Thursday, December 30, 2004

Speak What We Feel, not what we ought to say by Frederick Buechner

The back cover blurb is actually accurate:

Reflections on literature and faith: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton and William Shakespeare "wrote in his own blood about the darkness of life as he found it, and about how--for better or worse--he managed somehow to survive it, even to embrace it."

This book tries to correlate a time of darkness in the lives of these writers with the darkness expressed in one or more of their works: for Hopkins the "dark sonnets," for Twain Huckleberry Finn, for Chesterton The Man Who Was Thursday, and for Shakespeare King Lear.

If you have not yet read Huckleberry Finn or The Man Who Was Thursday, do not read Buechner's book yet. Go read Twain and Chesterton. There are some spoilers here, and though the books are great enough to stand many re-readings, I don't want you to miss the pleasant surprises of a first reading.

Hopkins became a Jesuit priest, and was assigned to teach in a Dublin school; a job for which he was temperamentally ill-equipped. Physically and mentally delicate, he burned out in the post, but not before writing a number of poems whose gramlost weldwords deutschverb sigh.*

Buechner parses Hopkins' dark sonnets to find the depths of his dark night of the soul; a dark night of self-knowledge. But it wasn't complete despair, and hints of hope remain. Buechner analyses very well.

But: I'm afraid I must disagree with Buechner and concur with Hopkins' friend Bridge's assessment of The Wreck of the Deutschland: it isn't good. Hopkins wrote much of his poetry in a language of his own, kin to English but with his own words and with grammar contorted beyond the worst of Browning. Sometimes it works in part: Spring and Fall "Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving," or one of my wife's favorites Pied Beauty "Glory be to God for dappled things." I consider such private languages cheating. We have the rules of the game for communicating with the reader: you'd better have excellent reasons and consummate skill if you plan to break them and make the reader learn a new language. Some times Hopkins made it work, sometimes I find no music there.

Another illustration of cheating might be T.S. Elliott and Wasteland. It seems at first like a kitchen-sink poem with everything tossed in, but it isn't. Less-brilliant and less-workmanlike poets have used that "deeply personal" kitchen sink model disastrously since.

At the beginning of Huckleberry Finn you find this warning:

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author Per G. G., Chief Ordnance."

I'm waiting for the implications of that to sink in in English classes around the land...

Twain's life wasn't exactly a bowl of cherries. We all know the tragedies of his later life (for which he seems to have often blamed himself), but I hadn't realized how much death there was in his childhood, for which a sensitive child might well have felt responsible. Apparently he started writing Huck in a time of troubles, picked it up again in another time of trouble, and finished it during a happy era of his life. Darkness and gloom don't seem to be the keynotes of the book, but Buechner's closer inspection shows that the crisis of faith Huck endures is set in a background of lies and hypocrisy; a crisis that feels personal. Twain himself seems to have abandoned faith after his crisis—or almost abandoned it. But he preserved a humanist care for people, which Huck mirrors in the book, even for the villainous Duke and Dauphin. Or at any rate, Twain maintained that interest until the bitterness at the end of his life overwhelmed him.

Buechner's choice of Chesterton to illustrate the darkness of life seems very odd. Chesterton is far better known as one who embraced and championed the unspeakable joy of life: the mystery not of pain but of pleasure.

"You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, and swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in ink."

But Chesterton wrote The Man Who Was Thursday and subtitled it A Nightmare; and so it is. Our hero is alone in a hostile world, and the unmaskings and riddles only lead to further mysteries where everything he believed solid proves unstable. Buechner found that this reflected Chesterton's terrible years at art school, where he first became immersed in the reductionist debunking spirit of the age, finally reached a very late puberty, and first discovered the violence in his own soul—all while still an unbeliever. He made a choice for sanity and eventually became one of the champions of the faith, and later wrote Thursday. He claimed afterwards that the book did not reflect his beliefs about suffering, but then it didn't not reflect something real too. A psychiatrist once told him that he had a few patients whose lives were saved because they read The Man Who Was Thursday and understood it.

Lastly Buechner tackles Shakespeare and King Lear. Of course, Shakespeare's life is not well known in detail, but there were a few times that would have been a little tough. And we have the evidence of other plays (some far from great, like Timon of Athens) to suggest that Shakespeare spent a year or so extremely depressed about something. Buechner studies Lear in detail, and does a fine job of showing things I'd overlooked when I last read the play (I've never seen it). Every character winds up embroiled in deception and self-deception, even the loving daughter too stubborn to make the simple declarative statement that would have prevented the breach with her father. Pain rules, with the only glimmers of hope being the transient reconciliation and the pronouncement “on such sacrifices the gods themselves throw incense.” And of course, as C.S. Lewis points out, the nameless first servant who attacked Cornwall when Cornwall blinded Gloster proved that not everyone loved evil or deception. But still the play remains a vivid picture of the deceit and treachery and pain in life.

The play was given a happy ending for two centuries after Shakespeare's death: programmers thought the original too dark and painful for audiences.

Buechner's book takes its title from King Lear: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” He doesn't try to draw great conclusions, except to show people who have looked into the darkness and written honestly about both the darkness and the glimmers of light. He's a very good writer himself. Sometimes we can use reminders of the darkness when people try to pretend that all is sweetness and light. Darkness without despair here: a good book.

*

I've had complaints that my parody is unfair. Here is the entire poem Spring and Fall of which I was parodying line 8:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Arabs in History by Bernard Lewis

Do I need to tell you to go read it?

As the title says, this is a history of the Arabs, not of Islam as such. I learned a lot about things I'd never heard of before, such as the great revolts of negro slaves around Basra.

This was the 1966 edition of a book first published in 1950, and I suspect Bernard would have had his hands on new material by now. It might be, for example, that the three century long devastation in agriculture in Tunisia in the wake of the Hilal and Sulaim tribes invasions owed something to climate change.

I'd be quite interested in knowing if he would revise passages like this:

The word "atomistic" is often used to describe a habit of mind and outlook, recognizable in many aspects of the civilization of the Arab and dominant in the later stages of his history. By this is meant the tendency to view life and the universe as a series of static, concrete and disjunct entities, loosely linked in a sort of mechanical or even casual association by circumstances or the mind of an individual, but having no organic interrelation of their own. Though by no means universal, this tendency affects the life of the Arab in many different ways. He conceives his society not as an organic whole, compounded of interrelated and interacting parts, but as an association of separate groups--religions, nations, classes--held together only by the ground beneath and the government above. His town is an agglomeration of quarters, guilds, clans, houses, only rarely with any corporate civic identity of its own. In contrast to the scientists and philosophers on the one hand and the mystics on the other, the ordinary orthodox theologian, scholar or litterateur shows the same quality in his attitude to knowledge. The various disciplines are not different ways of reaching out towards the same heart, pooling their findings in an integrated whole, but separate and self-contained compartments, each holding a finite number of pieces of knowledge, the progressive accumulation of which constitutes learning. Arabic literature, devoid of epic or drama, achieves its effects by a series of separate observations or characterizations, minute and vivid, but fragmentary, linked by the subjective associations of author and reader, rarely by an overriding plan. The Arabic poem is a set of separate and detachable lines, strung pearls that are perfect in themselves, usually interchangeable. Arabic music is modal and rhythmic, developed by fantasy and variation, never by harmony. Arabic art--mainly applied and decorative--is distinguished by its minuteness and perfection of detail rather than by composition or perspective. The historians and biographers, like the fiction writers, present their narrative as a series of loosely connected incidents. Even the individual is drawn as a sum of attributes, often listed, as a recent writer remarks, like the description on a passport.

