Thursday, June 21, 2012

Some Meandering Observations on Greg Egan's "Zendegi"

The Amazon reviewers are divided. A lot of them dislike the slow pace and the way the story is grounded in the near now (2012 and the next twenty years) instead of zooming off into a zany superscience future. Now, I think the Egan novels that zoom off into a zany superscience future miss as often as they hit (thinking Schild's Ladder here) and I have always preferred his work that is grounded in good science instead of flaky hippy-dippy perversions of Quantum Mechanics (I'm looking disapprovingly at you, Distress and Teranesia). And while stories pondering the social implications of impossible technological advances can be interesting, I reckon they are less worthwhile than stories pondering the social implications of just vaguely possible technologicial advances,

So for me, Zendegi being grounded in the near now, and being concerned with the nitty-gritty of how we get there (uploading ourselves to the interwebz) from here (here) are big positives.

One danger of working in the near now is that it is easy to end up with characters who are too much like yourself (see Dr Clam's Rules of Writing, #5). Now, the story of Zendegi is told in a tight third-person narrative following two main characters. One of them is a typical Egan main character, with a fairly sketchy background and a fractal dimension between 2.5 and 2.7. The other is a male Sydneysider of the latte-sucking variety who grew up in the eighties and comes with a raft of detailed life experiences and pop-culture references. Which are of course hugely entertaining for all Australian readers who grew up in the eighties. This character (whose name is Martin) is an absolutely convincing three-dimensional portrait of a dull male latte-sucking Sydneysider who grew up in the eighties. He has the absolutely uninteresting conventional unexamined convictions of his tribe. I really hope he is not Greg Egan. But that's not that important. The problem is more that he distorts the novel and makes the other characters seem less real by being so much more grounded in reality than they are.

Spoilers, ahoy!

Martin lives in Iran for 15 years, but luckily is married to an Iranian woman who spookily shares all his absolutely uninteresting conventional unexamined convictions, so they all stay unexamined. His wife dies tragically. He is diagnosed with something that will be be fatal soon. He has no relations in Australia, so his 6-year old son will soon be left to grow up with Iranian friends. Even though Iran in the novel is rapidly undergoing rapid social change, something like Franco-Spain to Almodovar-Spain, what freaks Martin out about dying is that he is going to leave his son to be brought up in the backward culture of these 'lesser breeds without the law'. Clearly the solution will involve some sort of being uploaded to the interwebz, and the story starts to pick up pace. Anyway, stuff happens. If you like Egan at all, you ought to read it. If you don't you probably haven't gotten this far into the post.

I told you those plotty details about Martin having a terminal illness and being obsessed with how he can influence his son's life after his death in order to introduce this quote, from when he is selling the bookstore his wife and he used to run in Teheran before things went bad:

"Then he found an empty packing box and took it to the English language section. Javeed would have ten million electronic books to choose from, but Martin still wanted to pass on something from his own century. From the novels he picked out The Grapes of Wrath, Animal Farm, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse-Five; from non-fiction, The Diary of Anne Frank, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Gulag Archipelago. He was tempted to go on and fill the box to its rim, but once he started fretting over omissions he knew there’d be no end to it."

Okay, I agree they're all good books. Very worthy. But- if you dear departed father left you a box of books like that, wouldn't you say he was a bit - emo? Isn't the overall effect a teensy bit bleak?[1] He's basically telling his kid: 'life sucks, then you die.'  Sheesh, Martin...

This got me thinking what seven books I would put in such a box, keeping to Martin's balance of fiction/non-fiction and English/translations-into-English, and I came up with these:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court - Mark Twain
Marianne, the Magus and the Manticore - Sheri S. Tepper
The Cyberiad - Stanislaw Lem
Diaspora - Greg Egan

Selected essays 1934-1943 - Simone Weil
St Thomas Aquinas - G. K. Chesterton
How to Make our Ideas Clear - Charles Peirce

Each of those fiction books has a good mix of comedy and tragedy, profound thinky bits and purely exhilarating entertaining bits, and breathes something of the potential of the sentient spirit, despite being written by wildly different people with wildly different ideas. IMHO.

