The benefit of controlling a modern state

As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”

–David Frum, How to Build an Autocracy


Long odds

This policy analysis identifies 154 foreign-born terrorists in the United States who killed 3,024 people in attacks from 1975 through the end of 2015. Ten of them were illegal immigrants, 54 were lawful permanent residents (LPR), 19 were students, 1 entered on a K-1 fiancé(e) visa, 20 were refugees, 4 were asylum seekers, 34 were tourists on various visas, and 3 were from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries. The visas for 9 terrorists could not be determined. During that period, the chance of an American being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist was 1 in 3,609,709 a year. The chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee was 1 in 3.64 billion a year. The annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist.

–Alex Nowrasteh, Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis

Enigma and apocalypse

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

–Alan Jacobs, Tolkein’s riddles

Curiosity over partisanship?

In other words, curiosity seems to be the pin that bursts our partisan bubbles, allowing new and sometimes uncomfortable information to trickle in. Nothing else works like curiosity does, the authors point out—not being reflective, or good at math, or even well-educated.

Instead, they write, it’s “individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected … [who] expose themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations.”

–Olga Khazan, How to Overcome Political Irrationality About Facts

The only problem is if you think there are no righteous mobs

The black bloc I joined met at Logan Circle, some two miles north of the inauguration parade route. We peered through bandanas to find friends. We gathered in bloc formation behind wood-enforced banners, filled the street, and began to march. The bloc takes care to stay together, move together, and blend together. Within minutes, bottle rockets were shooting skyward and bricks were flying through bank windows. You don’t know who does what in a bloc, you don’t look to find out. If bodies run out of formation to take a rock to a Starbucks window, they melt back to the bloc in as many seconds. Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty. If that sounds to you like a precondition for mob violence, you’re right. But this is only a problem if you think there are no righteous mobs, or that windows feel pain, or that counter-violence (like punching Richard Spencer) is never valid.

–Natasha Lennard, Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched–You Can Thank the Black Bloc


Athens and Jerusalem

The true source of the current trouble reaches back to the foundations of Western civilization and democracy. Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions, or “Athens and Jerusalem,” taught westerners to put their faith in God or reason, and often both, and to be wary of despots and demagogues. Although many have warned of the steady erosion of those traditions, the full consequences of their loss are not appreciated. For the first time, vast swaths of the West are living with the death not only of God but of reason as well. Such a vacuum makes ample room for opportunism and exploitation, while moral chaos invites tyranny.

–R. A. Brown, Illiberalism Rising

The battle after the war

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended … I can live with that.

–Alan Jacobs, recency illusions

Residents and transients

The scientists who study these communities are microbial ecologists, and like ecologists of the macro world, they like to think about the interactions between different organisms. But this research is still new, and this way of thinking is only just starting to make it into the world of clinical microbiology, which is still focused on defeating the bad microbes. “We noticed there is kind of a division between the clinical human skin microbiology research and this more recent emergence of microbial ecology,” says Roo Vandegrift, an ecologist who co-authored the recent paper, “There wasn’t very much crosstalk between those segments of the scientific literature.”

Even the language the two groups use is different. Microbial ecologists tend to divide microbes into how they behave in communities: are they residents or are they transient? Clinical microbiologist divide them up based on whether they’re harmful: commensal or pathogenic? You could say the two sets of vocabulary roughly map onto one another. Resident microbes tend to be commensal (the bacteria are harmless to you but they’re benefitting from living on you) and the transients are the pathogens that make you sick when they appear.

–Sarah Zhang, What Is the Right Way to Wash Your Hands?

But Twain disagreed

The Wild West Show could also, as “Hamilton” does now, become a lightning rod for political concerns.  Consider what happened on April 2, 1901, when a new version of the show featuring a reenactment of a 1900 battle fought in China premiered at Madison Square Garden.  Like the “Hamilton” performance that Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended in November, there was a famous man in the crowd that night, Mark Twain. The audience loved the show, but Twain disagreed with Buffalo Bill’s interpretation of the Boxer War.  The next day, newspapers wrote that Twain walked out of the show in disgust, with an expression “as sour as a German pickle,” as one journalist put it. A leading voice in the anti-imperialist camp of the day, Twain viewed the anti-Christian Boxers as “patriots” fighting foreign encroachment on China, whereas Cody portrayed them as bloodthirsty fiends.

–Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Buffalo Bill–A Truth-Bending Showman for Our Times?

Unless Twain, pausing as he left after the show to listen to a tendentious speech specifically addressed to him by Buffalo Bill, and having applauded with apparent sincerity during the performance several times, had been booed by half the crowd upon entering and walked out smiling anyway, the contexts and particulars Wasserstrom cites are so different that it’s tough to detect any insight here, apart from the idea that famous political figures, then as now, occasionally attend performances that may challenge their worldviews.