Is that oversimplified? Or perhaps an accurate portrayal of the better documented years of decay?

Go read it.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Killing of History by Keith Windschuttle

Perhaps I can best summarize the book by quoting from the preface:

The structure of the book is designed to examine how both the general and the specific versions of these theories have been applied to the writing of history. The principal targets of the investigation and the places where they are discussed are:
  • Cultural relativism: Chapters Two and Nine
  • Semiotics: Chapter Two
  • Structuralist theory: Chapters Two, Three and Nine
  • Poststructuralist theory: Chapters Four and Five
  • Anti-humanism, genealogy and discourse theory: Chapter Five
  • Hegelian and Marxist philosophy of history: Chapter Six
  • Postmodernist philosophy of history: Chapter Six
  • Radical skepticism and scientific relativism: Chapter Seven
  • Hermeneutics: Chapter Seven
  • Historical fiction and theory of peotics: Chapter Eight

Executive summary: Any time you find a person using the currently fashionable forms of the above theories to model the world, you are looking at a fool.

In each case above, Keith explains the theory, doing his best to make it as clear and plausible as possible, then shows it in action in some historical analysis, and then shows the author's self-contradictions and the failure of the theory.

Perhaps you have heard of the widely used fake "Chinese taxonomy" (actually invented by poet Jorge Luis Borges) which Foucault quotes as dividing the world into things "(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs ... (n) that from a long way off look like flies." If this was a real taxonomy then some of the more radical propositions about human consciousness would have a leg to stand on, but on close inspection all such evidence for these solipsistic philosophies dissolves into fog.

Keith's background doesn't include enough physics to allow him to hammer Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as hard as it deserves (a physicist like Kuhn should have known better than to write such muddy nonsense). Those chapters (on non-cumulative meaning) I read were, in Pauli's famous phrase "not even wrong." But Keith has a grand old time taking Popper and Hume to pieces in defense of induction.

Keith is a reasonably good writer, but there is only so much nonsense I can take at one time, and it got to be a struggle to get through the last chapters. I applaud his work to refute nonsense and lies, and I recommend the book.

I have to take some detailed notes of the who goes with what theory, and I'll post these later. A painful duty...

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Peace of Dives

The Peace of Dives

Rudyard Kipling 1903
THE WORD came down to Dives in Torment where he lay:
“Our World is full of wickedness, My Children maim and slay,
    “And the Saint and Seer and Prophet
    “Can make no better of it
“Than to sanctify and prophesy and pray.

“Rise up, rise up, thou Dives, and take again thy gold,
“And thy women and thy housen as they were to thee of old.
    “It may be grace hath found thee
    “In the furnace where We bound thee,
“And that thou shalt bring the peace My Son foretold.”

Then merrily rose Dives and leaped from out his fire,
And walked abroad with diligence to do the Lord’s desire;
    And anon the battles ceased,
    And the captives were released,
And Earth had rest from Goshen to Gadire,

........

Then Satan said to Dives:—“Declare thou by The Name,
“The secret of thy subtlety that turneth mine to shame.
    “It is known through all the Hells
    “How my peoples mocked my spells,
“And my faithless Kings denied me ere I came.”

........

“Their nearest foes may purchase, or their furthest friends may lease,
“One by one from Ancient Accad to the Islands of the Seas.
    “And their covenants they make
    “For the naked iron’s sake,
“But I—I trap them armoured into peace.

“The flocks that Egypt pledged me to Assyria I drave,
“And Pharaoh hath the increase of the herds that Sargon gave.
    “Not for Ashdod overthrown
    “Will the Kings destroy their own,
“Or their peoples wake the strife they feign to brave.

“Is not Carchernish like Calno? For the steeds of their desire
“They have sold me seven harvests that I sell to Crowning Tyre;
    “And the Tyrian sweeps the plains
    “With a thousand hired wains,
“And the Cities keep the peace and—share the hire.

...........

“So I make a jest of Wonder, and a mock of Time and Space.
“The roofless Seas an hostel, and the Earth a market-place,
    “Where the anxious traders know
    “Each is surety for his foe,
“And none may thrive without his fellows’ grace.

“Now this is all my subtlety and this is all my wit,
“God give thee good enlightenment, My Master in the Pit.
    “But behold all Earth is laid
    “In the Peace which I have made,
“And behold I wait on thee to trouble it!”

Kipling hoped he foresaw a world where the nations, bound by trade, would study war no more. He dreamed that self-interest would keep nations at peace. Note the date: 1903. Kipling lost his son in World War I.

I hear the same sort of refrain, based on as as much hope and as little history as Kipling's. No democratic nations have ever gone to war against each other.

Aside from the fact that you can't demonstrate this without shading the meanings of "democratic" and "nations," it is wishful thinking to project this very far. Anatole France was similarly skeptical in Penguin Island: he feared that economic interests would be freer to start wars in a democracy! What in the nature of a democracy (I assume that it values freedom--this excludes most alleged democracies in the world) intrinsically forbids aggressive war?

I said you have to fudge the meaning of democratic and nation to make the slogan work. Think of the American Civil war: a democracy fighting itself! And democracy is not an eternal possession: think of Hitler's rise to power; a popular rise that lost the Germans their democracy in only a few years. Or think of Algeria and the threatened Islamist "One man, one vote, one time." And, if it isn't too extreme to consider a ship as a microcosm of a state, recall that historians now say that many of the Caribbean pirate ships were run on democratic lines.

I don't see any magic potion to solve all the world's problems. Some things help: systems in which people participate in their own government I judge will almost always work better than those that don't. But I think it requires a certain blindness to imagine that democracy is a cure-all to eliminate wars, or that free trade will make men act like saints.

This isn't Kipling's best work by a long shot. But I thought the bitter irony of it made it memorable.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Bumper Sticker

"Spiritual People Inspire Me, Religious People Scare Me"

The difference between "spiritual" and "religious" is who is in charge. The spiritual person wants to enjoy, the religious person to obey the spiritual power.

Recall Ezekiel 33:30-32

"As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other 'Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.' My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice."

His listeners were spiritual. They enjoyed the call of God, but never let it bother them.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Serenata

Some pieces of musics touch springs in us that no words reach.

One passage of Tchaikovsky sends a shiver up my spine--it connects me to myself at 5, listening to the radio with my father in California, when the world was younger and less full.

And as long as I can remember, Serenata by Leroy Anderson has been a sad piece. It is a merry work--a gallop and a sparkling dance--so why should I find it sad?

It sings of a path irrevocably passed by; a part of life many share, but not I. I took the Apollonian road rather than the Dionysian, and things like dance are utterly opaque to me. Pep rallies leave me cold. (And how can one socialize in a crowd with the band so loud you can't converse? Some can, and love it. Not I. Something's missing.)

I've always felt this way about Serenata, so this isn't the nostalgic regret of a midlife crisis. Unless, of course, my sister is right. She says I was born old and have been growing younger.

We Auto Know About Heaps

The hood of our big white dinosaur Aerostar has a few duct tape flaps hanging off it. #1 Daughter wrinkled the hood and radiator a month ago. The hood latches work, but I don't want to push my luck.