For the non-fiction, Weil and Chesterton both write about the battle for the soul of Languedoc. The worldviews they approach it with are diametrically opposed. They disagree about absolutely everything in European history. But, they are both clear, logical, passionate, uplifting, and convincing in their arguments that there were truths and beauties in Mediaeval civilisation that modern civilisation has lost to our detriment. Together they provide a sense of perspective that will do Javeed a lot better service than a focus at the maggoty horrors of the 20th century. And to complete the balance, Peirce gives a razor-sharp exposition of the one thing in our civilisation that makes it unequivocally better than the old days. He, too, is clear, logical, passionate and uplifting.

[1]: They are all also strangely limited in time. They are all productions from humanity's dark night of the soul, the nightmare decades at the dead heart of the short shithouse century, 1914-1991.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What's with that song that goes "We are young/So let's set the world on fire"? The conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. It should be something like: "The world is overrun with zombies that can only be destroyed by fire/So let's set the world on fire". Sheesh.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Great Big Quote for Marco

From "Six Days in June: How Israel Won the 1967 Arab-Israeli War" by Eric Hammel:

 ...a committee headed by Colonel Chaim Laskov, the head of Zahal's Instruction Branch, was struggling with a list of operational imperatives and necessarily war-winning solutions to them. A veteran of World War II combat service with the British Army and the commander of Israel's only tank battalion during the War of Independence, Laskov was one of the relatively few senior Israeli officers who had opted and been accepted for a full-time military career following Independence. From the beginning, Zahal's mission was national survival. Everything Zahal could be and would become emanated from five basic precepts that were first articulated by the Laskov committee. The five precepts were an amalgam of factors from Israel's own history and geography, and the qualities peculiar to the Arab armed forces Zahal was most likely to fight. To remain viable and capable of conducting its mission, Zahal had to evolve in response to—often in anticipation of—changes in the situation and in the region of which Israel is a part. Following careful, brilliantly insightful study, Colonel Laskov's committee established the five bedrock precepts defining Zahal's mission in 1949. It is a glowing testament to the Laskov committee's care and, indeed, its prescience that its look into the future in 1949 proved to be stunningly accurate in 1967—and beyond!

1. Few Against Many 
There were millions of Arabs who wanted to see Israel destroyed, but in 1949 there were fewer than 1,000,000 Jews in Israel. Realistically, Israel would be hard pressed to muster as many as 125,000 combat-effective soldiers, including over-age auxiliaries, from so small a population But no matter how many soldiers Israel squeezed out of its population, virtually any possible combination of Arab armies that went to war against Israel would be sure to outnumber Zahal, including the Standing Army, the Reserve, and all of Zahal's static home-defense units.

 2. A War of Survival 
The Arab states had repeatedly announced that any war they waged against Israel would be rooted in strategies aimed at annihilating the Jewish state and all who lived in it Even though the Jews had won their War of Independence, there was no assurance that they could win another war, or another, or another. As long as Arabs massively outnumbered Jews—and they always would—Israel stood a good chance of being annihilated.

3. A Strategy of Attrition
In view of Arab aims and numerical superiority, it was in Zahal's interest to wage a war that would not necessarily kill the maximum number of Arab soldiers but destroy the maximum amount of Arab weapons and war materiel. It was clearly impossible for Israelis to do to the Arabs what the Arabs said they would do to the Israelis—annihilate them—so Zahal would settle for a solution that was possible. If it could not undertake a strategy of annihilation, it would undertake a strategy of attrition. That is, once a war began, Zahal would do everything in its power to end that war and put off the next war by crippling Arab war-making ability. A strategy of attrition is not a strategy of mass killing, as is a strategy of annihilation; it is a strategy of mass destruction.

