Origins Of the Ka’ba And The Hajj

When it comes to the origins of Islam, in the popular imagination anyway, all seems to be clear. To paraphrase Ernst Renan, a French scholar of the nineteenth century, Islam was born “in the full light of history.” When, however, we look closely at the sources, a more complex and confusing picture emerges.

This applies especially with regard to the origins of the Islamic pilgrimage to the Kaʿba in Mecca, Allah’s “sacred House” (al-bayt al-ḥarām) and the activities partaken by believers. (Pilgrimage involves both the Ḥajj and the ʿUmra – note that Islamic texts are rather vague on the fusion of the ʿUmra with the Ḥajj and when it might have happened, often assuming that the latter had always included circumambulation of the Kaʿba).

In Islamic texts pertaining to these rites, there is often discomfort with regard to some of the rituals, so for example, the famous ḥadīth which has ʿUmar state his disinclination to make istilām (greeting or kissing) of the black stone of the Kaʿba is well known, and so too is al-Ghazālī’s admittance that some of the Ḥajj rituals lack obvious aesthetic pleasure or rational explanation. We also often find mention of the Hajj to ʿArafat not to the Meccan Kaʿba, which only seem to have been conflated at a later period.

In the Qur’an, according to Islam, a revelation to Muhammad, at least three passages assume that the Hajj is directed towards the bayt which, in one passage, is identified as the Kaʿba:

  • In 3:97 we read that mankind owes the duty of ḥijj al-bayt to Allah;
  • In 2:158 it is stated that “whoever makes Hajj of the bayt, or ʿumra” (man ḥajjaʾl-bayt awi ʿtamara) and includes the names of al-Ṣafā and al-Marwa;
  • 2:196 which starts with the command to “fulfill (or complete) the Hajj and the ʿumra for Allah,” goes on to mention ʿArafāt in verse 198;
  • 22:26-29 notes firstly that Allah showed Abraham the place of the House, whereupon he is ordered to proclaim the Hajj to all humanity, which seems to suggest that it is the “House” or bayt that constitutes the object of Hajj – verse 28 then refers to the slaughter of animals which are to be eaten and shared with the poor, and verse 29 prescribes a final circumambulation of the“ancient House” (al-bayt al-ʿatīq), once the tafath (usually interpreted as ritual dishevelment) has been completed.

Taken together, these passages would seem to suggest that it is the bayt that is to be the object of Hajj, and they probably have much to do with the widely accepted idea that the Kaʿba has always been at the centre of the Ḥajj. The Kaʿba is equated with the bayt in 5:97, which states that
Allah made the Kaʿba, al-bayt al-ḥarām, as a support(qiyām) for mankind (al-nās). These passages are, even when taken together are rather vague.

Scholarship has shown that verses in the Qurʾan which allude to Abraham and the bayt are adaptations of Jewish and Christian midrash, and we know that in the Late Antique Middle East there were numerous sanctuaries associated with Abraham and where an annual festival during a specific month was celebrated.

It would therefore seem that much of the quranic material focusing on the bayt (esp. 3:97 and 22:26-29) as the focus of a festival or celebration (ḥajj) has originated with reference to a place other than the Kaʿba at Mecca, and indeed the key term ḥajj in this meaning is a borrowing from Syriac (which in turn borrowed it from the Hebrew Bible). Only later did it become attached to the Kaʿba, which was identified as Abraham’s foundation.

The material which can be gleaned from Islamic sources pertaining to the history of the Ḥajj during the early Islamic period – between the death of the Prophet and that of Ibn al-Zubayr – shows it as a symbol of religious and political authority, but does not suggest any way in which it might have been connected with Muḥammad or Abraham.

The legitimate question in light of the evidence available, or the lack thereof, is whether the Prophet ever took part in the Ḥajj? Before the Prophet’s “Farewell Pilgrimage” (ḥijjat al-wadāʿ) we have no real evidence, and it should be noted that there are many variant reports about the Farewell Pilgrimage, and it is clear that over time these underwent considerable literary amplification.

One might be tempted to envisage a development that was begun by the Prophet and still in formation in 72 AH (Ibn az-Zubayr), although this does seem rather far-fetched by all accounts. The attention the sources give to the re-building of the Kaʿba by Ibn al-Zubayr, and to the alterations made to its form, seem at odds with the sense of continuity in its history that Muslim tradition generally seeks to present.

Based on the available Islamic sources relating to the period between the death of the Prophet and the fitna of Ibn al-Zubayr, it is hard to make the case that the Ḥajj was focussed on, or even associated with, the Kaʿba, which is not mentioned as frequently as one might have expected, and based on the same evidence, one is even led to call into question the historicity of the traditional accounts of the Farewell Pilgrimage.

Apart from al-Yaʿqūbī’s report about ʿAbd al-Malik’s designs regarding the Dome of the Rock, it is rarely, if ever, clearly stated that the Ḥajj involved visiting the Kaʿba. Depending on our attitude to the reliability of the reports, we might conclude that the Meccan sanctuary was a building of some religious importance, possibly associated with an anachronistic notion that the Prophet may once have prayed inside, and that when people came to Mecca for the Ḥajj they may have visited it.

Nonetheless, Muslim tradition on the Meccan sanctuary before Ibn al-Zubayr’s construction work really makes no mention of the site’s Abrahamic associations. It is well known that Ibn al-Zubayr justified his rebuilding by an appeal to the alleged wishes of the Prophet and by the claim that he was restoring the building as per the original foundations laid down by Abraham. It is rather unclear why that should have been necessary at the time, but the tradition gives the impression that an
inappropriate, or at least an imperfect, jāhilī structure was to be replaced with a properly Islamic (i.e. Muḥammadan and Abrahamic) one.

At this point, we should ask ourselves a few pertinent questions.

What is a Kaʿba and is it unique?

As was noted, there were numerous contemporary shrines dedicated to Abraham:

Traditionally, the term Kaʿba is taken to mean “cube”, vis-à-vis the present shape of the Meccan sanctuary (cf. the root’s quadratic semantics in modern Arabic, which are later and derived from the Islamic shrine).

However, in Arabic, the primary meaning of the root k-ʿ-b denotes “swelling” (cf. ابو كعيب ābw kʿyb – “mumps”), often of the breasts of young girls during puberty (or compare كواعبkāwʿb), hence unsurprisingly كعبةk’b, etc. “virginity.”

In EpiphaniusPanarion, we find a reference to the mother of the Nabatean God Dusares ( ذو الشرىdhu al-sharaa) as Χααβου or Chaabou, because, like Mary, she was a virgin. Now then, both mother and son were widely venerated by both Arabs and other Semitic peoples in antiquity, hence the numerous shrines attested in literature.

A Kaʿba then, a shrine dedicated to this goddess (and her son), is analogous to the Parthenon, i.e. a building dedicated to a virgin goddess (or the many Christian Churches named after “our Lady”, a pre-Christian appellation for a goddess). What though does any of this have to do with Abraham?

If we look at the modern Kaʿba, we might still be able to find some clues. To the North-West of the structure, we find a low-standing semi-circular wall which is part of the sacred precinct (around which the Tawaf is performed), called الحطيم (āl-ḥaṭim ,“something destroyed”?), in which we find the ,حجر إسماعيل (ḥiǧr Ismāʿil, traditionally seen as Ismael’s grave; outside thereof we find that of Hagar.

Now in Islam, like in Judaism, there is a taboo on corpses, unlike in Christianity in which churches once needed to contain the relics or to be built on the grave of a martyr or biblical figure (especially since St Helena, Constantine’s mother). The fact that the only two people allegedly buried in an Islamic shrine are buried in المسجد الحرام (al-masjid al-haram, the Grand Mosque) is surprising at least.

It is clear that the Arabs traced their lineage to Abraham through Ismael, not an indigenous tradition, but one developed by Josephus and later amplified by Church Fathers, especially Saint Jerome. In the fifth century, we see that this is used to convert pagan Arabs, i.e., by converting to Christianity they might be able to reclaim their birthright – Ismael was Abraham’s firstborn, and present when God made His covenant with him.

For Arab and Semitic Christians especially, who rejected Pauline soteriology, and who saw in the person of Jesus a human prophet who did not repudiate the Law, Abraham and Ishmael were important. Some insight in this longstanding theological debate, which also sheds some light on traditions that would go on to become incorporated in Islam, can be found in Galatians chapters 3-4, esp. 4:21ff. The Arabs of the seventh century, who rejected Chalcedonian Christology, saw themselves as both the spiritual
and biological heirs of Abraham through his son Ismael.

As was noted in the preceding, we find no real evidence for Mecca as the site of the Ḥajj before Ibn az-Zubayr. As noted, he rebuilt the sanctuary, allegedly according to its original intent or design. At the same time, the criticism brought to bear in (later!) Islamic texts against his contemporary and adversary, ʿAbd el-Malik, was that the latter allegedly diverted the pilgrimage from Mecca to Jerusalem.

However, these texts leave one with the impression that later authors knew of the Umayyad pilgrimage to Jerusalem – but did not understand that Mecca only gained primary significance later. There do not seem to be traditions about the Umayyads being connected to Mecca – and therefore later authors assumed that they had rerouted the Ḥajj. In this time there is no evidence associating Mecca with either al-’Isrā’ wal-Miʿrāj’ (which is only centuries later), nor is Jerusalem referred to as al-quds; instead, we find a realisation of the city’s Latin name Aelia.

Indeed, the Umayyads are often criticised in these later texts for being somewhat deviant vis-à-vis later Islamic orthopraxy. The disparagement is valid, simply because Islam did not yet exist in the seventh century, only in the latter half of the eighth and first half of the ninth centuries can we see what would become Islam slowly emerging in the Abbasid capital Baghdad.

In the preceding, we have noted that the Qur’an makes no specific mention to the Ḥajj at the Meccan Kaʿba. Furthermore, Muhammad’s association herewith is spurious at best. Indeed, before Ibn az-Zubayr, during the second Fitna, we have no real tangible evidence, and by all accounts, there was a major Ḥajj to Jerusalem, hardly surprising for a monotheistic “Abrahamic” religion.

It would though seem that Mecca was also one of the many pilgrimage sites devoted to Abraham, especially in relation to the veneration of his son Ismael, and was frequented especially by Arab believers, who saw themselves as Abraham’s biological and spiritual heirs through Ismael (whose firstborn Nebaioth, Genesis 25:13, is sometimes seen as the progenitor of the Nabateans).

Originally the Kaʿba at Mecca though, in pre-Christian times, was dedicated to the Semitic deity Dusares and his mother Kaabou, who was actually a sacred stone (a Baetylus, i.e. beth-’el the dwelling of (a) god, بيت الله bayt allah). That cult sites were repurposed and adapted to new religious realities (“under new management”), needs no further explanation.

By all accounts, Ibn az-Zubayr, in the power struggle of the latter seventh century, a civil war among various Arab factions, for hegemony over an Arabic Empire (Islamic is an anachronism), chose as his site, Mecca, which must have had considerable longstanding cultic significance for the Arabs. After his demise, this site was understandably given preference over Jerusalem and incorporated over time into the primary sanctuary of what would later become Islam.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows an illustration of Mecca by Sir Francis Burton, the famed soldier, linguist, scholar, explorer, discoverer, poet and author, from his book, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, published in 1855-1856.

A Camel And The Eye Of The Needle In The Qu’ran

Not only those familiar with the New Testament will know the expression “Camel through the eye of a needle.” This phrase is attributed to Jesus, Matthew 19:23-24 (cf. Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25): “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

This metaphor is of course quite powerful, irrespective of any questions about its eventual authenticity, although the exaggerated hyperbole paradoxically results in tragic irony, since a conventional camel could never pass through the eyelet of a normal needle. This would mean that it is unreservedly impossible for a rich person to enter heaven – perhaps appealing to liberation theologians, or those who ascribe to the social gospel and/or predetermination, yet nonetheless doubtlessly a contradictio in adjecto.

