The ground beneath our feet
According to Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi, “Many women who dress inappropriately . . . cause youths to go astray, taint their chastity and incite extramarital sex in society, which increases earthquakes.”
By “dressing inappropriately,” Sedighi meant “wearing tight coats and flimsy headscarves and layers of skillfully applied make-up” in public.
Whatever you make of the Ayatollah’s geophysics, earthquakes in Iran are no laughing matter: a magnitude 6.6 earthquake in 2003 killed 31,000 people in the ancient city of Bam. The entire country is crisscrossed by fault lines, several of which run under Teheran. The New York Times reports that a magnitude 7 or greater earthquake could kill as many as one million people in Teheran and the surrounding area.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when not calling on the U.N. to investigate 9/11, has called for at least five million of Teheran’s residents to leave the city so as to make it less crowded and more manageable when the long-predicted “big one” strikes. His proposal includes “land, loans at four per cent interest and substantial subsidies” for those willing to relocate.
Everywhere you look, people are increasingly nervous about the ground beneath their feet. The catastrophe in Haiti, the huge earthquakes in Chile, China, along the U.S./Mexico border, and now the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull have people feeling a bit vulnerable.
My question is: what took you so long?
When I read about airlines complaining that unnecessary precaution is costing them hundreds of millions of dollars a day or about the “hardships” being visited on travelers, I smile and think “count yourselves blessed if this is the only – pardon the pun – fallout from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.” As Discover magazine put it, Icelandic volcanoes have been “disrupting weather and history since 1783,” at the very least.
“1783” refers to the eruption of Laki that year. The VEI 6 eruption (Eyjafjallajokull was most likely a VEI 2) lasted eight months and changed the course of history. Its gas emissions are thought to have directly killed 23,000 people in Britain alone.
Even worse was what Laki’s venting of sulfur dioxide did to the weather: it caused, among other things, severe thunderstorms that killed cattle; an exceptionally severe winter that caused an additional 8,000 deaths in Britain alone; and extreme weather in France that contributed to crop failure and famine which, in turn, led to the social unrest that culminated in the French Revolution.
Thirty-two years later, the eruption of Tambora, a VEI 7, which ejected ten times as much material as Laki, gave us the “Year Without a Summer.”
These are just two eruptions of two volcanoes. There are an estimated 1500 active volcanoes around the world, twenty-one of them in the continental United States. While not all of them have the potential for these kinds of eruptions, a disconcerting – at least to me – number of them do. As Simon Winchester recently wrote in the Guardian, volcanoes are “creatures that will continue to do their business over the aeons, quite careless of the fate of the myriad varieties of life that teems beneath them and on their flanks. Including, of course, ours.”
Then there are earthquakes. Tokyo, Istanbul, Lima, Karachi, and Delhi, to name but a few cities, are located on major fault lines. The unprecedented movement of people from the countryside to the cities has greatly increased the potential lethality of these faults: major earthquakes in any of these cities will almost certainly kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, injure many times more, and inflict major damage on national economies. The aftermath would be, to use a suitably religious word, apocalyptic.
Making creation obey?
As we saw in Haiti and Chile, wealth and the building codes it makes possible can mitigate the impact of earthquakes but they aren’t a guarantee: despite Japan’s world-leading earthquake precautions and building codes, the 1995 Kobe earthquake killed more than 6400 people and caused damage equivalent to 2.5 percent of Japan’s GDP. In contrast, the slightly more powerful Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 “only” killed 63 people.
What neither the Japanese nor anyone else could do is predict – never mind prevent – the earthquake from striking where they were most vulnerable, which brings me back to Ayatollah Sedighi. The connection between “wearing tight coats and flimsy headscarves and layers of skillfully applied make-up” in public and earthquakes is preposterous to the modern mind but you know what else is preposterous? Our belief that we can bend the rest of creation to our will.
As Michael Allen Gillespie documented in The Theological Origins of Modernity, the belief that understanding how nature works “could carry humanity to hitherto unimaginable heights” is a defining characteristic of modernity. For Francis Bacon, by discovering the “hidden powers by which nature moves” we can “gain mastery” over it and ameliorate human suffering.
