New York in Spring
by Ari Armstrong, May 11, 2006
New York is a beautiful city. The difference between it and the last large city I visited -- Mexico City -- is astounding. New York is fairly clean, filled with trees and flowers, not bad smelling.
Its streets are lined with little shops and markets. Its people are generally friendly enough, if somewhat aloof because of the large masses of people. There are people everywhere, yet seldom does the city seem overcrowded. Millions of people of all varieties live together in a small area, made possible by three-dimensional living that rises many stories from the ground, and at a deeper level made possible by the civility of rights afforded the individual. I never felt threatened or uneasy. My wife and I enjoyed the flowering trees in Central Park.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
On our first morning in the city, we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The power and significance of art became especially apparent due partly to an accident of navigation. We were walking among the statues created during the pinnacle of ancient Greek civilization, roughly the time of Socrates and Aristotle. The muscular torso of a man, though an incomplete piece, nearly struggled to life before me. The sense was glory in the human form, the form of the rational animal. Then we walked across the hall into a section containing art from Africa several centuries more recent. Many of the images were animalistic and ghoulish. It was suddenly very clear to me, in tangible form, why Greece became the foundation of the modern world, while much of Africa continues to struggle with tribal war, oppression, and poverty. (I wish I'd taken representative pictures. The museum's web page shows selections of the Greek and African art.) The contrasts between high-Greek art and Medieval religious art and disintegrated "modern" art also are stunning.
I was delighted to find, in the halls of armaments, a collection of Smith and Wesson firearms -- decorated by Tiffany's. (Shown in the photograph are early Colt revolvers.) Yet the exhibit is also sad, in that about the only place in New York City to find such a tool of self-defense is the museum (apart from the hips of the police, as well as the belts of criminals, who carry guns for offensive purposes).
The exhibit is impressive in that it is organized in a way to reveal the development of Darwin's thought. Thus, it presents specimens and information to make an inductive case for Darwin's theories. I've written about the exhibit elsewhere, but I wanted to include some fun details here. I hadn't realized how extensive was the voyage on which Darwin embarked. Darwin and the ship's captain fought over slavery, Darwin taking the side of the abolitionists. Darwin was subjected to a crazy initiation rite on passage of the equator: "Captain FitzRoy, dressed as Father Neptune, summoned the first-time equator-crossers for an alarming initiation. Darwin was blindfolded, flipped into a sail filled with water and roughly 'shaved' with a piece of iron for a razor, and tar for shaving cream.
Darwin had a love for hunting, and he carefully selected the guns to take with him on the voyage. He also started an eccentric college club for exotic dining, and he enjoyed eating iguanas, armadillos, and tortoises on his trip. He described the armadillo as a "most excellent dish when roasted in its shell."
This is a great story, also recounted on the web page: "Darwin was impressed by how the gauchos hunted rhea by throwing bolas -- two balls connected by a cord... When Darwin tried to do the same, however, he ended up entangling the legs of his own horse. 'The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself'."
I get the idea that Darwin would have been a fun and interesting chap to hang around.
However, apparently Darwin's religious questioning led to marital strife. And it seems that Darwin struggled over religion with himself and with religious leaders.
History and Political Science
The Natural History Museum is huge. We didn't have time to inspect nearly all of the displays. Still, even a quick pass through the place provides a sense of history. It's useful to get such a global overview in tangible form.
To me, the grossest display was a case of shrunken heads from South America. The shrinking of heads was part of an elaborate religious ritual to prevent retribution from killing the victim, we read. Crazy bastards.
Yet the museum is scrupulously multicultural, meaning that only European culture is criticized. One plaque explains that slavery in Africa wasn't so bad: it was only the influence of Europeans that caused Africans to treat African slaves brutally. Of course, the plaque fails to mention that it is the English who led the world's first movement to outlaw slavery, while slavery continues to exist in regions unblemished by Enlightenment culture.
The museum's displays about the last Ice Age implicitly run counter to modern political correctness, though. One display recounts that many fossils displayed are of animals that "lived between 2 million and 10,000 years ago, in an epoch known as the Pleistocene. This was the time of the 'Ice Ages,' when climates alternated between conditions similar to those of the present day, and periods when great glaciers spread over large parts of the Earth."
