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Monday, December 31, 2012

A Cline Chrestomathy

Nothing will replace physical books. Ever. There is a certain satisfaction to be had and valued in seeing the physical, existential, three-dimensional form of a book – one's own or someone else's – in having it on hand without needing to click a mouse or scroll through screen pages. Perhaps the entire contents of the Library of Congress and the British Museum can be combined and fitted into a special thumbnail drive and be made accessible to one and all, everywhere, anywhere, and at any time.

But otherwise, a book's contents exist in the ethereal realm of chips and circuitry. One can't reach out and touch it, flip through its pages, and say, "There it is. A lifetime of work," and heft its two or three pounds in one's hand. All Kindle and other forms of e-books are based on the chief format of a book, with covers and pages. But an e-book is much like an ideal woman; an abstraction hovering in one's mind, not entirely real and dependent on electric power that hasn’t been knocked out by a storm or a power company's incompetence. The real ideal woman is three-dimensional and, well, real. There's a morale-boosting difference between a having a pin-up of Rita Hayworth and Rita Hayworth sitting across the club table from you with a come-hither look and her unseen foot teasing one's leg beneath the table. Substitute Lauren Bacall or Carole Lombard, if you wish.

The publishing world tends to be culturally and esthetically autistic. Its communication skills are miniscule or non-existent, it is rigidly myopic in its practices and planning, and is about as detached from the world as any random political party or bureaucracy. It has been so for decades, nay, centuries. As a rule, it passes over what it ought to publish and promotes the marginal, the forgettable, and the transient. "It's what the public wants," is its oft-repeated excuse and rationalization for its behavior, wishing to forget and hoping the book-buying public doesn’t remember that much of what it publishes winds up on bookstores' remainder tables with drastically marked-down prices to help reduce its taxable inventory. Its claim to omniscience is the stuff of satire.

Speaking of inventory, book publishing was mortally wounded by the Thor Power Tool Companydecision of the Supreme Court in 1979, which, among other things, ruled that a company's inventory can be taxed according to the IRS's whim and discretion and byzantine guidelines. We won’t go into the mental gymnastics of tax code accounting here. Be it said that an inventory is an asset – power tools, auto parts, books, components for McDonald's movie promotion toys, off-the-rack fashions in Wal-Mart or Sachs Fifth Avenue, or gold and ivory bracelets in Tiffany's, it matters not the entity – and whether or not it can be "written down" or reported as depreciated or subjected to other feats of mental legerdemain, it is still taxable. Companies work to keep their taxable inventories as low as possible. Not all are successful, especially not publishing companies. Thus, year-end sales and remainder tables. Enough said on that subject.

A physical book is immediate, tangible proof that a thought existed and was put into communicative form. It is evidence and the end product of mental effort. It can be complimentary, or damning. It can be a Victor Hugo novel or a biography of Patrick Henry or a Saul Alinsky how-to book about making communistic revolution and tyranny. One can weigh a thumbnail drive in one's hand, or wear it on a key-chain, or stash it in a music box, but not see its contents. But one can weigh a book in one's hand, and its contents are readily available. Do not, however, mistake this ode to physical books as a screed against technology. Technology enabled me to publish many books overlooked or rejected by autistic publishers. It enabled me to make them real and accessible to me and anyone else.

I have recently self-published three collections of my political and cultural columns. These are apart from the Sparrowhawk historical novels, the two detective novel series, and one suspense novel series. When the first title of the Sparrowhawk series debuted in 2001, it was a moment of triumph after decades of being rebuffed by the best minds in the publishing world, including editors and agents. I am being generous when I say "best." One day that year, as I sat contemplating the burgeoning envelopes that contained about thirty years of rejection notices and other correspondence to editors and agents, I wondered why I kept them. I wondered with muted bitterness about the thousands of dollars spent on copies of manuscripts that were never read and postage sent and self-addressed return stamped envelopes that were never used by the addressees. Many of those companies no longer existed as independent companies (such as Scribner) and many of those editors and agents had died and were forgotten. I outlasted them. They no longer mattered. I discarded the envelopes. Their contents have long since been mulched and have, as Robert Heinlein might have put it, pushed up several generations of daisies.