<[>Descartes saw Bacon and raised him: mastery over nature not only could alleviate our suffering, it could make man the “immortal lord of all creation.” We could become the “master and possessor of nature by dispossessing its current owner, that is, by taking it away from God.”
While modernity did not drink this hubris-flavored Kool Aid in toto – for instance, Hobbes denied that we are capable of this kind of mastery – modern science proceeds as if discovery of the “hidden powers,” and the “mastery” such knowledge provides, is possible.
Oh sure, there are ritual displays of “humility,” such as acknowledging that we are part of nature, or “caveats” that mastery lies in the “distant future” but who is kidding whom? The human genome had scarcely been mapped when we started reading about “Liberation Biology” and taking control of our evolution.
We talk about the “singularity” when it’s far from clear how are going to overcome the impending repeal of Moore’s law. And we fantasize about terraforming Mars when simply landing an unmanned vehicle – never mind a manned one – on Mars is the stuff of white-knuckle adventures.
These claims of god-like powers aren’t rooted in actual knowledge and capabilities or even reasonable projections of the same – they are statements of faith by and in those who believe that they have dispossessed the owner.
In reply (to paraphrase Psalm 2) the earth’s crust laughs and scoffs at them. It clears its throat, produces an eruption one ten-thousandth as powerful as Laki and, just like that, “the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean would suddenly seem deeper, the European continent wider and longer – almost as if we had gone back in time a century.” Imagine what would happen if this one or, God forbid, this one erupted.
Actually, we probably can’t. We take the ground beneath our feet for granted. We believe that, absent some miscalculation or folly on our part, i.e., something we do, the rest of creation will allow us to go about our business undisturbed.
Uh, no. As Will Durant is supposed to have said, “civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Or, as George Will summed it up in his review of Winchester’s book, “Geology has joined biology in lowering mankind’s self-esteem. Geology suggests how mankind’s existence is contingent on the geological consent of the planet. Although the planet is hospitable for the moment, it is indifferent – eventually it will be lethally indifferent – to its human passengers.”
As a Christian, I agree with Pascal when he wrote that “when the universe has crushed him man will still be nobler than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying, and of its victory the universe knows nothing.” But, like Pascal, we need to remember that the source of that nobility is having been created me’at melohim, “a little lower than the angels,” and not the wonder and awe – at least in our minds – inspired by the Babels we build.
The rest of creation isn’t “indifferent” to us, our destinies are, after all, intertwined. But the work of our hands? Please. Button your coats and secure you scarves, something tells me the ride is about to get bumpy.
For more insight to this topic, get the book, The Providence of God, by Paul Helm, at our online store. Or read the article, “From the Beginning,” by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
“¡Pobre México! ¡Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos!” Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz
One step closer to…
On March 24th, California election officials announced that, this November, Californians would get to vote on whether marijuana should be legalized and taxed in the Golden State. Backers of the initiative needed 434, 000 signatures to qualify for the ballot – they submitted nearly 700,000.
The man behind the initiative, Richard Lee, whom the Los Angeles Times described as an “Oakland marijuana entrepreneur,” declared that Californians were “one step closer to ending cannabis prohibition and the unjust laws that lock people up for cannabis while alcohol is not only sold openly but advertised on television to kids every day.”
Somewhere, Porfirio Diaz is sighing.
If you’re thinking that Lee and his supporters are a bunch of stoners playing at politics, think again. Lee has spent $1.3 million of his own money (I guess “marijuana entrepreneurship” is recession-proof) and the initiative campaign is being “led by a team of experienced political consultants, including Chris Lehane, a veteran operative who has worked in the White House and on presidential campaigns.”
Not surprisingly, law enforcement groups and their allies are also gearing up for a fight. A lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association promised that “there’s going to be a very broad coalition opposing this [ballot initiative].” Their strategy will be to “educate people as to what this measure really entails.”
Then there’s the matter of federal law. First-year law students learn about preemption and the Supremacy Clause, although, at least in the case of some attorneys general, the lessons are sometimes forgotten. Regardless of how Californians vote, possession, not to mention distribution and sale, of marijuana is still a federal offense.
The initiative does have one thing going for it: its honesty. At the start of 2010, there were more marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles than schools or Starbucks: more than 1,000 according to the New York Times. These operate under the aegis of California’s “medical marijuana” laws.
