Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Cotton Kingdom

Had I known this book existed, I would have read it long ago. Before he became a designer of parks and public spaces, Frederick Law Olmsted was a farmer and a journalist, a traveling correspondent sending back first-hand accounts to a newspaper to give readers a flavor of what other places are like.  He went first to England, Walks and Talks of An American Farmer in England (1852), where he traveled largely by foot. I mean to get ahold of that next, but it isn't available in our network of libraries, so I may have to wait.

He took three journeys in the American South and Texas between 1852 and 1857, by horse, by carriage, by rail, by boat, chapters of which were published in the New York Daily Times as he went. Each journey was assembled into a single volume when he returned, and the three collected together as Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom in 1861, now simply called The Cotton Kingdom. It was described to me as a first-hand account of the Slave States by a northerner who objected to slavery largely on economic grounds, who was himself a farmer and thus able to speak knowledgeably with those he met.  Also, though he did object to slavery on moral grounds, he considered many of his Abolitionist friends to be exaggerated in their hatred for all things and all people southern.  Most (not all) Southerners who read his travelogue thought him a fair critic.

The introduction by Arthur Schlesinger says much the same, stressing his objectivity and even sympathy with some of those he met.

The first chapter is rather jarring then, in its moral indignation at slavery, especially cotton and sugar plantation slavery, and condemnation of the culture of the south generally. Where's that objectivity and sympathy I've been hearing about? The first chapter was added at the end, as a preface to the collected travels, just before the outbreak of the war.  By that time, Olmsted had decided that slavery was economically inefficient and had assembled considerable evidence to prove the point. He had come to the conclusion that slavery degraded everyone who came in contact with it, the point being hammered home not only by his observations, but by the repeated admissions of the slaveowners themselves, who were distressed at the environment their children were growing up in.

The profitability of cotton, and to a lesser extent sugar, had distorted all markets.  It was an extractive technology, using up good topsoil quickly, relying on the temporary value of "prime field hands" driven by overseers whose careers depended on immediate profit, not preservation of value. This filtered back through the other slave states, as the value of healthy young slaves who could be worked for sixteen hours a day became so great that owners in Virginia or the Carolinas found the temptation of selling them too great to resist.

The relationship between societies that send raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods is a part of many histories across the world, but I was surprised at how thorough this was in the 1850's.  Nothing was manufactured in the South.  This seems strange to those of us in northern cities who grew up on the stories of manufacturing all going south throughout the 20th C because of cheaper labor, but in that age it was true. Nearly all homes were tiny and made of ill-fitting logs, few had furniture except a bench and a plank, and not so much as a belt buckle was made nearby.  Blacksmiths (usually trained slaves) were used to repair things more than make them. Poverty was almost universal.  Few schools, few preachers of even modest education, churches mostly in the cities.  Rural areas would have religious gatherings, sometimes with a rude building.  All rather harrowing.

Even in farming, Olmsted estimates that it took four times as long, or four times the number of people, to get anything done. Part of that he attributed to the inefficiency of slavery, noting that in places where slaves were well-treated and shared in the general reward they worked much harder; part of the inefficiency he attributed to the culture of the poor whites, who quit working when they had enough to buy a little corn and bacon to get by. There seemed no drive for improvement, just survival. (I wondered what percentage of that might be attributable to malaria.)

I also got a flavor for how various prejudice was. It was almost universally believed that black people were not the equal of whites, but this was along a range, and many of the more prosperous or better-traveled whites thought that slaves were equal and in some ways superior workers to the poor local whites and itinerant Irish, including work in the skilled crafts. Olmsted does record real scenes where the slaves pretty much run a place on their own, sometimes for months at a time when the owner is traveling. The work is not that hard, they are regarded with affection and respect, and aren't unhappy with their lot.  Nearly all say they would prefer to be free, for then they could keep the value of all their own labor and set up a place for themselves, but they don't consider their lives brutally hard. They themselves also attribute much of the comfort to the "bad niggers" who were violent, having been sold away. The prejudice of blacks against blacks and whites against whites was also part of the story.

The value of family, friends, health, and usefulness is very great, after all, and can make up for a lot of other problems.  But Olmsted is quick to note that the presence of happier scenes like those disprove the need for slavery as strongly as the scenes of horror do.  If such independence and self-governance can exist at all, then what is the need of the wise white person to supervise them?  What added value does the system provide? Relatedly, there was a belief among many southerners at the time that free blacks were worse off working in the northern cities, where they might actually starve, and certainly land in jail, because there was no one to supervise them and make decisions for them.  Olmsted concludes that this is rarely true, but not entirely a fantasy. He has this discussion more than once in the coastal south, especially in those areas where the work is easy and the desire of the owner is to be prosperous rather than rich. They project their own situation onto the entire system of slavery, rather deliberately considering only their immediate neighborhood and banishing all thought of the cotton plantations farther off.

So do we all, of course, believe what is convenient and ignore what undermines it.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Relative Poverty

James at I Don't Know But... has a link that reminds us in its thread that constant contact with very wealthy people can make you feel poor. It's a relatively easy exercise, and conservatives do it all the time, to note what it is that the poorest 10% in America actually own, complaining at them for having the temerity to think themselves poor.  Yet that is not only the poor who do that - it is everyone.