We've had an assortment of heaps, fossils, and one pretty new car that lasted long beyond its expected lifetime.

Somebody honored our wedding day by writing our initials in shaving cream on the hood of our little blue Comet. Our initials stood bleached into the hood for the rest of the car's life. We were still picking rice out of it the day we traded it in 7 years later.

We bought an extended warranty on the only new car we ever had, a dainty light blue hatchback. #1 Son, age 5 at the time, heard the name "Plymouth Reliant" and called the car "Timothy Lion." Four years into the car's life, a fifty cent part broke deep in the engine. The dealer needed two days to take the engine apart, replace the fifty cent part, and reassemble the engine. We suspect that the reboring the dealer had to give the engine while making the repair extended the life of "Timothy Lion" by forty thousand miles.

My mother had a big, heavy,1976 Chevy Nova that needed repairs. The mechanic in Chicago said $600 for the repairs and another $300 if she wanted the air conditioning to work again. So she sold it to James for $1 and he took it to Randy, the grumpy Madison Mechanic, who couldn't say three words without cussing. I dropped the car off at Randy's shop and told him what the Chicago mechanic had said. When I came back, the air was blue with Randy's opinions about Chicago mechanics. Randy had fixed the Nova for $104, air conditioning included.

The Nova had a sound engine and ran well. The bottom of the cab had rusted out, however, so the only thing between our feet and the roadway was the carpet. Without the carpet, it would have been a Flintstone Mobile. Actually, I painted some slabs of plywood and laid them under the carpet so our feet wouldn't go through the holes in the floor. Most of the time you wouldn't notice a thing, but if you drove through a deep puddle you got quite a surprise!

The Nova saved our lives and our friend's lives. One morning in 1986, when US 51 just south of 12-18 was still 2 lanes, some southbound bonehead tried to pass 10 cars in a line, at 100 mph and counting. As I came northbound over a bridge he was at 100 yards and closing rapidly. I steered for the shoulder. The Nova fishtailed for about 400 feet and came to rest in the only place where the ditch was shallow. Because I was wearing my seatbelt, I was able to keep my hands on the wheel. Because our kids were in tubular steel reinforced seats, the only thing thrown around the car was the diaper bag. Because I was driving the Nova, I didn't flip.

A few years later, when we lived on a bus line, we didn't need the second car. We sold it to our neighbor Joe, an excellent backyard mechanic. Joe and his family had to take evasive action on Christmas Eve, and the car veered into the brush. The sticks tore the bottom out of the car, but the car stayed upright. Joe's brother took the engine out of the Nova and put it into another car. For all I know, that sturdy V8 is still running.

We had just finished paying off "Timothy Lion" when we learned we were expecting one more kid than the car had seats for. James found a massive 1986 Olds, originally owned by a carpet installer who had Arrived in this world, and wanted something big enough to carry his tools and carpet rolls, but with Class. We had it from 87,000 miles until Reverse quit on it, many miles later. It rode like an ocean liner; smooth and unhurried. I once drove it in a 60 mph crosswind and it didn't so much as twitch. We made the mistake of trading it instead of fixing the transmission. Whoever said, "Never put $1000 into a $300 car" probably owned stock in an auto loan concern. I'm sure I saw the Olds cruising majestically down East Wash last summer.

Mrs James (and Mr)

Monday, December 06, 2004

Christmas Spectacular

My youngest son and I went to the Madison Symphony's Christmas Spectacular, with the Madison Youth Choir, Symphony Choir, and the Handbell Choir as well. Overture Hall is very pretty, and the concert was great.

We were in the nosebleed seats (row M, third from the top), and it was rather curious to watch the tympanist hit his drum and hear the boom half a beat later (and hear it coming from center stage!). I could hear everything quite clearly, though.

They bathed the orchestra with blue light. The effect reminded me a bit of the ghosts in Lord of the Rings: probably not quite the associations they had in mind. My youngest likes organs, and loved the organ and handbell version of "Oh Tanenbaum." The tenor did a great job with "Oh Holy Night," one of my favorites. I wish I had the range to sing it myself.

A wonderful feature of the hall: there is a separate exit for the high altitude seats! Down 7 stories into the basement and out the back, without standing in line forever as the hundred rows in front of you slowly drain out.

Movie Theaters in Monrovia

I've forgotten much of Monrovia. I remember bits and peices--the beggars in front of the old post office, for instance.

The Rivoli had street parking, boys with candy and cigarettes for sale in trays outside, a concession stand inside (I never bought there), dark seats, the President's box, and movies we'd heard about six months before.

There were sometimes older boys outside who would offer to watch your car for a fee. . .

The President's box was supposed to be reserved for President Tubman and his guests, though of course we never saw him here. The seats were bigger and better cushioned in that central box, walled in with a front ledge.. I went in several times, but didn't stick around--I saw few enough movies to risk getting thrown out. Some bolder souls did try to watch from the sacred premises, without ill effect. Apparently nobody was deeply offended . . . I didn't learn until later that a lot of the "We love President Tubman" chorus was insincere. (I didn't talk politics with people.)

Sometimes someone would buy a tube of M&M's from the concession stand, or (ever so rarely) a Toblerone bar. I coveted those (still do), but not enough to borrow money to buy one. One night I sweltered while waiting for a friend hesitating in front of a persistent candy boy. I kept saying "They're cheaper inside," goading the candy boy into shouting "They are not!" But perhaps I wasn't quite unjustified in my estimate: unaffordable inside equals unaffordable outside. 75 cents was a big deal for me then.

I don't recall ever going to the Roxy--perhaps once. I'm not sure why--perhaps my parents saw things there that a child might not notice. Maybe they didn't like the selection (though I didn't see any difference in kind from the Rivoli). In later years I hear it deteriorated badly, both in the physical plant and in the selection offered. The Relda drew the better customers away.

When the Relda was built it actually had a parking lot, and a mottled green statue of a naked woman outside. The selection was like the Rivoli's: popular US movies about 6 months after their US release. For some reason we didn't go to the movies with the most interesting previews, but I can't complain that the ones we saw were dull.

One such was a biopic of some old English king who apparently wanted to be a saint, but wound up in a lot of battles anyway. I remember talking with missionary who drove us, wondering why on earth the king didn't want to have sex with his wife (or anybody else--he seemed to want to be a married monk). It didn't reassure me of the basic sanity of the world to be told that the king's attitude wasn't all that uncommon.

I still remember those interminable Benson and Hedges commercials. They seemed to be 10 minutes long, but were probably only 2. I remember looking around the theater, and seeing almost all black faces; and looking back at the ads with all rich white faces and wondering "Why?" (The ads had no effect--I don't smoke.)

I'm told that these days one-room "movie theaters" are popular, with a TV and VCR or DVD player as the centerpeice; playing martial arts movies or less noble fare.

Correction: "The Roxy . . . specialized in karate and Indian movies."

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Green slogans

In Madison the Republicans didn't even bother to field candidates for many offices, so the contest was between Democrats and Greens.

On two triangular pillars of the Humanities Building, shielded from the rain, you may see chalked

VOTE 
LOCAL
GREE
   NS

Both messages are in the same handwriting, and both show the craftsmanship, attention to detail, and ability to learn from experience that we have come to expect from the Green Party.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Europe's Inner Demons by Norman Cohn

Those who've read my book reviews regularly may have noticed that I frequently pick up a book recommended earlier by ideofact or Amy Welborn. This one was suggested by ideofact, who noted that the blood libel against the Jews was first made against Christians by Romans, and later against Christians by other Christians. The subtitle The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom might seem to be hyperbole, but it is a literal description of what happened.

