Rise, my Sun – It Happened Today, February 26, 2017

Christian painting of God creating the cosmos (Bible Moralisee, French, 13th century)

On this date back in 1616, February 26, the Catholic Church made its infamous effort to undo Joshua 10:12 and make the sun move in the sky. Or at least it ordered Galileo to shut up about the fact that it made far more sense to regard the Earth as in motion around a stationary sun. Confirming once again Robert Conquest’s 3rd Law of Politics: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.” Because to this day almost nothing seems to confirm the beliefs of anti-Catholics that the Church is repressive and obscurantist than this episode.

In my view the charge is not entirely fair. Even when it comes to science, the Catholic Church has very often taken very sensible views, in the spirit of Cesare Cardinal Baronio whose comment about the controversy was “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” But this episode with Galileo is the one that sticks in the popular mind.

And for what? After silencing Galileo the Church went on to ban all books advocating the Copernican system as “altogether contrary to Holy Scripture”. Galileo himself was unrepentant and despite formally accepting the 1616 decree went on to publish his devastating Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems which earned him a trial for heresy in 1633. And a conviction, and house arrest for the rest of his life.

The sun, you’ll notice, didn’t escape from the stationary position relative to our solar system to which Galileo had assigned it. (It is splitting hairs to argue today, as some do, that the Church was sort of right because the sun does move relative to other stars. The problem was declaring astronomy a branch of theology.)

A mere 122 years later, in 1758, the Church dropped the ban on heliocentric books without actually reversing the verdict against Galileo or allowing uncensored version of Copernicus’ key work De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium or Galileo’s Dialogue. Not until 1820 did the Church go “Ooops” for real and lift the ban on the two books, and a mere 15 years later a revised Index of Forbidden Books no longer listed them.

Eventually Pope John Paul II said it was a mistake to go after Galileo. But I am not sure the conviction for heresy was ever overturned. I mean, you don’t want to rush into things, right? Or rather, having rushed in, you don’t want to rush out just because the building is on fire or anything.

As I say, the Church has often done better on science than in this episode. But if you were in fact part of a cabal of its enemies secretly controlling its conduct, and desirous of discrediting it badly in a way that would last centuries, you’d do just about exactly what they did.

P.S. Conquest’s other two laws are “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best” and “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” The extent to which these also apply to the Roman Catholic Church is a matter for another day.


To help support my work click here to contribute. (Note please that Patreon pledges are in U.S. dollars.)

Remedy the Alamo? – It Happened Today, February 23, 2017

Back in 1836 the Battle of the Alamo began on February 23. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the Mexican government, because after a 13-day siege they stormed the Alamo Mission and killed everybody inside, prompting outrage, a surge of enlistments in the “Texian” army and a decisive victory for the latter at San Jacinto in April that secured Texas independence. And a lot of people are still bitter.

There are seriously people in the United States who dream of restoring much of the southwest to Mexico, to say nothing of Mexicans who want back what they believe was “stolen” from them in 1836 and then in 1848. Germany even used it as bait to try to lure Mexico into World War I in the middle of its own brutal civil war, which Mexico’s government at the time was at least too intelligent to fall for. But I cannot understand the appeal of getting Texas back inside Mexico.

In the first place, can anybody seriously claim that Texans would be better off if the place had remained Mexican, that they would be freer or wealthier? And the United States as a whole would have been diminished without Texas, even if it did fight on the wrong side in the Civil War. But on the whole both Texas and the world are better off for the outcome in 1836.

Ah but, say some, these “Texans” were interlopers, white people who moved in in large numbers after 1821. Which may be true, but they were invited in by the Mexican government and if they then decided they did not like that government, anyone who believes in the consent of the governed must concede that they had a right to do something. And anyone who believes their discontent with the Mexican government was unfounded knows little of the history of Mexico. (Though it must be conceded that the Mexican government did prohibit slavery, something many immigrants flagrantly ignored.)

There’s another point here, even more fundamental. If we are to deny Texans the right to inhabit Texas in 1836, we must surely also deny Mexicans the right to inhabit Mexico, which was acquired from the “indigenous” occupants by Imperial Spain in a manner even less attractive than the settlement of North America. Now it would be quite a feat to undo that injustice, particularly as a large part of the population of Mexico has both European and aboriginal ancestry and you cannot really tell someone their left leg can stay but the rest of them has to go “back” to a place their last ancestor left in the 17th century. And then… and then… it gets worse.

