be thrifty and efficient

Promote comfort and convenience

Dissent is valuable for the sake of the task

Invest for productive and practical results

Be optimistic

The Guardian Moral Syndrome

Shun trading, and exert prowess

Be disciplined and obedient

Value tradition and the ‘old ways’

Respect hierarchy–strive for loyalty

Make rich use of leisure–be ostentatious

Dispense largesse

Group exclusivity strengthens internal identity

Treasure honor

Jacobs has much to say about both, and of course both go right and wrong in different ways. In general, most of the world used to subscribe to a Guardian morality and now certainly the first world at least has shifted to the Commercial syndrome. But the shift has not been absolute, as ancient Babylon and classical Athens strike me as mainly “Commercial” in nature, and even “Guardian” civilizations had Commercial aspects. Cities, and any civilization with a port, generally need to adopt a commercial mentality.

I found myself much taken with her analysis, as it explains a lot of the success and frustrations we have with our predicament. The benefits of the Commercial syndrome seem almost second-nature. Our religious and political freedoms arise from it. The material comforts we enjoy come from the speed of innovation (and its accompanying trampling of tradition) over the last 250 years.** Many of our “freedoms” have also resulted from a variety of moral innovations, especially in the area of sexuality. To point out the obvious, if we like democracy we have to value collaborating with strangers.^

But a second look reveals its weaknesses. A “Commercial” society will never build pyramids or cathedrals–hence the constant critique of the vanilla-tapioca nature of democratic culture. The promotion of comfort will make it hard for us to sacrifice without an extreme need. The combination of valuing comfort and dissent make it hard to act as one with common purpose.

The Guardian Syndrome obviously has its associations with aristocracy and its attendant abuses–be they spiritual (such as pride), moral, (indolence) or otherwise–we see right away. But the Guardian syndrome can also give more civic-mindedness & “noblesse oblige.” Those in a Guardian society know their place and need not fight for it. Most every kind of environmental advocate, for example, uses aspects of the Guardian syndrome, i.e., hedging in and protecting defined spaces, and knows the futility of their approach to a Commercial syndrome society (something that Paul Kingsnorth discovered).

But back to Plato . . .

Jacobs surmises that what Plato might have meant by his condemnation of having more than one job or “calling” strongly correlates to these moral syndromes. When we “mix” these syndromes together we have the possibility of dangerous moral hybrids. A few examples . . .

  • In the 1980’s NYC sought to help fix crime on their subways by injecting the Transit Police (police have a natural Guardian morality) with certain Commercial incentives. The cops got rewards for things like efficiency, i.e., numbers of arrests, and competition (promotions for higher numbers). The result–Transit Police began falsely arresting people least able to fight the charges–the poor–who were mostly minorities.
  • The Nazi’s took certain aspects of the Guardian morality (such as defense of the homeland) and combined them with Commercial science, whose ‘innovation’ had spawned new racial theories, military ideas, and industrial capacity.
  • Marx hated bourgeois Commercial morality. But all of his theories lay rooted in western political categories of thought. One result–A generally Guardian mentality in terms of communal unity, but applied on a scale of universal Commercial ideology. Guardians tend towards being apolitical, but the Soviet Union also united the Guardian aspect of loyalty with Commercial ideological innovation. So–to be on the wrong side of the prevailing ideology=disloyalty to the state.
  • I think that SJW’s make the same moral monster, but start from the other end–the Commercial values of openness, inclusion, and moral innovation combined with the Guardian mentality of rigid loyalty and protection of its own–i.e. “safe spaces.”

Yes, Jacobs also discusses positive moral hybrids, but seems to lean towards Plato’s conclusion that mixing them brings problems more often than solutions.

So far, so good. I found Jacobs’ thoughts stimulating and illuminating. Where I part ways with her comes with her theory of how these two moral syndromes developed. She postulates a material cause for each, with the guardian mentality arising from war, and the commercial from trade. But it is mind that generates matter, so to speak. It is mind that shapes matter. I won’t defend this proposition here, suffice to say, as a Christian I reject a strictly materialist argument for the origins of civilization. But, Jacobs has a point. These moral syndromes have ancient roots–more ancient than she supposes.

For civilizations to work, they must take into account both unity and diversity. Something must bring them together for a society to form at all, yet if this “something” binds them too tightly it will neglect their individuality. This has its roots in Being Itself. God is both Unity (1 God) and Diversity (3 Persons).

Christ, being both God and Man incarnated this duality/tension. He revealed to us both what I will “Open” and “Closed” ways of being. The Open way shows how God shows Himself in Nature (Ps. 19:1) or our fellow man (Mt. 25). Marriage is an icon of Christ and His Church. (Eph. 5). In other words, the Open way encourages us seek Truth in our experience of the world.

But just as often, we are encouraged to take the Closed way. We must gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin (Mt. 5). St. Paul often posits enmity between the world, the flesh, and the Spirit. Christ tells us that we must “hate” even our mother and father for the sake of the Kingdom. The Closed approach urges us to seek the Truth by narrowing, not broadening, our focus and shunning the trappings of this mortal coil that we might see God and God alone.

So–is the Open or Closed way superior? The answer, of course, is ‘Yes.”

I love that the world Jacob’s presents has coherence–two halves, coming together to make a whole. The problem is that, like a donut, it lacks a center. Without this center, Jacobs’ outstanding observations lack any real meaning. But with it . . . well, we have the possibility of real coherence.

And who would complain about having another bite of a donut?

Update . . . if only Jane Jacobs were here to comment on the Blue Angels flyover that happened Saturday (May 2, 2020), she might argue that one’s reaction to the event would pefectly pigenhole a person into one of the two aforementioned moral syndromes–if we keep in mind that heavily symbolic and “ostentatious” nature of the event:

Commercial:

  • This display wasted money that could have been used to so much better practical good
  • This display wasted time and effort.
  • This display foolishly misdirected our attention–encouraging the American public to look at the shiny object, rather than a) the problem itself, or b) the politicians and agency heads responsible for gross mismanagement of the whole pandemic.

Guardian:

  • We live by symbols, and having our most famous and powerful planes flyover gave the nation a powerful symbol of American pride and resolve.
  • These “unnecessary” displays are in fact, absolutely necessary. We are not materialists–we need such acts to lift us out of the mundane of our lives. We need ‘elevated’ out of our current circumstances. We need inspiration as a people if we are to win the “war” against the virus.
  • Leaders act responsibly when they provide these symbols for the people–something to inspire awe and help unify them.

*Another notable fact about Jacobs–she had no college degree and can be therefore classified as an amateur. Toynbee would have rejoiced.

**Though–different writers from different perspectives, such as Tyler Cowen, Ross Douthat, Peter Thiel, and even Jane Jacobs herself (in her last book Dark Age Ahead) have declared that innovation has essentially ceased in western economies.

^This kind of collaboration also seems on the decline, in Congress, in marriages (Republicans don’t marry Democrats, and vice-versa), etc.–and this may herald a decline in democratic practice.

“Therefore,” and “Nevertheless”

Towards the end of the Benedictine office of Lauds there exists a prayer which uses the old King James English which seems like a shock of cold water amidst the pleasant praises of God’s majesty–“and blessed are the paps which gave suck to Christ the Lord.” Such language could put off different people for different reasons, but mostly I think it boils down to a “disturbing” physicality and particularity. High-flown theological language suits us better. A Christian must confess that the second Person of the Trinity became a male human being in all fulness. The Benedicitine office, as other prayers of the Church, puts the focus on “higher” things of majesty and praise, but rightly will not conclude without bringing us back to earth and ourselves, reminding us of this stark truth. Clearly, Christ did nurse at the breasts of the Virgin Mary, and we must decide whether we celebrate this or feel embarrassed and horrified by it.

Many react with such embarrassment to time. Temporality flows inexorably, which makes those moments of glory, grandeur, and insight we experience at once so powerful and frustrating. We long for their return, but they will not come even for the asking. Our society in general seems embarrassed and frustrated by Time (manifested in some respects with bands like Kiss, Judas Priest, and even the Rolling Stones apparently still touring). Some may accept Time in the sense of merely resigning oneself to its power, but while this may be a superior attitude over ignoring or “rebelling” against Time, it too seems to see the physicality of time not as a blessing but as part of what we must endure in our going hence.

William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo: Dimensions of the Literary Imagination examines the question of physicality and particularity in theology and literature. I lack the depth and breadth of reading needed to truly benefit from this book, but the applications of his insights go beyond the literary and into life and redemption itself. Lynch keeps focus on his crucial question: Does God accomplish His purposes through the finite, or in spite of it? Authors, “regular people,” and civilizations face the temptation to either ignore or despise creation, thereby failing to see through it and discern the patterns of grace. Lynch diagrams this basic idea like so,

with the diagram on the left as the proper path. Heraclitus may have had the same intuition, stating that, “the way up and the way down are one in the same.” Tension has always existed in Christian thought between 1) Moving down “the mountain” as moving away from God (a pattern present from the Garden of Eden, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Tabor, etc.), and seeing that movement as a kind of death, and 2) Recognition that we have no other option other than to take this passage down into death to return to God whole, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it,” and “unless a seed falleth into the earth and die, it bears no fruit.”* Escape from this tension provides only an illusion of freedom, and in fact produces a kind of slavery to a fear of things, and even of ourselves. Our glimpse into the infinite comes only through the finite.** Dante’s grand cosmological vision would not have been complete without tethering it to 14th century Florence. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky knows that Aloysha’s great mystical visions can only come through his engagement with his wretchedly dysfunctional family.

But many modern authors cannot embrace this paradoxical pattern. Lynch examines a few different metaphysical categories to demonstrate the paradox. For Proust, time is man’s greatest enemy. The cubist painter can not accept the finite image–instead they must represent all of the possible angles of vision of the minding a futile attempt to see only the abstract. Lynch writes,

Perhaps the most ambitious, most brilliant, and most sophisticated vendetta launched against time was that of Descartes, who first put forward the notion of a pure intelligence within us not subject to time. . . . when that ambition takes the form of a desire to wipe out the succession and the partial quantities of time, and to live in an isolated area of the personality where the temporal has no meaning or power, then a grave folly has been committed. . . . The “man in the street” knows what the intellectual does not: that true reality is contained within the dramatic temporal life of the body. The peasant knows he will be healed not only by doctors but also by time. [He knows that time] is as much a part of him as his own skin, out of which he cannot leap.

Christ and Apollo, p. 50, 53

Christ exemplifies this true approach to time as a positive good: He refuses to cling to childhood (Lk 2:41-52), He refuses the easy path to glory (Mt. 4), and allows His death to come to Him “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).

Different literary genres can make the same mistake of rejecting creation. In tragedy, Lynch cites the modern tendency that “exaltation must come from exaltation, and that infinites must come out of infinites.” This path leads to two consequences:

  1. The idea that the achievement of great tragedy has its roots in the mystical conquest of the “human spirit” against pain–the tragic figure as exalted conqueror, which
  2. In fact makes the writing of tragedy more difficult, not easier, because it seems that tragedy, like death, doesn’t really exist.

Comedies too can make the same error. Comedy (in the modern sense of “what makes us laugh”) often deals with the breakdown of order and expectations–all well and good. But if we ask ourselves why A Midsummer Night’s Dream still gets staged four centuries after its debut, we need look no further than that “the play, [even] in its wildest fantasy [in Act 5], is only dealing with Snug the joiner and Bottom the weaver.” T.S. Eliot commented that, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” “I am not so sure of that,” Lynch writes, “The bigger truth is that they cannot stand very much unreality.”

Perhaps part of the problem lies in that great literary minds can see their idea so clearly that the idea burns away all around it if they fail to take care. Here then, lies Lynch’s “Univocal Man:”

He is, emotionally, full of extraordinary energies–in fact, a kind of energy seems to mark the whole of his character. He has a genius for a unilateral passion, and is, and therefore always has been–a passionate center of good and bad in civilization. . . . Superficially, then, he resembles the religious genius. . . . It is only by exercising great caution that we will avoid this profound mistake and will refrain from giving this character the veneration that is not his due. . . . The univocal man has no respect for reality; he is contemptuous of it, or distorts it, or flattens it–or he refuses to take responsibility in the face of it. . . . The univocal man is not free. He is rigid, unbending, fixed. One can understand the fixity of the idea of logic and essences, but his fixed ideas are born of a fixity of all the forces of his personality and a refusal to remain open to existence. . . . To put the matter simply, these would reject all the unities and relations projected by any sentence, for example, “The horse is white,” for a horse is a horse, and white is white, and that is the end of the discussion.

pp. 141, 144, 147

We might say that the Univocal man has too much “purity” in him. He cannot or will not mix his idea with the stuff of reality. That this should happen to a literary type is no surprise. In general they write because they are gripped by an idea or image.^ The one who mixes things up too much would likely never have the clarity or organization to get anything down on paper to begin with. Lynch shows us Eugene O’Neil, who wants us to be sad, and so gives us Sadness in Mourning Becomes Electra, with her mansion as her prison. Or, even more absurdly, he gives us Laughter in Lazarus Laughed, with this ridiculous passage where Lazarus speaks to Caligula,

You are proud of being evil! What if there is no evil? Believe in the Healthy God called Man within you! . . . Believe! What if you are a man and man is despicable? Men are also unimportant! Men pass! Like rain into the sea! The sea remains! Man remains! . . . For Man death is not! Man, Son of God’s laughter, is! . . . Believe in the laughing God within you!

Alas, too many exclamation points. O’Neill wants rapture but he attempts to achieve it by rebounding off of creation and denying it altogether. Only a fool would say that “death is not.”