Perfect Crime Booksexhibited its discretion and discrimination by publishing my Chess Hanrahan detective series (With Distinction, First Prize, Presence of Mind, and Honors Due). My own Patrick Henry Press imprint has published a Roaring Twenties detective series set in San Francisco (China Basin, The Head of Athena, The Daedâlus Conspiracy, and The Chameleon), and the Merritt Fury suspense series (Whisper the Guns, We Three Kings, and Run From Judgment). All are available as print books or on Kindle.

The columns have all appeared here on Rule of Reason and on other weblogs, and many were "reprinted" in dozens of other weblogs or "webzines" as far away as Russia, India, and Israel. The titles of the collections have naval warfare themes. They are Running Out MyGuns in the War of Ideas, Broadsidesin the War of Ideas, and Corsairs andFreebooters (subtitled, respectively, A Collection of Advices, A Collection of Observations, and A Collection of Pungent Remarks). For a long time, they were available under different covers on Kindle (and also on Barnes & Noble's Nook, but some legal matter of exclusivity claimed by Amazon obliged me to take them down from Nook). Now they are also available as hold-in-your-hand, page-turning books, thin, light-weight, easy to hold, non-daunting, and able to be perused by light bulb or candlelight. They represent a selection from nearly five hundred columns or essays and a fraction of the nearly one million words I have expended since finishing Sparrowhawk in 2005.

They also contain articles and reviews which appeared in other publications long before I began writing regular columns, such as the Journal of Information Ethics, The Social Critic, the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, two editions of McGraw-Hill's Civilization textbook, and the Journal of Colonial Williamsburg.

All in all, ninety-three appeals to reason and rationality are available under three covers, addressing such subjects as Islam, our political conundrum (with two special sections devoted exclusively to the rise, investiture, and nihilism of President Barack Obama), the progress of "Progressivism," the state of the culture, the Clintons, the Bushes, and the phenomena of movie remakes. The collections also feature book and movie reviews.

I may put together a fourth collection, depending on the state of the economy this coming year and on the response to the existing collections. Whether or not these collections represent my best, is for the reader to judge.

Happy New Year, and, if possible, calm seas and a prosperous voyage to all in this world of turmoil.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Rivals for Your Life: Religious Conservatives vs. Islam

Rivals for Your Life: Religious Conservatives vs. Islam
“If you, as a servant of your god, must use one hundred thousand warriors to destroy me, a solitary servant of my God, then you whisper to me, Muhammed Ahmed, who will be remembered from Khartoum: your god or mine?”

— General Charles Gordon to the Mahdi in Khartoum (1966). Writer, Robert Ardey

In April 2009 I noted in a column, “The Irrelevancy of Conservatism,” which was devoted to examining why conservatives and the Left hated novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, that

Rand herself marked the malaise of conservatism in 1962 in her essay, “Conservatism: An Obituary.” Identifying why conservatism was finished as a distinct political ideology and political force, she wrote:

“If the ‘conservatives’ do not stand for capitalism, they stand for and are nothing; they have no goal, no direction, no political principles, no social ideals, no intellectual values, no leadership to offer anyone. Yet capitalism is what the ‘conservatives’ dare not advocate or defend. They are paralyzed by the profound conflict between capitalism and the moral code which dominates our culture: altruism.”

More importantly, however, the article reveals that conservatives are afraid that men are realizing that Ayn Rand is fundamentally relevant to today’s political, moral and economic crises, and that they, the conservatives, have grown irrelevant. The “transcendent order” of Russell Kirk (1918-1994), cited by [William R.] Hawkins as a source of moral and political wisdom, was based “variously on tradition, divine revelation, or natural law,” but has made way for the “transcendent order” of the brute collectivism of the state, to which Americans are more and more expected to defer.