Since at least Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-215 AD), a solution to this conundrum has been proposed. If we assume that an early copyist (and the first Christians who copied New Testament texts were not trained professionals, for which they were often rebuked by their opponents such as Porphyry) mistakenly wrote κάμηλον (kamelon) “camel” instead of κάμιλον (kamilon) “rope, cable” (of a ship, of a net), then the aphorism might make more sense to “fishers of men.”

One problem, is that kamelon is only attested once in what survives of ancient Greek. Nonetheless, the notion of a rope or a cable, made by twisting together strands of hemp or some other such material is quite attractive, as by unravelling, disposing oneself of material possessions, it might just be possible to finally go through the needle’s eye, or enter heaven as it were.

This apophthegm is of course found in the Qur’an in 7:40: “Lo! they who deny Our revelations and scorn them, for them the gates of heaven will nor be opened not will they enter the Garden until the camel goeth through the needle’s eye (ḥattā yaliǧa lǧamalu). Thus do We requite the guilty.”

Obviously, this is borrowed, whether directly or indirectly need not concern us here, from the New Testament passages mentioned in the preceding, and thus tells us something about the history of the Qur’an – its obscurity precludes it being an independent composition.

Naturally, the same syllogistic concerns apply here as with its ultimate source. Interestingly enough, in traditions attributed to Ibn ʽAbbās (questions as to his doubtful historicity need not concern us here), and cited by some later exegetes, we find the suggestion that instead of ǧamal “camel” one should instead read ǧummal “thick nautical rope, anchor cable.”

The fact that this lexeme, like the Greek term mentioned in the preceding, has maritime semantics is noteworthy. It should be noted here that both Greek terms, scilicet, κάμηλον/ “camel” thus κάμιλον/ “rope cable” are Semitic loan-words, the former necessitates no explanation; the latter from a common Semitic root ḥbl (cf. e.g. Hebrew ḥeḇel, Arabic ḥabl).

This of course would seem to imply that not only the precept itself, but also this exegesis was borrowed from Christian traditions (in the widest sense of the word). Since the semantics of ḥbl denoting a (nautical) rope (rather surprising indeed, if we are to believe that the Qur’an originated in the Hejaz), along with the fact that ǧummal in this meaning is only really employed in Arabic in connexion with this Quranic verse (s., Lane, Lexicon, S. 461) one might ask whether a word was invented to fit the established exegetical tradition.

In old Arabic, such as is found in the oldest Quranic manuscripts, which are unpointed, ǧamal/camel/ جمل und ḥabl/rope,cable/ حبل are quite similar, حمل (j/ḥ/ḫ/ml), one can easily read this passage as ḥattā yaliǧa l-ḥablu “until the rope goeth through the needle’s eye.”

The fact that both the ropy semantics and the ǧīm were preserved, although a good Arabic alternative was available, demonstrates that the Ibn ʽAbbās tradition, that which shows the most familiarity with biblical materials, must be dependant on these, to which the neologism ǧummal testifies.

This is just another indication that the Qur’an and its early exegesis were rooted in the exegetical and hermeneutical culture of interpretation of the Bible, where occasionally something was lost in translation. We may yet ourselves be sooner able to pass through a needle’s eye before we are completely able to understand the convoluted language of the Qur’an.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows the “Camel going through the eye of a needle,” a print by Maarten van Heemskerck, from his series, The Wretchedness of Wealth, from 1563.

An Interview With Jeremy Black

This month the Postil is most pleased and honored to present this interview with Professor Jeremy Black, the prolific and influential British historian. Professor Black has added greatly to our understanding of Britain, Europe and America within the context of international affairs, as well as, diplomatic, military and cultural history. He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, author of several books on Descartes and a forthcoming book Homo Americanus. The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy in America.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Allow me to begin with a short biographical note. Among your books are: Military Strategy: A Global History, The Atlantic Slave Trade in World History, Maps of War, Naval Warfare: A Global History since 1860, Naval Power: A History of Warfare and the Sea from 1500 Onwards, Rethinking Military History, The British Abroad: The Grand Tour In The Eighteenth Century, A History of the World: From Prehistory to the 21st Century, The Age of Total War, 1860-1945, Geographies of an Imperial Power: The British World, 1688-1815, War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents, 1450-2000, Imperial Legacies: The British Empire Around the World, English Nationalism: A Short History, The British Seaborne Empire.

I missed “a few books”—or, more precisely, I did not list the 80 other books you wrote! In your bio, I found that you have authored 100 books. That’s more than what Paul Johnson, Arnold Toynbee or Guizot wrote. It is more than most, even very well-educated people, will ever read, let alone by a single historian. Are you writing, thinking what the potential reader should know, or are you answering your own questions?

Jeremy Black (JB): As you suggest, I have written more history books than any other British writer. I do not count them, but I think there are about 140 single author books, as well as three co-authored and quite a few edited. I obviously have a compulsion, but there is also a determination to rewrite what I think is poorly covered, at the very least offering a different interpretation so that no one can pretend that there is only one view, which is a flaw of the zeitgeist approach.

ZJ: In his The Idea of History, Robin Collingwood, following Voltaire, says that the idea of “Philosophy of History” means “a critical or scientific history, a type of historical thinking in which the historian made up his mind for himself instead of repeating whatever stories he found in old books.”

The Positivists claimed that there are general laws governing the course of events. Thucydides, Joseph Flavius, Dio Cassius, Procopius of Caesarea, and others on the other hand, say that the task of history is to preserve great human deeds from falling into oblivion. Do you subscribe to any of the above “schools”?

JB: I do not think that there are general rules in the writing of history, as it depends on the complex interaction of cultural and temporal contexts, individual approaches, and the particular issues at stake in specific topics. For each book, I consider the task I have set and the audience I have in mind, and I try to write and reason accordingly. The space available is also a key point. The analysis of documents can be scientific, but that of humans is necessarily more limited.

ZJ: So, let me follow up on your claim that there are no general rules in the writing of history. John Stuart Mill, who is hardly ever mentioned as a philosopher of history, claims that most of mankind has no history properly speaking. What he means by that is that history is more than chronology, and to turn chronology into history there must be an engine that drives it for history to develop. Otherwise we deal with static civilization, like China, which he uses as an example. Several thousand years and nothing, or not much. The same can be said about ancient Egypt, which Mill does not mention, but which falls under the same category of static civilizations.

If we look at, for example, sculptures, they seem to be the same for two thousand years. If we go to ancient Greece and compare the development of sculpture and vase design, from the white geometric style in 800-700 BC, to the Classical period, and the almost flamboyant, expressive, emotional Hellenistic style in 4th-century BC (Pergamon reliefs, for instance), we see fantastic “progress” or change in design and expression. Greece changed; China and Egypt did not.

Is Mill’s insight essentially correct? That is, to have history we need to inject the idea of progress into chronology?

JB: I see History as the Past, how we tell stories about the past. Neither in my view is inherently progressivist and I would argue separately that that is the conservative position; but then I am a committed conservative.

ZJ: Let me move to something you wrote about in The British Seaborne Empire. There you claim that in the middle of the 19th-century, Britain applied the new technology more successfully than other European powers, and its industrial production motivated the Empire to expand. However, this insight explains 19th-century expansion. What were the earlier motivating factors, and were they the same that made others seek to build empires?

JB: A quest for trade, a sense of destiny and a feeling of Christian providential is the same three for Portugal and Dutch.

ZJ: You mention what you call “gentlemanly capitalism,” which places emphasis not only on manufacturing of goods, but on finances, insurance etc., what we could call today infrastructure, which is connected with social values. Those values were propagated by the graduates of the British schools. Would you say that there were in fact two empires: one heavily industrial and the other “cultural,” which disseminated the British values (not necessarily intentionally), and that in doing so the British exported their value system to one fourth of the globe?

JB: I would agree entirely. To be effective an imperial system has to have an attractive ideology, else it relies on force and coercion which does not work in the long term as the continued free spirit of Poland shows.

ZJ: Here is a fragment from the description of your book, English Nationalism: A Short History: “Englishness is an idea, a consciousness and a proto-nationalism. There is no English state within the United Kingdom, no English passport, Parliament or currency, nor any immediate prospect of any.” Sir Roger Scruton in his England: An Elegy made what I believe to be a similar claim: England did not succeed in creating a nation, but, rather, Home for the English.

JB: That does not mean that England lacks an identity, although English nationalism, or at least a distinctive nationalism, has been partly forced upon the English by the development in the British Isles of strident nationalisms that have contested Britishness, and with much success.

So, what is happening to the United Kingdom, and, within that, to England? I look to the past in order to understand the historical identity of England, and what it means for English nationalism today, in a post-Brexit world. The extent to which English nationalism has a “deep history” is a matter of controversy, although he seeks to demonstrate that it exists, from ‘the Old English State’ onwards, predating the Norman invasion.

I also question whether the standard modern critique of politically partisan, or un-British, Englishness as “extreme” is merited? Indeed, is hostility to “England,” whatever that is supposed to mean, the principal driver of resurgent English nationalism?

The Brexit referendum of 2016 appeared to have cancelled out Scottish and other nationalisms as an issue, but, in practice, it made Englishness a topic of particular interest and urgency, as set out in this short history of its origins and evolution.

ZJ: What you said makes me wonder whether the reason for Asian civilizations not expanding or building empires lies in a very different character of Eastern religions. After all, around the same time, say 1500, Asia (China, Japan, India) was in some respects more advanced than Europe: Small continent, very divided, small kingdoms, principalities. Asia, viewed from above, appeared to be a better candidate to dominate the world than the West.

JB: You are absolutely correct. They were predominantly courtly and rural and hostile to mercantile interests.

ZJ: The British of 18th- and 19th-centuries did not study business, administration, finances, etc., the disciplines that are popular today. Yet, “reading” the classics or history, as you say of the UK, was fundamental in creating a frame of mind that was conducive in preparing a host of people to run the empire. What role did Classical education play in it?

JB: The Classical education that was dominant in England provided in the shape of Rome a model of imperial behaviour that was seductive in terms of British imperialism, but the mercantile order instead focused on experience-led understanding of opportunities.

ZJ: Since you invoked Poland, let me quote something that an Australian friend of mine wrote me recently: “I admire your energy, but cannot share in any optimism about the immediate future of the US or Western Europe – perhaps something from Central Europe, even Russia might be born – but I am with Kafka – yes there is hope but not for us. I am not trying to convince you – or anyone on this, I am just sharing what I see and feel about now and the future.”

Do you share my friend’s sentiment? I hear it often; the West—the US, Europe etc.—is lost; letting millions of immigrants who cannot assimilate was a mistake, the West abandoned its commitment to Tradition, history, values. Eastern European countries resisted and are in a better position to defend themselves.

JB: There is certainly a cultural crisis in the West, one linked to grave social issues; but the uncertainty of developments, the prime law of history, makes it impossible to predict the future.

ZJ: Does your claim about the rise of industrial production in 19th-century, which made Britain look to expand the empire, apply to China today? The new Silk Road, etc. inscribes itself well in what you said in your book. Is the mechanism the same, similar?

JB: China today has parallels to Britain’s pattern of growth, but is far more authoritarian.

ZJ: Let me move to another topic, but before I do, I would like to give you a few examples. In October 2017, Christ Church in Alexandria, VA, of which George Washington was a founding member and vestryman in 1773, pulled down memorial plaques honoring him and General Robert E. Lee. In a letter to the congregation, the church leaders stated that: “The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.”

In August 2017, the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-1 to designate the second Monday in October (Columbus Day) as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” According to the critics of Columbus Day, we need to “dismantle a state-sponsored celebration of genocide of indigenous peoples.” Some of the opponents of Columbus Day made their intentions clear by attaching a placard on the monument: “Christian Terrorism begins in 1492.”