Cohn begins with the Roman charges against the early Christians: they were godless people indulging in promiscuous and incestuous orgies and cannibal feasts: worse than merely cannibal, because supposedly they ate children baked into bread. Naturally these charges faded away as Christianity spread and became better known. But the record of them survived, and served, in Cohn's estimation, as a template for describing the most horrific sort of humans. And who could be more horrific than a person who deliberately distorts and abandons God's truth: a heretic?

Cohn's plot for the book brings together the various threads that went to make up the bizarre standard accusations used in the great witch hunts. Before people could become terribly worried about witches, though, they had to lose their initial confidence in God's victory, and start worrying about the devil and his demons. His second chapter is devoted to the growth of doctrines and popular beliefs (mostly the latter) about demons and their natures and powers, including incubi and seccubi.

In the next couple of chapters he details how those old charges of orgies and cannibal rituals were revived against various heretical groups. Although many people confessed after torture, many recanted their confessions (and were tortured again). In several cases he examines in detail, sober analysis of the testimony shows contradictions and "I know it happened but I never saw it" confessions. He reasonably concludes that the heretics were innocent. Much though you'd like to, you must not automatically assume that all the charges were false. I will unapologetically discount claims that the devil appeared and changed shape, but murder is a well-known human activity and I can't assume that I know the facts of a murder case better a thousand years after the fact than people who were present at the time.

Conrad of Marburg played a pivotal role, it seems, especially after he was appointed inquisitor in 1231.

He as also terrifyingly severe. As confessor to the countess--now St. Elizabeth of Thuringia--he treated his penitent with a harshness which was extraordinary even by the standards of the time. He would, for instance, trick the twenty-one-year-old widow into some trivial and unwitting disobedience, and then have her and her maids flogged so severely that the scars were visible weeks later.
When such a man was appointed inquisitor to seek out heretics, the outcome could not be good, and when allied with "heretic hunters" who could spot heretics by their appearance (!), his power was fearful. And his ideas were bizarre. A heretic could not just be mistaken, he had to be initiated in ceremonies with other heretics, where the participants would kiss a toad or cat and indulge in nameless orgies. And since there was a group, one could identify others if tortured adequately. (After Conrad's assassination, the heretic hunt died out.)

These sorts of alleged crimes were part of the folklore of the educated, not the common people. Pope Gregory IX even issued a bull describing these sorts of initiations.

As time went on, additional details were added to the standard story, including roasting infants to mix with communion wafers. And the standard story became a template for describing all sorts of heretics, from Waldensians to Fraticelli. Never mind what they were accused of at the time, years later writers used the "standard heretic story" almost as a standard plot device to describe any heretics. (And what we do know of Cathars, Waldensians, and the Fraticelli suggests that the accusation of orgies was completely crazed: the Waldensians claimed, for example, that the Catholic hierarchy could not administer valid sacraments because they violated their vows of chastity.)

This "bag of tricks" proved useful to Philip of France when, beset by budget shortfalls, he decided to crush the Knights Templar and appropriate their assets. With the weak Pope Clement unable to resist much, Philip carefully arranged a strike against the Templars with mass arrests and charges of heresy. (Charging them with malfeasance wouldn't help him much--the Templars were answerable only to the Pope.) And so they were charged with idolatry (worshiping a head), renouncing Christ and all the saints, anointing the idol with fat from roasted infants, homosexual orgies, etc. And they confessed, in general, some after torture and some in fear of it.

Do you get the impression that precedents are being set here?

Then Cohn takes a slight diversion to describe ritual magic: the summoning and use of demons. This was an almost all male activity, restricted to the highly educated. The demons were summoned by invoking their names in particular formulae and commanding them in the name of God and the saints! In fact, such a magician had to prepare carefully, going to confession and making sure he was blameless and pure. Only the pure would be able to command the demons in Christ's name to go sink an enemy's ship or trap a demon in a ring he could wear.

In this we're on pretty solid ground: this sort of ritual magic was still practiced as late as the 17'th century and the books describing how to do these sorts of things still exist. (Before you go trying to do this yourself, note that the books contradict each other. And may God have mercy on your undeserving soul.) Not unnaturally, other people took a rather dim view of the magicians, and they were also charged with heresy and worshiping demons and making compacts with the devil. Even Pope Boniface was charged, albeit posthumously. At first most of those convicted were clerics (able to read and write), but over the years the charge of having a private demon to worship hit lower and lower in the social order.

At this point Cohn makes a serious error.

In the supposed practices of this group, maleficium and demon-worship were interwoven. The maleficia were manifold. The group was accused of concocting powers, pills and ointments from herbs, the intestines of cocks, horrible worms, nails from corpses, the swaddling-clothes of babies who had died unbaptized; and of making candles from human fat. These substances were boiled in the skull of a decapitated robber, and were employed, to the accompaniment of incantations, to bring sickness or death to faithful Christians, or else to excite love or hatred. Moreover, it was said that at their nocturnal meetings these people did what only the clergy were entitled to do: fulminated excommunications against individuals, cursing each part of the body from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head. In particular the women anathematized their own husbands.

All these things were done in a truly heretical spirit. It was said that, to ensure the success of their sorceries, the members of the group became apostates from Christianity--though on a curiously temporary and provisional basis. . . . By magical means they sought the counsel of demons, and they also sacrificed animals to demons; Lady Alice had three times offered up the blood and limbs of cocks to her private demon, just as Pope Boniface was supposed to have done.

There is nothing manifestly impossible in all this, but the charges include a further item, and one which must give us pause. It concerns that private demon of Lady Alice's, who appeared sometimes in the guise of a cat, sometimes in the guise of a shaggy black dog, sometimes in the guise of a Negro. Lady Alice received him as her incubus and allowed him to copulate with her. In return he gave her wealth--all her considerable possessions had been acquired with his help. Moreover, the demon was known to other members of the group. He even gave them his name, which was the Son of Art, or Robin, son of Art; and he also explained that he belonged to the poorer demons in hell.

Now, in the contemporary account of the proceedings against Lady Alice--which is the sole source for these matters--all the charges are listed together, as though they were interdependent; so if one charge is manifestly false, the rest must also be suspect.

No, the charges are not necessarily interdependent. It is perfectly possible to mix charges of real attempted maleficia with fantastic charges, and have them all confirmed under torture. Although Cohn shows some familiarity with African sources, quoting at length from a confessed Shona witch in Rhodesia, he does not take the appropriate lesson from the witch's testimony. She describes in detail night wandering with other cannibal witches, exhuming and devouring parts of corpses. Investigation showed these bodies to be intact. But she believed that she had done so. She had malicious intent, and the customs of her people shaped her fantasies.

If Cohn had looked a little farther afield, to the leopard societies of West Africa, he'd have found that groups devoted to acquiring human body parts for magical use are in fact quite real, and active to this day. The societies "manipulate" powerful spirits using specific parts from a freshly killed human (usually a child--probably because a child is easier to kill) to gain political power or wealth. There is nothing manifestly impossible in either the notion that the prosecutors thought she had consorted with demons, or with the notion that she believed she had consorted with demons.