In other words, "global warming" is something that has occurred many times in the past.
The display explains, "The causes of the Ice Ages are not fully understood" -- though some of today's politically-funded scientists claim to know in detail the causes of modern climate change. "Since the first northern-hemisphere glaciers formed, 2.6 million years ago, the polar ice caps have expanded and contracted in response to variations in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, causing cold spells alternating with warmer periods, like the one we live in now." You mean that factors other than human activity can impact the climate?>
"There is no reason to believe that another Ice Age won't come. In the past, warm cycles lasted about 10,000 years, and it's been that long since the last cool period. Human-made pollutants may also have an effect on the Earth's climatic cycles." Yet some of today's scientists claim the ability to predict the weather three centuries from now.
After I read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, I tried to explain to a relative that Native Americans hunted many large animals to extinction. She simply wouldn't believe me -- apparently that history didn't mesh with the modern, idyllic vision of Native Americans as environmentalists.
Yet a museum display confirms, "Just within the last 15,000 years, a period that included the end of the last Ice Age, warming climates and the activities of human hunters causes a rapid and massive extinction of many of the large mammals represented in these halls." Extinctions were caused by "human hunters and rapidly warming climates. Weapons have been found at the same sites as fossils of extinct mammals..." Of course, even absent human hunting, animals adapted to colder climates might have gone extinct with warming climates.
We spent some time walking through the museum's Hall of Biodiversity. Here is the theme of the exhibit: "The earth has always experienced change. In the past, severe climatic changes and physical events such as meteorite collisions were responsible for periodic large-scale transformations of the environment and five global mass extinctions. Today, the planet's ecosystems are again being rapidly altered and undergoing a massive loss of biodiversity that has been called the Sixth Extinction. But this time, the changes are caused solely by human activity... [W]ith the explosion of the human population following the invention of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, our demand for and impact upon biological resources dramatically intensified. The development of increasingly sophisticated technologies has only accelerated our ability to disrupt, deplete, and destroy natural systems. By converting and polluting forests, prairies, and wetlands; overexploiting wildlife and fisheries; and transporting alien species across the globe, humanity is greatly altering the surface of the planet, causing the dramatic decline of species in today's 'Biodiversity Crisis'."
The alleged "solutions" to the "crisis" are standard environmentalist pablum. But the exhibit both misanalyses the problem and ignores the real solution to the actual problem. Ironically, while the Darwin exhibit argues that people are another sort of animal, the biodiversity exhibit starts with the assumption that humans uniquely are not natural. The museum dare not mention the one solution compatible with human thriving: capitalism. Much deforestation and the hunting of animals to extinction, for example, are the result of the "tragedy of the commons," caused by a lack of property rights. Moreover, capitalism continually leads to more efficient use of resources. And capitalism depends on a system of property rights that provides legal remedies to pollution by particular individuals that harms particular properties. But of course the museum can only endorse more socialism.
The problem, according to the museum, is "expanding human populations and overexploitation of natural resources." To some, then, the obvious solution is to dramatically reduce the human population. I had always thought that the nihilistic left wanted only to return mankind to a pre-industrial state. No, no, no. The primitivists want to return mankind to a state before agriculture. These primitivists do not "merely" wish to turn back the clock of human civilization by 300 years; they wish to overturn civilization altogether and take humanity back some 10,000 years.
Back then, human population was about five million.
Of course, nobody openly advocates mass human death as a "solution" to environmental "problems." Instead, the anti-humanists advocate socialism, forced population controls, and forced restraint of human economic activity.
Those who do not regard humanity as an unnatural blight on the world appreciate the fact that the human population has increased so dramatically. There is no such thing as a general "overexploitation of natural resources." (There can be imprudent use of certain resources.) What people need to do is figure out how to use vastly more resources to sustain a vastly larger human population. Of course, eventually this will entail the move off-world. While the Earth can support many times the current population, given an appropriate political-economic system of individual rights and capitalism (though population especially in semi-capitalist countries is stabilizing), eventually only a move throughout and then beyond the solar system will allow the exponential increase of human population. It will also allow Earth-bound humans to gain many of their supplies and perhaps generate much of their energy off-planet.