In June 2018, the board of American Library Association voted 12-0 to rename the Laura Ingall Wilder Award as the “Children’s Literary Legacy Award.” Wilder is a well-known American literary figure and author of books for children, including Little House on the Prairie, about European settlement in the Midwest. In a statement to rename the award, the Board wrote: “Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

What is happening in America today sounds, to me, very familiar. As a former denizen of the Socialist paradise, I have the déjà vu feeling. Monuments were torn down, awards were renamed, etc. How do you explain these stunning similarities? To me, and I do not have a better explanation, things come down to History, the understanding of its essence.

History is seen as progressive, has a logic of its own and destroys its past; it condemns itself, its infancy for being immoral and discriminatory. The examples I gave you are American, but similar problems can be derived from the UK. I remember a controversy over the monument of Cecil Rhodes (the founder of a very prestigious scholarship for American and Canadian students) at Oriel College, Oxford, except that Oxford did not give in to the activists’ demands to remove it.

JB: I would prefer not to repeat what I covered in several books on the memorialisation of the past, which I commend to your attention, not least as they offer an account of historiography that is not limited to the narrow world of intellectuals. So, can I add a few contextual points?
A facile and inaccurate approach is to argue that battles over identity reflect the failure of the Marxist narrative and the competing ideologies of the twentieth century.

I am less sanguine. In part, I see a continuation in a new iteration of anti-Western Cold War narratives, especially of the Maoist type; in part The Long March through the Institutions, in part a narcissistic preference for present day emotion and sentiment over continuity, reason , and an understanding of the fecklessness of much current commitment, and in part a brilliant way by self-important monochromatic thinkers to advance their careers through polemic; monochromatic referring to a failure to see a full spectrum of arguments and polemic chosen rather than rhetoric.

ZJ: On September 1st, 2018, the Editors of a prestigious British Magazine the Economist, published “A Manifesto” to “rekindle the spirit of [liberal] radicalism.”

In it, we read: “Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it. Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling to solve the problems of ordinary people… For the Economist this is profoundly worrying. We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism—not the leftish progressivism’ of American university campuses or the rightish ‘ultraliberalism’ conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.”

However sober the Economist’s statement appears, it is reminiscent of past declarations by the Communists (in 1956, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1980). After each crisis, they made their declarations to keep the faith in the health of communist ideology by blaming the former Party executive committee. The declarations found the classic expression in the slogan: “Socialism Yes, distortions No!”

Once again, as a historian, do you see analogy between Socialism and Liberalism?: “Liberalism Yes, distortions No!” Same problems, same explanations, same idea of blaming someone: the kulaks, the party members, the corrupt elites—but never the Idea, be it the Communist idea or Liberal idea.

JB: Liberalism, like Conservatism, is a mood as well as an ideology, and practices as well as precepts. Inherently, a Liberalism predicated on individual freedom had much to offer and there are contexts in the nineteenth century where Liberalism or at least Liberal causes were meritorious and remain attractive. Anti-slavery, opposition to censorship and support for religious freedom are prime instances. It is ironic to a degree but also a reflection of the ideological essence of the last century, that these ideas are now best advanced by Conservatives while the progressivist dimension of Liberalism has been transmogrified into an authoritarian statism that owes something to Socialism but is not restricted to it.

ZJ: Can there be a healthy conservatism in the US? As our friend Jonathan Clark argues, Americans have problems answering the question what should be conserved. The new country was founded as a rebellion against the Past, against the hierarchical order.

JB: The differing natures of ideological parameters are suggested by the contrast between The USA and Europe. In the former case, the competition has been between different conceptions of individualism with the ability to choose and change religious affiliation at will, a key form of individualism. Conservatism tends to be expressed in terms of hostility to government, hostility which indeed can have an anti-societal perspective and notably so if social norms are imposed. In Europe, notably Continental Europe, the understanding of society places less of an emphasis on the individual.

ZJ: We tend to see the PC movement in the US as an aberration, even insanity, and there is every reason to consider many of the claims made by the advocates of PC as insane. One can hear the call to dismantle “power structure” daily. Listening to the liberal rhetoric one often gets the feeling that oppression is real, as real as it was in 18th c. However, from a broader historical perspective one can see what is happening as further unfolding of the principles which were at work in 18th-century America

JB: There is no correct format, that indeed being a characteristic of Conservatism, being more pluralistic than the doctrinaire nature of the Left. As a British Conservative, I seek a middle way between the two, which incidentally helps explain my support for leaving the European Union. I am wary of government but keen on society.

ZJ: Let’s dwell for a moment on what you just said: As for the first part of your statement (“Conservatism tends to be expressed in terms of hostility to government”), the same thing can be said about Liberalism. You remember how German socialist, Ferdinand Lasalle, described the limited or Liberal government: Nachtwächterstaat—a night-watchman state, or, in the words of the British historian, Charles Townshend, as a “standard-bearer.” If I remember correctly, the opponents of the liberal states called their supporters the “minarchists.”

The sole duty of such a state was to prevent theft, enforce property laws, and provide security. This is not the reason why the Conservatives are hostile to government; they, as you said, are afraid of the government because it can be an instrument of the imposition of laws and regulations which are fundamentally hostile to the “natural order of things.” Can one say, then, that both parties differ with respect to what they see the function or role of the state should be, or why the state is there in the first place.

JB: The interaction, indeed melding of traditional conservatism and liberalism, has varied greatly and will continue to do so. In large part, this reflects contingent circumstances and the way in which they are debated and recalled, in short, the weight of history, but there is commonality of the issues posed by democracy and democratisation, as well as the particular inroads and challenges of Communism, Socialism, and Fascism. To a degree, these developments made classic liberalism redundant unless in a conservative context.

ZJ: With respect to how Liberals and Conservatives perceive the role of the State, can one say that the difference between the two lies in that the Liberals use the state to impose abstract social norms, whereas the Conservatives see the state as a guardian of the inherited order of the Past. Edmund Burke saw it when he talked about the “Empire of Reason,” “cold hearts.” This way of thinking underlies the idea of social engineering, that is, finding a method of molding reality into what the abstract reason, unrestrained by tradition, history, the Past, wants it to be. Thus, the Past—national history, national identity—is no longer something worth preserving, but a piece of clay in the hands of “experts” who know what social and political life should be like.

JB: You have expressed that very well. Macron is a liberal in these terms.

ZJ: Going off of what you just said. (In large part, this reflects contingent circumstances and the way in which they are debated and recalled, in short, the weight of history, but there is commanality of the issues posed by democracy and democratisation, as well as the particular inroads and challenges of Communism, Socialism, and Fascism. To a degree, these developments made classic liberalism redundant unless in a conservative context).

This raises a few interesting points, which I would like to phrase in the following way: First, redundancy. The appearance of the Socialist idea made Liberalism, or some of its propositions, redundant or even obsolete because socialism (not in the Stalinist version but in socialist-democratic version) could be said to have proposed them all, or made them look even better. Second, your redundancy thesis against the Conservative background also helps to explain why Liberalism appeared to be benign and made Conservatism look like a proposition which does not have much to offer.

For as long as Communism was threatening, Liberalism appeared to be attractive because it fought for individual liberties against its collectivist rival. With the collapse of Communism, Liberalism lost its urgency to defend the individual against the democratic collective, which de Tocqueville feared so much. Would you agree?

JB: I would agree completely, and would add that the challenge from liberalism has become more serious because of the ability of left liberals to control the mechanisms of the steadily larger public sector. This provides a different ethos for statism to that of Communism, but it is statism nonetheless.

ZJ: I want to quote something to you. It surprised to me how few people noticed the similarity between Marxist and Liberal understanding of history. Here is the first passage: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations..”

And here is another passage: “The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatised injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex.”

The second passage comes from the very end of Mill’s Utilitarianism. Marx talked about laws of historical development; Mill in his earliest writings –”Perfectibility,” “Civilization,” “The Spirit of the Age” – talks about “tendencies” (i.e., the spirit).

What is the goal of History to Marx and Mill? Essentially an egalitarian world, a world without polarizing impulses which divide people, and which create hierarchy. History, as it unfolds itself, eliminates hierarchy and leaves “no one behind,” as we say in America.

First, how does such a proposition of a non-hierarchical order of things sound to an eminent historian like yourself? Second, given the “equality” of results—that is, the fact that liberalism is turning into soft totalitarianism—should one see the progressive vision of history as the source of oppressiveness of the two socio-political systems?

JB: To be succinct, equality of outcome, as an impossible result, can only be the objective of the misguided and/or totalitarian. That encompasses liberalism and Marxism, both of which are based on the flawed proposition that mankind must be made equal, and that all else is a false reaction and/or consciousness. Thus, the false consciousness that the Left propounds is in fact its condition.

ZJ: A typical liberal response to your answer about equality of outcome is: we want equality of opportunity. When I hear it, I tell my students: “do farmers in all places have the same opportunity, the same fertile soil and good climate? The same goes for fishermen, and so on.” My second response is: “consider your situation: you have equal opportunity in my class to learn from me; do all of you take the advantage of it? The majority of you did not even do the reading for today.” Some of them seem to understand what I am saying; others resist it. How do you respond to it?

JB: I agree entirely with your observations about teaching. Moreover, the pursuit of equality only creates more inequalities, not only in the determination of an alleged problem, but also in the measures pursued by means of implementation and with reference to the likely outcomes. As a consequence, we are in the world of fleas on fleas.

More subtly, the quest to end inequality inevitably destabilises the precarious equality between state and society, and between government and the individual.

ZJ: Let me put forth a suggestion here, and please do not hesitate to correct me if I am wrong. England is not exactly a home of Liberalism. True, we can talk about the project of broadening the franchise through the Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1884–85. But they can be said to be fundamentally democratic claims. Yet Mill’s Liberalism, as a panoramic, all-embracing vision in the context of 19th century English political thought, occupies a rather exceptional place. Mill’s ideology, because that is what his system is, inscribes itself better in the Continental way of thinking.

Could one say that Liberalism came to England through the back door, through France? I do not mean by that a commonsensical claim, which says that we all are influenced by ideas which come from different geographical places. But that Mill created a political philosophy that had little chance of being created out of “natural” English soil? One could literally point with a finger to places in his On Liberty which Mill “borrowed” from Guizot, in whose General History of Civilization in Europe he found a progressive scheme of history, as much as he borrowed from Wilhelm von Humboldt and Alexis de Tocqueville.

JB: English political thought and practice are traditionally accretional, with the ad hoc quality owing much both to the specific nature of case law and to its use in a parliamentary context on a contingent basis arising from particular challenges. As a result, Mill’s systematic prospectus prefigured the challenge of the later stages of the EU in providing an account that left no real role for the granulated character of English life and institutions: An excess of philosophical idealism cut across the organic development of the nation.

ZJ: You call yourself conservative. Can you explain what it means to you today?

JB: Change in the form of adaptation is an obvious necessity of the human species, but a conservative knows that in itself change is not a moral good, and that change ought to be referential to the past and reverential of it. The social and psychological benefit of continuity is as one with an ideological commitment to the value and values of the past. That is not reaction, but a key element of the trust between the generations that is a necessity for us as individuals and as part of a broader group.

ZJ: You wrote 140 books, including the history of the world, which means you know more history than any single individual on the planet. Historians by the very nature of their profession should care about the Past. Many of your colleagues seem to use history to invalidate Tradition, Culture, the Past—History. How do you explain their attitude? Is it the hatred of oneself—mankind—as Herr Freud would have it? But to be serious: could we say that they are unhappy about who we, as human beings, are?

JB: I fear we are looking here at a profession which is disproportionately attached to identity politics of a peculiarly destructive form, in large part because of a combination of facile Post-Modernism with doctrinaire Socialism. Existing systems are rubbished in terms of an alleged false consciousness.

ZJ: The Walters Museum in Baltimore, where I live, announced (proudly) that this year they will not purchase any pieces of European art; only the art by minorities. They are looking for funds to by art created by “minority” cultures. Decisions like that could be considered insane, but they are made by people in charge of serious cultural institutions.