With a denial of creation will come an absence of transcendence, purchased at the price of avoiding all mess. George Bernard Shaw claimed a sort of spiritualism but could not stand religion actually practiced, writing,

In Italy, for instance, churches are used in such a way that priceless pictures become smeared with filthy tallow-soot, and have to be rescued by the temporal power and placed in national galleries. But worse than this are the innumerable daily services which disturb the truly religious visitor. If these were decently and intelligently conducted by genuine mystics to whom the mass were no mere rite or miracle, but genuine communion, the celebrants might reasonably claim a place in the church as their share of the common right to its use. But the average Italian priest, personally unclean and with a chronic catarrh in his nose from living in frowsy, ill-ventilated rooms, punctuating his gabbled Latin only by expectorate hawking . . . this unseemly wretch should be seized and put out . . . until he learns to behave himself.

Whatever communion Shaw desires, it would have to include rite, miracle, and perhaps even the dirty priest, for it to happen at all. But for Shaw, such things are too messy and not “spiritual” enough. We should not suppose that he would enter in absent the dirty priest, either–something physical would always bar his way. It is much easier to comment online, or even to read books.

We in our day have the bigger and smaller problem of not even being able to enter into politics. The problem is smaller in that religion is more important than politics, but bigger in that we cannot hope to solve big questions if we cannot solve smaller ones. Too many on the right and left want nothing to do with mixing their ideas in the mess of politics. Some want a Caesar from above to wave a magic wand, some want the “innocent” people to rise up from below to abolish the Bill of Rights. Neither will achieve anything like an ordered communion, for neither wants to find the path to grace through creation. They do have their dreams. These dreams will have to content them, for they can know nothing of sorrow or joy.

Dave

*Perhaps this might explain in part Christ’s sometime reluctance to work miracles. Miracles, could, hypothetically, interrupt the U-shaped pattern and hinder us on our journey back to God.

**If we learn to see this pattern and interpret the Scriptures more analogically and less in a directly moral fashion, many things make themselves more clear. For example, we should honor the elderly not simply because of their wisdom–for some have none of it–but because they are closer to death, and thus also closer to glory. So too, this explains why the Church has always warned less against the “earthly,” “physical” sins of gluttony, too many women, etc., than the “spiritual” sins of pride. Many have gone down the path of fleshly indulgence and found the place where it turns upwards to God. But no path to God exists through pride. Of course, it is best still not to dabble in either.

**The literary, educated types–one always has to watch out for them . . .

Chaos Theory

In the wake of 9/11 Patrick Deneen wrote an essay entitled “Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World made Strange,” in which he lamented the dichotomy he saw in public opinion. On the one hand, you had an entirely uncritical belief among many of the righteousness of the United States. Politicians needed to wear a small flag on their jacket lapels, (couldn’t happen now), and waved through sweeping legislation (the “Patriot Act”) that dramatically increased the surveillance powers of the government. On the other . . . you had many in academia, perhaps especially among our elite institutions, that could barely contain their smugness with pronouncements that America had gotten what it deserved for its overbearing foreign policy. Deneen published this essay in early 2002, and this split would only grow in run-up to the Iraq War. Remember “America Fries?”

Two seems to be a natural number for democracies to fall into, and perhaps somewhat natural in general for any society. We have night and day, sun and moon, major and minor keys, and so on. But “two” has always been something of a dangerous number, symbolically speaking. The either/or paths “2” creates bring inevitable division among extremes. Still, if we think of myths and creation accounts as, among other things, poetic interpretations of the world, we note that “2,” while obviously prevalent in creation, does not have the final say.

Between day and night, and night and day, lies twilight and dawn, the grey area linking them both. We have Adam and Eve, but they are supposed to “be fruitful and multiply,” i.e., not stay just the two of them. We have six days of creation and the seventh day–a breathing space of sorts within the normal cycle of the week. In Revelation the Apostle John is told to measure the inner court of the temple of God, but to leave the outer court unmeasured (Rev. 11:1-2), i.e., we need to loosen our intellectual hold on at least parts of reality. St. John’s gives us grand cosmic visions, but the Old Testament has this need for an unmeasured, in-between space, displayed even in the most prosaic of ways. The Israelites had to leave the fringe of their fields unharvested, and to leave the edges of their garments loose (Duet. 24, Num. 15).

It is on this fringe, the in-between spaces, where fruitful interaction and new creation can happen.

Certainly Deneen’s essay has resonance with us today. But he did not seek merely to lament the situation that existed in 2002, nor do I seek only to bemoan 2020. Rather, Deneen pointed to the classical world for a possible solution to the dilemma of “2”–the Greek vocation of the “theorist.”

One form of education seeks to construct by rote a particular view of the world. In regard to our own history some proclaim that the founders were all wise and good men–and only wise and good–our wars are always just, etc. Without cultivating any possibility of error, no repentance can happen and growth a forlorn hope. Such infants can never eat meat. As Aristotle noted, the perfect citizen would rarely be a good man. He could never grow into virtue.

The other education aims only at deconstruction–our founders were all misogynists, slave owners, etc. Of course this deconstruction supposes the need to construct something else in its place. Nothing can exist based on a universal negative. But often, having despised their birthright, deconstructionists have no idea what or where to build, and can feed only on dreams, or worse–themselves, and thereby “starve for feeding”(Coriolanus, Act 4.2). We need another approach.

Enter “one who sees,” which is a translation from the Greek word “theorist.” Certain elected officials within most classical Greek city-states had the title of “theoroi.” To quote Deneen,

To “theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey to visit the “other,” to “see” events such as religious or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city to give an account . . . the theorist would then attempt to comprehend, assess, compare, and then, in the idiom of his own city, explain what he had seen. The encounter would inevitably raise questions about the customs and practices of the theorists own city. . . . Might their be a best way of organizing the city that is not our way?

. . . The activity of “seeing” other ways of foreign life comprised half of the theorist’s duty. The other half . . . was the “giving an account” of what the theorist had seen. A “theorist” would betray his office if he were, so to speak, “go native” while abroad. . . . Even if a theorist were persuaded that that foreign practices were superior to those of his own city, the primacy of the theorist’s allegiance to his own city demanded careful and prudent explanation . . .

The “theorist” then, was not chosen only for his ability to “see” and apprehend with sensitivity the new and unusual but equally for the abiding customs of his own way of life. . . . it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to renewed devotion to those practices . . . or to subtle questioning of dubious customs . . .

Conserving America: Essays on Present Discontents, pp. 18-20

It is through this lens that Deneen suggests we should see Socrates. He self-consciously went on a “sacred journey” of philosophy and saw himself as a “gadfly” to Athens, but also someone who would never consider disobedience to the laws of his city.*

Deneen examines Rene Descartes as possibly the first example of a modern “theorist.” As a French Catholic fighting other Catholics in the brutal 30 Years War, Descartes had a unique opportunity for serious soul-searching. As Deneen points out, however, he operated purely with his mind and imagination, and not with his heart. He “begins with radical suspicion of all that preceded him in act or thought, and especially all that is the result of the common endeavors of a community or people” (23). Descartes prefers to think by himself in a foreign land, but cares not even for the foreign locale. Time and place matter not to him. “A thinker like Descartes would be content to think anywhere on earth” (24). Descartes loved to sit in bed and think–all well and good. But what person, or place, or custom, did he love?

The abstract method Descartes employed led him to question everything . . . except himself (“I think, therefore, I am”). The mind, powered by egotism and unfettered from the body, became a weapon to remake nations and nature itself for civilizations that followed his wake. But to be free from one’s time and place is also to be estranged from it. We tend to lash out at strangers, even if the stranger is our very selves.

Those younger than me may groan at this assertion–but a line runs straight from Descartes’ abstractions to the internet and social media-the “cloud.” The internet has perfected the art of taking you away from where you reside and placing you nowhere in particular. I suppose with very simple and direct messages, social media works well, i.e., “Look, my son graduated from high school,” or, “I love my new haircut.” But anything involving complexity requires context, and context requires “full body” communication–not just the mind. Misunderstandings become almost the norm if we ignore this, which brings chaos. Our connections to one another disappear. To compensate for the interpersonal gap (which we perhaps feel but may not be fully aware of), we use manipulation as a method to bridge the chasm. Christians are guilty of this just as others are, i.e., “Jesus is the Light of the World–If you love God you will share with all your Friends!” Marshall McLuhan was right–the medium often dictates the message.

In difficult times we face two temptations. One is to bury our vision into the dark and tangled soil. There we meet the demons of blood and earth. The early 20th century saw this nightmare made real. The other involves a flight into escapist utopian fantasy with our heads in the sky. Devils lay there as well (i.e. the “prince of the powers of the air”–Eph. 2:2**). Both soil and clouds exist for a reason, however. Both have their place. We need to see what lies below and above at the same time, with Christ in the center, holding all things together.

*We can note that in The Republic he places his ideal, or perhaps, imaginary, city outside of Athens (I tend to think of The Republic as a thought experiment and not a description of Plato’s “real” beliefs–others disagree). Deneen also notes that the great Athenian dramatists played the role of “theorists,” and they, like Plato, often set their events outside of Athens.

**Perhaps we should think of Paul’s words in a strictly spatial manner, but I am fairly sure that we should interpret his words metaphorically (the two are not mutually exclusive–both meanings are in play). That is, the “air” shifts to and fro–it has no boundaries, no direction–its shiftiness resembles the snake, who speaks with a forked tongue, etc.

The Metal Mountain

I am guessing that many of you have seen this video from Boston Dynamics:

Most of the comments either say that this is the greatest or worst thing ever. I asked a science teacher friend of mine for his reaction. He said, “Really cool and impressive, but . . . also terrifying.” I had a similar, but flipped, reaction. I find the video viscerally horrible, and I had the strong urge to reach through the screen and smash the robots with baseball bats. But I have to admit–it is pretty cool.

“Both-And” trumps “Either-Or” in this instance, and so far my friend and I agree. But we can’t both be right in our emphasis.

In the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch*, an apocalyptic text associated with Second Temple Judaism, we read of a “metal mountain” in chapter 52.

And after those days, in that place where I had seen all the visions of that which is secret, for I had been carried off by a whirlwind, and they had brought me to the west. There my eyes saw the secrets of Heaven; everything that will occur on Earth: a mountain of iron, and a mountain of copper, and a mountain of silver, and a mountain of gold, and a mountain of soft metal, and a mountain of lead.

And I asked the Angel who went with me, saying: “What are these things which I have seen in secret?”

And he said to me: “All these things which you have seen serve the authority of His Messiah, so that he may be strong and powerful on the Earth.” And that Angel of Peace answered me, saying: “Wait a little and you will see, and everything which is secret, which the Lord of Spirits has established, will be revealed to you.

And these mountains, that you have seen; the mountain of iron, and the mountain of copper, and the mountain of silver, and the mountain of gold, and the mountain of soft metal, and the mountain of lead. All these in front of the Chosen One will be like wax before fire, and like the water that comes down from above onto these mountains they will be weak under his feet. And it will come to pass in those days, that neither by gold, nor by silver, will men save themselves; they will be unable to save themselves, or to flee.

And there will be neither iron for war nor material for a breastplate; bronze will be no use, and tin will be of no use and will count for nothing, and lead will not be wanted. All these will be wiped out and destroyed from the face of the earth when the Chosen One appears in front of the Lord of Spirits.”

I am no scholar of such literature, but I believe a connection exists with the meaning of robots for us now and our current political situation–why both are full of wonder and terror all at once.

I begin my case in what seem will think a strange place . . .

We all remember the excitement of dating our spouse, or even dating in general. At the root of this excitement lies the mystery of possibility. A dating relationship has a great deal of “potential energy,” to use a scientific term. But we must convert this potential into actual energy, or the “potential” is dead and meaningless. We see the same relationship with money. If I receive an Amazon gift card, it is always fun browsing and imagining what I might purchase. Sometimes the actual purchase fails to live up to the fun of ‘window shopping.’ But if I never actually converted potential reality (the gift card) into lived reality (the book I would read), then the gift card is “dead,” lacking any purpose or telos.**

It is no coincidence that money–which represents a multiplicity of possible reality, traditionally comes from the earth in the form of precious metals. We can see the “mountain of metal” in Enoch symbolically as a mass of possibility attempting to reach up to heaven, akin to the Tower of Babel.

Whatever status we accord the Book of Enoch, this interpretation should not surprise anyone reading the early chapters of Genesis. Here we see that it is Cain and his descendants that cultivate the earth for its potential. They develop the earth for tools, cities, and weapons. This technological development leads to violence and disaster, the unleashed chaos of the Flood. When we understand that the paradise was located on a mountain (cf. Ez. 28), we understand the Fall as a coming down from “heaven” to “earth,” a physical as well as spiritual descent.^ After murdering his brother, Cain descends further into the earth in the development of various technologies. He becomes enamored with potentiality, and his descendants develop it for violent ends. We usually see new technologies creating disruption. While it might be a chicken-egg situation, I think the pattern in Genesis points to

  • First, chaos, then
  • Technological development

Might the 1960’s show forth this pattern? We had large scale social upheaval starting around 1959, then the space-race/moon landing.

The metal mountain–a mountain full of “dead” metal, can also be contrasted with the paradisal mountain bursting with life in Gen. 1-2. No one expects to see a mountain lush with life, but this is the kind of paradox that suffuses the Christian faith. Perhaps the metal mountain can be seen as a kind of anti-paradise. Most every culture has some kind of sacred mountain, as mountains represent a union of heaven and earth.^ The metal mountain, then, would represent a bastardization of this reality, an “earth only” mountain.

This is not to say that all cities, shovels, trumpets, and swords are evil in themselves, any more than the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was evil. But Adam and Eve were not ready for such a gift, not ready for the power such knowledge would convey. Acquiring this knowledge before its appointed time severed them from God, each other, and themselves. The theme of dangerous and thus forbidden knowledge has a reflection in other mythologies, most familiarly for us in the story of Prometheus who brought the tools of civilization to humanity.

