Sword and Sorcery
Historians commonly date the birth of Western civilization from the Greek development of mathematics. Greek mathematics was the first point of view able to regard the world as potentially comprehensible. While computational methods to solve practical problems existed as far back as the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations they were always ad hoc; a way of solving problems rather than of understanding the universe.
The Western revolution was based on the semi (and often frankly) religious goal of understanding the universe. From that world view flowed the 'how' as a byproduct -- the technology we often mistake for the spirit of inquiry itself -- of the quest for truth. The great empires of the time did not trouble themselves with the Western world view, with the source of the Fire, content with appropriating the results. They could simply keep their own cultural context and still use the borrowed fruit.
The Romans, the Hellenistic world and later the Arabs were content to simply adopt the technology. They copied mathematical results and physics and with it learned enough to slay and conquer -- even the Greeks -- an incident encapsulated in the death of Archimedes at the hands of a Roman soldier, who finding the deaf old abstracted man in his path solving a problem in the sand, stabbed the philosopher where he sat.
Not that the world has changed since. The Boko Haram's AK-47s; al-Qaeda's hijacked airliners, the humvees of ISIS, and perhaps the dirty nuclear bomb of some Jihadi militant -- are objects put to creative use by people none of whom can build them from first principles. But they've concluded as did the Romans and Caliphs before them, that they don't need to understand these objects in principle. They can regard these marvels as placed in their path by some magical agency. Why they work isn't as important as knowing how they can be used to kill.
But possibly the most dangerous barbarians live in the West. These, by being born there, assume they are Westerners by inheritance or osmosis. They also regard Western civilization as "found", its goodies a stash waiting to be used or distributed. Nor do they trouble themselves as to its provenance, for there has always been plenty more where the stash came from.
For these barbarians Western civilization and its associated quest for God or Truth are a bothersome impediment, a "white man's culture", a hundred year old relic ideology nobody bothers with, some irksomely judgmental superfluity that gets in the way of fun and spreading the fruits to arrivals at the border and various victim groups.
For the barbarian the only reality is appearances. Cargo cultists, for instance, believe that function comes from form. If they build something which resembles an airport then gift giving airplanes will arrive there to bring goodies. The 21st century barbarian completely lacks the attitude of Roger Bacon, who lived in the 13th century. Bacon knew that the truth was not a "white man's" culture -- in fact in his day nearly all learning came from the East -- but believed the truth was nature's culture; baked into reality; another word for what used to be called God. Of barbarian ignorance Bacon wrote:
Many secrets of art and nature are thought by the unlearned to be magical. ... The empire of man over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences. For we cannot command nature except by obeying her.
In today's post-Western environment, we've forgotten Bacon's adage.
But this ignorance has now been transformed into cool. Elliot Abrams captured the cultural shift in his recent article describing the administration's misadventures abroad: "The Man Who Broke the Middle East". Abrams talks about the most magic moment in modern history; the time Barack Obama spoke in Cairo. In Cairo Obama stood on a stage with a glass panel before him, upon which glowing words scrolled from which he intoned, offering nothing concrete beyond the assertion that he would succeed because he was he. Abrams writes:
The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained.
How did it happen? Begin with hubris: The new president told the world, in his Cairo speech in June 2009, that he had special expertise in understanding the entire world of Islam—knowledge “rooted in my own experience” because “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.” But President Obama wasn’t speaking that day in an imaginary location called “the world of Islam;” he was in Cairo, in the Arab Middle East, in a place where nothing counted more than power. “As a boy,” Obama told his listeners, “I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.” Nice touch, but Arab rulers were more interested in knowing whether as a man he heard the approaching sound of gunfire, saw the growing threat of al Qaeda from the Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula, and understood the ambitions of the ayatollahs as Iran moved closer and closer to a bomb.
Hocus-pocus, ala-kazaam! Unfortunately it didn't work.
Al-Qaeda is now on the border of Iraq, Syria and Jordan. In places it is within striking distance of Saudi Arabia. "After taking two more border posts in western Iraq this weekend, an Iraqi security official has confirmed that a border post near Jordan has fallen to ISIS fighters. Consequently, the ongoing crisis has expanded to within 100 miles of two U.S. allies." Many in the West are left stunned. Uncomprehending. The men who believed in the creased pants and the sonorous delivery are stumped. Why didn't it work?