We go to church in a wealthy town, and many people in our congregation consider an exceptionally high level of wealth to be just a bit above average.  If you press them, they backpedal and do recognise at some level how amazingly well-off they are.  But that is not their initial reaction.  Nor is everyone in the congregation rich, and regardless of wealth their lives are not without serious suffering. Yet stray comments are revealing, and they don't look at things the same way I do.

Nor do I look at things the same way as many others in America who have left.  It takes effort, I think to remind oneself to feel grateful and not resentful.  It does not come naturally, which is why the problem made it all the way to the top ten Commandments for living. I don't think we hear many sermons on coveting these days.

Environment and Intelligence

This NY Times article about identifying a very few (52) genes that are associated with intellegence is more interesting for what it says about environmental effects. Paragraph 2 "Just as important, intelligence is profoundly shaped by the environment."  Rather a naked assertion, there.  Paragraph 14, lead can harm intelligence, and iodine is necessary for development.  That's not usually what people are thinking of when they talk about "environment." On the lips of social scientists, environment usually means good schools, books in the home, a culture that encourages learning, and not being subjected to prejudice.  Not really the same thing.  Paragraph 33 tells us that nearsightedness, which is strongly influenced by genetics, can be fixed by changing the environment - with eyeglasses.  Well, fine.  What's the eyeglasses equivalent for intelligence that we're working on at present? It looks to me that we are going in a different direction, trying to claim (by analogy) that nearsightedness doesn't exist or is just diferently-optic, or that farsightedness is also a problem so don't get snooty, Paragraph 35 reminds us of the lead again.

Pretty thin gruel.  After genetics, the second most important factor seems to be randomness, which is uncomfortably large. Environment isn't showing up very solidly.

Which is not to say that it won't.  Yet if they had something, you can be sure it would be trumpeted. Something from the nurture side that we haven't thought to measure, or haven't been able to measure well, may still show up an be very important, and that would be grand because it would be a great boon to mankind and save us an enormous amount of money. We could just do that.  Equally useful would be clearly identifying anything that helps compensate that is also amenable to environmental influence, like determination, focus, or fortitude. (And I think there will be some, though not by quite the roads we travel now.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Fraction of Jesus



There have been eras of the church when the kindness of Jesus has been less-stressed than some other attribute. Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries, now over thirty years old captures a great deal of that. Scroll down for the table of contents, which in itself will teach you a lot. Jesus seen as The Rabbi, or The Bridegroom of the Soul, or The Teacher of Common Sense, or The Man Who Belongs to the World. Each is somewhat true, but leaves a great deal out in its insistence on emphasizing the attribute it likes best.  Worse, attributes are not only omitted, but suppressed. A hellfire-and-brimstone age not only neglects to mention the kindness of Jesus, it obscures it.

Tangent:  Jonathan Edwards takes an unnecessarily bad rap for this.  His “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” became his only-known sermon precisely because it went so against the grain of a later era. It is held up as another of those chronocentric examples of how terrible they were in the old days, as a way of indirectly saying “ain’t we sumpin’ now!” Edwards preached hundreds of sermons, some quite different, and “Sinners” was not what he was known for at the time.  It is if some later age than ours said “The Beatles?  Weren’t they that skiffle band that did a cover of ‘My Bonnie’ with Tony Sheridan?” Yes, true, but…

We are currently in an era that obscures an uncomfortable part of Jesus’s judgment, and finality of judgment even in this world.  He sends out the 72 and tells them to preach in villages.  If a village will not welcome them, the disciples are to shake the dust off their shoes and go to the next. It will go worse for that village than for Sodom.  Well, that’s pretty harsh.  That isn’t what we would predict today’s Jesus would say.  Today’s Jesus would have seminars on Valley Outreach.  Today’s Jesus would collect data on which villages responded better, in terms of what each of the pairs of disciples did.  What did they wear?  How much did they pray and what did they pray? What part of the Good News did they lead with?  Did they go into the marketplace or the side streets?  Did they stand near the beggars or far away?

For that sort of evangelism we have to go to Paul, who in the 20th C had the reputation of being a harsh man who distorted the simple, kindly Gospel of Jesus.  The opposite is closer to the truth.  It is Paul who tells Christians that he becomes like Jews to save Jews, or gentiles to save gentiles – though even he acknowledges that this is in order that he might save some.

Jesus also told the story of a man finding himself in Hell and wanting to go back and warn his brothers, so that they, at least, could avoid his fate.  Jesus says don’t bother.  They had Moses and the Prophets and didn’t listen to them. They won't believe even if someone returns from the dead. That’s also harsh. Not the Jesus we expected.  Today’s Jesus would remind the man that his brothers had a devout aunt who guilt-tripped them, making it hard for them to accept the gospel.  Or that their local synagogue didn’t have a great teacher or good musicians, and so were part of a Palestinian subculture that was hard to reach.

I don’t like it much either, and people who have left the church like it even less than I do, but it’s what Jesus said.  Or at least, it’s a fraction of what Jesus said, and a fraction we suppress now. We expect the lesson that if we humble ourselves people will come. I suspect we are smuggling in an idea that if other Christians would be more humble - if those fundamentalists would be less crazy and not cramp our style so much, if the Christians would only be really, really generous with social action and tolerant 'n' stuff, why the churches might grow again.  Nonsense.  Fundamentalists were much crazier sixty years ago and the churches were full.  Nor is it because we no longer teach "Good Catholic/Baptist/Lutheran doctrine."  Fifty years ago the church was a confused mess of ethnic attenders, Unity Clubs, Masons, nuns that taught crazy superstitions, Southern Pride, Good Citizens, and Thoreau-quoters. the churches were full. I'm not saying we should go back to that, I'm saying the reasons we give aren't the real reasons.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Incident Identification

I followed an old friend's Facebook comment to another high school classmate I have not seen in 40+ years.  She had a link to a site called Angry Liberal which chided Donald Trump for being silent when white supremacist terrorists killed three Americans, two of which were veterans, but he congratulated a man who had choked and body slammed a journalist.  I know what the second incident is, but even a little googling did not explain to me the first incident is about.  What gives?

