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Non-Nuclear vs Nuclear Adversaries: a “game changing” book?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick one, of strategy & game interest, from WOTR ]

I thought this paragraph might interest ZP readers, since the book argues for a new concept in conflict between non-nuclear and nuclear adversaries> The para (or should I say, graph) that follows is taken from a review of Paul Avey, Tempting Fate: Why Nonnuclear States Confront Nuclear Opponents by Alexander Landszka in War on the Rocks:

Avey’s argument is straightforward: If the conventional military balance favors a nuclear-armed state to such an extent that it would not need to resort to nuclear weapons to defend itself and its vital interests, the non-nuclear state may challenge or resist it in a militarized dispute. A sort of “Goldilocks rule” is at play here. If the non-nuclear state is conventionally too strong vis-à-vis the nuclear state, then the latter may be tempted to use nuclear strikes to achieve favorable outcomes on the battlefield. The possibility of nuclear weapons use deters the non-nuclear state. If, however, the non-nuclear state is conventionally too weak vis-à-vis the nuclear state, then the former will not be able to initiate a military conflict in the first place. Avey claims that the non-nuclear state’s leaders do not abide by the nuclear taboo while challenging a nuclear-armed adversary. These leaders believe that amoral strategic reasons — and not moral misgivings — will constrain the adversary from launching nuclear weapons. To support his argument, Avey examines Iraq’s confrontational policies toward the United States in the 1990s, Israeli decision-making toward Egypt in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Beijing’s hostility toward the United States in the 1950s, and Soviet-American tensions in the early days of the Cold War.

Afrer posing some questions about Avey’s arguments, the review concludes:

This is yet another sign that Avey has written a very good book. It gives inspiration for fresh theorizing and more empirical scholarship. Notwithstanding my questions about the nuclear revolution and the Israeli-Egyptian case study, Avey wisely hews close to the evidence and never overstates his arguments. Tempting Fate is a must-read for anyone interested in nuclear politics.

Me, I’m going to think about smaller boys taunting big enough bullies that they can get away with it in (British) Public Schools (American “Prep Schools”).. a subject close to my heart.

Book Review: Dominion, by Tom Holland

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020

[ intro only by Charles Cameron — I’m delighted to welcome blog-friend Dr Omar Ali, who here reviews Tom Holland‘s book, Dominion — no, it’s not about Rushdoony-style Dominionism. This review was originally posted in our companion blog, Brownpundits !

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World
Tom Holland
Basic Books
ISBN-13: 978-0465093502
$22.97 at Amazon
Brownpundits / Zenpundit Review by Dr Omar Ali


Tom Holland started off writing vampire novels but moved on to non-fiction and has since written an excellent history of the Persian invasion of Greece, several books about the Romans, one about Islam and one about the slow rise of Christian Europe that started around 1000 AD; in retrospect at least, all his non-fiction books have had a hint of Christian Western European apologetics (some of it is probably well deserved reaction to the excesses of contemporary wokeness) but this book makes it explicit. Dominion is well written and well researched and he does make a lot of effort to include the nasty bits of Christian history, but in the end it IS a work of Christian apologetics, albeit from a modern liberal angle. Tom Holland’s basic thesis is that almost the entire set of “humanist” values modern liberals take for granted (universal human equality and dignity, separation of church and state, care for the weaker sections of society, suspicion of power, privilege and wealth, condemnation of slavery, cruelty and oppression, valorization of the weak and downtrodden, etc) is purely Christian in origin. No other civilization or culture had these values (or at least, foregrounded them in quite the same way as Christianity). For example, while some thinkers have always been unhappy with slavery, the abolition of slavery was a Christian effort through and through. True, the slave owners had their own Biblical justification for slavery, but those who opposed them did so on the basis of their Christian beliefs, and they won the argument.

Holland also insists that the most viciously anti-Christian progressive thinkers of the post-enlightenment era also turn out be using Christian values to attack Christianity. When Marx cries out against the oppression of the proletariat or Lennon sings “all you need is love”, they are really being more Christian than most Christians. Since Nietszche thought something similar (that liberalism is “Christianity without Christ”), he gets a lot of positive play in this book, which is a bit ironic, since he also regarded Christianity as something of a disease.