Probably for the same reason that Avik Roy points out in Forbes about Obamacare.
Yesterday, the Manhattan Institute published the most comprehensive study yet on the topic, analyzing premium data from 3,137 U.S. counties, and finding an average rate hike of 49 percent. In response, left-wing bloggers are trying out a new talking point: that rate shock doesn’t matter, because taxpayer-funded subsidies will bear the higher costs. ...
subsidies aren’t free. They’re financed by taxes: not just taxes on “the rich,” whoever they are, but on average Americans. So if Obamacare increases the underlying cost of insurance, taxpayers are hit with a double whammy: higher insurance costs for themselves, and higher taxes to subsidize those costs for other people....
I’m struck by how contemptuous the left can be about these issues, especially given the moral obligation of government to spend taxpayer dollars in the most efficient possible manner.
The Left is contemptuous of costs because they don't believe it matters. With the certainty of those who are devoted to magic, like those who burned the library of Alexandria, costs don't matter because the government will pay for it. Like barbarians they don't really see the connection between Truth -- or God if you prefer -- and consequences. Goodies are simply there. Arithmetic is only useful for convincing people, for making the spell work. Peace comes if you want it hard enough. Healthcare can be made universal by spending Other People's Money. Science is but a persuasive device, but it's the wanting, it's the will that makes things happen. How simple can it be? The Republicans are denying poor people medical care because the states won't expand Medicaid. Medicaid is subsidized, don't you see? It's just free government money.
Recently a book about Hillary illustrated the power of magic even more forcefully. It claimed on the night of the attack on the Benghazi consulate the president told Hillary to say the attack was caused by a video produced in LA.
She had no doubt that a terrorist attack had been launched against America on the anniversary of 9/11. However, when Hillary picked up the phone and heard Obama’s voice, she learned the president had other ideas in mind. With less than two months before Election Day, he was still boasting that he had al Qaeda on the run.
If the truth about Benghazi became known, it would blow that argument out of the water.
“Hillary was stunned when she heard the president talk about the Benghazi attack,” one of her top legal advisers said in an interview. “Obama wanted her to say that the attack had been a spontaneous demonstration triggered by an obscure video on the Internet that demeaned the Prophet Mohammed.”
That would make it a non-terrorist attack because the Secretary of State said so. If this account is accurate, it corroborates the administration's tendency to view al-Qaeda in terms of magic. The Telegraph says the Kurds repeatedly warned Washington of the impending disaster. “I have completely lost hope in America after listening to President Barack Obama,” the head of Kurdish intelligence, Lahur Talabani, said. But they were just facts, and facts are trumped by narrative.
How could Obama admit to error, when having built his power on sorcery he must now cling to infallibility? The power of magicians to command the weather is destroyed once the magician is exposed as fake. For a sorcerer a mistake is not mere error but catastrophe. So the idea that reality can be trumped by perception is now the ultimate in modern sophistication, a necessary device to support the world of magic. In actuality this viewpoint is a reversion to the mentality of the cave-man, a return to the days when nature was an incomprehensible mystery to pacified by a witch-doctor.
"Wonks" who spin messages, destroy data and actually believe that paper printed at the Federal reserve is valuable can also believe that a 'speech is a substitute for strategy'. They may regard themselves as modern men, yet their modernity is only a trapping. They are like the teenager who remarked, as someone wrote, on observing the Statue of Liberty, that the green lady statue was clutching an iPad in her left hand. Today we don't even care what Lady Liberty stands for, or what what law is inscribed in the tabula ansata; that is a hundred year old trivia question nobody knows the answer to any more. The really significant question is: does Lady Liberty's iPad have a Retina display and where can I get one at a government subsidy?
Recent items of interest by Belmont readers based on Amazon click-throughs.
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Article printed from Belmont Club: https://pjmedia.com/richardfernandez
URL to article: https://pjmedia.com/richardfernandez/2014/6/23/sword-and-sorcery