Thursday, March 20, 2014

Are We Alone in the Universe? By Charles Krauthammer.

Are We Alone in the Universe? By Charles Krauthammer. National Review Online, December 30, 2011. Also here.

Things That Matter, excerpt from the Introduction. By Charles Krauthammer. New York: Random House, 2013. Also here.

Krauthammer [Are We Alone]:

Huge excitement. Two Earth-size planets found orbiting a sun-like star less than 1,000 light-years away. This comes two weeks after the stunning announcement of another planet orbiting another star at precisely the right distance — within the so-called “habitable zone” that is not too hot and not too cold — to allow for liquid water and therefore possible life.
Unfortunately, the planets of the right size are too close to their sun, and thus too scorching hot, to permit Earth-like life. And the Goldilocks planet in the habitable zone is too large. At 2.4 times the size of Earth, it is likely gaseous, like Jupiter. No earthlings there. But it’s only a matter of time — perhaps a year or two, estimates one astronomer — before we find the right one of the right size in the right place.
And at just the right time. As the romance of manned space exploration has waned, the drive today is to find our living, thinking counterparts in the universe. For all the excitement, however, the search betrays a profound melancholy — a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence.
That silence is maddening. Not just because it compounds our feeling of cosmic isolation. But because it makes no sense. As we inevitably find more and more exo-planets where intelligent life can exist, why have we found no evidence — no signals, no radio waves — that intelligent life does exist?
It’s called the Fermi Paradox, after the great physicist who once asked, “Where is everybody?” Or as was once elaborated: “All our logic, all our anti-isocentrism, assures us that we are not unique — that they must be there. And yet we do not see them.”
How many of them should there be? Modern satellite data suggest the number should be very high. So why the silence? Carl Sagan (among others) thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves.
In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, near instantly so.
This is not mere theory. Look around. On the very same day that astronomers rejoiced at the discovery of the two Earth-size planets, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity urged two leading scientific journals not to publish details of lab experiments that just created a lethal and highly transmittable form of bird-flu virus, lest that fateful knowledge fall into the wrong hands.
Wrong hands, human hands. This is not just the age of holy terror, but also the threshold of an age of hyper-proliferation. Nuclear weapons in the hands of half-mad tyrants (North Korea) and radical apocalypticists (Iran) are just the beginning. Lethal biologic agents may soon find their way into the hands of those for whom genocidal pandemics loosed upon infidels are the royal road to redemption.
And forget the psychopaths: Why, just 17 years after Homo sapiens discovered atomic power, those most stable and sober states, the United States and the Soviet Union, came within inches of mutual annihilation.
Rather than despair, however, let’s put the most hopeful face on the cosmic silence and on humanity’s own short, already baleful history with its new Promethean powers: Intelligence is a capacity so godlike, so protean that it must be contained and disciplined. This is the work of politics — understood as the ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.
There could be no greater irony: For all the sublimity of art, physics, music, mathematics, and other manifestations of human genius, everything depends on the mundane, frustrating, often debased vocation known as politics (and its most exacting subspecialty — statecraft). Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction.
We grow justly weary of our politics. But we must remember this: Politics — in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations — is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it.
Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history. It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only — who got it right.

Krauthammer [Things That Matter]:

Accordingly, this book was originally going to be a collection of my writings about everything but politics. Things beautiful, mysterious, profound or just odd. Working title: There’s More to Life than Politics.
But in the end I couldn’t. For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics.
Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything – high and low and, most especially, high – lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” every schoolchild is fed. But even Keats – poet, romantic, early 19th-century man oblivious to the horrors of the century to come – kept quotational distance from such blissful innocence. Turns out we need to know one more thing on earth: politics – because of its capacity, when benign, to allow all around it to flourish, and its capacity, when malign, to make all around it wither.
This is no abstraction. We see it in North Korea, whose deranged Stalinist politics has created a land of stunning desolation and ugliness, both spiritual and material. We saw it in China’s Cultural Revolution, a sustained act of national self-immolation, designed to dethrone, debase and destroy the highest achievements of five millennia of Chinese culture. We saw it in Taliban Afghanistan, which, just months before 9/11, marched its cadres into the Bamiyan Valley and with tanks, artillery and dynamite destroyed its magnificent cliff-carved 1,700-year-old Buddhas lest they – like kite flying and music and other things lovely – disturb the scorched-earth purity of their nihilism.
Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns. The entire 20th century with its mass political enthusiasms is a lesson in the supreme power of politics to produce ever-expanding circles of ruin. World War I not only killed more people than any previous war. The psychological shock of Europe's senseless self-inflicted devastation forever changed Western sensibilities, practically overthrowing the classical arts, virtues and modes of thought. The Russian Revolution and its imitators (Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, Cambodian) tried to atomize society so thoroughly – to war against the mediating structures that stand between the individual and the state – that the most basic bonds of family, faith, fellowship and conscience came to near dissolution. Of course, the greatest demonstration of the finality of politics is the Holocaust, which in less than a decade destroyed a millennium-old civilization, sweeping away not only 6 million souls but the institutions, the culture, the very tongue of the now-vanished world of European Jewry.
The only power comparably destructive belongs to God. Or nature. Or, if like Jefferson you cannot quite decide, Nature’s God. Santorini was a thriving island civilization in the Mediterranean until, one morning 3,500 years ago, it simply fell into the sea. An earthquake. A volcanic eruption. The end.
And yet even God cannot match the cruelty of his creation. For every Santorini, there are a hundred massacres of innocents. And that is the work of man – more particularly, the work of politics, of groups of men organized to gain and exercise power.
Which in its day-to-day conduct tends not to be the most elevated of human enterprises. Machiavelli gave it an air of grandeur and glory, but Disraeli’s mordant exultation “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole,” best captured its quotidian essence – grubby, graspmg, manipulative, demagogic, cynical.
The most considered and balanced statement of politics’ place in the hierarchy of human disciplines came, naturally, from an American. “I must study politics and war,” wrote John Adams, “that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Adams saw clearly that politics is the indispensable foundation for things elegant and beautiful. First and above all else, you must secure life, liberty and the right to pursue your own happiness. That's politics done right, hard-earned, often by war. And yet the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts. Note Adams’ double reference to architecture: The second generation must study naval architecture – a hybrid discipline of war, commerce and science – before the third can freely and securely study architecture for its own sake.
The most optimistic implication of Adams’ dictum is that once the first generation gets the political essentials right, they remain intact to nurture the future. Yet he himself once said that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Jefferson was even less sanguine about the durability of liberty. He wrote that a constitutional revolution might be needed every 20 years. Indeed, the lesson of our history is that the task of merely maintaining strong and sturdy the structures of a constitutional order is unending, the continuing and ceaseless work of every generation.
To which I have devoted much of my life. And which I do not disdain by any means. Indeed, I intend to write a book on foreign policy and, if nature (or God or Nature’s God) gives me leave, to write yet one more on domestic policy. But this book is intended at least as much for other things. Things that for me, as for Adams, shine most brightly.