I don't care to rely on confessions extracted by torture, but I cannot assume that Lady Alice was innocent, or that the sort of things claimed by the prosecutors were never attempted.

To return to Cohn's theme, however, notice that the rise of and reaction to ritual magic adds a new feature to the collection of accusations: that of making a pact with the devil in exchange for power or wealth. The accusations also become somewhat more detailed, describing salves made from the dead infants and so on.

The next chapter is a pleasant annihilation of the foundations of Wicca: "The Society of Witches That Never Was." Jules Michelet and Margaret Murray, by picking and choosing carefully among the records and legends of the witch-trials, compile respectively their own legends of revolutionary and earth-mother gatherings. By noting what Murray elided from the quotations on which she built her myth of a peaceful feminist earth-worshiping cult, Cohn demonstrates that Murray was dishonest. And the famous source Lamothe-Langon turns out to be not a historian, but a novelist and writer of spurious memoirs. So much for Wicca.

Another piece is missing: night flight. Without it you cannot have large assemblies of witches; everybody has to be very local. But popular German culture (not the educated elites, this time) had legends of the striga, a night-flying cannibal witch. He finds, in contrast, legends of women who fly at night together with their mystic queen Holda (variously interpreted as "Diana" or "Herodias"). Holda apparently was a kind of goddess of the harvest, who punished laziness and rewarded diligence and held a special interest in childbirth. Holda, and her followers, flew by night on their errands. Offerings of food and drink assured their amity; even today in Sicily. At first those confessing to participating were rebuked as having been deceived by dreams and were required to do mild penance, but by the thirteenth century the "ladies of the night" were construed not as dreams but as real demons, and for consorting with demons the punishments were naturally far harsher. And there apparently came to be a melding of the notions of the two types of night fliers. He notes that some of the famous witch's ointments included such things as belladonna, leading some researchers to suspect that hallucinations were associated with its use; but Cohn is dubious, noting that the ointment was usually applied to brooms or items other than the witch's body. At this point he brings in the Shona witch's testimony about cannibal ramblings at night, and suggests that dreams are shaped by culture.

Cohn's next chapter dissects several histories of the start of the witch-hunts, all of which place the origin in the campaign against Catharism with the first burning in 1275. Unfortunately the histories relied on unreliable sources, including one which seems to have incorporated amusing hoaxes in among his collection of legal rulings. This is more of a technical detail for the layman: the upshot is that Cohn places the start of the witch-hunts a century later. The sabbat and night-flying start appearing in the records from the 1420's. The accusations are a blend of the ritual magic (formally renouncing God, making a pact with the Devil, offering a limb {after death} as a sacrifice) and the popular concepts of malificia (sickening and killing cows, rendering men impotent or women sterile, etc). The night flight and ritual meal appear also. The accused were not thought to be heretics of some school but apostate Christians.

And the subsequent years unveil all the grotesque details of the sabbat; the Devil summoned, the pact with the Devil, the Devil having sex with all members of the coven, the Devil's mark on the worshiper, and so on. Cohn suggests that

There is no reason at all to think that most of the men and women who confessed to these strange performances really were Waldensians. It seems, rather, that ecclesiastical and secular authorities alike, while pursuing Waldensians, repeatedly came across people--chiefly women--who believed things about themselves which fitted in perfectly with the tales about heretical sects that had been circulating for centuries. The notion of cannibalistic infanticide provided the common factor. It was widely believed that babies or small children were commonly devoured at the nocturnal meetings of heretics. It was likewise widely believed that certain women killed and devoured babies or small children, also at night; and some women even believed this of themselves. It was the extraordinary congruence between the two sets of beliefs that led those concerned with pursuing heretics to see, in the stories which they extracted from deluded women, a confirmation of the traditional stories about heretics who practiced cannibalistic infanticide.

I have to interject my own notions here. Why would a woman believe that she had killed and eaten babies? When you think mothers you think nurturers. But hang around some new mothers for a while and you're bound to run into "post partum depression." It doesn't last, but it is quite common. In less than an hour a mother can run the gamut from feeling that her baby is the most wonderful person in the world to wishing the baby would die. And if the baby does die (child mortality was quite high), a significant number of mothers will blame themselves. And of course some women abuse their children, who may die as a consequence. (News reports show that some women go so far as to deliberately kill their children. I hope that was as rare then as it is now.)

Every culture has certain myths that shape the interpretation and expression of good and evil impulses. Guilt and cultural expectations then amplify the offence to fit the paradigm. And so one could find guilt-ridden (and sometimes actually guilty) women who might readily admit to murderous and even cannibal acts.

At any rate, we all know what happens next. Fortunately some officials were aware of the risks of relying on torture and relying on coerced identifications. But where the officials were weak and the fear started, many nominal witches died.

His last chapter asks why there were so few malificium trials in earlier centuries, even though the peasants universally believed in both magic and malice. His answer is that the law was adversarial rather than inquisitorial. There was for long no notion that a murder was a "crime against society" which a judge should investigate (inquire into => inquisitor), but instead there was a system in which a citizen would accuse another of a crime and attempt to prove it. The problem was, of course, that if he failed to prove his charge he was liable to the penalty himself. And since proof is difficult, most people would not go to the law unless they were certain they had enough witnesses to the crime. But since people want justice, this raises the risk of free-lance justice: lynching, or hiring a different witch to curse the first one. And these were not uncommon. When crimes like witchcraft became subject to inquisitorial procedures, it was now finally safe to accuse someone of killing your cows, and people did.


This has been a rather long review of a 233-page book, but since I suspect it isn't all that commonly available I thought I'd best explain the author's intent as well as I could. If you get the chance and are interested in the history of witchcraft, by all means read it for yourself.

I wish Cohn had looked more closely at non-European sources, such as for the leopard societies, or about African witches, and spent a little more time with the newspaper reading about such folks as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the (O(30,000)? the number is disputed) people who died accused of witchcraft were innocent of the charges. I also have no doubt that some were guilty of attempting to and sometimes succeeding in harming their neighbors, although surely not in such a lurid fashion as described. I do not need to believe in a "witch's mark" to believe that a woman poisoned her neighbor's cow when it raided her vegetable garden. I can believe that someone tried to invoke the Devil without believing that he then appeared in the form of a black cat.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Weah for President?

BBC reports that George Weah, Liberia's iconic soccer star and coach, is planning to run for president in 2005. Very bad idea. As soccer star he's used to cheers, and learned how to overcome the boos--but in an arena where nobody dies, and where the people he wants to represent are all on the same side. Not so in Liberian politics, where private armies still lurk in the background. Weah is popular enough to maybe get a big chunk of the vote, but I'm not sure that'll cut much ice when he has to wheel and deal with armed factions. I wish him the best--I hope he loses.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Incident in Ivory Coast

"Incident" is a nice, innocuous word, isn't it? Yes, I watched the footage of the 9-November incident: both tapes. My French isn't good enough to pick out much from the strong CdI accents, but I think I got the general idea of what was going on.

A large crowd (easily over a thousand strong) formed behind a warning cord. They chanted, sang, shouted, and sometimes danced. I couldn't tell if they were making threats, but the demeanor of those protesters the cameraman hung around with was peaceful. That doesn't mean they all were, of course--it was a large crowd. The part the cameraman was around seemed organized.