The environmentalists do not wish to actively kill humans; they wish merely to prevent human advancement. The Islamic totalitarians do wish to actively kill humans, or at least Western infidels (and other Muslims of the "wrong" sect). And they have done just that.
After leaving the museum, we went down to Ground Zero and walked around for a bit.
The pit had been cleared and prepared for new construction. While the place is a memorial, it is also an inspiration. All around the site, people go about their lives. New York is "open for business," which is the greatest tribute that can be paid to those who died in the attack.
Ayn Rand, who lived and worked in New York, writes through a character of The Fountainhead (page 447), "I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline... The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? ... Is it beauty and genius [people] want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel... I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body."
Liberty Beat and History
I was momentarily distressed to see that the title of Nat Hentoff's column for the Village Voice is "Liberty Beat." That's what I call my column for Boulder Weekly. But I suppose it's too clever a title not to have been thought of before. But I think the geographic distance allows for peaceful cohabitation.
In his April 26 column, Hentoff laments American ignorance of the Bill of Rights, individual liberties, and history generally. He advocates "teaching students their individual liberties under the Constitution and what it has taken during more than two centuries to rescue those liberties in periods like the present..."
Unfortunately, some historians wish to abuse history for entirely different ends. We dropped into a bar, where the bartender made conversation that was at the same time friendly and belligerent. Before we left, he had praised an article in The New York Review; he ripped it out and gave it to me. It is an article titled, "History and National Stupidity," by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (April 27, pages 14 and 15).
Schlesinger first argues that we can't really know history: "[T]he past is a chaos of events and personalities into which we cannot penetrate. It is beyond retrieval and it is beyond reconstruction. All historians know this in their souls... We are all entrapped in the egocentric predicament. We bring to history the preconceptions of our personality and the preoccupations of our age. We cannot seize on ultimate and absolute truths."
Then Schlesinger explains how he tried to justify FDR's socialism: "I wanted to show that from importing foreign ideas, FDR was acting in a robust American spirit and tradition. [Andrew] Jackson's war against Nicholas Biddle and the Second Bank of the United States thus provided a thoroughly American precedent for the battles that FDR waged against the 'economic royalties' of his (and my) day... Jackson and Roosevelt, it appeared, had much the same coalition of supporters -- farmers, workingmen, intellectuals, the poor -- and much the same coalition of adversaries -- bankers, merchants, manufacturers, and the rich. There was consequently a striking parallel between the 1830s and the 1930s in politics, and there was striking parallelism in the basic issue of power -- the struggle for control of the state between organized money and the rest of society."
But the "basic issue" is not "organized money," for this ignores the distinction between money "organized" by political force and money "organized" on a free market according to individual rights.
Schlesinger admits that "history is not an illusion or a fiction or a myth" -- it's just that we can't really know what it is. So what's the point of history, then?
"History is the best antidote to illusions of omnipotence and omniscience. It should forever remind us of the limitations of our passing perspectives. It should strengthen us to resist the pressure to convert momentary interests into moral absolutes. It should lead us to a profound and chastening sense of our frailty as human beings -- to a recognition of the fact, so often and so sadly demonstrated, that the future will outwit all our certitudes and that the possibilities of history are far richer and more various than the human intellect is likely to conceive. A nation informed by a vivid understanding of the ironies of history is, I believe best equipped to live with the temptations and tragedy of power. Since we are condemned as a nation to be a superpower, let a growing sense of history temper and civilize our use of that power."
In other words, even though we can't really know history, we can explore it in order to foster cynicism, skepticism, defeatism, and self-loathing.
The Islamic totalitarians hate the West and work actively to damage it. But it is the postmodernist tripe of American "intellectuals" that is corroding America from within.
I walked through the magnificent streets of New York City. I visited the scar of Ground Zero. I heard some New York intellectuals lament "increasingly sophisticated technologies," "expanding human population," and the "tragedy" of American success. I heard them worship, not New York's skyline, but "our frailty as human beings." Against these haters of humanity and American achievement, I answer simply: "I love New York."