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 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


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. . .


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.