Looking from a broad historical perspective, one could say, there is nothing surprising in it; the Americans are repudiating, and disposing of, the Past, they continue the 1776 Rebellion. In the middle 1980s they started repudiating education by doing away of what used to be called in the US Western Civilization courses, or Great Books programs; 35 years later we see the intellectual devastation not just in the educational realm but public realm. American students do not know anything. Compare them to students from Kenya, Nigeria, Nepal, Pakistan, India and other places…

Once again, the comparison with Communism comes to mind. They too, were selling “the bourgeois” art in the 1930s. American museums are full of the paintings the Hermitage sold, including a great Poussin in Philadelphia.

JB: Yes, see also the sales by the Newark Museum. The destruction of a great heritage is serving fashionable interests deploying an anti-colonial agenda, so-called, in order to justify their sectional and partisan political agenda. It has no intellectual purpose, but is a deliberately iconoclastic movement which delights in disorientating culture and society

ZJ: Here is a sentence from a recent email by my former (female) student: “I had told you once: We are all on the same conveyor belt headed to the slaughterhouse, just some are further down than others. I’m just trying to save my soul.”

First, what I see in her email is a sense of desperation—the same sense of desperation that people under communism felt—the Roller of History will crush us, thus we need to “adjust our thinking to the official views.” It explains why so many intellectuals compromised, sold themselves, their intellect, talent, integrity… to the ideological devil. More importantly, my student’s reaction is emblematic of how the young and thoughtful American feels.

I used quotations from Marx and Mill to make a point. What is the goal of History to them? An egalitarian world, a world without polarizing impulses which divide people, and which create hierarchy. History eliminates hierarchy and leaves “no one behind,” as we say in America.

JB: The presentation of history as uni-totalitarian is morally flawed and empirically wrong. It is a present, not conceit that seeks to extol a particular perception at the expense of the complexity of the past and the role of free will and choice, both moral and otherwise. The idea of determinism underlies such teleological visions, but they empty life of choice and therefore moral compass.

ZJ: Thank you, Professor Black.

The image shows Captain Ewart capturing the eagle standard of the French 45th Regiment, at the Battle of Waterloo, by Denis Dighton, painted 1815-1817.

This interview was prepared for the Polish magazine Arcana and appears with permission.

The Power Of Beauty And The New Museum Barbarians

The America of 2020 is a country in financial ruin. Its twenty-three trillion debt is the greatest of any country in history. Its political and social decline is obvious to anyone over fifty. Its universities, including the most distinguished ones, once the envy of the world, have been turned into meccas of ideological indoctrination.

Almost every aspect of America’s past greatness is gone. Until recently, one area of its cultural strength was unquestionable: Museum collections. American museums were once greatly admired by the curators of important European museums. But things are changing.

Some American museums embarked on a mission to suspend the purchase of European art, to sell items from their collections, or put them (temporarily) in storage rooms, in order to display the works of minority artists. In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Arts, sold seven artworks “to make way for pieces by contemporary artists of color and women.” Years ago, the Walters Museum, made the decision to acquire more “Black Art.” “The new acquisitions,” we read, “reflect the efforts of the museum, established at a time when the city was predominantly white, to evolve with the city, whose population now is predominantly black.” This year, the Walters suspended the purchase of European art. What is happening in Baltimore is a wider trend that is sweeping across America.

Last year, when I went on my monthly visit to Baltimore Museum of Arts, five of my favorite rooms, one containing Corot and Couture’s portrait of a woman with exposed breasts, were closed. What I found instead were mediocre contemporary paintings of Black slaves in chains by a local contemporary minority painter. To make sure that the visitor gets the message, the paintings were accompanied by very long statements by the painter, written in activist gobbledygook.

Contrasting what I saw with my previous experiences, the sense of quiet joy that a museum visit causes, I felt deeply irritated. I had a strong feeling that whoever responsible for the decision of taking down the great masters had robbed me of something that my soul longed to see. Instead of peacefully enjoying the beauty of the old artists, I was punched with a loud social message. It was consistent with the “1619 Project” of The New York Times. However, what is justified in the case of a politically engaged newspaper should have no place in art museums, for that is where we go to contemplate Beauty.

Clearly, beauty is of no interest to the new generation of curators, who believe that a social massage is more important than the intrinsic, artistic value of the old masters. They do not see themselves to be guardians of Beauty, and of the past that must be very carefully preserved. They see themselves as propagators of their ideological vision of America.

American museums are becoming ideological peddlers, and if they will follow in the footsteps of educational institutions, we can expect the same disastrous results. Old masters, like the classic writers, will be replaced by “underrepresented” minority artists, or sold off and forgotten by the public.

This is what happened under communism. The Stalinist curators would store old masters’ paintings in storage rooms and display Socialist Realist paintings, or they would sell them. Philadelphia Museum, for example, acquired a Poussin that Leningrad museum sold in the 1930s. But as Socialism is making inroads into American life, we should not be surprised at what is happening in our art institutions. “Art must be ‘engaged’” was the message of Socialist Realism.

Why that was so is easy to understand, if we turn to the writings of the Founding Father of the Socialist Idea. As Marx taught us, art is an expression of social consciousness, and as the latter changes so does art. Standard art history books written by Marxist art historians in the former countries of real socialism would tell you that the medieval mind was the prisoner of a religious Weltanschauung, and that the medieval paintings, saturated with the Biblical scenes, are expressions of it.

Renaissance art, on the other hand, represents a shift in social consciousness, and a step in the right direction: The painters broke with the medieval idea of anonymity, and the exclusively religious worldview made room for non-religious topics, marking the birth of the individual. The painter no longer saw himself as someone whose talent is to be devoted to the glory of God, but as an individual who expresses his own individuality.

We were told, for example, that the presentation of the human body, or the nude, was an affirmation of this world. Afterlife was pushed out by the beauty of earthly existence. Another shift can be observed in 17th-century Dutch painting. Thousands of portraits of rich merchants and important men of politics marks the birth of the bourgeoisie—the new social class oriented not toward the hereafter but earthly concerns: money and politics.

Even the poor shepherds are no longer presented as humble folk who made their way into paintings in the scenes of the manger with the baby Jesus and the Holy Family. They can be seen on green meadows attending their grazing animals.

The story of the development of social consciousness continued till it reached the peak in what came to be known as Socialist Realism. Its main heroes were the neglected and forgotten: the worker and the peasant. Former socialist underdogs are today’s American minorities. Their images can be seen everywhere on mural paintings.

How important is Marx’s insight for our understanding of art? It isn’t. It says something obvious. To be sure, one can trace the trajectory of changing social consciousness just by looking at the products of the past epochs: They tell us something about the people who made them, the ideas that motivated them, and how different they were from us.

But Marx’s theory of social consciousness tells us nothing about art’s aim — Beauty. In making us believe that what we see in paintings is social consciousness, Marx made us forget its most fundamental aspect: Beauty, the way it is presented, the changing technique. The theme is important but it cannot be more important than the artistic execution.

The paintings of Delacroix, for instance, have a political dimension, but if we admire them it is hardly because they carry a political message. Delacroix was simply a great painter.

This is what the new curators seem to forget, and they need to ask themselves a very simple question: Are the canvases they spend millions on art or ideological statements? And if they want to educate the public, they will not succeed by making the public look at bad art. They have to know what clear-cut criteria of aesthetic judgment are.

They may be unaware of it, but they are behaving like the followers of Marx for whom History is a battleground between the oppressors and the oppressed, and it unfolds itself through various historical stages. Therefore, what we see in art of the past epochs is the record of forms of oppression, the way in which oppression operated, from its cruelest forms to its most subtle expressions of submission, as John Stuart Mill taught us in The Subjection of Women. Art, according to this theory, is not about “perfecting Nature,” as Aristotle would have it.

At best, it is a means of plastic expression of a social message. The old idea that the artist is a creator who expresses eternal Beauty with his brush or chisel is long gone. He is an unconscious peddler of false or unliberated consciousness, expressing the social values of his epoch. He is like a bourgeois jurist, who, in designing laws, is building ever-newer punitive devices that protect the privileged classes against the oppressed, rather than being someone who wants to bring universal rules of justice to the City.

Similarly, a painter, who is painting, say, a naked woman, as we learn from feminist criticism, is objectifying women (according to the standards of his epoch). “Objectification,” even if it is a mental act, or assumes the form of a painting, is oppressive. This reasoning leads us straight to Marx’s idea that History is a struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.

If you still wonder why a mediocre painting could replace a Corot or a Couture, the answer is simple: A mediocre painting of a slave, “a man objectified,” breaking chains, shows the viewer a fight against alienated consciousness, social injustice, whereas Couture’s painting of a blushing woman with exposed breasts is likely to be interpreted as female submissiveness.

Feminists have been unambiguous in their claim that the female nude is an expression of “the typical male attitude,” of seeing a woman as an object to own. Hundreds of 19th-century Academic and Orientalist paintings, showing naked women sold at slave markets in ancient Rome or the Middle East, is supposedly a testimony of such an attitude of the male painters. Jean-Léon Gérôme (“Roman Slave Market”), Remy Cogghe (“Female Slaves Presented to Octavian”), or Hermann Corrodi (“The Slave Market”) may be invoked here as illustrations.

In each painting, a beautiful naked woman is presented to the buyers by the sellers. Orientalist paintings are more likely to be a rendition of what 19th-century Arab countries were like than the imaginary constructions of the Academicians who conceived of Roman slave markets. However, the question is not about the accuracy of the actual practice of slave trade in Rome or Middle East, but intentionality of artistic presentation.

Among many 19th-century paintings presenting naked slave women for sale, one seems to stand out. It is Henryk Siemiradzki’sThe Vase or the Woman.” The painting received the gold medal at the 1878 World Fair in Paris, and the painter was awarded the French Legion of Honor. The painting was very much liked by the Dutch-English painter, Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema.

The painting presents an older Roman patrician and his son. The older man is sitting, looking at the vase, while his son is looking at the young beautiful woman. One of the traders is showing the vase to the patrician; the other, a very tall Black man, is pulling a white long cloth covering the woman’s body. In what appears a gesture of covering her shame, the half-naked woman is putting her hand on her face and eyes, as if she wants to defend herself against the shame of her nudity.

What makes Siemiradzki’s painting different from similar paintings is that the buyer must choose either the woman or the vase.

How can one equate a woman with a vase, one can exclaim, unless one reduces a woman to the level of an object. But to say that is to miss the point Siemiradzki makes here. The woman and the vase are on the same level, if – and only if – there is a common denominator between the two. This denominator is beauty.

However, once we recognize it, the only logical choice left is to choose the vase. Its beauty will outlast the beauty of the young female body. It will live for centuries, long after the beauty of the girl and the girl herself are gone.

As we look at the painting, we notice that the beautiful young woman is of greater interest to the patrician’s son, who is glaring at her, rather than his father—an older man, who seems to prefer the vase, which he is holding.

However compelling, logic can be complicated. The young man would choose the vase but only if he followed Plato’s advice from the Symposium: “He who aspires to love rightly should from his earliest youth seek intercourse with beautiful forms.” But youth has its own logic. Its interest is passion: intercourse with a bodily form; interest in the intercourse with Beauty itself, or beauty of art comes later, in older age, when “the devil” (sexual passion), as Socrates teaches us at the beginning of the Republic, is gone.

Looking at Siemiradzki’s painting, one learns an important lesson: Art is not about lessons in raising social consciousness, nor is it about politics, social justice, representation of minorities. It is about Beauty. Unless present-day museum curators learn this lesson, they will quickly fill our museums with “loads of rubbish,” as the British say. The old elites which feed themselves on Beauty will look at it with predictable scorn, and the minorities which are the intended target of “minority art” will conclude that there are better things to do. Alas, they are likely to be right

Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes’ Quest for Certitude, Index Augustino-Cartésien, Agamemnon’s Tomb: Polish Oresteia (with Catherine O’Neil), How To Read Descartes’ Meditations. He also is the editor of Leszek Kolakowski’s My Correct Views on Everything, The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers, John Stuart Mill: On Democracy, Freedom and Government & Other Selected Writings. His new book, Homo Americanus: Rise of Democratic Totalitarianism in America, will be published in 2021.