So, yes, I fear the robots, not because they are evil but because I don’t think we can possibly handle such things rightly in our current moment. But I must acknowledge the romance of the “potential” the robots convey, just as I love to receive Amazon gift cards.

We can understand our current political situation with the same symbolic framework.

There are those on both the right and the left that want nothing to do with the mundane realities of “married” political life. Some on the left looted Portland for weeks, and others occupied Seattle. Some on the right did something similar with the Capitol. Both sides have elements within them that want to transcend politics, that want a divorce from the constitutional order. They are enamored with the possibilities of a brand-new trophy wife. Those on the left envision a utopia of equality from below. Those on the right envision a strong Caesar from above to lead them to glory and defend them from all evil. Both imagine a perfect marriage to Brad Pitt or Emma Stone is theirs for the taking. Again–we cannot deny the intoxicating nature of “potential.” Gold has always exercised this spell.

Many have remarked how social media, which exponentially increases the potential power of language, has exacerbated this problem. This makes perfect sense when we see language as the manifestation of potential from the earth, much like gold or silver coins.

In his The Language of Creation Matthieu Pageau develops this idea convincingly, and what follows here merely seeks to condense his description. If we think of letters as random marks condensed into form, we can see that this process of incarnating ideas in language essentially boils down to turning potential into reality, the same as turning a hunk of iron into a sword. First, the basic union of Heaven and Earth pattern illustrated by Pageau as developed in Scripture:

We should note well that “symbol” here means not an ephemeral representation of something real, but instead an embodiment of meaning, something more real than a mere fact.

Forgive the crude nature of the drawing below which attempts to illustrate the principle as it applies to language (also stolen from Pageau):

The internet adds even more potential to the reach of the human mind, and it is both terrifying and glorious.

The current political climate mostly reflects this terrifying aspect of the internet. Imagine our body politic as the guy in a marriage who constantly gets different women paraded before him, an endless array of options and perspectives. He might eventually grow tired of his wife, with so much intriguing “potential” before his eyes. Many elites and institutions have lost trust, and this accelerates the problem. But these untested political realities are the elusive fantasy girlfriend that you never have to live real life with.

Exposing ourselves to robots during such a chaotic time (in fact such things are more likely to appear during chaotic times–just like Cain’s tool-making was directly preceded by his wandering) may greatly exacerbate the “meaning crisis.” We should not storm the Capitol, ransack Portland, or mess around with dancing robots.

But . . . as much as we should hedge and protect our current political symbols and institutions, our political life is akin to, but not the same as, our sacramental married life. The unformed potential is not evil, but how we use it might be. No good can come to a husband witnessing a parade of super-models, but our political life needs more “give” than a marriage to stay fresh and alert. A political system needs to occasionally integrate new ideas. But the only thing one can do during a flood is batten down the hatches. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube–who can doubt they bring a “flood” of “biblical proportions?”

As usual, Genesis gives us the pattern from which to operate. We have the paradisal mountain with four rivers flowing through it. The mountain encases the dynamism of the rivers–“change” safely residing within solidity. Without this solidity, even small challenges to existing order will pose an existential threat. Maybe conservatives will have to tone down market dynamism. Maybe liberals will have de-escalate the speed of social change. Maybe that works, but we’ll need to turn our keys at the same time.

Dave

*The Book of Enoch is not regarded as canonical Scripture for any Christian group except the Ethiopian Orthodox. But, it was a book held in great respect by the early Church. The Apostle Jude quotes it in his epistle. We may say that it was part of the vernacular, perhaps, of the early Christians.

**It is in translating the “potential” into reality that determines a good or bad marriage. The husband/wife run the risk of things growing “dead” through the lack of potential. This can lead to affairs, or more benignly to the buying of sports cars. This is one reason (among others) why couples should have children–to have new “potential” come into reality. After a couple completes the child-rearing stage, which for many can last into their 50’s, they enter a new transformative phase of “death to glory.” The couple can no longer generate new “potential life,” and their hair grows gray. But even their gray hair manifests glory–“white light” streaming from their heads.

^The importance of mountains becomes obvious in Scripture once we get clued into this pattern, i.e., Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, Mt. Carmel, Mt. Tabor, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ crucified on the ‘Hill of the Skull,’ and so on.

Telegraph, the Change

When you teach the same classes year after year as I have, one starts to realize that what seems like great material one year seems to fall flat in another. Many reasons exist for this, some of them obvious, such as whether or not you taught the lesson on a Tuesday or a Friday, or at the beginning or the end of the day. Sometimes more mysterious factors present themselves, such as whether or not you have a critical mass of students interested in the topic.

Thankfully, some things work even if you teach it last period on the day before Christmas vacation, such as Assyrian tortures with 8th grade boys, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates. I am always impressed how students, with very little context or introduction, immediately pick up that “somethin’ ain’t right” with Nixon–setting aside the infamous sweat on his lower lip.

What Nixon gets wrong has nothing to do with what he says. Students note, too, that the debate, while it suffers somewhat from the medium of television, has some actual substance to it from both candidates. The problem lies deeper, in the “atmosphere” around Nixon.

At times I think that Marshal McCluhan, for all his brilliance, sees everything as a nail, armed as he is with his significant insight into how the “medium is the message.” But his comments about this seminal debate in 1960 led me to following him down a rabbit hole of sorts, and wondering if our current cultural angst has its roots in transformation of our media landscape.

In a famous interview McCluhan describes the differences between what he calls “hot” and “cool” mediums, saying,

Basically, a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes. Hot media are high in completion, and low in audience participation. Cool media are high in participation. A Hot medium extends a single sense with high definition . . . A photography for example, is “hot” whereas a rough sketch cartoon is “cool.” Radio is a hot medium because it sharply and intensely provides a great amount of high definition auditory information that leaves little or nothing to be filled in by the audience. A lecture is hot, a seminar is cool.

He continues by suggesting that television is not even a strictly visual medium. Its low definition (here we must remember that McCluhan is speaking around 1968. He might think differently about today’s “high definition” tv’s) means that we the audience have to be “drawn in.” Those who come across “hot” rather than “cool” will put off their audience. He continues

Kennedy was the first tv president . . . . TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to tv. [Without this] any candidate will electrocute himself on television–as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy. Nixon was essentially hot, he presents a high-definition, sharply defined image . . . that contributed to his reputation as a phony. . . . He didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

McCluhan’s analysis explains why those who listened to the debate on the radio gave the edge to Nixon. It has nothing per se to do with the content of their messages, but the medium itself.* Nixon’s earnest and direct manner worked much better on radio. McCluhan makes clear in the interview that the process of our interaction with this new media would transform western society–a society built upon the printing press.

I think McCluhan overstates his case a bit, but his analysis of media and culture have a great deal of explanatory power. I will try to present him as best as I can, starting with a long excerpt from the interview (slightly edited for clarity by myself–the ‘M’ is McCluhan):


M: Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of literate man.  Another basic characteristic of [pre-modern] man is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of space-time relationships.

Q: Was phonetic literacy alone responsible for this shift in values from tribal ‘involvement’ to civilized detachment?

M: Yes.  Any culture is an order of sensory preferences, and in the tribal world, the senses of touch, taste, smell, and hearing were more developed.  Into this world, the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell . . . literacy put the eye above all else.  Linear, visual values replaced an integral communal interplay.  The writing of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Mayan were an extension of multiple senses–they gave pictorial expression to reality and used many signs to cover a wide range of data.  The achievement of phonics demands the separation of both sight and sound from their semantic and dramatic meanings in order to render speech visually.  

As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialities, creating divisions of function, classes, nations.   The rich interplay of the senses is sacrificed.

Q: But aren’t their corresponding gains in insight to compensate for the loss of tribal values?

M: Literacy . . . creates people who are less complex and diverse.  . . . But he is also given a tremendous advantage over non-literate man, who is hamstrung by cultural pluralism–values that make the African as easy a prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans.  Only alphabetic cultures ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social organization. 

Q: Isn’t the thrust of your argument then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, but a psychic and social disaster?

M: It was both.  . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragons teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men. The age of print, which held sway from 1500-1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media, and further obsequies were registered by the perception of curved space and non-Euclidean mathematics in the early years of the century, which revived [pre-modern] man’s discontinuous space-time concepts–and which even Spengler dimly perceived as the death-knell of Western literate values.  The development of tv, film, and the computer have driven further nails into the coffin.  It is tv that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology.  

Q: But isn’t TV primarily a visual medium?

M: No, quite the opposite.  . . . The TV image is a mosaic mesh not only of horizontal lines but of millions of tiny dots, of which the viewer is only able to pick out 50 or 60 from which he shapes the image; thus he is constantly bringing himself into involvement with the screen and acting out a creative dialog with the iconoscope, which tattoos its message directly onto our skins.  Each viewer is thus an unconscious pointilist painter, like Seurat.  

Q: How is tv reshaping our political institutions? 

 
M: For one thing, it is creating an entirely new type of national leader, a man who is much more a tribal chieftain than a politician. 

In his The Medium is the Message McCluhan quotes a poem of Yeats,

Locke sank into a swoon;

The garden died;

God took the spinning jenny

Out of his side

McCluhan sees the man’s interaction with media thusly:

  • Pre-literate man was essentially oral. He lived in an sensory integrated world, and an “immediate” world. He lived in a world he could cohere into a totality of experience. His sense of space-time, how he got his information, etc. came within an embodied context.
  • True–a few unusual people might have been merchants who traveled a lot, whose sense of time and space might have been somewhat different, but these people were rare, on the fringe of society.
  • The printing press both mechanized information and intensified how we received it, “assuring the eye a position of total dominance in man’s sensorium. . . . The schism between thought and action was institutionalized, and fragmented man, first sundered by the alphabet, was at last diced into bite-sized tidbits.”

Commenting on the poem above, McCluhan writes, “Yeats presents Locke, the philosopher of linear and mechanical association, as hypnotized by his own image, but the “garden” of unified consciousness had ended.”

“Literate Man,” as McCluhan names western man from 1500-1900, valued highly the detachment cultivated by textual interaction. Indeed–we have to detach ourselves to a degree to read at all. We see the values of literate man producing “detached” scientific exploration and experimentation, promoting distance, toleration, and a political transformation away from the directly personal monarchies to impersonal democratic republics. Perhaps we can say that such values peaked in the late 18th century. We begin to see with 19th century Romanticism a yearning for a more holistic way of life. McCluhan’s focus stays on media, with

  • The invention of the telegraph for McCluhan was the beginning of the end of “Literate Man,” a point he admits to borrowing from the enigmatic Oswald Spengler. The telegraph both began the process of altering our perception of time and space, and made information more direct and immediate, a feature of pre-literate experience.
  • The radio followed suit quickly, then tv, etc. We saw cultural conflict and disintegration in the 1960’s because television accelerated the process of a cultural transference away from literate man. Our educational system offered all of the values of literate man, a complete mismatch with the desire for holistic integration our interaction with modern media produces.**
  • Had McCluhan lived to see the internet (some say he clearly predicted it), he would likely say that such instantly available means of breaking down time and space might very well put the nails in the coffin of Literate Man and cause a deep cultural division. Indeed, McCluhan’s analysis can shed light on the division between Gen X–the last generation not raised with the internet–and Millennials, etc. Many under 30 today care little for the Literate Man values that helped found our country, i.e., rational debate, give and take, etc. They want a more integrated communal experience.^

Our current political struggle, then, pits not Republicans against Democrats–who knows what it means to be a Republican or Democrat anyway now?–but against literate/printing press man values of privacy, debate, and individualism vs. the tribal/internet man values of community and integrated life. We see this conflict running through different aspects of our society, such as in journalism. The old journalistic ethic taught that the reporter should cultivate distance and a degree of objectivity. The new school of reporting seeks engagement, communal change, etc.

McCluhan admitted that early in his career he saw the decline of “Literate Man” as a moral catastrophe, but by the late 1960’s he committed himself to trying to observe (ironically, perhaps, a quintessential Literate Man pose) and not attach value judgments to his preferences. But with an additional 50 years of perspective on the influence of new media, I think we should venture some conclusions about its impact.

I agree that no absolute moral difference exists between Printing Press Man and Integrated/Tribal Man. McCluhan’s focus on the telegraph makes one realize that the technological/cultural changes many of us think are 15-20 years in the making are really 150 years old. McCluhan points out rightly that the advent of the printing press, industrialization, etc. into traditional societies was at least in part “a psychic and social disaster.” But he put less attention on the switch back the other way–it too will be experienced as a “disaster” by Literate Man for society to go back to Integrated Man.

I agree too that something mysterious exists with our relationship to media, which includes not just radio and the internet, but all of the ways in which we seek to extend our being, including our clothes. A meshing of man and media leads to a switch in perception and how we act. For example, our reaction to COVID had just as much to do with the media we use as it did with the disease itself. I am not saying that COVID is just the flu, but it is not the Black Plague either. Without online shopping, Zoom, etc. we would never have taken the measures we did with COVID. Some will say, “Thank goodness we had Zoom so we did not have to go into work, and more lives were saved.” Others, like myself, see something not so much sinister as deeply skewed. The media we use focuses our attention, and our view of the world is “made” from where we direct our attention. COVID and the internet worked symbiotically to form our decisions.

McCluhan rightly points out the many advantages of pre-modern societies. He saw us recapturing some of those values as our media landscape transformed. I wouldn’t mind a return of some pre-modern values. But contrary to McCluhan (if I understand him rightly), we don’t see these values returning. Or rather, we see them returning, but in a distorted way. No question, visiting a waterfall would be an “integrative” experience–sight, smell, touch, etc.–in ways that seeing the waterfall online would not. The continual availability of a fragmented online experience has not given us a holistic society but one where, according to some accounts, one in four young adults take some form of anti-depressant. McCluhan might say that this is exactly what we should expect when we ask kids to spend 7 hours a day in a detached, “Literate” environment when the media they use calls them to an entirely different way of life. I would perhaps argue that what we see now is a combination of

  • Literate Man reaching the end of its days
  • No good Integrated Man alternative available.