The Beisbol Experience

I haven't finished it - and I'm not going to - but so far all the interviews involve Latino players saying things about their culture that would be called racist if outsiders, black or white, said it about them.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

I Was Wrong

I have asserted in a few places, and perhaps here, that the term Alt-Right was generic and a bit vague, referring to all nonstandard conservatism.  I took this from my understanding that internet discussion groups in the 90's described as alt-religion could include Wiccans, Buddhists, and Scientologists; that alt-sex could include transgender, bestiality, and a bunch of stuff I'm not mentioning.  I thought of alt-right as much the same, that paleocons, some libertarians, monarchists, and anything not currently popular could hold that title.

It turns out that this is not so.  According to John Derbyshire, Paul Gottfried coined the term, and while it may not be precise in definition, it is much closer to the popular conception (minus the insults and exaggerations, of course) than to what I was thinking.  Sorry if I have misled or confused you in any way.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Overdose

It is possible to overdose on Borges. He becomes quite repetitive after a while. If you have read Ficciones you have read enough. Argentina (and Uruguay) with many knives, deaths, toughs, sufferings, and dreams figures more prominently in the rest of his work, so you will miss that flavor, but you'll get just about everything else.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Blogging Will Be Light

I will be reading rather than writing for a while.  There's no crisis or problem about it. At the moment I am reading a lot of Borges, who I have commented on before.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Churches

Edit 6/1:  I should have included forgiving others following my reference to "forgiveness" in paragraph 5. Interactive, community-building Christianity is big in my neck of the woods.

Attending an Anglican service at St. Mary's in Bergen I noticed the priest's reference to obeying God as deeply related to causes. The list he gave wasn't a bad one, though it was weighted toward liberal causes as expected.  I was reflecting on the Shelby Steele book, the mild sermonising from Norwegian Air, plus my own store of experience of liberals defining morality in terms of causes, even at church.

I asked myself what conservative or evangelical churches do instead.  How do they define morality? Not in their denominational or constitutional statements, but from the pulpit, in adult studies (maybe even children and youth studies), at their gatherings?

I know what we do at my church, and have heard a few dozen preachers from my denomination. We have denominational publications, which I scan. I have some old experience from what parachurch ministries used to be popular, and a smaller amount from the present day. I get secondhand information from people I talk to and people I read.  That's a limited sample, but from that I am going to make a guess.

There are a few common categories. We try to find Biblical understandings and weave them into the following:

We talk about Christianity as it is lived by the individual - the need for forgiveness, for repentance and confession, for prayer. We talk about suffering and whether it has meaning and in that context talk about Christians who have had very hard lives and what they have to say. We talk about learning, and faith. Loving others, and examples of this.  Hope - well, we don't mention that so much, actually. We do talk about discouragement, perseverance, redemption.

We hear preaching about Jesus, and who He is and is not. We talk about the pieces of his life and how they fit together and into history. Incarnation, healing, teaching, death, resurrection - what are the commonly-held doctrines and what are the odd ideas that aren't true but won't go away.

We do talk about causes, but not so much directly from the pulpit. Covenanters don't talk much politics directly from the pulpit, but there's some in the narthex and adult studies. (FTR, the clergy tends a bit liberal, the laity a bit conservative.) The causes don't have much to do with raising awareness, however.  Food or clothes or comfort has to change hands.

I have presented this as generally preferable - hardly surprising, seeing that I prefer it myself - but I am aware that the criticism of the conservative churches has been the neglect of larger justice, such as prejudice, even as everyday lives were being lived in kindness.  It may also be that political and social causes are much bigger in churches in other parts of the country and I am in a New England bubble.

Moral Tribes

I generally liked Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes. He is one of those characters I want to like, even when he causes me to sigh.  He is a liberal who clearly tries to understand conservatives, and sometimes gets it. His political leaning were clear even in the introduction, where he constructs an extended metaphor on northerly, easterly, southerly, and westerly tribes, with the northerly being more competitive/capitalist and the southerly being more redistributive. He fails to notice that in western societies, the capitalist tribes are already nearly as redistributive as the southerly, the remaining questions not being either-or but increase-decrease our redistribution. His example of the opinions of the Northern Herders, as he calls them, is not merely Ron Paul in an interview with Wolf Blitzer, but people shouting out from the crowd in that interview. He gives an example of misrepresentation and deception in the run-up to the ACA of the opponent's claim of Death Panels (which is actually not entirely false), but allows that if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor also turned out to be deceptive.  Well, thanks. I wish you had done better, though Joshua.  there was more material to work with there.

So even though he didn't acknowledge his own leanings until a fair bit later, I kinda guessed already.

