A nineteenth century mathematician, Carl Jacobi, solved an
important problem that had bewildered Legendre, one of the near
all time greats, for a quarter of a century. Jacobi attributed
his success to his reversal of a conventional approach, of
inverting an orthodox attack. Thus his motto became: invert,
If the word ever got out how successful this method is outside of
mathematics, teaching inversion would certainly become part of
the core curriculum.
For example, two physicists (Urbain Le Verrier and John Couch
Adams) discovered a new planet (Neptune) by looking at an old one
And the chemist, Mendeleev, also predicted three new elements by
carefully ordering the old ones.
And a biologist who followed Jacobi's advice would have been the
first to discover a retrovirus which reverses the role of message
and messenger and could very well become the Rosetta stone of the
A Rosetta stone in the field of therapy is called
flooding or paradoxical intent. If a patient is
afraid of elevators, he is made to spend a weekend riding
elevators until his brain literally grows bored receiving the
same messages of alarm, the same cries of wolf, until it
elects to ignore them – rather like a human thing.
This reminds me vaguely of the time my hard drive crashed. I was
choking back the tears until a technician was able to get my
computer to reboot one last time by turning it upside down. When
my deliverer saw me blinking stupidly, he mumbled, "If you feel
faint, pal, put your head down." Whatever doubts I had about
machines having a psychology were forevermore resolved.
Money also has a perverse psychology. Economists have their
Laffer curve. Under some circumstances revenue can actually
increase when tax rates are cut.
And box office receipts also increased when a good musical in the
Sixties was renamed The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of
Invert, always invert.
Sun Tzu counseled us to get ready for war during peace and peace
And Liddel-Hart advised us to use an opponent's own effort to
overthrow him (as in ju jit-su). I suspect that after a
review of the cod wars between England and Iceland, the old
strategist would have – with good outcome –
fruitfully taken the side of the fish.
We enter the future backwards, Paul Valery shrewdly observed.
So when we remember that the prophets of Israel who denounced
most deftly really didn't want to be prophets, that Joel and
Moses certainly didn't want the job and that Jonah ran for his
life – then, we, as Jacobians, will at once understand the
secret of choosing a leader: you simply select someone who
doesn't like to lead.
Claudius, for example, was an above average Rome Emperor –
he was elevated as a joke by the Praetorian Guard. There were
only two truly great popes, Gregory and Hildebrand, and each left
Rome when he was elected. And if we were to seek a truly majestic
king, such as the first and greatest of the Plantagenet, we might
not find him on his throne, but we could very well find him on
his knees being whipped by monks. Some good presidents have been
dark horses. And the only good businessmen I have
personally known – in the sense of being both ethical and
successful – have been widows. So the lesson of history
could not be more clear: if you ever serve on a search committee,
crown a shepherd boy king.
But admittedly choosing military leaders requires a trickier kind
of inversion: you should choose the best of the worse (NCO's such
as U. Grant or N. Green, our modern centurions) of the worst of
the best (the goats of West Point such as A. Custer or J.
McLain). But in a pinch, choose the first style of savagery,
since you tend to find the authentic demons reigning in hell
rather than serving in heaven.
What then would a Jacobian do in Iraq? In view of the fact that
U.S. policy is violent and ineffective, then would not an
inversion of U.S. strategy be both nonviolent and effective?
Christopher Hitchens describes a scene in his book, The Elgin
Marbles: Should They be Returned to Greece?, in which Greek
soldiers at one point actually offer to supply their Turkish
enemies with ammunition to shoot at them if only the Turks will
shoot at just them and not the Acropolis. The message for us here
is that reverence can be used as leverage, especially in matters
of life and death simply because reverence has to do with the
meaning of life and the meaning of death.
The U.S. policy in Iraq is to kill terrorists and protect the
shrines. Clearly we should stop killing terrorists and start
pulling down the shrines.
We should do this and do it very quickly because something
really, really bad is coming down the pike. The insurgents have
already shot women. Soon they will axe them. And it is only a
matter of time before Jewish children are beheaded on the net and
beheaded as slowly as humanly possible. Once a terrorist threat
is made to do this, American troops should immediately follow
Lord Elgin's shining example and rush out to hack off a
something holy. A counter threat should then be made. The
captured shrine will be blown to bits if some insurgent savage
proceeds with his awful plan. That's the stick. And the shrine
will be returned if the child is released and the kidnapper
turned over – no questions asked. That's the carrot.
Needless to say, the Islamic extremists would react with a pure,
purple rage. And they would certainly attack the Vatican.
Well, okay. Fine.
While they're doing that, they won't be shooting toddlers in the
back in Beslen.
Victor Davis Hanson cites a successful precedent to this approach
in The Soul of Battle. Sherman defeated the South not by
destroying Southern armies but by destroying the reason Southern
armies fought, by ripping apart the social structure of the South
– by torching their plantations, their holy shrines.
Whether this solution appeals to you depends on what your answer
would be to the old ethical question: in a fire, would you save a
Rembrandt or a cat?
by David Choate
... who is a professor of mathematics with no combat experience
outside of the classroom or beyond the halls of academe. His
poetry ("Easter Island", "Ode to an Academic", "Song of
Sums") has been published in Amelia and
Defenestration; his science fiction ("The Kid
Catcher", "There Came Forth She Bears") in
Starwind and Space & Time;
and his "Christianity and Cannibalism", a philosophical essay, in
Sophia. Some of his other fine works have
previously appeared in this literary magazine.