Tag Archives: America

Success is the Mother of Failure

800px-Triumph_of_Achilles_in_Corfu_AchilleionThe ancient Greeks had a very accurate philosophical worldview about the dangers of success. That is, the tragic flaw in humanity is not that we fail, rather it is that our very successes that destroy us. Achilles does not die on the walls of Troy because he failed as a soldier, he is struck down in the very moment of victory by a coward’s poisoned arrow, struck in a weakness he possessed from birth.

So when I think about America’s current problems, it seems as though they spring from her successes. The American people are almost psychotic in their belief that they can discuss issues with rouge countries probably because in America, the rule of law and a measure of civility have been so ingrained that in most American’s experiences, they can indeed resolve most problems by discussing them. Because American innovation made the firearm so affordable that everyone could own one and defend themselves, it became much less necessary to do so. And now it is completely obscure to a large section of the population that the only way to avoid horrors similar to the recent Kenyan mall terrorist attack, is to count on the few Americans who still go places armed. In America, politicians are generally relatively dumb, (I would love to make congress and bureaucrats and the President take an SAT test now, and see how they compare with the national average…) and our people are naive. I think that they get to be naive because their fathers and their grandfather succeeded so well, that they have literally no concept of what deprivation, war, famine, and plague mean. We have no concept of what it would be like for a city to lose a quarter of its population to a plague like Seville did in 1646. The last pandemic that Americans experienced was in 1918, in large part because American medicinal innovations are the best the world has ever known. And yet, Americans pine for traditional Chinese remedy’s and all natural healing supplements, something they have the luxury of doing since if things get too bad, they can always go to the hospital for boring and effective American medicine.

So yes, I think where Americans are dumb, naïve, and foolish, they are that way because their grandfathers were so successful at conquering the problems that beset humanity.  Unfortunately, like Achilles, humanity has a fatal flaw, and I am afraid that Americans do not have much time left to them to be silly and naïve. I used to wonder why Achilles never wore armor plating around his ankle, but now I know why. He had no memory of physical pain and he didn’t think a little ankle wound would kill him anyway. Let’s pray that when America finally must remember pain, the arrow is not poisoned.Closeup_of_Achilles_thniskon_in_Corfu_Achilleion_autocorrected


A pressing question from VD Hanson and an answer that is, perhaps a little unsatisfactory… certainly a topic worth thinking about and an eventuality  worth preparing for.

So why is the United States not experiencing something like the rioting in Turkey or Brazil, or the murder of thousands in Mexico? How are we able to avoid the bloody chaos of Syria, the harsh dictatorships of Russia and China, the implosion of Egypt, or the economic hopelessness now endemic in southern Europe?

About half of America and many of its institutions operate as they always have. Caltech and MIT are still serious. Neither interjects race, class, and gender studies into its engineering or physics curricula. Most in the IRS, unlike some of their bosses, are not corrupt. For the well driller, the power-plant operator, and the wheat farmer, the lies in Washington are still mostly an abstraction.

Get up at 5:30 a.m. and you’ll see that your local freeways are jammed with hard-working commuters. They go to work every day, support their families, pay their taxes, and avoid arrest — so that millions of others do not have to do the same. The U.S. military still more closely resembles our heroes from World War II than it resembles the culture of the Kardashians.

Like diverse citizens of imperial Rome, we are united in some fashion by shared popular tastes and mass consumerism. The cell phones and cars of the poor offer more computing power and better transportation than the rich enjoyed just 20 years ago.

You should probably read the rest at NRO.

The Red Car Syndrome

You know, when you buy something and then notice everyone else has one… Well, sometimes this happens to me with ideas –the idea version of the red car syndrome. I have a thought, and then it seems to be everywhere for a little while. I was recently thinking about the medieval times, that so many people erroneously refer to as ‘the dark ages’. Before I point to the related ‘red cars’ that drove by me after thinking about this, I would like to define a new unit of time. You see, whenever thinking about something historical, I generally believe that most people don’t try to put things into a time scale. So, for the purposes of this post (and perhaps to be used later) I would like to define the ‘america’ or am., not to be confused with Am. the abbreviation for Americium. images

You see, I do think people have a decent sense for about how long ago America was founded; they have a whisper of an idea of what 237 years is. Other amounts, perhaps not so much. For instance, how long did the Byzantine empire last? Well, from Constantine I until the fall of Byzantium to the Turks was from 330 – 1453 and anyone who takes a moment will see that that is 1123 years, but did you know that that is 4.74 americas?

1123 yrs * (1 am. /237 yrs) = 4.738397 am.

Which rounded to the proper significant figures is 4.74 am. 🙂 Now to tell about three ideas that passed by.

So, first off: there is a ‘family tree’ of doctorates in the department here. I think it is one of the coolest things in the department. Since every doctorate requires study under another doctor, then you can trace a lineage of sorts. Half of the department traces back through time to a man teaching in 1580 AD in Padua, Giulio Cesare Casseri, who if Wikipedia isn’t lying was an anatomist. So, granted this man lived after what people usually call the dark ages, but did you know that the university in Padua was founded right in the middle of them? It was founded 1222 AD, or 1.51 am. before this grandfather of my chemistry department (22 ‘generations’ ago). Without these universities, usually founded off of cathedral or monastery schools, there would be no western science or medicine at all.

So there I was thinking about this, and lo and behold a video from PJ media.

And again, to reinforce the idea, was this article about the oldest complete Torah found in an Italian university, Bologna university… which is actually even older than Padua, 0.565 am. older in fact. The Torah isn’t that old, but this line is remarkable.