4. Geographic Pressures 
At its widest point, an east-to-west line from the southern edge of the Dead Sea to a point along the Negev Desert frontier with Egyptian Sinai, Israel is about 140 kilometers (87 miles) wide. Between the northern edge of the Kinneret and the port of Haifa, Israel is 51 kilometers (32 miles) wide. At its narrowest point, between the West Bank and the coast north of Tel Aviv, it is a little over 14 kilometers (9 miles) wide. All of Israel in 1948 was less than 8,000 square miles. Nearly all of Israel's population lay in the narrow corridor between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Virtually all of Israel lay on a coastal plain dominated between the Lebanese border and the desert city of Be'ersheva by Arab positions on high ground. Modern Arab artillery pieces emplaced anywhere on the high ground along the West Bank frontier could reach the sea. Israel's most fertile farmland lay within rifle shot of Syrian infantry anywhere along the full length of the Golan escarpment. In military terms, Israel lacked "strategic depth." That is, Zahal could not give up ground to an enemy advance in order to gain any of a number of important strategic advantages, not the least of which was time to marshal a counterforce and launch a counteroffensive. For Israel, there was no space and there was no time. Zahal not only held the less desirable low ground, it could depend upon no strategic physical barriers—no rivers or mountain passes, for example— at which it could slow or stop an enemy advance across the narrow coastal plain. Israel enjoyed not one advantage arising from terrain. Its only geographic advantage was possession of extremely short lines of supply and communication, but that extremely important plus was more than obviated by a combination of geographical disadvantages. If Israel was forced into a defensive war, it would have to hold its enemy or enemies at the frontier. To do so, fortified settlements manned by resident home-guard units were intentionally built at key points along the border; they would act as breakwaters against an enemy tide while mobile forces maneuvered against the enemy flank or rear. If Israel fell victim to a surprise attack, whether or not the fortified frontier settlements were breached, Zahal would have to launch an immediate counterattack, on the fly, in order to mitigate its geographic disadvantages and then vitiate enemy gains. In that event, overall, Israel's best defense lay in a good offense.

5. A Short War 
Israel could not afford to fight a protracted war. As the War of Independence had demonstrated, long wars meant high casualties. Israeli society could not afford losses anywhere near the estimated 4,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians (amounting to 1 percent of the 1948 population) who had been killed to gain independence. The economy could not sustain that level of loss, nor could the nation's spirit. Not again. Given Israel's physical and political isolation, the relatively small size of its total military force, its struggling economy, a politically inspired paucity of reliable sources for replacement weapons and military supplies, and the relative influence of oil-producing Arab nations in various world forums, the Laskov committee asserted that Zahal had to plan for a short, violent war—and that it had to win.

In sum, to avoid the destruction of Israel and the annihilation of the Israelis, Zahal's commanders had to build, train, and equip a military force that would wreak maximum destruction upon several numerically superior Arab armies at once—on Arab territory and in the shortest possible time. As seen by its architects, the only way for Zahal to achieve its primary mission was to attain a massive qualitative advantage over its more numerous and better positioned adversaries. One way to meet all the conditions identified by the Laskov committee was for Zahal to use all its power decisively in the form of a lightning preemptive offensive that would immediately take the war into the enemy's land. Tiny Israel's best hope for survival, lay in building the best army in the region and using it first.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Movie Review Haiku


Eric Bana dies.
Pointlessly. Cate Blanchett too.
It just missed my heart.

Night Watch

In nightmare Russia
It is still the seventies.
But look, there's Buffy!

(Ezra Pound would have
worked in Purgatorio
Canto XXVI)

Take Shelter

I anticipate
A zombie apocalypse.
No such luck. Bummer.


As the boss giant
Caught up with the Landrover:
There was an earthquake.


Probably neither of you have seen any of these movies, so there's no point me adding more spoilery comments, but I have these thoughts going through my head and I can't sleep, so just to expand a wee bit...

Hannah started with amazing promise. But it just sort of ... faded away. Not at any particular point, it just gradually dulled from something extraordinary to something ordinary. Maybe that was intentional; but if that was the idea it was a pretty lame idea, filmmaking peeps.

I am used to seeing movies set in big cities with faces from every corner of the globe. But Moscow is white, white, white. It was a culture shock. I thought the plot of Night Watch was marvellous and the special effects were spot on: no CGI for the sake of CGI or impossible action sequences, just solid realistic phantasmagoria where realistic phantasmagoria were called for.

If Take Shelter is in any way an accurate picture of employment security, medical care, and the general mood in working-class Great Recession America, it is really chilling. It made me want to hug all the living Cabinet and ex-Cabinet Members of our country. Thank you! (By the way, the other night I dreamed I somehow accidentally got through an air-conditioning duct into Kevin Rudd's office and he was really nice to me. I told him I thought he had been a great Foreign Minister (which I do) and he was very humble and gracious in reply and didn't seem to mind me coming into his office through the air-conditioning duct). One thing that didn't ring true in the movie was the fight between the main protagonist and his ex-best-friend at the Lions' Club dinner: in an equivalent situation here, I know at least a dozen blokes would be instantly out of their seats to get them to calm down or take it outside in a spontaneous collective blokey way. I'm sure it would be the same in small-town America. Surely. But in the movie they all stay sitting down like stuffed aardvarks and only the wives of the combatants interfere.