The image shows, “Dance Amongst Swords,” by Henryk Siemiradzki, painted in 1881.

The Roots And Branches Of Spanish Enlightenment Thought, Part Two

The Oldness of Spanish Reformist Thought

Spanish thought, whether of a theological, philosophical or political nature, is old since it dates back to the Middle Ages, where it flourished (among others) in the universities founded in this period: Palencia, Salamanca, Lérida, Valladolid, Huesca, Calatayud, Girona and Barcelona. The consolidation of the Spanish university system continued during the Renaissance and the Baroque era, with nearly thirty higher education establishments founded between 1483 and 1624 – not counting New World universities.

It is from these establishments (and in particular from the Colegios Mayores that we mentioned earlier) that the letrados, jurists and great administrators came first from the underprivileged classes, who then were intended for service within various national, regional and local bodies of government (Royal Councils, Provincial Audiences, Chancelleries, the post of corregidores, etc.).

If classical education (logic, rhetoric, theology, civil law, canon law, medicine) remained on the agenda, the renewal brought about by these prestigious letrados explains the superiority of the administration of the Habsburgs of Spain over that of the other European countries, in particular at the beginning of the reign of Philip II (1556-1598), the sovereign considered as the “inventor” of polysynodal governments.

The administrative and ideological revolution that early gave birth to Spanish absolute monarchy is also partly behind the origin of French absolutism, as recent historiographical research has clearly shown.

Salamanca, the Arbitrators and the Novatores

It is also in the shadow of the University of Salamanca that the second Spanish scholasticism is born, commonly known as the School of Salamanca. This group of thinkers, teachers, jurists and theologians (including Martín de Azpilicueta, Tomás de Mercado, Francisco de Vitoria, Martín Fernández de Navarrete, Miguel Caja de Leruela, Diego de Covarrubias, Juan de Mariana, Luis de Molina, Bartolomé de las Casas, Martín González de Cellorigo, Francisco Suárez or even Domingo de Soto) profoundly renews political and legal science. It transforms and indeed creates many concepts, even branches that did not exist until then: Property law, usury and interest, fair price, public finances and taxes, international law, etc.

From the end of the 16th century onwards, Spanish thought changed again with the appearance of arbitrism (arbitrismo), a pejorative term first created in 1613 by Miguel de Cervantes in the short story, The Dialogue of the of Dogs. Here, the masculine name arbitrio designates the “extraordinary means” that a sovereign can use to achieve a given end or resolve a complex situation. Thus, the arbitrators (arbitristas), like Cellorigo, Fernández de Navarrete, Sancho de Moncada, Luis Ortiz or Luis Valle de la Cerda, sought to influence the sovereign by offering him a primer on a given subject, generally of an economic nature (speculation, unfair tax treatment, excessive concentration of agricultural property, government debt, export of capital and raw materials, depopulation).

There was, therefore, among the arbitristas (many of whom come from the School of Salamanca), awareness of a series of concrete problems that the government of Spain must work to resolve for the sake the common good – a theme that was largely taken up. in the Age of Enlightenment.

Between the end of the reign of Charles II (1665-1700) and the beginning of that of Philip V (1700-1746), while Spain experienced a change of dynasty as part of a War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the arbitrators yielded to a new current of thought, that of the novatores, who in 1700, founded the Royal Society of Medicine and Sciences of Seville, responsible for disseminating their ideas, which were based on atomism. These researchers (represented by Diego Martínez Zapata, Luis de Losada, Alejandro Avendaño, Martín Martínez, Tomás Vicente Tosca, Juan Bautista Berni or Juan de Cabriada) advocated above all the reform of Spanish higher education which, in their eyes, would have to favor physical and natural sciences rather than abstract scholasticism. They blended a renewed arbitrismo with the gestating rationality of the Enlightenment.

This transition was not specific to Spain. Across the Pyrenees, it was Benito Jerónimo Feijoo (1676-1764), forerunner of the Ilustración, who spread the theories of Galileo, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke or Pierre Bayle to renew philosophy and the sciences. Feijoo advocated a greater opening of Spain to the rest of Europe. The clergyman was not the only one to support such theses, since he was preceded by Francisco Gutiérrez de los Ríos, author of a treatise entitled El hombre práctico o discursos sobre su conocimiento y enseñanza (1680).

Enduring Quarrels And An Ambiguous Legacy

If we can credit the Spanish Enlightenment, which fed on the above-mentioned currents, with a certain number of successful reforms (upgrading of work, trade, industry and agriculture; reorganization of the administration; metamorphosis education and university), it should also be noted that they also contributed to deepening old fractures between supporters of an Iberian way (especially turned towards America) and a European way.

This confrontation between the casticistas (partisans of the casta, that is to say, of the national tradition) and the extranjerizantes (which we may call hereafter the europeístas, that is, Europeanists) is illustrated by the opposition of a large part of the Spanish church to new ways of thinking introduced in the Iberian Peninsula. Resistance to the publication of works deemed contrary to religion was the work of the court of the Holy Office, but the latter censored almost as much the monarchy itself – behavior which was not abnormal in the Europe of the time.

In the 18th-century, the casticismo musical rebelled against the predominance of forms from the rest of the continent (in particular from France and Italy), and this attitude favored the popular success of Spanish genres, such as zarzuela or tonadilla.

The Italians Domenico Scarlatti and Luigi Boccherini, who both ended their days in Madrid, exercised a quasi-tyranny at the court of Ferdinand VI (1746-1759) and Charles III (1759-1788) (24), just like the castrato Farinelli had met with immense success with these kings’ father. The few Spaniards to break through, like the organist and harpsichordist Antonio Soler (1729-1783), were their pupils.

Literature also testifies to this European preponderance, notably French and English. We see this in Leandro Fernández de Moratín (1760-1828), nicknamed “the Spanish Molière”, or in José Cadalso (1741-1782), whose Cartas marruecas was inspired by Montesquieu and his Noches lúgubres by Edward Young.

It was around this time that the unflattering qualifier of afrancesado (“Frenchified”) arose, and which was revived with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasion (1808-1814). The demand for Spanish arts and literature served as a weapon for an ideological war against foreign influences, considered impious and harmful by certain sectors. The rise of the casticista movement was favored by the fate of Louis XVI, the “cousin” of Charles IV (1788-1808), who tried to save the French sovereign from the guillotine, and by the censorship of many foreign works.

During the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by the First Empire, the opponents of Napoleon Bonaparte were not all adversaries of the new ideological currents – which explains the promulgation of the Constitution of 1812 (one of the first in Europe). The struggle between the Old Regime and liberalism continued for the next two centuries, with reformulations according to the times: Carlist reaction from 1833 to 1876, the difficulties in giving birth to a parliamentary regime from 1875 to 1931, then bloody civil war of 1936 in 1939, followed by a dictatorship which lasted until 1975.

It is through the bias of “two Spain” (dos Españas) that this age-old conflict is often addressed. Even if it is not for us now to discuss the relevance of this concept, we must nevertheless be careful when it comes to applying it to the Spanish Enlightenment.

Most of them were indeed moderate, deeply Christian and patriotic, even if they favored an evolution of religious doctrine. It is probably the painter Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), straddling two periods, who best illustrates these tensions inherent in the time. Favorite of the court, darling of the aristocracy, he did not hide his closeness to the most advanced ideas of his time. Nevertheless, disenchanted with the cruelty of the war unleashed by Napoleon, he found it difficult to progress in the absolutist Spain of Ferdinand VII (1808-1833) and chose exile in France in 1824.

The engraving, the Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which is part of Los caprichos, has an ambiguous title in Spanish, where the term sueño designates both the sleep and the dream. Is it when he abandons reason, dear to the Enlightenment, that man drifts and gets lost in the horror of irrationality? Or does reason, pushed to the ultimate and imposed by force, end up producing horrors similar to those that Goya represents in the last years of his life? None of the Ilustración representatives could resolve this dichotomy.

The original, French version of this article appeared in Revue Conflits and was translated by N. Dass.

Nicolas Klein is Associate Professor of Spanish and a former student at ENS Lyon. He is a teacher in preparatory classes. He is the author of Rupture de ban – L’Espagne face à la crise and Comprendre l’Espagne d’aujourd’hui – Manuel de civilisation. He has also translated Al-Andalus: l’invention d’un mythe – La réalité historique de l’Espagne des trois cultures by Serafín Fanjul.

The image shows, “The sleep of reason produces monsters” (No. 43), from Los Caprichos, by Francisco Goya, a print from 1799.

A Conversation With Kamel Krifa

The Postil is very pleased to publish this conversation with Kamel Krifa, an actor, film producer, and trainer of Hollywood stars – including Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michelle Rodriguez, Eddie Griffin, Steven Seagal, and so many others. Krifa is Van Damme’s longest collaborator and personal friend, acting alongside him in various movies. This conversation with Grégoire Canlorbe began in Paris, in July of 2017; it was resumed and completed in April of 2020.

Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): In Kickboxer IV, you gave flesh and soul to iconic villain Tong Po. Do you intend to return to the saga?

Kamel Krifa (KK): At the time I was offered a contract for five films to interpret the character of Tong Po. It was an interesting challenge, for my acting was essentially limited to the expression of my eyes and to contorting my mouth. In fact, I was asked to wear a mask, so I would have oriental features.

As for the fight-scenes, I didn’t have the opportunity to really prepare for them well, because I had to keep from sweating and spoiling, the three hours of make-up that I had to undergo each day. (Plus, an extra hour needed to remove the make-up after filming).

In the end, I could give my interpretation of the deceitful and cruel Tong Po (actually my strength and my agility) only once. But in way, I did return to the Kickboxer franchise, when I appeared in Kickboxer: Retaliation, alongside Mike Tyson, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, Christophe Lambert, and none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme. The movie was released in January of 2018. It’s the sequel to Kickboxer:Vengeance, a remake of Kickboxer which came out twenty-seven years after the original.

GC: Jean-Claude Van Damme has directed a single film, The Quest, in which he plays alongside the late Roger Moore. According to you, why did JCVD not want to repeat the experience again?

KK: Jean-Claude has an undeniable talent as a director and he does not hesitate to advise the directors who work with him. They benefit from his experience, acquired both in front of the camera and behind it. In turn, he offers them the best of himself in his acting.

Since The Quest, he now prefers to delegate the task to the director so he can focus on his interpretation. This allows him to let his mind float easily, instead of confining his attention with a host of technical considerations that can never leave his mind in peace. In this way, he can become fully invested, relaxed, and reactive in front of the camera; he can put himself in the skin of his character with a heightened ability to concentrate.

Also, entrusting the filmmaking to someone else, who he knows is qualified, and to whom he can give directions, gives him time for himself, time to commune with himself, and to read and meditate on subjects that are dear to his heart. Jean-Claude is not only a man of great culture; he is authentic and gifted, with a superior intelligence, who possesses unique insights into people, the things of life, and the universe.

GC: Whether as his coach, his producer, or his on-screen partner, you have been working steadily and consistently with JCVD. Would you care to say a few words about this experience?

KK: I have known Jean-Claude since he was thirteen. When I met him, I was twenty years old; and from simple sports room colleagues, we quickly became best friends and spiritual brothers.

In 1989, Jean-Claude, who had just acted in his career-launching Bloodsport (and was about to become an international star with the tremendous successes of the early 1990s), suggested to me that I become his exclusive trainer. Very honored, I accepted his offer. I then had the opportunity to act alongside him in Death Warrant and Lionheart, and that is how I became a Hollywood actor.