One can argue that there was an “Anti-Nature” strand in the history of Literate Man, with its extreme focus on linear thought and the eye. But so far, the new Integrated Man all in all shows no signs of actually wanting to create a holistic society. For example,

  • Many of the same environmentalists who want us to be closer to nature also tell us not to have children. But few other things are more “natural” than men and women getting married and having children. How can one speak of integration of our experience while excluding humanity from that experience?
  • Many advocates of an extreme individual fluidty/”rights” with their bodies (abortion, sexual differences, etc.) also are quite rigid about certain other areas around race, speech, etc.

Most all of us use the internet not as a tool of integration but escape. Television, in some ways at least, brought people together, i.e., we all watched “I Love Lucy,” “The Cosby Show,” and the Super Bowl.

Richard Rohlin noted that one can define conservatism simply as love of one’s parents. By that he meant our biological parents, but also our spiritual fathers, our culture, our past. We need not believe that our parents are perfect, or even particularly “good.” We love ourselves and hopefully know that we have deep flaws that need work, but we cannot build or change anything by starting with a void, a negative. America’s problem, as it relates to McCluhan, can be boiled down to

  • Conservatives should embrace tradition, but American “Conservatives” hearken back to a tradition of individually oriented, linear, and “cool” world. This is perhaps one reason why appeals to the past in American politics never quite seem to work, and only seem to further individualism.
  • Modern progressives seem to seek a more communal and holistic vision of society, which has the earmarks of “Tradition.” However, progressives tend to reject the past outright as evil. They seek the impossibility of a traditional society constructed out of revolutionary ideology.

If neither vision can succeed, then our solution has to lie beyond adaptation or understanding of our new media. McCluhan shows us where we are better than most, but he can’t say where we need to go.

Dave

*McCluhan commented about Lyndon Johnson in a spot-on analysis . . . “[Johnson] botched [tv] in the same way that Nixon did in 1960. He was too intense, too obsessed with making his audience love and revere him as father and teacher. Johnson became a stereotype–even a parody–of himself, and earned the same reputation as a phony that plagued Nixon for so long. The people wouldn’t have cared about Kennedy lying to them on tv, but they couldn’t stomach Johnson even when he told them the truth.”

He also noted how Nixon rehabilitated his image by changing his tv demeanor, starting with his appearance on the Jack Parr show in 1963. “In the recent [1968] election,” he comments, “it was Nixon who was cool and Humphrey who was hot.” Correctly, he noticed in 1968 that this was a mask for Nixon. His presidency would prove this the case. If there is anything one can say about Nixon–he was not someone who “invited people in.”

**We see the maddening apotheosis of literate man in the form of the ultra-scholar who only seeks to point out facts, and never wants to commit to a conclusion, never wants to integrate his knowledge into anything cohesive or final. As for McCluhan’s point about “immediacy” and “participation,” think of the impact of television on the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Everyone could see the images, the marches, and participate to a degree in the “cultural moment.”

^Note the stereotype of the detached, unengaged Gen X’er, with slacker anti-heroes, i.e., The Breakfast Club and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, etc. — very different movies, but with the same overall theme. Today’s heroes tend to be about “family”–think Amazon’s series The Expanse and the Fast and Furious franchise.

Inventing Vietnam

Like most Americans, I root against the New England Patriots.  It is nothing personal, but Americans root for the underdog, and the Patriots have been so successful they are never the underdog.  And yet, I can’t help but admire the brilliance of Bill Belichek.

He confirmed my admiration during a particular playoff game against the Steelers many years. ago.  The Patriots held a slim lead early in the game but the Steelers had a built a nice drive.  They resided just out of field goal range and faced a 4th and 1 somewhere around the Patriots 40 yard line.  The Steelers decided to go for it, and their home crowd cheered.

At this time the Steelers built their identity around a “smash-mouth” style of play and relied heavily on running back Jerome Bettis.  Everyone knew the Steelers would want to run the ball.  The Patriots of course also knew this.  They stacked the line of scrimmage and their defense sold out on the run.  I don’t recall if they had any safeties behind the line of scrimmage.  Their defensive formation triple-dog-dared Pittsburgh to pass.

I remember yelling at the TV for Pittsburgh to call a timeout.  They were obviously going to run, but if they had just flared out a tight-end it could have gone for a touchdown.  But Pittsburgh went ahead and ran the ball anyway.  And of course New England, having every single player right at the line of scrimmage, stopped it easily.  After taking over on downs Brady promptly completed a long pass for a touchdown and broke the will of the Steelers.

Game over.  In the first quarter.

I thought to myself, “How did Belichek know Pittsburgh would run?”  Of course he didn’t really know, but his defense said to me that he knew.  What Belichek, knew, I think, is that under stress, we revert to our comfort foods.  We can’t help it.  In a regular season game, with stress levels lower, maybe Pittsburgh calls a different play.  But in the playoffs?  He knew they would stress-eat the Ritz crackers and run Jerome Bettis over left-tackle even when a voice inside them probably told them to eat carrot sticks instead.  They couldn’t help it.

Civilizations contain a vast aggregate of personalities, but have a undeniable personality and predelictions all their own.  When we picture someone wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans, of course it fails to cover everything about America, but it covers enough.

Toynbee believed that western civilization reveals itself in its passion for mechanics.  He wrote,

The Hellenic civilization displays a manifest tendency towards a predominantly aesthetic rubric for orienting and defining itself.   The Hellenic tendency to view life as a whole distinctively in such terms that the ancient Greek adjective “kalos,” which denotes what is aesthetically beautiful, is used in addition to describe what is morally good.  In other words, Greek concepts of beauty and morality . . . were indistinguishable.

When we come to our own western civilization we find no difficulty discovering our own bent or bias.  It is, of course, a penchant towards machinery: a concentration of interest and effort upon applying discoveries of Natural Science to material purposes through the creation of social-clockwork devices, i.e. steam engines, motor cars, but also social engines like representative governments and military mobilizations.

We sometimes talk as if this appetite for mechanics was a quite recent occurrence in western civilization  . . . But this is precisely how westerners were viewed by the courts in Japan and China [in the early 1800’s, just prior to the Industrial Revolution]–as “barbarians” redeemed partially by our manifest and outsized technical ability.   The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena had the same impression of the first crusaders in 1099 A.D.  She called  their  crossbow a “devilish construction” that, while ingenious in its mechanics, fitted perfectly the barbarians who wielded it . . .

I thought of Toynbee’s analysis reading James Carter’s Inventing Vietnam.  A lot about this book revealed little about the Vietnam War that I had not read elsewhere.  I thought Carter missed some important opportunities to illumine the conflict.  But his basic thesis, that America essentially tried to invent, i.e. “call int0 existence” a country that did not really exist makes sense.  South Vietnam had no real governance, no real culture, no real identity at all, apart from some lines on paper at the U.N.

Carter demonstrates that we tried to create South Vietnam in the only way we knew how.  We went to our comfort food . . . lots and lots of mechanical stuff.

Everyone recognized fairly early on that South Vietnam occupied a precarious position in Southeast Asia.  President Diem failed to inspire confidence.  The North had nearly all the best political leadership.  The major battles of the war against France, and thus, the major political infrastructure to handle the war, happened in the North.  Even in the late 1950’s we realized the South Vietnam could collapse not so much because of the actions of North Vietnam but under its own weight.  Castles cannot built on air.*

But for many reasons, some well-intentioned and justifiable, and some not, we felt that we had to try.**  We sought to modernize their economy, and give thousands of South Vietnamese jobs through our massive construction projects.  We could maybe, just maybe “fast-track” their way towards gaining some kind of statehood.  If nothing else, in attempting this we stayed on familiar territory.  We knew how to provide material goods and benefits.

While Carter’s book disappointed me overall, he proves his main point.  Our efforts to “create” South Vietnam massively undermined our stated goals.

  • The massive surge in U.S. dollars in South Vietnam destabilized their economy
  • South Vietnam’s economy and infrastructure could not absorb the massive inflow of goods, which created a black-market economy almost immediately.  This “shadow economy” further eroded governmental authority.
  • Most significantly, construction projects facilitated the expansion of our war effort.  The expansion of the war effort led to more bombing in South Vietnam, and more troop activity.  The more war South Vietnam experienced, the more disruption they faced, the less chance the South Vietnamese government had of establishing themselves.

Each of these problems served to ensure that the South Vietnamese government had no control over its own destiny.  Many in the State Department and military realized this, but could do little else but press on.  We couldn’t help ourselves.  This is what we knew how to do.  We can reasonably assume that if we had defeated the North Vietnamese militarily, the overall strategic situation would have changed hardly at all since the 1954 Geneva Accords which divided Vietnam in the first place.  South Vietnam would not have been an independent country.

When our war in Afghanistan seemingly went well in late 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a media darling.  His “transformation” doctrine of war, which emphasized smaller troop levels and increased use of technology, seemed to work.  But by 2006 Iraq was a mess, and by 2009 the situation in Afghanistan had significantly eroded.  In truth, much of the Rumsfeld doctrine hardly broke new ground.  It appealed directly to our comfort food of believing in, and relying upon, bigger and better stuff to solve our problems.  Hillary Clinton taps into this again with her pledge that new green technologies will solve economic problems.  If we looked closer we would see that our weaknesses, and of course also our strengths, have deeper roots than this.

Dave

*Marine General Victor Krulak commented in 1966 that, “Despite all our assertions to the contrary, the South Vietnamese are not–and have never been–a nation.

For a postscript below, Raymond Fitts’ article entitled, The Uses and Abuses of Technology in War

 

“The American effort in Vietnam was the best that modern military science could offer. The array of sophisticated weapons used against the enemy boggles the mind. Combat units applied massive firepower using the most advanced scientific methods. Military and civilian managers employed the most advanced techniques of management science to support combat units in the field. The result was an almost unbroken series of American victories that somehow became irrelevant to the war. In the end, the best that military science could offer was not good enough . . .”1

How is it that such a paradox developed? How could a world Super Power lose a war to a third or forth rate military power? The answer has many parts. One part of the answer must lie in the difference between military science and military art. The more technology a country has developed, the more it seems to depend on military science in stead of military art. Another part is in the make up of the combatants and their outlook toward warfare.

Despite the many analyses of the Vietnam war produced by the military, none has adequately considered the fundamental question of how the U.S. could so completely dominate the battlefield and yet lose the war. Senior military officers have published books and memoirs about Vietnam. They have all nearly ignored the insurgent portions of the war and devoted themselves to the conventional side of the conflict. The most celebrated analysis of the war made by a military officer was produced by Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr. His basic treatment of the entire war was as it ended, i.e., in a conventional invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnam. He ignored the guerrilla tactics and insurgent strategies of the war. All these personal accounts of the war seem to be best summarized by the adage “If they has just turned us loose in 1965, the war would have been over quickly.”2 It is clear that had the war been nothing more than a conventional one, the US should have been more successful than it was.

A clue to understanding the Vietnam paradox lies in the term “military science.” No one can doubt the importance of military science to the success of military operations in today’s world. The firepower provided by today’s weapons dominates the modern battlefield. The procurement of those same systems is a complex science in itself. However, successful military operations are a combination of the application of military science and military art.3

As the term implies, military science is a systematic body of knowledge about the conduct of military affairs. It deals with issues that can be quantified with a considerable degree of precision. It generally deals with what one can or cannot do in military operations–the technical aspects of developing and employing military forces.

Military art is the systematic study and creative planing and conduct of military affairs.4 It involves strategy (including tactics), political-military affairs, leadership, and morale. In short, it deals with the inexact side of military operations. It is concerned with what military forces should or should not do and why. It is learned through a study of history.

Successful military campaigns are the result of some sort of balance between the two. The balance may, in fact, depend on the status of the opposing forces–their equality. Reasonable equality may not exist between opposing forces. The weaker side must then depend on superior military art to achieve victory.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were forced to depend on the use of military art because of the overwhelming resources and superior technology of the U.S. The Communist confused the Americans with a package of political, psychological, economic and military warfare.

There is a considerable body of literature that suggests that the warfare of the future, especially with the end of the Cold War, will be on the low-intensity end of the conflict spectrum. If indeed such is the case, then the U.S. will need to rethink how it uses its technology to fight at this end of the spectrum. But to understand what constitutes the low-intensity conflict some definitions are necessary. Applications of technology in this environment will be explored to evaluate the effects of the use of technology.

Definitions

Low-Intensity Conflict

The American military establishment considers low-intensity conflict to be manifested in four different ways: (1) counterterrorism (assuming there is a terrorist to counter); (2) peace keeping: (3) peacetime contingencies (quick sharp, peacetime military actions like the air raid on Libya in 1986); and (4) insurgency/counterinsurgency. The inclusion of some of these terms in the definition of low-intensity conflict is debatable. Terrorism can be considered a tactic that can be used in any type of warfare. Peace keeping missions are meant to prevent the outbreak of a conflict. The essential difference between war-fighting and peace-keeping missions is that one makes the maximum use of force while the latter is committed to the minimum use of force. Direct action missions tend to be high in intensity but short in duration, a situation that is particularly unsuited for the term “low-intensity conflict.” We are thus left with insurgency and counterinsurgency claiming any legitimacy to the title “low-intensity” conflict.6 A low-intensity conflict includes not only the unconventional aspects of warfare but also economic, political and psychological warfare.

There is an important aspect about low-intensity conflict that needs emphasis. The level of intensity is a relative thing. For the soldier in the trenches, combat is always intense–he’s the one getting shot at. For the United States, Vietnam was not a highly intense conflict because it did not require the full resources of the country. For the North Vietnamese, the war was a high intensity conflict because it involved all the nation’s resources. The level of intensity is usually associated with the probability of occurrence of a certain level of conflict. Terrorism is at one end of the spectrum and is highly probable while all-out nuclear war is at the other end and is least likely.