BTW, It was great to watch not knowing anything about it and expecting it to turn into a zombie apocalypse movie at any moment. But I've ruined that experience for you. :(

The interesting philosophical thing in Trollhunter is how the trolls can smell Christian blood. This would not be a problem if you were a hardboiled no-nonsense atheist, or someone who doesn't think at all, or a serious Muslim or Jew to whom it would make perfect sense for God to curse Christians for blasphemously associating Him with a son; but I think if you were an average semi-thoughtful agnostic the effect of any evidence that trolls are, in fact, attracted to Christian blood would be to make you think 'hmm, there must be something to this Christianity after all'. So Kalle the cameraman is in a terrible bind. Probably, quite honestly, at the beginning he is so weak and watery a Christian that he can say without lying that he isn't: but as they go along he can't help but believe more, and then when they are trapped in the mine he gets into a terrible positive feedback loop where the more trolls notice him, the more he believes, so the more they notice him, so the more he believes...

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Optic Reed has a Haste Harm

On reflection my last post is unsatisfactory as a work of troll history, since it relies almost entirely on dubious chains of 'what-might-have-beens', rather than on looking at what actually happened with a different eye. It does not seriously attempt to explore all the plausible counter-factuals, so neither I nor you can take it very seriously. For example, without the stimulus of the American Revolution it is probable that all the dark monstrosities embryo in the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire might just have gestated longer, erupting a generation or two later and plunging Europe into an even uglier paroxysm. Perhaps this would have been the utopian revolution that set the Americas aflame, with even worse consequences for freedom and prosperity there; perhaps a greater Napoleon would have arisen, one who had more success in conquering Europe; perhaps he would have established an Empire as iconoclastic, inhuman, and enduring as the Soviet Empire; and the last round of the 'Napoleonic Wars' might have been fought with the weapons of the 20th century.

This post might possibly be considered another bite at the cherry of troll history. But it is a thesis that I take a great deal more seriously and have thought about much longer. I have mentioned it before a couple of times in throwaway lines. It is probably of less interest to the two of you who remain my gentle readers: but it is the post that kept me awake composing itself in my head all night, so here it is.

I've read three books of relatively late Chesterton essays (from the 20s and 30s) in the past two days, and taking them in such a concentrated dose I can sympathise with Orwell's celebrated 'Great is Diana of the Ephesians' observation. I fear Chesterton became far too Bellocised at the end. His recurrent theme is 'All roads lead to Rome' and he constantly hammers Belloc's theme of 'The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith'.

Chesterton (and Belloc) point to the Catholic Church as this thing that is attacked now from one side, now from another, remaining the same and defending the same sane centre from attack by different sorts of heretics who spin off and blaze furiously for a few generations before fading away to nothing. It is the rock that stands firm, the foundation of Christendom, and without it we lose the good of the intellect and drift off into moods and fads that drag us ineluctably towards the pit. See, for instance, this quote here about the various avenues of Protestant attack on the Catholic Church over the past few hundred years:

What was the meaning of the feud, so constant and so inconsistent? That question took a long time to answer and would now take much too long a time to record. But it led me at last to the only logical answer, which every fact of life now confirms; that the thing is hated, as nothing else is hated, simply because it is, in the exact sense of the popular phrase, like nothing on earth.

Now, when I was in Devil Bunny City, still trying to be a Catholic, I attended an event held by one of the Catholic student societies at Devil Bunny City University that was a sort of meet-and-greet/question-and-answer with the Coptic student society. The Copts are Monophysites. That means they are of the minority party in a theological dispute of the 5th century. They haven't had anything to do with Rome for over 1500 years. They believe in the Sacraments, the Mass, Apostolic Succession, the veneration of Saints, prayers for the dead, are devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and maintain a dead language for liturgical purposes. The Coptic students would no more have dreamed of kicking out their Pope Shenouda III and relying on private interpretation of the Bible to guide their way than we would have dreamed of kicking out Pope John Paul II. They had no interest in ordaining female or homosexual priests. They were much more like us than any sort of Protestant.

What these very articulate and polite Coptic students asked probing and well-informed questions about at this meeting were the novel doctrines introduced in the Catholic Church in recent centuries. Papal Infallibility bugged them. The Immaculate Conception bugged them. From their point of view, we were the radical wing of Christianity: we were the ones spinning out crazy new ideas and adding them to the ancient truths of Christianity, from the filioque clause through the imposition of the discipline of clerical celibacy, the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, the megalomania of Pastor Aeturnus, to the acceptance of periodic abstinence in Humanae Vitae.