As expected, the book is well written and stylish, sometimes with too much style; I am not picky about such things but some readers may tire of all his little reveals (a new character is discussed without being named for a few lines, giving readers the opportunity to guess who he or she is, then revealed; this is done in practically every chapter). He has done his research and as far as I could tell, there were no glaring errors of fact. But while he is scrupulous about his facts, he is not shy of cherry picking and framing to fit his thesis. Nero is a pagan monster who killed his own wife and mother; Constantine, the first Christian emperor, also viciously killed his wife and son, but that does not reflect badly on Christianity. Terrible and cruel punishments in pagan Rome are a sign of paganism’s shorcomings, but terrible and cruel punishments inflicted by inquisitors and priests (and described in horrifying detail in this book) are not Christian shorcomings (the thought is that eventually Christian Europe gave them up; why they were given up in a time of anti-clerical and even anti-Christian upheaval and not when the Church was at its mightiest, is assigned to Christian values taking 1800 years to make their mark, and then doing so surreptitiously). By the time the book gets to the modern world the thesis really begins to look like one of those Hindutvvadi posts about how everything was invented in India; no matter what any activists themselves may say, Tom Holland knows their beliefs and motivations are entirely Christian. This is probably partly true, but leaves open the question of where Christianity itself comes from. Unless one believes the Son of God thing, the explanation is likely to be that some mix of human nature and human history created Christianity, just at it created every other ideology. So why stop at Paul (or Christ if you prefer)? Everythying in this world seems to be derived from some combination of earlier things, why not Christianity? And why believe that the same results would not have arisen (somewhere, at some point) even if there had never been a Christ or a Paul? Maybe those impulses are also human universals, and can and do arise repeatedly, not just as an episode in the history of Jewish superstition? And of course there is always the possibility that some of this progress is not really progress at all, but a mistake. Especially with the “woke”, it is by no means universally agreed that they are a good thing, so crediting all of their values to Christ may not be a winning move for Christianity.

Anyway, I don’t find his thesis completely wrong; the tension between certain Christian values and various vicious aspects of Christian society is real and those values did lead some Christians to take up the cause of diverse oppressed groups, most spectacularly and successfully, against slavery. Economic explanations of why the British empire not only abolished slavery but expended diplomatic capital, real money and military might to stop the trade of slaves by others, are not sufficient, and are an insult to the memory of countless Quakers and other good Christians who made it their life’s work to fight the good fight and succeeded to the point that no modern society regards slavery as an acceptable institution anymore. But Holland insists that Christianity is the ONLY source of most of our modern liberal notions, which seems a bit of a strech. It is also not a unique claim. In fact, there are books written about how the Jews created modern rights, or Islam did, or for that matter, the Native Americans did; and of course Sufis take TomHollandism to another level, with a secret brotherhood using everyone from Abraham and Moses to Ghazali and Rumi to insert progressive ideas into human culture. But the most glaring omission in this book is the “Eastern Religions”; the entire book start and ends in the Middle East and Western Europe (Eastern Christianity gets no love either) and the ideas of India and China are dismissed practically without examination. Mahavir, Buddha, the authors of the Upanishads, the philosophers and thinkers of China, none find any mention in this book or get any credit for any human advance. On the other hand, the Christian West did have a disproportionate role in creating the modern world (for better and for worse), so he does have a case, but maybe not as strong a case as advertised.

But irrespective of what you think of his basic thesis, the book is still a great read. Tom Holland writes well, reads widely and has an eye for fascinating anecdotes that every reader can enjoy even if he or she does not agree with the underlying thesis. In fact, if you do NOT agree with this thesis you should especially read the book to see how well your preferred theory stands up against a well written Christian version. If he is wrong, why is he wrong? Trying to answer that question should be a fruitful exercise for anyone. Well worth reading.