When I hit this point in most books, I no longer push on without checking. Life is too short.  To the index! The index actually turned out to be encouraging.  In particular, his comments about Jonathan Haidt, who I like, were approving and seemed to be reciprocated.  His last chapter is a comparison with Haidt's ideas and why he likes his better. That's fair.  He writes a good deal about the ubiquity of bias; Marx, Rousseau, and communism get no mention; Aristotle comes in big in the end. So I tried again. I put the book down a few times, shaking my head, but I thought there was value anyway. He tries really hard to be even-handed to the people he disagrees with, and sometimes even succeeds. Usually not, but I've seen worse (far worse), and I haven't seen many conservatives make as much effort on their side to do the same.

What he arrives at is something he calls Deep Pragmatism.  My summary version of this would be Utilitarianism Informed By Virtue Ethics. Not attractive to me as a rule for living, but not a bad way to run a government.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Norwegian Child Welfare



In researching a post I subsequently abandoned* I read up on the child benefit allowance and other government provision related to children in Norway.  My son had described to me a few years ago how impossibly generous it is, and I wondered, as Americans often do, how the Norwegians were going to sustain this after a generation of women  grew up expecting to be taken care of in such style, with no need for husband or family to support them. Not to mention boyfriends who anticipated being off the hook for support. 

It turns out it’s not quite that simple.  There are two tracks.  There are minimal benefits for anyone, enough to survive but not have extra. Those who have been working prior to the birth of the child are eligible for an additional set of benefits. There seems to be different requirements for different programs, but most seem to require that one be employed in a pensionable job for twelve out of the eighteen months prior. This does not include being in college.  They don’t want to encourage you to drop out of school to have a baby. The book I mentioned a few months ago Debunking Utopia, stressed that generous Scandinavian social welfare springs from a culture in which hard work and mutual responsibility are expected.  I have read similar analyses over the last decade and more, and this example seems a clear expression of that value. If you are a person who works, you are fulfilling the expectations of the society and they are (generally) happy to give you time off to have a baby (paternity leave is also generous), take care of it when it is very young, then send it to subsidized day care and return to work in a year or even two. Medical care provided. The government is strict about getting fathers to contribute.  There doesn’t seem to be much stigma attached.

But if you are not “a person who works” they feel much less obligation to provide more than the survivable minimum.  In my tribal formulation, you become not quite one of us. You must lean on your personal support network in that case.
 
I admit I don’t actually know this is how their system works.  There may be easily-exploited loopholes that render this limit-setting void. (I’m not sure that my son is a good source to explain it to me.) I don’t know if it’s sustainable or whether I would prefer it. Norwegians may have decided it’s too generous or not generous enough and be changing it as I write.  I mention it because it’s not what I expected and I found it interesting.

*I speculated how choice of person to have a child with might change rapidly in a culture which does some rescuing from the effects of single parenting, and how this might change gene frequencies in a population in only a few generations.  I asked myself which personality characteristics would be more rewarded in mate selection and which would become less important. I decided I had too little data to do anything more than make up Just-So Stories.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

About Bees

I am not any sort of expert about bees and neonicotinoids, but this woman* seems to really try to look at the objective evidence and make comparisons.  I am suspicious of some of her conclusions on other topics (though not rejecting - she has me thinking), but she seems very thorough and evenhanded here. I liked the overall site as well. Short version.  Some neonicotinoids may be bad for the bees, but that's the least of their problems.

*I'm not sure how I knew she is a woman, but there was something in the writing style.  I had to dig into the site to learn that she is a Finn with a Master's degree in biology from a Swedish university, who now lives in Switzerland with her husband and two children.

Feminist

A woman at PJ Media is advising her son (age 14) not to marry a feminist. I found the piece irritating. The word feminist has such a broad meaning at this point that in some American cultures to embrace it is to brand yourself an extremist, while in others to refuse to embrace it is to brand yourself an extremist. Most of us aren't extremists - even those who lean pretty strongly on an issue can usually identify a person who they consider farther out than they are and beyond the pale.

In brief response to the article, I have known very devoted wives who were ardent feminists, and very traditional women who were quite self-centered in their marriages.  Maybe there is some opposite trend that flows from women's social politics, but I would like to see the numbers (and the survey design) on that. Anyone, anyone, can find bad examples and complete pathological jerks among the people they disagree with. This proves nothing, and failing to note that this is what you are doing is damaging to the national conversation.

If you can show that a particular fault is common among your opponents, more common than among your allies, then mentioning it is fair game. Beyond that, all should be caution.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Sister Rosetta Tharpe


 I knew her only as a name when I was young. A kind of show-off name, indicating that one was really knowledgeable about early rock 'n roll.  I don't think I heard her mentioned in my Jesus Freak days, though you'd think she would have been in a Larry Norman or Phil Keaggy context. I didn't know any more of her until a few years ago, when I happened upon the 1964 "Didn't It Rain" in an English train station.  I saw immediately that she was one of those seminal rockers. There are four parts to the documentary, of which the above is the first.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Racists

Richard Johnson's comment about progressives in Europe criticising Americans for being racist seems equivalent to Atlanta lecturing those of us in New Hampshire about snow removal. Look how little snow they have on the streets!  All clean, completely under control!

When they have snow, they don't handle it well. So also, European countries where everyone looks like second-cousins are now having difficulties with immigrants.

It's not very different when it's one American region criticising another.  Vermont (or, ahem, New Hampshire) looks at Mississippi with disdain.  Mississippians, black, white,and whatever, have a harder job. If I had to join a mixed expedition to colonise Mars, I might join the Mississippi contingent.