Partisan vs. Insurgent Warfare

The difference between partisan warfare and an insurgency is what the guerrilla is trying to do to the government. The partisan is merely interested in throwing out a conquering power. The partisan may need help from an outside source. An example might the East Europeans trying to expel the Germans during World War II. An insurgent is trying to overthrow an existing government by any means. Insurgencies are the more insidious of the two in as much as it has no definite beginning; its origins are not military, they are political, economic, and psychological. The insurgency is self-sustaining; and does not need outside support. An insurgency sneaks up on the existing government slowly and quietly.

Successful insurgencies have a number of elements in common. Four characteristics are particularly important for the American military: the protracted nature of the war; the central role of the insurgent political infrastructure; the secondary role of the insurgent military; and the use of guerrilla tactics in military operations.7 An insurgency represents the total integration of political and military factors with the political factors always in complete domination.

Conditions are ripe for insurgencies in many parts of the Third World. They all have several things in common: the stark contrasts between incredible poverty for the vast majority of the population and the extreme wealth for the ruling elite; a small to non-existent middle class that can be a stabilizing influence and a conduit for the upwardly mobile; these same areas often times sit astride important trade routes or trade-route chokepoints; they might contain important deposits of raw material vital to the industrialized world.8 The insurgencies of the twentieth century have been scattered all over the world and have been the result, for the most part, of real or imagined inequities in political and economic power coupled with the perception of minimal opportunity for reform, either political or economic. When taken together, the unique aspects of insurgent warfare suggests that such struggles are different from conventional warfare.

The most important aspect of an insurgency is time. Both the French and the Americans found that their enemies used time as a weapon against them. The Vietminh and later the Vietcong purposely made the struggle longer waiting for the Americans and French to get tired of the endless blood letting and look for a way out of the conflict.

The rebels also need time to build up their political support and military strength relative to the government they are trying to overthrow. Time works for the insurgent in another way: every day the rebellion exists is another day that discredits the government and its ability to govern and control its own destiny. The defeat of the insurgent military threat is only an adjunct to buying time for the government to implement reforms and for those reforms to work..

Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla warfare is the classic ploy of the weaker against the stronger. The conventional European military operations are planned to obtain a quick victory while guerrilla warfare tactics are geared for the long haul. The guerrilla attempts to avoid a decisive defeat at the hands of the stronger enemy. They operate in small groups to avoid presenting tempting targets for government forces that usually have vastly superior firepower for its use.9

In fact, a guerrilla wins by not losing, while the government loses by not winning. In short, there is no room for the status quo. Each side must discredit the other by some means whether it be political, economic, psychological, or military. Generally, it is s combination of all these elements. The military aspects usually are fought to make space for the other aspects to work on the minds and pocket books of the population.

The American Way of War

There are several deep-seated reasons for the condition of the American armed forces: military men are still highly regarded in Europe but not much here; the European tradition of martial exploits is missing in America; a technological bias to create weapons that can kill from a distance; and a failure to create a well-motivated, well trained military force.10 Most Americans have not had to come to grips with the central role that military forces play in international settings Americans have not had to confront war as a political act.

Its long span of oceanic-based isolation has led the Americans to think of war as an aberration, a failure of political policy Americans see warfare as a great crusade to over-come a well defined enemy who was definitely evil. Simplistic approaches to political military problems are also indications that Americans have not been forced to deal with the role of force. Despite obstacles, Americans have expected to achieve their goals; the spirit of “can-do” has been a permanent part of their collective psyche.11

The Civil War was the first American conflict observed by professional European soldiers. The British, French and Greater Prussian General Staff sent representatives to observe both sides at war. The observers noted, with some distain, the American penchant for standing off at some distance from each other and throw enormous amounts of lead at each other, often times for hours on end. This method has become ineluctably part of the American way of war.

This proclivity to conserve lives has been all the more difficult because of a distinction in the military tradition: the population has always distrusted a large standing army, it has thus developed a strong militia to fight its wars. American armies have had to learn to fight by fighting. The U.S. has been willing to compensate for what it lacked in preparation by spending its national wealth. America’s war industry has overwhelmed its enemies with weaponry.12

The U.S. military has concentrated on the sciences of developing, deploying, and employing America’s overwhelming resources since the Civil War. The military has, as a result, not had to be very clever in the military arts because it could overwhelm its opponents in a sea of men, weapons, firepower, and logistics.13 This ability has lead to a 20th Century American trend in American thinking: modern American strategists and tacticians have sought to substitute fire and steel for American blood.14 General James Van Fleet, then commander of the Korean based 8th Army in 1952, is a good example of this mode of thinking. He was determined to use his artillery as a substitute for U.S. infantrymen.

The basic aim of the U.S. military, it seems, in peacetime is to buy hardware rather than use it. The main aim of each service is to get from Congress as much money as it wants. The peacetime emphasis has moved from fighting skills to procurement and the management of technology. The best way to a promotion is through running a successful procurement program in the Pentagon. Leadership in the field is a secondary consideration. What the American military has developed is a distorted sense of priorities and a general lack of seriousness about warfare. It has fallen into a push-button mentality that has a developed a passion for hardware to the neglect of strategy, tactics, and the intangibles of warfare.15 We have done a marvelous job of preparing for the next war only to find that we cannot afford to fight it.

In spite of all this high-technology, it has never been the decisive factor in any American war. The struggle to use technology and to deal with the enemies technology has been much more important.16 Using history as a guide, the American record with military aviation technology has been mixed at best. In World War I, the U.S. flew European designed and, for the most part, built aircraft. World War II showed the Japanese Zero was better than any U.S. front line aircraft at the beginning of the war and the MiG-15 was a superior surprise during the Korean conflict.17

The French Experience

France was the last of the European imperial powers to resist, by force, the loss of its colonies following World War II. The wave of independence following the war swept over all of the former European colonies. The wave gave the colonies a moral advantage that made the war in Indochina increasingly unpopular in France.

The French experience in Indo-china finally ended with the signing of a treaty between the Viet Minh and the French. The treaty divided the country into two halves: one half went to the Vietnamese communists, the other went to what became the Republic of Vietnam. The political turmoil over the next decade brought the U. S. into a war that the French could not win. The final disaster for the French was at a small town in northwestern Vietnam called Dien Bien Phu. Hot on the heels of Vietnam was another colony of France: Algeria. It seems that the French didn’t learn enough from Vietnam because they went through the same traumatic experiences in Northern Africa that they had in Asia. The two places were very different, but the guerrilla war fought by France in both countries contained the same French military responses to the insurgents.

Vietnam18

The French experience in Vietnam lasted eight long years. The Viet Minh experienced tactical defeats with huge losses when faced with the terrible destructive power of the French firepower. The Viet Minh accepted their losses and learned from their mistakes. Over time, they succeeded in dominating Indochina except for a few French “safe areas” around Hanoi and its immediate vicinity.

The only real advantage the French had was their mastery of and ability to conduct European-style machine warfare. They believed to the very end that the enemy could be crushed and Indochina subdued by concentrated firepower. Early on, they also learned that artillery and airpower had little effect on an elusive enemy that avoided a fight. What the French wanted was a large-scale battle of attrition that would grind the Viet Minh into the ground under a final massive avalanche of bombs and artillery fire. The strategy has two fatal flaws: (1) the French were frustrated by their inability to find and fix an enemy in an inhospitable environment; and (2) the French assumed that they alone possessed the ability to apply firepower in a battle of attrition.

Giap keep the pressure on the French by infiltrating soldiers into the Delta lowlands around Hanoi thus tying down French units. He initiated local attacks against the French units creating havoc in the colonial heartland. Giap also conceded to the French their superior firepower and willing spent lives to accomplish two things: first, to maintain his offensive and secondly to buy time to build a firepower base that could challenge the French in open warfare. To accomplish such things, surprise and secrecy were essential.

The Viet Minh learned from experience that under no circumstances should a column be caught in the open to be devastated by French firepower. They traveled by night in small groups to lessen the probability of being detected. They stayed in areas firmly under their control. Limited attacks outside of their protective base areas were planned carefully and by moving to and from the objective area without delay. If they were caught in the open, the men would scatter and hide before the French were able to adjust in and mass artillery fire on the position. The elusiveness of their tactics in combination with the difficult terrain greatly reduced the killing power of French firepower.

The Viet Minh also learned something about the application of airpower. Initially, it frightened the green, inexperienced insurgents and forced them to break off attacks. The French could rarely afford to send more than single aircraft to turn back attacks. The Viet Minh learned quickly that airpower employed in small doses possessed little destructive power. They also effectively dissipated French firepower by using a “hugging” tactic that began with a concentrated recoilless rifle, mortar, and machine gun attack on a fire base with the express intent of knocking out the defender’s radio–the sole means of calling for friendly fire. They then moved the entire force within the barbed wire outside the fort. Fortress and firepower proved to be no match for cunning, patience, courage and a willingness to sacrifice lives to achieve an objective.

Close air support became more effective as time went on. The pilots got to know their assigned areas of responsibility. They could bomb and strafe with particular destructiveness because they did not need to worry about the location of their own soldiers.

The French lost the first round of the war when they lost effective control over most of the territory and population in North Vietnam. The lesson to be learned here was that no amount of firepower or fortification can be effective against an insurgent without first obtaining the support of the people who inhabit the country.

The most effective innovation in firepower control was the use of light observation aircraft, specifically the Morane, to control supporting fires in support of an infantry unit in heavy contact. Such control often meant the difference between victory and defeat for the supported unit. The pilot had to be able to put the fire at very close ranges to the friendly forces.

The American observers present were not particularly impressed with the French airsupport system. It had airplanes dashing about from one fire fight to another in small groups (often only a few planes at a time). It was not their idea of a concentrated air campaign because it seemed so disorganized and without purpose. The close air support provided by the French air force, however, was sufficient as long as the enemy restricted himself to low-level hit-and-run tactics.

Both sides were learning from the battles. Giap learned that his forces were too lightly equipped to slug it out with the French and their overwhelming firepower. He therefore resorted to guerrilla warfare tactics using irregular forces against enemy strength and main forces against French weaknesses. He committed his forces only when there was a high probability of success.

On the positive side, Giap learned that the ability to stand up of French firepower increased with experience. A few well hidden machine guns made the effectiveness of French air attacks decrease appreciably. Giap did not have to match French firepower gun for gun to reduce its effect.

Giap also realized his own impatience with his early attempts at open warfare. He then decided that he would fight on his own terms. He sought to draw the French away from their bases thereby weakening the French ability to project and supply large fire-power intensive forces. He then attacked when the right combination of circumstances (weather, lines of communication, terrain) and available forces reduced or eliminated the French firepower advantage.

For the French, their victories convinced several commanders that the war could be won by fighting a decisive set-piece battle of attrition. They therefore sought to lure the Viet Minh into attacking well-prepared positions thus letting the enemy bleed to death in the face of French firepower. In doing so, however, the French made two critical mistakes. The first was to assume that their firepower was more effective than it really was. It was indeed effective early on, but as the enemy became better able to avoid it and developed their own firepower base more and more ordnance was needed to achieve significant results. Their second mistake was in not realizing that unless the attacker has an overwhelming advantage in firepower, causalities were likely to be about the same on both sides.

The French infantry effectiveness began to decline as a result of an accumulation of all of these factors. The French soldiers, because they were often green or shaken, needed more and more concentrations of firepower to keep them effective. The guerrilla retains the strategic initiative because he can determine the level of the conflict whenever the enemy’s firepower proves to be too destructive.

The French left and the Americans began to replace them only to have to learn the same lessons the French had, but without the benefit of consulting the French.

Algeria

The Indochina war was hardly over when fresh trouble broke out in Algeria, France’s colony in Northern Africa. Trouble had been brewing there for some time, just as it had in Tunisia and Morocco. France had settled both of the latter problems by granting them independence. But Algeria was part of metropolitan France and would always be French.

Extensive European land ownership and a local Moslem elite that controlled the economic and financial structure while the bulk of the population went hungry and landless made Algeria look a lot like Vietnam. The French never ruled comfortably and force lay just below the governmental facade.19 Algeria was not France: 90 percent of the wealth was in the hands of 10 percent of the population, nearly a million people were unemployed while nearly two million were underemployed.

Both sides in the rebellion understood much about the other. The French refused to realize the strength of nationalist feelings while the rebels did not recognize the obstinacy of the Europeans or the French military against them.20

French military forces numbered about 50,000 when the rebellion started on the 1st of November, 1954. By May of the following year there were 100,000 French soldiers in Algeria. The military commanders were not worried about “bandits” who would yield rather quickly to the superior power of the French army; they thought nothing of sending mechanized columns to subdue them. Apparently the lessons of Vietnam had not yet sunk in because any Vietnam veteran could have told them that mechanized columns sent anywhere did little more that provide convenient targets for guerrillas.

The French aggravated their situation with the measures taken by the police; numerous arrests for nearly arbitrary reasons and the brutal treatment of the detainees just fed the fire. Further French counter tactics remained the rebels best friend. The build up was still under way and the military commanders did not have the forces to carry out the traditional pacification tactics. The Army was in a particularly dangerous frame of mind after the losses in 1940 and Indochina left it with a monstrous inferiority complex.21 The French guerrilla warfare doctrine applied to Algeria was doomed from the start because the French had ignored the aspirations of the population –in Mao’s doctrine the very first lesson. In spite of their revolutionary doctrine, and the results in Vietnam, the French army continued to rely on the traditional techniques of fighting the Algerian war.

