Indecisive

Several years ago, I wrote a critique of a book styling itself The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games – one supposes there are other “Mammoth Books” of various other things out there – in which I mainly criticized it for its selection – or perhaps presentation – of games that turned on one or two brilliant moves (or inaccuracies). I also found the notation off-putting, and the game notes uneven, but the lack of variety seemed its greatest drawback.

I am working through the volume again – the games, after all, are certainly among the best played, though other authors might make other choices – and would now mute that criticism somewhat. It’s still true that the notes tend to find a single “turning point” in most games, and true that the notes will often claim a certain key error, and then spend most analysis on another move instead. But what I noticed this time was a lack of clarity of purpose about the book.

Each game is followed by summary “Lessons from this game”, and if one supposes the work was conceived, choosing games exemplifying one or two key principles each – easily identified in a critical move or mistake – makes sense. There are certain stylistic problems that remain: many of the “lessons” are facile (the authors religiously adhered to at least three per game, leading to the inclusion of observations such as “Capablanca was a genius!” where other points are not easily found), while others are overly technical.

The “one key move” focus, though, could be somewhat excused as a teaching technique; but to make this case I am assuming the book was repackaged in some way for actual publication, which is not actually evident from any of the introductory material. And the second problem, that plagues discussion of many competitive events, is whether “greatness” in competition is most accurately found in a convincing display or superiority, or in an evenly contested struggle. These authors seem to lean towards the former – possibly influenced by looking for “teaching moments” – in this volume, despite claiming to seek “quality and brilliance of play by both contestants”.

Whether the selection is quite justified or not, the presentation, even on a modified view, does not quite live up to the task the authors set themselves: my explanation is a multiplicity of purposes not well represented to the reader.

Similarly plagued by a lack of single purpose is Dr. Gordon H. Clark’s small volume titled Logic, published in the 1980s. Though published by the author, it reads much like the hypothesis sometimes made to account for our versions of certain texts of Aristotle, which is that what we really have amounts to lecture notes. Clark attempts in some 130 pages to do no fewer than four things, which are: to defend the study of logic from a Christian point of view and against Christian critics (one supposes, Biblicists); to teach the Aristotelian or syllogistic system of logic; to introduce his own new system of logical notation; and to defend the the Aristotelian system, at least for ordinary use, against the intrusion of the logic of propositional calculus (especially as represented by the works of Bertrand Russell).

It is perhaps unsurprising that the work founders, as a whole. The first goal is largely accomplished in a short introduction. The didactic part of the work is contained in the first eighty pages, and is a reasonable outline of a textbook for a semester’s study, but not actually such a text itself. The next thirty pages or so are devoted to historical notes; miscellaneous logical topics not strictly Aristotelian; and a defense, possibly sufficient but not entirely clearly stated, of Clark’s own system against Russell’s approach – or at least, an approach to logic for which Clark is content to single out Russell as a key figure to blame. (Russell’s own lack of humility may have made him the target of choice, I would guess.) The final pages return to theological considerations, adding proof texts but otherwise nothing significant that was not stated more succinctly in the introduction.

The book – as might be guessed from this summary – drifts in tone. The introduction and preliminary instructional material seem written for high school or even middle school students; by the end, he is engaged in collegiate or even seminary wrangling. One supposes – as he was a college professor – that the latter represents the true intended purpose of the work; but the beginning makes me suspect his students may have found him patronizing. I also wonder whether those students – to say nothing of the additional audience gained by publishing the book – were quite as familiar with Latin as he assumes throughout: not that he uses much if any of that language, but he makes fairly frequent reference to its study.

The greatest weakness is clarity in the final third of the book. On the Aristotelian matter, Clark is clear enough, if leaving quite a a bit to work out “as an exercise for the reader”, as the books say. But his own notation is not entirely accessible, and gets muddled up for the reader as he tries to defend it, partly through his contention that Russell and others did not actually develop their own propositional notation correctly. It becomes hard to untangle what Clark intends to promote from his attempts to demonstrate the unsatisfactory results of others by correcting their systems and then demonstrating the error. I think, incidentally, that Clark has a point here! But I don’t think his system quite works out either, and in any case you don’t get much of anywhere by constantly jumping back and forth between topics.