The professor said the scroll came to Bologna university from a Dominican monastery in the city, most likely after Napoleon disbanded religious orders in the country in the 19th century.

It was “completely normal” that Dominican friars would have an ancient Torah as there was close collaboration between Christian and Jewish scholars in the early Middle Ages, Perani said.

The scroll dates to late 12th and early 13th centuries by carbon dating, which, by the way is 3.43 am. old!

Well that’s it, though because I made up a new unit, I figured I would make a little list of ages in that unit

Time Anglo-Saxon England was ruled by Anglo-saxons = 2.18 am.
Time between first heavier than air flight and the moon landing = 0.278 am.
Time I have been alive = 0.105 am.
t ½ of 243Am = 31.1 am.
Time since America was founded…. Exactly 1 am. 🙂

The Postman and America

All of history is like a tangled mess of threads. You read about battles like Balaclava, or about the various intrigues of this or that king’s court, and it all feels rather pointless. It’s a mess of yarn a cat played with. I know all this sound nihilistic and fatalist, but it is often true about history. Sometimes, however, when reading a biography, or an original text or even sometimes a novel, a momentary glimmer appears of order in the chaos, of, perhaps, a plan in the mess: even a Divine plan. It is on those moments when history is transformed in the mind from ‘one damn thing after another’ to something with purpose, a beginning with an end, something whose order is so complex and huge that the mind cannot grasp it. It’s produces historical vertigo, and whenever it happens it is almost too bright for the mind.

Well I will get back to that thought, but about a week ago, our local library had its biannual book sale (last time I got ‘The End of the Affair’) and I bought this time a hardcover of The Postman by David Brin.

I had read it before a long while ago, and remembered really enjoying the story. This time, however, I was deeply impressed by the American-ness of the story.  And there was one moment, with a brief excursion to Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and the nefarious Aaron Burr. The whole book explores really two themes, taking responsibility, and a sort of three way battle between the very strong who wish to dominate, the weak, and the strong who wish to live their lives for little things, like their farm and their friends, and yet go forth when called to fight for big things like Liberty and Justice. In Archetypes it would be a battle between Julius Caesar, the Roman general/farmer Cincinnatus, and common folk.

While the discussions of feminism, flaws with American culture, and the exploration of what would cause a society to tear itself apart are complex (as they should be) and interesting, there was one section that struck me with historical vertigo, a sudden, and temporary feeling of seeing more in the history than is generally seen. The moment is when the hero, the Postman, is being held captive by the Holnists (followers of the fictitious Nathan Holn) who were basically worshipers of the strong. Rule was by the strong, for the strong, and the only rule for advancement in their fledgling barbarism was that your strength determined your status. The specific passage was ‘by’ Nathan Holn.  He discusses about Aaron Burr’s attempt to seize the territory to the west of the 13 colonies and create an empire of the strong. He also talks about how Burr was thwarted by Hamilton, and Franklin and an idea.

The idea was the Order of Cincinnatus and while I dont know how much influence that had, something very different did indeed happen just after America’s revolution. And so, all of a sudden in my mind came how every so often in America the drive of powerful people towards Empire has been a core fight, perhaps the core fight of the American experiment. How, as he says in the book, Aaron Burr and those like him did not envision new states, they wanted little empires of territory to the west. How the Democrats from the antebellum south desperately wanted Cuba to be annexed to be added to their constellation of slave states. How it is entirely possible that the Mexican War was started for just this purpose, that, in the mind of these almost Holnists, the whole western hemisphere south of the Potomac would be a slave empire, and the world north could do as it wished. And again, in my mind came the fact that despite this, the American people, who as yet still have nearly unprecedented power over their leaders, have, through recurring times of quiet courage, incessantly refused empire. If you consider all the territory America could have held and ruled if she had had any stomach for empire: Cuba, all of Mexico, the Philippines,  Japan, Korea, and who knows but half of Europe too… We may joke that some of these places would be better off if we still ran them, but America would have ceased to be what it is, a Giant among giant countries, with almost no appetite for conquest, so little in fact, that when some actual conquest might be necessary we frequently balk.

All this brings me around to something that I think about rather often, just one little observation: the American Revolution is one of the few that really worked. Compare and contrast the American Revolution and the French one just a few years later. Americans are now 236 years into our experiment. The French went through a massive, bloody purge during the Reign of Terror (thank you French Enlightenment) which was part of the 1st Republic, then they had an Empire (Napoléon) , then more Kings (last of the Bourbons), the 2nd Republic, another Napoléon/Empire,  the 3rd Republic, a puppet state Vichy France, and I think they are in the 5th Republic… Not a successful revolution. And I think the difference was that Washington, Franklin, Hamilton won out against the Aaron Burr types. It makes me wonder, if Rome had the same struggles to keep from becoming and Empire, and if we can continue having the Cincinnatus/ Washington /George Powhatan (from The Postman) types beat the Holnists who are ever present in our midst emerging as they do from basic human nature. As Ronald Reagan said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” I think this is what he was referring to.

To return at the end to The Postman, it is a fun book, sometimes a deep book, and the author clearly loves America, yet sees it ‘warts and all’.

The Cause for the Celebration

The Declaration of Independence (actually officially: The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America) is really the heart of the country. The Constitution is the practical means to form a government that conforms to the mold presented in the philosophy and ideas of the Declaration.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Read it all, it deserves to be read and cherished. And it is Independence Day, what better to do on Independence day than read the document at the root of the celebration. Also, Johnny Cash, and one of my favorites: Ragged Old Flag.