And the Copts are not the only ones. From the East, that is what the Catholic Church looks like. The Churches of the East are the conservative wing of Christianity. Whether they are Serbian Orthodox or Syriac Orthodox, they are with the Copts on all these things. Their liturgies and practices are instantly recognisable to Catholics as 'Catholic'; they do the things Catholics used to do. It was only my Serbian Orthodox colleague who gave up meat for Lent. It was only my Syriac Orthodox colleague who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And these Churches are united, no matter how long they have been separated politically from Rome or from each other, in rejecting the innovations that had come from Rome and sticking with the faith they had been left by the Apostles. These small autocephalous Churches, without claiming universal jurisdiction, have been more like rocks than the Roman Catholic Church of Western Christendom. Clearly, whatever it is that God wants to see preserved through the vicissitudes of history has been equally well-preserved. if not better preserved, in the East. Not all roads lead to Rome: there is obviously a road to Cairo, a road to Belgrade, a road to Antioch, etc...

Chesterton and Belloc are like hypothetical young Labor Party organisers who have spent their entire career in Marrickville, having to campaign against a motley collection of incoherent Trotskyite moonbats, sugar pixies, and hippy-dippy freakazoids. They are the Conservative party in their patch of space and time, and you can imagine them (with enough mental agility) not even realising that elsewhere, their party is the Radical one. Compared to the whole expanse of Christianity in space and time, Western Europe in the early 20th century looms about as large as Marrickville does in New South Wales. Chesterton and Belloc were the Conservative party in their patch of space and time: but they are part of the Radical wing of Christianity, not the Conservative one.

My take home message from this was that political unity is not important to God. He doesn't want us all in one Church with one leader.

Another dispiriting feature of the Chesterton's Bellocisation is the anti-semitism that creeps into a lot of his later essays. I feel very strongly that if you are going to cleave to Christendom, if you are going to extoll Christendom and work for the triumph of Christendom, you have a special responsibility to be on guard against and excoriate in yourself the particular sins and failings that Christendom is susceptible to: and the greatest of these is Jew-hatred. It seems to me that the exact same quote of Chesterton's could be applied to with equal justice to that other religious group, which has been persecuted for some hundreds of years longer than Christianity has existed, and has somehow stayed firm like a rock through all the vicissitudes of history - without ever having the support of powerful states; without ever claiming universal jurisdiction; without promising the Golden Carrots of the Hesperides or wielding the stick of Eternal Damnation:

What was the meaning of the feud, so constant and so inconsistent? That question took a long time to answer and would now take much too long a time to record. But it led me at last to the only logical answer, which every fact of life now confirms; that the thing is hated, as nothing else is hated, simply because it is, in the exact sense of the popular phrase, like nothing on earth.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Troll History FTW

This is another one of those posts that I have been meaning to write for some time. The timing, and the exact content, have been strongly influenced by two books I have recently read: Europe and the Faith, by Hilaire Belloc; and Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg. These are both works of what I have decided to call 'troll history'. That is, no-holds-barred assaults on establishment historical narratives that assert that everything you thought was black is actually white, and everything you thought was white is actually black. For example, Belloc spends a great part of his book asserting that the Roman Empire did not so much fall as decentralise under new management; while Goldberg's main point is that the administration of the famous 'Progressive' President Woodrow Wilson was the prototype for all the demonstrably Fascist regimes of the early 20th century.

This is my small contribution to the genre for today. It is provoked in the short term by an assertion of Goldberg's: revolutions are bad, he says, and after recounting the bad consequences of numerous revolutions traces the roots of Wilson's proto-Fascism back to the utopian delusions of the French Revolution. However, he then makes an exception for the American Revolution, declaring it to be 'a good, conservative' revolution, rather than a 'bad, radical' revolution.

I say, bollocks.

If you violently sever your connections with a country that is universally considered to be the most free, the most classically liberal, currently in existence, in order to make a polity that is more free and classically liberal, is that conservative? Is it not instead utopian, an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good? If, instead of forming the political institutions of your new polity on incremental modifications in the directions of freedom and classical liberalism of the existing ones, you create de novo an experimental system modelled most closely on republican Rome, is that conservative? Is it not instead wildly radical and utopian? If a significant proportion of the most conservative elements of your new state - landowners, businessmen, professionals, clergymen - voluntarily flee it; and if such political refugees are numerous enough to permanently change the demographics of Canada from a French-majority to an English-majority nation, is that conservative?