Update:  Correction in the comments

Russefeiring

By chance we were in Norway at the time of Russefeiring, which runs from somewhere between April 1st or 20th, varying by city, to Syttende Mai, which is Constitution Day, the 17th of May. I had read about this a few years ago, but was under the misapprehension that it ran all year, and was a license for high school seniors to be just a bit wild and mischievous. It's briefer and more intense than that. Lots of drinking, lots of staying out all night, lots of casual sex.  As if prom night went on for four weeks. I imagine a lot of the kids keep it fairly mild, but they've had problems nationally.

I had seen a lots of young people in highly-decorated red overalls and was trying to figure it out. Was it a team or club? They had their names in big letters. Was it some new fashion?  I saw blue overalls as well, and a few white, and two of the black walking together.  I asked Chris about it and I recognised it as he explained. We saw a few buses filled with lots of teenagers singing.

I ran up the Bing images of Russ adolescents for you here. Quite the display. I'm not sure what the sticks are for, but I believe they earn them by sleeping overnight in a tree.The other costumes in this picture are the bunad, the embroidered regional dress worn on special occasions.

Also of note.  Some European countries criticise America for it's splashy patriotism and overuse of the flag, believing that  a more subdued approach is more appropriate.  Norway is not one of those countries.  They only became a fully independent country in 1905 and they are openly patriotic and love to fly the flag. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Norwegians

I can't find an overarching theme, or a coherent narrative to my Norway trip, so I thought I would just launch in and comment on things bit by bit.



I very much liked the Norwegians I met, though there were a few moments of stereotype-confirming interactions. In a line-waiting conversation with a couple our age with a Norwegian husband and American wife, the subject of driving an RV came up - I forget how. The gent commented that one needed a special license to drive one in Norway. He segued immediately into "10% of the cars in Oslo are electric now.  They get 10% cheaper every year." Oh. Sorry to bring up terrible gas-guzzling American vacation habits. (We later learned that lots of people drive RV's up to Tromso from Europe farther south, over 2,000 miles.  Yeah, Tromso is way up there.) I made a comment about recent improvements in batteries and let it slide. We were still in Boston, and I wondered "Dear God, it's not starting already, is it?" A waitress in Tromso told my son to take his jacket of the back of his chair and hang it up.  That sort of thing. But very little really.

My sons friends up north tended to be more rural and blue-collar, and they didn't seem very different from a lot of Americans in attitude. They were older, however - Chis is turning 30 but most of his friends now are 40-70, perhaps seeking local parents - and they live out on Kvaloya Island across the bridge from Tromso.  Oddvar is about 30 and a commercial fisherman and has a very strong grip when you shake his hand.  I very much liked him.

So my sample isn't representative. Still, a few things. The official statements in museum films and exhibits, or the promos on Norwegian Air were quite multi-culti, stressing how wonderful it is that Norway/Oslo has so many different cultures now. What they mentioned was the variety of food - which no one on earth objects to, and I suppose is a nice advantage in life.  They didn't find anything else to mention.  I recall this from conversations with New Yorkers and other fans of big cities, dating back to college.  Their place is so vibrant! Such a variety of people! And...food! (List foods here.) And different clothes! Then that seems to be about it. So too Oslo, Bergen, and Tromso, which were the places we went. The exhibit on religious groups reported thoroughly on all the Tromso groups: a pocket of Russian Orthodox, some nuns that came up to start a clinic in the 20's, a Bahai group, a very conservative Lutheran Laestadianist movement popular with the Sami,  a non-denominational prayer group of city employees that meets at City Hall every morning, a few others.  Some nice pictures from the city's history of Church of Norway - old churches, confirmation.  The associated quotes were how much people liked the tradition and belonging, and having faith, but they weren't so sure about the doctrine.  They thought maybe everyone was okay now, not like in the old days.

These official sources were quite excited to tell you about having Muslims there.  The quotes from Muslims were all from wise little girls who loved everyone or men who stressed how hard-working their people are.

The everyday people were a little different.  When they found out we were Americans they were very comfortable telling us, after an exchange of pleasantries and their mention of having visited or having relatives in America, how the (ahem) people who are moving here now just want to be given things.  They don't want to work and they don't want to follow Norwegian rules and customs. The Norskis I spoke to don't like "what's happening in Sweden" and very much want to stop that from happening to Norway. It is apparently taboo to say who they mean exactly.  Yet if it's Americans they are opening up to so quickly, I'm betting it's not the Slovakian bartenders they are worried about.

I'll have a later comment about their considerable reluctance to talk about anything religious.  It seemed to be a cultural privacy.

They were careful not to say anything that might offend us, but I did get hints at the resentment of American culture invading and changing the place.  Even though they have largely invited the individual components, it does remain that everyone speaks at least some English, and they use English to speak with people from most other countries as well.  We saw a Japanese girl stop a young man in nautical uniform for directions in Bergen. I only heard the parting, but she said "Thank you. Bye. Have a nice day." Not only American tourists, but other visitors and the Norwegians themselves have clothing with American place-names.  New York, Tennessee, Chicago, Alabama. Our popular culture seems to have greater place than theirs in the stores.  Though the McDonalds in Brygge is in an historic building, it's still a McDonalds.  I got some sense of why they feel just a touch put out.  We would too.