“What should really agitate the public is not the principle of government intervention to prevent an economic collapse, but how the politicians have seized the opportunity to spend huge sums on non-emergency, special interest programs.”

And what is the wisdom of conservatives? It is the “dean of conservative thinking” Russell Kirk’s, which the reader may sample here, beginning with:

“….Conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.”

So it is an anti-ideology, or a set of “sentiments” and non-ideas, or a “state of mind” which is supposed to animate anyone to try to dam the advancing, liberty-destroying lava of statism. Hawkins offers his conservative credentials in this outburst:

“The most alarming sign that the anarchists are trying to take over the Tea Party movement is the sudden revival of the amoral and anti-social screeds of the late and unlamented Ayn Rand. Her name has been bantered around far too often on talk radio and by Fox News commentators.”

Hawkins should wonder why her name is so frequently “bantered around,” and not [William F.] Buckley’s or Russell Kirk’s. Perhaps it is because men are searching for answers and ideas, Rand has had them for decades, and answers and ideas are not to be found in conservatism. He should also learn that Rand was neither an anarchist nor a libertarian.

As if to underscore the religious, anti-reason color of conservatism, Hawkins manages to introduce Original Sin as an ingredient of the financial crisis:

“True conservatives know the character of Mankind is ’fallen’ and that there is a dark side to human nature to which bankers and fund managers are just as vulnerable as anyone else. Freedom without responsibility, and rights without duties, leads to license and wrong-doing.”

I ask here, almost three years later: What responsibilities? What duties? Hawkins names none. And why are rights contingent on meeting and fulfilling them? True conservatives, however, speak for themselves. Only they know how far they have “fallen” and are more acquainted with the dark side of their “souls” than they should wish anyone else to be.

Premises have a way of percolating to the top sooner or later. This is the case with conservatism, specifically religious conservatism. There is secular conservatism, which is more a species of pragmatism than it is of principled ideology. Capitalism “works.” A modicum of freedom “works.” (But not “too much” of either.) And there is religious conservatism, which is a marriage of pragmatism and faith, otherwise known as “social conservatism.”

Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave us an idea of what it means to be a “social conservative.” The Blaze offers the low-down on Santorum and explodes the notion that he is against “big government.”

Today, Santorum tells voters that Medicare is “crushing” the “entire health care system.” In 2003, Santorum voted for the Medicare drug entitlement that costs taxpayers more than $60 billion a year and almost $16 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Santorum voted for the 2005 “bridge to nowhere” bill and was an earmark enthusiast his entire career.

These days, Santorum regularly joins a chorus of voices claiming that he would greatly reduce the role of federal government in local education. When he had a say, he supported No Child Left Behind and expanded the federal control of school systems. In his book, in fact, Santorum advocates dictating a certain curriculum to all schools. The right kind. It’s not the authority of government that irks him, but rather the content of the material Washington is peddling today.[Italics mine.]

There is no reason that candidate Mitt Romney is any different. He’s a social conservative, too. What is it that social conservatives want to “conserve”? “Traditional” values and big government as our shepherd and arbiter of those values. Hardly an ideology.

The fundamental obstacle for conservatives to understanding the pernicious influence of altruism is precisely their altruist premises. They will not question those premises. To question them is to question the role of government as a proactive agent for altruism as an apology for freedom and capitalism. The history of conservatism, especially in the 20th century, bears out the truth of this contention.

The Left allies itself with Islam because of shared totalitarian yearnings and ends.

Religious conservatives, however, oppose Islam basically because it is a rival creed, a “competing faith.” It is not a turn-the-other-cheek creed. It advocates throwing stones, lots of stones, in the form of real rocks and passenger jets and arsonist’s torches. The quotation from Khartoum that precedes this column may be taken as evidence of that fear, although Charlton Heston’s Gordon, speaking with conviction to Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi, doesn’t seem particularly fearful. But after his first fictive meeting with the Mahdi, he confesses to an aide:

"I seem to have suffered the illusion that I have a monopoly on God."