But the first two thirds really would be worth somebody’s reworking them into a teachable text.

Democracy

Several months ago, an acquaintance complained that the problem with conservatives is that we don’t believe in democracy. In fact he might have said “Republicans” instead of “conservatives”; either way he seemed frustrated not only with the antics of a few Congressional bigwigs, but with the fact that they continue to receive, if not whole-hearted support, at least votes. It’s hardly a defense, and more reveals the depth of the problem, to point out that the same charges can be leveled at the Democratic party’s political managers and those who continue to vote for them. Actually I thought the statement quite a perceptive one, if not quite as damning as intended.

It is quite true that conservatives, on the whole, do not “believe in” democracy. First, quite a few are, by habit if not conviction, religious and specifically Christian; and in that vocabulary one “believes in” an ultimate good or goal, which earthly governance, since there are immortal souls to care for, is not. Even in earthly affairs, Rome and Westminster have both claimed the state should support the church; and “Christendom” has not truly lost its appeal. This is not an argument for or against such a position; it is a statement of fact about habits of mind. Further, Christian imagery – to say nothing of human history – tends to the hierarchical. If some have concluded – Milton and Lewis, Congregationalists and Presbyterians – that a democratic order tends to restrain tyranny of men over men; that only democratic principles capture the equal share of the dignity of Adam we all possess; well, they may have thought so, but others have not.

Second, conservative theorists on the whole do not “believe in” the good sense of demos – the people. This is neither unreasonable nor a surprise. Progressive theorists do not believe it either – all their programs must be, at first, imposed by force in theory; and in practice, maintained by such. The history of governance – if we can call it that – by greatest numbers (or loudest voices) is not entirely encouraging, and apart from innovation, it would be difficult to point to a specific benefit gained as our governments across the world have become – at least in theory – more democratic. Of course the democratic idealist can point to all variety of mitigating factors: a legacy of monarchy; colonies abroad even while democracy took root at home; perpetuation of national jealousies; unwillingness to actually extend democratic rights to all; and so on. On the other hand, the critic can counter that no “democratic” society has fully and ideally established itself, and could suggest that the dominance of democracy today as an ideal, so that all but the most dictatorial of regimes at least pay it lip-service, could turn out to be just a historical curiosity when seen from the distance of another five hundred years.

It is next necessary to examine the idea of “democracy”. And here again we see a quite accurate assessment hidden in my friend’s complaint. “Democracy” to a conservative refers mainly to a system of government. The government is taken to be set up by the people – or at least, for it to continue, it must be acknowledged to a great enough extent to ensure stability. (These are not exactly the same idea; but are close enough for my purpose today.) But other than this axiomatic sort of democracy, it is not of particular consequence to most conservatives exactly what form the government takes. It is of course plausible that democratic forms will be most stable, but if a monarchy or oligarchy or other form yet to be devised should better secure personal freedom, a free society, and good living – the conservative would have no objection.

I want to dwell on this for a minute, because this seems to me a foundational divide in how we talk about self-government. In the conservative ideal, this means the man governs – or behaves – himself; the family governs itself; the town, the state, the nation – each likewise; and power should be exerted “downwards” only to the extent these lesser authorities are unable to govern themselves. “Democratic” government is here conceived of in the sense that the citizen, the man who belongs to a city, has a say in what his own city does; but the city, if it belongs to a state or a nation, considered as a union of cities and other communities, has a say in what the nation does. A man can know his own neighborhood, and enough else that he may wisely enough govern a city, or choose someone to do so; unless he spends his days himself in the effort, he is unlikely to really know what the city itself requires from a more far-reaching government.

This principle is hardly recognized any more, and barely articulated, even by intellectual conservatives; and practically speaking even the States, for decades now, no longer decide themselves how to choose their senators to send to Congress. Instead, another sense of “democracy” has taken hold: where the individual is a member, to the same extent and in the same way, of every level of society and government that might affect him. It is, when you realize this, unsurprising that we now end up trying to raise all the same issues in almost every election of every official. The most widely-extending government is seen as the first and best; smaller units being mainly convenient for official purposes. In fact most Americans practically take this for granted; but progressive politics tends to make it part of the program, while conservatives are still trying to fight it.