During the 1990s, I continued to appear alongside Jean-Claude in various action movies; and at the same time, I ventured into production. That is how I was an associate producer for Double Impact, featuring Bolo Yeung. I also co-produced Legionnaire, for which I did location-scouting in Morocco for two years. I must confess that I have a special affection for this period film, which deals with the Rif War and which features Abdelkrim Khattabi, whom I had the good fortune to play. Most recently, I collaborated with Jean-Claude on the pilot of the TV series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, sponsored by Amazon, and, of course, on the last installment of the saga, Kickboxer.

GC: Let’s talk about how you got your journey into films all began. Is there a connection between your Tunisian childhood and your early discovery of martial arts?

KK: At the age of seven I had stars in my eyes, as I watched sword-and-sandal and spy films in the 1960s. And it is to a large extent inside the popular movie theaters of Tunis, where action movies had me mesmerized, that my vocation as an actor was born. But it was also at home, from a very early age, where I’d have fun and shoot amateur films, imitating my role-models, like Tarzan or Maciste, that my attraction for cinema took shape. The martial arts, which I have been practicing since childhood, seemed to me early on to be the best way to make my entry into the Hollywood milieu. As an adult, my experiences in the army, the police, and as a bodyguard allowed me to perfect my combat skills.

My childhood was very beautiful, bathed in a diverse yet uniform environment, which was shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, living in a fraternal understanding. I could not say if the fact of having spent my childhood in Tunisia, rather than in India or in Australia, made me more predisposed to those life choices. But Tunisia was most certainly a country with no future for me – while Europe was my springboard.

At the age of 15, an internship in the hotel industry allowed me to leave my native land and settle in Germany. One year later I moved to Belgium, still in the hotel industry. After having worked in major, internationally renowned hotels and taken over the management of food and beverage, I had the opportunity to take over a French gastronomy restaurant in Brussels, which specialized in seafood.

While learning English (the mastery of which was indispensable to me, if I wanted to break through in Hollywood), and traveling regularly to America, I also kept up my martial arts training assiduously. At the age of 36, I made the decision to move definitively to the United States. Around the same period, Jean-Claude, then crowned with the halo of success for Kickboxer, introduced me to producer Mark DiSalle, who insisted that I be in the casting of their next movie, Death Warrant—and the rest, as they say, is history.

Finally, I’ve spent more time in my country of adoption, America, than in the country of my origins: the Tunisia where I was born and where I took my first steps, and where I discovered the martial arts and action movies, and from where I set out to conquer Hollywood. Naturally, the fact of having had that Tunisian childhood sensitizes me to the social and economic development of my native country. As such, I have many projects in mind to give back to Tunisia, such as, its first place for open-air studios for foreign films – the place it has lost to Morocco.

GC: Your life is also rather iconoclastic. Do you believe that the law of attraction has something to do with your success?

KK:  I am a very thankful person. I believe in the law of attraction, of course! I believe what we have the ardent desire to obtain, if we work hard to have it, and if sincere and regular prayers accompany our efforts, then we end up getting it – because then events miraculously work in our favor. Since my earliest childhood, I saw myself in Hollywood, and I have been pious and laborious. What my mind dreamed of, the universe brought about.

What are the ingredients of the law of attraction? Having faith in oneself and in one’s destiny; working hard every day that God gives; expressing gratitude towards the Almighty for the favorable news that reaches us, the rewards that our efforts reap; and also, respecting others, showing generosity, helpfulness, and compassion. Be a good and charitable person, and what you have offered, the universe will give back a hundredfold!

There is a precept in Islam, zakat, which asks the wealthy Muslim to give 10% of his wealth. The Good Lord rewards everyone according to his beneficence. He who gives little will be recompensed little by life; he who offers much will see his desires fulfilled.

I am now over 65 years old; and yet people think I am in my fifties. Why? I take care of the body that God has given me: it is the sanctuary of my faith. I train every day. I drink only occasionally, and never to excess. And now I don’t drink at all. I watch what I eat. I avoid soda-pop, and also polluted fish and meats poisoned by added sugar.

But that is not all. I look after the health of my soul and strive to be a good man. I pray—and I train—in my own way, each day that God creates, and I always respect His laws. I pray on all occasions, whether I’m in training like on my bike or in a meditation session.

My physical health is not only the result of the care I take of my body; it is the reflection of the cleanliness of my soul. Martial arts have given me that integral discipline – the discipline of both body and soul – that Islam expects of the good Muslim. Ditto for a Catholic, a Jew, or a Buddhist – all religions converge in their teaching.

GC: It is not uncommon to point out – without condoning the bestial wars carried out on behalf of God or Allah – the allegedly heroic and ascetic ideal of Islam, which would contrast with the “consumerist apathy” of the allegedly atheist West. What are your thoughts on that subject?

KK: I am a spiritual believer, open to the world. When I am in Los Angeles, I go to the church with Jean-Claude Van Damme; when I am in Asia, I pray in a Buddhist temple. I pray as much in the mosque as in the synagogue. To me the word “Islam” means peace and respect. And whatever the religion envisaged, one obviously must be careful not to paint everyone with the same brush. Not all Muslims are terrorists or fanatics. For my part, I respect all religions, but I reject all fanaticisms, in that I reject the fanaticism which can be found in all religions.

As for the true ascetic, the true warrior, he is not the one who shoots at an innocent crowd or who beats his wife. He is the one who has the spirit of competition, the taste for armed struggle or with bare hands, the rage of the conqueror; but who can restrain himself at the same time. He is the one who offsets his assertiveness and his passionate temperament with his generosity, his greatness of soul, and his sense of duty; the one who protects and avenges the weakest, and who devotes himself to work, to prayer, and to self-purification.

A warrior makes war on all that can corrupt and disfigure his soul, be it debauchery, drunkenness, laziness, superficiality, or egoism. Islam properly understood does not call for perpetrating barbarous acts; it calls for putting into practice self-discipline and self-purification, in which lies the key to personal fulfillment. It also calls us to watch over our neighbor, whatever his religion may be.

Right now, the coronavirus epidemic reminds us of the importance of discipline: Being able to stay away from each other, and being able to wash your hands, your face. We wish our future to be good; we pray for a happy future for the world, which is going through a difficult period with this virus, without medication to treat it.

Islam insists on the duty of cleanliness: Routine and meticulous cleanliness. It also stresses the importance of praying, not only for oneself, but also and above all, for the whole world; the duty to pray (and to act) so that everyone may be healthy and eat his fill. As such, I am currently dedicated to the distribution of protective masks, through an association that I have just created and which works closely with companies specializing in medical equipment. Your readers are welcome to write to me for more information.

GC: Do you see a universal message common to Islam and to all other religions?

KK: Yes, this one: We are all human and we all have the same God, the same Creator. We all live under the same sun and in the same universe, the same house, and we are all passers-by here below. The Prophet Muhammad enjoins us to watch over our neighbor, not to brutalize or enslave him. He enjoins us to respect him, to lend him assistance, and to consider him as our brother. He calls us to lead a virtuous, charitable, and fulfilled life; and to be at peace with ourselves, and to care as much for our souls as for our bodies.

What the Prophet Muhammad, in his own way and in his own language, states, all religions affirm so. Muslims respect all Prophets: Ibrahim, Moses, Jesus. They follow only the last of them, Muhammad, for he is the one who was announced to close and clarify their teachings. Muslims believe the Koran because it contains things that are unexplainable by reason alone; it surprisingly predicts the future.

The good Lord gave me good health (hence my gratitude), which in turn gave me the power to persevere, and then to know the joy of finding an opening, a loophole, for each obstacle in my way. For this reason, I want to give humans and animals what life has offered me. I want to take care of my companions out of gratitude for Allah and out of love for others.

The concern for watching over others pushed me, throughout my life, to work seriously and to devote myself to the cinema and coaching. I am a soldier. Today it is that same state of mind that has led me to launch my charitable foundation, the Kamel Krifa Association, to take care of humanity and all the creatures that inhabit this world. You surely know that Jean-Claude has animal welfare very much at heart. When I told him about the association I was setting up, he made sure to tell me, “Don’t forget the dogs!”

GC: According to Mike Tyson, who plays alongside you in Kickboxer:Retaliation, a great man is not the one guarding himself from the people, but the one being accepted by the people. According to you, to which of those two categories of men does the current US President, Donald Trump, belong?

KK: Both Mike Tyson and Jean-Claude Van Damme have declared themselves publicly in favor of Donald Trump. For my part, I do not meddle in politics. Since we are talking about Mike Tyson, I would like to say that he is a person I admire: An authentic warrior. When one gets acquainted with the videos of his youthful fights, easily found on YouTube, there is only one possible reaction – you’re blown away. And also, Mike Tyson came to find solace, a guide in the Muslim religion.

Again, the asceticism preached by the Koran does not consist in mortifying oneself, or making oneself small. On the contrary, it is a discipline that allows you to give the best of oneself; to achieve the objectives that you give yourself; to live up to one’s ambition – be it as a boxer, a practitioner of martial arts, an actor, a writer, a politician, a physician, an engineer, or even a businessman.

GC: A quick glance at contemporary film production allows us to notice that a white hero imbibing Asian values is often portrayed in American films and series. That form of soft power, which allows the Asian culture to bleed into the modern myths of the West, is manifestly unfamiliar to Russia. To my knowledge, at least, there is no movie where an American hero cottons onto Orthodox-Slavic values. How do you explain it?

KK: Your question is interesting. The attraction of the American action movie for Asia seems to me to be, to a large extent, linked to the mystical aura surrounding the Asian martial arts. Indeed, Russians may well have Systema and Israelis may well have Krav Maga, but Asia is clearly the unassailable homeland of martial arts.

For Asians, the martial arts are much more than a discipline; they are a religion and a philosophy in themselves. For the adepts of martial arts, all nationalities and all confessions considered, Asia means the equivalent of Mecca. Russia simply cannot compete with the appeal of Asian culture in that area.

GC: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add a last thing or two?

KK: Whether it’s from trips and outings of all kinds, to the previews of the movies of Jean-Claude, Paris is a city where I have many memories. You know, when I started helping Jean-Claude, he was not an international star at all. I fought non-stop for him – by getting on-board financiers, advertisers, and journalists who would propel him forward. I did it for a brother, never asking for anything in return; and without ever letting myself judge him for his excesses with drugs or alcohol. Because who am I to judge my neighbor? God alone is in a position to judge what we do with our existence on this planet. But I am very happy that Jean-Claude, whom I tried to rescue in that long fight also, ended up overcoming his addictions. I prayed to the good Lord that he cast off his demons; and today Jean-Claude is perfectly clean.

The most important thing in the life of an actor – Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, Stallone – is not his image, his roles on the screen; it is what he does with his life, it is the good he manages to do around him in his life. I always told Jean-Claude that in my eyes, the ultimate goal of our success in cinema, the ultimate dream, was to assist the weakest and the most disadvantaged. I find myself in the perfect moment of my life to remember that.

More than ever, I wish to do for my neighbor what I have done for Jean-Claude over all those years: Helping people in all areas in which I have expertise – more than ever, because I believe in the brotherhood of all men (without distinction as to color or religion). I wish to take action in the fight against poverty, mistreatment, pollution, and war. In a word, to work towards the unity of the world.

That is the goal of my association, which will include an academy for martial arts and a production house for films from all over the world, as much the United States, as well as, Africa, Europe, or China. More than ever, I wish to work in positivity, generosity, love, and the awareness of all those things. “To be aware,” as Jean-Claude puts it so well.

You can reach Kamel at his email address:

You can follow him on Facebook:

Or on Instagram:

The image shows a bubishi illustration from the 19th-century.

The Chinese Virus: Fraudulent Bankruptcy of Modelling

“In total, in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in GB and 2.2 million in the US, not accounting for the potential negative effects of health systems being overwhelmed on mortality.” Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, 16 March 2020.

323,341 dead. According to official statistics provided by governments all over the world and aggregated by John Hopkins University, as of 20 May 2020, the Wuhan virus has caused the death of 323,341 people worldwide.

When the Chinese communist regime finally admitted the virus, modellers immediately jumped on the bandwagon and predicted millions of deaths.