Closer to (my) home, a proposal to legalize medical marijuana in the District of Columbia has been criticized for being too restrictive. One migraine sufferer objected to the provision that limits “medicinal marijuana” use to one’s home. He wanted to able to light up whenever he feels a migraine coming on, including while driving. (Across the Potomac, this migraine sufferer has to settle for Maxalt.)
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are, as former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda has written, moving towards the “decriminalization of marijuana” and the adoption of a “a far more relaxed attitude toward drugs.”
This goes beyond treating drugs as a public health, as opposed to criminal justice, problem, which is about compassion and sound public policy. What we are doing is making it easier to buy marijuana than it is to buy a mocha frappuccino in some parts of the country. Whereas we once insisted on Colombia’s Killing Pablo, we now call Lee an “entrepreneur” (narcotraficante in Spanish), even before the ballot initiative becomes law. Even if it doesn’t become law, the “far more relaxed attitude” (hedonismo in Spanish) Castañeda wrote about is probably here to stay.
That being the case, the neighborly thing to do would be to inform the people of Mexico, so that they can limit the death toll in a drug war fought, in no small part, at the urging of the United States.
There’s an obvious geographic reason why Mexico’s flawed drug war is being waged in places like Baja California, Coahuila, and Chihuahua and not, say, in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Yes, Mexico’s local police and judiciary are notoriously corrupt. But the money that fuels that corruption comes from drug sales north of the border. Per capita Mexican demand for drugs is lower than in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and much of Latin America. The horrific violence in Mexico, like the crack wars of the 1980s and early 1990s in American cities, is over which “entrepreneur” gets to supply American demand. .
The Mexican Army is trying to restore a semblance of order and governmental authority, without much success. For our part, we send “high level” delegations to Mexico City (not coincidentally, 1500 kilometers south of the border area) and cite the “sending of a delegation of this stature” (I’m not making this up) as evidence of our commitment to do something.
What is this “something?” It’s not longer sentences for drug offenders – they’re bad public policy and, in any case, most states can’t afford them. It’s not increased drug treatment – there’s very little, if any, public support for that. (Imagine what Glenn Beck and company could do with “socialist rehab.”).
How about decriminalization? Secretary of State Clinton, the leader of the aforementioned august delegation, flatly ruled that out. Forget about the public health consequences – it would be awkward: if Richard Lee somehow succeeded in his entrepreneurially-driven quest, Mexico would be left in an “untenable and absurd situation in which troops and civilians were dying in Tijuana to stop Mexican marijuana from entering the U.S. – where, once it entered, it could be consumed, transported and sold legally.”
That leaves promising to curb demand in the United States (“This time we really mean it when we just say no!”) and leaning on Mexico, which brings me to former Mexican president Porfirio Diaz’s famous epigram: “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!” Our appetitive problem has become Mexico’s national security problem. (Something similar is at work in Afghanistan: the market for the opium that finances the Taliban isn’t Kabul – it’s Oslo, Amsterdam, and other European cities.)
Mexico can’t do anything about our appetite for drugs and it can’t ignore, however much it might want to, the violence that this appetite fuels. Even if it were inclined to let the various drug gangs kill each other off – a tempting prospect given the alternative – a lot of innocent people would die before the bloody dust settled.
They have little choice but to listen to sanctimonious lectures about corruption and read ill-informed nonsense about Mexico being or becoming a “failed state,” as often as not from people who didn’t care for Mexico or Mexicans before the drug wars. They have to endure talk about a possible “surge” along the border from the likes of “Black Jack” Chertoff.
In a morally-sane world they would tell the people of California (and the rest of the country) something along these lines:
“Since many, if not most, of you insist on your right to use recreational drugs, this is what we are going to do: we are going to tax the stuff as it leaves our country and use the proceeds to build schools, hospitals, and provide services that will give our people an alternative to working for the drug lords. We don’t begrudge you your ‘relaxed attitude’ towards drugs but we do resent the injury of dying for that ‘relaxed attitude’ and the insult of being lectured and called a ‘failed state.’ After all, it’s not as though we forced you to use drugs or even tried to persuade you. No gardener even told his employer ‘Mrs. Lane, I will make your property look real good. Would you like to try some excellent crank?’ No, you did that to yourselves.”