You see, the Aztecs who occupied much of Mexico when the Spaniards showed up were warlike, aggressive and in many ways horrible including their ritual human sacrifice of their enemies on a spectacular scale. They too have no right to the land which they stole, even if it’s very hard to return it to the descendants who were never born of people whose hearts they ripped out of their living chests and sometimes then ate their flesh and made their skin in to ceremonial robes.

The same problem arises, if slightly less starkly, with almost every revisionist attempt to undo some particular injustice in history real or imagined. It triggers a domino effect that only stops once records are not available, in which in any case we are compelled to take from the blameless to give to the nonexistent.

To say so is not to excuse injustice or aggression. But it is to say that our duty is to try to prevent them in the present, not to seek to remedy the real past in imaginary ways.

So yes, remember the Alamo. But do not try to put it back into Mexico. It does not belong there.


To help support my work click here to contribute. (Note please that Patreon pledges are in U.S. dollars.)

Le Roi de Naples? – It Happened Today, February 22, 2017

In a sign of a more cosmopolitan era, on February 22 Charles VIII “the Affable” of France marched into Naples to claim its throne. It didn’t work, as the grand schemes of Kings of France often did not. But it’s interesting to reflect on a period in which neither the French nor the Italians would regard it as in principle offensive to have a French king on an Italian throne, whatever they thought of the actual claimant.

In fairness, Charles did rather better in boldly marrying Anne of Brittany in 1491. It was bold because technically she had already married Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, by proxy and possibly not properly. By bagging Brittany instead of the Hapsburgs getting it he did help France avoid Hapsburg encirclement and emerge as a great power. The same is not true of his Italian venture.

Having somehow inherited a legally, morally and practically dubious claim to the throne of Naples, reinforced by a somewhat cynical Pope Innocent VIII, he made various deals with other important monarchs and then conquered Italy without much apparent difficulty in late 1494 and early 1495, to the joy of Savonarola but the concern of many other players including a new Pope, Alexander VI. His enemies created the League of Venice against him and he was more or less driven out of Italy in 1495, a great deal poorer but apparently no wiser. And wars would continue over Italy for 50 years, convulsing Western European geopolitics to no good purpose at much cost especially to Italians.

As for Charles, who if he was affable was so largely on the surface, he banged his head on a doorframe in 1498 and fell down dead. (OK, he fell into a coma and died nine hours later but as banging your head on a door and perishing at age 27 goes it was pretty quick.) He left France, his dynasty and Italy in a right mess. So on the whole not a good king.

Still, I do find it odd that we pride ourselves on our cosmopolitan, tolerant and multicultural attitudes. Yet we retain a kind of Wilsonian fascination with ethnic states to the point that it seems strange, even perverse, to have a French King seeking the throne of Naples, an Austrian Hapsburg seeking to rule Brittany and so on.

There were good reasons why they should not have done so, primarily that this particular French King should also not have ruled France, nor the profligate Habsburg Maximilian I of Austria, who stuck the Holy Roman Empire with a debt it took a century to pay off. But ethnicity seems to me to have nothing to do with it.



To help support my work click here to contribute. (Note please that Patreon pledges are in U.S. dollars.)

When Twitter met toaster

In my latest National Post column I explore Bruce Schneier’s warning that the Internet of Things is desperately insecure, and suggest that it’s strange to run so much risk for so little genuine benefit.


To help support my work click here to contribute. (Note please that Patreon pledges are in U.S. dollars.)

A Pen Filled With Vitriol… and Blood – It Happened Today, February 21, 2017

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.” It is, I must admit, a brilliant opening line. With that line the Communist Manifesto opened on February 21 of 1848. And the world was never the same again. In, most people must surely now admit, mostly bad or even horrible ways.

Radicalism is, I suppose, inevitable, an intellectual or even psychological disposition that has always been with us and always will be. And it will always be impatient, convinced that good will is all you really need, and therefore also convinced that its opponents must be evil, an attitude which rapidly passes through insolence into abuse. But Marxism seems to have been a singularly poisonous and attractive form of radicalism, a perilous combination.

Marx himself long enjoyed a reputation as a deep thinker that sometimes attaches to the voluminously impenetrable. Marx was not, in fact, a great analytic economist, although his theories had a certain plausibility when conventional economics believed in the labour theory of value that they could not retain to the educated mind after the marginalist revolution of the early 20th century. But he was also attractive to the usual suspects, especially of the more dangerous sort, because his supposed erudition was basically just the lead weight in the glove of his rhetoric.