The attempt to draw a line between a 'good, conservative' American revolution and a 'bad, radical' French revolution is untenable. The French revolution was just the American Revolution, but in France. France lacked the unique features that prevented the American Revolution from being a disaster for the rebel colonists: A highly decentralised country with no one centre of power for competing factions to feud in; a population already used to self-government, armed, and strongly democratic in spirit; and the sui generis Cincinnatus-figure of George Washington, content to win the war and go back to his farm.

Furthermore, without the American Revolution there would have been no French Revolution. The American revolution let the genie out of the bottle and began all this trouble. The fascist utopianism of Wilson, if such it was, had its ultimate roots not in France, but in the New World.

I do not wish to malign the motives of the participants in the American revolution, or deny the real injustices that drove them to their actions. My contribution to troll history today is to argue that the consequences over the past few centuries of this revolution have been largely negative and destructive. Far from being a force for liberty in the world and a shining example of democracy, the separation of the United States from Great Britain has weakened the Free World and provided an example of a limping, bogus, pseudo-democracy whose imitation as been calamitous wherever it has been attempted.

The most significant consequences I see are the weakening of Britain during the 150 years in which it was the greatest power for freedom in the world; and making revolution look easy – encouraging the French, Haitians, and others down terrible paths. Indirectly, then, through the French Revolution, I am going to blame the American Revolution for destroying Europe and plunging the world into two disasterous wars in the last century.

First, the no-brainer troll history assertions:

“We could have been a great nation together” Thomas Jefferson said, and this is perfectly true.

A Britain still in control of North America - instead of being distracted into fighting another war there in 1812-1815 - would have defeated Napoleon more easily.

If there had been no American Revolution, but the rebel colonies had remained part of a larger British polity, slavery would doubtless have been abolished there in the 1830s or 40s, and by an act of parliament, not a ruinous civil war. So millions of lives saved, no century of economic backwardness in the South, no Jim Crow. Maybe some dissatisfied slave-owners would have headed west beyond the writ of the Crown, like the Voortrekkers headed east from Cape Colony; but I doubt this would have been significant: slave-owning Southerners were more embedded in the global economy, more heavily invested in immobile capital improvements, and a much smaller fraction of the overall white population than the slave-owning Boers were.

Imagine what a difference another Dominion with 50 or 100 million industrialised European inhabitants would have made to the defeat of the Kaiser, entering the war in August 1914 instead of three years later.

Imagine that same Dominion's industrial-military complex turned against Hitler in 1939, instead of 1942. A shorter war? A war where Hitler was in too much trouble to go off and madly invade Russia, ending in a negotiated peace and an un-destroyed Europe? One of those, for certain.

Imagine the more durable Pax Brittanica, the more overwhelming British hegemony, the improved opportunity for the Mother of Parliaments to raise sturdy daughters all over the globe.

Now, to draw a longer bow:

The second successful revolution in the New World was the Haitian Revolution. I doubt anyone seriously believes they would have gotten away with it if the American Revolution had not paved the way. Have a quick squiz across to the Lesser Antilles: Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin. Overseas departements with First World standards of living. Is there any doubt the descendants of the slaves of St. Domingue would be better off if their ancestors had not imitated the Americans? Anyone?

Ditto across Latin America. Would these countries have broken the links to Spain or Portugal quite so readily? Would they have adopted systems of government so readily corruptible into unstable military dictatorships? Would these countries have held on to slavery as long as they did? Without the bad example of the American Revolution - and without the devastating effects of the French Revolution on the Iberian Peninsula - I think, no. (Would they have been better off remaining dependent on the mother country? Well, despite the weakened state of Spain after the Napoleonic Wars, economic growth in the 19th century was higher in Cuba, which remained a Spanish Colony, than the Latin American average. And, parenthetically, the Monroe Doctrine dissuaded Great Britain from annexing Cuba. Would Cuba be better off today if it had been a British Colony? What do you reckon?)