No doubt many of us on this side of the border would object and call Mexico a “narco-state.” I prefer “entrepreneur.”
For more insight to this subject, get the book, Another Man’s War, by Sam Childers, from our online store. Or read the article, “Dopey Logic,” by Charles Colson.
“Rubio Touts American Exceptionalism” is how the American Spectator summed up a well-received speech by senatorial candidate Marco Rubio at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.
Rubio, who is running against current governor Charlie Crist for the Republican nomination, told the audience that his parents came from Cuba with “no English, no money, and no friends.” He spoke of “hearing [his] father’s keys in the door as he returned home from another 16-hour day at work.”
His family’s story taught Rubio that America is “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from . . . the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed,” and the “one place in the world where the individual was more important than the state.”
(Where does Rubio think that the Founding Fathers got their ideas about the relationship of the individual to the state? Does he know that British history is filled with stories about families climbing the socio-economic ladder thanks to their “better ideas” and “strong work ethic?” Has he read Jane Austen or any other 19th century British novelist whose stories frequently depict the contempt that the “well-born” have for those who have succeeded in “the trade?” Has he ever heard of Nicholas Sarkozy? His father was also a refugee who fled communism and his mom was Jewish. Being the child of outsiders didn’t stop him from becoming the president of France, which even Jonah Goldberg would probably admit is a bigger deal that being a candidate for your party’s nomination in a senatorial race.)
At the same time Rubio was addressing CPAC, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in National Review, called exceptionalism a defining part of what it means to be a “conservative.” According to them, the belief that the United States is “special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary” is what conservatives seek to “conserve.”
All this talk of a “unique role and mission,” especially when couched in religious language, such as “missionary impulse” and “economic gospel,” was too much for some folks to bear: at Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Lee Anderson worried that Lowry and Ponnuru’s language can be “off-putting to those who worry that the virtues of the American political order can be over-emphasized.” He insisted that “any claims to American exceptionalism has to be tempered and chastened by our own social evils, chief of which is abortion.”
As Lewis Carroll might have put it, the story of the ten Americans detained in Haiti while attempting to leave the country with thirty-three Haitian children keeps getting “curiouser” and curiouser.”
Mind you, it was more than a little curious from the start: ten American evangelicals from Idaho, according to their stated plans, intended to fly to the Dominican Republic; hire a bus; gather up 100 Haitian orphans; take them back to the DR, and house them in a leased hotel pending the construction of a permanent facility.
They got as far as gathering up thirty-three Haitian children, reportedly with the assistance of “Jean Sainyil, a Haitian who pastors Gospel Assembly Church in Gwinnett, Georgia and [who] returns to Haiti regularly as a missionary.” Then things went south: traveling without proper documentation or written permission to take the children out of the country, they were stopped at the Haitian-Dominican border; and upon their return to Port-au-Prince, they were arrested and charged with kidnapping and criminal association.
There’s adding insult to injury and then there’s what happened to a sixteen-year-old girl in Bangladesh. Last April, she was raped by a man whom, according to her family, had previously been harassing her.
Fear of shame and being ostracized kept the young woman from reporting the rape. Her family unknowingly married her off to a man from a neighboring village. The marriage only lasted a month because, as it turned out, she was pregnant with the rapist’s child.
If you’re thinking that things couldn’t get much worse for the poor girl, think again. In mid-January, village arbitrators sentenced her to 101 lashes for her “sins,” and fined her father the equivalent of $160, what the average Bangladeshi makes in three months. An additional fatwa stipulated that the family was to be ostracized until the fine is paid.
“U.S. Exports Cultural War to Uganda” was the headline of a recent National Public Radio story. The particular “export” being discussed was a controversial Ugandan bill that would punish certain homosexual acts by imprisonment and even death. As the lede put it, “the battle over the Bible and homosexuality has torn apart Christian churches and entire denominations in the United States. But what happens when that culture war is exported to other countries? Ugandans are finding out — with potentially deadly consequences.”
First the slave trade, then colonialism, and now this!
One of the chief exporters of our cultural unpleasantness is apparently Scott Lively of Defending the Family International. According to NPR, in a March, 2009 trip to Uganda, Lively told Uganda’s Family Life Network that “the gay movement is an evil institution,” and that its goal was “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”