If one were to look for a cause for its appeal, I have one to suggest: that in the conservative sense of democracy, the responsibility of each entity for its own self-government can be – has been – taken so far as to actually preclude government acting “for the people” generally. The starkest example, possibly in all history, is the American colonies declaring their independence, proclaiming the liberty of man – and keeping their slaves. But worst examples are easy to identify. What is more common is for the well-meaning to lose sight of less fortunate realities. Chesterton would hardly have considered himself a conservative, yet in the modern American sense, by virtue of being religious and a traditionalist, he could scarcely be identified as anything else; so I take the liberty of using him for an example. He relates in his autobiography how, at a certain labor meeting, a speaker produced bafflement if not resentment by seriously underestimating the degree to which his listeners might have run into trouble with the police. That which has been is that which will be; and there is nothing new under the sun.

This, I think, is what my friend was really getting at, and the point that in my observation frustrates progressives most about support for conservative politicians. Even if progressive policies may be at fault for, say, the state of various cities; well, the conservatives make mistakes too, and at least – thinks the progressive – we’re trying. Why isn’t that more popular?

It has – if I may be so bold as to suggest I can offer enlightenment – it has to do with how you are trying. The final reason conservatives “don’t believe in democracy” is that “democracy”, when the progressive makes this complaint, rarely refers to government “by the people”. He may, for the sake of argument, have gotten “for the people” down as a goal better than the conservatives do; but the actual democratic element has been lost somewhere. Not only is it national instead of local, top-down instead of popular; progressive “democracy” usually refers to the modern system of government, managed by bureaucrats appointed by “representatives” chosen from candidates selected by parties whose existence is more or less codified and secured by law. The situation is most pronounced in the United States, but hardly different elsewhere, whatever the claimed advantages of “parliamentary” government. The preferred form of this management – one can hardly call it government any more – is to enact mandate after mandate and let the bureaucrats or the judges – also rarely elected – sort it out.

But lest you doubt the repugnance of the procedure, consider: even a schooling mandate is, in a sense, anti-democratic. If we really believed in the good sense of all men, why favor the one who can read, right, and cypher? And if this is so of any such mandate in theory, national requirements are even more so. I am not disputing the benefits of schooling – though I find the years we require dubious – but trying to make a point about the nature of even a policy few would be so bold as to call detrimental. The progressive, no less than the conservative, does not simply believe in democracy. The difference, if there is one, is that the progressive’s vision proceeds from the highest level downwards, and makes exceptions – to be recorded, and registered on the newest version of the required form – only under duress.

In one sense, I am dealing in “no true Scotsman” terms here. If you reply that you find very few Republicans – or even Libertarians – actively trying to curtail and repeal the unwieldy national bureaucratic structure that barely asks for popular input, I can hardly prove otherwise. I wind up concluding that the Republican party is not particularly conservative in any meaningful sense; and then I can answer the progressive wondering why Republicans keep getting votes only by pointing out that the Democrats transgress further still upon conservative principles. Whatever their theories beforehand, progressives in power seem to regard national management by regulation and edict as a positive good, and have no regard for local custom or dissent.

The situation is, as I intimated at the beginning, somewhat dire; virtually anyone who showed actual intent to dismantle our top-heavy edifice before it topples over would receive my political interest. If you point out that there are progressives doing the hard work of engaging with and rebuilding their neighborhoods, while conservatives move further away – I will reply that, supposing this stereotype to be accurate, even Gentiles do the works of the law. It is in any case hardly an argument against conservative principles (although an indictment of conservative self-righteousness) to say the progressives are actually being more conservative. Meanwhile, I have yet to find any progressives really interested in redistributing the political power that puts us all in danger from the whims of the men at the top. Almost every Republican politician, if pressed, will admit the primacy of local self-government as an ideal; most Democratic ones, as far as I can tell, would be confused by the question.