Many people have a short memory, but it is not difficult to find the models which, during previous epidemics, seriously and systematically predicted millions of deaths  (see below Creutzfeldt-Jakob, swine flu, bird flu). This expression seems to be the modellers’ style clause when a new epidemic breaks out.

The astonishing thing is not the fact that these models see the light of day, but the a priori and critical credit given to them by the press and above all, governments. They have a decisive impact on the management of human affairs.

In the case of the Wuhan virus, one of the most influential models, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries and Europe, was that of the Imperial College London – what a beautiful and noble name! How can we not begin a kind of anticipatory prostration when a sentence begins ‘According to the Imperial College of London…’? It is akin to ‘Attention ladies and gentlemen, science is going to speak, be prepared in advance to renounce all your rights and possessions, because of science!’

As early as mid-March, the Imperial College published a model, more precisely, the results of computer modelling, predicting that up to 2.2 million Americans and half a million Britons would die from the Wuhan virus if nothing was done.

Projections such as these evoke the Black Death, Spanish flu, the end of time, ancestral fears and horrific medieval panic: they oblige, morally and scientifically — the Imperial College, sir! — to take the most radical measures immediately. No measure seems far-reaching enough when we speak of the New Black Death; derisory, unacceptable and unbearable is the slightest reticence in the face of the radicality of the measures adopted.

In comparison, data on previous epidemics (let’s take the best-documented American case, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): Asian influenza H2N2 in 1957: 115,000 deaths in the United States; avian influenza H3N2 in 1968: 100,000 deaths; H1N1 in 2009: 12,469 deaths. (It should be remembered that the American population in the 1950s and 1960s was much lower than it is today). Wuhan virus: 91,921 American deaths, while the health crisis is coming to an end.

91,921 deaths versus 2 million deaths: How can we explain such an abyss between reality and Professor Ferguson’s modelling? When you look closely, the Imperial College model is not inaccurate or imprecise: it is a crude fake. Judge for yourself.

First, the Imperial College model assumes a population infection rate of 80%. In comparison, the infection rate of the Spanish flu in 1917-1918 was 28%. There was no scientific or even rational argument to predict an infection rate three times higher than that of the Spanish flu. None at all. Pure fantasy in Professor Ferguson’s mind. However, it is quite obvious that this infection rate was a determining factor in the projection of the number of deaths: the more people that are infected, the more deaths will occur.

Second, the Imperial College model assumed that populations would not take precautions: no social distancing, no hygiene, no confinement of the sick, absolutely nothing. There is no example in the history of mankind where populations have not taken action, even individual action, in the face of the spread of a visible evil.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research states, “The most important and challenging heterogeneity in practice is that individual behaviour varies over time. In particular, the spread of disease likely induces individuals to make private decisions to limit contact with other people. Thus, estimates from scenarios that assume unchecked exponential spread of disease, such as the reported figures from the Imperial College model of 500,000 deaths in the UK and 2.2 million in the United States, do not correspond to the behavioural responses one expects in practice.”

The Ferguson model sees our population as a horde of anti-rational primates, very literally, insects devoid of reason. It seemed to us that reason had been identified since the Greeks as being the property of man. As the National Bureau of Economic Research study states, the assumptions of Prof. Ferguson’s model “appears to be entirely arbitrary and in some cases clearly inaccurate.”

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Let’s look at the profile of the chief author of the Imperial College model. According to the Imperial College website, Neil Ferguson is a professor of the Faculty of Medicine and School of Public Health. He is also a member of the following institutes and organisations: Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics, Imperial College Network of Excellence in Malaria, MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, Malaria Modelling Research Group, Vaccine Research Network.

Prof. Ferguson’s presentation clarifies: “Much of my work is applied, informing disease control policy-making by public and global health institutions. With recent advances in data availability (both epidemiological and molecular) and affordable high-performance computing, mathematical models of infectious disease spread now offer the potential to provide predictive, quantitative analyses of alternative disease control and treatment strategies, as well as qualitative insight into the complex non-linear processes shaping pathogen replication and evolution. An important strand of my research program is therefore to develop the statistical and mathematical tools necessary for such increasingly sophisticated models to be rigorously tested and validated against epidemiological, molecular and experimental data.” 

He goes on to say that a major research interest includes ‘developing mathematical models of the geographic spread of newly emergent pathogens (…) to examine containment and mitigation strategies. Much of this work has been undertaken in collaboration with colleagues in my department and external institutions – most notably public health partners such as the World Health Organisation [WHO], the US Centres of Disease Control and Prevention and Public Health England. These partnerships have been vital in facilitating the results of my work being used to inform policy’.

In short, when it comes to modelling the consequences of an epidemic, Prof. Ferguson is seen as the living embodiment of science. Ferguson and his team form the golden standard of epidemiological modelling, according to the New York Times.

When “Living Science” Ferguson published its modelling, the typical media headline went as follows: Professor Ferguson of Imperial College of London, Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics, Imperial College Network of Excellence in Malaria, MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, Malaria Modelling Research Group, Vaccine Research Network explains that COVID-19 will cause 2.2 million deaths in the United States if left unchecked.

No debate is possible, or even conceivable. You’re not going to challenge the Golden Standard of Science, are you? Do you want the blood of millions of your fellow men on your hands? Science has spoken! SCIENCE!

Let’s get back to reality. The facts, which fortunately include historical data, therefore, are verifiable, are that Neil Ferguson is nicknamed The Master of Disaster by some of his colleagues as so many of his past predictions proved to be grossly erroneous. Here are four such examples.

In 2001, Neil Ferguson was one of the authors of the scientific study that led to the pre-emptive culling of six million healthy sheep and cattle in the UK in response to foot-and-mouth disease. Cost: £10 billion. Prof. Ferguson’s study was considered seriously flawed by Michael Thrusfield, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, because it failed to take into account the specific realities, in the biological sense, of farms.

In 2002, Ferguson predicted that up to 150,000 people would die from exposure to BSE (mad cow disease, also known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). When other scientists had the nerve to question the alarmist nature of his study, Prof. Ferguson called them ‘unjustifiably optimistic’ and “extremely naïve” in the press. In the United Kingdom, there were 177 deaths from BSE. The ‘unjustifiably optimistic’ were still far too pessimistic and the Ferguson projections grotesquely fanciful.

In 2005, Ferguson predicted that up to 200 million people (sic) could be killed by bird flu. In the end, 282 people died from bird flu worldwide between 2003 and 2009. One million times less; one person, in reality = one million people in Ferguson’s rich fantasies.

In 2009, a British government estimate on the mortality rate of swine flu, based on the expert advice of Professor Ferguson, found that the ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ was the death of 65,000 Britons. In the end, swine flu killed 457 people in the UK. Ferguson predicted a mortality rate of 0.3 to 1.5%. The mortality rate was 0.026%.

Neil ‘Golden Standard’ Ferguson is not only a forger, but he is also a multi-recidivist forger.

It should be noted that Professor Ferguson has just resigned from SAGE, the scientific committee that advises Her Majesty’s Government. As a result of some sort of moral epiphany? Of course not. Professor Ferguson resigned because the British press caught him receiving his companion, a married activist mother of two children, at home and several times, in flagrant violation of the drastic containment rules that he recommended to the British government and, as a result, was imposed on the common man (which, according to Prof. Ferguson, does not apply to him).

Let’s take the criticism of the COVID-19 model of the Golden Standard of Science a step further because the best is yet to come.

Confronted with the results of Prof. Ferguson’s modelling that predicted millions of deaths, several of his colleagues around the world asked him for the computer code used to arrive at this projection. A predictive computer model consists of data (example: contagion rate), assumptions (example: population infection rate) and algorithms that derive projections from the data and assumptions. Surprisingly, Prof. Ferguson initially refused to deliver the computer code for his model. Surprising, because science, in the true sense of the word, presupposes light; when one takes the trouble to advise the world’s governments using computer models, it is a basic requirement to account for the methodological and technical means used.

Six weeks later (sic), Prof. Ferguson finally published a partial and revised version of the computer code he had used. It appeared that the program was 13 years old — an eternity in computer coding — and that it had been designed for… the flu. The author of this March 22 finding was none other than Prof. Ferguson himself (on Twitter): ‘I’m conscious that lots of people would like to see and run the pandemic simulation code we are using to model control measures against COVID-19. To explain the background, I wrote the code (thousands of lines of undocumented C) 13+ years ago to model flu pandemics…’

Thirteen years, undocumented, flu: Prof. Ferguson’s model is a crude fake.

Consider, just as an example, that while epidemiological models use an extremely small number of variables to make predictions at one month or one year, the climate models by which the IPCC claims to project the climate to 10, 20, 50 and 100 years implement hundreds of variables. ‘There seems to be a general tendency for researchers to report a greater degree of confidence than is warranted for an existing model, in part because it is not straightforward to quantify parameter uncertainty or to trace the effect of those uncertainties in a non-linear model. Realistic confidence intervals in this context would also be so wide as to seem vacuous, notes a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. What is true of epidemiological models that rely on a tiny number of variables makes more ambitious models simply meaningless.

The real subject, as everyone will have understood it, is not the sinister career of the intellectual swindler, Prof. Ferguson. It is the decisive role that computer models without any scientific value play in public decision-making.

Drieu Godefridi, PhD, is the author of The Green Reich – Global Warming to the Global Tyranny.

The image shows, “Mann in suprematischer Landschaft (Man in a uprematic landscape), or sensation of an imprisoned man,” by Kazimir Malevich, painted in 1930-1931.

To Be Really Creative

The first time I heard the suggestion that human beings should think of themselves as “co-creators” with God was in a liberal, mainline, seminary (Episcopal). This was in the 1970s.

The meaning at the time was something of a mish-mash of culture-notions that was little more than a way of underwriting the myth of cultural progress as a God-given program, as well as a windfall of new-age silliness. We were not only making the world a better place, we were doing so as Co-creators. I must confess that every time I hear anyone speaking about making the world a better place I hear echoes of Cabaret with a pretty blonde Nazi-boy singing, “Tomorrow belongs to me!”

I offer this as a preface to my reflections on current language regarding “co-creation” and “sub-creation” with the far healthier pedigree found in Tolkien and Lewis. Both authors, with some variation, recognized the human participation in myth-making in genres such as fiction and fantasy. But the question remains: to what extent is it right to describe ourselves with such lofty language?

The sobriquet of co-anything with God immediately raises questions concerning “synergy.” Eastern Orthodoxy is supposedly famous for its thoughts on synergy, in that we “co-operate” with God in our salvation. This stands in stark contrast to certain early versions of Protestant theology in which there is literally nothing contributed by human beings to the work of salvation: God’s work is strictly “monergistic,” belonging only to Him. That extremist view (still found in Reform circles) came to be balanced in Protestant practice by the sentiments of free-will Pietism in the mid-19th century.

Orthodoxy traditionally holds to a synergistic approach to salvation, though, I have come to think of this as problematic for those whose minds have been shaped in modern thought (whether consciously, or not). Modernity is steeped in the concept of our own freedom and the imagined power of our choices. We are said to be creating and shaping our own reality – even our own being.

The doctrine of synergy, as I’ve encountered it in contemporary Orthodox conversations, seems to me to overstate the case. It is accurate to say that we “participate” in our salvation through our freedom, that there is a necessary cooperation on some level, but, I think it is wrong to say much more than this. For one, we simply have little or no clue of the truth of our salvation: it is hidden (Col. 3:3).

The content of our salvation is nothing less than the image and likeness of Christ Himself. This is being made known to us, though in a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12). Our participation and synergy consists in our persistent “yes” to the work of God. Our role as sub-creators is not unlike that of the Theotokos. She says, “Yes,” to God, and without her ‘yes,’ there is no incarnation. She contributes her “flesh” to that incarnation and participates in the life that grows in her womb.