Marx always was a fine rhetorician even if Kapital is all but impenetrable. I’ve always cherished Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase that “the cold metal of economic theory is in Marx’s pages immersed in such a wealth of steaming phrases as to acquire a temperature not naturally its own.”

Especially in the Communist Manifesto, full of ringing phrases like “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” that are exceptionally clear as well as polemical.

Among these is one that I consider highly perceptive, partly because Marshall Berman used it as the title of an unsettling book about modernity. It is that under what Marx called capitalism but might better be dubbed “modernization,” a disorienting process of constant change occurs in which “All that is solid melts into air”. Including your formerly brilliant cutting edge smartphone, which three years later is an embarrassing brick. But a few insights do not make a philosopher or an economist.

Nor do a few good phrases make a good man. Including his castigation of “the idiocy of rural life”. Oddly the famous “Religion is the opium of the masses” is not from the Communist Manifesto but from the posthumously published “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” whose title gives a fair idea of Marx’s general prose style despite his gift for turning a phrase when he wanted. And that quotation, in full, is not as rude as Marx often is: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. But Marx was, as a rule, abusive, in debate and in his personal life and I do not think it can be disregarded in considering his theories and their appeal.

Space precludes getting into all the details here but he was a mean, selfish, thuggish hypocrite, and his doctrines not accidentally often appealed to thoroughly unpleasant people. Moreover they were materialist, which necessarily denies human dignity (whether it is true or not is of course not determined by its attractiveness). And Marx and Engels’ theory of class struggle, in ways that to borrow a Bolshevik phrase are no accident, absolutely denied the possibility of rational debate, declaring all opposition to Communism to be at once viciously self-interested and impenetrably obtuse, thus leaving a speedy resort to violence the only course. In that sense, for all its elaborate theoretical framework, Marxism was at bottom radically relativist and nihilistic regarding the very possibility of objective truth.

Despite its failings, or perhaps because of them, far too many adolescent revolutionaries of all ages adhered to it for far too long for the thrill of giving reputable society, and staid socialists, a poke in the eye, without looking carefully at the implications of its doctrines. And perhaps that, too, is an enduring characteristic of radicalism. But if so, it is another reason to avoid it.

A spectre did indeed haunt Europe for more than a century after the Communist Manifesto first appeared. And it turned out to be even worse under Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot among others, than its most vociferous critics warned, in part because its most vocal and determined adherents were so careless about what they advocated. It remains hugely popular on the intellectual left, even trendy.

Do such people never learn?


To help support my work click here to contribute. (Note please that Patreon pledges are in U.S. dollars.)

Aye, and Cheap Too – It Happened Today, February 20, 2017

What could be more quintessentially Scottish than the Shetland and Orkney Islands? Bleak, remote, picturesque, the ideal location for a hardy folk and their hardy ponies. By reputation the Scots won’t go rock climbing unless they have “full conditions” namely rain and wind that deter even other people crazy enough to rock climb. Och aye mon.

It is therefore a bit surprising to learn that both these island chains, which to my shame I hadn’t realized were northeast of John o’ Groats in the ancestral county of Caithness to which I have not been, itself allegedly more than a little remote, belonged to Norway until the 15th century.

Of course a lot of things “belonged” to Norway in the sense of having been seized by ferocious Vikings over the previous millennium or so. (And parenthetically I often wonder how those who feel that within North America we should do a kind of ethnic reset of landholdings to 1500 think we should undo the impact of those raids, invasions and random chaos.) But these two island chains, it turns out, wound up in Scottish hands via a pawn shop.

Perhaps you don’t fancy your chances of wandering into such an establishment with “Mainland” and its cousins (yes, “Mainland” is the largest of the Shetlands) under your coat and hoping the man at the desk will advance some money without a lot of questions about provenance. But it actually is what happened on February 20 of 1469 when Christian I of Norway put them up as security because he was having trouble scraping together a dowry for his daughter Margaret to marry James III of Scotland in what I suppose was regarded on both sides as a shrewd dynastic move.

It wasn’t. James III’s grandiose European schemes were of no benefit to Norway or his own people who he didn’t bother trying to govern well. And like so many of the Stuarts’ cunning plans James III’s ended badly, with his death in battle against rebellious nobles in 1488. (His son James IV was killed in the disastrous defeat by the English at Flodden. His son James V died shortly after the disastrous defeat by the English at Solway Moss. But I digress.)

The point is that Christian I pawned the islands and never redeemed them, Norway apparently becoming less interested in these picturesque rocks after unifying with Denmark which was bigger, warmer and less inaccessible. In 1472 they were officially annexed to the Scottish crown.