Would there have been a French Revolution without the American Revolution? I think it is impossible to tell: but I think it is certain that the radical, utopian success of the American Revolution inspired the French Revolution to be more radical and utopian. Here is a big quote from some random historian on the interwebz:

...There is little doubt that the American Revolution of the 1770s and the formation of a republic in the 1780s served as a profound example to all European observers. Hundreds of books, pamphlets and public lectures analyzed, romanticized and criticized the American rebellion against Great Britain. For instance, in 1783 the Venetian ambassador to Paris wrote that "it is reasonable to expect that, with the favourable effects of time, and of European arts and sciences, [America] will become the most formidable power in the world." American independence fired the imagination of aristocrats who were unsure of their status while at the same time giving the promise of ever greater equality to the common man. The Enlightenment preached the steady and inevitable progress of man's moral and intellectual nature. The American example served as a great lesson - tyranny could be challenged. Man did have inalienable rights. New governments could be constructed. The American example then, shed a brilliant light. As one French observer remarked in 1789, "This vast continent which the seas surround will soon change Europe and the universe."
Those Europeans who dreamed about the dawn of a New Jerusalem were fascinated by the American political experiment. The thirteen colonies began with a defensive revolution against tyrannical oppression and they were victorious. The Americans showed how rational men could assemble together to exercise control over their own lives by choosing their own form of government, a government sanctified by the force of a written constitution. With this in mind, liberty, equality, private property and representative government began to make more sense to European observers. If anything, the American Revolution gave proof to that great Enlightenment idea - the idea that a better world was possible if it was created by men using Reason. As R. R. Palmer put it in 1959 (The Age of Democratic Revolution: The Challenge):
The effects of the American Revolution, as a revolution, were imponderable but very great. It inspired the sense of a new era. It added a new content to the conception of progress. It gave a whole new dimension to ideas of liberty and equality made familiar by the Enlightenment. It got people into the habit of thinking more concretely about political questions, and made them more readily critical of their own governments and society. It dethroned England, and set up America, as a model for those seeking a better world. It brought written constitutions, declarations of rights, and constituent conventions into the realm of the possible. The apparition on the other side of the Atlantic of certain ideas already familiar in Europe made such ideas seem more truly universal, and confirmed the habit of thinking in terms of humanity at large. Whether fantastically idealized or seen in a factual way, whether as mirage or as reality, America made Europe seem unsatisfactory to many people of the middle and lower classes, and to those of the upper classes who wished them well. It made a good many Europeans feel sorry for themselves, and induced a kind of spiritual flight from the Old Regime. (p. 282)

Without a radical utopian French Revolution, there would have been no Napoleonic conquest of Europe - so a stronger Spain, a stronger Austria - so no reorganisation of Germany and Italy paving the way for their unifications later in the century. Quite likely no Germany to kick off World War One. Thus no round Two. No need for America to intervene and keep the world safe for democracy.

Of course there was another bad guy in World War Two. A country that had slept quietly untroubling the rest of the world for hundreds of years before America went and poked it with a stick. Would it have grown powerful enough to beat Russia and get all Imperialist and troublesome if it had been left in peace for a few more decades? I think, probably not. It would have industrialised at the same time as that other Hermit Kingdom across the straits and the Americans would not have had to drop bloody great bombs on it.

The rapidity of decolonisation after World War Two was another function of the relative strength of the United States and weakness of Europe. Would those countries, by and large, have been better off with a few more decades of development of physical and social infrastructure under European control? I think the evidence in to date makes it hard to argue otherwise.

Would there have been any downsides? One thing I thought of was a reduced British involvement in East Asia and Africa. But this might not have been such a bad thing either.

An Indian Subcontinent that was more imperfectly and lately colonised, by a mixture of powers, and on decolonisation was a mixture of British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies and native states, would not be a place that would try the utopian radical experiment of 'Partition' with all its attendant horrors.

Reduced British involvement in East Asia might have translated into 'no Opium Wars'. Might have translated to 'China with less of a chip on its shoulder'.

Without the American Revolution there would have been no need to find a new dumping ground for British criminals. A later, more imperfect colonisation of Australia would have given the Aboriginal population a fighting chance. A continent divided between powers, where guns and livestock had more of a chance to permeate beyond the frontiers of white control, would be blacker today: and the Aboriginal people would have more heroic achievements to take pride in.

No Napoleonic Wars means no British takeover of the Cape of Good Hope: means an Afrikaner population kept refreshed with more progressive Hollanders and more integrated with Europe and the East Indies: means no Apartheid state.

So in summary: the American Revolution was the greatest wrong-turn since the Reformation. That is my troll history contribution for today.