The hotel in the background had French personnel carriers and tanks in front of it at the far side of the road, barbed wire in front of the tanks, then the road itself, then a low brick fence, then an open area, then the warning tape, and the crowd was in the park behind the warning tape. Except for a few.

The camera was near the front when the first shots came. The cameraman ran like mad, but there weren't more than a few shots, and he stopped to film a banner. He filmed angry protesters, one with a bandaged forehead, and the protest went on. A few fellows crossed the line and mooned the French.

He went closer to the fence. Some protesters had crossed the cord, stood on the fence, and were even in the road. More shots rang out. Some people hit the dirt and tried to crawl away (the brick fence provided a little shelter), others strolled away. As the crowd thinned out you could see numerous people on the ground, but I saw no blood and most of the people on the ground seemed unhurt, just scared. Some people seemed to have minor scrapes, smashed elbows, etc. Then the cameraman reached the cars in back where the wounded were being brought. Here he found a more severe injury: a bullet wound in the leg. I'd guess most of the bullets went way over people's heads.

He filmed protesters dancing inside the park pavilion, waving a Bible and chanting. A banner said Jesus is always here.

Now he went down the road to a medical station, and you see a young man getting his arm stitched back together.

Back to the crowd scene, with a much thinner crowd and a lot of litter on the ground. This time the fusillade was more extensive, and had a few deeper notes. The cameraman was not near the front, and he ran like mad. This time there was no strolling away. The crowd regrouped farther back in the park. Sporadic shooting continued. There were more injuries, with lots of people on the ground for treatment. (The cameraman spent a lot of time with the hysterical women: not usually injured, but their shirts were removed to help them stay cool). There were more bullet wounds (holes and grazing wounds), attempts at CPR and field medicine. A few of the bullet holes were in the back. The French, after some indeterminate time, drove off, redeployed, whatever: the camera angle wasn't clear. The clip goes on to scenes of a fellow whose head was blown apart, the French driving away, and then a UN jeep burning.

Did the French shoot at unarmed civilians? As far as I could tell, yes indeed. Was there any provocation; anybody in the crowd shooting at them? I can't say for sure. The cameraman wasn't around anybody carrying anything more dangerous than a sign, and when the big fusillade came he wasn't anywhere near the front. The crowd got angrier and angrier, and it wouldn't surprise me if some men had tried to rush the French line. But I don't see my way from repelling that sort of thing to blazing away at the rest of the crowd. And in any case, the clips showed no protesters with weapons. If the clips were unedited (something I cannot swear to), then the French were clearly at fault.

As others have said elsewhere, soldiers make lousy policemen.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Lousy engineering

The universal remote is a ubiquitous piece of hardware: and iniquitous. There's no simple way of telling what you are dealing with, and the buttons are often quite small. Did you really mean to change the station on the TV, or on the cable box? Big difference. . .

Instead of punching little buttons, you should be able to use a slider along the edge of the remote. You can tell at a glance which device you are trying to program. If the slider is at the front the remote is good for both lefties and righties, but on the side probably works about as well.

Policeman's Chorus

Few accuse Gilbert and Sullivan's operas of profundity, but there's more than mere incongruity in this famous song from the Pirates of Penzance:

When a felon's not engaged in his employment His employment
Or maturing his felonious little plans, Little plans,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment 'Cent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man's. Honest man's.

Our feelings we with difficulty smother 'Culty smother
When constabulary duty's to be done. To be done.
Ah, take one consideration with another, With another,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

Ah, when constabulary duty's to be done, to be done,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one, happy one.

When the enterprising burglar's not a-burgling Not a-burgling
When the cut-throat isn't occupied in crime, 'Pied in crime,
He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling Brook a-gurgling
And listen to the merry village chime. Village chime.

When the coster's finished jumping on his mother, On his mother,
He loves to lie a-basking in the sun. In the sun.
Ah, take one consideration with another, With another,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

Ah, when constabulary duty's to be done, to be done,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one, happy one.

It's a cliche that Hitler couldn't abide cruelty to animals. And how often do you hear the neighbors of some workplace killer say "We'd never have suspected" or "He seemed like such a nice man?" And no doubt he was a nice man, who mowed his lawn and love to lie basking in the sun.

What makes the "felon" different from the rest of us is that his vice is a crime. Jesus said that whoever hated his brother was a murderer, but Sheriff Caesar only sees actions and corpses, not the thoughts of the heart. But you and I know from our own experiences that there are people you hate to be around: they commit no overt crimes but their attitudes are hateful.

And Gilbert and Sullivan acknowledge this similarity between the felon and the honest citizen: both can and do properly enjoy life and act honestly in many parts of their lives--but not in all.

This isn't to say that we have no right to punish the criminal. We do. It ought to encourage a little humility, though. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Looking at this from the other end: merely because someone is honest and ordinary in most parts of his life does not mean that we must honor all his actions. Every time the issue of homosexual marriage or adoption arises, the NYT trots out human interest pieces about how loving and normal and socially righteous some select homosexual couple is, and from this infer that they deserve whatever privileges the NYT wishes to confer. But it's all blue smoke and mirrors: the first does not imply the second. No doubt they love to hear the brook gurgling. So what?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

Terry's been coming out with about a book a year in the Diskworld series. This one isn't bad--parts are quite fun--but I think he should have held onto it for a few more months. Moist's character is critical to the book, and unfortunately Terry doesn't show enough of his life before to motivate all the changes after his encounter with "an angel." It wouldn't take much: an extra detail here, a little paring there; the nuts and bolts of the writer's craft.

As it is the story doesn't quite blend as well as it ought. If I seem to carp too much, it is only because I've seen him do much better. So close . . . (And I object to the notion, important in the book, that hope is valuable even if it is false hope.)

Still, Terry is as inventive as ever, and quite funny, and I recommend the book. And I tried to think what details I could give that wouldn't spoil things for you, but couldn't. It has no watch, no witches, a few wizards, golems and Vetinari. Fans will figure the classification accordingly, but fans probably read it the day it came out.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Good news

Wisconsin has a law requiring public buildings to be accompanied by public artwork costing .2% of the cost of the project. Next to the physics building the University has been remodeling a garden: paths, flowers, (labeled) unusual plants, and a small tree grown from a cutting given us by the Royal Society: a cutting of a cutting from the tree that bonked Newton. And wonder of wonders, the artwork they picked is actually recognizable: a giant apple core.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Islam and Democracy? What do we mean by democracy?

We could mean the machinery that we use to try to make the government accountable to the governed. This sort of system is certainly consistent with the Christian principle that the greatest must be the servant of all. It isn't unique to Christianity: the Greeks, Romans, and some German tribes also used various sorts of democratic machinery. I note that the machinery didn't always work. The Athenians developed a tendency to indulge in short-sighted legislation. And I don't recall any description of ways of recalling abusive German chief-kings. We all know what happened to Roman democracy: the real power moved away from the Senate.

Pretty plainly just having the machinery doesn't guarantee that you will get liberty or good government. GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. If the people want to sell the seed corn to fund a big party, the expected consequences follow. And did.

We could mean democratic machinery plus a culture that values liberty. But, as has been pointed out, that culture also has to value order and responsibility. And justice. And have a sense of "all being in this together." If the culture doesn't honor "all being in this together" you get "democracies" like those all over Africa, in which a job-holder's first obligation is to his family and tribe; everybody else can wait. There's no internalization of the concept of a public servant.