Last unrelated point:  A woman at my college who was not much liked by other women returned from Junior Year Abroad and declared to a partying table of six couples "American women really are the most beautiful in the world."  The other women perked up their ears, suddenly liking Barbara a little better than a few minutes before. She went on to say that European women have the reputation for being better-looking, but it is largely a function of style, dressing and making up more carefully, etc.  I have remembered this on all my trips to Europe, and it may not be true, but there is something to it.  The Norwegians are an attractive people.  The men have sandy hair, seldom going to extremes of long hair or shaved heads, their clothes are a bit more formal than ours. Dark suits, off-white wrinkly shirts, no ties. Few are fat, though fewer still are skinny as you might see in America. Hard not to envy them.

It is similar with the women.  They dress up a bit more. For genetic reasons their hair is straighter, blonder. They wear it longer than Americans (though never 1960's long).  They also are seldom fat and never skinny. They have the type of hair and dress we instantly associate with "pretty girl" in America, but when you actually look at their features, not entirely so.

All in all, they look like alumni weekend at a mid-range American prep school. Comfortably nice looking, rather than stunning or glamorous. Perhaps I am a little negative about it because there is a lot more similarity among them than in an American or any Anglospheric group.

Their houses give the same impression.  They are tidy, attractive, well-kept and most Americans would feel quite comfy moving in.  Yet they are very similar in style and stick to the same colors:  white, brick red, mustard yellow, brownish-green, and a grayish blue. They use the same five for trim colors as well. As above. Colors both dramatic and subdued, somehow.

They have used the same colors for centuries, apparently.  Brygge, on the harbor in Bergen, dates from the Hanseatic League (The buildings are reproductions.  The placed has burned to the ground a few times.)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Birdwatchers

Serious birdwatchers write for each other. They write about how many species they have seen in an area, and when they travel, birding seems to be a large factor of where they choose to go.  If they go to a state, for example, they are likely to tell you a great deal about a particular wildlife area, island or marsh and the number of less-common birds they saw there, improving their overall lists.

Reference books have a different problem.  They will identify with great thoroughness everything you might see, including birds only seen briefly in migration. That is what they should do, certainly, as that is what we pay them for.  But this is unwieldy. Birds of Europe has many pages and many birds listed, but birds are often there only a moment. My wife will look through her binoculars and say things out loud, to help her remember them for later when she is looking at the book.  "Chestnut shoulders...small yellow beak...smaller than a robin..." Also, the reference books will go to great pains to identify the small differences between different types of seagull.  For my wife, who grew up in Scituate and surrounded by seagulls, this is not interesting. They're just seagulls.  After the common gull and the herring gull - which don't look all that different to begin with - the only interesting possibility in Norway was hoping one of the black-backed gulls would show up.

Most people who are birdwatching are looking for something different than what the serious birders write about.  They want to know what birds they are likely to see in an area and to bone up on those before they go, so that when they see them, they can quickly incorporate all those other cues of behavior and habitat. They hope not to re-do that work and waste time at every stop.  Once my wife had identified an oystercatcher, she could easily spot them in other places.  They are not going just for the birds and are not likely to make serious detours to places that have nothing else but birds going for them.  They want to see the birds in the places they are already going and identify those.  They might take a side-trip with the promise of many shore birds or if a migration is going on.

Best of all, these tourists-who-like-birds would like to know what rare birds are actually more common in the place they are going.  Tracy saw a golden eagle, but she had seen those before.  More exciting was seeing the white-tailed eagle, which is rare everywhere except northern Norway. If you are reading up on birds of the region before you go, it is good to have the idea "this may be your best chance at seeing a white-tailed eagle" tucked in your head. But I didn't find articles like that when doing research for her in anticipation of our trip.  Everything was reference or "serious birder spends a weekend at a park outside Bergen."

If you know a good birder in your area, you might get them to put up a few paragraphs on what the casual birder might look for on a visit to your area.

Test Prep

Over on the sidebar, Bethany accurately describes the anxiety leading up to final exams.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Shame: Shelby Steele

I had never read any of Shelby Steele, other than three essays and some random quotes, but a college friend recommended Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, so I got it out of the library and brought it on vacation.

I loved the Introduction, noting that Steele expresses things forcefully and with originality.  That was the one vague impression I had from reading about him and the few examples of his work. I kept thinking  Great point. Well put. Let me go back over that. Yeah, I'll have to keep that somewhere. Somewhere in the next few chapters I had a few places where I thought That's kind of an oversell. I think those liberals you are talking about have some bad motives, but it's not ALL bad motives.  This impression kept growing, and when I hit a section where I disagreed with his conclusions it was even clearer.  Now just a minute.  There's a great deal that can be said that you've left out here. I reconsidered what I had been reading previously and saw a continuing pattern.

Steele writes dramatically, and he captures ideas succinctly.  Unfortunately, succinctly usually means "without regard to possible qualifiers," and this is true.  Shelby Steele is a black 60's liberal who held strongly to some of the better parts of that and found that progressive culture moved away from him, so that he is now considered a black conservative. As a natural consequence,he doesn't really care what other people think he's supposed to think and tells you, in highly declarative terms, what he thinks.  He doesn't care what black intellectuals are supposed to think, or conservatives are supposed to think, or any category.  There is significant value in that in terms of persuasion.  It is probably much more effective in moving the world than my own more guarded expressions, avoiding absolutes.