Despite their inept military activities, the French did have some advantages: approximately 400,000 soldiers in Algeria; the factious nature of the rebellion; and the lack of rebellion’s internal cohesion played a disruptive role amongst the rebels.22

The Battle of Algiers occurred after the 10th Parachute Division took over counterterrorism duties. The division was not kind in its tactics. The battle that followed was an outgrowth of their brutality that left many dead behind. Controlled genocide as policy seemed to work though. The rebel infrastructure in Algiers was destroyed and the French efforts in the countryside seemed to be working. The battle in Algiers sent more moslems into the arms of the rebels.

But the French off-set their gains with their garrison concept that took the bulk of their forces. The concept left the countryside to the guerrilla (a failing seen in Indochina). Several other factors degraded the effects of French tactics: the use of inexperienced conscript soldiers, an inadequate force for the mission (again a notion left over from Indochina), guerrilla reinforcements coming in from neighboring sanctuaries, rebel determination to throw them out, French barbarism, and finally the overall extent of the destruction of the country.23 The French barbarism even reached into neighboring Tunisia when an air force colonel ordered a Tunisian village bombed on the pretext that machine guns fired at French aircraft–some three miles away in Algerian skies.24

The French attempted to seal off the Tunisian border with a fortified barrier that was 40 meters wide and just over 250 kilometers long. The Morice Line used an electrified fence as its core. It was surveyed by radar and human patrols, covered by searchlights and artillery in places, and had its approaches mined. It still had its disadvantages: it was expensive to build, it required thousands of soldiers to patrol, it was a far as 50 miles from the border in some places and it could be outflanked.25

French tactics eventually became more effective and more mobile with the use of helicopters. But by this time President Charles de Gaulle realized that the French could fight in Algeria for a hundred years without resolving the issues that brought on the conflict in the first place. He finally put an end to the madness by granting Algeria its long awaited and much desired independence. Algeria wasn’t out of the woods yet, but at least it could set its own course.

The American Experience

Americans have had a love affair with technology since the inception of the country. It helped to develop a new continent from coast to coast through the train and the telegraph. Technology made up for the lack of people in developing a new country. That very love affair carried into the way Americans fought their wars. They took it with them to all of their wars since the Civil War. In a recent example it contributed mightly to their undoing.

Gadgets in Vietnam

The Vietnam experience was a bewildering disaster for the U.S. military. The battlefield effort gave the U.S. military an almost unbroken string of victories. On the one occasion, Tet Offensive of 1968, that the enemy stood and fought the American forces in a conventional style, the enemy was so badly beaten that it could not launch another major offensive for four years.26 The U.S. still did not win the war. Apparent military success could not be translated into political success in the larger war. The United States is so dominated by its technologies and its wealth that it has lost touch with people. The United States believes it can spread democracy and maneuver politics by technology and money only. This may well be a fatal error in the life of our nation.27 The loss of China to the communists and the French loss in Indochina made for rather unpleasant news in the U.S. about a new type of warfare coming onto the world scene. Insurgency was a type of warfare that was wholly unknown and unanticipated in America. This isn’t too surprising because the Americans lacked a number of overpowering attitudes that were, and are still common in the Third World: the depth of belief that comes from desperation, a tradition of humiliation that begets hatred; the immediacy of wide spread starvation in the face of corrupt plenty; the zeal of the patriot in the face of foreign invaders and finally a basic lack of interest in war.28

In tune with their propensity to use gadgets, the Americans invented “think tanks” to think up new devices and ways to use them; the think tank was supposed to devise new policies that would allow the U.S. military to fight an insurgency war. The think tank was a development that followed the end of World War II when the Department of Defense didn’t want of lose all of the scientific talent it had accumulated during the war. Insurgency provided the think tank’s biggest challenge after the Korean war.

So we sent our soldiers to Vietnam unprepared for what they were to face. They were so unprepared, that even the soldiers responsible for intelligence gathering could not speak Vietnamese. They had to hire Vietnamese to translate for them. The translators were as ill-prepared for their task as the American intelligence specialists were; some could only barely speak English at all let alone translate Vietnamese into intelligible English. Given such a starting point, it was hardly unlikely that the wrong story got told, especially with the Oriental propensity to tell a Westerner what he wants to hear.

The toughest technical problem was to just find and identify the enemy. The VC and the NVA did not, as a rule, fight in regiments and divisions. The lengths to which the U.S. gadgeteers went to solve this problem are truly awesome.

The U.S. tried bedbugs to sniff out people.29 The bed bug is supposed to be able to smell human food from a long distance. It then moves around making some small noises. The noises were what the gadgeteers tried to use to operate a meter showing the proximity to people. The think tanks devised a machine to be carried by one soldier and operated by four or five bed bugs. The sniffing tube was pointed at a suspected ambush site thus providing a sign to the soldier that somebody was hidden there. The machine failed combat test.

A “people sniffer”, using a chemical-physical apparatus, did have some successful field tests. The machine was supposed to be able to detect body odor of concealed guerrillas from 200 yards away.

Small infantry units had a small personnel radar that could detect moving human beings and alert defenders in the dark of impending attack. The attacks happened anyway.

The starlight scope turned out to be a useful gadget. It allowed a soldier to see in the dark by concentrating the light of the stars. Aircraft were even using them.

Sound was also used as an indicator in several gadgets: one gadget detected the sound of clothing rubbing against clothing; sensors were used on the Ho Chi Minh trail to detect the sound of trucks and other vehicles. Seismic detectors were used to detect the trembling of the ground as heavy trucks and tanks drove by. Infrared detectors were developed for use to find heat sources beneath the jungle canopy. Special photographic films were developed to detect the dead vegetation used as camouflage.

American gadgeteers seldom reckoned with the propaganda effects of the usage of their gadgets. The bed-bug episode drew a wave of negative editorial comments in the Vietnamese press.

Then their was Operation Ranch Hand. The operation was designed to defoliate the jungle hide-outs of the VC and NVA. It was eventually used to destroy the rice crop. The trick back-fired in a big way because of the special status of rice in the Oriental mind: to waste it is a cardinal sin. Westerners killing whole fields not only deprived the owner of the rice but handed the Viet Cong a propaganda coup of the first magnitude. The destruction of the rice fields drove more peasants into the hands of the waiting VC. The VC then used it as the basis of a charge of germ warfare to exterminate the Vietnamese people.30

The Americans tried tear gas to disable people. The U.S. news men got a hold of the idea about “non-lethal” gas warfare in South Vietnam. The story drew instant and hostile reactions. Napalm also drew adverse reactions from the American public. Despite its military value, it provided a propaganda coup for its detractors.

The M-16 rifle that the infantry used in Vietnam generated a lot of controversy. There was its propensity to jam blamed on the users not keeping it clean while Marines died because of the defects. There was a controversy over the ammunition used–the contracts for its manufacture were suspect. And again the user did the dying.

Other gadgets included such things as the M-26 and M-79 grenade launchers, Claymore mines, airborne miniguns and the AC-47 that used them, Aluminum dust that was sprayed on trails so that radar could follow them, navigation systems for aircraft, Snake-eye bombs, CBU [Cluster Bomb Unit] that generated propaganda for the enemy because unexploded bomblets killed and maimed civilians that stumbled upon them, the Bullpup missile, special jungle clothing, a computer (IBM 1430) to help the intelligence specialists gather and sort data, and finally, of all things, lie detectors.31

The Army tried to use its old technology to provide target information. It brought in the AN/PQ-4 counter-mortar radar. The radar tracked an incoming mortar shell and back plotted its trajectory. A skilled operator could plot the mortar position to about 50 meters. Unfortunately, it was too old and easy to fool. It had a very narrow sector scan and the operator eventually got tired of looking at the screen. The enemy put his mortars where the radar wasn’t looking and fired when the operators were least likely to be alert.

The AN/TPS-25 ground surveillance radar was more modern and could detect a moving vehicle up to six miles away. It was meant for use in a conventional European war and couldn’t pick up small groups of men at a walking pace.32

Ground sensors were used as an aid in the search for targets. But for them to be effective, they had to be precisely located. Most of the sensors were dropped from slow-flying airplanes thus making them hard to locate accurately.

The enemy learned, in time, to counter the sensors in some fashion when he could not avoid them altogether. The sensor system was only effective when used in conjunction with other methods such as patrols, radars, scout dogs, and aerial sightings. Yet the system was all that provided the precision target information with the consistency necessary for effective target engagement by indirect fire.

There were some technological success stories. The AC-47 with its mini-guns proved to be great operational success. A few dedicated individuals managed to develop a system appropriate to the war being fought in Vietnam despite the Air Force’s denigration of the ideal of using an obsolete aircraft for anything (it wasn’t fast enough or the latest in technological innovations). The gunship was used to provide a large volume of firepower in a very small area for infantry engaged in heavy combat, especially at night. Other aircraft used in the gunship role, the AC-130 and AC-119, also saw action. The AC-130 saw action along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.33

Americans have had a plethora of mechanical devices or military hardware in Vietnam. Unfortunately, in this war the relations between human beings and abstract ideas were decisive. Our gadgets were superb but just not enough.

Gadget Driven Tactics

Not long after the siege of Plei Mei (early in the war), in the Central Highlands, General Kinnard commanded the 1st Cavalry Division. He was instructed, by General Westmoreland, to destroy the forces that had attacked Plei Mei. The situation was considered perfect for the Division’s style of air mobile warfare. Kinnard moved his artillery into the battle area by helicopter so that it could support his infantry as soon as they touched the ground. General Kinnard hoped that his scattered units would lead the enemy to believe the units could be defeated in detail. Kinnard planned to use the units not engaged as a reserve to be moved by helicopter to reinforce any units in contact with the enemy. Holding terrain meant little in his style of warfare. The heavy lift helicopter gave isolated units the reassurance that they would and could be supported with an inexhaustible supple of artillery guns and ammunition.34 A road bound relief force could itself become a victim of an well planned ambush. The enemy commander, Colonel Ha, had learned that all he had to do to even the match was to separate the Americans from their firepower.

Another battle that made news was the battle of the Ia Drang. The lesson learned there was that firepower would be the pivotal factor in the tactical battle. The Americans goal was to use his firepower quickly to gain the advantage. (Throughout the war experienced infantry commanders were the loudest proponents of fighting battles with firepower.) The enemy’s objective was to separate the Americans from their firepower or to strike quickly and get away before firepower could shift the odds against them. The Ia Drang battle also taught the Americans that the only way to bring a reluctant enemy to battle was by sending out platoon sized units to search him out. Then the enemy was attacked with standard tactics. Unfortunately additional maneuver forces in the enemy’s rear didn’t mean that the enemy was trapped. In the jungle it was easy for him to disappear thus braking contact at will.

When an enemy base camp was found deep in the jungles and marshes of Vietnam, the conventional wisdom for attacking it was to determine its dimensions, isolate it with a strong cordon and then pound it with firepower. Occasional forays were made into the area to check on the results of the attack by fire, then the fire was repeated. This cycle was repeated as often as desired or needed. The preservation of soldier’s lives was the overriding tactical imperative.

Artillery became the fire support system of choice in Vietnam. It was always available in any weather or at any time of day. The artillery was scattered all over the countryside and concentrated by firing more shells at the enemy. Reinforcements from the Air Force and Army aviation ensured that overwhelming firepower would eventually be achieved. And despite the observer’s opinions of the French methods, the Americans learned to use spotter aircraft just as the French had during their stay in Vietnam.

Close air support from fighter aircraft was, and still is, the best way to deliver overwhelming firepower quickly and precisely against tanks, fortifications, and bunker complexes. Such bunker complexes made up enemy base camps in the deepest parts of the southern swamps and under the jungles of the rest of the country. But the enemy did not always stay at home. Often times, when major offensives were run against such base camps, it was found to be lightly defended or empty altogether. When the enemy did stay at home, a major battle ensued and airpower served its purpose very well.

Airpower in Vietnam followed a phenomenon of recent origin; a trend among Western nations to expect too much from aerial firepower, an expectation that might well be the product of our search for a technical means to win wars without expending lives.35 It took one 105 mm light artillery battery to fire 2000 rounds over a two hour period to equal the effects of a single pass of a flight of F-4s against a target thus making it more desirable for the Infantry to want to see the fighters work for them.

A major problem for fire support efforts was the acquisition of useful intelligence. A guerrilla force had to be found, fixed, targeted, and engaged with a fury of concentrated firepower that was timed to overwhelm it before it could break and run. All major ground forces eventually employed small patrols to destroy the enemy guerrilla with long-range fire power.

North Vietnam’s Giap finally realized the American public did not differentiate between front-line casualties and support troops. He then went after the fire bases used by the artillery. This did two things for him. It reduced the firepower available to the Americans and it caused casualties. Reducing the artillery available was an advantage to him because the Americans rarely moved against the NVA when the engagement was beyond the range of artillery. The less there was of it, the smaller the advantage to the enemy and the smaller the territory he could control. The enemy attacked the fire bases using a “hugging attack” that was launched from within the perimeter wire or from within the garrison itself. These tactics lessened the effectiveness of artillery and air strikes. The growing causality lists sapped morale and national will at home.

Giap tried to use tactics against the Americans that had worked against the French. The Americans fortified their fire bases to withstand the heaviest assaults and succeeded where the French had failed because of their overwhelming firepower.36 But military forces that concentrate on protecting itself forfeits the tactical and strategic initiative to the enemy. As the U.S. forces dug in, they also undermined their own offensive spirit.37

It was common practice to fire artillery at points in the jungle that were supposed to be enemy points of interest: assembly points, way points to elsewhere, temporary base camps of various sized units, and communications nodes. The Army fired and fired and fired with results that are still unknown. This type of fire was known as Harassment and Interdiction fire. Artillery units made very little effort to assess their H & I programs by early morning surveillance or the dispatch of ground patrols to investigate an area recently engaged. Perhaps this failure serves as the greatest indicator of the confidence fire planners placed in the value of H & Is.38

The Russian Experience

The Russians have not been immune from involvement in insurgencies as the counterinsurgent. They spend many years supporting “wars of national liberation” with advisors, equipment, money and weapons to make life difficult for the Western world. They were successful at making life difficult alright, but the results of the insurgencies were mixed.