So what could be more quintessentially Scottish than the Shetland and Orkney Islands? I’ll tell you. Getting them in a pawn shop for a bargain price.


To help support my work click here to contribute. (Note please that Patreon pledges are in U.S. dollars.)

Oh yeah, that Vermont – It Happened Today, February 18, 2017

Vermont is not all that controversial. Is it? No. It’s just this rather pleasant New England state with the odd distinction of being among the most Democratic in the United States and the most heavily armed. But precisely because it does not arouse strong passions, it’s interesting to reflect on its admission to the Union on February 18 of 1791.

Interestingly, that decision was controversial, because Vermont was on land ceded by the French after the Seven Years’ War and at one point New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire all claimed some of it. By 1770 it was basically New York versus the local staid pious New England rowdies, especially Ethan Allan and his “Green Mountain Boys” who were frankly rather scary vigilantes against New York authority.

Until, of course, the British decided to suppress liberty in their colonies at which point everybody decided to forget their old quarrels and go get George III even though Ethan Allan continued to contest New York’s authority. So here’s the interesting thing.

In the general uprising against British authority, a group of Vermonters gathered in convention declared themselves a sovereign state in 1777. Then they named themselves Vermont, and adopted the first constitution in North America to ban adult slavery. (Eighty-one years later, in 1858, Vermont banned slavery altogether.)

For fourteen years people tried to avoid the awkward topic of whether there was or was not a “Vermont” even though it issued its own money, had a postal service and elected governors. And Congress could not act without New York’s consent under Article IV, Section 3 of the constitution. Finally New York threw in the towel and, after successful negotiations over where exactly the border lay and what compensation was due to New Yorkers whose land titles had been ignored in Vermont, Vermont became the 14th state and (duh) the first new one after the original 13.

What’s interesting here is that Vermont’s claim to statehood rested on two key points. First, the people who then lived there wanted it. And second, they had successfully acted as a state in fact. In short, people bowed to reality.

I’m not saying might makes right. The origins of many nations and subnational jurisdictions give serious pause on grounds of legitimacy, especially in a world that no longer recognises the “Doctrine of Discovery” of places that already had people in them, and is distinctly uneasy with the “Doctrine of Conquest”. But the simple fact is that as far back as you can find anything resembling reliable records, land is in possession of those who took it from others including the aboriginals who were in Vermont when Europeans showed up. And sometimes de facto is the best basis you can find for de jure, that is, you agree that Vermont should be accepted as existing essentially because it does exist.

We still hope for perfect justice. We cannot do less. But at times we admit that things are what they are and we must make the best of them.

I do not think a great many people, even in New York, go about today saying Vermont is a fraud and an imposition. But precisely because it does not arouse strong passions, it’s a good test case of our willingness to defy, or accept, what actually does exist in favour of what we wish existed or feel might perhaps have existed under other circumstances.


To help support my work click here to contribute. (Note please that Patreon pledges are in U.S. dollars.)

Sic Transit again – It Happened Today, February 17, 2017

On this date in 364 AD, February 17, Jovian was found dead in his tent. And if your reaction was a rudely pointed “Who?”, well, you have a point. Actually he was a Roman Emperor and an illustration of the vanity of much worldly ambition.

He only reigned for eight months, following Julian the Apostate’s sudden death during his bungled campaign against the Persians. He was foisted on the empire by soldiers, possibly in a case of mistaken identity. And though he was found dead in suspicious circumstances, nobody much cared to investigate them.

On the plus side, he did restore Christianity after Julian’s rather pathetic efforts to restore worship of the Olympian deities. And he did proclaim freedom of conscience while, um, forbidding magical rites and imposing the death penalty for those who worshipped ye olde Gods like Jupiter. Oh, and he had the Library of Antioch burned down because Julian had filled it with pagan books. Which actually annoyed his Christian as well as non-Christian subjects.

He then continued Julian’s retreat from the far east and signed a humiliating treaty with the Sassinids surrendering five Roman provinces. After which he made a bee-line for Constantinople to bolster his political position somehow. Except it ended up a bee-line to the cemetery.

To rub it all in, his successor Valentinian I did such a good job that he was nicknamed “the Great”. Whereas Jovian was nicknamed “Who dat” or some such.

Another person who would have been better off staying on his farm. As would his nation.


To help support my work click here to contribute. (Note please that Patreon pledges are in U.S. dollars.)