“It is the audacity of it—the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe—that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilization to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”

“In a city famed for its wealth, Paul proclaimed that it was the ‘low and despised in the world, mere nothings, who ranked first. Among a people who had always celebrated the agon, the contest to be the best, he announced that God had chosen the foolish to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong. In a world that took for granted the hierarchy of human chattels and their owners, he insisted that the distinctions between slave and free, now that Christ himself had suffered the death of a slave, were of no more account than those between Greek and Jew.”

Of Counterpoint and Counterrevolutionaries — a book review

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

[ Emlyn Cameron reviews Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us, which offers us current insight into the celebrated 1965 Cambridge Union debate between William F. Buckley, Jr. and James Baldwin ]

Nicholas Buccola
The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America
Princeton University Press, (2019)
ISBN 9780691181547
Hardback, 496pp: $29.95 / £25.00


                                                                    “Repression is an unpleasant instrument,” – William F. Buckley, Jr.

There was something musical about William F. Buckley, Jr.

He was, in addition to being one of the most recognizable pundits of the 20th Century, a harpsichordist with a profound love of Bach.

“It’s not my medium,” he said in 1992, but a kind of musicality was in the warp and woof of his whole public life.

He used all his affect as an instrument in the practice of persuasion. Like Bach, he was a master of counterpoint — allowing his voice and gestures to work independent but harmonious enchantments that formed a captivating whole: the luxuriating deliberation and emphasis he put into each phrase and phoneme; the lexicon of unusual words, with their intricate, exotic sound and coy medley of connotation and insinuation; the features of his owlish face sparking and cascading with feeling, with suggestion; and his deft, musician’s hands clasping, undulating, and pirouetting through the air.

In his recent book The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola calls this contrapunctus, “the art of performing conservatism,” and presents it as essential to Buckley’s success in popularizing his politics. The book is Buccola’s history of the 1965 Cambridge Union debate between Buckley and James Baldwin. More broadly, it is an attempt to give an intellectual biography of both men.

With regards to Baldwin, the book is a charming introduction: It paints an inviting picture of him, with emphasis placed on his stubborn independence, ceaseless emotional curiosity, and concern that progress in American race relations extend beyond law to a substantive moral revolution of individuals. His commitment is to a confessional honesty and a future where all people, having discarded the cataract of racial prejudice, are ennobled by the recognition of their mutual humanity.

It is a spirit of reform and a kind of personal character for which Buccola has palpable admiration. The reader is not long in joining him in his respect for Baldwin: I came to the book with knowledge of Buckley and Firing Line but possessing precious little familiarity with Baldwin. I knew his name, had his essays recommended to me by a discerning friend, and had seen the debate itself, but his life and work was largely unknown to me. The man I came to know was one I could not help but like: “‘intensely serious,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘intuitive,’ ‘rash,’ ‘impractical,’ ‘rebellious,’ and ‘mercurial,’” according to the catalogue of impressions Buccola cites, he is irrepressible and tender, tough and impassioned. And, as his insistence on examining unvarnished humanity would require, he is fallible.

The apex of this balance of Baldwin’s foibles and charm is his agreement to pen an essay on the Nation of Islam for an editor with whom he has had a good working relationship: He long defers the delivery and finally sells the finished product to a different outlet, leaving the editor high, dry, and furious. And—just as one’s temple begin to throb with not a little voyeuristic impatience and disappointment—Buccola describes Baldwin sitting through the editor’s sputtering, racially charged tirade, only to lean forward at its conclusion and suggest that the man publish his resentments as an introspective essay (which he does, and which Baldwin publicly defends as the sort of honesty essential to progress). This innocent, placid response, devoted to his project of understanding, is as redemptive as it is unexpected. These episodes, and others from Baldwins life, prove just enough to please and inform, without spoiling the appetite to know more and read him firsthand.