Yet ultimately, it meant that I simply disregarded whole sections.  It was very valuable to read his opinion that Vietnam was a tactical war for American policy being sold as an existential one by the government.  That made abundant sense and caused me to wonder why we were unable to discuss it that way at the time.  Some tactical wars might be defensible for the American good, given persuasive arguments about communist expansion, downstream (or Domino) effects, and even the fairly simplistic notions that we have to make a stand somewhere, and this place is the best among bad choices. Yet it really isn't the same as Pearl Harbor. It's all very worth thinking about and debating.  But Steele doesn't bother with any of those complications.  He simply declares it was all about power for the federal government and declares that they therefore had to lie about it.

That's just too simple, too pat.

He has similar takes on women's rights, abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, free-market economics, and a half-dozen other subjects.  All are very good expressions of one side of the argument: clear, forceful, precise. Nonetheless, it doesn't work for me because too much is left out.

His most powerful idea is that there was a subtle change in the Civil Rights movement after the major victories that has swollen over the years into an irreconcilable difference.  It is the responsibility of government to remove discrimination. But to invisibly move to expecting the government to remove racism is a serious change philosophically, though it doesn't look very different at first.  Racism is what caused discrimination, the reasoning goes.  Therefore, the only way to make further progress on equality is to eliminate racism. It's not an insane argument, but it is a limited one and it leaves a lot out. Counteracting racism may be a better solution. In fact, that seems to have been what the 1960's victories were.  Stop allowing discrimination.  Ignore what people think about it - that's their own affair.

Being the kind of guy he is, Shelby Steele attributes that shift in thought to the self-protective attitude of government, who saw their raison d'etre vanishing and moved to find a new excuse for preserving and then expanding power.  There's something to that.  The distinction is people do that automatically, without necessarily being calculating about it. Like simple organisms turning toward light or food, we do things without entirely knowing why.  That doesn't make it less true.  I see the new focus on animal rights, the climate, and the environment as an acknowledgement that oppression of humans in America is no longer a critical issue. (And they won't look for human causes abroad* because the data gets inconvenient there.) Crusaders needed to find something else.  They may also have warm feelings towards animals, laudable motives about pollution,  and good philosophical arguments for what they are doing. In fact, I'm sure they do.  They're nice people.  But all this came along in the time and place it did for a reason.

*I don't count human causes abroad that are just disguised forms of why we should do things differently here.

Folk Songs

Because it came up in correspondence, I'm reposting this from six years ago. My children were raised on some pretty violent and seamy lyrics from the folk music of 16th-19th C. The update to the comments is that there has since been a movie made about Van Ronk.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Edvard Grieg



This is the classical composer Edvard Grieg with his lifelong best friend. I think I would have liked him.

We went to the home he had built to get away from distractions and compose, Troldhaugen.  It was remote at the time, but is now simply on a promontory out into the fjord near Bergen, in a suburban neighborhood.  There is a concert hall, built largely underground and most visible only from the water and up close.  Yet it is surprisingly light inside.  Appropriate for one who brought such imagination to the halls of the mountain king.  Very dwarvish indeed.  We heard this piece performed, which I had never heard but like very much. 

Fashion

Ivanka Trump should troll the media by opening a line of Handmaid's Tale dresses and headpieces.

Judd Gregg

Instapundit linked to a recent article of Gregg's in The Hill.  How much you agree with his solutions is not my concern at the moment. What jumped out at me is his analysis that the collapse of the ACA was intended from the start, in order to usher in a single-payer solution.  That accusation has been dismissed as a fevered and even paranoid fantasy of extremists who were unable to give their liberal opponents any credit for good will and basic honesty.  Yet I have heard Democrats say exactly that, including the medical director of the hospital, and have read of others.  I have always thought that this was the intent of the designers of Obamacare, though many of those they claim to represent were not aware of that and were insulted that such a thing could even be suggested.

Gregg has said things like this before, but I think this is is strongest accusation to date.  He was my senator, and his general approach is well-known here. Those from out of state may not be as familiar with him, but he would likely be a poster child for the best of the GOP establishment that has been repudiated by the populists and Trump supporters.  Anyone who advances the opinion that Judd Gregg is a paranoid extremist is pretty much submitting considerable evidence that they themselves are a paranoid extremist.

Then there is also Jonathan Gruber. These are not issues of whose ideas are better or whether the people should be nudged in directions that are good for them.  There are not nuanced discussions of morality here. This is simple honesty.  Higher moralities rest upon the lower, basic building blocks.

Snowflakes Aren't New

Not related to Norway, though they still do have considerable snow up there.

There is much discussion of young people who are "snowflakes," who believe they are quite special. It's a big issue on conservative sites and bigger still at civil libertarian sites, but it's certainly not confined to those.  It irritates adults in general.  When the data comes out from one college or another that the protestors are actually children of privilege compared to other students, it just frosts people even more.

I don't know why seeing that information didn't trigger some thinking about my own experience at college and other large collections of young people.  This is exactly what a subset of rich kids have always done.  They want what they want. They are outraged over small slights.  They threaten to go to the dean, or their parents, or a lawyer if they don't get what they want.  Giving into them also isn't new.  It is stock comedy of cowardly camp directors or craven college presidents who give the little darlings everything they want and ask that the children put in a good word to their father.  It is also a stock feature of more serious plays and films, of people who cannot get justice against an offending young criminal because his father is a powerful figure, or crusading young lawyers or journalists who will stand up to the powerful.