Perhaps that’s why conservatives hate Islam. Let’s look at the “Five Pillars of Islam”:

Allah is the only God and Mohammad his prophet (shahada)
The Haj (or pilgrimage to Mecca)
Prayer five times a day (sala)
The giving of alms (zaka)
Ramadan (saum, month-long fasting)

We are all now familiar with the unnamed “sixth” pillar of Islam: Jihad.

What are the parallel pillars of the Christian faith? The Christian God is the only God. To some Christians, Allah is an apostate, or Satan himself; to others, he’s just another “false idol” with peculiar habits. A one-time trip to Vatican City to hear the Pope give his Easter sermon can be taken as the Christian Haj. I don’t think other Christian denominations have a similar obligatory pilgrimage to make. Prayer five times a day isn’t required of Christians, although I’m certain many pray every day before meals and participating in sports events and the like. Charity is also a major altruistic practice in Christianity; in fact, it’s regarded as a key virtue. Lent is the Christian Ramadan.

Jihad? The only modern equivalents have been the missionary “outreaches” of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the modern versions. These, however, have never entailed violence against pagans or infidels or native populations. The Spaniards, however, took along priests to convert South American Indians to Christianity as sanctifying baggage in their quest for gold, and there were the religious wars of Europe.

So, the similarities are there. An interesting site, “Theological differences between Islam and Christianity,” features a précis on the doctrinal differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam:

The faith of Muslims is based on the works of accomplishing the five pillars of Islam. Christianity, on the contrary, it based on faith that people can be freed from their sin[s] by the blood of Christ Jesus.

Most Arabs are Muslim, but most Muslims are not Arabs. There are millions of followers who are of Persian and Asian descent. Arabs came from the line of Ishmael (the half brother of Isaac - father of the Jews). However, descendants of Ishmael were a nomadic people who intermarried with the Midianites (Judges 8:1, 12, 22, 24) and others, while the Hebrews largely avoided a racial mix. After Islam violently imposed its doctrines on the Arab world, Muslim men were permitted to take wives of any faith in order to raise the children in Islam. (Muslim women were [and still are] obligated to marry only Muslim men.)

Those who practice the "Five Pillars" of Islam worship a god named Allah, who was the chief god of the Quraish tribe that controlled Mecca. This god was selected by Mohammad from among the 300 plus idols honored at the Ka’aba, and Muhammed tried to modify his moon god to become the God of Abraham. The symbol of this moon god, Allah, is known as the crescent symbol of Islam. Conversely, the Christian god revealed Himself to Moses as "Yahweh" (Exodus 3:14-16). In the Torah and in the Koran, Allah and Yahweh speak in the third person plural, yet both Judaism and Islam dogmatically proclaim their god to be singular. ("Hear Oh Israel, the Lord your God is One God" Deut. 6:4) As Christianity branched off of Judaism, they saw this as additional evidence for the Trinity.

All varieties of Christianity are founded on saving one’s soul, or on personal salvation, and the different denominations encourage or prescribe various degrees of ardor to that end. This does not necessarily entail, either, going on a homicidal rampage.

Christianity, on the other hand, follows the Lord God of Israel. Christians believe that God sent His Son to Earth to be the atonement for sin….[A]ll a person needs to do is accept the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The Great Commission to all Christians states, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matthew 28:18-20, NKJV.

Personal salvation in Islam, however, is as bloody-minded as one can imagine.

Muhammed specified that God does not have a son. Because of this, there is no redemption from sin in Islam. Salvation comes by works which never carry an assurance of being good enough unless one were to die for Allah as a suicide bomber or die killing infidels in battle. "If you should die or be killed in the cause of Allah, His mercy and forgiveness would surely be better than all they riches they amass. If you should die or be killed, before Him you shall all be gathered" (Sura 3:157-8). "Those who are slain in the way of Allah - he will never let their deeds be lost. Soon will he guide them and improve their condition, and admit them to the Garden, which he has announced for them" (Sura 47:5).