Afghanistan39

The Soviet love affair with the tank soured quickly with their involvement in Afghanistan. Soviet tactical doctrine directed that tank forces operate as part of a combined arms force with mechanized infantry, artillery, and engineers. Yet in Afghanistan tank units went into combat with out the benefit of mechanized infantry. The tank’s clumsiness in rough terrain makes it vulnerable to ambushes when they have lost the advantage of surprise.

The actual invasion was the easiest part for the Soviet Army. It was, however, an army geared for conventional offensive warfare. Once in Afghanistan, it proved to be a lumbering beast better suited to fighting in the European low lands rather than the rag-tag civilians in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. The Soviet 40th Army rolled across the border after an airborne brigade landed at airports to take such places for themselves and to deny them to any resistance. The invasion was swift and surprising. It was planned for winter time when Western countries were preparing for Christmas and New Year’s Day. The weather was bad making guerrilla activity difficult.

Riots broke out in Kandahar. The rioters attacked anything representing either the Soviets or the new government. Soldiers sent in to control the riots couldn’t do so. MiG-17s were sent to strafe buildings and open areas but the Afghan pilots couldn’t attack their own people. The Russians sent in the 66th Motorized Division into Kandahar after the riots. The Soviet air force followed with a fleet of helicopter gunships and attacked positions in the nearby mountains almost immediately.

The Russians had tried initially, to overawe the resistance by a massive display of armor: six divisions in 4500 tanks, T-54s and T-64s, heavy artillery and APCs rolled into Afghanistan after the Airborne takeover of key locations. Afghan units were expected to subdue the rural resistance and keep it to a minimum. Bad planning was obvious from the beginning. Casualties were very high from the start and the population was not overawed. In fact, the resistance became more effective as the winter snows melted.

The Russians discovered that their main battle tank could not fight guerrillas entrenched in high mountain passes because the guns could not be elevated high enough or traversed far enough to fire at the enemy positions. The uneven terrain made it difficult to fire accurately and their engines overheated in the hot, thin air. Inexperience drivers often times snapped the treads trying to negotiate the difficult trails of the country. Some of the early battles were disasters for the round bound Soviet forces.

The Soviets also found it difficult to support their maneuver forces with firepower. Their doctrine was too firmly rooted in meticulous planning and deliberate bombardment by artillery and airpower. Obsessive obedience to a central authority permeated the higher reaches of the command structure. Change in the Soviet army came from the top down as befits a structured, autocratic society. Lower level commanders were driven by strict regulations and tactical “norms” in extreme detail. The result is a rigid method of warfare that leaves little to chance. When things go wrong, commanders excuse failure by showing his fidelity to the planned concept of operations. It is the operational norms that are at fault, that is, the scientific calculations are wrong. The solution was to change the norms.

The rebel leaders learned that they could, very often, attack a Soviet formation and get away without taking any artillery fire at all. This may well have been due to the cumbersome fire support system that was too inflexible to respond. It might well have been due to the reluctance of the ground commander to ask for the support unless it had been planned ahead of time. Not only was the system too “preplanned” oriented, it was also meant to support the main effort and not to save lives.

As in the Indochina wars, firepower played a key role in the protection of Soviet facilities and lines of communication. Mine fields were laid around major installations to such an extent that the Mujahideen did not dare attack the installations. By the summer of 1980 the ubiquitous fire base appeared as the Soviets and reliable Afghan forces sought to extend their influence farther and farther into the countryside.

The Soviets failed to solve the problem of convoy protection. The distances involved were to great for an interlocking, mutually supporting network of position artillery to cover main supply routes. The supplies had to be flown to their destination or sent by heavily protected convoy. Convoys were extremely vulnerable to ambushes without aircraft overhead. The Soviets paid a high price in men and equipment to supply their outposts because the Mujahideen ambushed so many convoys. That left a limited number of fuel and ammunition for the outpost to spend on local combat operations. Too many soldiers were tied up in convoy protection.

The Soviets experimented with various means to add more flexible firepower to their convoys: they tried putting a 4-barreled 23 mm anti-aircraft gun in a truck. They mounted a 30 mm grenade launcher in BTR-60 and some BMP vehicles. They also sent self-propelled guns with their convoys.

Two things became apparent to the Soviet commander: a war that had started out as a war of intervention had become a war of attrition, and a major transformation of Soviet tactical doctrine was necessary if the Army was to prosecute the war with any degree of proficiency. One change was their version of the forward detachment with its own organic firepower. They also decentralized their control of the artillery by splitting it up into less than the usual battery of 18 guns. They also learned that the most important single weapon in a war against a guerrilla was the helicopter–something that could well have been apparent from the French and American experiences. They also learned that to conduct a counter guerrilla campaign they needed to rely on the initiative and self-reliance amongst the junior leaders–the very things a centrally controlled army cannot deal with.

In a war without fronts or a clearly defined enemy, an infantry commander rarely knows what fire support he will need ahead of time. He must find and fix the enemy before he can employ heavy firepower with effect. The Soviets attempts to achieve decisive effect using ground delivered firepower was hampered by an obsolete and inflexible fire support doctrine. They also relearned that soldiers who are dug-in and defending mountainous terrain are nearly impossible to dislodge with indirect firepower.

The Mi-24 Hind was the Soviet version of the attack helicopter. It could carry a wide range of weapons and the pilots could talk directly to the ground commander. It could even carry a squad of infantry into a battle area. The Mujahideen learned to fear the Hind. It was the only weapon in the Soviet repertoire that could thwart effectively a guerrilla operation in the field and cause substantial casualties amongst the rebels. The Hind was the centerpiece of the firepower system in Afghanistan.

Soviet interdiction campaigns do not seem to have been very successful in reducing the fighting strength of the Mujahideen. Such campaigns have little effect against a light, mobile and thinly scattered guerrilla force despite the effects such a campaign might have against a conventional force. The Soviets could not stop movement of supply caravans along the borders or inside the country for the first three years of the war.

Several other reasons might also explain the ineffectiveness of the interdiction campaigns. Soviet munitions proved to be unreliable in the mountains.. The pilots were unable to exercise any initiative at all. They attacked what they were told to attack even if a village, for instance, was uninhabited and the rebels were driving down the road just a few miles away. There were numerous reports of such events. The pilots even flew, nearly right over, past rebel bands in the open without firing a shot at them.

The Soviets employed two basic tactical methods when they ventured into rebel-held territory. The first was to cordon off an area and then search for rebels from the population. The second was to organize “kill zones” (sounds like the Russian counterpart to the American “free-fire zone” of Vietnam) and then attempt to push the rebels into it and overwhelm them with firepower. The Soviets still lacked preparation: they used reserve soldiers who lacked even enough training to take cover from sniper fire; their officers had no maps of their routes; the officers weren’t briefed on the kind of resistance they might encounter; and the units were better versed in the local languages than they were in military tactics.

Despite their overwhelming military strength, the Soviet forces could not conquer Afghanistan. The cities, main roads, and the airbases were taken in a matter of days. Their mechanized army of more than a 100,000 made little progress in reducing insurgent control over the countryside and its control over the cities and the roads was increasingly challenged. They found that shock tactics based on massive air and armored firepower can hurt and scatter the guerrilla groups but not destroy them. The difficult terrain and fighting qualities of the Mujahideen made it evident that pacification would take more forces that the Soviets had deployed.

Road blocks made travel difficult and hazardous. Convoys were necessary with no garantees of their arrival at their destination. The effectiveness of the so-called bandits emphasized the failure of the Soviets to impose control. The Soviets were forced to use terror and destruction in order to crush the opposition. They depended on massive amounts of firepower in conducting search-and-destroy missions and punitive bombing attacks. They used gas and napalm in reprisals against resisting villages. There were many cases of indiscriminate slaughter as a result of bombing, strafing, artillery fire and helicopter attack. Terror weapons brought no advantage because the Soviets had too few soldiers to secure areas decimated by gas or bombing attacks. The population learned to anticipate such attacks thus lessening the effects. But the costs guaranteed nothing but hostility for use of such weapons.

Afghan Mujahideen tactics conformed to the classic requirements of guerrilla warfare. There were small group actions at night in territory remote from centers of power and within a supporting population that inflicted damage on the entrenched authority with vastly greater military resources. The Mujahideen were felt everywhere but lacked the weapons and organization to seriously threaten the Soviet position.

The rebels had a several things going for them in their fight against the Russians. They had the difficult countryside and their expertise with light weapons; their attacks often times took place at night while they hid in the general population when they weren’t actually fighting. They had their own stamina and ability to improvise that worked with their growing ability to organize themselves. Their motivation for the fight was a mixture of fatalism and dedication unique to Islam. They accepted the hardships of defending their way of life and religion.

Such were the conditions upon which they accepted the mission of holy warrior defending what is virtuous and meaningful against the destructive infidel. To die for such a cause was a good thing. The entire population faced massacres, weapons that it could not cope with and the presence of a superpower with a seemingly endless supply of manpower and firepower without letting up its resistance.

When the following spring arrived, the population rallied to fight the Soviets along with refugees who slipped back into the country. They fought with a hodge-podge of weapons that ranged from left-over WWI British Lee Enfields to home made flintlocks. The Soviets brought in seven motorized rifle divisions and the 105th Airborne for a total of 85,000 men. They also introduced five Air Assault brigades. By the end of two years, the Soviet force was at 105,000-110,000 soldiers. By 1985 the total stood at around 115,000 soldiers.

Their failed assault on the Kunar Valley despite overwhelming military superiority (200 MiGs, Su-24s, and helicopter gunships) left serious questions about their ability to contain, let alone destroy, a tightly organized and reasonably equipped resistance front.

The Soviets realized that more soldiers were needed but the Kremlin was unwilling to send them. They needed newer tactics and did manage to develop some that worked. The Russian Special Forces were respected by the Mujahideen for their ability to fight.

In the end, the Russians too left their insurgent war with a bad taste in their military mouths. They had the enemy outmanned and outgunned several times over but could do no better than the French and Americans in Indochina.

Chechnya40

The Russian experience of insurgent warfare wasn’t over just yet. The people of Chechnya wanted and demanded their own independent state. Their demand was the result of the break up of the former communist ruled USSR. Once again the Russians sent in the high technology equipment.

The Chichnians used classic insurgent warfare tactics in their conflict with the Russians. Only this time the rebels had a much better complement of high-technology equipment than the Afghans had. The Chechens made wide use of ambushes and good use of communications and intelligence from covert agents.

When the Russians sent their air force into the fight, the pilots had only a poor understanding of Chechen tactics. Part of those tactics included controlling mobile air defense weapons with radios and celluar phones and constantly changing the weapons systems positions. Because they had no reliable data on the disposition of Chechen weapons, the pilots were forced to operate from maximum possible ranges when using their weapons.

The Russians had learned to use a system developed in Indochina by both the French and Americans. They had learned to use the Forward Air Controller (FAC) to direct the aircraft in their attacks on the rebels. One of the primary Chechen targets for intelligence was the FAC. This mitigated the already disappointing results of the Russian air force.

Against no credible threat, other than a few ZSU-23/4 air defense artillery pieces, the Russian air force was unable to make any major impact on the course of the fighting. The performance of the air force against a lightly armed guerrilla force was less than sterling for several reasons: the rough terrain in which the combat took place; the harsh weather conditions; a general lack of training time for the pilots; old equipment; and finally poor stocks of supplies. One helicopter in ten was lost while one in four was damaged. One Russian Colonel blamed pilot performance on the tactics of retaliatory strikes against an enemy who used hit-and-run tactics constantly. Such tactics took the initiative away from the pilots; such a loss led to belated responses to rebel attacks thus reducing combat capability.

Results and Some Lessons Learned

The results of the intervention of France, the U.S. and the Russians were decidedly one-sided. The super powers of the First World overwhelmed their opponents with technology, equipment, and manpower and still lost the war. In the war of ideas its really true that the pen is mightier than the sword and ideas are harder than bullets and bombs. The wars were settled politically with the major powers leaving the country over which they fought–with the single exception of Checnya. Chechnya was unique in that it was surrounded by Russian territory; the rebels had no where to hide and no one to help them. While they made life difficult for the Russian military they would have a very difficult time obtaining their goals.

A common error in the cases studied here is readily apparent: the intervening power did not consider what it was that the people living in the country wanted for themselves. The major powers seemed to think that they already know what was best for the common people of the country when in fact the politicians had no real idea what was wanted at the grass-roots level.

For the Americans, their political objectives were poorly understood. The military strategy and tactics were designed for a very different sort of war. Morale in the field declined and support for the war disappeared because of the growing casualty list with no end of the war in sight. The problem was that the American version of reality no longer fit the real world.

A nation should never consider intervention in a small war without first considering what firepower and technology can do and what its limitations are. Modern nations have consistently overestimated the worth of their technology and the destructiveness of their firepower. Their expectations were greater than the machines they used could deliver. No matter how good the technology of target selection is, it will never be able to locate an irregular force in dense enough numbers for firepower to have a decisive effect.41

It is also apparent that such a lesson has not been learned. There are senior officers that still think that small detachments will escape detection but that larger, battalion size and bigger, will be found and decimated because when insurgents launch conventional operations they become exposed to crushing defeat.42 Experience dictates otherwise: the Chinese smuggled a quarter of a million men into Korea without anyone being the wiser; in Vietnam, 90 percent of the Viet Cong attacks were made with less than battalion sized units. The NVA moved down the Ho Chi Ming Trail in an uninterrupted, and increasingly large, stream despite the American interdiction campaigns against such traffic. At Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh decimated the French while at Khe Sanh it was the NVA and VC that was crushed. A mixed bag of results does not make a golden rule.