Maybe there are more of them now, because there are more rich people.  Or because they are a larger group, they encourage each other in this pathology and it increases thereby. Perhaps too many institutions in society encourage this behavior now rather than trying to knock it out of the little monsters. Yet I am not sure of any of those explanations.  We don't have much in the way of measuring whether there were more jerks in the old days or more jerks now, and even our measurement of the responses of the supposed adults is indirect. We say "no one would have put up with this in my day," but I can remember specific instances where people did put up with it.  We can measure that there are now more administrators at colleges whose jobs are specifically tied to the monitoring of who is offended.  I suppose that's an indicator.  However, most of what we are quite sure of here may just be our impression.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Norway

Headed for Oslo, Bergen, and Tromso, gone more than a week.  Talk amongst yourselves, or go weigh in at Graph Paper Diaries about state representatives.

Or buckle down and learn some physics over at James's place, you shirkers.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Beanball

Prisons got built because societies could afford them. Before that, criminals were banished, executed, dismembered, enslaved, or marked. There wasn't wealth enough to hire people to watch them round-the-clock.

Baseball used to need the beanball because there was little other way to enforce protection for one's teammates. There were rules to how it might be used, but it was controlled violence.  Bats, hardballs, cleats, and running bodies could cause injuries, and without some way of setting limits, a mean and violent team could simply intimidate and roughhouse another team into submission.  A century ago and earlier, that is often what did happen. Players came into hostile places and some of them were violent. No one was likely to be arrested for on-field conduct, and no one wanted leagues or barnstorming tours where there was a fight every game.

Everything is on film now and can be reviewed. Players can be fined or suspended.  Allowing brushback and other "enforcement" pitches actually interferes with that now, as questions of who started, and who escalated a situation get more complicated. I differentiate here between the cat-and-mouse game between batter and pitcher over control of the plate and the "protecting my teammates" knockdown pitches we have been seeing between the Red Sox and Orioles recently.

It's part of the game. But it doesn't have to be.  It served a purpose when there was no other enforcement.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Genetic Influences

I have often wished there were some way of requiring social scientists to raise at least two children past the age of eight before they are allowed to teach or do research.  It would give them a healthy respect for how much genetics matters.

Today's question:  Social sciences usually means psychology, anthropology, sociology, and education.  Should we include history or economics in that discussion?

Monday, May 01, 2017

Horror Story

I have never liked the horror genre.  That is, at least, what I have always said.  Friends in the fantasy literature crowd would speak highly of H P Lovecraft, but I never even cracked a cover.  I knew I didn't like that stuff. I knew this because the wrong kind of children liked horror movies when I was young - except for a few unaccountables, whose presence could be ignored.  People could like Poe, I suppose, though I disliked much of him. Film buffs (we don't call them "buffs" anymore - what do we call them) liked Hitchcock.  It was all too close to slasher films, women screaming, knives, and blood for my taste.

I was therefore greatly irritated when a director of horror movies, no matter how talented, was chosen to direct The Lord of The Rings. I was unlikely to rush out to see that film anyway for a half-dozen other reasons, yet I think an aversion to horror itself kept me away at least some of the 10+ years it took me to break down and at least look at it. The wheels were turning, however.  Even in my staying away I did readily see that it would be necessary to get Shelob, and Nazgul, and orcs, and Gollum! Certainly Gollum, correct in a way that directors of musicals and romcoms might not be up to.  Yes, I reluctantly admitted, castles and knights and horses were pretty standard issue in the movies and could be just good enough without much harm, and even dragons allowed for a certain wiggle room.  But the Eye of Sauron, the Oathbreakers, and Barrow-wights needed to be portrayed with some skill, or the whole enterprise would begin to carry a taint of 1950's Japanese Sci-Fi movies.

Then too, Tolkien had given strong lierary support for the importance of monsters in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.  (Wiki article here. Though if you haven't read the original 1936 essay, this would be a good time.  It changed Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon literature criticism immediately and unto the present day.)  Monsters aren't quite the same thing as horror, so I was able to mentally separate those strains - but it's an evasion, really.  LOTR may be an adventure story and heroic myth, but horror is never far beneath the surface.

This comes up because I am rereading CS Lewis's "The Dark Tower."  Which...is clearly a horror story, and likely to be loved by horror fans who might think they wouldn't much like the author of the Narnia Chronicles. I note in passing that Voyage of the Dawn Treader, at least, has some passages that fit the horror genre. More to the point, the last, individual battle of Perelandra, several sections of That Hideous Strength, and the dark underside of the Screwtape Letters, obscured by the ironic and sometimes even humorous tone on the surface, are also much like the horror genre.

I'm not quite sure what to do with my horror of horror at this point.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Dale Kuehne On Trump

An interesting take by my friend Dale.  I'm really tired of everyone's new interpretation of Trump, but I read on because I felt obligated.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It is not complimentary to the president, but neither is it scathing and merely insulting.  Even for those who don't like him, I think it points a way for Trump to be endured without losing your mind.  And for those who do like him, I think it provides a cautionary note on how you might get a lot of what you hope for in Trump, but you're not going to get it all. Well into the article, emphasis mine:
What we have seen in the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency is a President who is governing consistent with his background. Psychologically he may be the least complicated President in American History. He is extraordinarily transparent, to a fault. He created diplomatic waves the day after his election by taking a phone call from the political leader of Taiwan, thus violating decades of diplomatic protocol in dealing with China and Taiwan. Immediately, political analysts began asking questions about the calculation surrounding his decision to receive this call. They spoke of as if Trump had diplomatic instincts he has never exhibited. There is little doubt Trump had his reasons for taking the call, but it may not be more complicated than the fact he wanted to receive congratulations from a world leader.