Another religious site, “Yahweh (the God of the Bible) vs. Allah (the god of the Koran),” stresses these differences between Christianity and Islam (comments in brackets are mine):

(A) Allah is distant and unknowable. The God of the Bible is close and personal.
(B) Allah does not love every person; Yahweh [God’s moniker in the Old Testament] does love every person. [Although he did have his temper tantrums and could be maliciously capricious, causing plagues of locusts, deaths of first-borns, turning wives into pillars of salt, the Tower of Babble, and so on. This is the “tough love” of a psychotic, and differs little from Allah’s behavior.]
(C) Allah did not, would not, and will not die for you, nor would he ever send anyone to do so [Allah did not have a son]. But the God of the Bible loves you so much He sent His one and only Son to die for you. And He stands ready to grant you everlasting life if you will receive Him by faith. [Islam, or “submission,” by any other name.]

Both Christian conservatives in America and Islamic fundamentalists seem to hate gays, hold traditionally non-Progressive old school conservative ideologies, demean women, and are guided in their lifestyle and thinking by their basic doctrinal texts, i.e., the Bible and Koran. Which, condensed, means adhering to an old time religion, because it requires nothing more than faith and credulity.

We can understand the animosity held by Islam for Christianity. The Koran is very clear about what to do about the “People of the Book” – slay, subjugate, or convert them if they don’t accept the Koran as God’s final word and Mohammad as the last and most important prophet. Islam is the youngest of the three major faiths and much of its doctrine was cadged from Christian and Jewish scripture – with much tongue-in-cheek inventiveness over the centuries. And Islam does not so much fear Christianity as hates it and intends to eradicate it.

But why do especially Christian conservatives hate and fear Islam? When one reads the comments on the latest Islamic depredation or instance of taqiyya on sites such as Jihad Watch or Atlas Shrugs, a fair percentage of the readers feel obligated to bring God into the discussion. Their ardor is virtually palpable, and any deprecatory remark made by an atheist about Christianity or God usually provokes outrage and posses form. There is a clinical or sociological term for such mob behavior: majority syncing bias.

Because most of Christian doctrine is founded on the life, homilies, and travails of Jesus Christ, possibly that fear and hatred of Islam are based on the secondary status that Islam accords Christ, as a mere prophet, not a “son of God.” Islam claims he was sent to earth by Allah to advance the cause of Islam. In fact, Islam contends that Christ was never crucified, but simply “raised up to Him.”

Islam and the People of the Book,” by Anwar Shaikh, provides a very simple explanation that supports this contention:

Of course, the Koran treats Jesus as a Prophet of God and confirms that he had been given the power to perform miracles but it defies the Christian fundamentals. For example, it refutes the doctrine of Crucifixion, which holds that God made His Son the Sacrificial Lamb to carry away the people's burdens of sin:

"...for their saying, We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God. Yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown them... God raised him up to Him..." (IV - Women: 155)

It means that God did not allow Jesus to suffer crucifixion, which is the kernel of the Christian faith. He raised him from the cross, and replaced him with someone, who looked like Jesus. Thus Islam destroys the very foundation of Christianity. Not only that, Islam subordinates Jesus to Muhammad. The Hadith No. 287 of Sahih Muslim, volume one, states: "...the son of Mary will soon descend among you as a just judge. He will break crosses, kill swine and abolish Jizya..."

That is, Christ will return to destroy Christianity at Allah’s behest. Presumably Judaism and Jews will have been exterminated long before Christ reappears. Muslim Brotherhood Legal Expert Yusuf al Qaradawi earnestly wishes it to happen. He’s President Obama’s pick to negotiate a “peace” between the U.S. and the Taliban. In 2009, on Al-Jazeera, he implored:

“Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them–even though they exaggerated this issue–he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”

It’s all part of Allah’s plan, you know. Christ, however, is noted for wanting to be kind to animals. Would the Islamic Christ approve of halal, and really go about killing swine? And dogs? And apes?