The unsuccessful American effort in Vietnam illustrated two important topics: the overwhelming tradition and the U.S. fascination with technology, it was supposed to be more efficient but efficiency does not equal effectiveness; victory on the battlefield does not necessarily mean victory in war.43

At best, modern firepower is an indiscriminate thing especially when used in populated areas. A misplaced artillery round can do more harm than good. It takes a disciplined and limited use of firepower to be effective. The fire controller must know when enough is enough and turn off the rain of destruction when that point has been reached. Firepower must be apportioned to the intensity of the conflict. It cannot compensate for bad strategy.

The American, French and Russians all discovered that there seems to be a relationship between the quality of the maneuver forces and the quantity of firepower necessary to make them effective in combat. In counterinsurgent warfare, massive firepower and large unit operations can be counterproductive. The Americans and Russians should have learned this from their search-and-destroy missions. The lesson seems to be that small units are what are needed for an effective counterinsurgency.

Another lesson all three powers should have learned from their experiences was that there is a premium placed on simple and durable equipment that requires a minimum of maintenance. The equipment must be cheap enough to be affordable by Third World countries or to be given freely by the U.S. Perhaps this is the reason the gunship did so well in Vietnam.

All three countries should have noticed that the insurgent is not without several tactical advantages: knowledge of the terrain: a very short logistical tail; they know the people who provide unlimited intelligence data; to win, the insurgent needs only to survive; the insurgent discovers that napalm is not the atomic bomb; shells do no harm when they are dropped in the wrong place; and many now enjoy having first-rate weaponry.44

In short, there is much to be learned by studying the history of insurgent warfare. Chief among them is that technology is not the answer to everything a country tries to do. In the end it is the human element that will persevere; it is the human element that makes the difference in winning and losing an insurgency. Without recognizing this, technology will be to no avail.

11th Grade: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at Home”

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at the Vietnam War, but also focused on the Civil Rights movement.

Vietnam has many controversial aspects, including the way we fought the war.  I think our massive bombing campaigns attracted Johnson for political reasons.  He campaigned in ’64 on a “I don’t want to want to get too involved in Vietnam,” platform and won easily. Bombing allowed us to do something while committing relatively few men and risking relatively few lives compared to other options.  At the same time, our bombing could send the message to the North that we meant business.

But our military actions have a meaning to them that extends far beyond their direct military impact.  Bombing proved disastrous in a number of ways:

  • Bombing, while low-risk, comes with great expense.  As Martin Luther King said, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.  They destroy the chance for us to create a decent America.”
  • In jungle terrain, bombing had little to no effect on enemy movements or their ability to fight
  • Bombing makes us look like a bully.  Here we are, the most advanced society on earth, dropping explosives from a safe distance upon a peasant society.  Human nature loves an underdog, and perhaps Americans especially loves them.  Our tactics made the North Vietnamese look like the team a neutral observer would root for (we need to think in similar ways about our use of drones today — how are drone strikes interpreted by the global population?)
  • Finally, one could argue that bombing sent a message not of the strength of our resolve, but of our lack of it.  We know that Johnson wished desperately that the war in Vietnam would “go away.”  Bombing brought little domestic fall-out initially, because it would mean relatively few casualties for us. Ho Chi Minh could easily have interpreted bombing as Johnson’s way of trying to avoid the hard questions Vietnam brought.  It appears that they did just that.

We lost the battle for public opinion in the war by around 1967.

General Westmoreland’s tactics of “Search and Destroy” proved strategically ineffective in the long run.  We like to think of our armed forces as tool for good.  We understand that that might mean violence, but most of don’t want to think of our military primarily being used to kill others.  Westmoreland did not focus on protection, but on “body counts.”  How many of the enemy did we kill?  This does not have the same ring, as “How many innocent lives did we protect?” though obviously that could involve killing the enemy.

The North Vietnamese certainly committed atrocities — more of them than we did and with greater scope.  They usually treated civilians much worse than us, sometimes intentionally using them as human shields.  Their atrocities did  not get equal media attention.  But I suspect that even if such atrocities had been well-reported, it may not have made much difference.  We expected others, the “them,” to be the bad guys.  Nothing in our national psyche or identity prepared us not to like what we saw in the mirror.  One sees this self-delusion in those that said, “The only thing that can defeat America is America,” which asserts that we can attain omnipotence if only we will it.

De Tocqueville and many others have commented that when democratic armies have the support of the population they become very difficult to stop.  Democratic armies naturally seek to draw strength from the people.  But when they cannot do this, their effectiveness gets diminished.  This is something that democratic societies must bear in mind in a way that dictatorships, for example, do not.  In Vietnam, I believe that most historians would agree that we did not fashion a “way of war” that lent itself to gaining the support of the people.  The North Vietnamese realized our predicament long before we did.  Le Duan Thoc, a North Vietnamese strategist, commented fairly early in the war,

[We can win no matter what the United States does.]  They will fight far from home and will be regarded as an old style colonial invader, in a climate to which they are not accustomed, against indigenous forces backed by China and the Soviets.  If they invade the North they will face 17 million of us, and potentially hundreds of millions from China.   If they use nuclear weapons the Soviets will retaliate.  The more they risk, the more they alienate the international community and erode support domestically – the more too they are vulnerable to a crisis in other parts of the world.   The enemy is in a weak position.

Some argue that, in fact, we could never have won in Vietnam.  Eventually we would go home, and they would remain.  Others counter with the argument that, had we fought in a way that focused on security for the South rather than killing the enemy, we could have won over public opinion and given the South Vietnamese government a chance to work.  We in fact began to try this strategy in 1969 when General Abrams replaced Westmoreland, but by then America had given up the fight in our hearts and minds.  Of course, some believe we could have won if we had fought differently, either with more bombing in Cambodia and Laos, or with a different style of fighting (perhaps fewer men and more covert operations).

We also looked this week at how the Civil Rights movement transformed over time.  The enormous moral force of those that demonstrated for equal treatment overwhelmed opposition.  Television brought the issue to the forefront of American homes across the country, much as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 moved the slavery question from the abstract to the real for many Americans.  The movement peaked in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.

But then something happened.  Violence erupted in many cities across America over the next two years, beginning with the Watts riots in Los Angeles.  Student protests spiked sharply.  The fringe “Hippy” movement went into the mainstream.  How did this happen?  At the moment when it seemed that America had become more of the kind of country it was supposed to be, why did so many subsequently turn to violence?

This paradoxical question will occupy us next week.  What I suggest for now is that King’s words above may not have  been merely metaphorical.

Many thanks,

Dave

11th/12th Grade: “The Center Cannot Hold. . .”

Greetings,

This week we looked at the beginnings of the Vietnam war under Kennedy and Johnson, up until the significant troop buildups of 1965.

One of my main goals with this unit is to avoid finger-pointing.  Hindsight is so often 20/20.  In truth the conflict in Vietnam posed questions that no one would wish to answer.  Vietnam’s dilemmas give no good answers, only hopefully less bad solutions.  When I think of the controversy surrounding the conflict, I am reminded of a comment of a monk named Columba Cary-Elwes, who wrote to a friend and professional historian in 1940,

I find we live in so criticizing an age that I spend my time summing people up — public figures, judging the motives of their actions and though I had the whole thing mapped out before me, as God must have, and I certainly have not.  We are always being given vulgar and crude and unkind judgments of people and peoples in the newspaper, and it becomes second nature.  I am going to try and not get caught up in this perfidious habit.  This arose out of Fr. Dunstan’s reminder that we are “near nothing” and we ourselves must try and imitate God, who is infinitely merciful.

We ourselves bear culpability for what happened in Vietnam, but to understand this we need to understand events in Europe in the aftermath of W.W. II England led the way in divesting themselves of their colonial empire.  To be fair, England emerged from the war with its reputation generally intact, whereas France humiliated itself in its capitulation to the Nazi’s.  Much of our modern image of France comes from this singularity, but for the previous 1000 years, France had the pre-eminent military in Europe, with luminaries such as Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, St. Joan of Arc, and Napoleon to their credit.  Their post-war agenda did not leave room for looking any weaker than they already appeared.  They were keeping their empire, thank you very much.  That included Indochina.

Some within Indochina looked to the U.S. for aid in their bid for independence.  After all, we too rebelled at one point from a European colonial power.  We declined.  Truman felt it more important to appease France (who wanted very much to join NATO to keep them out of the communist fold).  Unfortunately for us, (though not perhaps for the Vietnamese), this came back to bite us when France lost in Indochina and left NATO anyway.  A possible golden opportunity slipped away.

Historians debate the nature of this turning point in Asia.  Some assert that if FDR had lived, he would have made a different choice.  There are some intriguing quotes from FDR about how Europe was basically dead and how Asia represented the future.  But all we can do is speculate.

In the aftermath the U.N. created four nations, Cambodia, Laos, North and South Vietnam.  The division between north and south was certainly artificial, done for political reasons and not historical or cultural ones.  Was Vietnam within the purview of our strategic interests?  What kind of aid should we give them?

To understand our commitment to Vietnam, we need to go back to the Korean conflict.  Many believe now, and believed at the time, that our neglect to publicly proclaim our commitment to South Korea may have encouraged the North to invade.  We wanted to learn from the past, and so Eisenhower made our commitment to South Vietnam plain.  This, we hoped, would forestall an invasion from the north.

Well, it failed to do, which left us with a series of terrible dilemmas.

  • We could let South Vietnam collapse.  But what about then, our pledge to defend it?
  • We could give aid to the South and try and “prop them up.”  But how much aid should we give, and what form should it take?  Moreover, would the aid we gave them really solve the problems that South Vietnam had?

Johnson and his advisors knew full well that any aid to South Vietnam might be counter-productive.  We couldn’t keep them on life-support forever.  But eventually a new idea emerged.  Perhaps military engagement might force the South to get its act together.  If that didn’t happen, our military involvement might at least slow the North down and create a level playing field between the two nations.  While the South might not be better off, at least the North wouldn’t pose as much of a threat.

Such is the logic of war.  What I hope the students recognize is that not every story needs a dastardly villain.  Sometimes nations, as well as individuals, face only a series of bad choices, and have to make the best of it.  This, however, is not to say that the U.S. did in fact make the best of a bad situation, as we shall see.

We also looked at the 1960 presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, important for many reasons in our political history.  Most that heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won.  Those that watched on TV (the majority) believed Kennedy won.  We saw a brief clip of the debate and discussed why that might be the case.

  • Nixon wore no makeup, while Kennedy did
  • Nixon looked much less comfortable on camera.  He shifted his eyes and smiled awkwardly.  Of course it’s not hard to miss his infamous sweating (towards the end of the clip).
  • Nixon wore a blase grey suit, Kennedy the classic politician dark blue.

This may also have helped originate many common tactics of candidates in debates, where candidates try to “stay on message” no matter what the question.  If you watch the clip, you see this perhaps more with Kennedy than Nixon.

Many of us lament the current state of our political discourse, and nearly all would agree that our modern presidential debates hardly dignify the word.  But the reality of our situation raises some interesting questions:

  • In the modern era, to what extent do we need presidents to be “actors,” and project a certain image?  Should it be an unwritten qualification for leadership?
  • TV is an inherently visual medium, and thus does not do well communicating written or spoken words (this was one of Neil Postman’s point in his Amusing Ourselves to Death).  Whether we like this or not, it is a reality of our culture and not likely to change soon.  Do we adjust the way we think of politics because of it?
  • If this concern for image has at least some legitimacy, what has it cost us as a democracy?

Thursday we switched gears and looked at the changes in music as a mirror for the changes in culture between W.W. II – Mid – 60’s.  I wanted the students to see our transition from broad based group oriented culture to a more individual/niche orientation.  Think for example of Glenn Miller.  He headlines, but the band is the star, and not him.  The music aims for a broad acceptance of broad cross-section of the population.  Culture in general happened on a big, broad scale.  Think of Cecil B. DeMille movies with their grand sets and dramatic scores, or Fred Astaire pictures with their big dance numbers.  Fewer African-Americans were bigger stars than Cab Calloway, but look how quickly he steps aside for the Nicholas brothers incredible dancing in this clip (certainly worth watching in its entirety — Fred Astaire himself called this the greatest dance number ever filmed):

Here is Fred Astaire himself in perhaps his most famous clip, a tribute to Bojangles.

The swing music of Glenn Miller, most popular in the 1940’s, showcased the big, broad, ensemble sound.

Overall, the theme here is akin to the summer movie blockbuster.  Go big or go home.

As we move into the late 50’s this begins to change, and we see this change first beginning in jazz music.  Ornette Coleman comes up with a different idea of what a musical note is. Coleman’s ensemble allowed for the musicians to each put their own individual, emotional interpretation on the music.

Thelonious Monk’s angular rhythms hit anything but the broad middle.  He created a sound totally his own.

In general, we see soloists rise in prominence in music, and this will presage the rise of individuals in society as a whole.  We should be careful.  The difference between an ensemble based sound and a preference for solos is not a moral one, so much as a change of emphasis.  We exist as members of groups and as individuals.  Both have importance, and our cultural expressions reflect both of these realities.  But, the change in emphasis does reflect broader changes in general.

We also saw how the niche of blues music morphs into the mainstream with rock and roll.  Artists like Elvis and the Beatles obviously gained huge followings.  But some of the British groups like The Who and The Kinks foreshadow disenchantment with the prevailing ethos.  Listen to “Everybody’s Going to be Happy,” and you can feel the intensity.  It’s not, “Everyone’s Going to be HAPPY! (YAY!) but “EVERYONE’S Going to be Happy.”  The Who appear to be harbingers of zany disregard for everything.  The song is called “Happy Jack,” and there are happy-sounding “la-la-la’s,” but the mood of the song gives a different message.

The music no longer aims for the broad middle.  As W.B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem, “the center cannot hold.”  Why did this happen, and what will be the results?  We will explore these questions next week.

Blessings,

Dave M