Buckley, on the other hand, emerges the worse for this examination. It is not just that he resisted the civil rights movement (though that would be enough to contaminate his image): Buccola proposes that Buckley’s claim to a principled resistance is a mask on an unscrupulous defense of white supremacy. Buccola supports this by reference to successive arguments Buckley made for segregation, in which he shifted emphasis between, “constitutional, authoritarian, traditionalist, and racial elitist” justifications depending on what was rhetorically expedient (even when one called for conduct repudiated by one or more of the others). Buccola furthers his case by citing Buckley’s personal correspondence, highlighting evidence of prejudice (a distaste for sharing even a segregated army base with black soldiers) and self-interested cunning (apparently plagiarizing an essay he commissioned for National Review in his column before it could be published). And completes it by showing how Buckley either did not read, did not understand, or intentionally misrepresented Baldwin’s work in every public conflict he had with the man. The combined blows are debilitating, though their impact is blunted in a few respects:

First—and most superficially—Buccola is a scholar but not a great stylist. The book is easy reading, but it never approaches anything sublime in its delivery. This is made more conspicuous by the contrast to the style and skill of its subjects.

This connects to the second and more substantial limitation: Buccola’s clear condemnation of Buckley announces itself at just about every opportunity, even in the selection of verbs—words “oozed out of Buckley’s mouth slowly and [were] accompanied by a devious smile,” for instance—and the seeming absence of almost any positive descriptors for him beyond “witty” (even synonyms). Given Buccola’s thesis and the evidence he marshals, censure is legitimate. But, delivered as it is, he is unlikely to win any previously unsympathetic converts. Instead he’ll likely be suspected and dismissed by many conservatives to whom he might have most meaningfully made his argument and who could most benefit from critically examining the history of the conservative movement. (For a more skilled stylist with a similarly critical view of conservatism, who thereby also helps the reader come closer to Baldwin’s ideal of truly understanding the feelings and motivations of those one contends with, see Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, which artfully marries a critique of the 1960’s Right with an effective rendering of what made the movement appealing to its adherents.)

Buccola is not helped in this respect by his willingness to speculate as to the thoughts and feelings of his subjects where history has left no record upon which to draw. It aids the tone of the book (and, one imagines, pads difficult transitions), but leaves his flank rather unbecomingly exposed to assault for wishful historical thinking from critics. (Perlstein also does this occasionally, but less often, with a lighter touch, and usually without recourse to definitive phrases like “must have,” of which Buccola has availed himself.)

Finally, for people open to his argument about Buckley, the book will prove compelling, but Buccola’s broader project of a biography of ideas for these two men feels incomplete. He starts strong, with early insights into the childhoods of his subjects: how the claustrophobic poverty of Harlem and the self-hating cruelty of Baldwin’s father shaped Baldwin’s thoughts on inhumanity and self-delusion; how the pristine and hierarchical arrangement of family and staff at a young Buckley’s Connecticut home nourished his belief in “fruitful inequalities.” But, before long, the book takes to examining the arguments and ideas without such perceptive analysis of what circumstances and experiences gave them genesis or came to alter them. We are given events of the men’s lives and an evaluation of the themes of their writings, but the connective tissue of how the former inspired the latter is increasingly tenuous.

This is most apparent, in my memory, in Buccola’s statements on Buckley’s attempt to write a “big book” of political theory. Throughout the book Buccola teases that he will discuss at length Buckley’s abortive thrusts at writing a comprehensive theory of political conservatism. Given the goal of his book and the early insights into Buckley’s developing views, one expects to find a lushly realized explanation for the inability of one of recent history’s most emphatically opinionated and prolific writers to give a long statement of his beliefs.

Surely, there must be some revealing reason that a man who gave conservatism a project and a platform at its nadir and nursed it to a new zenith could not set down his own manifesto? The final reveal is disappointingly brief, descriptive instead of explanatory, and rests largely on Buckley’s preference for offensive rather than defensive debating, which Buccola had already described. This, like other aspects of the book, leaves one feeling as though potential is yet untapped in a subject which Buccola had begun so energetically to mine.