We can see how these various cultural requirements appeared in Western culture. Some (like the notion of a public servant) did come from Christianity, others (like "all in this together") are local and circumstance-dependent.

Am I missing something here? Islam doesn't much value liberty, but does value order and responsibility and justice (though not universal justice: slaves and dhimmis don't count). In place of the public servant you have God's servant. Potentially this means rulers are more dedicated and responsible, in practice the title frequently engenders swollen egos.

So far it seems as though Islam might be compatible with democracy.

But then there's sharia. If lawmaking is God's prerogative, humans only have room to make the occasional interpretation; and only the those steeped in religious knowledge ought to tinker with interpretations.

With that attitude, democracy can't be much more than an add-on.

I've read some of Esposito's books, and I'm not nearly as hopeful as he seems to be. Will reformation help? Unless what you mean by "reformation" in Islam is a re-evaluation of sharia and incorporates skepticism of how well faillible humans can implement God's law, I don't see how democratic trends can withstand the charge of impiety.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Jack O'Lanterns have their uses

for those so equipped, that is. The squirrels have fattened up considerably on the spillage from the bird feeders out front--and induced quite a bit of that spillage themselves. When my wife stepped out the garage door with a refill for one feeder, a big fat squirrel panicked and fled to the front door, where he took refuge in one of the jack o'lanterns that adorn the porch. Little eyes peered out from inside the big eyes . . .

Christmas

Christmas is a-coming and we've catalogs galore
Please to bring your VISA to the merchant's store
If you haven't got a VISA then a MasterCard will do
If you haven't got a credit card then God help you!

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Aurora

I'd never seen the aurora before, except out of the window of an airplane crossing the Atlantic. Somehow the weather never cooperated before. It was beautiful, both the 19:00 show and the brighter 23:30 show. The colors weren't crisp: the city glow blurred the display a little. I could still tell when the red showed up, and see the curtains hanging and shifting against the invisible magnetic winds. There even appeared to be a radiant for the curtains about 10 degrees south of vertical.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Update on EPCUSA Women's Ministries

The pagan liturgy I mentioned was quickly taken off the list of proposed women's liturgies, and Christianity Today says the author has repented.

I hope it is true. The editor responsible for including the proposed liturgy needs to try that herself.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Close Election

Newsweek's assistant managing editor Evan Thomas told PBS's "Inside Washington"

"The media, I think, want Kerry to win. And I think they’re going to portray Kerry and Edwards - I’m talking about the establishment media, not Fox, but - they’re going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and all, there’s going to be this glow about them that some, is going to be worth, collectively, the two of them, that’s going to be worth maybe 15 points.”

I wonder if it really was worth 15 points. I didn't know a single person who was enthused about Kerry, though several sort of liked some of what he said; and nobody wanted to talk about his "Dan Quayle -lite." And I live in leftist Dane County. True, most of them had a visceral hatred of Bush, but I'm not sure that dis-ease afflicts half the country. But ABCCBSNBCCNNNYT are the same across the country, and word is they were pretty openly pro-Kerry. And pretty much all the big name celebrities came out in support of Kerry. He was not a good candidate, and he didn't run a good campaign; so either the big names ran a campaign on his behalf and won him a chunk of the vote he wouldn't have had otherwise, or else the divide in the country is far worse than I'd have guessed. Neither is good news.

Its Unfair

We left our 11-year-old in charge as we ran some errands this past Monday (Nov 1). When we returned, he earnestly explained that he had tried to answer a very important phone call from a very important person, but that the very important person wouldn't listen. And that there was another very important message on the answering machine. He takes his responsibilities very seriously, and we hadn't explained about automated phone calling yet. How often does an 11-year-old get a phone call from the president?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Thoughts on returns

I'm in Madison. Far and away the noisiest supporters of Kerry were the ABB crowd (Anybody But Bush). "Yellow dog Democrats" are those who'd vote for a yellow dog if it wound up with the Democratic nomination. (The rise of PETA took some of the bite out of that old phrase.) Likewise these folks didn't seem to care who Kerry was. Kerry wasn't Bush; that was all that mattered.

I don't know what the rest of the country was like. The radio and newspapers report the "I'll leave the country if Bush wins" actresses, but not so much of the moderate complaints. Finding Michael Moore among the movers and shakers at the Democratic convention was scary. Are people that hungry to believe bizarre conspiricy theories? If the rest of the Kerry voters are as wild as Madison's ABB crowd we're in for very weird and ugly years. I don't think they are, though--Madison is infamously "69 square miles surrounded by reality." Though there are some nuts out there. . .

Returns

I'm not a big fan of sitting up late listening to election returns. In the past decade or so I've taken to turning off the news and waiting for the results the next day (and I get those from the radio, not the morning paper). "Do you want it fast or do you want it good?" I want it good; I want the news to be right, even if a little later than usual. Of course, if I have to act on the news I'll take what I can get, but what am I supposed to do with election results? I already did my part. Maybe this is the old "scientist versus reporter" conflict again.

One nice side effect: I get a good night's sleep.

Monday, November 01, 2004

The Election Tomorrow

I will disappoint some family members tomorrow. I think they deserve an explanation.

My political views are not well-represented by any political party. I'm more or less an economic "centrist:" sort of between the two parties (and no, the Republican party isn't what I'd call right wing on economic policies--not in practice, at any rate). Because I oppose abortion and slavery and redefining family and defining deviance down I suppose you'd call me a cultural conservative.

I judge that what makes us a country is not simply our laws but includes the constellation of understood obligations and courtesies that add up to "We're all in this together." Because of this I judge that "affirmative action," though sometimes necessary, corrodes the fabric of "we're all in this together" and must not be permanent. Many things that we need are purely cultural and cannot be legislated: a willingness to pick up trash off the street and not just off our own yard, if you want a trivial but significant example. We officially honor individual liberty above all things, but under the hood we rely on people's willingness to make small and large sacrifices for each other. But I saw that our media elites took hyper-individualism and have codified it in our entertainments, reporting, and even in our laws as radical judges define new rights and expand old ones.

The New York Times editorial staff seems to despise almost everything I honor. We agree that scientific discoveries are generally good things, that it is good to know about the world, and that what you call a man should be more or less courteous. That's about it. They think abortion is a right, I think it a crime. They think religion is beneath notice, I think it central to human life. They think that a man can redefine himself as anything at all, I think you lose your soul in such a focus on yourself.

Kerry's world, and the world of those he surrounds himself with, is this anti-nomian NYT world. Bush's is nominally different. I don't know the man personally, but on issues such as abortion he at least claims to be on my side, while Kerry opposes me.

I don't believe that virtue can always be legislated, but I know you can always make things worse by denying that virtue exists and by legislating the acceptance of vice.

Of course liberty is an important goal. Has Bush done such a terrible job protecting or attacking liberty? Oddly enough, when you inspect some of the terrible crimes he has perpetrated, such as hiring Ashcroft or pushing through the Patriot Act, you find that the received wisdom is wrong. The Patriot Act is little more than restating laws already passed under Clinton, with a few clarifications and even new safeguards. And what Ashcroft did turns out to be rather different from what he is accused of doing. And look at the "faith-based initiatives." There's no establishment of any religion here--you need a secular plan.

