Friday, June 30, 2017

Keeping Up

It's important for Christians to keep up with current events, so that we spend our compassion on the right cause.  It would be a shame to waste it on the wrong people.

You can tell it's one of the rotating causes of the month when you get lectured about how so many people don't have the right attitude about it (implied: like you ), and developing a good attitude seems to be taking precedence over any concrete help you might be giving. Less-fashionable causes, representing the other billion or so people who need our help, tend to emphasise what they are doing and what the people they help actually need.

Not always.  I oversimplify.  Yet I don't think I'm wrong.

I think we are about due for a new popular cause to get harangued about, but our attention span is short.  It will in all likelihood be one of the causes in the current rotation that waits for a tragedy to push to the front again. The wheel changes slowly over time. Republican congressmen  aren't on that list, so that one's off the front page.  Other causes lie in wait.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Critical Periods

Montessori teaching, at least where we were in the 1980's was very big on "critical periods" for learning tasks.  There is a sweet spot where a child can learn things with ease, but when the time is past, it's an uphill battle.

The strongest example is foreign languages, where everyone in America has dozens of examples of children who picked up a language they were exposed to without conscious effort, but teenagers are reduced to tears trying to learn German and adults don't even bother to try unless they absolutely have to.  This is supposedly true of music, math, drawing, and penmanship as well, though less strongly.  But I don't know that the evidence for any of those is that strong.  Everyone is exposed to some music and some mathematics just by walking around, even if they aren't taught any at school, so I'm not sure it's a clear measurement.  They would learn different aspects of music and math, not none at all, and this might be enough to build the proper brain structures.


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


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.