All the same, the book is a challenge to the retrospective image of William F. Buckley, Jr. that any intellectually honest person who has held affection for the man must acknowledge. I can say from firsthand experience, having often enjoyed watching that mesmerizing, sly figure on Firing Line, that it is neither pleasant nor quickly and easily done. But, it’s a testament to Buccola’s book that this painful disillusionment is also not something one is able to evade or delay.

And, as I’m sure Baldwin would insist, it is essential.

Further, for all the discomfort, there is not much surprise. It is rather like confirming a lurid suspicion one has come to feel towards an otherwise well-loved uncle.

Though I may stand at an ideological remove from them, I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity and good intentions of the average conservative and I believe in good in Buckley himself: I’ve interviewed people who attest from personal experience to his warmth and generosity. And I know he could be bracingly honest, as when—near the end of his life—he admitted without melodrama that he had reached an end to the enjoyment he took in living and was ready to be done with it.

But, he was also a man who argued that massive military spending in Vietnam was indicia of American moral superiority because it would have been cheaper just to carpet bomb indiscriminately. And who, Buccola shows, supported segregation and racial paternalism by any means necessary.

Buccola, who shares my experience of being on the political right through college (and knows the attachment to Buckley this usually entails), has performed an act of integrity and honesty with this book by bringing the ugly side of a charming man to the fore. The result could be ethically and intellectually vitalizing for everyone involved.

It is to be hoped that it will be a challenge to conservatives, and even to many liberals who have allowed more immediate conflicts to retroactively label old adversaries “reasonable.”

There was something enchantingly musical about William F. Buckley, Jr., and he cared that instruments of beauty never be abused by being put to poor use: Upon his personal harpsichord was the phrase, “Shame on anyone who plays me badly.”

We would do well not to forget his many sour notes.

One of the more interesting comments about, well..

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — reading my daily dose of 3QD again after a health-induced lapse, and glad I’m back ]

One of the more interesting comments about, well, religion, comes from a review by Robert Fay in 3QD of Chinese science fiction master Liu Cixin‘s novel, the first in a trilogy and the one President Obama so praised, The Three Body Problem, reading it in a wide world context:

Sacrifice used to be part-and-parcel of the western self-identity. Jesus on the cross at Calvary was the central spiritual truth of Christendom. The west, of course, left much of this behind during the Enlightenment. The French Revolution further asserted the rights of individuals. If anything, the consumption of consumer goods is the true religion of the west now, and it demands we all act immediately on our impulses, cravings and desires.

This hasn’t worked out well for the planet.


Yes, sacrifice, and it’s dual, martyrdom, have all but disappeared, although, well, the Marines understand sacrifice, and the jihadists understand martyrdom.

To take you into the audacity of sacrifice or the self-surrender of martyrdom is beyond me here. Let me just note that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and the death of Joan of Arc a martyrdom. Arguably, the two ideas are parallel, and meet at infinity, as in the Cure D’Ars observation:

If we knew what a Mass is, we should die of it.

Thus, theologically speaking, the Eucharist (present) cyclically repeats Christ‘s sacrifice on the cross (past), in a transcendent manner which makes of it a foretaste of the Wedding Feast (future) envisioned in the book of Revelation.

But enough!


There’s a fine alternative vision of the three body problem in Bill Benzon‘s Time Travelers We Are, Each And All, his account of brain, mind and Beethoven, which, like Robert Fay‘s account of Liu Cixin‘s novel of that name, arrived in today’s edition of 3QD. Benzon is quoting the literary critic Wayne Booth describing a performance of Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 as constituting unities out of a string quartet, Booth himself and his nwife, and, somehow, both of those and Beethoven — three bodies as one:

There is Beethoven, one hundred and forty-three years ago … writing away at the marvelous theme and variations in the fourth movement. … Here is the four-players doing the best it can to make the revolutionary welding possible. And here we am, doing the best we can to turn our “self” totally into it: all of us impersonally slogging away (these tears about my son’s death? ignore them, irrelevant) to turn ourselves into that deathless quartet.