And Christianity and Islam both have their unique versions of the “end of days.” The sun will rise in the West, billions of corpses will come back to life, stars will go out or fall to earth, the Horsehead Nebula will neigh, the Crab Nebula will sidle up to Orion, almost knocking over the Pillars of Creation, there will be earthquakes and pestilence, water running up hill, and everyone queuing up in an infinite line to be judged by one or the other deity (you can make this stuff up; the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and other religious documents prove it). St. Peter and God are on one side of this vast celestial arena, the Angel Gabriel and Allah on the other, ready with their naughty-nice lists. Satan and his legions of minions are waiting and fuming (literally, they’re from Hades) outside the arena, impatient to collect kindling for the hellfire as Allah or God casts souls into it.

What a premise for an opera bouffe!

There are no serious or fundamental conflicts between men of reason. Reason is their guide. If there are conflicts or differences between them, the most consistent man will be proven right. Knowable reality will govern the outcome. But conflicts between mere beliefs – beliefs without evidence of what is believed, beliefs based on the unknowable, beliefs based on the whim or emotion that “I just want it to be so” – have led and will continue to lead to horrific warfare in which force determines the victor and the outcome without really settling the question of whose God was greater.

God, after all, has always been on the side of enemy combatants.

Islam is not only a major rival religion to Christianity, but it also has an aura of greater potency which Christian conservatives must envy. It sanctions violence and deceit as Christianity does not, and flouts practically all of the Ten Commandments. Violence and deceit are great time-savers when one is trying to collect souls and extort jizya from the greatest number for the greater God in the shortest time. Thus, failing persuasion or dawa, Islam can just barge into societies and cultures and nations with sword and club and impose its will, committing murder, coveting and taking wives and property, lying from ear to ear, cursing, taking the name of the other guy’s God in vain, sparing those who recognize Allah, and so on.

Of course, in Islam, everything a person does is “written,” predestined to happen by Allah. So the average Muslim is but an automaton. He’s only doing what Allah intended him to do. Still, if he slays unbelievers and other infidels and is killed “in action,” as a “martyr,” he will be guaranteed Paradise. So, Islamic justice is hard to reconcile with reason. One may as well pat one’s coffee-maker on the head for, well, making coffee, and tie a bright red ribbon around it.

But then Christian ethics is little better. Without going into the issue of the contradictory attributes of omniscience and omnipotence – some Christian doctrines allege that God also knew everything that one will do eons before one’s Stone Age great-great-grandparents were conceived – one encounters the minimal role of volition as the key to one’s salvation. It also renders the deed-doer selfless, as well, because no good deed is supposed to be performed with the expectation of reward – not even personal, “spiritual” satisfaction – but only for its own sake as a Kantian maxim. Instead of performing the deed in the name of Allah, it is done in the name of the deed. The least quantum of self-interest in performing a good deed leaves the deed tainted with selfishness or with greed for absolution or a place in Heaven.

Of course, this puts the receiver or beneficiary of a good deed in a moral quandary. It is his happiness and well-being that is supposed to be one’s motive. But shouldn’t the same maxim apply to the beneficiary? If his life is saved by a selfless benefactor, how can he not feel selfishly grateful? Ideally, he should feel just as selflessly disinterested in the preservation of his life as the benefactor was supposed to have been in having saved it.

The consistent altruist would be dead from a brief career of selfless service to others. And the consistent beneficiary would be dead from refusal to accept any alms, for they would only make him happy.

So, “social conservatives” find a comfortable medium between altruism and staying alive. The policy explains their practiced compartmentalization of Christian morality, their hypocrisies and inconsistencies, and their politics.

“Ay, there’s the rub,” mused Hamlet. Christians consider it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous illogic rather than acknowledge it.

Logical conundrums, however, do not weigh upon the minds of devout Muslims. Islam does not paint itself into such ethical corners. It is not concerned with contradictions, moral absurdities, or syllogistic traps. It is brutally frank in its means and ends. Convert or die, or cough up the protection money. Nice cheek, infidel Christian. Can you turn the other one? Thanks for tolerating me. Now, get out of my way.

Perhaps that is why Islam is feared – and envied – by its rival religionists.