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The Return of Magic

"Hear me out:" tweeted John Podhoretz after Hollywood announced the wrong winner at the award ceremonies. "What just happened on the Oscars was actually a profound sign of American institutional collapse."  Yet if it was going backward it was also going forward. The day after the Oscars Elon Musk announced SpaceX would fly two people to the moon next year, using a Dragon crew capsule and a Falcon heavy rocket. Musk would not identify the pair nor name the price they paid for the trip but said "I think they are entering this with their eyes open, knowing that there is some risk here," adding "it's nobody from Hollywood."

The 21st century is turning out to be mix of incompetence and brilliance, high technology and primitivism, fastidiousness and brutality all coexisting side by side.  Nowhere is this incongruity more evident than on the Syrian battlefield.  Here Mad Max vehicles  piled high with garish blankets, Russian heavy machine guns and grill armor cages fight against a foe sworn to return the world to the 8th century while fighting with cell phones, radio-controlled bombs and modified consumer drones. The video below shows how ISIS is using drones to drop grenades on Iraqi troops in Mosul.  They might well do the same in Paris.

Consumer drones' limited payload makes them militarily insignificant unless they can be loaded with something more deadly than high explosive, a deficiency that otherwise primitive North Korea may amend by selling VX gas to selected customers. Then they will be a threat. Haaretz speculates the assassination of Kim Jong Un's half brother was "to showcase its stockpile of banned chemical weapons."  If ISIS wants to buy VX they will know which Korea to go to.

The NASA picture of a dark, unelectrified North Korea across from a brilliantly lit South Korea capture how the world in many places has evolved into juxtaposition between the primitive yet advanced and the sophisticated yet sheltered.  The patchwork of barbarism and civilization we often associate with ancient times has been recreated with even greater contrast in disturbingly exact detail.  The Daily Caller reports that "as Islamic State militants wage a relentless campaign against the cultural treasures of the Arab world, a single Benedictine monk is organizing efforts to preserve ancient manuscripts from destruction."

A new Hadrian's Wall divides a peninsula

And yet the barbarians are destroying the cultural artifacts of the past with modern weapons, like Conan with his enchanted belt. Like the storied days of yore, the 21st century is a landscape of sword and sorcery, a world at once crude and magical, ignorant and brilliant. If a drone attack ever takes place in the Third World there may be a public clamor for the provision of the American disruptor "ray" gun the public may have heard of from their cell phones. They, unlike the Kurds, may not able to understand that drones are man-made things vulnerable to small arms fire. Instead, they may believe that sorcery must oppose sorcery; for are not the drones a conjury? And what could avail them except more sorcery? Any sufficiently advanced technology, as Arthur C. Clarke once observed, is indistinguishable from magic.

Too many everyday things are already indistinguishable from magic to the average man. Four centuries ago everyone knew how everything in their village worked. Even a hundred years ago an intelligent person could figure out anything he would likely encounter, even the steam locomotive. But today people are surrounded by things about whose workings they haven't a clue.  Medical devices, synthetic pharmaceuticals, designer pathogens. The proportion of those who can explain the world is gradually shrinking.

Cell phones, robots, mesh nets, remote imaging, data mining, stealth, invisible lethal chemicals, and contagious diseases exist cheek by jowl with ox-drawn carts, subsistence agriculture, illiteracy, and fanaticism around Mosul and in other global cities. You hear the chants in the video. "Let the missile hit the tank. Let the missile hit the tank." Epistemologically they are found objects like the Palantir or mithril coat described in The Lord of the Rings, things made in the deeps of time by wizards still rumored to exist, some say in America, Europe, or Asia for the wizards are so few in proportion to the planetary billions that most people will never meet one personally.

Nor is the cohabitation of primitive and advanced confined to the Third World.  A recent survey found an increasing number of young American men now play video games instead of getting jobs. "Danny Izquierdo, a 22-year-old who lives with his parents in Silver Spring, Md., has found little satisfaction in a series of part-time, low-wage jobs he's held since graduating from high school. But the video games he plays, including 'FIFA 16' and 'Rocket League' on PlayStation and Pokemon Go on his smartphone, are a different story."

To the scene of a darkened North Korea beside a lit South Korea add the disturbing image of a young man employed at the low tech work and entertaining himself with a console of superlatively magic technology.  The West has become a place of magic too. This alienation of man from his former world is reflected in Western politics. Too many, when asked where food comes from, will reply, "the store." If quizzed how cell phones work they might at best explain "you get a subscription."  And who pays for health care? Even Bernie Sanders might reply "the government" -- so that the taxpayers won't have to.

With magic multiplying rather than receding, the latest trend in progressive politics is to question why anyone should work or learn skills at all. The Guardian says a guaranteed basic income is an idea whose time has come because 1) capitalism is exploitative and 2) robots can do all the useful work anyway.  Man is about to give up his birthright for a welfare payment and the promise of safety.

There is now a growing band of politicians, entrepreneurs and policy strategists who argue that a basic income could potentially hold the solution to some of the big problems of our time. Some of these new converts have alighted upon the basic income as an answer to our fragmenting welfare state. They point to the increasingly precarious nature of today’s labour market for those in low-paid, low-skilled work: growing wage inequality, an increasing number of part-time and temporary jobs, and rogue employers routinely getting away with exploitative practices. ...

A second set of basic income converts articulate a grander case, grounded not so much in the breakdown of the current welfare state, but in a world where the rise of robots means many of us will no longer have to work. We will be free to enjoy lives of leisure – but without work, we will all need a source of income.

Let the wizards do it all and leave us to our "art." The juxtaposition between the Academy Awards and the SpaceX announcement suggests a coming future of extraordinary contrasts. It will certainly be the best of times and the worst of times, a season of Light and equally a season of Darkness. In humanity's long history we have certainly never been in a place quite like this before. Perhaps the long anticipated trope of science fiction -- of aliens landing on a primitive earth will come true. What they could not have guessed is both the aliens and primitives would be the same species.

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Books:

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy), by Rick Atkinson. The liberation of Europe and the destruction of the Third Reich is an epic story of courage and calamity, of miscalculation and enduring triumph. In this first volume of the Liberation Trilogy, Atkinson shows why no modern reader can understand the ultimate victory of the Allied powers without a grasp of the great drama that unfolded in North Africa in 1942 and 1943, as the American and British armies fight the French in Morocco and Algiers, and then take on the Germans and Italians in Tunisia.At the center of the tale are the commanders who come to dominate the battlefield: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, and Rommel.

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Drawing on dozens of leading chefs' combined experience, Page and Dornenburg shows you how to season ingredients to coax the greatest possible flavor from them. This definitive guide to creating "deliciousness" in any dish lists thousands of ingredient entries, organized alphabetically and cross-referenced, to provide a treasure trove of spectacular flavor combinations.

Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, Author Theodore Dalrymple unmasks the hidden sentimentality that is suffocating public life and shows the perverse results when we abandon logic in favor of the cult of feeling. Under the multiple guises of raising children well, caring for the underprivileged, assisting the less able and doing good generally, we are achieving quite the opposite -- for the single purpose of feeling good about ourselves.

ISIS: A History, by Fawaz Gerges. One of the world's leading authorities on political Islam and jihadism sheds new light on the rise of ISIS, what it portends for the future of the Middle East, and the deeper conditions that fuel the group.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific

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