That unity of three bodies is found, and can be joined, in Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131:


Reading Benzon‘s piece, we can benefit also from his presentation of neurons, their connections and internal workings:

We have no way of directly counting the neurons in the nervous systems, but estimates put the number at roughly 86 billion with an average of 10,000 synapses per neuron.

To specify the brain’s state at a given moment in clock time we need to know the state of each unit component, such as a neuron. One convenient way to do this is to say that a neuron is either firing or it is not. So it can have two states. Neurons are complicated things; each is a living cell with the full complement of machinery that that requires. There’s a lot more to a neuron that whether or not it’s firing.

This description of neurons is in service to a discussion of clock-time and brain states, which is itself in service to a wider discussion of time itself, as our wrist-watches understand it, and as our experience of Beethoven might cause us to discover it.

Following the musical branch of this discussion, we find Benzon quoting Bernstein on ego-loss:

I don’t know whether any of you have experienced that but it’s what everyone in the world is always searching for. When it happens in conducting, it happens because you identify so completely with the composer, you’ve studied him so intently, that it’s as though you’ve written the piece yourself. You completely forget who you are or where you are and you write the piece right there. You just make it up as though you never heard it before. Because you become that composer.

Benzon‘s three into one is Bernstein‘s two into one, and all paths lead to reliving a keynote segment of the life of Beethoven — Beethoven as a musical Everest, with Bernstein and the quartet as sherpas, Booth and his wife and Benzon and you and I as climbers, some at base-camp listening to the great Chuck Berry, some on the final ascent, some planting flags at the peak..

Peak Beethoven is phenomenological unity. Across time, time travel.


Oh, the numbers games one can play — Sixteen into forty into one in Tallis’ forty-part motet, Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui — where the very title speaks to the union – I Have Hope in None Other:

Oh and is not religion at the heart of this unity, this unity at the very heart of religion? And is not this braiding of voices, this polyphony, a working of this unity?


My early mentor and friend, Herbert Warner Allen, wrote of his own time with Beethoven. As I wrote elsewhere:

Herbert Warner Allen, a classical scholar, sometime newspaper editor and noted authority on wines, experienced a timeless moment between two beats during a performance of one of the Beethoven symphonies. Not knowing quite what had hit him, he went on to research the mystical tradition and wrote three mostly forgotten books [of which the first was aptly named The Timeless Moment] situating his experience within intellectual tradition without nailing it to any particular dogmatic structure. TS Eliot, who published the books, inscribed a book of his own poetry to Warner Allen with the words “from the Srotaapanna to the Arhat, TS Eliot”, with a footnote to explain “Srotaapanna: he who has dipped one toe in the river of the wqaters of enlightenment; Arhat: he who has arrived at the further shore”.

Here’s the almost anonymous A.T. writing to The Times, 19th January 1968:

In your obituary notice of the late Mr. Warner Allen you do not mention the books he wrote describing his “journey on the Mystic Way”. The best known of these books was The Timeless Moment in which he gave some account of a visionary experience that for him “flashed up lightning-wise during a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the Queen’s Hall “. In this split second of time he received (as no one reading his books can doubt) a flash of absolute reality that broke through the normal barriers of the conscious mind and left a trail of illumination in its wake. Mr. Allen never claimed to be an advanced mystic or profound philosopher. He described himself as an ordinary man of the world. He spent years unravelling the implications of his strange experience. The resulting volumes were and are of extraordinary interest.

Amen. Warner Allen’s was a Timeless Moment, an ego-loss indeed!

I must have been fifteen or so when I had the great good fortune to meet and be befriended by this extraordinary man..

Tehom and Ruach Elohim in the Pool at Bethesda?

Friday, September 20th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — for Catherine Keller, whose book Face of the Deep is a wonder ]

Meditating on the first quote below these days, as I gradually make my way into Catherine Keller‘s work of poetic theology, I am reminded of the second —

— as if the first were a general principle, and the second a scaled-down and localized version of that principle.


Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep

I’ll return for a full review of this book once I’ve finished reading it — a slower process than I’d have liked, given my current state of health!

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