Even the presidency of Donald Trump failed to awaken most progressives to the principle at stake – that the threat of immense power in the wrong hands is too great to trust to always keeping it in the right hands, but must be relieved by reducing the power available to wield. No: the progressive always has one more right or preference or policy or program that in his conception is so important it must be achieved by national – or wider – imposition. But an actual democrat would know that men must be left free to govern themselves, not merely to choose their dictators.

Miscellaneous

I’ve got less time to write with school starting up, but here are short reviews on a few things leftover from the summer.

Humankind

It’s a game mimicking Civilization-style gameplay. Two major differences are the inclusion of a “hunter-gatherer” phase before you’re allowed/able to actually found a city, and the ability to establish “outposts” without committing to a whole city. It’s also much easier to incorporate the neutral tribes (analogous to more recent Civ releases city-states) into your empire. In fact I haven’t finished a game yet but judging by game status I’m really not sure how you’d lose on normal difficulty.

I quite like the artwork, but it’s a little harder to follow the terrain – in part because there are multiple levels navigable. The interface doesn’t make it very obvious how to implement your different options or take advantage of resources/features, either. (I started with tips set to the level supposedly appropriate for having played games like this before; I wonder if extra tips would have helped? But in that case those tips aren’t very well calibrated.)

The computer’s combat AI is much, much better than I’ve seen from Civ games. I haven’t tried the “manual tactics” mode to see if it makes a difference, but computer forces are very good at targeting units they’ll defeat. I don’t mind the way the “retreat” mechanic works but I think it’s bugged – your units will automatically back away until some kind of condition is met in the programming, but this can end up with them halfway across the continent – distances that ought to take 7 or 8 turns. You’re also basically forced to keep up skirmishes in order to maintain your “war support” meters, which annoys me.

Overall, it’s got some neat features, and is a little more transparent in places than especially recent Civilization releases, but I don’t think it’s unseating the titan any time soon.

Moby-Dick

He just kept talking in one long incredibly unbroken sentence moving from topic to topic… quite hypnotic. Of course Melville doesn’t actually confine himself to a single sentence, but it really is a little bit like listening to somebody who just won’t shut up – and you don’t quite want him to.

I started reading this years ago on a college visit and was fascinated by the first fifty pages or so I read. I’ve kept meaning to come back to it. I’ve finally gotten around to it, but admittedly still haven’t finished it. I will; but so far I find it hard to believe I’ll ever re-read it afterwards.

It reads a bit as though it was published serially, although I don’t believe it was; my thought, honestly, is that Melville was a short story writer with delusions of novelistic grandeur.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

Like a couple other Zelazny novels, this one seems to have been cobbled together from previously-written short stories, possibly not intended to be related. The plot tying them together deserves, I thought, a little more reverence and pathos than Zelazny actually give it. The writing is that of the author at his most elliptical except for certain obscene details; I read it, and then immediately read it again just to figure out what actually happened. It is, in short, not to my mind a success as a book, whatever the effect of certain scenes.

The universe of the book, incidentally and anachronistically, reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Iain Banks; apart from certain unmistakable stylistic elements that mark it as Zelazny’s work, one could easily believe it a juvenile effort of Banks, before he mastered his own distinctive style – which is effective through realism: Banks leaves you convinced that the absurd and despicable might really exist side by side. But Zelazny’s style highlights the incongruities in the story compared to our expectations, and the end result here is highly unsatisfying.

Starliner

A stand-alone novel by David Drake, best known for his military science fiction, it might be one of his better efforts. The dedication calls it “a book I wanted to write”, and I can only speculate as to the reasons. Oh, there are fist fights and gun fights and mercenaries floating around – there’s a certain resemblance to the early Hornblower books – but on the other hand, there’s not that much sci-fi floating around out there glorifying customer service. I’m inclined to think Drake wrote it just to prove he could do something different.

But then there are the twists – and break-neck pace – of the last couple chapters, which leave you rather wrung out and wondering if the book was more serious after all. Watch carefully when the question of duty is raised – and Drake gives an answer, but he seems to me to be positively inviting criticism and discussion.