And in science Bush stands accused of politicising environmental research (which was already deeply political--I smell sour grapes), of failing to ratify the Kyoto treaty (even Kerry voted against it), of (horrors!) considering the ethical implications of stem cell and cloning research before opening the checkbook. That's it. I think high CO2 levels are an issue that we're going to have to address, but Kyoto was a joke. Watch Russia. They just ratified it, and by the terms of the treaty they'll get billions to clean up their emissions. They'll clean up on paper only, and when the time comes to come into compliance they'll abrogate the treaty. You heard it here first.

But in some sense these are peripheral issues. The first priority of a government is to protect its citizens from foreign enemies (with armies) and domestic enemies (with police).

9-11 was the most dramatic strike by our enemies, but they'd been at war with us for decades. The term "War on Terror" is misleading. We're at war with a collection of sects of Islam. Khomeini-ism and Wahabism are the most famous--the former subsidized by Iran and the latter by the Saudis. But all the spiritual heirs of the Kharijites are our enemies. Saudi money has spread the Wahabi ideology so far that it will take decades to die out even after the Saudis are destroyed. We need to maintain our determination to defeat these sects for the long haul, through years of fighting and decades of cold war.

Kerry doesn't seem to understand the first thing about what's going on. Afganistan was the main center for AlQaida, but Pakistan was the necessary secondary base. We had to make deals with Beelzebub to knock out Lucifer. Iraq wasn't a major center for US-centric terrorist groups, but it was an old enemy and in a strategic location that puts us in position to begin threatening our main enemies: Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is all pretty trivial stuff, but Kerry doesn't give any hint that he knows any of it.

So far Bush seems to get the picture. Mostly. Things have worked surprisingly well. Iraq is in much better shape than I had any reason to expect. Likewise Afganistan. And a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes. The Khan network was wrapped up and Qadafi decided to get out of the nuke business. Don't bother telling me that could have happened without the threat of force. It's not so clear that Bush understands the need for the propoganda campaign.

Kerry's advisors talk about "root causes" being poverty and Israel and misunderstandings of the US. We can't do anything about their poverty unless we invade :-( , the Arab states have decided to redefine their identity in terms of rejection of Israel and Jews, and we can't rely on them to clear up their misunderstandings of us, which is what the proposal I looked at boiled down to.

Kerry doesn't "get it." The amusing part of the situation is that the next few years aren't likely to involve US troops in any overt shooting war anyway. Just garrisons and covert operations. And propoganda, if we know what's good for us (and, curiously enough for them). I think Bush understands this war. I don't think Kerry does.

Character is always an issue. Kerry seems startlingly tone deaf when it comes to religion. When you're in a religious war (it only takes one side to make it one), that incapacity becomes a major handicap. You have to understand your enemies.

Kerry boast of nuance. Understanding nuance is important; the devil is in the details. But I listen to him, and some of what he says is nuance but a lot of it is spin and, to coin a phrase, flip-flop. Some, of course, is lies--the winter soldier testimony being the ugliest and most famous example. Kerry has a few principles: he's staunchly pro-abortion, and staunchly in favor of marrying rich. Aside from a few others like these, he's a windsock with a resonant voice.

Perhaps Kerry can grow into the job of president. I've seen nothing in his career that leads me to suspect it, though.

I'm voting for Bush.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Refrigeration is relative

Some good news: a clay pot "refrigerator". It uses the old faithful evaporative cooling in clay pots to keep the food cool. The novelty is the nesting of the pots.

Riots in Monrovia

From Reuters: link ephemeral

Curfew in Liberia after riots, four dead

By Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA, Oct 29 (Reuters) - At least four people died in riots on Friday in Liberia's capital, where U.N. peacekeepers fired in the air to bring rampaging, stick-wielding youths under control and a daylight curfew was in force.

U.N. troops loaded three bodies into a truck in the debris-strewn main street of the Paynesville suburb where the violence erupted, while residents peered out from behind doors and a helicopter hovered overhead.

A petrol station was still ablaze and smoke rose from a torched building. White U.N. pickup trucks and armoured personnel carriers cruised the normally bustling street, almost empty but for sticks, rocks and five burned out vehicles.

Liberia is struggling to emerge from nearly 14 years of war and the poor West African country is home to 15,000 United Nations troops, the biggest peacekeeping force in the world.

More than 80,000 fighters have been disarmed but with a crippled economy, massive unemployment and few opportunities, youths, many of them ex-combatants, vent their anger and frustration by rioting.

"(The United Nations mission) has been asked to use maximum force to bring this situation under control," Jacques Klein, U.N. special envoy to Liberia, told local U.N. radio. "And I mean to shoot on sight."

Liberia's Information Minister William Allen said the curfew, announced on state radio by interim leader Gyude Bryant, would remain in force until further notice.

Witnesses said a dispute between Muslim and Christian residents near Paynesville late on Thursday had mushroomed into a full-scale riot on Friday morning which then spread to the hilly centre of the coastal city.

GOVERNMENT ACCUSES TAYLOR ALLIES

Earlier on Friday, young men clutching sticks and machetes roamed streets near Paynesville while U.N. peacekeepers blocked a main road and tried to chase rioters back.

In the centre of Monrovia angry former fighters charged round with canisters of petrol on their heads looking for things to burn. Thick smoke rose from a building in the town centre.

Residents brought the body of a young man to Klein's office, saying he had been shot by peacekeepers nearby. There was no independent confirmation of how the student had died.

U.N. armoured personnel carriers and blue-helmeted soldiers lined a street in the Mamba Point district which is home to most of the U.N. agencies and the U.S. embassy.

Allen accused members of exiled former President Charles Taylor's political party (NPP) of planning to whip up violence in an attempt to disrupt the disarmament programme.

While Liberia has been wracked by war for nearly 14 years, battle lines have usually been drawn down lose ethnic or regional groupings, rather than on religious lines.

About 20 percent of Liberia's population is Muslim, 40 percent Christian and 40 percent follows animist beliefs.

"We were provoked by a Christian yesterday when one of them beat our Muslim sister. When we went to find out, they tried to beat us. So we called for reinforcements. They have burned down our gas stations," said Amara Konneh, near Paynesville.

The leadership and many of the LURD rebel fighters who ousted Taylor last year are from an ethnic group which is mostly Muslim, though their fight was not a religious one.

"The Muslims were the ones who set three of our churches on fire. We have been living here on good terms but they have not reciprocated it. We want to see religious tolerance in this country," said Fred, a member of the Pentacostal church.

This is very bad. I'm not sure I believe the claim that this was NPP: I'd be surprised if Taylor's Wahabbi connections were more than purely financial, but I know nothing about the lower echelon folks. I suppose it is possible, but I still suspect some other group is involved.

You don't need to "whip up violence" to stymie the disarmament program; it's much easier than that.

FWIW, the religious ratios are very different from what I remember. They're the latest CIA Worldbook numbers, though.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

War

Everybody else already put their oars in, so I guess it is my turn.
Updated 12-November-2004
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe--
...
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!



Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace.

Sorry about the repostings. Blogger isn't picking up changes to the original index posts, so I have to repost my index posts from time to time.

Sex

It is a myth that men think of sex all the time. In fact, as any husband knows, there's a simple test that applies: If the sky isn't falling, surely there's time to make love? If the sky is falling, then this is our last chance. (I know, nothing about sex is simple.)

Religion

Observations, mostly about Christianity:

Science

Things that stirred my curiosity. Updated 12-Nov-2004

Culture, Music, Humor, Misc

Updated 27-Oct-2004

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