This is important, even in the world of fiction and fantasy. Not every work of fiction or fantasy can properly be said to belong to “sub-creation.” Nor is every work of art a work of sub-creation. A work succeeds in these acts of creation inasmuch as it participates in the work of God, and fails inasmuch as it rejects that same work. Tolkien famously thought of his fantasy as an act of “sub-creation.”

He definitely did not see it as “allegory” (in contrast to Lewis’ fantasies). But Tolkien’s sub-creation can be described as such, not because it stands as a complete world, but in that it works with the same truth as the creation in which we live. To be good in Middle Earth would count as goodness in this world as well. Tolkien’s world is not an allegory, but every sub-creation must “rhyme” with God’s creation in order to be worthy of the term.

Tolkien succeeds, I suspect, because he was a Christian down to the deepest level of his soul. He would have been repulsed by an anti-creation fantasy. This is another way of saying that all created things are created “through the Logos,” and that “apart from Him, nothing was made that was made.”

The Logos can be discerned in Tolkien’s work, as He can in much of great literature, many times in an unconscious manner. But, there are works of anti-Logos that fail. When such things, lacking in any true beauty, have influence or popularity, it is almost certain that they do so only as a result of a sort of propaganda rather than any popular love. That which is natural coinheres in the Logos. That which is contrary to nature does not, and eventually collapses in on itself.

This same process can be applied to the human life. There is much about us that is a work of “creation.” In our present culture, we speak of individuals “re-inventing” themselves. But that which we “invent” is not at all the same thing as “co-creating.”

The work of creation that is the true self is a gift. It is discovered and welcomed, but not formed and shaped. The deepest act of creation in the human life is that of repentance and the life of true humility.

We do not create ourselves – for one, we stand at the wrong point in time to do such a thing. The Scripture tells us that our life is “hid with Christ in God” (Co. 3:3). Additionally, we are told that: “…it does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know, that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2).

The causality of our life is not found in the past or the present; it lies in the age to come. That which we shall be draws us forward towards our true end. God said to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” The truth of our existence is eschatological and its manifestation in our present life is itself a glimpse into the Kingdom of God.

This is not only true of ourselves, but of creation itself. The “new heaven” and “new earth” are not the eradication of what exists; they are the revelation and fulfillment of creation in the “glorious liberty of the sons of God” (Romans 8:21).

But what of fiction and fantasy? Both Lewis and Tolkien were greatly influenced by the theories of Owen Barfield. They shared a common belief in a transcendent realism – that behind and beneath creation as we see it are realities that form and shape the world.

None of them should be described as Platonists, but all shared the worldview that was common to the perceptions of the early Christian fathers that had much in common the Hellenistic Platonism. Lewis’ Professor Digory declares, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

That greater reality is a manifestation or reflection of the Logos (Christ), “by whom and through whom all things were made.” As this is the case, even fiction and fantasy, at their best, themselves participate in this deeper and greater reality. They serve, in their own way, to reveal what might otherwise be hidden.

It is also possible for fiction and fantasy to distort and obscure the Logos, though nothing can truly efface all evidence of His work. If you will, the very existence of language, thought, reason, cogency, etc., that mark every form of human communication is Logos-bearing. The very act of denying Him is itself impossible without Him.

This serves, as well, as a model for thinking about the self. The narrative of our own self is under constant revision. Each day’s part of the story serves to re-write what has gone before.

The beginning is always being revised by the end. The creativity that marks our own participation in creation (including the revelation of the self) is, most properly, a variation or improvisation on a theme that is being sung by the Logos. This means that listening and observing are among our most essential activities. You cannot sing along if you do not hear the music.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows, “Artists Sketching in the White Mountains,” by Winslow Homer, painted in 1868.

Subsidiary And Free Enterprise

Subsidiarity is the Catholic social doctrine which recommends that whenever we face a problem, other things equal, the most decentralized institution we have at our disposal should be the one mobilized to solve it.

For example, if it is a choice between the national and the state government as to which should be brought to bear to address a challenge, and there are no other considerations, then we should rely on the latter, not the former. Similarly, we should favor in this regard the city over the state government, the borough rather than the city, the town instead of the borough, and the neighborhood association vis-à-vis the town.

Let us allow a major advocate of this doctrine to put it into his own words.

According to Pope Pius XI, in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” (emphasis added)

There are strong parallels between subsidiarity and the free enterprise system. We cannot of course equate the two, but the analogy is strong. Decision-makers such as entrepreneurs, business owners, workers, are subsidiary to government. If there is any clash between them, it is the state that prevails. The government taxes firms, not the other way around. Capitalists are regulated by public servants, not vice versa.

What is the case for preferring free enterprise to government other than subsidiarity? The market consists of nothing but voluntary trade, buying, selling, renting, lending, borrowing. In each and every case, assuming no anti market fraud, both participants necessarily gain at least ex antel and in the overwhelming number of cases, ex post, too. Consumers, under free enterprise, can exercise their dollar vote several times per day; but in the political system, even under full democracy, they can enter the ballot box only once ever several years.

Moreover, the people are constrained with a package deal in the latter case, but not the former; they cannot pick and choose policies except for referendums, as they can in the market. Thus, consumers have far more control over businesses than do voters over politicians.

The empirical evidence attesting to the benefits of the free market system vis-à-vis political regulation is overwhelming; there are several almost controlled experiments that demonstrate that: East and West Germany, North and South Korea, for example. The poorest countries tend to rely on socialism; the wealthiest, on capitalism.

Given the strong parallels between capitalism and subsidiarity, one would expect that advocates of the latter would look positively on the former. They are not quite as alike as the two proverbial “peas in a pod” but the resemblance is strong. But this expectation is erroneous. Supporters of subsidiarity are bitter opponents of the free enterprise system.

Consider the following:

“…all products and profits, save only enough to repair and renew capital, belong by very right to the workers….The easy gains that a market unrestricted by any law opens to everybody attracts large numbers to buying and selling goods, and they, their one aim being to make quick profits with the least expenditure of work, raise or lower prices by their uncontrolled business dealings so rapidly according to their own caprice and greed that they nullify the wisest forecasts of producers ” (Pope Pius XI, also in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno)

Continues this author: “… the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life – a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated. Therefore, it is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle.”

How are we to account for this bifurcation? It might well be that this devotee of Catholic social thought suffers from a hate capitalism syndrome, so deeply embedded that no amount of evidence, nor considerations of logic, can overcome it. He wants to support subsidiarity, which means allowing markets to run the economy. But he finds economic freedom objectionable. He wants to have his cake, subsidiarity and hence laissez faire capitalism, and eat it too, support government control of the economy. He does not see the tension in this position, not to say logical contradiction.

The middle name of “free enterprise” is practically “subsidiarity.” No, “free subsidiarity enterprise” does not roll off the tongue all that easily, but that is only, perhaps, because we are not used to it. From a substantive point of view, it is just about a tautology.

If they want to be coherent, the proponents of Catholic social thought are logically obligated to favor capitalism, not condemn it. I’m not going to hold my breath until that happy day comes around. On the other hand, miracles sometimes occur!

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He has taught at Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, Baruch CUNY, Holy Cross and the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). He lectures widely on college campuses, delivers seminars around the world and appears regularly on television and radio shows. He is the Schlarbaum Laureate, Mises Institute, 2011; and has won the Loyola University Research Award (2005, 2008) and the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Medal of Freedom, 2005; and the Dux Academicus award, Loyola University, 2007. Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shook his hand. Block has never washed that hand since. So, if you shake his hand (it’s pretty dirty, but what the heck) you channel Mises.

The image shows, “Vegetable Market in Venice,” By Camillo Bortoluzzi, painted in 1894.

Privatize The Highways

There were problems with highway closures at both ends of Canada. The crisis is over for now, but perhaps we can learn something from this difficulty. Indeed, it will occur again.

Things were so bad in Newfoundland that military troops had to be brought in to engage in blizzard cleanup. Part of this effort was devoted to road clearance.

What is going on at the other end of Canada? A few days ago, there were highway closures in relatively balmy British Columbia. In the Lower Mainland parts of Highway One were covered with sheets of black ice. There were more accidents than you can shake a stick at, particularly in the section of this major roadway between Chilliwack and Abbotsford, B.C.

What was the word from the B.C. Ministry of Transportation? There were lots of excuses, good ones, but gridlock, slowdowns, jack-knifed trucks and fender benders were the order of the day.

According to Ministry of Transportation South Coast regional director Ashok Bhatti: “We are using calcium chloride and a combination of techniques, but it has been challenging … We are hitting it with everything we’ve got.”

He continued: Work has been done overnight, but to no avail. With temperatures below -15C and winds that blow salt and sand off the road, no solution was in the offing.

In the event, safety and transportation were restored when the temperatures rose, and, thanks to the rain, the ice, snow and slush were swept away.

Notice what is missing here? There was no vestige of competition. The presumption of the Ministry was that they were in charge, there was no possible other option, they were doing their best to rectify the situation.

Other firms in other industries, too, face difficult tasks. This occurs all throughout the warp and woof of the economy. Sometimes failure occurs elsewhere as well. But, in the private sector, there is always a “fail-safe” mechanism undergirding the entire process: competition. If a given firm faltered, there would be others anxious and eager to take its place. Moreover, different companies could try alternative strategies. If one of them worked, others could follow suit.

But not on the nation’s highways. There, monopoly, central planning, was the only possibility.

What might have been done had competition been allowed. That is, if there were privately owned highways?

One possibility would be the “conga line:” a long line of specially fitted tractors, one after the other, brushing away the ice. This is the technique utilized at some airports. These vehicles travel at a snail’s pace, but at least roadway connections could remain open. “Slow but sure” is perhaps better than nothing at all. If need be, it would not be beyond the scope of private enterprise to use actual military style tanks as snow plows.

Another is to place metal that can be heated just below the concrete of the roadway. People with sloped driveways use this method of melting the snow and ice. The difficulty here is that this is a tremendously expensive option. Costs could be reduced by treating only one lane in this manner instead of all three, but, even so, the expenses would be vast. Would it be worthwhile to maintain automobile travel and reduce accidents? This is something only the free marketplace can answer. This is at basis an entrepreneurial matter.

Are There Other Options?

It is difficult for a mere economist to anticipate the market. If shoes had always been the province of government, and a wild and crazy free enterprise economist had advocated privatization, the objections would come thick and fast. How would resources be allocated between sneakers, slippers, boots and other kinds of footwear? Where would shoe stores be located? How many of them would there be? Who would supply shoe laces?

In the event the market addresses all these difficulties, these are non-problems. And so would it be in the case of roads. Yes, highways are long thin things. People think their provision must necessarily fall to the government. But railroads exhibit similar geographical elements. Privatization in that realm is not unknown.

There are perhaps more important reasons for engaging in this process than black ice. In Canada, some 4,000 people perish each year in motor vehicle accidents. Competition between road owners, as in the case of every other good and service known to man, would undoubtedly lead to improvements in this regard too. Fatalities are not at all the product of drunken driving, speed, vehicle malfunction, driver inattention; those are only proximate causes.

The ultimate cause is the inability of the road managers to deal with these challenges. How could they do so? This can only be speculative, as in the case of shoes, but, perhaps private highway owners could address not velocity, but its variance. Instead of minima and maxima speed limits for the entire highway, do so for each lane.

For example, 120 kilometers in the left lane, 100 in the middle, and 80 on the right. Would this reduce traffic fatalities. Hard to tell. The problem is, such experiments are not now undertaken. They would be, under free enterprise.

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He has taught at Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, Baruch CUNY, Holy Cross and the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). He lectures widely on college campuses, delivers seminars around the world and appears regularly on television and radio shows. He is the Schlarbaum Laureate, Mises Institute, 2011; and has won the Loyola University Research Award (2005, 2008) and the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Medal of Freedom, 2005; and the Dux Academicus award, Loyola University, 2007. Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shook his hand. Block has never washed that hand since. So, if you shake his hand (it’s pretty dirty, but what the heck) you channel Mises.

The image shows, “A Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur,” by Claude Monet, painted 1865 or 1867.